Selling the comfort of a crucified-messiah

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by Neil Godfrey

I suggested in Did Jesus exist on youtube? that the original message of the crucified messiah, contrary to a common claim that it must have been a “hard sell”, had so much going for it that it was probably not hard to sell at all. If we follow the usual historical model of Christian origins (and allow Acts any credibility at all), it does appear Jews by their thousands responded to it in the first few years of its proclamation. I’m not saying that it would have been the easiest thing to sell since sliced bread. Obviously not. But it is surely not right to think that it was so unpalatable on first hearing that no-one would ever have even contemplated it unless it were “historically true”.

Well, it is nice sometimes when one uncovers a detail from a mainstream biblical scholar that supports what one has come to think for oneself. I had written:

And the way to rulership and conquest is through death and suffering. It is an inevitable paradox that gave comfort to Jewish martyrs ever since the time of the Maccabean wars. The way to life was through death. God would exalt those whom the world abased. Have discussed this in some detail here.

The idea of a divinity with whom one could identify in the face of cruel losses and lacks in this world, and who had overcome death and suffering, and all the evil of this world, must have been one of the easiest sells. The idea that it must have been “hard” to sell is derived, I think, from the apologetic paradigm that attempts to “prove” the truth of its gospel message.

Such paradoxical reversals were a comfort to people without hope in this life. They were far from being stumbling blocks. They were gateways to hope. They were always the hope of martyrs from pre-Christian times.

There is no evidence at all that the earliest Christians were struggling to make sense of the death of Jesus. The death of Jesus first appears in the evidence as a fully formed and sensible part of the message of the resurrection overcoming death.

Then recently while catching up with one of the most frequently cited books I have encountered, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul by Wayne A. Meeks, I read this (pp.180-181):

The node around which Pauline beliefs crystallized was the crucifixion and resurrection of God’s son, the Messiah. This was destined to prove one of the most powerful symbols that has ever appeared in the history of religions; in the earliest years of the Christian movement, no one seems to have recognized its generative potential so quickly and so comprehensively as Paul and his associates. . . .

The novelty of the proclamation, which violates or at least transcends expectations based either on reason or on Jewish traditions (1 Cor. 1:18-25), permits it to serve as a warrant for innovation. In particular, Paul uses the paradox of the Messiah’s crucifixion explicitly to support the union of Jew and gentile and the abolition of the distinction between them, by bringing to an end the boundary-setting function of the Torah. . . .

As a metaphor, the crucifixion/resurrection become also an interpretative pattern for what we may loosely call theodicy. That is, when one is experiencing suffering or hostility, recalling the action of God in this event becomes the means of comfort. Christians are called to rejoice in  being permitted to imitate Christ . . . and at the same time receive reassurance that it is in weakness that the power of God manifests itself. “He who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us and present us with him” (2 Cr. 4:14).

If Christianity had its origins among outcasts, dispossessed, traumatized (I’m thinking of post 66-70 c.e., the destruction of Jerusalem) would not such a message have had a very strong appeal?

But this doesn’t sit with Paul’s letters being products of the 50s. Paul’s letters (like the gospels) do speak of persecutions. What is the evidence for that in the 50s? We know it was happening from the 90s and into the second century.

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0 thoughts on “Selling the comfort of a crucified-messiah”

  1. I’ve never understood why apologists insist on this argument because it really seems exceedingly weak. “Jesus died for your sins” and “John 3:16” are two of the most consistent “arguments” for conversion that I hear from evangelists who are trying to drum up converts over the years. They clearly think this is a powerful idea. I know projecting modern ideas back onto earlier times is a lousy idea, but what evidence is there that ancient people were any less susceptible to this style of belief than modern converts apparently are? (And no matter what the origins of Christianity, once you have the dying-and-rising Jesus idea you’re talking about a guy who has beating the most powerful force in the universe to humans – death. Why would the idea of a god powerful enough to defeat death be a hard sell?)

    The only “evidence” I’ve ever encountered for this beyond bare assertion from apologists comes from 1 Corinthians 1:22-23: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles …” which makes it seem like Paul is saying that Christianity was a hard belief to sell to people. If you stop there and ignore the two sentences that come after those two.

  2. I think it’s usual for the “early church historians” to rephrase what Paul is saying – it appears to me Paul is saying in the first 2 chapters of Corinthians that the message of the crucified christ is itself “the hidden wisdom” that is the stumbling block to anyone to whom it is not revealed by the spirit/wisdom of God.

    Maybe I misunderstand it and need to look at it more carefully. But the most recent time I heard a “historian of the NT” refer to this (McGrath) it was to say that the stumbling block was “the significance” of the crucifixion. I am not sure that this is what Paul says at all.

  3. I’ve been considering a post-70 Christianity a lot recently. Could it be that all Pauline epistles are post-70? Something struck me the other day as I was reading Thomas Verenna’s “Of men and muses”. Thomas actually believes in the core of authentic Pauline epistles in the 50s. He also suggests that Paul was (or had been) an Essene and I think he makes quite a good case. However, he does not even mention the fact that “Paul” claims to be a Pharisee (in Phillipians 3.5; also see Acts 23.6, 26.5). Why would Paul do that if he really had been an Essene? Well, if some of the Pauline letters had been written post-70 by a former Essene and “Paul” was used as a pre-70 leader onto which one could retroject one’s own theology and create a story of origins it makes some sense. The former Essene makes Paul a converted Pharisee for the same reason a modern day Christian loves it when an atheist or Muslim becomes a Christian.

    Another piece of speculation: What about the fact that Paul mentions a Cephas as well as a Peter? Why would he switch from the aramaic to the greek? Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest they were actually different people (seems quite far-fetched to me). Well, what about this possibility: The post-70 author has gotten some information about a Peter and has some other information from a different source about the same person, but his source uses the aramaic name. The information is different and perhaps even conflicting so he thinks there’s a Peter as well as a Cephas. Does this make any sense? 🙂

    One final thought: I was reading a biography on W. C. van Manen, one of the Dutch Radicals who rejected the authenticity of all Pauline epistles. The biographer ended with his own opinion that Van Manen was mistaken and his main argument appears to be that “the 7” could so neatly be set in a plausible historical sequence. I suppose that’s one perception that needs to be addressed.

    1. I think that the fact that the Marcionites were the group that thought that Paul’s letters were so important that they needed to be collected and disseminated is an interesting one in this respect. It’s attested to that the Marcionites had a Gospel that was different from the proto-orthodox but that both Gospels were somehow linked enough that Marcion was accused of altering the text (they were both altered version of the same original document, Marcion altered the Gospel that the proto-orthodox used, or Marcion had the original Gospel and the proto-orthodox altered the wording themselves).

      Doesn’t Marcion get accused by Tertullian of altering Paul’s letters as well as the Gospel? If that’s right, then this accusation should be read in the same way. It’s plausible that there was an earlier set of letters that were then altered by groups with a particular theological agenda. And it may have been going on pre-Marcion – since there isn’t an earlier attestation for the letters before Marcion, who knows what the provenance of the copies of the letters that fell into Marcion’s hands might have been in the first place. And as far as I know there aren’t any extant copies of even fragments of Paul’s letters prior to the second century.

      I have no idea if anyone has looked into this already and debunked it (or at least made a compelling case against it), but it seems that that would be another plausible trajectory for anomalies to creep into Paul’s letters – earlier base letters that were altered for theological reasons at a later date by someone who didn’t have the knowledge to know where he was screwing things up.

      1. The idea has been suggested but I don’t know of any “debunking” of the idea.

        One detail I find interesting is that when reading mid second century Justin Martyr’s Dialogue of Trypho there seem to be a number of echoes of the same theological interests in Paul’s letters, and even some passages that could almost be seen as paraphrases of some sections of the letters. Justin never mentions Paul, but that may be because he was the apostle of Marcion whom Justin opposed. I sometimes wonder if we have some evidence of a dialogue or expressions of common interest — the author of the Trypho putting his arguments in Justin, the Marcionites putting theirs in Paul.

        But it’s just a floating thought. Have not looked into it in any detail.

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