Why Paul did not need “the historical Jesus”

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by Neil Godfrey

Chrysippus, Greek Stoic philosopher

Paul’s gospel is the revelation of Christ in the scriptures. What God has revealed “in these last days” to Paul is an understanding of the mystery of Christ long hidden in the Law, Psalms and Prophets.

The saving event that Paul continually exhorted his readers to grasp for themselves was the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — especially the death part. He could say he was determined to “know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified”.

I have found a very complex discussion by Troels Engberg-Pedersen (EP) of the relationship between Paul’s theology and the argument of contemporary Stoicism particularly interesting. EP does not attempt to explain every aspect of Paul’s thought as derivative of Stoic thought.  That obviously cannot be done. But EP does attempt to demonstrate through a detailed analysis of Romans, Galatians and Philippians in Paul and the Stoics that the basic structure and pattern of Paul’s Christ-event focus, and how it relates to conversion and new life among believers, follows the same logical argument that Stoics used of Reason or the Logos. (I use the term “Christ event” here to refer specifically to the death and resurrection of Christ.) (Other posts on EPs thesis are filed under the Engberg-Pedersen category linked above.)

To dangerously oversimplify, the similarity is this. Paul’s Christ performs the same function as Stoic’s Reason or Logos.

What happens is that the nonbeliever or self-centred “natural” person who lacks any awareness or comprehension of the Logos/Reason (for the Stoic) or Christ (for Paul) is living a benighted and vain life that leads nowhere worthwhile.

What pulls the fortunate few out of this condition is a sudden grasp or awareness that comes “from above”. For the Stoic it is the sudden cognitive grasp of the existence and nature of Reason that governs all; for Paul it is the sudden cognitive grasp of what God has done in the Christ event.

This sudden grasp of what had hitherto been hidden from the natural mind prompts the neophyte to respond in kind to this Reason/Logos or Christ. The one who has this sudden revelation or insight in turn becomes like the object of that revelation. Such a person responds by beginning to live a life in conformity with Reason  — or Christ. They see themselves no longer as natural ignorant souls, but as endowed with special insight that changes the way they see themselves, especially in relation to their new “vision” — Reason or Christ.

So the Stoic begins to live a life of “reason” and Paul begins to live a life of “Christ” — giving up his own self and living in the mind of Christ as it is revealed specifically in that Christ event. That means counting one’s past life as nothing (as Christ counted his glory in heaven as nothing) and to give up all to be bestowed with the mind of self-sacrificing love for others and God. For the Stoic, it is not all that different fundamentally, although the religious language is not found so frequently. Reason also leads to a life of self-denial and loving others, especially those who are like-minded.

For both, the “convert” no longer is tossed around by the ups and downs of this life. The Stoic or Christ-person look down on such events in this world, even persecution and death, and see themselves as having risen above fear and distraction with all such concerns. They are, instead, now living in a new life, in a new “realm” or order of existence.

The meaning of being “in Christ”

The Stoic is living “IN Reason”, and Paul’s Christian is living “IN Christ”. Reason abides IN the Stoic; Christ abides IN the Christian.

But this is only the first part of the adventure. Once the person is raised out of their natural state into the higher plane that only relatively few truly grasp, then they are simultaneously made part of a new body of “believers”. The Stoic has a special love and identification for others also living “in reason” (and in whom reason abides), just as the Christian has a special love and identification for others also living “in Christ” (and in whom Christ abides). Though the love of both will extend to all mankind, there is nonetheless a “membership” of a special community of others “in Reason/in Christ”.

This means that there is a whole new ethic and self-identity that is followed in particular among “believers”. Those who now identify themselves with Reason/Christ live out their life of Reason/Christ within that “social group”. (EP is not suggesting that Stoics had “churches” and “fellowship” of the same kind as Christians did, however.)

There is much more complexity and subtlety in the details, and it is at the detailed level that the real case is made. But this is the broad overview of EP’s thesis. There are additional religious trappings in Paul’s thought that do not relate to Stoicism. But the basic understanding of the Christ event itself and its implications for believers, it is argued, is essentially a new application of ancient Stoic philosophy. (Further, though words like “self-identity” as used here may sound anachronistic, an imputation of modern concepts into ancient thinking, the reality is that despite modern terminology ancients (including Stoic philosophers and Paul himself) did nonetheless express concepts that reflect the basic idea behind the modern jargon.)

In sum:

  1. the natural person is struck from above with a new understanding and knowledge (Reason or Christ)
  2. this new insight is of such a nature that the natural person changes their perception of who they are in the grand scheme of things, and respond in kind by coming to identify themselves with that new insight (Reason or Christ)
  3. they accordingly begin to live in that new self-understanding (in Reason or in Christ)
  4. and they thenceforth belong to a new community of fellows of others who also identify themselves as belonging to Reason or Christ
  5. their attitude to the former things of this world, and its sufferings and pleasures, is now seen through the perspective of Reason or Christ.

Paul demonstrates how it all works by his own example of exhortations in his letters. Like the good Stoic teacher he lives the model he is attempting to teach, and he requires his students to grasp what it’s all about for themselves. He gives up all to condescend to serve and teach his converts, just as Christ himself did in the Christ event itself. And he praises them when they respond to him in kind, just as they respond to Christ through their insight of what his descent for them.

Revelation from above, not historical traditions from men

I don’t know if I’m going too far with this, but reading this sort of argument by EP leads me to envision Paul beginning his entire theology with the revelation of the Christ event itself, — not with the “Christ event” “in the flesh” — Paul directly says he is not interesting in knowing Christ “in the flesh” or “according to the flesh”, but with the revelation of this event.

This revelation comes not from others. He insists on that repeatedly. It comes from Christ himself, or from God revealing it in the scriptures. If it came from others it would be “a precept taught by men” and lack any real power. It’s not something that can simply be taught by men. The converts must be struck by the realization or understanding for themselves. Preaching is necessary, of course, but those who respond are those who are graced with the spiritual insight to what is preached. The spirit of Christ is the revealer or teacher with life-changing power.

But for Paul the gospel itself is the power of salvation, just as for the Stoic it is the personal insight of the individual that leads to his change of identity and a change to live a new life in accordance with Reason.

It is a spiritual revelation, a spiritual insight, that leads to conversion and to moving from a life “in sin” to one “in Christ”. This is also how the parallel universe of Stoicism works.

I can’t see messy details like a trial before Pilate and betrayal or desertion by disciples, let alone a life of teaching and miracle-working, being anything but blotches that can only hide or dilute that insight or revelation of the gospel preached by Paul. Okay, one can embrace that narrative, too. But note that Paul offers no evidence that he knows of a Judas betrayal, or a Pilate.

Such a narrative inspires sympathy, sentimentality, horror, admiration for a hero, a desire to follow his martyrdom. But it is not quite the same thing — or fruits — that Paul had in mind with how his gospel worked. How does one move from such a narrative to seeing oneself “in Christ”?

Paul saw not a life that inspired emulation or shame. He saw instead a revelatory insight that, once one was grasped or struck by it, resulted in the recipient becoming like the content of that vision or understanding itself. This was Christ crucified for Paul, just as it was Reason for the Stoic.

Now of course Paul must have believed that “the Christ event” itself was “historical”, or that it in some sense it really happened. So obviously he did indeed need “a historical event” as the subject of his revelation. But what Paul believed and taught was theology, a revelation. Such things are, I suspect, rarely the stuff of real history.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Why Paul did not need “the historical Jesus””

  1. I think your analysis is spot on, Neil, especially if one takes it even a bit further, looking at Valentinians who certainly were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy and claimed to derive ideas from a disciple of Paul.

    Certainly Paul’s theology should be allowed to stand alone, whatever it is. That said, historically his words have been interpreted in various ways, literally and symbolically, and not only by theologians absolutely requiring a historical Jesus or bodily revivification of dead Christians.

    Regarding Stoics or Paul or Valentinians, whether philosophically or theologically, whether with a material or spiritual view, there was an intense cognitive, rational change of perception that, as you say, was not reliant on martyrdom, emulation, shame, horror, sympathy, or sentimentality. The Valentinian The Gospel of Truth describes this transformation away from ignorance and “risen above fear and distraction” (as you state) as awakening from an actual nightmare state.

    In addition, concerning Stoics or Paul or Valentinians, whether or not the outcome embraced or transcended a material world, this transformation or insight or revelation or recognition or, in some views, ‘resurrection’, happened during the recipient’s earthly life.

    The concept of ‘resurrection’ now in this life is captured throughout gnostic literature, and specifically in Treatise on Resurrection:

    Therefore do not concentrate on particulars, O Rheginus, nor live according to (the dictates of) this flesh; do not, for the sake of unity. Rather, leave the state of dispersion and bondage, and then you already have resurrection. For if the dying part (flesh) “knows itself,” and knows that since it is moribund it is rushing toward this outcome (death) even if it has lived many years in the present life, why do you (the intellect) not examine your own self and see that you have arisen? And you are rushing toward this outcome (that is, separation from the body) since you possess resurrection. (Bentley Layton trans.)

    Interestingly, you mention in a past post about 2 Timothy being a forgery. 2 Ti 2:18 opposes the idea “that the resurrection has already taken place.”

    1. Glad you added that link to the Rheginus/Resurrection passage. It reads a lot more like Paul’s Philippians than anything in the Pastorals does.

      I used to wonder how on earth Marcionites could arrive at the idea of two gods – the unknown alien god and the creator demiurge — until I refreshed my reading of a few ancient philosophers, beginning with Plato, who taught that very thing. And the Valentinians were also indebted to Greek philosophy, as you point out, and their complex genealogies of divine manifestations also derives from there.

      The bias of NT scholarship is to study Paul within the context of the NT canon, despite Marcionites, Valentinians and others claiming Paul as their own well before the “orthodox-to-be” hijacked him.

      1. Neil,

        There were not two Gods in the sense we think of with a “monotheistic” up bringing. The duality of the Marcionites, and really all the Gnostics, only differ from the Catholic in the assignment of properties to God. The high God was all powerful, all knowing, good, merciful, and importantly the “father” of Christ. The difference was to whom the properties of judgement and creation (actually arraignment of matter), and “author” of the Jewish scriptures was ascribed. Catholics assign these properties to the High God, and leave only evil and demonic spirits and Hades to the fallen angel Satan. The original “two-God” Marcionite position ascribed these properties to that angel (hence the rant in John chapter 8 against the Jewish God, although the author was decidedly not a Marcionite). A late 2nd or 3rd century version of Marcionism eventually had three principles, separating the lord of Judgement from the lord of evil – this is represented by Megethius in Dialogue Adamantius.

        It took me a long time to get over the idea there was an extra God created in heretical cosmology, and recognize the actual split was over the “middle properties.” Tertullian’s primary argument against Marcion is that those middle properties had to belong to the high God as well. The “separate” God was in fact an invention by anti-Marcionite and anti-Gnostic writers via polemic debate, as a way to discredit their opponents.By recognizing the actual difference was simply the assignment of properties (on a sort of sliding scale depending on what sect you belonged to), the areas of agreement between the heretics and orthodox can be seen to be much broader, and it is easier to see how they could have come from a common root.

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