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.)
- the natural person is struck from above with a new understanding and knowledge (Reason or Christ)
- 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)
- they accordingly begin to live in that new self-understanding (in Reason or in Christ)
- and they thenceforth belong to a new community of fellows of others who also identify themselves as belonging to Reason or Christ
- 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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