What did Jesus Christ mean to Paul and his readers?

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by Neil Godfrey

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In a recent post I discussed the ways Reason (or Logos) for the Stoic philosophers had a similar role or function to Christ (also a Logos) in Paul’s letters.

For both the Stoic philosopher and the Pauline Christian, the moment of conversion, when a person became “a new creation”, “in Reason or in Christ” and with “Reason or Christ in” them, and they being “in Reason or in Christ,” was when they were blessed with a “spiritual grasp or full insight” into the very nature and meaning of Reason, or Christ crucified and resurrected. This conversion moment when the neophyte attained a higher wisdom beyond that of “the natural man” also catapulted him or her into a new set of values and shared life and new identity with fellow believers.

Paul’s notion of Jesus Christ was indeed a technical concept about a single act God had performed for the salvation of believers. I use the word “technical” to stress a point, even though there was a strong emotional attachment to this “technical” stunt by God. This act was first and last, and nothing more than, the delivering up of Jesus to die and to be resurrected again. No teaching. No life. No miracles. No disciples. Just a death and resurrection. And some subsequent visionary appearances to various devotees. The death and resurrection were essentially a technique for abrogating the law and enabling a new spiritual status for believers.

Epistle to the Galatians, a case study

Paul opens his letter with a statement that God the Father raised Jesus from the dead. This is the first thing that comes to Paul’s mind. There is no thought expressed that matches that in John’s Gospel that God sent his Son to his own and his own received him not. For Paul, the first thing we learn is that Christ was raised from the dead. And why was he dead? He gave himself, Paul explains, for our sins so that we might be delivered from this present evil world. (Galatians 1:1-4)

And this was all done by the will of God.

Then Paul proceeds to contrast the gospel of the grace of Christ with another gospel, and pronounces a curse on any other gospel of Christ. The message of Paul is first and last that Christ died to deliver us from sin and the world.

And this gospel message came to Paul by revelation. It was not from any human tradition that he learned of it.

Paul had once attempted to destroy the church, he says, but then he was called by God who “revealed his Son in him”.

He then embarked on a mission to “preach Christ” as others were doing. But the first time his preaching of Christ coincided with the presence of another Christ messenger, Peter or Cephas, he fell into a dispute about the place of the law among believers.

The dispute involved the question of justification before God. The Christian’s life was God-focussed.

For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God

I have been crucified with Christ: it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain. (Galatians 2:19-21)

Jesus Christ, Paul reminds the Galatians, was “before [their own] eyes . . . clearly portrayed among you as crucified.” (Galatians 3:1)

The spirit that the Galatians had received came to them by hearing the message in faith — believing it. And that message was first and last the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is no room here for a teaching about a life of Jesus preceding that death. What would be the point? The whole point of Paul’s gospel was Christ’s death and resurrection.

Paul continues in Galatians to speak of the stark divide between the law and faith. Christ redeemed those under the law by becoming a curse — in his death.

He explains the purpose of the law was to serve as a schoolmaster or tutor until Christ came to die, and to release them from that covenant, if they had faith.

And all of this is done by God. (Galatians 4:4, 9)

Paul’s mission now is to labour “until Christ be formed in the Galatians.” (Galatians 3:19)

And those in Christ, Paul explains, walk in the Spirit — that is, in godly righteousness or ethics. They are not under the law anymore. (Galatians 5:16-18)

The author of the letter underscores his Pauline identity by pointing out that he has scribbled a few lines at least in “large letters” with his own hand. This smacks of a telltale sign of someone wanting to palm this letter off as Paul’s, especially when one recalls the overly emphatic emphasis on his identity in the opening verses. But no matter who wrote it. We can consider it for our purposes as “Pauline” given its status as such in the New Testament canon.

I will not argue from the screaming silences in this epistle concerning the life and teaching of Jesus. My only point is that if we were to read this letter as the only document from Christianity that is surviving, and this letter is all we knew of Christianity as a religion, then we should understand Paul’s Christ was a figure whose was conceptualized entirely and exclusively as a divinity who had died, thus releasing Jews and Judaizers and proselytes and God-fearers, from any obligation to keep the law. The law itself was nullified. The same figure was raised again. Believers joined in Christ vicariously in his death by suppressing their bodily passions and self-will, and identified with his Spirit life by living a life of self-control and love for one another.

Not a new letter from the Sermon on the Mount, but a new spirit from Christ in them

The entire teaching and way of God is expressed in the spirit and resurrected life of Christ, after first mortifying their self-willed flesh. It does not come from traditions handed down from the sermon on the mount. If it had come from a new teaching on a mountain, or from Luke’s plain, it would not be spirit they were living, but a new letter being taught. Paul reminds his readers that they now live like God, are just like God, because they have the spirit life of Christ, God’s son, in them.

And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the spirit, let us also walk in the spirit. Galatians 5:24-25

There is no set of commands of thou shalts or precepts as we find in the Gospel of Matthew. There are only a few personal expressions of what is clear and obvious — the personal epistle is the best way to express these — about the nature of fleshly and spiritual lives.

There are no miracles of Christ to refer to or learn about. Miracles come from those who among Paul’s readers are in Christ. Galatians 3:5

does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?

What would be the point of lessons about miracles from the past in Paul’s gospel?

Believers do not look to a past human life of Christ to know how to live their lives. Such a vision would only blind them to the reality of what they must daily identify with. It would be a new “letter” to legalistically follow. Marcion understood this, and rejected the adoption of a written life of Jesus as in any sense a definitive “gospel”. The gospel was the spirit life and death of Christ in the believers.

They look to Christ crucified, identify themselves with Christ crucified, and then no longer live according to their own passions, but have Christ live in them instead.

Others less religiously or mystically minded, such as the Stoics, had the same idea in relation to the ruling principle of Reason (Logos) in the universe.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “What did Jesus Christ mean to Paul and his readers?”

  1. “I will not argue from the screaming silences in this epistle concerning the life and teaching of Jesus.”

    ῏Ω ἀνόητοι Γαλάται, τίς ὑμᾶς ἐβάσκανεν, οἷς κατʼ ὀφθαλμοὺς Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς προεγράφη ἐσταυρωμένος”

    O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly set forth crucified?

    Jerome writes that “in certain manuscripts (in quibusdam codicibus)” of Origen’s writings he has the reading “who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth?” One could make a strong case that the Marcionites and Origen (whose master Ambrose was a (former) Marcionite understood the passage as saying Paul’s authority was rooted in his being a witness to the crucifixion. It was the Catholics who deliberate divorced ‘Paul’ (whoever he was – the Marcionites also denied the whole story in Acts about being ‘formerly Saul,’ ‘formerly a Jewish bounty hunter’ etc) from direct knowledge of Jesus in order to facilitate his ultimate subordination to Peter and the twelve. Knox makes the rest of the case for this.

  2. I am not sure if that last comment had enough context. It is unlikely that the New Testament had our familiar chapter divisions so if we follow the chain of thought it is clear that it would be natural to understand ‘the truth’ as the doctrine that the apostle was crucified with Christ:

    For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth? Before whose eyes was Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified?

    In other words, the issue is why these ‘Galatians’ (the Acts of Archelaus has ‘Galatian’ in the singular) no longer acknowledge his authority when only he was in the presence of Jesus at the crucifixion.

    A scenario where ‘Paul’ was witness to the Passion is necessary to make sense of the Marcionite claim that this apostle was the author of the original gospel. For how could anyone believe a text which references a miraculous ‘crucifixion’ which purports to be the very fulfillment (and indeed ‘end’) of the Law if the person writing it had never been an eyewitness to the events in question. It is only the Catholic who invented a subordinated ‘Paul.’

    I hope that explains my last comments.

    1. Much to think about. As for Marcion, my understanding is that for him the true gospel was not a written text at all. What others came to call a gospel was antithetical to the earlier Marcionite idea.

      Another curious verse in Colossians (presumably by a different author) has Paul “filling up what is lacking” in the sufferings of Christ. — His own life then “completes” or fulfils or “perfects” the suffering of Christ — that’s what it seems to be saying. Where does that idea come from?

      As for Paul being a witness to the crucifixion, I am stuck in Galatians where he speaks of Christ being revealed “in” him. He describes his conversion moment as a revelation “in”, not “to”, him.


      1. I agree with everything you are referencing here save for the Marcionite gospel not being a written text. I think it most certainly was and the Philosophumena’s rejection of those who claim it is the Gospel of Mark is very important.

        With regards to ‘making up what is lacking in Christ’ notice the parallel idea that comes out in the Harris fragments of the Martyrdom of Polycarp that Polycarp wants to die to make up for St. John’s failure to die a martyr.

        My belief, for what it is worth, is that our copies of the Pauline letters have been corrupted or reworked at least twice. The real test of the material is to try and follow the argument of a text from beginning to end. In other words, to read it – not as scholars or theologians but as a real letter which came from one person to another person or a group of people.

        There is no running theme. The text is utterly schizophrenic (or to use the scholarly terminology ‘pastoral’). So why does the text seem so ‘pastoral’? Someone has layered so much garbage over the original argument(s) that they are no longer recognizable. 1 Clement has this characteristic and Lightfoot points to Clement of Alexandria citing an earlier version of these texts. We see the same thing at work in the Ignatian correspondences. Everyone rejects the Syriac letters discovered by Cureton because they are ‘too short.’ But it has already pointed out that Irenaeus cites from the equally rejected long format. In other words, by the time the letters leave Irenaeus’s desk they are ‘ridiculously long.’

        Whatever the truth is about Christianity IMO it is lost, buried under this type of editorial manipulation. It becomes an utterly subjective argument as to where the real parts of the Pauline letters are to be found but again I think the path to the truth is to follow the lead of the Marcionites. Unfortunately we are left piecing things together through the hostile reports of the Fathers. But I think that’s the state we find ourselves in.

        1. I don’t question the Marcionites having a document (a narrative of Jesus’ words and deeds) that “the orthodox” called a “gospel”.

          Your description of how to read the letters of Paul takes me back to what eventually led to my deconversion from Christianity. Being bored with the routine approaches to Bible study I decided to read each book, including each epistle, just the way you describe. This involved attempting to put oneself into mind of both the author and the readers and hearers in each case. It took some years, but the questions that that method brought to light, and the new awareness of what each book was about (in its own right, not initially interpreted through other books in the canon) eventually led to my break with my church’s teachings, and finally as seeing the Bible as collection of unedifying and irrelevant writings that unfortunately happen to be a cornerstone of our culture.

  3. Thank you Neil and Stephan for that great overview of the thought within Galatians and the proposal that Paul is unique.

    It is of course no wonder that one would point out that the romanisation of the church and its north western interpretation of christianity would be an obvious focus of the church (and frankly, the church in general).

    Neil’s comparison of Galatians and the stoics is a catholic view for the one and only reason, it was the “catholic” view of the adherents of the day. Greco-Roman thought has to be placed within the bounds of the roman christianity we know today. If this were not the case, the entire N.T. would have been written from a view point of the levantine christianity in levantine tongues.

    Neil rightly implies throughout his posts that mythical interpretation fits the greco-roman world better than the palestinian world.

    Neil may also write a post on linguistics one day (he is so prolific he may have already had a great musing on this). Given that the lingua franca (thanks Caesar) was greek at the time, would not the literate classes have been exposed to the expressions of poetry (mythical meter) to describe what they “recalled” were events.

    Given that the wording of heroism, legend and sacrifice is not unique, Paul’s stoicism becomes very unique.

    Well done Neil!

  4. One of your better post. Your summation of Paul is largely accurate and it raises interesting questions. Paul speaks so little of the background of his concepts of Who is Jesus, what is the Christ, where did this death and resurrection take place, that we really don’t know what he thought about it. It forces us to speculate from current ideas of his time and later Christian traditions what Paul’s views were. I have wondered if Paul’s belief that the other apostles accepted his message was an overstatement. Perhaps they just thought Paul’s mission to gentiles was a bit of a side show to the important work of converting Judea/Palestine. Useful to entertain for the prospect of cash donations to the Jerusalem poor.

    Paul’s Christian vision does seem to focus on the power of now vs. the past. An idea expressed in John 14:12, the Christian community is the real Christ, the powerful Christ, the gospels’ Christ is a foot note for the curious. It does no good to stare in to the past for the good days or for wisdom. The current community has the power to speak to Christ directly. This may have especially been a good message for Paul because it undercut the authority of anyone who claimed to have known Jesus. Paul knows Jesus too, not from memory but direct communication.

  5. With regard to the identity of Paul, I always have in the back of my mind the fact that we first hear of Paul’s writings only as late as the second century. But of more significance might be the fact that the time when we find out earliest evidence of awareness of Paul’s epistles is the same time we have the Pastorals being forged in Paul’s name, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla being produced, and Marcionism emerging with their claim that Paul was their own. The epistles thus emerge at a time when there was a wide diversity of competing opinions about Paul — efforts of several groups to claim him, and to express their own myths and doctrines through him.

    More tenuously, I also cannot avoid wondering about several references in a variety of Nag Hammadi texts to the concept of “smallness” of an initial convert, and the claim that this was the meaning of the name “Paul”.

  6. This of course compares to Eisenmann’s evil preacher of the previous centuries?

    Could it be that its just a case of many Paul attributions and many Jesus attributions?

    I am still betting that what is argued as pre christian and early christian has become a melange from our point of view. The addition of newer texts bedevil us.

  7. Neil, Would you be speaking of the earliest confirmed report of Paul’s letters existing in a date-able work? I’m not familiar with where that would be found, and I would like to have that information for quick reference. Also the sources for are earliest confirmed report of the Acts of Paul and Thecla and the Pastorals, if you know those as well. I have a back log on books, and my access to a lot of the early Christian writers is limited, I barely have time for my graded work, and ironically none of it has any thing to do with Christianity.

  8. Irenaeus and Tertullian are our more securely datable sources for what was known and said about Paul. I have discussed some of the evidence or details of this second century interest in Paul phenomenon at http://vridar.wordpress.com/2007/02/15/pastoral-epistles-and-the-acts-of-paul-2/

    We have no external evidence for Paul until the second century, and when we do, it comes in a glut: the epistles, the pastorals, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and Thecla.

  9. Thanks for the recommendations, I’ve been meaning to get my hands on Irenaeus and Tertullian.

    After reading you post, http://vridar.wordpress.com/2007/02/15/pastoral-epistles-and-the-acts-of-paul-2/ ,and reading your notes on Ancient Epistolary Fictions by Rosenmeyer, I have to ask given the uncertainty you have on the date and authenticity of the Pauline letters, are they a worthwhile source on Christian origins from possibly as far 100-150 years earlier? I personally don’t put much weight on what the Pastoral letters say about Paul for the same reason.

    1. I doubt we can talk about a clear cut point of origin of Christianity. The varyig notions of Logos, Son of Man, Wisdom, Yahweh and El, Saviour, heavenly Adam, Melchizedek, Jacob’s ladder, Abraham’s atoning sacrifice of Isaac, visions and wisdom experiences, Demiurge and principalities and powers, the DSS — inform us that Judaism was far more varied before it came to be dominated by a more monolithic type of rabbinic Judaism after the fall of Jerusalem in 70. Adherents to the Temple system in Jerusalem were only one part of “the riotous diversity” of Jewish sects. We know from Enoch and DSS literature that not all Jewish sects had much respect for the Temple practices. Josephus’ portrayal of it consisting of 4 neat philosophical sects is acknowledged by at least some scholars to be an idealistic oversimplification. He was probably attempting to re-engineer his memory of “the good old days” for propaganda purposes — to place Judaism as a superior alternative to the major philosophical schools of his day.

      Christianity probably emerged out of this mix, mixed even more by the many philosophical and religious systems extant in the non-Jewish world. Around the Asia Minor-Greece-Syrian-North African / East Med region there was also a widespread emergence of a pagan “proto-monoheistic” cult of “God Most High” — possibly related to what Acts calls “god-fearers”.

      I think “christianities” or whatever they were did not begin to become distinct from “Judaism” until after the fall of the Temple and the ensuing dominance of rabbinism. Rabbinic Judaism (after 70) pushed other earlier forms outside and labeled them “heresies”. Rabbinic Judaism was one response to the fall of the Temple. Christianity as we begin to recognize it as such was another. We find evidence of this split in the gospel tales of Jesus arguing with the Pharisees and scribes. (Pharisees did not appear in Galilee in any significant sense until after 70.)

      I have no idea where Paul’s letters fit into all of this, or when. But there are many indications in the letters that they represent either a very primitive/early form of Christianity, or a very different branch from any of those that led to the canonical gospels. And the same concepts are not confined to Paul’s letters. They are there in the other NT epistles, too. I can only toy with this or that speculation and see how it fits for any particular hypothesis. But for simplicity’s sake, I will often speak of Paul’s letters as if they belong to the mid-first century Jewish apostle. They may be just that, after all.

      But there is no doubt that the letters have undergone revisions, additions, over time. Those who insist that their present form was their original form until absolutely proven beyond all possible doubt are naive and placing faith above the evidence. Some of the passages that are hot topics between historicists and mythicists today appear to have been unknown in any of the debates in the second century, even though those passages would have been very useful material in those debates. This gives us good grounds for believing some of them really were later additions and not original at all.

      Forget every idea that derives from Acts in any historical reconstruction. That is a Hellenistic adventure novel written as anti Marcionite propaganda as late as 150-160 ce. By arguing that the “true church”, the “new Jerusalem”, is now Rome, it is emulating a mythical Roman founding epic. There are probably a few strands of something historical here and there in it, but no more than the anachronistic strands of real names we find the authors of Kings would sometimes incorporate into their fictional history of the first century or two of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. But more often than not, any reference to real historial persons is only an attempt to rewrite them to come out on the side of “Roman orthodoxy”.

      Later addition to the above: Since posting this I see that Stephan Huller was also typing and posting — above — a related discussion of his own while I was still working on my post.

  10. Thanks for dealing with the issues of three respondents so deftly.

    I see early christianity as a pool of different thoughts of which we have a small sample. Then as you rightly point out here and elsewhere, what we call judaic religions existed in a pool of regional thought as well.

    I know its simplifying the issue but the natural selection of religion as evident today was also occurring then. The mythology approach that you often describe is then effective.

    I think I’ll have to listen to a few more speakers on the issue!

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