2011-03-24

Why Paul had no need for a Galilean Jesus, and no need for a body resuscitated from a tomb

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by Neil Godfrey

Christ Ascending into Heaven
Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr

Reading the closing chapter of The First Urban Christians by Wayne A. Meeks (a work that is cited somewhere in nearly every other book I read on early Christian studies) the disconnect between Paul’s Jesus and the Galilean Jesus of the gospels was driven home to me in a way that leaves me wondering how anyone could ever suspect any relationship between the two Jesus’s if they were not bound together in the same Bible.

For all practical purposes Paul’s Jesus was nothing more and nothing less than a crucified and resurrected Son of God. All the spiritual qualities that Paul wanted his fellow-believers to live out were encapsulated in Jesus’ dying and rising act. Paul had no need to appeal to anything about Jesus other than his giving up his life and being restored again in exaltation beside God.

It is the affirmation that Christ Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead that the dialectical pattern characteristic of so much Pauline discourse is grounded. . . . .

As metaphor, the crucifixion/resurrection becomes 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 (as in Rom. 5:1-11; 2 Cor. 1:3-7) 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 Cor. 4:14). (pp. 180-1)

Meeks speaks of the crucifixion/resurrection as a metaphor, but I don’t know why he does so. As discussed by Paul it reads to me very well as a literal event in Paul’s thinking.

The same metaphor functions as a model for evaluating behavior within the church. . . . . Christ’s voluntary submission to death is taken as a model for other-regarding actions and attitudes. Thus, “We who are strong ought to bear the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbour . . . . For Christ did not please himself . . . . ” (Rom. 15: 1-3, RSV; cf. Gal. 6:2). . . .

Meeks is right here. It is only in the death, submission to the crucifixion, that Jesus did not please himself. If we read the gospels we find a quite different Jesus. The Galilean Jesus thumbed his nose at those who were offended by his drinking of wine, feasting, and refusal to fast. Those who were offended, the Galilean Jesus leads us to understand, are those who are not spiritually discerning, like the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees.

There is no need here for Paul to point to a Galilean ministry of Jesus. Everything Paul wanted to say is found in the Son of God giving up his life and being raised again and exalted once more to sit beside God.

Paul’s concept of the resurrection was nothing like what we find in the gospels, either. In the gospels we read of Jesus appearing bodily on earth, talking with his disciples, sometimes eating with them, allowing them to touch him, etc. But that was not what the resurrection meant for Paul.

The dominant image of Jesus’ resurrection in pre-Pauline and Pauline Christianity seems to have been not the resuscitation of his corpse, as it is depicted in the passion narratives of the canonical gospels and Acts, but his exaltation and enthronement in heaven. (p. 182)

For Paul, the crucified and heavenly Christ were everything. Through (or subsequent to) Paul’s weakness, God is allowed to intervene and exercise or demonstrate his power. As Meeks points out, this way of living is derived directly from apocalypticism. The helpless victim is about to be crushed completely when God dramatically comes down to deliver him or her. Again, this is not the Galilean Jesus that Paul is preaching. It is the God of the Psalmist, or the God of 4 Maccabees or the God of The Wisdom of Solomon — See my post on 21st of March 2011: the idea of “turning the world upside down”, the world of theological paradoxes, was a familiar theme among Jews and gentiles alike in the period of Paul.

Many scholars acknowledge that Paul in various places insists that his gospel comes from God alone and not from men or human traditions. (This is another topic for another time, and one that many of us are well familiar with.) Paul’s ideas coalesced out of the cultural penchant for paradox in his time, the scriptures and (probably) visions. (And in recent posts I showed that visions themselves are largely shaped by the scriptures most on one’s mind.)

The gospel narrative of Jesus was a later product of an evolving and mutating Christianity.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Why Paul had no need for a Galilean Jesus, and no need for a body resuscitated from a tomb”

  1. Neil,

    The helpless victim is about to be crushed completely when God dramatically comes down to deliver him or her. Again, this is not the Galilean Jesus that Paul is preaching. It is the God of the Psalmist, or the God of 4 Maccabees or the God of The Wisdom of Solomon…”

    or the Deus ex machina God of the Machine?

  2. I was reading the Amazon reviews of the Meeks book and then wondered what Meeks had published more recently, which led me to reviews of his 2006 book titled Christ is the Question. The last paragraph in Michael Hoffman’s review of the latter seems to call for skepticism concerning the historicity of Paul:

    This is not to suggest that I approve of agnosticism about whether Jesus existed. Reading any ten no-Jesus books is more than sufficient to settle the case; we have reasonable and ample proof and evidence that Jesus didn’t exist — though the assertion “Jesus didn’t exist” is unclear and has to be unpacked and defined, such as the words ‘Jesus’ and ‘existed’. The position Meeks’ book advocates is the most inconsistent and unsatisfying of all; if you make good on Meeks’ call for a change of direction, the result calls Meeks’ framework into question. His blend of being half-critical and half-uncritical is a frustrating oil-and-water mixture, like Doherty’s mixing-together of the lack of critical questioning of Paul’s historicity with a highly critical questioning of Jesus’ historicity.

    This caused me to wonder about Hoffman’s background, and I wound up looking on YouTube to see what I might find there. Curiously, I encountered an 8-part interview audio discussing a book Hoffman wrote titled Judaism Discovered: A Study of the Anti-Biblical Religion of Racism, Self-Worship, Superstition and Deceit that, at the time of the interview, had apparently been banned on Amazon.com but evidently no longer is.

    1. There are many criticisms I have against Meeks’s book, and I may address a few of them some time, along with what I see as its principle strengths.

      I recall Michael Hoffmann elsewhere as “ego-death” and his strong interest in the role of entheogens in ancient culture generally and Christian origins in particular.

      1. Well, I thought it odd that Hoffman’s historicity doubts extended to Paul. As I recall, there is some question about whether the same person wrote all of the letters attributed to Paul, but I gather that the majority of them appeared to be in the style of one individual. And as for Hoffman’s apparent certainty concerning the non-historicity of Jesus, when discussing the Talmud in the radio interview he cited what Jesus had said about that and other matters as if he had been a real person. One of the central themes of the interview, though, was the assertion that American news reporting on the plight of the Palestinians is substantially cleansed of anything reflecting badly on Israel. The power of pro-Israeli lobbies in America is substantial, all the more so because of the beliefs of Christian fundamentalists (e.g. Sarah Palin and Congressional Representative, Michele Bachmann) concerning the importance of Israel in relation to the Second Coming of Jesus.

        1. I don’t go as far as Hoffmann does in tracing “causes/reasons/influences” to certain Judaistic and Christian belief systems. I give more credit to the here-and-now perceived cost-benefit implications of courses of actions. U.S. support for Israel will turn around once the policy makers begin to think the costs are outweighing the benefits. I tend to think the Sarah Pain’s are the products, not the makers, of the times.

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