Another Possible Interpolation Conceded by Historicists of Old (and a question of heavenly trees)

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by Neil Godfrey

“Seed of David” by Rosetti: Image by Martin Beek via Flickr

Once more into the fray with A. D. Howell Smith in his arguments against the Christ mythicists of his day. . . .

This time it is with a historicist’s concession that Romans 1:3 — the statement that Jesus was born of the seed of David — could well be part of a passage that was only later added to Paul’s original letter.

Here is what he writes on page 135 of Jesus Not A Myth (1942) with my own emphasis and formatting:

Couchoud follows Rylands and other Mythicists in regarding the Crucifixion as a mystical and transcendental event. The Christ is slain by the “Archons” in some sub-celestial, but super-terrestrial, region.

Most careful readers of Paul’s Epistles will consider this view of his teaching as grotesque. Couchoud makes Paul a Docetist, one who believed that the body of Jesus was not of flesh, but only appeared to be so.

The phrase “born of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Rom. i, 3) may well be an interpolation, as it is part of a long, clumsy sentence, which is suspiciously overloaded with phrases that seem to be dragged in for polemic purposes. . . . .

Hermann Detering has in more recent times also argued for this passage not being original [link downloads a 2 MB PDF file] to Paul. I have added to Detering’s argument by structuring it around William Walker’s criteria for assessing interpolations in Paul’s letters: Romans 1:2-6 — an anti-Marcionite interpolation? (Given what we know of interpolations in ancient literature generally, and in early Christian literature in particular, I consider the modern view that genuineness should be the default assumption problematic in the extreme.)

What is most interesting is that such a concession to the possibility of interpolation could once be acknowledged in a publication like this. Today I get the impression that to raise such a thought amongst mainstream scholars is considered as gauche as giggling at a funeral.

I am reminded of an observation by Niels Peter Lemche on the impact of the dominance of American scholarship on biblical studies since the Second World War:

Now days, biblical scholarship is dominated by American scholars, presenting a much more colorful picture. Historical-critical scholarship has no monopoly like it used to have in Europe; academic institutions may be – according to European standards – critical or conservative, but in contrast to the European tradition, these very different institutions will communicate, thus lending respectability also to the conservative position.

This definitely represents a danger to biblical scholarship as an academic discipline in the European tradition. Entertaining a dialogue with an opponent who has different goals from the ones of the critical scholar means the same as diluting one’s own position: in the universe of the critical scholar, there can be no other goal than the pursuit of scholarship – irrespective of where his investigations may lead him or her.

I suspect that the range of critical thought in the first half of the twentieth century has narrowed as a result of the increased influence of conservative scholarship that American dominance (with its strong conservative religious heritage) has ushered in.

But back to the above passage by Howell Smith.

This quotation has introduced another challenge against Couchoud’s mythicist view (one that Earl Doherty has recognized as a precursor of his own heavenly Christ idea) that I know I cannot leave hanging. So here is the rest of Howell Smith’s paragraph:

But how can we rationally interpret of a super-terrestrial crucifixion the following text? “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Gal. iii, 13). “Hanging on a tree” is certainly the equivalent of being crucified, and it is absurd to explain the “tree” (ζυλον) as an immaterial object or a mere symbol, for that would make the quotation from the Old Testament unintelligible. Only by capriciously eliminating from the Epistles everything that militates against a cherished theory can they be made to testify to a Jesus who never lived.

Ah, so Howell Smith does have real bark against the mythicists. But here he has only managed to specify one detail that he complains is “capriciously eliminated” by mythicists — being hanged (or crucified) on a tree — so let’s look at this one.

I have not read anything by Couchoud apart from quotations in Howell Smith’s book, so I cannot comment on the strength of Howell Smith’s objection here, or how Couchoud might have responded to it. But here is how Earl Doherty responds (in part) to this criticism that he himself has encountered against his own Christ myth argument:

But the question of heavenly trees . . . gets to the heart of the present matter, as an expression of modern literality and the inability to comprehend the ancient mind’s view of the universe. Here we can look at some examples of pictures that were presented of goings-on in the spiritual realm. As before, the great majority of thse are from Jewish sectarianism of the intertestimental period, with no explicit descriptions coming down to us from pagan writings about the cosmology of the mystery cult myths. None will give us as much pertinent detail as did the Ascension of Isaiah, but all of them present activities which are undeniably ‘geomorphic’ yet in a spirit-world context. We can also remark on the variety of conception about the structure of that context.

The Enochian pre-Christian writings envision all sorts of activities in the various layers of heaven. There one can see fire and ice, armies and chariots . . . .

In the Apocalypse of Zephaniah (probably 1 st century CE), a seer is brought up into the heavens in a vision. There he sees angels wearing diadems and sitting on thrones. . . . In the same or a different layer of heaven, the seer witnesses a sould being punished by five thousand angels. . . . Presumably, heavenly whips were being used by the angels to beat the deceased being punished. . . .

Doherty gives further examples from Plutarch, the Hermetica, as well as references to other biblical and extra biblical texts. He concludes this section with:

We must also keep in mind that the ancients had not developed the scientific knowledge of the universe to give them the same sort of space-time concepts that we have. The average person today knows the extent and details of our planet and of the universe in general. We have a grasp of how the laws of nature work and where everything is located, and we think in those terms. For the ancients, however, much of the world around them was mysterious; fantastic views of reality abounded. More was unknown and unseen and misunderstood than the opposite. The ancient mind would have had no reason to think that such-and-such was impossible, that certain things could not exist and go on in the unseen spiritual realm. If gods lived in the upper part of the universe, there was no impediment to thinking that they could do things there. Since the gods were essentially anthropomorphic, it was feasible that they could do anthropomorphic things in geomorphic circumstances. (p. 152)

Sheshat, the Egyptian Celestial Librarian, Writes Upon the Tree of Heaven’s Leaves (http://sidneyrigdon.com/DRB/BEGIN/tree5.jpg)


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Neil Godfrey

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22 thoughts on “Another Possible Interpolation Conceded by Historicists of Old (and a question of heavenly trees)”

  1. So does the title of this post indicate that you think all “historicists of old” held this view, or is it just indication that you are allowed to use English in this generally accepted way, but when those whom you disagree with do so, you make much of it, lacking any more substantial basis for criticism?

      1. Seems McGrath got no further than the title to find something he could use as a foil for his usual ad hominem attack. Did not bother to read the detail and understand what was being said, did he?

  2. I have reminded myself that Hermann Detering discusses Romans 1:3-4 (only) as an interpolation (See pages 107 to 112 of http://www.radikalkritik.de/FabricatedJHC.pdf), and not 1:2-6 as I inferred in my original post. The entirety of 1:2-6 was my own suggestion, if I recall correctly. Have corrected the post.

    (I think I paused for a portion of a minute over the wording of the title of this post, and took a risk by inferring there were others in the days of Howell Smith who had similar views. This was on the basis of Howell Smith’s knowledge of and reliance on scholarship throughout his book. He himself is not “a professional scholar” but from his copious references to the literature it is clear he knows the field he is addressing in his day.)

            1. Nope, it’s not that, it was longer, I remember linking to your Walker-esque summary of the arguments and James saying that he didn’t find it persuasive. :S

              I’ll have to check out that tool you recommend 🙂

  3. “I have not read anything by Couchoud apart from quotations in Howell Smith’s book.”

    Neil, Please take time to read this article by Couchoud:


    (Read the PDF version, as the HTML version has some typographical problems.)

    I’ve mentioned this article to you before. I think what Couchoud argues here is very important. And it is directly relevant to the issues you bring up in the post.

  4. no, these are not interpolations. If elements of the teaching of jesus, his sayings, had been interpolated into paul then, yes, perhaps….j barlow

  5. Pingback: Remembering |

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