Would a “mythicist Paul” need a lot of mythical story detail?

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by Neil Godfrey

This is a reasonable question that was unfortunately asked by one who is searching for the one question that mythicism cannot answer. (Earl Doherty responded in detail but this was simply ignored by the questioner who found another question to set up in its place in a game of cat and mouse. Or maybe Earl Doherty has conspired with James McGrath for James to pretend he hasn’t read or understood Doherty’s book and to keep dropping the Dorothy Dixers so that he can use his blog as a platform for a clear and unopposed exposition of mythicism. 😉

I have had my own thoughts on the question, however.

For Paul there is one central focus of his faith and that is Christ crucified. There is not a complex detailed mythological narrative attached to this as far as we can tell. And this stands to reason. For one thing complex mythical tales of gods are traditionally the result of centuries of cultural mixing and matching and evolution responding to changing social and cultural interests. What we appear to have in the case of Pauline “Christianity” is something of a theological-philosophical development with emphasis on the theological. It is a faith that is founded not in a rich literary tradition of mythical tales but in revelation and vision-mysticism. Revelation is spiritual and its matrix appears to be the Jewish sacred writings. And this was an era of flourishing religious and philosophical mutations.

But the research of scholars like Engberg-Pedersen and Niko Huttunen open up the indebtedness of Paul’s theology to Stoic philosophy. I am not referring to Stoic ethics but to the philosophical framework itself. (I’ve posted on some aspects of Engberg-Pedersen before and will be doing more posts on Huttunem soonish.) Paul’s Christ crucified is a theological version of Seneca’s (and Stoic’s) Reason or Logos. It converts and saves the individual — transforms the individual into a new person — by virtue of being grasped, apprehended.

This was the mystery that changed a person from one nature to another nature that was “in Christ” just as truly grasping “the good” or “reason” in other Socratic or Stoical thought systems transformed the person into the embodiment of that good of that reason. To know the death of Christ was to identify with that death and that was the key to knowing (experiencing) the life of Christ. Not that this was an intellectual life like Stoicism. Rather, it involved spiritual gifts, ecstatic experiences, mystic visions, spiritual revelations. Not as much as some other types of religions, perhaps. And a subsequent generation of devotees clamped down on some of these expressions, certainly by means of the Pastoral epistles, and perhaps even by injecting a whole strata of pastoral like chapters in the original epistles of Paul.

No doubt there were mythical details in the repertoire of Paul and his followers. There are allusions to these in the epistles. But Paul’s religion was not a religion of the book. It was of the spirit. That spirit religion, we learn from Paul, was always growing and learning with a new revelation and interpretation. We see some of the growth of the myth with the post-Pauline epistles like Colossians and Ephesians. We see related mythical outgrowths from scriptural revelation in Hebrews and Barnabas.

The “mythology” of Paul did not need complexity of detail. Many details would accrue but none of these was ever central to the faith. What was central was the experience of coming to “know” Christ crucified in a manner that meant identification and transformation. The experience was spiritual and, for some at least, visionary.

Such are my tentative exploratory thoughts.


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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “Would a “mythicist Paul” need a lot of mythical story detail?”

  1. “For Paul there is one central focus of his faith and that is Christ crucified.”

    No. His key point was that Jesus was resurrected. His first work, I Thessalonians, never mentions crucifixion (look it up). The “crucifixion” was the means to the end (so to speak). It’s the belief in the resurrection that started Christianity and than the story worked backwards (sign of Satan?).

    The ironically, contrasting/balancing style of I Thessalonians parallels “Mark’s” style. Paul uses rhetoric to make his primary argument regarding himself, that he is not a rhetorician. Such an embarrassing/impossible start to a religion must mean it’s all true.

    1. In Galatians and the Corinthian letters and Romans he stresses both. There is no resurrection without death, and he says he resolves to know nothing but Christ Crucified, to be dead in Christ so he can have Christ live in him. The resurrection or new life is the goal, the whole point of the death or mortification of the flesh. This is all very Stoic in concept. And Paul follows the Stoic model of the teacher in 1 Thessalonians by himself stooping down to the Thessalonians in order to lift them up to his own life in Christ.

  2. Neil, you use the word “mythical” where I would use “mystical”. I don’t think that Paul and the other early Christians thought of Jesus as a “mythical” character, but rather as a “mystical” character. I think of a mythical being as an extraordinary being, but usually a human being, in the real past, who interacted with real human beings in real events in real places. I think of a mystical being as a concept or projection from a human being’s mind — an abstract being that is not necessarily linked with any real events in any real time or place.

    I would be interested in a little more explanation about what you mean when you use the word “mythical” in relation to Paul’s beliefs about Jesus.

  3. Mike, in my post here I attempted to confine my use of the word “mythical” to the modern understanding of that word as it relates to “dreamtime” stories about gods and their doings. The mystical side of Paul is something distinct from that. Unfortunately most of my reading about mysticism in Paul is quite old and I would need to do a refresher to feel comfortable addressing that aspect again here.

  4. In my humble opinion I question usual thinking with a large grain of salt. The writer of Galatians appears to be a different person not only from the “Paul” of Acts but from the authors of many other epistles. Only in Galatians does he explicitly claim an exclusive revelation about the Christ, leaving the distinct impression that all other “gospels” are false by definition. The novel feature of Galatians and several other epistles, of course, is that of the indwelling of the Christ in the believer and vice versa, which is not found in the gospels or other epistles such as Romans and Hebrews. Given the fact that there is no objective evidence for the existence of a “Paul” who is the author of all the epistles (or most), I prefer to refer to “the writer of Galatians,” etc.

    1. It’s interesting to think of Romans as an ideoligical reinterpretation of Galatians rather than as a second version by the same man who has had his valium and counted to ten and written a more diplomatic version for readers he has not known personally.

      I know computer programs are supposed to have taken care of any arguments over style, but sometimes it’s not easy to eradicate long-standing questions.

      I think it was Evan here who also pointed out that there is a passage in Galatians that is interpreted as a sign of authenticity despite a comparable passage (something about asking readers to witness the hand doing the writing) in 2 Thessalonians being interpreted as a sign of inauthenticity!

    1. Since the Paul of Acts is not the same as Paul of epistles, what may have been an oral tradition of someone named Saul /Paul that was the basis of Acts? In fact that tradition apparently included someone named Peter as well.

        1. Thank you. This is very interesting. It didn’t occur to me that an Acts writer may have been writing to counter the epistles. Why wouldn’t such a writer counter epistles with other “Pauline” epistles – and may the best man win?

          Why in the form of a biography? Especially since it isn’t clear what entirely the author of Acts was explicitly rejecting in the doctrines of the epistles (i.e. the salvation through the indwelling of the Christ in the believer and vice versa before the final revelation/eschaton). The “believers” believed in Acts, but it doesn’t really specify in what.

          Then the issue is whether all this material appeared on the scene “for and against” after Justin and by the time of Irenaeus, a period of only 40 years if we go by official Church history.

          1. Epistles were written to counter Paul’s — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. (Also 2 Thessalonians). I think some scholars have even suggested that the Pastorals were originally tagged on to the end of Luke-Acts.

            Acts was written to create a myth that was larger than just the life of Paul. It was to secure orthodoxy to pre-resurrection Jesus and twelve apostles with the “Old Testament” and Jerusalem — to secure orthodoxy to the Jewish tradition and to authoritative witnesses, and to demonstrate Paul’s subservience to this tradition.

            1. But doesn’t that assume a centralized authority and matured worldview that could not yet have existed as early as the second century?
              And couldn’t they have just as easily ignored the epistles instead of the effort at Acts?

              1. Rome was an authoritative centre for many Christians in the mid-second century, and not just for “orthodoxy”. Marcion seems to have felt a need to prove himself there. We have very early traditions about Peter and Paul appearing in Rome to bolster its ideological status.

                Paul was a controversial figure and many groups claimed him. We have the epistles, Acts, the Acts of Paul and Thecla and the Pastorals. He was known as the apostle of the heretics. So whoever or whatever his origin, a wide range of groups appear to have been vying for his support for their particular brand of Christianity.

  5. What complicates matters even more is that even if Acts could be argued to be a rebuttal of Galatians etc., the epistles contain more than a competing biography of “Paul.” What stands out is that the Paul of Acts does not discuss the ideology of reconciliation/salvation (even before the eschaton) through the faith and INDWELLING of the Christ in the believer and vice versa. Indeed, when he wins converts in Acts they are said to “believe” without any description of what their belief is in. Furthermore, the idea of attaching Acts to Luke is to say, “Well, since Luke wrote about the historical Christ and he was a companion of Paul, then OF COURSE Paul knew about the gospels.” Yet we see from the content of Acts that there is NO MENTION of the important events or sites in the life of the HJ that interested Paul. And as in Galatians, he expresses no awe or reverence whatsoever for those who were said to have seen and talked to the Savior himself.

    This all might suggest that the original author of Acts did not know of the canonical gospels yet or even of the epistles, despite the argument about Acts as a rebuttal of Galatians.

    I am interested in what people think about these issues.

    1. Dave: “This all might suggest that the original author of Acts did not know of the canonical gospels…”

      In the first half of Acts the string of Peter’s wondrous deeds seem to echo Jesus’ miracles, going them one better. For example, the woman with the issue of blood is healed by the hem of Jesus’ garment, while large numbers of people are healed simply by Peter’s shadow as he walks past.

      And surely the affinity between “Tabitha arise” and “Talitha cumi” can’t be an accident. When Jesus raises the little girl in Mark or the boy in Luke, the verb is “ἐγέρθητι” or “ἔγειρε” — meaning simply “get up.” But when Peter tells Tabitha to arise he says: “ἀνάστηθι”. There’s no pretense about about the girl not being dead “but sleepeth.” Peter’s Tabitha is truly dead and he literally resurrects her.

      So at least in some parts of Acts there seems to be an awareness of Mark. But, yeah — the speeches and sermons are remarkably free of any hint of Jesus’ biography.

      1. Well couldn’t it be argued that stories about a Jesus figure were floating all over the place and found their way into assorted writings? In any event, what do you make of the evolution of different Pauls not only between Acts and Galatians for example, but even among the epistles themselves whereby several writers did not know of the others …..??

        1. > “In any event, what do you make of the evolution of different Pauls…?”

          It would appear the early Christians were an inventive lot. Do you think a work like the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” is any more absurd or fanciful than the canonical Acts?

        2. “In any event, what do you make of the evolution of different Pauls not only between Acts and Galatians for example…”

          I have the impression that Acts is trying to present the post-conversion Paul as someone who got along with James’ group and was willing to defer to their decisions (e.g., 21:17ff.), in order to smooth over the differences that existed between them in the epistles and “Jewish Christian” tradition.

    2. What I think is a reason for some of our confusion over these sorts of questions is our failure to grasp that the gospel narrative of Jesus’ earthly life was not central to Christianity’s belief-system as it is today. I find it difficult to get my head around the idea of gnostic and ‘orthodox’ leaders all occupying Rome at the same time. The doctrinal wars were not, I suspect, at the level of what Jesus taught, but about the nature of Christianity and the Christ themselves. The gospel narratives were produced (created) in order to advance one particular idea of Christianity. Mark’s gospel is, to my mind, clearly a parable or symbolic narrative. It was not originally understood literally. So the author of Acts was not immersed in a tradition of Gospel narratives. Gospel narratives were one of many evolving ideas in a world full of competing ideas. That’s why it did not fall naturally to him to refer to the HJ in his Acts narrative. His Acts narrative was aimed at certain other ideas and he was drawing on the arguments he knew about (e.g. salvation by believing in Jesus) in addressing those.

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