1. Did Jewish Personified Wisdom generate Paul’s Christ Jesus?
2. Was Jesus an Unknown Jew Who Lived a Century Before Paul?
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- The (partial) mythicism of G. A. Wells
- The problems in Wells’ interpretation of Paul
- Jewish personified Wisdom as inspiration for Paul’s Christ
- Hellenistic Judaism and the Wisdom of Solomon
- Is Jesus the incarnation of personified Wisdom?
- Colossians and the christological hymns
- Did Paul see Christ as living in the time of Alexander Janneus?
- The chronology of Jesus’ death and rising and the appearances of 1 Cor. 15.
- Would Paul trouble to mention something everyone knew?
- Paul’s “firstfruits” harvested from scripture
- Taking apart Ehrman’s summation against Wells
- Related Posts
* * * * *
1. Was Jesus Invented as a Personification of Jewish Wisdom?
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 241-246)
The mythicist views of G. A. Wells
In turning once more to the views of G. A. Wells, Ehrman demonstrates that mythicism is not monolithic, for Wells’ views on what earliest Christians like Paul believed in shows that the opinions of mythicists can be almost as varied as those of New Testament scholars who have sought to uncover the ‘genuine’ historical Jesus. (Of course, only the former are condemned for that diversity.)
Wells and two originating strands of Christianity:
Wells, like myself, sees a Christian movement which originated in two essentially separate expressions that only came together in the Gospel of Mark. Since I did not consciously take this from Wells, this illustrates the principle of different individuals or groups coming up with similar ideas based on available evidence or ‘in the air’ concepts but not dependent one on another. (Unless Wells took it from me! 😉 )
Strand one: Q, Galilee and a founding figure:
Wells accepts the existence of Q as representing one of those expressions: a sectarian movement in Galilee preaching the coming of the kingdom of God; but he came to believe (sometime around 1990) that an historical sage, à la the Jesus Seminar, lies at its root, whereas I see the evidence in Q pointing to a later development for such a founding figure during the evolution of the sect, and that no such founder existed.
Strand two: Paul, Wisdom and the reign of Alexander Janneus:
On the other hand, Wells sees Paul as deriving a non-existent Son/Christ figure from philosophical and scriptural sources, influenced especially by the “personified Wisdom” tradition of the Hebrew bible. But rather than locating him and his acts in a supernatural time and place, Wells interprets Paul as concluding that Christ had been born, lived and died on earth at an unknown time in the past, though he opts for Paul locating this during the reign of Alexander Janneus (103-76 BCE), known to have crucified hundreds of his rabbinic opponents.
Problems with Wells’ theory
There are several problems with Wells’ theory.
- First of all, Paul never actually tells us that his Christ had been on earth, let alone living and dying during the reign of Janneus.
- He and the other epistle writers never make room for a presence of Jesus on earth, even in obscurity, between the ancient promises of God and his first action on those promises through recent revelation and the preaching of the gospel by apostles like Paul.
- No attempt is ever made by any epistle writer to speculate on the time, place and circumstances of such a life on earth.
- I also believe that Wells has not taken into account that the occasional human-sounding language on which he seems to base his conviction that the epistle writers regarded Christ as having been on earth fits very well into the context of a heavenly Christ and the principle of paradigmatic parallelism, in which a heavenly figure undertakes to share in certain characteristics of the human world, but only in the “likeness” sense, for the purpose of undergoing sacrifice. For this, he does not need to come to earth or be incarnated.
Personified Wisdom in Jewish tradition
Be that as it may, my intent here is not to take on Wells, but to examine Ehrman’s interpretation of him. He notes that Wells appeals to the “personified Wisdom” tradition in Jewish thought. I, too, believe that this tradition influenced the development of the early Christ cult, but in conjunction with the Greek Logos concept in the Hellenistic tradition of the period. Indeed, even Jewish personified Wisdom by Paul’s time had been influenced by the Greek Logos, as we can see in the Hellenistic Judaism of Philo and an Alexandrian document about to be examined.
Ehrman first quotes Proverbs 8, but he can hardly think that this early expression of Wisdom in the Jewish texts somehow survived in a pristine state to reach Paul, unaffected by intervening Greek thought:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth….
[several verses describing aspects of God’s creation]
Then I was beside him, like a master worker;
And I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.
In fact, Ehrman immediately quotes from another ‘Jewish’ work, the Wisdom of Solomon in the Jewish apocrypha, which is usually dated some time early in the first century, during the lifetime of both Philo and Paul:
She is a breath of the power of God
and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty….
For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness….
She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
and she orders all things well….
For she is an initiate in the knowledge of God,
and an associate in his works. (Wisdom of Solomon 7 – 8)
This goes beyond the light-hearted and relatively innocuous picture of Wisdom keeping God supplied with iced tea during his labors at creation. Here we have a dramatic presentation of an intermediary entity standing proud beside God in heaven, a dangerously close compromise to strict monotheism. It is cut from the same cloth as Philo’s picture of the Logos. And it bears an undeniable resemblance to similar presentations of the Son throughout the New Testament epistles. (In the last instalment I quoted 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:2-3.)
Comparing the Wisdom of Solomon with the New Testament epistles
|Indeed, it is astonishing that Ehrman and other historicist scholars can look at this passage in the Wisdom of Solomon, acknowledge that it is not speaking of any human being but of a heavenly entity, and then turn to virtually identical descriptions of the Son in the epistles—which equally do not make any association of what they are describing with a man on earth—and yet insist that such descriptions are talking about an incarnated human being. The ability to compartmentalize powers of judgment according to one’s personal interests is clearly an asset in the discipline known as New Testament scholarship.|
In fact, Ehrman now examines Wells’ comparison between the above passage in the Wisdom of Solomon and the very similar passage in Colossians 1:15-20. Wells is maintaining that the Colossians hymn looks to be dependent on the concept of personified Wisdom we see in the Wisdom of Solomon (though we don’t know if the latter document and passage was known to Paul).
I might make the point here that Wells fails to note that the Colossians hymn shows no advance over the Wisdom of Solomon passage in a respect which, if Wells were correct, should have been crucial to Paul. If Paul and his circles believed that the Son talked of in Colossians had actually been incarnated to earth, even if at an unknown time, this dramatic addition to the myth of Wisdom should surely have been included in the Colossians hymn. The latter saw fit to add the element of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, but no reference to an incarnation to earth.
Ehrman finds fault with Wells’ contention that more than one aspect of the Wisdom of Solomon could have influenced Paul’s thinking about his Christ. The document also contains (2:10-20, 4:7-5:5) an account of the “just man” who is wrongfully accused and condemned to a “shameful death.” (This is not supposed to represent a specific historical individual, but the stereotyped righteous person who suffers at the hands of evil men.) I pointed out earlier that this particular ‘tale’ was one example of the recurring genre in Jewish writing according to which the Passion account in Mark was created: the Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One.
Wells’ view is that Paul, or someone before him, could have reflected on this tale in the Wisdom of Solomon, took a cue from the “shameful death” reference and decided it referred to the crucifixion of an obscure earthly Jesus. Considering that the epistles constantly refer to the revelation of Christ in scripture, and that such scriptural sources would likely have been certain verses in the Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53, along with passages in Psalm 22 and Zechariah 12, an added influence from the Wisdom of Solomon would not be infeasible, although as far as we know this document was never regarded as “scripture.”
The Wisdom of God
I have to agree with Ehrman that Wells has read more into the reference to “the wisdom of God” in 1 Corinthians 1:23-24 and 2:6-8 than is merited. Rather than a formal reference to personified Wisdom, Paul seems to be speaking of God’s “wisdom” in reference to the system of salvation he has established through the sacrifice of his Son. Even Paul’s statement that Christ “is the power of God and the wisdom of God” is not calling on personified Wisdom, but stating the principle that the Son is a reflection or the embodiment of certain of God’s qualities and activities, pure Logos-style thought.
Paul has other similar characterizations, such as “the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” in 2 Corinthians 4:6. This is hardly a reference to the past human face of the Gospel Jesus, but reflects the idea that through knowledge of the spiritual Son, whose ‘face’ has been revealed, we are able to know something about God’s nature.
Wells, then, suggests that for Paul, “Wisdom had become incarnate in Christ,” even if that incarnate life had been lived in obscurity. Ehrman pronounces this idea “riddled with problems,” even though there is a common exegesis of Matthew which sees the evangelist as implying this very thing—although for Matthew it is clearly for the earthly Jesus of his Gospel, whereas Paul presents us with no such earth-oriented scenario. But what are these “problems”?
Ehrman first makes the rather weak objection that ‘Jesus as Wisdom’ is only one among many characterizations Paul would have been giving his Christ, and by no means the commonest one. True enough, but that in itself hardly makes a minority association invalid. Scholars can still maintain that Paul was ‘called by Jesus’ (based on the road to Damascus legend or whatever Paul’s vision of Jesus entailed), even though in the vast number of cases Paul states he had been “called by God,” there being only a couple of occasions on which Paul throws in a calling from Christ along with God, as in Galatians 1:1.
A bit more reasonable:
Ehrman is a bit more reasonable in objecting that it would be quite odd for Paul to regard his Christ as Wisdom incarnate but to then make her/him the messiah—and crucified to boot. No Wisdom tradition anywhere even suggests such a fate. Not even the Logos was to be, or had been, killed, which may be why Paul’s message was “folly” even to Greeks. However, being nevertheless led to accord to a Wisdom-inspired Son and Messiah a sacrificial death based on a reading of scriptural passages would not be infeasible either.
Goes too far:
But Ehrman goes too far in his objection that we cannot judge Paul’s view by a passage in Colossians, which is regarded as not by Paul but written a little later in his name. He scoffs at the idea that this hymn (Col. 1:15-20) derives from a pre-Pauline tradition (like the other christological hymns in the Pauline corpus), since “Colossians is post-Pauline.”
Pre-Pauline Christological hymns
But whether written by Paul or not, scholarship judges that all of these similar hymns in the Pauline corpus represent the same type of thinking and expression (all, by the way, lacking an historical Jesus), and thus could all pre-date Paul, if only because those in the letters judged authentic to Paul (notably Philippians 2:6-11) also look to be quotations by him of earlier hymnic material. Ehrman himself argues for that elsewhere, so on what basis is he rejecting the Colossians hymn as “problematic” because it was written after Paul?
Besides, is Ehrman going to claim that the pseudo-Paulines (Colossians and Ephesians especially) are completely divorced from Paul’s thought and constitute new and unprecedented ideas? There can be little doubt that these later epistles represent a ‘school’ of Pauline thought, in communities he founded or proselytized, largely based on the apostle’s own views, though the hymns themselves seem to have preceded Paul. (Ehrman has previously tried to maintain that just because Colossians and Ephesians show a preoccupation with heavenly forces of evil, this does not mean that Paul held anything like the same views!)
Ehrman reverts to his old ‘begging the question’ approach. He declares that Christians started out, not postulating an incarnation of Wisdom or any other divinity based on scripture, but facing the historical fact of a human Jesus being crucified, and thus constituting a “crucified messiah.” This automatically rules out any influence from scripture except as supplying prooftexts supporting what they already believed about their earthly Master. Thinking of Jesus as “God’s Wisdom” only came later. Well, we’ve been through the texts themselves in sufficient detail to show that they do not bear out this type of scenario, except through Ehrman’s dubious methodology of creating oral traditions to conveniently precede the epistles.
* * * * *
2. Was Jesus an Unknown Jew Who Lived in Obscurity More Than a Century Before Paul?
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 247-251)
Did Paul’s Jesus live obscurely a century and more earlier?
Ehrman now focuses more closely on Wells’ contention that Paul viewed his Jesus as having lived an obscure life on earth and been crucified over a century before his own time. Wells, incidentally, does not interpret “the rulers of this age” to mean the demon spirits, for he sees the obscure Jesus as crucified on earth at some point in the past. Seemingly, as noted earlier, he has in mind Alexander Janneus. But this, too, entails a problem for Wells. Why one Jewish king over a century in the past would be referred to as “the rulers of this age” or why Paul would feel justified in claiming on this basis that past rulers were on their way to destruction is not at all clear.
Ehrman takes the tack that, while Wells claims correctly that Paul never gives any indication that Jesus had lived in the recent past, it would seem odd that such a time lapse would be seen to have taken place between the obscure Jesus’ death under Janneus and his recent appearances to certain people (including Paul himself) which inaugurated the new revelation and preaching movement.
Ehrman has a point, though it could be neutralized in one way. If Paul and others had really learned about Jesus entirely from scripture and concluded that he had lived on earth, with the period of Alexander Janneus offering itself as the best candidate for time, place and circumstances, then that is what they would have believed. It would be no more invalid for them to accept the longish period before Christ became known than for modern Christians to think it is invalid to accept that the Second Coming is imminent even though two millennia have elapsed after the initial promise of such a return. In either case, it is a matter of people wanting to think that prophecy and its fulfillment is about to land on them, and if that seems to entail an unreasonable elapsing of time, this just gets ignored.
Still, Ehrman is justified in querying Wells’ picture, with its century-and-a-half lapse not seeming to be reflected in how Paul presents things. But there is an easy way out, for both of them. There exists no sign of a lapse because Paul’s “death, burial and rising” are not located at any point in the earthly past, whether known, unknown or postulated. Paul fails to ever suggest a time and place for his Christ’s death and resurrection because he does not locate them on earth. They are ‘events’ which have taken place in a supernatural dimension, and there is no time lapse problem involved because they cannot be pinpointed in relation to an earthly chronology. (The best we could say is that they took place some time after Adam or Abraham or the giving of the Law under Moses, but this may simply be the effect of inserting Christ into God’s process of ‘salvation history’ and may not necessitate even that degree of relative chronology for what was a timeless heavenly act. See Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, chapter 17: “The When of Christ’s Sacrifice.”)
The sequence of events in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8
The first ‘point in time’ which can be located in the Pauline system is the time of revelation, the ‘appearances’ of Christ to certain people on earth. (For the community of 1 John it is the revelatory experience of 1:1-4, and for Hebrews it is its own revelatory experience in 2:1-4. In neither case is this experience identified with the life of Jesus on earth, despite scholarly attempts to read such a thing into the respective passages.)
On the other hand, it is likely that these appearances in 1 Corinthians 15 were largely ‘confirming’ visions (perhaps with the exception of that of Paul, who desperately wanted to join the club instead of persecuting it). They served to support ideas that had arisen through the study of scripture which, perhaps not long before, had produced the conviction that the Son existed and had acted as God’s agent of salvation—again helped along by contemporary philosophy and existing salvation theory of the time, including the pagan mysteries. Certainly, the impression Paul creates is that the Jerusalem sect had formed prior to those visionary experiences, although we don’t know on the basis of what beliefs, or whether a Son was specifically involved. “Brothers of the Lord,” as noted before, could conceivably have referred to God.
Thus there need be no perceivable problem in regard to a gap between 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and 15:5-8, just as Scientology recognizes no problem between L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘revelation’ (in the late 60s, I believe it was) that we are all descended from aliens arriving on earth eons ago and that actual alien visitation, since the latter lay in an unperceived limbo until Hubbard received the revelation of its occurrence. Thus, Ehrman’s reading here is simply his own wishful thinking:
No, Paul is expressing a straight chronological sequence of events: Jesus died; he was buried; three days later he was raised; and he then appeared to the apostles. (DJE? p. 249)
Ehrman’s “he then appeared” adopts a language which implies the type of ‘shortly afterward’ sequence he wants to see in the passage. In fact, the Greek text can be seen as presenting not a sequence of events, but a listing of what Paul has previously told (“delivered” to) the Corinthians. He is reminding them (15:1) of that information: his gospel about the heavenly Christ derived “kata tas graphas” and the supporting visions. If the former were not intended to represent events on earth, there need be no temporal relationship implied between verses 3/4 and the rest of the passage, between Christ’s acts and the visions—which may not even have been as strong as visions but simply ‘convictions of his presence among them.’ (See Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.78, and p.76 on the latter point.)
Ehrman again voices his objection to Wells using Colossians to understand Paul’s views, since Paul did not write this epistle. But that would be claiming that no movement’s founding ideas ever survive the death of the founder, or that the second generation of a sectarian group never reflects the ideas of the first generation. There is enough in common between Colossians and Ephesians and the genuine letters of Paul to reject such a stance. This is clearly Ehrman grasping at straws.
Another straw effort is in trying to block Wells’ opinion (shared by many others, as we have seen, including mainstream scholars) that 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 with its reference to “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus” is an interpolation. Ehrman reminds the reader that he has addressed—and dismissed—that view earlier. And so he has, and has been dismissed in turn in earlier postings here for adopting such a conservative stance and failing to give any weight to the fact that it is the view of many of his scholarly peers, past and present.
|It is ironic that mythicists can be roundly criticized for suggesting an alternate reading or an interpolation, accused of maintaining such things simply because they are “convenient,” yet here is Ehrman going against the clear grain of his fellow critical scholars and dismissing interpolation in 1 Thessalonians for reasons which can only be seen as “convenient” for his stance against mythicism.|
Then there is the straw that “everyone knew”:
The fact that Paul does not mention that Jesus died in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate is not in the least odd. What occasion did Paul have to mention something that everyone knew? (DJE? p. 248)
What occasion? How about the scores of times when Paul refers to Jesus’ death, but never, by chance because it is simply present in his mind or because he felt like it, happens to mention the time, place or agent? (Did he take a vow never to let such a reference pass his lips?) What about in 1 Corinthians 2:8, when he refers to the agents of Jesus’ death not as Pilate or the Jewish authorities but by a phrase that ancient Christian commentators themselves took to be referring to the demon spirits? What about him having in mind a crucifixion by the ruler Pilate which ought to have prevented him from making the statement in Romans 13 that the innocent have nothing to fear from earthly rulers, who are God’s appointees to punish evildoers?
What about him and other epistle writers having in mind the historical event of two decades before, which ought to have led them to insert it between God’s age-old promises and his gospel of the Son in scripture, and the first action by God on those promises and the first revelation of that gospel in the time of Paul? How about according some role for that historical life when Paul sets his own ministry against that of Moses, or proudly accords to himself God’s ministry of reconciliation and the inauguration of the new covenant? If everyone already knew about the historical Jesus, the messiah and Son of God who had lived, taught, died and risen within Paul’s own lifetime, it is hard to believe that at least some would not have wondered why he never showed up in any apostle’s presentation.
Not only does Ehrman have to ignore this void in the alleged “common knowledge” on the part of Paul’s readers, and apparently of Paul himself, he must substitute for it, like a rabbit pulled out of a hat, those Gospel “sources” which “spoke of the historical Jesus already by the early 30s, within at least a year of the traditional date of his death, before Paul was even converted.” (DJE? p. 248)
Paul’s “firstfruits” have sprouted in scripture
It is not the time of Christ’s life and actual acts of dying and rising.
Ehrman again brings up the Pauline reference to Jesus’ resurrection as the “firstfruits” of the general resurrection of the dead. But I have made the point before that it is the revelation of Jesus’ resurrection, coming from God in the present time, which has served as the firstfruits; it need not be the act itself. If it were, we should expect from Paul a somewhat more detailed presentation of that recent historical event, instead of numerous bare references to it with no historical setting whatsoever, and with the implication on many occasions that it is not to be located in the recent past or that he doesn’t have any idea when it did occur.
If one historical event determines the imminent occurrence of another, we would have every reason to expect the former to be presented in an unmistakeable fashion. After all, two decades have passed. Wouldn’t some among Paul’s readership—even if they already had the “common knowledge” of Jesus’ crucifixion under Pilate—have wondered just how long it was going to be? Or on what grounds Paul could justify a passage of even two decades, or be so sure there was hardly any further time to go?
Ehrman offers this analogy:
After the farmer gathers the firstfruits on the first day of harvest, when does he gather the rest? Does he wait a hundred years [referring to Wells’ theory]? No, he goes out the next day. (DJE? p. 251)
And so he does. The next day. What farmer waits two decades? If I were among the audience of Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians, I might wonder just how long Jesus was going to wait after dying and ascending before returning to earth with his angels and trumpets, and whether I might actually live to see the day. In all the discussion throughout the epistles about the question of when Christ would arrive from heaven (and remember it is never a “return”), no one ever calls attention to how long it has been since he was here and how long believers have been waiting.
Remember, too, that for Paul the starting point is always the “time of faith” (as in Galatians 3:23-5). For all the epistle writers the starting point is the time of Christ “being revealed” (all those revelation verbs), the “time of reformation” as in Hebrews 9:10. It is not the time of Christ’s life and actual acts of dying and rising. It is not a time ‘past’ in relation to their apostolic work, but a present period which has begun with their apostolic work in response to revelation. There is no sense of any given time lapse or period between the time of Christ’s crucifixion and rising, and the present time of the apostles. As far as they are concerned, this is “the next day” after the revelation of Christ as the “firstfruits.” They are out working for as big a yield as possible before the imminent harvest by God.
Summarizing his case against Wells
That Ehrman persists in distorting and misrepresenting the early record can only elicit a groan. Here is his summation to Wells:
I should stress that this is the view of all of our sources that deal with the matter at all. It is hard to believe that Paul would have such a radically different view from every other Christian of his day, as Wells suggests. That Jesus lived recently is affirmed not only in all four of our canonical Gospels (where, for example, he is associated with John the Baptist and is said to have been born during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus, under the rulership of the Jewish king Herod, and so on); it is also the view of all of the Gospel sources—Q (which associates Jesus with John the Baptist), M, L—and of the non-Christian sources such as Josephus and Tacitus (who both mention Pilate). These sources, I should stress, are all independent of one another; some of them go back to Palestinian traditions that can readily be dated to 31 or 32 CE, just a year or so after the traditional date of Jesus’s death. (DJE? p. 251)
- That Paul should differ from every other Christian is understandably “hard to believe” by those locked into forcing him into the Gospel mold.
- Nor are the rest of the epistle writers who seem to express themselves just like Paul apparently included in “every other Christian of the day.”
- “All four of our canonical Gospels” agree? Not surprisingly, since they are all based on the first one written, whose ‘event’ of Jesus crucified by Pilate can be found nowhere prior to Mark in the extant record.
- Jesus is associated with John the Baptist?
- Not by a single one of the epistle writers, who never once mention the Baptist.
- Not even in Q can John be seen as aware that Jesus was alive at the time he was prophesying the coming of the Son of Man (Lk/Q 3:16-17), let alone that he had baptized him.
- As for the Dialogue between Jesus and John (7:18-35), this extended anecdote has been shown by John Kloppenborg and other Q scholars to be an artificial construction later in Q’s development.
- And of course, any view of Jesus’ death—whether on earth or in heaven, whether by Pilate or by demons—is completely missing in Q.
- Born during the reign of Augustus and Herod? Matthew and Luke are a decade apart in the actual year, both inventing ‘biographical’ details which are as phoney as Washington’s cherry tree, while Mark has not a word to say on a time of birth.
- Luke as a reliable historian? Perhaps to those naïve enough to accept the Prologue as Gospel truth, even though the rest of Luke fails to live up to its claims.
- Josephus and Tacitus? We know how reliable they are, and how long it was before their alleged references to Jesus showed up in the consciousness of Christian writers.
- And we have seen on just how firm a ground Ehrman’s fantasy sources are based—“independent” all of them—going back to Palestinian traditions datable to the year 31 or 32.
(Next instalment: Ehrman takes on an infamous mythicist.)
. . . to be continued
George A. Wells on Bart Ehrman’s new book: Ehrman on the Historicity of Jesus and on Early Christian Thinking — Quotations from Free Inquiry, June/July 2012, Vol. 32, no. 4.
Neil Godfrey on Ehrman’s treatment of G. A. Wells: How Could Ehrman Possibly Have Read the Books He Cites?
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