Was Paul’s Jesus an Historical Figure? — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ ch. 8

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by Neil Godfrey

The eight chapter of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ is “Born under the Law: Intertextuality and the Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus in Paul’s Epistles” by Thomas S. Verenna. He takes those passages commonly used to support the claim that Paul’s Jesus was indeed an historical person — his crucifixion, being “born of a woman, born under the law”, being of the seed of David, passing on the teaching of the Last Supper, and Paul meeting James known to be the “brother of the Lord” — and attempts to argue that all these references by Paul are best understood as derived from his interpretations of the Jewish scriptures and/or have spiritual as opposed to earthly-historical meanings. In his introduction Verenna explains that his argument will be based on reading Paul “intertextually” — that is, he will interpret these passages through Paul’s pre-Gospel “cultural milieux” and his literary training in “the practice of [“imitation”] and [emulation]”.


Preliminary remarks

Verenna begins with an extensive set of “preliminary remarks” that I encapsulate here:

  • Most scholars believe Paul understood his Jesus to have been a historical person but he did not elaborate on the biography of this Jesus because his interest was in the meaning of the present heavenly Jesus to his converts.
  • Verenna will argue that, on the contrary, Paul never believed his Jesus was historical, and that Paul’s Jesus was crafted entirely from the Jewish Scriptures. Paul accomplished this by the well-known ancient literary practice (and Jewish tradition) of re-writing earlier literature.
  • Paul’s Jesus is “an allegorical” figure taken from Scriptures. (p. 133)
  • Since “Christianity” is a second century designation it is incorrect to say Paul converted to Christianity: he “converted to a sect of Judaism” from within which he used Scriptures to argue for his understanding of “the coming of . . . the suffering servant and redeemer.” (p. 134)
  • Scholar’s (e.g. Crossan’s) attempts to argue that Paul used Scripture to interpret historical events are based on “assumptions rather than . . . on an unbiased investigation of the state of the evidence.” (p. 134)
  • “Ancient literary traditions [meaning in particular “imitation/imitatio” or (Greek) “mimesis” and “aemulatio/emulation”] have a large part to play in Paul’s interpretation of Scripture”.

After establishing these points Verenna serves us with a “Brief Overview of Methods” as part of these preliminaries before moving on to the body of his article:

  • This chapter’s goal is to present an alternative to the current consensus (and readers are asked to keep in mind that scholarly trends change and that consensuses come and go);
  • This chapter will buck against the current and past tendencies to interpret Paul through all we believe to be historically true about Jesus through the Gospels, and (as above) attempt to interpret him through a pre-Gospel and pre-Christian “cultural milieux” — and as one educated in both the literary practices and the Jewish Scriptures of his day;
  • Verenna promises to investigate the epistles “within the socio-cultural framework” that is supposedly ignored by modern scholarship that spends more effort looking at the historical Jesus in Paul’s letters and about whom Paul does not express interest. This will mean Verenna will dwell upon the “esotericism” (that fills Paul’s letters) in the context of the literary custom of “emulation” — and thereby show that Paul’s conceptions of Jesus pre-dated the Gospel view of Jesus. (p. 136)
  • Two literary traditions that Verenna will dwell on in particular as having special relevance for interpreting Paul’s references to Jesus are “emulation” and “imitatio“.
    • Emulation, in this study, means establishing intertextuality; this investigation will be combining several disciplines in order to make a strong case for intertextual references in Paul’s epistles. . . . .
    • “That imitatio was part of a students’ (sic) education is well-established. And it is a well-accepted perspective that earlier literature was emulated wholly by authors in the Greco-Roman period. To quote Thomas Brodie, ‘Virgil did not just allude to Homer; he swallowed him whole.'” (p. 137)
  • We need to keep in mind that Paul, being a Jew, did not depart from the interpretative practices of his fellow Jews in interpreting Scriptures — “innovative readings which disclose truth previously latent in scripture”. (p. 138)


Unfortunately Verenna is not clear about what he means by “both the practice of [imitation] and [emulation/rivalry]” that he says he will use to explain Paul’s references to Jesus. This may be confusing for the uninformed reader who is not aware that imitation and emulation are not two separate literary practices but that emulation is simply one specific type of imitation.

Verenna begins by stating “emulation . . . means establishing intertextuality” and that in the same sentence he says he will be making a strong case for “intertextual references in Paul’s letters.” This is not how I have understood what modern scholars’ or the ancients’ understand by “emulation”. Dennis MacDonald explains the term:

The most sophisticated form of ancient imitation, however, was [zelos], aemulatio, “rivalry.” Such emulations announce, albeit subtly, their reliance on their model, and at the same time attempt “to speak better.” The observant reader . . . will compare the model . . . and perhaps judge the imitation superior, whether in literary expression, philosophical acuity, or religious power. Many ancient imitations of Homer fall into this category whether the emulations are parodies . . . or Latin philosophical belletristics, like the Aeneid. (p. 6, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark)

Educated Greeks called such contrasting imitations zeloi; Romans called them aemulationes. A zelos or aemulatio was a strategic improvement on the model. (p. 1, Mimesis and Intertextuality in Antiquity and Christianity)

In arguing that Paul is making “intertextual references” to the Jewish Scriptures Verenna cites Brodie’s reference to Virgil “swallowing whole” Homer’s epics in order to produce the Aeneid — that is, absorbing their plot and structure and themes whole in order to recreate a new epic out of those parts restructured and “perfected”. I don’t know of any studies — not even Brodie’s — that argue that any of Paul’s letters are a “swallowing whole” of any book of the Hebrew Bible in the sense that Virgil wholly re-wrote Homer’s epics.

Verenna then quotes Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, but Hays is addressing the innovative theological interpretative practices of the Rabbis and of Paul, and pointing out that the main difference between them is that Paul claimed divine revelation for his interpretations while the Rabbis claimed the support of “majority opinion within an interpretive community” (p. 4). That Paul echoed or alluded to earlier Scriptures and creatively interpreted them just as did Rabbis is not the same thing as the literary technique of “imitation” (or “emulation”) according to my own understanding of these terms as used by MacDonald, Brodie, and others.

Further, Hays acknowledges that there is another meaning of “intertextuality” that has more specific relevance for cultural exchanges studied by sociologists and anthropologists, but that he (Hays) will limiting his use of the term to textual allusions. Verenna would have done well to have clarified exactly what he meant by his terms from the outset instead of directing readers to a footnote citing G. Allen, J. J. Collins, F. de Saussure, V. N. Volosinov and M. Bakhtin, J. Kristeva, R. Barthes, M. Foucault, . Heidegger, S. Burke, J. Pucci, J. Clayton and E. Rothstein, D. Attridge. I found it difficult to see how his ensuing arguments related to interetextuality as I have understood this in the writings of the likes of MacDonald, Brodie, Hock, Nickelsburg, Stott, and other New Testament scholars.


Verenna’s preliminary remarks are nested in footnotes that are even more lengthy than the main text so it is necessary to cover some caveats expressed in these.

Verenna attempts to deflect criticism that his article is an argument for the Christ Myth hypothesis:

I must stress that I am not arguing against the historicity of the figure of Jesus in this paper since that could only be done after analysing other subjects, such as the emulative quality of the Gospel narratives, the Pseudepigrapha, and literacy in antiquity for example. (p. 132)

Of course his apparent need to make this defensive remark so early in his essay indicates he is, indeed, aware that by undermining the argument for Paul’s Jesus being historical he is simultaneously undermining a much needed pillar for the historicity of Jesus anyway. Appealing to the Gospel narratives, Pseudepigrapha and ancient literacy offers little defence against counterclaims. Later Verenna does in fact suggest the Gospel narratives are also literary aemulations or otherwise non-historical.

Verenna attempts to support his argument against interpreting Paul through the Gospels by pointing out that the evidence points to the Gospel authors following Paul. But in support he only cites works that discuss Luke and Acts, except for one reference to an essay by Brodie that includes a passing reference to the possibility that the Sermon on the Mount was developed from passages in Romans. But would not such an argument — that the Gospels drew upon Paul — actually lean against any attempt to argue that Paul did not understand Jesus to have been an earthly and historical figure? If the evangelists were using Paul as a source for their narratives about an earthly Jesus . . . .

All these are preliminary to the main argument. Verenna’s first sets himself the task of explaining Paul’s concept of the crucifixion of Christ in the context of the above.


Reading Paul’s letters

Verenna asks readers to keep certain questions in mind when reading his essay on Paul’s epistles:

  1. What is this literature if it is not history?
  2. Why is this story being told?
  3. What is the reader required to believe?
  4. Why should it be believed?

Verenna says he will demonstrate that Paul used “[imitation] and [emulation]” to express his ideas and educate his readers, and that it is through these literary techniques that we will understand “what he believed about his Jesus”.


Paul’s conversion

Verenna warms up his readers with an illustration of literary imitation in Paul’s account of his own conversion. Paul, Verenna suggests, is echoing the call or conversion experiences of Abraham and Moses when he writes to the Galatians that he was called directly by Jesus Christ (through revelation) and not by any human intermediary. I agree that Paul was placing his conversion on a comparable level to that of any other prophet directly called by God. Verenna could have made a stronger case, however, by adding that Paul’s departure to Arabia in connection with his call is a reiteration of the conversion experiences of Moses and Elijah — as has been registered by others and by N. T. Wright in an article (link is to PDF) in a 1996 volume of the Journal of Biblical Literature.

For Verenna, Paul’s allusions to the call of the prophets or fathers of old

give us an understanding of Paul’s theology, his source material and his Jesus. . . . Paul’s constant appeal to direct revelation, his desire to infuse Scripture into nearly every theological point he makes, should direct the reader to pause and reflect upon the relevance that this might have on any investigation where someone attempts to show that Paul has something important to say about a historical Jesus. (pp. 139-140)


The crucifixion

Verenna dislocates from history all of Paul’s references to the crucifixion of Jesus with the following points:

  • Paul never suggests the crucifixion happened on earth
  • His many references to the crucifixion are made “only in passing” in “brief passages”
  • These “brief passages are formalistic in language”
  • They are also “often in an awkward context that cannot make sense historically.”

One argument conspicuously lacking in this section is any explanation or support for Paul’s references to the crucifixion being informed by literary practices of “imitation” or “emulation” as we were prepared to accept from the preliminary remarks. The reader is plunged into another type of argument altogether.

Verenna points to the ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna’s descent to the underworld where she is crucified and from where she reascends to appear before the other gods. He is quick to explain he is “no fan parallelism without sufficient data” and is “merely” pointing to long-standing “cultural ties” that allowed Jews of Paul’s day to be informed of this myth. Further,

It is well known that this story [of Inanna’s descent to the underworld] had already permeated Jewish society long before Christianity; Ezek. 8:14 states that women were mourning for Tammuz at the north gate. Tammuz was the one god who refused to bow down at first in front of Iananna [and so was banished] to the nether world.” (p. 143)

Verenna makes it clear that the relevance of this myth to Paul is that it demonstrate that

a story about a crucified God (sic) who rose from the dead and ascended does predate the Passion narrative and Paul’s crucified saviour

and that this story “permeated Jewish society” (by implication and on the strength of Ezek. 8:14) in Paul’s day.

This is not a literary argument, least of all one addressing literary imitation in Paul, but just a repeat of the the argument for ideas being shared among cultures in contact. Verenna, however, brings in literary arguments of literary analysts who have in other contexts demonstrated that differences between a literary model and its imitation are not an argument against borrowing or imitation. I think Robert Price’s explanation is more to the point here — that those who discount cultural borrowing because of differences between the model and the copy are failing to understand the nature of the “ideal type” that is being copied and the way cultural borrowing itself works.

Verenna continues to justify his argument for cultural borrowing (not literary emulation) with reference to the diversity of views about the Messiah or Christ among Jews of Paul’s day. He includes Richard Carrier’s references in Not the Impossible Faith to the evidence that there was at least one Jewish sect that appeared to anticipate a messiah who would be killed (11Q13).

But Verenna may be trying too hard to make his case when he points out as supporting evidence that the Gospels (especially the Gospel of Mark) clearly use Jewish Scriptures — Psalm 22 and Isaiah 50-53 — to construct their Passion narratives. In his preliminary remarks Verenna was strongly insisting on the invalidity of interpreting Paul through the Gospels. But he does just that himself when he attempts to justify his claim that Paul was drawing on Scriptures by pointing to Gospel authors doing the same.

Verenna does follow up by making general claims about the theme of a suffering righteous man in Jewish writings but fails to demonstrate links between these and Paul’s references to the crucifixion. This would potentially have supported his case for our need to understand Paul’s Jesus through certain literary practices. The closest he comes to this is when he quotes 1 Cor. 5:7 speaking of Christ being the sacrificed Passover. (He does point to links between such passages and the Gospels, but Verenna has already ruled out of bounds use of the Gospels for our interpretation of Paul.)


Paul’s Jesus suffered a spiritual death

Verenna writes:

Paul’s Jesus suffered a spiritual death and resurrection and . . . Paul is clear about this in his letters. (p. 145)

Unfortunately Verenna once again fails to justify this interpretation by means of Paul’s supposed practice of literary imitation or emulation. Once again he diverts to a quite different sort of argument from what he was introducing us to in his preliminaries.

One of the ways that Paul discusses Jesus’ death, according to Verenna, is “as a representation of spiritual renewal or rebirth, not as an account of the past.” In support Verenna quotes Galatians 2:20 and Romans 6:6 and concludes:

Paul does not just liken everyone’s spiritual death to Jesus’ own crucifixion; he goes so far as to place himself at the crucifixion, as an active participant. (p. 146)

So Paul was crucified with Christ in a spiritual sense, but that leads to the question, Verenna explains, of whether Paul always meant the crucifixion of Jesus itself was a spiritual event. He argues that Paul did mean just this:

  • First, Verenna argues that the figure of Jesus himself for Paul was “part of a mystery”. This is the conclusion he draws from 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 and Romans 16:25-26. Similar mystery language in relation to the hidden Elect One and Son of Man is found in 1 Enoch.
  • Second, he asserts that the “rulers of the age” or “archons” whom Paul says crucified Christ (1 Cor. 2:8) are not earthly rulers but heavenly powers, rulers of darkness.
  • Third, these archons are to be identified with the “elemental spirits” in Galatians 4:3, 8-9, Colossians 2:8, Romans 8:38 and 1 Corinthians 15:24. And it is these powers who are the enemies of God in Paul’s system and who will be overcome by God — and that this happens for the believer at the moment of attaining the wisdom of the revelation of Jesus Christ. (Verenna calls upon the Hypostasis of the Archons and Origen for support for this interpretation of Paul.) These same powers are the powers who crucified Jesus according to 1 Cor. 2:8.
  • Fourth, Paul believed Jesus died the same way he felt that he had died. Here we are directed to Romans 7:8-11. But clearly Paul was still alive so his death was not physical. Paul is wanting readers to interpret him allegorically here. For Verenna, “the spiritual death Paul talks of here seems to be much worse than an actual death.”

[Paul] never once separates his own spiritual death and the death of Jesus; everyone who participates in Jesus’ death dies a spiritual death, and for Paul this includes his figure of Jesus. (p. 150)

I don’t follow this argument. Paul could die “spiritually” because he had a sinful body. It was his sinful nature that he mortified. I fail to see how a spiritual Jesus could die the same way. How do archons cause Jesus to be crucified in the same figurative way Paul died? (Verenna says on page 149 that death, for Paul, did not represent “psychical death” in his epistles, but I wonder if this is a typo for “physical death”.)

Another support Verenna calls upon for his argument that Jesus died a spiritual death is Galatians 3:1

O foolish Galatians, who did bewitch you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was forewritten [προεγράφη] to be crucified.

Verenna informs us that “many scholars have interpreted this verse” (specifically the word προεγράφη) “to mean that Paul is speaking of witnesses of Jesus’ physical death”. But he rightly points out that this is not likely since Paul is here explaining the importance of faith — not eyewitness knowledge.

I have as much problem with the literal translation of προεγράφη as “forewritten”, however. Others have translated the word in this context as “publicly portrayed” or “openly set forth”, and some commentators have suggested some visual manifestation by means of a written or pictorial tablet. I am sure some must have considered the possibility of visionary experiences or some other mystery rite.


Paul’s Jesus was born of a spiritual woman

Again Verenna fails to draw upon literary practices of imitation to argue his case that Paul’s supposed claim that Jesus was “born of a woman” should be interpreted spiritually, even though he chides (p. 150) Bart Ehrman for failing to interpret Galatians 4:4 through “intertextuality and emulative interpretations” in his Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

Verenna rightly sets the context of this verse by quoting Galatians 4:1-7. He rightly says the passage is not about Jesus per se. But I suspect a few eyebrows would be raised when he does explain his view of what Paul’s argument in Galatians actually is about and his identification of the law with the spirit of salvation:

[T]his chapter is entirely about about the law and how to be saved under the law. . . . Jesus was made . . . under the law. What is the law? . . . The law is the spiritual custodian of the flesh, a teacher which Paul feels leads one to life. It is through this custodian, the spirit, per Paul, that we are also saved. (pp. 151-152, my bolding.)

The only passage that Verenna rightly argues is allegorical is the passage that Paul himself said was an allegory — Galatians 4:21-31. When Paul himself says that he is writing of Hagar and Sarah as allegorical of the earthly Mount Sinai and the heavenly Jerusalem, as mothers of those born of the flesh and those born of the spirit, we can hardly disagree. But what Verenna fails to do is to demonstrate that the reference to “woman” in Galatians 4:4 should also be read allegorically — as the heavenly Jerusalem.

Jesus is made under the law — the spiritual custodian (Gal. 3:23) — by a ‘woman’ or specifically, ‘the Jerusalem above’ . . . , which also happens allegorically to be the mother of everyone. It is not that Jesus was born of a woman; such formalistic language is rhetorical and allegorical, it is not meant to be taken literally. . . . No, the verse is emulative of Scripture. All of humanity is born of one of these two women. However, not everyone will be an heir to God’s throne; only those born of one of the women will become an heir with his Jesus Christ. . . . (p. 151)

I find this explanation quite problematic and confused. Paul himself says, contrary to what Verenna asserts here, that the woman representing the law (Mount Sinai) is Hagar. Paul also says quite distinctly, again contrary to Verenna, that this woman is not the allegorical “mother of everyone.” But then Verenna himself says that only those born of one of the women will become heirs with Jesus — so not everyone is born of this woman.

Verenna attempts to link this clearly allegorical passage to Galatians 4:4 in order to say that Jesus was only born or made of an allegorical woman — presumably the new Jerusalem. But this makes little sense because Galatians 4:4 says that through birth to this woman Jesus was born or more correctly “made” “under the law”. According to Paul’s own explanation a few verses later, that would mean Jesus was born of the allegorical Hagar, the representative of Mount Sinai — and thus would be among those (the Jews who are bound by the law) who are opposed to the children of promise!

The reason Verenna attempts to interpret the law in Galatians as a “spiritual” guardian and the way to life and the spirit of salvation, is because Romans 7:14 says the law is spiritual. This leads him into a bundle of inconsistencies and contradictions in his interpretation of Galatians.

So Galatians 4:4 can scarcely be considered evidence of Paul’s practice of imitation or emulation of Old Testament passages.

Bart Ehrman’s explanation in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture remains the most satisfactory one. (The link is to a post in which I fully quote Ehrman’s argument.)


Paul’s Jesus was the allegorical seed of David

Verenna next claims that when Paul says in Romans 1:3 that Jesus Christ was sent to fulfill the prophecies by being born of the seed of David that he meant this allegorically and not literally. The clue, he points out, is that the very next verse says that converts are called to belong to Jesus. Conclusion: “It is just more allegory” (p. 152).

If Paul meant it literally, Verenna argues, then we must imagine Mary being impregnated with a “celestial seed” of David. If Paul meant the passage literally, Verenna further argues, Paul would have added something like “from the womb of Mary” or “from the seed of Joseph, descendant of David.” Since Paul does not mention the names of Jesus’ parents, we can see he is using “allegorical language”. Thus —

David was not the father of Jesus. But that is a testament to the parable of Paul’s saviour. David is the representative of Israel for Paul’s theological point. (p. 153)

Once again, whatever this verse in question says, Verenna will point out that Jesus is not the subject of the chapter as a whole. Paul is showing metaphorically that the promises of God for salvation are fulfilled. So what, exactly, in Verenna’s argument is the significance of Jesus being of “the seed of David” here?

The tie in with the seed of David is that Jesus, to Paul, reveals himself to all, just as David counts righteous those who do not follow the law. (p. 153)

I’m not clear on the logic of that sentence so no doubt I am missing something. As for David counting righteous those who do not follow the law, this appears to be a rather idiosyncratic paraphrase of Romans 4:6-9.

Verenna concludes that Paul’s message is that all Christians must become allegorical “seed of David” as they are “seed of Abraham” — just as Jesus was the allegorical seed of David.

I doubt that an argument for an allegorical interpretation of words of Paul is the same as an argument that Paul’s Jesus needs to be interpreted through the literary practice of imitation and emulation.


Paul’s allegorical Last Supper

The sacred meal in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 is “about the salvation of mankind”, not Jesus per se, Verenna points out. Paul’s Jesus here is both real and allegorical, and Verenna explains that

he is the real entity which Paul experiences through revelation and rebirth, but also an allegorical being significant for the understanding of Scripture, which Paul is interpreting. (p 155)

Verenna stresses that the scene Paul describes is “allegorical”. The meal in this case is an allegory of the divided church itself. In an earlier chapter Paul said Jesus was “the cup of God” — he is thinking of 1 Cor. 10:4 where Paul says Jesus was the Rock from which the Israelites in the wilderness drank.

Verenna also sees here in the communal meal a reference to Exodus 24:10-11 where the elders of Israel ate and drank in the presence of God. This point is strengthened by noting that immediately afterwards Moses establishes the new covenant with Israel in blood. Verenna further thinks Paul was conscious of Zechariah 9:11 with its reference to “the blood of my covenant”. Then we return to 1 Cor. 10:3-4 and its allegorization of Exodus 17 and the Israelites complaining in the wilderness until God gave them water from the rock.


James the spiritual brother of the Lord

Verenna notes that “the strongest case for the idea that a historical Jesus was known to Paul is a reference to his brothers, notably James. (p. 157)

Verenna opens his response with the explanation that the Greek word adelphos “is both a figurative word for ‘brother’ or ‘kin’, as well as a (sic) having a biological sense.”

He then proceeds to list all the instances in the New Testament where “brother” is used to refer to the spiritual brethren in the church. Further, he notes that Luke-Acts nowhere indicates James was the brother of Jesus, which is said to be odd because Luke apparently had the strongest motivation to interpret Paul’s letters to the advantage of the Church.

He rejects Tabor’s argument that Luke avoided references to James’ relationship to Jesus in order to downplay the role of Jesus’ family in the early church on the grounds that it is “unconvincing.” This is the same fallacious argument so often used among Biblical scholars who prefer to say an argument they don’t like is “unconvincing” or “unpersuasive” rather than actually present a cogent argument.

Unfortunately, Verenna’s simplistic response fails completely to address the obvious counter-point from those who do argue that Galatians 1:19 is speaking unambiguously of a biological brother of “the Lord”. He fails to address the ambiguity of the expression “the Lord”, and fails to offer an explanation why James would have been singled out as a spiritual brother if Paul is also speaking of meeting Peter/Cephas and John at the same time.


Why would Paul cite the name of Jesus’ brother, but not his mother or father? Why a brother? Was Jesus’ father, Joseph, dead? Where was Mary (any of them)? This silence speaks volumes, and no sufficient solution exists to deal with these questions in a manner that might lend some credibility that Paul knew a biological brother of Jesus. (p. 158)



So Paul’s Jesus, Verenna concludes, was a being interpreted from the writings of Isaiah, Moses, Daniel and David. He was was being who “died continuously with those who sought him, and was resurrected continuously with them as well.”

For Paul, Jesus could not have been a physical, earthly being or Paul’s message of the flesh containing nothing good would not make sense. (Unfortunately Verenna did not expound upon this point in the body of his essay.)

How could the flesh be corrupt, and nothing good can come of flesh, if his saviour were of the flesh? Of course, this cannot be, Jesus was in the likeness of flesh, but not human — not of this world. (p. 159)

Verenna observes that Paul always sees Jesus in terms of Scriptural interpretations, but concludes that such scriptural interpretations are (apparently by definition) “emulative structures”. Again I am at a loss here since Verenna has never demonstrated that he has fully understood what, exactly, the ancient literary practice of emulation was. Scriptural references alone do not constitute literary emulation. He attempts to shoehorn intertextuality into the equation once more by speaking of

intertextual echoes of subjects that had been a part of the culture of the ancient Near East, dating back to ancient Mesopotamia, to the Sumerians, the Akkadians, to those who lived and worshipped in Ugarit. There are intertextual threads of Homer, of the rising and dying deity so common in the East. Yet within these echoes . . . there exists not a trace of an entity which the reader can call the historical figure of Jesus. (p. 159)

But always playing it safe, he remarks on the same page:

This does not mean that there was not a historical figure of Jesus, though that remains to be seen.

My own view is that Thomas Verenna has attempted to tackle too much with ill-defined concepts. Rather than focus on those passages that are most commonly used to argue that Paul did know of an historical Jesus, he would have done much better to have clarified from the outset what he meant by the literary practices he wanted to discuss, and then select the passages where these are best illustrated.

He has assumed — contrary to much evidence from the “Church Fathers” themselves (another topic) — that all passages used to argue for a historical Jesus in Paul are genuine to Paul and that they can all be hit with the same (ill-defined) hammer.

The problem is that several of those “historical Jesus” passages in Paul are indeed open to legitimate questions of interpolation (as Ehrman himself recognizes in a couple of cases).

Further, several of the passages Verenna brackets as “emulation” are better seen as nothing other than common rabbinical-style exegesis of the Scriptures. Other arguments appear to me to be ripping passages quite out of their original contexts (e.g. made of a woman) or fail to produce consistent logical argument (e.g. Jesus’ death was spiritual or allegorical in the same sense as Paul’s conversion “death”).

One can find elsewhere much more cogent, logically consistent and historically-culturally-theologically informed arguments that Paul’s Jesus was not an historical being. I would be surprised if Mogens Müller has changed his mind after reading this chapter.

This concludes the second part of the book. The third part looks at the figure of Jesus in the Gospels.

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6 thoughts on “Was Paul’s Jesus an Historical Figure? — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ ch. 8”

  1. I simply wish to note that the correct sociology term borrowed from the French is milieu. It was used by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his concept of milieu social.
    The milieu includes all the cultural influences a given society generates and that are internalized by the member in such society. The concept is vital in sociology and anthropology.
    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_environment
    The Wikipedia article includes this explanation:

    “Emile Durkheim took a wider view of the social environment (milieu social), arguing that it contained internalised norms and representations of social forces/social facts ‘Our whole social environment seems to us filled with forces which really exist only in our own minds’ “

    milieux happens to be the plural of the word. But one individual, living in one stable social environment is usually subjected to the influence of his milieu.

    Once such words are used and abused by postmodernistic writers, they can be made to mean anything, and then it matters not how they are spelled. Anything goes, and everything becomes logorrhea, and has nothing to do with analysis or science.

    It is revealing that in the footnote quoted at the beginning of this post figure many such recognizable French postmodernist writers.

    If Verenna is reading too much of this literature, this could explain why not only is his thinking muddled, but his written English simply atrocious.

    Sense, clarity, and elegance are still requisites of attractive writing, even in the field of theology or biblical studies.
    Simply read one page by George Albert Wells, and compare it with Verenna’s style.

    1. In defence of Verenna I suspect he has read in full very few of the authors he cites in that footnote. His arguments are not postmodernist. (But there’s nothing wrong with reading “too much” of anything if one has a critical mind.) He simply uses words in ways that suggest he does not fully understand the concepts underlying their use in specific studies, that’s all. (I am sure most of us know milieux is plural — that’s why I put it in quotes throughout.) His muddled thinking indicates very patchy reading of niche topics and a failure to study all aspects of what he writes about. I have learned a lot from Old Testament scholars but sometimes when some of them do enter a discussion in the field of the New Testament some of them do sometimes make the most embarrassing gaffes. Maybe Tom has spent insufficient time with New Testament scholarship on a wider basis — especially in readings on Paul’s thought and commentaries on Galatians.

      Tom is also handicapped, I think, by a willful rejection of the best sources of mythicism available. He has poured atrocious slander upon some of the best works and authors whom (in at least one case) he admits to never having read. I think he has said, in effect, that Doherty doesn’t count because he does not work with “peer-review” processes. How his own chapter here passed any respectable peer-review process I don’t know. It is a shame. If he read more widely and made sure he grasped the concepts he was addressing then he might have been able to mount a respectable argument.

  2. I am surprised Thomas Verenna did not attempt to post a defence of his chapter here or even link to a rebuttal and defence elsewhere. If anyone knows of such a rebuttal and defence I will gladly link to it here.

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