Was Paul persecuted for preaching a crucified messiah?
In 1 Corinthians 1:23 we read that the message of “Christ crucified” was a “stumblingblock” or “offence” to the Jews. There is no explanation to inform us exactly why Jews were so offended by Paul preaching that a messiah had been crucified but that hasn’t prevented many readers from knowing the reason without any shadow of doubt.
The assumption has generally been that the Jewish idea of a messiah was a superhero who would conquer the evil powers of the world and set up the Jewish people as the ruling kingdom over everyone else. There is a further understanding that the Jews hated Paul enough to persecute him because his teaching about the messiah was so outrageous and offensive.
Let’s try the prediction test on the latter of these hypotheses.
If Paul’s crucified messiah really was a scandalous polar opposite (so opposite as to be virtually inconceivable or blasphemous to many Jews) to a standard messianic idea with which Jews as a whole identified, then we would expect to find Paul addressing that contrary messianic figure somewhere and making it clear why it was deficient and why his crucified messiah was indeed superior.
Unfortunately we find no evidence of any such polemic. Paul’s writings nowhere hint of that sort of clash of views.
And this is not surprising when we attempt to find out what the “Jewish” idea of a messiah actually was in the time of Paul. There was none. Or more correctly, there were several ideas alongside an apparent lack of interest in the idea altogether.
This post is not a synthesis of wide readings on scholarship of the nature and place of messianic concepts in Second Temple Judaisms; it is restricted for most part to two quite old publications by Morton Smith:
- “What is Implied by the Variety of Messianic Figures?” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Mar., 1959), pp. 66-72
- “The Reason for the Persecution of Paul and the Obscurity of Acts” (1967) in Ubach, E.E., Werblowsky, R.J. Zwi, Wirszubski, C. (eds.), Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershom G. Scholem on his Seventieth Birthday, pp. 261-268
After addressing instances where scholars have read documents as if they were inkblots in a Rorschach test to find references to a messiah, Morton Smith in the 1959 article wrote:
Beside such instances where no messiah whatever is to be found in the text, there are a number of passages where the word “messiah” does appear, but refers to some anointed functionary who may have nothing whatever to do with the End, and in any case owes his title to a position quite other than that normally, in modern usage, called messianic.
Thus, for instance, when the War refers to “thy messiahs” (in xi.7) the term probably means the prophets of the OT, as it sometimes does in the Zadokite Documents, and — if we follow Kuhn in thinking that these documents refer to two messiahs, from Aaron and Israel — it is altogether probable that the messiah from Aaron is the anointed High Priest.
This variety of usage derives, of course, from the OT, where prophets and priests, as well as kings, are anointed, and the term “my messiahs,” equated with “my prophets,” is even used to refer to all Israelites.
The same variety of usage is found in the pseudepigrapha — in particular Kuhn has argued persuasively that the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs show the same expectation of two messiahs as do the Qumran texts mentioned above. (my own formatting and bolding as always)
Now much scholarship has been published on the Qumran texts and messianic references since 1959 and I have filed a long list of related readings to catch up on. Nonetheless I would be very, very surprised indeed to learn that the overall picture of the state of messianic viewpoints among early first-century Jews and Jewish groups that Morton Smith outlined in 1959 has changed very much.
And if the later rabbinic literature has any significance (surely it ties in some ways to what existed before in Second Temple times) we may be interested in what Smith says about that:
Even greater variety appears in rabbinic literature, where a messiah may be an “anointed” (high) priest, or another priest anointed for a special function, or any past or future king of Judah or Israel who has been or is to be anointed, to say nothing of the other meanings inherited from the OT. And here, by the way, as in the Dead Sea documents, the anointed high priest takes precedence; he is actually defined as “that messiah who is chief among messiahs.”
Okay, so the term “anointed” (=messiah) was applied to a diversity of persons and offices. Not many of them have any association with “the last days”. Yet we all know what we really mean by “the messiah”, right? We mean the figure who is to make a dramatic appearance at the end-time.
But this brings us to the fact that just as there are messiahs without Ends, so there are Ends without messiahs. (p. 68)
The Dead Sea scrolls include documents addressing the climactic events of the end time — the War and Thanksgiving scrolls and the Habakkuk commentary — but they disappoint our expectations of finding mentions of a Messiah.
When we recall the Old Testament literature itself we should not really be surprised at this silence. Many passages in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel and the rest of the OT likewise portray the last days without any evident role for a Messiah. Examples: Isa 2 2-5, 25-27, 29 17-24, 30 18-26; Ezek 38-39; Joel 4; etc.
Then we have the pseudepigrapha: the Book of Jubilees, Enoch 1-36 and 91-104, the Assumption of Moses, the Slavic Enoch, the Sibylline Oracles IV. These likewise avoid reference to an end-time messiah where we might expect him to appear.
And of the early rabbinic literature?
As for rabbinic literature, the comparative rarity of messianic references in the older material is notorious, and the independence of the terms, “the days of the messiah” and “the coming world” makes it possible that by some, at least, the one or the other may have been used exclusively. Certainly it is not safe to assume that the harmonization of the two concepts, which now prevails in rabbinic material, was customary and universal from the beginning.
Of course the messiah is certainly to be found elsewhere among these literary collections. The point is that much of the evidence does make him look like an optional extra favoured by some sects but not others. However, even in a number of those cases where the messiah (or “messiahs”, plural) are referenced the meaning conveyed is anything but an imminent expectation of his arrival. Thus the Damascus Document will speak of certain rules being valid “until the messiahs come” — meaning, in effect, “forever”. References of this kind
can hardly be taken as testimony for vivid eschatological hope.
The smorgasbord of messianic concepts offered more choices still:
Now all this variety in the matter of messianic expectations is merely one detail — though a particularly striking one — of the even greater variety of eschatological expectations current in the two centuries before and after the time of Jesus. To say nothing of mere differences in personnel and program, these expectations run the whole gamut of concepts, from ordinary kingdoms in this world, through forms of this world variously made over and improved, through worlds entirely new and different, to spiritual bliss without any world at all.
But the point to be noted is that these contradictory theories evidently flourished side by side in the early rabbinic and Christian and Qumran communities which copied the texts and repeated the sayings. What is more, quite contradictory theories are often preserved side by side in the same document — the Book of Enoch is a glaring example and was evidently a very popular one, since it was widely used by early Christianity and current in the Qumran community, too.
If you know your German you might like to follow up a citation of Smith’s here:
For a description of the range of variation, and an attempt (admittedly unsuccessful, pp. 69 f.) to unscramble the several varieties, see P. Volz, Die Eschatologie der jüdischen Gemeinde (Tübingen, 1934), pp. 63-77.
What faces us, therefore, is an unreconciled diversity, within single groups, of opinions which are nevertheless considered important, at least by many members of the groups concerned. . . . If the variety of eschatological prediction is any evidence, eschatology was, for the members of these groups, a comparatively arbitrary and individual matter — part, and an important part, of their general Weltanschauung, but a part about which the opinions of different members might, and did, differ quite widely, and about which some members might, and did, collect, in single MSS, many different opinions. Such an arbitrary and individual matter can hardly have been the basis of group organization and practice. (pp. 71-72)
More recently Matthew Novenson has shown how Paul’s interpretations of the Jewish scriptures to explain or validate his view of the Christian messiah was part and parcel of the Jewish way of debating such things. See Christ among the Messiahs — Part 5. When Paul argued in what seems to us such an odd way from the scriptures that Jesus, the crucified one who had been born of a woman, was indeed the messiah,
This is not to say that Paul’s . . . . contemporaries would have agreed with it. It is the case, though, that Paul’s contemporaries would have recognized what he was doing. (Novenson, Christ Among the Messiahs, p. 140)
It is, I think, quite reasonable to imagine that some of Paul’s contemporaries agreed with his arguments while most disagreed. But it is not easy to imagine Jews of the day seeking to kill Paul over what many must have regarded as just one more variant perspectives. After all, Paul was by no means saying the messiah did not do messianic things. The argument was entirely over the means by which the messiah accomplished his great victory and salvation.
In Morton Smith’s view what united Jews was their recognition of a common source of authority for the law. That did not mean that all Jews agreed on every jot and tittle. They obviously didn’t. But the common acknowledgement of the source enabled them to debate the details as a community. This is where Smith believed Paul’s personal security ran into difficulties.
[T]he persecutions cannot be explained solely by reference to the peculiar Messianic beliefs of the Christians, since peculiarities of Messianic belief seem to have been matters of comparative indifference in the first century, provided they did not lead to peculiarities of practice. What we must find, therefore, is some peculiarity of primitive Christian practice sufficient to explain the persecution. This peculiarity, I argued, was Jesus’ teaching of freedom from the Law and the libertine consequences which he and his followers drew from it. (The Reason of the Persecution, p. 262)
Smith explains Paul’s teaching on the law this way.
- For Paul the law (that is, the Mosaic Law) is “spiritual” and “holy, just and good” (Rom. 7)
- It is still valid so that to accept one part of it means one must accept the whole lot (Gal. 5)
- No one can keep the law perfectly.
- So the effect of the giving of the law was to turn people into ignorant transgressors to knowing and therefore culpable sinners.
- God therefore gave the law to turn men to Jesus for salvation.
- People are freed from the law by the magical ceremony of baptism.
- Baptism enabled converts to identify vicariously with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
- The law has no claims on one who has died.
- So death (baptism) sets one free from the law.
- Liberated Christians could still keep the law in order to avoid offending others or to win converts, but this was of course “mere pretense”.
Here we may well have grounds for real offence. One can imagine charges of hypocrisy and libertinism surfacing.
So what does Smith make of our famous passage in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that says the Jews were scandalized by the teaching of the crucified messiah?
It is true that he once refers to his preaching of “a crucified Messiah” as “a scandal to the Jews” (I Cor. 1:23) without stopping to explain why it should be so. And it is also true that this verse has been made the hair on which to hang mountains of nonsense about Jewish resistance to the substitution of a spiritual Saviour for a military Messiah. But the actual Jewish indifference to vagaries of Messianic speculation has been noticed above, and it requires that another explanation be found for I Corinthians 1: 23.
That explanation is indicated by Galatians 5: 11:
And as for me, brethren, if I still preach circumcision [as I did when a Pharisee], why am I now persecuted?
Evidently Paul’s nomistic Christian opponents had been claiming that he secretly admitted circumcision was necessary for salvation, but concealed this doctrine from his pagan converts in the elementary stages of their instruction, so as to win more. Paul’s reply to this takes for granted that the only reason anybody could allege for his persecution would be his rejection of the Law (not his teaching that the Messiah had been crucified). Of course he did teach that Jesus was the Messiah, and of course the fact that the Messiah had been crucified was essential to his theology, but it was essential merely as a means to an end: It was merely the way to death, and death to resurrection, and resurrection to the new life free of the Law, and this life and this freedom were what mattered. They were the experiential elements, the sources of the power of Paul’s theology; the preceding elements were merely his attempt to explain and justify the free life. (p. 263, my formatting and bolding, as always)
For Smith Galatians 6:12 is even clearer:
All those who want to make a good appearance in the flesh, they compel you to be circumcised, only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of the Messiah.
These opponents were Christians; they must have been preaching that Jesus was the Messiah; there is no indication that they denied his crucifixion (and had they done so, Paul certainly would have attacked them for it). So they, like Paul, were preaching a crucified Messiah. Therefore the verse must indicate that they could do so with impunity, provided they took care to pretend to observe the Law; i.e. provided they did not draw, from Jesus’ death, Paul’s conclusions.
The cause of the persecution, therefore, was not the preaching of the crucifixion, but the open teaching and practice of freedom from the Law. Notice Paul’s charge that even those who are circumcised do not, themselves, keep the Law (Gal. 6:13). Evidently there were elements of libertinism in even the most conservative of early Christian parties. . . . . (p. 264)
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