Making sense of God revealing his son “IN” Paul

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by Neil Godfrey

And now for something technical.

I’m copying here a comment I left on another discussion group a few days ago. How is one to make sense of Paul’s statement in Galatians 1:15-16 where he says God revealed his son “in me”:

Galatians 1:15-16 seems really puzzling and important:

But when it pleased God…to reveal his son in me (apocalypsai ton huion autou en emoi), that I might preach him among the gentiles…

Several responses to the question seemed to me to be too quick to sweep aside the detail and to rationalize it with our more conventional understanding of the resurrection appearances and perhaps even something akin to the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts. But several scholars are not so casually dismissive of the “problem”. I copy here how three scholarly sources explain the meaning of “in me”. So if this is a question that interests you, ….. (please excuse some scrambled fonts in the copying of the Greek this time)

The UBS Translators’ Handbook comments:

To reveal his Son to me is literally “to reveal his Son in (or by) me.” Does this mean “to reveal his Son to others, by means of me” or “to reveal his Son to me”? While the first of these is possible (a similar construction occurs in 1.24), yet on the basis of the total context and Paul’s line of argument, the second alternative is more acceptable. The burden of this passage is how Paul received the gospel, not how he proclaimed it. TEV makes this latter meaning clear (so also NAB and RSV). Most other translations keep the construction “in me,” and NEB combines the two ideas (“reveal his Son to me and through me”).

It would be possible to render to reveal his Son to me as simply “to show me his Son” or “to cause me to see his Son,” but this would scarcely do justice to the fuller implications of the revelation. Some translators prefer an expression meaning “to cause me to know who his Son really is,” “to show me who his Son really is,” or even “to let me see what I could not see before—who his Son really is.”

Alan Segal in Paul the Convert understands the words to indicate a spiritual union with God’s or Christ’s heavenly image.

Alternatively, Paul can say, as he does in Gal. 1:16 that “God was pleased to reveal His Son in me [en emoi].” This is not a simple dative but refers to his having received in him the Spirit, in his case through his conversion. Being in Christ in fact appears to mean being united with Christ’s heavenly image. The same, however, is available to all Christians through baptism. This is not strange since apocalyptic and mystical Judaism also promoted tevilah, ritual immersion or baptism, as the central purification ritual preparing for the ascent into God’s presence. The Jewish ritual of purification for coming into the divine presence and proselyte baptism has been transformed by Paul’s community into a single rite of passage, though it does not thereby lose its relationship to its source. Dying and being resurrected along with Christ in baptism is the beginning of the process by which the believer gains the same image of God, his eikön, which was made known to humanity when Jesus became the son of man—the human figure in heaven who brings judgment in the apocalypse described by Daniel. (p. 64)

Hans Dieter Betz in his commentary on Galatians discusses the questions arising over that interesting word “in”:

More descriptively than in 1:1, 12 Paul claims that his vocation141 took the form of a revelation of Christ: God called him by “revealing his son” (άποκαλΰφαι τον υιόν αύτοΰ) in him.142 The language which Paul uses at this point raises difficult questions and has caused much speculation.

We do not know why Paul here introduces the christological title “Son of God” (ο υίός τοΰ öeoö). Does this indicate that Paul cites a traditional phrase? 143 Is the title “Son of God” firmly attached to accounts of visions of Christ? At any rate, the title here refers to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ who is also the present Christ, and whose presence is identical with the content of the Pauline gospel.144

Furthermore, which form of revelation Paul has in mind is unclear. The term αποκαλύπτω (“reveal”) can mean many things.145 Most commentators interpret the concept in analogy to 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8, where Paul also talks about his revelation. But in 1 Corinthians the terminology is different. In 1 Cor 9: 1 (“Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”) and 15:8 (“he [sc. Christ] appeared also to me”), the terms are forms of 6pdv (“see”), once active (9:1) and once passive (15:8). Both suggest external visions rather than internal experiences.146

This raises the other question of how to interpret “in me” (eV e’/xoi). Does this refer to a “mystical” experience147 or is the reference simply equal to a dative (= “to me”)?148 The “mystical” interpretation once had many supporters, but has nowadays fallen into disrepute. Also, the interpretation as a dative makes it easier to reconcile Gal 1:16 with 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8 and the accounts in Acts (9:1-19; 22:3-16; 26:9-18).149

But we must avoid deciding the matter by way of outside influences or apologetic interests. We should not suppose that Paul feels he contradicts himself in Gal 1:16 and 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8. Apparently for him the two forms of visions (external and internal) are not as distinct as they may be for some commentators. Paul can use a variety of concepts and languages when he describes his vocation, which in any case he does only rarely.

There are indications, however, that we should take his words seriously. The “in me” corresponds to Gal 2 : 20 (“Christ. . . lives in me”)150 and 4:6 (“God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts”).151

Paul does not explain how the three passages are related to each other, but we may assume that they complement each other. This would mean that Paul’s experience was ecstatic in nature, and that in the course of this ecstasy he had a vision (whether external or internal or both— “I do not know, God knows” [cf. 2 Cor 12:2,3]). This interpretation is supported by the debate about Paul’s vision in the ps.-Clem. Horn. 17. 13-19.152

Footnote 146:

146 The distinctions between the two forms of vision have been pointed out especially by Alfred Wikenhauser, Die Christusmystik des Apostels Paulus (Freiburg: Herder, 21956) 88-90; idem, Pauline Mysticism : Christ in the Mystical Teaching of St. Paul (New York: Herder, 1960) 134-36; Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (New York: Macmillan, 1956) passim; Lietzmann, pp. 7-8; Schlier, p. 55. See also Ernst Benz, Die Vision (Stuttgart: Klett, 1969).

And Engberg-Pedersen, Paul and the Stoics, should not be left out of the discussion since he sees analogous concepts with Stoicism:

In view of other passages in the letters (e.g. Gal 1:16; 2 Cor 4:6), it is even likely that he is referring to some kind of direct vision. But his interest in recounting this experience here is not just ‘personal’ or ‘psychological’ as if he were merely telling about his own experience to whoever might be interested in that. Rather, he is using his own case as a model for a kind of normative change and transfer that has universal application (as he claims): the change from a normative self-understanding tied to ordinary natural and social goods to be acquired by the individual for him- or herself—to one that, as it were, places the individual outside him- or herself. Such a change apparently requires that one is, as it were, ‘struck’ by something which one experiences as having an ‘overpowering’ character in relation to one’s previous self. But that is not at all special to Paul. The Stoics would have agreed.33 (p. 95)


1:16 (‘revealing his son in me’) may stand as a headline for what Paul aims to say. It is not very specific. Still, even though the sense of the preposition en (‘in’) in Paul’s Greek is notoriously somewhat fluid, it seems certain that he did not merely wish to say here that Christ was revealed to him. In some sense Christ was revealed in him.34 The same idea is taken up in 2:19-20 when he says: I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’. But this passage gives us far more to go on. First, the fact that Paul speaks not just in the first person singular but with a marked egö (‘I’) already shows that he is working with the kind of heightened awareness of the ‘self’ which goes with any kind of reflection on a person’s own identity. . . . .

In other words, the way in which he has come to ‘live for God’ is by obtaining a certain relationship with Christ.35 In his description of this he no longer uses the terminology of ‘my-living-/or’. Instead the claim is the even stronger one that ‘I’ am altogether dead and Christ lives—in ‘me’. We may certainly speak here of some form of ‘participation’. But what should that mean? And is the term sufficiently strong? ‘Mysticism’, then? But what is that? A far better translation—on the supposition that we are looking for that kind of thing—is to see Paul as talking of self-identification. The I will be dead in the sense that there is nothing whatever in the individual person whose self-reflection is here being described with which he wishes to identify normatively. Literally, of course, he is not dead. But as normatively seen by himself, he no longer is that individual person (Paul himself with all his individualizing traits). That person is normatively ‘dead’ and gone. He has no value for Paul. Instead, Christ lives ‘in me’. That is, Paul sees and identifies himself normatively as nothing but a ‘Christ person’.

(pp. 146, 147)

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “Making sense of God revealing his son “IN” Paul”

  1. With the greatest respect, we may be debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The assumption of course is that Paul was a real person. As a compromise, that his character, though based on a real person, has been dramatised to create a message that people would be impressed by. It’s a bit like arguing about the Greek in the John 1:1 passage, another Gnostic relic (which I suspect is plagiarised from other writings, like the Philippians 2 kenosis hymn of the transcendant Christ) . Without detracting from the theological value of the interpretation of these Bible passages, let’s not forget the overall message in both John 1 and Galatians 1 : that the authors i.e. the heads of the movement, (who are in my view the Roman aristocracy) wanted the readers to accept the material as authoritative by virtue of its resonance with their superstitious beliefs of the day. While the Roman elite may not have originally authored the epistles, it helps explain the final canon of the NT if we understand that Roman elite authorised the redaction of the epistles to meld with the Gospels the elite commissioned. I think Neil has focused on a vital aspect of the NT : Gnostic sources.

    1. My health has improved recently and so I am writing more now.

      Yes, there is much to ponder here.

      The Gnostic Stuff! Well, lots of scholars, both good and bad, bitch about Gnosticism being mainly a 2nd cent. phenomenon. Okay, granted. But Gnosticism is clearly present in Paul and many different levels and motifs, etc. Paul’s Gnosticism which “fathered” later, wildely diverse “children” (one of Paul’s words!!), legitimate or illegitimate children, it doesn’t matter.

      If asked, when did Christian Gnosticism begin…Well, if we date Paul’s letters early, and we don’t necessarily have to do that, but even if we did…Paul’s letters would be prima facie evidence for 1st cent. Christian gnosticism. And I would like someone to prove to me that Paul was simply using the lexica of gnosticism against his opponents. Well, then that would still prove Gnosticism was early… and moreover, prove it exegetically that these words are not words which Paul would use to describe himself??? Wake up scholars!!!! Lay people!!!

      Paul was a sophianic-gnostic… a man who moved and “wrote” in pneumatic words of gnosis and sophia… You cannot read the Corinthian letters and ignore this, in my view at least! He was a spiritized man.!!! My Ph.D diss. at Marquette Univ. concerned pneumatic discernment processes in early Christianity when no Christian Bible yet existed!!! We must be asking some serious and unheard-of questions before.

      So Gnosticism was much earlier than most scholars are still unwilling to admit… There is no such thing as “Christianity” a monolithic mono-worldview in the ancient contexts of these documents when they arose!

      I will make further contributions to this post given by Neil in a few days or so. There is much to consider in what he posted. Great work Neil for getting us all involved in something we are all hopefully here for — to learn, no matter our backgrounds. Keep up your irenic and integral spirit dear Neil!


      1. Birger A. Pearson (2007), in Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions And Literature, Fortress Press, 2007, says

        “The earliest evidence we have for ancient Gnosticism comes from the first century of our era. Since no religion or religious movement takes shape in a vacuum, I discuss something of the cultural and religious environment of the first-century Graeco-Roman world. I argue that ancient Platonism, on the one hand, and ancient Judaism, on the other, provided the most ancient Gnostic teachers and prophets with the ingredients they used in creating a religion of salvation based on gnosis.” (Kindle Locations 85-90)

        He describes ‘Sethian’ Gnosticsm as ‘Classic’ Gnothicism: “one of the two most important manifestations of ancient Gnosticism” (named after the third son of Adam in the Hebrew Bible). The other being Valentinian Gnosticism.

        He posits that

        “Gnosticism originated in a Jewish environment. The earliest attested mythological logical systems of “Sethian” or “Classic” Gnosticism are made up of innovative reinterpretations of biblical and Jewish traditions, especially Jewish traditions of biblical interpretation.” (Kindle Locations 104-105)

        “Hermetism is another religious current that emphasized self-knowledge knowledge as the basis for salvation. This religion arose in Alexandria, Egypt, probably in the first century CE. It features the Egyptian god Thoth in Greek guise as ‘Thrice-Greatest Hermes,’ who gives revelatory instruction to his ‘son’ and other pupils.” (Kindle Locations 117-120).

  2. Just a clarification here re my work at Marquette. I completed all my course work with distinction and began my diss. at Marquette Univ. but due to health issues and other reasons (eg. like being fired over trivial but highly controversial issues) I could not stay there and had to leave. I have never taught formerly in any college, seminary, university since 1992.. I have never given up the wild and dangerous world of theological beliefs and practices.

    And look around now. Independent Charismatic Churches of every ilk are powerful and being attacked by non-charismatics, and they call them “gnostics” and so must be expunged. I once heard in real space time history the famous Dr. Merrill F. Unger say from a pulpit that the charismatic tongue-speaking people are “the last vomit of Satan” being spread upon the earth! I kid you not! Yes, I was a closet gnostic while in college and seminary. It is not just difficult coming face to face with ancient gnostic texts…if you ever identified with one of the sects it was worse!! I experienced first hand what I think many “gnostics” went through relating to “flesh-based” and highly powerful Church leaders!! BTW if Paul was a real believer in Jesus’ historical-based flesh, how could he so disparge it in 2 Cor. 5:16 like he seems to do. And about James, the Lord’s brother….. well, how could Paul say such a thing about the flesh brother of Jesus in Galatians 1 and 2…calling him the source of false brothers!!!!???? Look at the text. It sounds unbelievable that if Paul honored the historical Jesus why would he take such potshots at James,etc. the pillars!!! When I read Paul about pillars and so on I often think he has the spirit of Jesus who said You see all these “pillars” …they are all coming down quite soon!!!!!! Ya! Ya! All stumbling stones……Jesus could not stand the existing authorities, political or otherwise…. The first Pope or Papa got a new name just like Saul was later called Paul….Peter was a stumbling stone and later given the direct name or functional title “satan”!!
    There is a lot of that in Paul and Jesus texts!

    Oh Well…
    I am hoping to get healthier in my old age, so to speak, and finish the diss. or write a different one . I am hoping to get help in the future from who knows where to finish that part of my life.. But I have been still very busy in the meantime.

    If you are interested in knowing what I am presently writing or hope to publish please free to contact me. Thank you all for being patient with my long comments and musings.

    1. If you are interested in knowing what I am presently writing or hope to publish please free to contact me. Thank you all for being patient with my long comments and musings.

      You are welcome to give a summary here.

  3. I wonder if it is similar theology to the apocryphal Colossians 1:27:

    26the mystery that was hidden for ages and generations but is now revealed to His saints, 27to whom God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

  4. My gnostic experience was that, just turning 19, in Paddington Sydney, in 1974, with fear and trembling, extremely scared of the unknown world that I would be entering, I became celibate and committed to going to church every Sunday. Penitent I went down into the water of baptism, believing that my sins were being washed away by the blood of Christ, came up and asked the Holy Spirit to come into my heart. Arising I believed I was walking in newness of life, having been born again of water and the spirit. I look back very fondly on that Christian experience and the absolutely beautiful people that I met in the churches over the years. I saw myself, like one of the Epistles of Peter says, as a royal priest, part of a holy nation, a child of God, one with Christ, in whom are all the secrets of wisdom and knowledge…………that’s gnosticism to me.

    Yes it’s gnosticism all right, as I used to preach from John 1 : 12 that for everyone who does receive Christ, he gives the right to become a child of God.

    Some of the church leaders were Christ to me; for years I served them and they did me no wrong. How then can I insult my pastor and friend ? I hope each of us continues to respect well meaning Christians from and with whom we can learn and share so much.

  5. Hi Neil!

    My opinion in Gal 2:20 “ἐν ἐμοὶ”, the “ἐν” preposition meaning: -by/ by I.

    “Christ lives by I”, and not “Christ lives in me”.

    Paul identifies himself with the inner man, the new man. With the unseen. Whom he has seen in the mirror,
    he no longer is that individual person, not himself, but the Christ.

    The term αποκαλύπτω (“reveal”) refers to the Christ. Who has not seen it so far, but he can see it now.

    When the not visible (the inner man) die, then “Christ lives by I/me”…Paul lived “by faith”. Exactly, with Paul’s words: “Christ lives by I”…

    (Sorry, my poor English:-)

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