The Relative Insignificance of the Acts and Teachings of the Historical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Amazon cover of Hellenistic Ways of Deliverance and the Making of the Christian Synthesis

The early Jewish Christians remained Jews, with no thought of embracing a new religion; they were merely convinced that Jesus was the “Messiah” or the “Christ,” and they regarded his Messiahship as much more important than any new moral message he might be bringing. That is, they believed in Jesus, rather than that what Jesus taught was true — an attitude that remained characteristic of most Christian thought until the nineteenth century. This conviction involved certain intellectual beliefs or expectations: notably, that only righteous, Law-observing Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah would share in the Kingdom he would set up on his second coming. But their faith in Jesus was primarily a commitment to Jesus: it was practical rather than intellectual.

Much the same holds true of Paul, though his conception of the nature of the work of Christ was quite different. For him, this was not to found the Kingdom, but to transform human nature from flesh to spirit, and thus to save individual souls from bondage to sin and death. By accepting and believing in the Christ, men are united to him in a mystical union, die with him to the old Adam, put off the flesh with him, and rise with him, completely transformed in their nature, to live a new and divine life, a life “in Christ.” This is all for Paul an intensely personal and practical religious experience. Believing in Christ is no mere intellectual assent, and acceptance; it is utter absorption.

Hence neither the early Jewish Christians nor Paul made central what Jesus taught.

Randall, John Herman. 1970. Hellenistic Ways of Deliverance and the Making of the Christian Synthesis. New York: Columbia University Press. pp 146f
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27 thoughts on “The Relative Insignificance of the Acts and Teachings of the Historical Jesus”

  1. Yet the gospel writers developed a model for human behavior that has persisted alongside the model of the redemptive savior. Where did they get that model, and what part did it play in the spread of Christianity.

    1. They got that model by combining Jewish and Greco-Roman-Egyptian religion. Christianity is a perfect mix of Judaism and the Greco-Roman-Egyptian dying and resurrecting savior.

      Plato, tran. Benjamin Jowett, “The Republic,” [Lawrence: Digireads Publishing, 2008], 36)

      “…they perform their ritual, and persuade not only individuals,
      but whole cities, that expiations and atonements for sin may
      be made by sacrifices and amusements which fill a vacant
      hour, and are equally at the service of the living and the
      dead; the latter sort they call mysteries, and they redeem
      us from the pains of hell, but if we neglect them, no one
      knows what awaits us

      Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture, Walter Burkert

      As Plato noted, the cult has itinerant “purifiers” and “initiators”, kathartai, telestai, who, through the
      appropriate rituals, offer their clients freedom from various afflictions, including the fear of death and postmortal punishments. The key document for such priests is a decree of king Ptolemy Philopator from Egypt, dated at about 210 B.C., which orders “those who are performing initiation rituals for Dionysus” to register at Alexandria. They are organized in “families”, with tradition from “father” to “son” and are presumed to guard a sacred text (heiros logos), be it mythical stories or ritual formulas; this, the decree says, shall be deposited at the royal office in Alexandria under seal. That wandering initiators would cover the distances between Macedonia, Thesaly, Lesbos, Crete, and southern Italy is not remarkable.

      Albert Henrichs in Tracing Orpheus: Studies of Orphic Fragments

      As has been pointed out by Alberto Bernabe and others, the revived Dionysos who died and came back to life again was regarded as a divine role model for the Dionysac initiates and their expectations of a happy afterlife.

      Instructions for the Netherworld: The Orphic Gold Tablets By Alberto Bernabé Pajares, Ana Isabel Jiménez San Cristóbal

      …Dionysus fulfills a purificatory function in a personal and eschatological sense: he assists the initiate at the junction of the limit between life and death, betweeen the human and the divine. Liberation after death is a consequence of initiation in the mysteries, carried out during life… No doubt the liberation granted to the deceased by Dionysus-Bacchus requires first of all initiation, and second it is necessary that one lead a life that is subject to specific norms of purity, and, finally, that one submit oneself to the god’s judgement…

      Thus we see that the formula, in any one of it’s variants, is always expressed after a reference to a rebirth as a god after death… Whatever interpretation we are to give this phrase must therefore move between the coordinates of rebirth and identification with a god, both of which
      conditions produce a great happiness…

      So we have a cult that worships a dying and resurrecting savior that goes around initiating people by purifying them of their sins and promises them eternal life. This is Christianity minus Judaism.

      A lot of the morals found in Christianity are found in other ANE and Greco-Roman religions.

      The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary By Arland J. Hultgren

      Just as the misfortunes are typical of those that the unfortunates of the world experience, so there are texts that contain lists of typical acts of kindeness towards them–and which commend these acts–in various literatures of the world. In the eighth-century-B.C. Akkadian “Counsels of Wisdom” a sage teaches that one should give food, drink, and clothing to those in need. Other literatures include the Egyptian Book Of The Dead (125: A person being judged says, “I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked and a boat to him who was boatless”), the Mandaean Ginza (2.36.13-17:”If you see one who hungers, feed him, someone who thirsts, give him to drink; if you see one naked, place a garment on him and clothe him. If you see a prisoner, who is believing and upright, obtain a ransom and free him”), and more…As indicated above, there is nothing particularly Christian about the six works of kindness that those on the right have done; they belong to the world of moral reflection and behavior in various cultures, including those prior to the ministry of Jesus.

      Following Osiris by Mark Smith

      In texts of later periods, the deceased only attain the status of ??? after they have been judged before Osiris and found to have led a virtuous life…

      All who died had to be judged in the tribunal of that god, and only those who were found to have been virtuous were accepted into his following. The wicked, by contrast, were consigned to punishment…

      We are equally unable to say why certain key developments and changes in the Egyptian conception of the relationship between Osiris and the dead occurred when they did, for example, the increased emphasis on good conduct during one’s lifetime as a prerequisite for admittance to the following of Osiris that characterizes the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom…

      However, there was one important difference between these gods and Osiris. Unlike them, he had triumphed over death, and the ability to do likewise could be conferred upon his followers. The colophon of Pyramid Text Spell 561B states that whoever worships Osiris will live for ever, showing that already at this date those who devoted themselves to the god might expect to share in his resurrection.

  2. OP:

    By accepting and believing in the Christ, men are
    • united to him in a mystical union,
    • die with him to the old Adam,
    • put off the flesh with him,
    • and rise with him,
    completely transformed in their nature, to live a new and divine life, a life “in Christ.”

    • If religious syncretism exhibits blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, then it is possible that Paul syncretized Jewish and Hellenistic ideas per the resurrection of the dead.

    Engberg-Pedersen, Troels (2000). Paul and the Stoics. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 121. ISBN 978-0-664-22234-5.

    [Per Philippians 2] Salvation appears to stand for the future goal of all Christ-believers, their stay in the heavenly politeuma when Christ will have changed their lowly bodies and made them symmorphic with his own body of glory (3:20-21).
    Paul first speaks of the Philippians as working on their own salvation (2:12) and then (apparently) of the end of that work, namely that they become (‘morally’) blameless and spotless (2:15)…

    • Understanding the difference between “Middle Platonism” and “Platonism” is crucial, they are not the same.

    See: Arthur F. Holmes. “A History of Philosophy | 18 Middle and Neo-Platonism”. YouTube. wheatoncollege. 14 April 2015.

    In the context of “Middle Platonism”, the following interpretation may hold: “[We] speak a message of [the second-god] among the mature . . . a mystery that has been hidden and that [first-god] destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory [i.e. second-god].” —(1 Corinthians 2:6-8)

    1. If religious syncretism exhibits blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, then it is possible that Paul syncretized Jewish and Hellenistic ideas per the resurrection of the dead.

      See my post/reply above. I have no doubt this is exactly what Paul and the early Christians did.

  3. The early Christians imagined (and emphasized only) a Crucified Messiah because the Death of the Messiah by demons confirmed the maximum triumph of the evil at its peak (usually known as anomia) and therefore the same imminence of the End.

    After the 70 CE, the maximum triumph of evil was not more the Death of the Messiah, but the same destruction of the Temple by Romans, an evil under the eyes of all, and not only of who “saw” the evil in the reality from a merely apocalyptic view. So the Death of the Messiah, from being the confirmation of the his same arrival, became a mere “historical” theodicy for the destruction of the Temple.

    1. On the other hand, we might keep in mind the evidence that a “crucified” messiah appears not to have been universally accepted in our earliest sources. The Didache’s “eucharist meal” had no associations with death; the Book of Revelation knows nothing of a crucified messiah; Paul speaks of rival christs whose adherents appear to be offended at the idea of crucifixion of the messiah.

        1. It is important to allow this text in the Apocalypse weigh in for a clear reference to the “crucified” one ,, not historical obviously since this event of crucifixion took place in the great city which is “pneumatically” called Sodom and Egypt. Some translations have “allegorically”. A very strange text amid apocalyptic.

          The context regards the two witnesses who are murdered and not buried…and interestingly these two witnesses (martyrs) are resurrected in front of everyone!!

          Just weird…plain weird…btw I remember David Flusser once saying that this text is a mini apocalypse similar to Mark 13…and inserted later into the book of Revelation.

      1. Agreed. We also find no discussion of crucifixion or even suffering the the Epistle of James, which is very odd considering its content. I think its quite possible that the crucifixion of Jesus was an entirely Pauline invention that only become the dominant view because the Gospel of Mark is based on the letters of Paul and thus promotes this Pauline teaching.

  4. R.G. you may well be onto something there….and Paul has some very strange mystical connection to Christ’s crucifixion.He can hardly wait to fully turn into the crucified Christ…and thinks he already has …Gal. 2:20…He even claims he has the stigmata manifest in his body! Galatians 6. Why? The more suffering of the cross the more resurrection power he experiences.
    Paul loves crucifixion motifs and images….He is really into suffering and death ,,,big time..

    Moreover, if you are follower of this Christ then you too were crucified with him….. surely not historically…that is one of the reasons I wonder about the historicity of the event…though I admit Paul is engaging in “spiritizing” (pneumatic) hermeneutics regarding such an event.

    I have been studying Pauline lit for close to five decades and I still don’t get what he is getting at in many of his texts..

    re Mark.. Mark 8 is interesting where Peter and the rest don’t like Jesus teaching about following him to the cross. Peter and the rest are enemies of the Cross which Paul discusses in his letters.

    Do have any thoughts about why Paul is into that so heavily even though he knows next to nothing about the details re Jesus death? I have often thought that Paul may have received regular “revelations” or visions of the “event” …and did not receive any details from the so-called pillar apostles…

    Also regarding some Pauline traditions…Colossians and Ephesians…In those texts it talks about letting “the word of Christ” dwell in and among the believers..but this could not refer to any earthly teachings of Jesus but the active words of the exalted Christ being taught or communicated among the charismatics and pneumatics. Words of gnosis and wisdom above.

    I have conjectured that the charismatic words of gnosis and wisdom that circulated in the early church eventually became manifest in the NT texts at various points…eg. Paul says in I Cor. “we know” demons are nothing really…etc. I cor. 7 Paul is getting “words of the Lord” from the Christ spirit..

    Also, did Paul get the so-called “historical” info in I Cor. 15 from the apostles or directly from the Lord? If Paul is receiving direct revelation, then is Paul receiving historical information in visions ? That would be strange and hard to verify(I can’t stand the word hallucination and I think Carrier and others are confusing visions and hallucinations…plus I think the claim to visions can be a rhetorical polemical device to make one read the writers claims…and give clout to the politics,,,even though no vision or revelation has occured…

    I am a former pentecostal-charismatic scholar and pastor who can share lots of words and visions from the Lord that I encountered again and again…some very interesting and others just plain bullshit…. and when examined more carefully no real visions were experienced..it is just what someone thought they heard Jesus telling them….

  5. Hi Martin! I am glad you are feeling better.

    “He even claims he has the stigmata manifest in his body! Galatians 6. Why? The more suffering of the cross the more resurrection power he experiences.”

    I think this is understandable if we consider the following: There were four kinds of Death penalty in Torah: stoning, burning, strangulation and sword, the execution mode itself. Not including wood crucifixion, because it was forbidden, like execution. In some cases, after the death penalty has been a dead body that was hanged. (Deut21:22-23) The hanging is not a way of execution, but a means of deterrence after the death penalty. The curse does not apply to who die on the tree, but to someone who has already been killed, and then hanged. So Jesus had to die, before being crucified. God gave Jesus with his own hand to death (you know, in 1Cor11:23, Rom8:32 etc.). Paul wants to participate in this death, not the death of cross.

  6. Ergo:
    When Paul says that: “becoming like him in his death” (Phil3:10) and, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (Gal3:13)

    Paul talks about what I wrote about it.

  7. Hi everybody, and Martin!

    In verse 43a of the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin, treatise mentions a certain man named Yeshu Ha-Nocri. bSan 43a starts this way:
    “On the night of the Passover, Yeshu Ha-Nocrit was hanged.”

    I asked a Jewish rabbi how it was? Not crucified? Without thought he replied: “Executed and then hanged” 🙂

    So, if the role of hanging is so deep in Jewish thinking, even today, we can’t seriously think, that this was different for Paul.

    I think we should definitely give up the view, that Paul is talking about Jesus’ (like Son of God) crucifixion.

      1. Cf. Godfrey, Neil (13 October 2018). “Jesus, from a corpse hung on a tree to a man slain on a cross”. Vridar.

        [Per Stéphane]
        3. Before the gospel was written, the view of the death of Jesus that was set out in 1 Cor 2:8 aligned with the same narrative we read in the Ascension of Isaiah: the Prince of this world, Satan and his archangels, killed the Lord of Glory and hung him up on a cross;
        7. The author was writing for a Roman audience and decided to change the Jewish custom of hanging the body on a tree after death…

    1. Schäfer, Peter (2009). Jesus in the Talmud. Princeton University Press. p. 66. ISBN 1-4008-2761-2.

      [Per a halakhic discourse] some details of Jesus’ condemnation and execution are reported:
      Jesus was executed because he practiced sorcery and enticed Israel into idolatry.
      Several of these details can be easily explained against the background of the relevant Mishna in tractate Sanhedrin. There, the standard procedure according to the rabbinic law is explained as follows:

      All who are stoned are also hanged (nitlin) [afterwards] [on a tree]: (these are) the words of R. Eliezer.
      However the Sages said: only the blasphemer (ha-megaddef) and the idolater (ha-‘oved avodah zarah) are hanged.

      1. Thanx!
        The 1Cor2:8 its not about that, the prince ‘killed’ the Lord of Glory and hung him up on a cross, but about, hung him up on a cross. We know from other parts (Rom8:32, Fil26-8) that it was God, who gave the Son, in the hand of death, in secret (Luk22:44 egs). The princes hung up, because they didn’t know him. (1Cor2:7)

      2. • Per Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law [Torah] . . . for it is written [in Deuteronomy 21:23]: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole”.”

        Gilthvedt, Gary E. (2015) [now bolded]. Dying and Deliverance: Searching Paul’s Law-Gospel Tension. Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 107. ISBN 978-1-4982-2918-0.

        [T]he context of Deut 21:23 did not have to do with the manner of execution but with what happened after execution. “The man is not accursed because he has been hung, but hung because he is already accursed on account of his crime.”

        1. Per Carrier (23 February 2019). “Yes, Galatians 4 Is Allegorical • Richard Carrier”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

          Jesus’s atoning death frees us from Torah observance. Because we are now “heirs according to the promise,” meaning sons of the allegorical Sarah. How did we become heirs to the promise? By joining ourselves spiritually to the Heir to the Promise, Jesus. Through baptism we are adopted as sons of God (see Element 12 in OHJ, p. 108) and thus share this privilege with Jesus…

        2. Dawson, Kathy Barrett (2012). Reading Galatians As Rhetorical Parody: Paul’s Reinterpretation of Scriptural Demands for Obedience to the Law and the Implications for Understanding Faithfulness and Apostasy. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10161/6136.

          [A]ncient rhetorical parody should be understood as either an altered quotation of a recognizable text or saying or a newly created saying that closely resembles a recognizable one. Also, ancient rhetorical parody should be understood as a stylistic rhetorical device that was designed to add vividness and polemical intensity to an argument by way of incongruity. In an effort to persuade an audience, a recognizable text or saying was transformed and given a new meaning, one that might be quite incongruous with its original meaning. While this type of rhetorical device was discussed by ancient rhetoricians, its use was common in the everyday conversations of a literate person in the first century. Therefore the ability to use the device of rhetorical parody did not require a rhetorical education in which one studied the handbooks.
          A comparison of Galatians with Scriptures that demanded obedience to the Mosaic law or praised individuals who championed the law reveals that Paul parodically reinterpreted scriptural passages in order to dissociate the rejection of the Mosaic law from the curse of the law. The curse of the law is shown to refer not only to slavery, but also to spiritual death. This study also reveals that the law-free Galatians were being excluded from the faith community on the basis that they were unrepentant sinners. Additionally, Gal 3-4 is best understood as Paul’s argument against the confluence of the covenant with Abraham and the Mosaic law.

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