Only One Explanation: Paul Believed in a Divine Christ “Before Jesus”

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by Neil Godfrey

There remains only one explanation: Paul believed in such a celestial being, in a divine Christ, before he believed in Jesus. Paul, by William Wrede

I found this little book of particular interest not because of the ideas themselves but because of who wrote them. William Wrede is best known for his study of the Gospel of Mark, The Messianic Secret. I was unaware until recently that he also wrote a book about Paul. It’s available on archive.org — http://archive.org/details/Paulpaulus The link is to the English language translation. (It’s not a long book: 180 somewhat small pages only a light population of words on each.)

Wrede cannot accept that Paul himself arrived at all of his concepts and theology relating to Christ simply from meditating on what he knew of the historical Jesus. Even the ethics that Paul teaches derive from Judaism and not from Jesus, he explains. From the reports of the life of a man who existed only a few years earlier it is inconceivable, Wrede argues, that Paul could have arrived at his vision of the celestial pre-existence of the risen Jesus or so magnified the stories of the mortal man that he imagined him as a “superhuman Son of God”.

There remains only one explanation: Paul believed in such a celestial being, in a divine Christ, before he believed in Jesus. Until he became a Christian it seemed to him sacrilege to call Jesus the Christ. This man did not answer at all to the divine figure of Christ which Paul bore within him. But in the moment of conversion, when Jesus appeared before him in the shining glory of his risen existence, Paul identified him with his own Christ, and straightway transferred to Jesus all the conceptions which he already had of the celestial being—for instance, that he had existed before the world and had taken part in its creation. The man Jesus was really, therefore, only the wearer of all those mighty predicates which had already been established; but the bliss of the apostle lay in this, that he could now regard what had hitherto been a mere hope, as a tangible reality which had comeinto the world. Here again we see the great importance ofthe fact that he had not known Jesus. Intimate disciples could not so readily believe that the man with whom they had sat at table in Capernaum, or sailed on the Lake of Galilee, was the creator of the world. But in Paul’s way there was no such obstacle.

If Paul was acquainted with this divine Christ before his conversion, there must have beencircles in Judaism which held the same belief. But can such a belief in this field be really authenticated? So much is certain, that Jewish apocalyptic books are really cognizant of a Messiah, who before his appearance lives in heaven, and is more exalted than the angels themselves. This is a datum of the highest importance. Whether, however, every feature in the Pauline Christ can be explained by means of the extant apocalyptic accounts of Messiah, is a question we shall not here attempt to decide. Investigation is only now beginning to master the problem aright. The immediate point of supreme importance is the perception of this fact: that the Pauline Christ cannot be understood unless we assume that Paul, while still a Pharisee, possessed a number of definite conceptions concerning a divine being, which were afterwards transferred to the historical Jesus?

So how did it all happen in Wrede’s view?

First comes the idea of Christ. On this the whole conception of the redemption rests. For the death and resurrection of Christ are not regarded as the experiences of a man, but as the experiences of an incarnate divine being. It is upon this that their universal, world-redeemed significance depends. The key to the problem, in itself so enigmatical, why the Son of God became a man, was found by Paul in this twofold event. The idea of the redemption itself was again determined by the conceptions which the apostle brought with him. He expected his Christ to vanquish the evil powers of the world, including the demons, and to inaugurate a new condition of things. The accomplishmentof this task was found, where but in the two events of salvation? How Paul came to find it there must remain an open question. Probably these thoughts had long been definitely formulated in his mind before he was led by polemical exigencies to mint the doctrine of justification.

Not that Wrede was allowed the last word. As we would expect, others disagreed. For a two-part critical engagement with Wrede’s ideas see

Morgan, W. “The Jesus Paul Controversy 1.” The Expository Times 20, no. 1 (October 1908): 9–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/001452460802000102.

———. “The Jesus Paul Controversy 2.” The Expository Times 20, no. 2 (November 1908): 55–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/001452460802000202.

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “Only One Explanation: Paul Believed in a Divine Christ “Before Jesus””

    1. mbuckley3’s comment below reminded me of Stevan Davies’ discussion of the Odes of Solomon as evidence of a form of “pre-Jesus Christianity” — although that is a misnomer and Davies refers to them as pre-Christian:

      In this essay I will argue that Christianity as we know it, a religion focused on Jesus of Nazareth, arose from an antecedent religion known to us through the Odes of Solomon. In the first part I will show that the general scholarly understanding of the Odes as products of early first century Christianity is mistaken and that they are not demonstrably Christian at all. In the second part I will show that the Odes may represent the religion of the Churches of God that Paul first persecuted and then joined, which I will call “Odes Judaism.” I will show that principal ideas in the Odes are also to be found in the Gospel of John and in other ancient Christian writings, and argue that the temporal-causal arrow points from the Odes to the Christian texts, rather than vice versa. . . .

      The Odes of Solomon are a collection of hymns that are generally believed to be Christian even though they represent a very peculiar variety of Christianity, one hard to classify using any of the standard scholarly types. James Charlesworth writes, for example, that “The Odes of Solomon were composed at a time when Gnosticism had not yet developed and when gnosis was a worldwide Spiritual way of thinking. They also come to us from a time when Judaism and Christianity had not yet gone their separate ways.” [1] He believes that they derive from a religious group profoundly influenced by the spirituality of the Essenes and yet that the Odes are so similar in ideology to the Gospel and Letters of John that it is even possible “the Odist and John shared the same milieu, and it is not improbable that they lived in the same community.

      . . . .

      There appears to be a general agreement in scholarship at present that they come from a very early period of Christian history. Lattke concludes that the date of the Odes of Solomon is “the first quarter of the second century c.e.” and they represent “the overlap of early Judaism, early Gnosticism, and early Christianity.

      . . . .

      It is difficult to argue a negative, but I will try to show that the Odes of Solomon are not Christian. In the first place, they never once mention Jesus of Nazareth. Not one sentence of the Odes indicates that they derive from the religion that regards Jesus as its founder. They may be Christian in the sense that they are profoundly concerned with the concept of a human being who becomes Christ, but if this person is not uniquely Jesus, then we need to be careful how the word Christian is being used. Only if we assume from the outset, by hypothesis, that the Odes are Christian do we have any reason to think that the Odes derive from members of the religion focused on the life, death, resurrection of Jesus. No, in fact the Odes of Solomon are not Christian at all unless we oddly define their Christianity to be a cult unrelated to the religion focused on Jesus of Nazareth. But this might indeed be a way of understanding them, for it might not be absurd to say that they derive from a form of “Christianity” for which Jesus of Nazareth was entirely irrelevant.

      Davies, Stevan. Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity (pp. 245-248). Kindle Edition.

      I must post about his essay. Thanks for the reminder, mbuckley3.

  1. Wrede’s intuition is right, then he renders it useless by taking Acts at face value. I am waiting for a mythicist to offer a down-to-earth reconstruction of the first-cnetury usage of the terms “Jesus” and “Christ,” and when and by whom they were merged, and the reactions to that merged term, and the remerging and reimagining of “Jesus Christ.” I have some ideas on that history but I’d like to see what other scholars think.

      1. Exactly. Fascinating article on the hand of Sabazios. Everyone borrows from everyone else, so it’s no surprise that it was incorporated into Christian blessing. I would add that it’s well-suited to that function: healthy people can make it, yet rarely need to, so it retains its ‘outsider’ (sacred) character.

        1. Sabazios the horseman and sky father god of the Phrygians and Thracians lives on even now as St. George.

          “The iconic image of the god or hero on horseback battling the chthonic serpent, on which his horse tramples, appears on Celtic votive columns, and with the coming of Christianity it was easily transformed into the image of Saint George and the Dragon, whose earliest known depictions are from tenth- and eleventh-century Cappadocia and eleventh-century Georgia and Armenia.”

          “George is described as a prophetic figure in Islamic sources. George is venerated by some Christians and Muslims because of his composite personality combining several Biblical, Quranic and other ancient mythical heroes. In some sources he is identified with Elijah or Mar Elis, George or Mar Jirjus and in others as al-Khidr. The last epithet meaning the “green prophet”, is common to both Christian and Muslim folk piety.”

          Sabazios-George-Khidr-Kothar [from the Ugaritic Ba’al Cycle who in turn is similar to the Egyptian Ptah]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khidr#In_Anatolian_folk_religion


          Endless syncretism. Continuous ‘Interpretatio graeca’ on a grand scale down through the ages.

        2. Mitchell, Stephen (1999). “The Cult of Theos Hypsistos Between Pagans Jews and Christians”. In Athanassiadi, Polymnia; Frede, Michael (eds.). Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 81–148.

          I wonder if some of these already existing groups like the Hyspsistarians and El Elyon focused God Fearers that made the rapid emergence of Christianity all the more possible weren’t so much monotheistic as monist or deist in nature. Or even further beyond that if “the most high” like the hard to translate ‘Tian’ of the Confucians or Taoism’s ‘Tao’ or ‘Brahman’ in the more nontheistic sects in India.

          So much of what comes down to us over the many centuries is the thoughts and beliefs of those at the top strata of society rather than the common masses just trying to scrape by year after year… the flock who were shorn so idlers could engage in endless god talk speculating on the nature of this or that pink unicorn or flying spaghetti monster.

          A raiyah or reaya (from Arabic: رعايا‎ raeeaya, a plural of رعيّة raiya “citizens, subjects, nationals, flock”, also spelled raiya, raja, raiah, re’aya; Modern Turkish râiya [ɾaːˈja] or reaya; was a member of the tax-paying lower class of Ottoman society, in contrast to the askeri (upper class) and kul (slaves). The raiyah made up over 90% of the general population in the millet communities. In the Muslim world, raiyah is literally subject of a government or sovereign. The raiyah (literally ‘members of the flock’) included Christians, Muslims, and Jews who were ‘shorn’ (i.e. taxed) to support the state and the associated ‘professional Ottoman’ class.

          1. We can be confident that the existing groups were ethnos-based and sometimes local-language based. Depending on the size and range of wealth of the ethnicity, the groups could have been all folk-religion, or folk-religion plus gnostic-type speculation for the richer/Hellenized members. If there were enough rich members in cities, there could have even been teacher-led cults whose teachings were entirely abstract.

            Re the sheep and the shearers, IMO it basically comes down to literates versus illiterates. Literacy is the greatest technology ever for leveraging the human mind, but it has its cost–the loss of the sense of the divine in all things.

            1. Yes literacy makes all the difference. I wonder what economic surplus some people imagine existed in a stony backwater client state like Judea twenty centuries ago. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_economy#GDP_and_income_distribution As Lipinski wrote more than once the ultimate etymological origin of Judea is in a Semitic word for ravine. Just East of Jerusalem it is all rocks and ravines.

              From the the first century to well into the nineteenth century I think there was more continuity among the lifestyle of the rural fellahin then people like to admit. A hundred years ago they were still all practicing a folk religion that entailed going to the “high places”. https://web.archive.org/web/20070927122856/http://www.thisweekinpalestine.com/details.php?id=2208&ed=144&edid=144These And Claude Reignier Conder writing in a report of the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1877 tells us [p. 89-91]: “In their religious observances and sanctuaries we find, as in their language, the true history of the country. On a basis of polytheistic faith which most probably dates back to pre-Israelite times, we find a growth of the most heterogeneous description: Christian tradition, Moslem history and foreign worship are mingled so as often to be entirely indistinguishable, and the so-called Moslem is found worshipping at shrines consecrated to Jewish, Samaritan, Christian, and often Pagan memories. It is in worship at these shrines that the religion of the peasantry consists. Moslem by profession, they often spend their lives without entering a mosque, and attach more importance to the favour and protection of the village Mukam than to Allah himself, or to Mohammed his prophet… The reverence shown for these sacred spots is unbounded. Every fallen stone from the building, every withered branch of the tree, is carefully preserved. ” https://archive.org/details/quarterlystateme09pale/page/n98/mode/1up?view=theater Every place still clearly had its Baal with this or that name and a little maqam more often than not standing atop a hill. And there were literally hundreds of them spread all over the countryside until mostly blown up, bulldozed, or neglected in abandonment in the last seven decades. Saw an ethnographic source from the 1880’s I think it was of the nominally Muslim guardian of one such maqam receiving by tradition the cheek and maw and a foreleg of every sheep or goat slaughtered as an offering there. Sure sounds like a survival of Deuteronomy 18:3

              1. Tthe economic surplus in Judea, in Roman times, might have been greater than expected based on natural resources, due to the Temple tax, and also customs taxes. Also, without banks, desert-dwellers wore their wealth as jewelry or put it in animals, so visually appeared prosperous. But yeah, it was relatively a backwater. The inflection point that turned Judean history from local history to (potentially) world history was the decision to create the LXX in Alexandria, where wealthy Judeans felt they had to demonstrate that their heritage was as important as the Greeks’.

                Really interesting references, thanks.

            2. Below this comment some months ago I posted a translation of Lipinski’s page and a half note on the etymology of Judah: https://vridar.org/2017/10/26/those-hellenistic-and-hellenizing-maccabees-and-pharisees/#comment-141115

              I vaguely remember reading an article wherein someone had played a numbers game of estimating crop yields (barley for example) and livestock output together with tentative population sizes in different periods from the estimates of a few of the more realistic Israeli archaeologists. My mind is hazy now on the modus operandi of the article but I think it was to disprove the idea that before the firm knitting together of the Hellenistic world through trade that there was never going to be enough surplus to support the sort of grand temple building and conquering army stuff that Trumpy evangelicals imagine must have existed under the great kings of the old testament.

              “The people of the land” were still frequenting their “high places” https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/High_Place hardly more than a century ago. page 147: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Primitive_Semitic_Religion_Today/WKrWMMWlFAoC?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=deuteronomist On page 145: When we asked them afterwards why they did not look towards the south, toward Mecca, the Moslem Kibla, they said, that, as there prayer was directed to the “God of the place,” it was a matter of difference what point of the compass they faced. Pics of a few dozen maqams here: https://borisfenus.blogspot.com/2013/01/11-lost-shrines.html

              And smear the lintel above an outside door with blood: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Primitive_Semitic_Religion_Today/WKrWMMWlFAoC?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=lintel as a bit of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apotropaic_magic for protection.

  2. Stevan Davies’ “Spirit Possession and the Origins of Christianity” shares Wrede’s insight, as Neil will know.
    Davies uses the Odes of Solomon to posit a ‘pentecostal’ pre-Jesus Christianity, where the possessed ‘becomes’ a Son/Christ; which Paul converted to; onto which Paul (somehow) grafted beliefs of Jesus-followers.
    Methodologically, Davies is all over the place; but he is ‘onto something’, and the book is mischievously well-written!

  3. This discussion confuses History with Literary Criticism. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is obviously fiction; i.e., it never happened. If we, as Lit-Critics, are merely scouting for contradictions in the plotlines of the New Testament’s hodge-podge of fables; then this sort of discussion provides bemusement; but we should avoid muddling this with historical analysis.

    No doubt the concept of a Messiah (Christ), and the concept of a second coming of Joshua (Jesus), circulated in Hebrew culture for centuries; certainly since the Alexandrian conquests. Platonists also had a “Son of God” concept – brainchild of the Demiurge – which would also have had currency in Hellenized Hebrew culture (witness the opening verse of John). So yes, “Jesus Christ, Son of God” would have been conceptualized prior to the writing of the “Gospel of Mark” (circa 75 CE).

  4. The basic problem Wrede is getting at, but which he cannot solve, is that Christianity, in its actual historical origins, cannot have had two founders, who knew nothing about each other, and whose ideas have no connection with each other apart from the generic milieu of apocalyptic Judaism. No plausible explanation of a cause-effect relationship from Jesus to Paul, or from Paul to Jesus has even been achieve in historical criticism. The gospel preached by Jesus and the gospel preached by Paul, even if they don’t contradict each other, do not match. The New Testament packaged these two men separately, the one in a “tetra-euangelion” (the 4-Gospel book), the other in a wildly diverse and patchwork collection of epistles. The only similarity in the packaging is that neither for Jesus nor for Paul is there a single authoritative portrait. Each has multiple portraits, which contradict one another on many points.

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