Category Archives: New Testament

Memory and the Pursuit of the Jesus Tradition

I have begun to read Alan Kirk’s Memory and the Jesus Tradition, a compilation of twelve of his essays published between 2001 and 2016, and have, as usual, found myself making slower progress than I expected. At so many points in just the first few chapters I have had to detour to endnotes and seek out cited works to get a clearer idea of what lies behind many of Kirk’s points and quotations. The parallel readings have been worth it, though. Reading Kirk and the sources to which he alludes in parallel has opened up my understanding memory theory as applied in very practical ways in the social sciences on the one hand, and its theoretical application in Jesus tradition studies on the other. Kirk would disagree that his discussion of memory theory is entirely theoretical and I will address one of his attempts to present real-world applications of his theoretical discussions.

One pleasant surprise I have already experienced so early in my exploration of memory theory studies (in particular from the section in one of Kirk’s references titled “Literature and Cultural Memory” but which Kirk appears to entirely overlook in this collection of essays) is that I have become convinced that memory studies do have a most significant place in the study of early Christianity. Alan Kirk and other historical Jesus scholars attempt to use memory theories to uncover pre-gospel development of the Jesus tradition while I suspect that their most fruitful contribution can be found in exploring how the various gospels themselves helped establish the emerging identities of the early Christianities.

But first, let’s see what Alan Kirk himself, and no doubt with the agreement of the editor he credits for assisting him with putting this book together, Chris Keith, has to say about memory studies in the context of Christian origins:

. . . what was emerging under the aegis of memory analysis was a comprehensive account of the formation of the Jesus tradition and its history, from its origins and continuing on its arc towards canon-formation. . . . 

Memory-grounded analysis is able to deliver a coherent account, not only of the tradition’s origins, but also of its history through analysis of how the tradition mediates the salient past into contemporary contexts of reception. Here it intersects with source criticism and redaction criticism. In other words, a memory-based account of the tradition neither displaces standard redaction-critical, tradition-history and source-critical approaches nor does it merely supplement them. Rather, it integrates them into a more comprehensive account of cultural formation and history, providing a kind of unified field theory for various lines of enquiry.

(pp. 10, 18 of 375 — all page numbers are taken from an e-book version. My bolding in all quotations.)

How memory works

Holocaust survivors, survivors of more recent genocidal attacks in Africa, persons emerging from collective war-time experiences with individual post-traumatic stress syndrome, — it is by the sharing of personal experiences among such persons that meaning is found for what they have experienced as a new kind of “collective memory” is established. A collective narrative, a story that offers some sort of control or meaning, of their experiences, is created through such sharing of memories. Similarly the populations of entire nations that have experienced traumatic times can find a new sense of self or national identity through a collective communication of those experiences in dialogue, in the arts, in literature, in rousing speeches that inject hope and meaning into the raw memories of their devastating experiences. A close relation to the latter scenario is the nineteenth and early twentieth century

Zionist commemoration of ancient Jewish resistance movements such as the Zealots, . . . aimed at legitimating the Zionist political programme as well as promoting activist countermodels for Jewish identity, while its breathtaking (sic) diminution of the exile to a point of virtually no magnitude signified its repudiation of the stereotypically passive, sighing Jew of the Gulat. Zionist memory, in other words, was a matter of the ‘ideological classification of the past’. 

(p. 34 / 375)

I can to some extent understand how “memory studies” work, how “memory” can create or renew personal and collective identities and meanings, when applied to such situations.

If I understand Alan Kirk’s essays correctly (and I have read so far no more than four of the twelve), I believe he is attempting to apply that sort of memory process, or memory re-creation and meaning through social sharing, to groups he imagines to have been early (pre-gospel) bearers of “memories of Jesus” originating with historical encounters with Jesus.

Finally, this approach has obvious relevance for historical Jesus research. Historical Jesus scholarship, not recognizing the extent to which the tradition is the artefact of commemorative processes, often treats the gospels as garden-variety archival materials, for example, regarding them in their relative brevity as very incomplete records preserving just traces of events rather than being symbolically concentrated mediations of the aggregate of events. The model worked out in this chapter raises the question of what sort of historiography is required to deal with tradition – a media-based artefact with a commemorative and representational relationship to historical realities.

(pp. 89f. / 375)

But what justifies the application of memory theory to historical Jesus studies?

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From Adapa to Jesus

Adapa Sumerian deity of healing, with healthy catch of fish
Creative Commons Attribution

That the gospels recycled themes, motifs, sayings, can be found across the Middle East from Mesopotamia to Egypt and stretching back millennia to before the Neo Babylonian empire and even before the time of any Jewish Scriptures will be of no surprise to anyone who has read The Messiah Myth by Thomas L. Thompson.

Of the myth of Adapa and the South Wind “the earliest known version is a Sumerian text from Old Babylonian Tell Haddad”, made available by Cavigneaux in 2014. I have part translated, part paraphrased the opening section of Cavigneaux’s French translation of the often broken Sumerian text, and added a distinctive note on one comment that I found particularly interesting.

In those distant days …

After the Flood had swept over,

and brought about the destruction of the land …

The world is reborn

A seed of humanity had been preserved …

Four legged animals once again widely dispersed …

Fish and birds repopulated the ponds and reedbeds …

Herbs and aromatic plants flowered on the high steppe …

The state is born

An and Enlil organized the world …

The city of Kish became a pillar of the country …

Etana becomes king

Then the elected shepherd …

Founded a house …

The South Wind during his reign brought blessings …

Humanity without a guide

Humanity did not have a directive …

[Nobody knew how to give or follow orders]

The Story of Adapa begins

[A loyal devotee of Enki he goes fishing in the quay to supply his master’s temple in Eridu.]

In later exorcistic texts … the quay (Akk. kārum) is a trope for the liminal space between worlds.

At the New Moon he went up to go fishing

Without rudder he let the boat go with the flow

Without pole he went up the stream

On the vast lagoon …

[He is capsized by the South Wind]

He curses the South Wind …

And broke the wings of the South Wind …

Jesus stills storm. Interestingly the South Wind was said to be beneficial; it appears to me that Adapa’s technology, apparently directed by the power of his words, was being frustrated by the South Wind.

The narrative is thus a reference to the destruction of the old world and the restoration of the new, through a Flood or through water bringing about the end of one world and nourishing the emergence of the new. As Thompson observes in The Mythic Past new worlds emerge through parting waters (Creation, Noah, Exodus, Elijah-Elisha, Jesus’ Baptism/heavens divided).

Adapa has a special gift. Though mortal, he has power over words, or rather his words have power over the world. Adapa will become the great mythical sage of scribes, of all who can with the magic of words change the face of the earth and the organization of society: engineers, architects, legislators, ….

We are familiar with astronomy and astrology being all one branch of knowledge in these times; similarly magic and medicine were indistinguishable at this stage. The skills of the scribes, the amazing feats they accomplished with words, appear to have been supernatural gifts.

After Adapa by merely speaking causes the wind to cease the supreme god is astonished and invites him up to heaven. Adapa’s personal god, however, warns Adapa not to accept certain gifts [bread, drink, a coat] that will be offered to him there but to only accept an anointing. The chief god laughingly tells Adapa that he has just refused the gifts that would have given him eternal life.

And so forth.

We see here a story opening with the water, a flood, separating the old and the new. We see the wise hero wielding power over the elements, even stilling a “storm”, by his mere commands. Others are amazed at his ability. In this case, it is the gods who are amazed.

The plot of the story begins with the sage “going fishing”, a scene that is found to have mythical or metaphorical significance of life and death, entering a space between two worlds.

I find such literary comparisons interesting. I’m not saying the evangelists were adapting the myth of Adapa, of course. I am thinking about the way certain mythical tropes have been recycled and refashioned through changing human circumstances and experiences.


Cavigneaux, Antoine. 2014. “Une Version Sumérienne de La Légende d’Adapa (Textes de Tell Haddad X).” Zeitschrift Für Assyriologie Und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 104 (1): 1–41. https://www.academia.edu/26276183/Une_version_sum%C3%A9rienne_de_la_l%C3%A9gende_d_Adapa_Textes_de_Tell_Haddad_X_

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck. 42


 

Gospel of John as the turning point in a New Religion and a New God

Eight years ago I posted Starting a New Religion with The Gospel of John. In that post the punch line was: 

Where the Gospel of John is different:

Where the fourth evangelist differs from all of these [books written in the names of other prophets], as well as from those who exploited the Moses tradition, is in his conscious substitution of this tradition by the story of Jesus: ‘You search the scriptures,’ Jesus tells ‘the Jews’, ‘and I am the one to which they bear witness’ (5:39). The deliberate replacement of one founder-figure by another (the same step would be taken centuries later by Mohammed) is effectively the proclamation of a new religion. We may compare John with Matthew here, for whom Jesus is a second Moses, refining and purifying the law, but not replacing it (5:17). John, by contrast, puts the law aside, offering instead, in the name of Jesus Christ, ‘grace and truth’ (1:17). Similarly the Temple, the second pillar of contemporary Judaism, was for Matthew a place where Jesus’ disciples continued to offer their gifts: whereas in John the locus of Christian worship has shifted to a place of ‘spirit and truth’ (4:23)

(Ashton, p. 448)

Gabriele Boccaccini

This year I have read a proposal for another dramatic innovation that we find in this same fourth gospel. Gabriele Boccaccini picks up the recent publications of Larry Hurtado and Bart Ehrman that have sought to explain when and how “Jesus became God”.

Bart Ehrman and Larry Hurtado are the scholars who in recent years have more directly tried to address the question. For Ehrman [How Jesus Became God], the attempt to identify when and how Jesus “became God” is not the clear-cut divide that one would expect, but a much subtler discourse about how and when Jesus became “more and more divine,” until he climbed the entire monotheistic pyramid (almost) to share the top with the Father. Jesus, argues Ehrman, was first regarded as a human exalted to a divine status (like Enoch or Elijah before him), and then as a preexistent heavenly being who became human in Jesus and then returned to heaven in an even more exalted status.

Answering the same questions some years earlier, Larry Hurtado [Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity] traced the origin of such a belief by asking when Jesus began to be worshiped by his followers. In his view the devotion to Jesus marked a unique development within Jewish monotheism, even before the emergence of an explicit theology of the equality of Jesus with the Father. Jesus “became God” in the very moment in which he was worshiped.

(Boccaccini, p. 337)

Boccaccini finds both arguments problematic. Ehrman, for instance, does not really explain how Jesus is different from other figures in the Jewish “pantheon” who are also “divine” (e.g. Enoch, Elijah) and “preexistent”. “Being divine” and “being God” were not identical concepts in Second Temple Jewish belief systems. Angels were superhuman “divine” beings and divine beings could become human and humans could become divine. Preexistent divine beings like the Son of Man figure in the Parables of Enoch were not God; that figure was created at the beginning along with the angelic hosts. Thus in 1 Enoch 48:2-6 we read:

At that hour, that Son of Man was given a name, in the presence of the Lord of the Spirits, the Before-Time; even before the creation of the sun and the moon, before the creation of the stars [i.e., the angels], he was given a name in the presence of the Lord of the Spirits. He will become a staff for the righteous ones in order that they may lean on him and not fall. He will be the light of the gentiles and he will become the hope of those who are sick in their hearts…. He was concealed in the presence of (the Lord of the Spirits) prior to the creation of the world, and for eternity.

Hurtado is correct in pointing out that

Jesus was the only person in Judaism of whom we have evidence that he was worshiped by his followers;

But . . .

nonetheless, the force of the argument is somehow diminished by the fact that “veneration” was a common practice toward people of authority. Even within the Jewish monotheistic framework, different degrees of veneration could apply to divine beings other than, and inferior to, God.

Note, therefore, in the Life of Adam and Eve (13-16) the archangel Michael called on all the angels to worship Adam as the image of God: read more »

Paul’s and Isaiah’s Visions — A Possible Connection

See the Ascension of Isaiah archive for other posts on this source. I am sure over time more will be added and views will change.

Roger Parvus posted comments relating to the relationship between Paul’s letters and some things we read in the Ascension of Isaiah. (Recall that the Ascension of Isaiah is a two part text consisting of the Martyrdom of Isaiah and the Vision of Isaiah, and was interpreted by Earl Doherty as a piece of evidence for early Christian belief in a crucifixion of Jesus in the lower heavens.) I have been wading my way through various studies on the document and it is slow going because I find myself struggling through machine translations much of the time. I have as a result become open-minded to possible interpretations that may compete with Doherty’s initial proposals.

Roger Parvus has posted two major series on Vridar:

He’s been doing some more thinking about things since then and I found the following two comments of his thought-provoking.

First one:

Paul regularly appeals to revelation through Scripture. And as Doherty notes:

“The strong implication is that, if the key phrases in Paul are his own voice and not an interpolation, Paul must have had in mind something different in regard to Christ than simply being ‘born’ in the normal sense.” (Jesus Neither God Nor Man, p. 207).

So I am still quite open to the possibility that the Scripture Paul had in view was the Vision of Isaiah’s pocket gospel. Its Jesus is not really born in the normal sense. As Enrico Norelli puts it:

“If the story is read literally, it is not about a birth. It’s about two parallel processes: the womb of Mary, that had enlarged, instantly returned to its prior state, and at the same time a baby appears before her— but, as far as can be determined, without any cause and effect relationship between the two events.” (Ascension du prophète Isaïe, pp. 52-53, my translation)

At this point in general discussion Tim reminded me of Herman Gunkel’s view that Revelation 12 speaks of a birth of a saviour in heaven in Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Era and the Eschaton. (For a criticism of Gunkel’s hypothesis see Creation and Chaos: A Reconsideration of Hermann Gunkel’s Chaoskampf Hypothesis see Scurlock and Beal’s Creation and chaos : a reconsideration of Hermann Gunkel’s Chaoskampf hypothesis.)

Second one:

Yes, there are grounds to suspect that Paul knew some version of the Vision of Isaiah. But my suspicions go further than that. I suspect Paul’s gospel was the Vision of Isaiah. His gospel was not just a message; it was a message based on a specific text: the Vision of Isaiah. And of course, if that was the case, it would seem to follow that he wrote the Vision, for he says in Galatians that he received his gospel by revelation and not from any man.

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On Bart Ehrman’s Claim Jews “Would Not Make Up” a Crucified Messiah

This post is a response to a question in the comments section. The indented colour-coded section are Bart Ehrman’s claims; all links are to other Vridar posts where I have discussed topics more fully and presented evidence for the statements made here.

The earliest followers of Jesus were convinced that he was the messiah. How do we know? Because they called him this, repeatedly, constantly, all over the map. As I have explained, the word “messiah” comes from the Hebrew word for “anointed one.” In Greek, “messiah” gets translated as “christ.” So anyone who says Jesus Christ is saying Jesus the Messiah.

We have late gospel stories about Jesus being understood by a handful of followers as the messiah. The authors tell us nothing about their actual sources for any specific detail they narrate; nor do the authors explain why they change certain accounts of other authors writing about the same sorts of things. The stories are told as “tall tales” by our standards. Yes, other Greco-Roman historians also spoke of miracles but as a rule they did not present those miracles as “facts”, but in virtually all cases explained why they were repeating such unnatural events associated with historical figures and explained why readers should or should not believe the tales. A good number of New Testament scholars and Classicists have been able to identify the sources of many of the stories told about Jesus and they are adapted from other literary tales (not handed down via oral tradition).

And what we have are stories written near the end of the first century or early second about a Jesus called Christ. We have no independent corroborating evidence to give us grounds for thinking that the stories are true.

“Christ” was early and universally (by Christians) applied to Jesus. They called him the messiah so much that it became Jesus’ second name. You find this already in the writings of the New Testament – in fact, in our earliest author, Paul, who refers to him as Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus, or just Christ, as a name. For Christians, Jesus was the messiah.

It is old scholarship that still claims Christ was used as a second name for Jesus among the earliest Christians. But that detail aside, yes, of course our earliest sources call Jesus the Christ. It is begging the question to say “you find this already in the writings of the NT” because we have no evidence for anyone calling Jesus the Christ before any of the NT writings.

This claims is what made the Christian message both laughable and infuriating for non-Christian Jews. Most Jews knew full well that Jesus could not be the messiah. Jesus was just the opposite of what the messiah was supposed to be. The messiah was supposed to be the powerful ruler (earthly or heavenly) who destroyed God’s enemies and set up a kingdom on earth. Was that who Jesus was? Is that what Jesus did?

Again, Ehrman’s claims here are based on a conventional view of old scholarship, of undergraduate scholarship at that. There was no single view that the messiah had to be a conquering king in this world. I have attempted to present in many posts the evidence that Jews were not united in their belief of any particular kind of messiah. One of the foremost Jewish historians today, Daniel Boyarim, argues that the raw material for the Christian messiah — the idea that the messiah was to die and be resurrected — was one of the extant pre-Christian Jewish ideas. I have posted further evidence that plausibly points to the same view not so long ago. The Second Temple Psalm of Solomon is sometimes used as evidence of the Jewish belief in a conquering messiah, but those who advance that psalm as evidence appear not to realize that that same psalm is drawn from the canonical Psalm 2 that presents the messiah as suffering rejection by the world.

The notion of Davidic messiah itself expresses the concept of a messiah who suffers, who is persecuted, yet who in the end is raised by God over his enemies. That’s the gospel Jesus, too. That’s the messiah of the psalms.

Jesus was not at all “just the opposite” because the earliest Christian teaching is that Jesus conquered a kingdom far more powerful than the human one and that he now sits beside God in heaven, continuing to scatter the powers of demons, and advancing his kingdom. I think Ehrman did not mean to say what he actually said in the above quote where he appears to admit that among Jews it was believed that the messiah was to be a powerful ruler earthly or heavenly. Heavenly is just what he became as a messiah, and the conquering of the kingdom of demons who ruled this world was nothing to be sniffed at.

We have no evidence for the claim that all Jews believed that the messiah’s kingdom was going to be set up on earth. We have numerous indications of the contrary. The fact that Christianity emerged out of Judaism is one of the pieces of evidence itself.

Precisely the opposite. Jesus was an obscure and virtually unknown rural preacher who was arrested as a criminal, humiliated, and tortured to death by the Roman authorities. It’s no wonder that most Jews found the Christian claims ludicrous.

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An experiment comparing gnostic and orthodox myths

This post is a follow up from Jesus’ Baptism in the Context of the Myth of Water, Flight and Wilderness. I may come to see this attempt to compare the structures of the myths as a sad misadventure but till then, let’s see what happens.

Detail from the Santa Maria sarcophagus (late second century?). Was Jesus depicted as a child because the myth declared him to be a child at this point or is he depicted as a child to merely symbolize the beginning of a new life beside the aged John the Baptist representing the old?

We begin with the “gnostic myth” of the advent of an illuminator or saviour figure that was announced by the second kingdom:

1. A prophet is said to be the beginning of the saviour figure who is presented as a child.

2. A bird takes the saviour to a mountain, presumably a wilderness setting

3. The bird nourishes the child saviour in the mountain

4. Presumably after the child has become an adult an angel appears to declare the saviour figure now has power and glory

5. The figure comes to the water.

The image below attempts to illustrate that particular structure. (For the understanding of coming “upon” water as an expression relating to power and submission see the previous post.)

Next, look at a similar myth in the Book of Revelation, though we will simplify it for starters. This structure is illustrated in the middle column.

1. The prophet John is writing, or announcing, the advent of the child saviour figure from the time he is born.

2. An angelic voice declares that great power and glory has now come into being, presumably a proleptic announcement concerning the child. (The mother and child are separated; the mother will be a proxy for those who follow the saviour-child).

3. A bird (eagle) carries the mother of the child to the wilderness

4. The woman is nourished and cared for in the wilderness (by….?)

5. The water of chaos, a flood, attempts to destroy the woman but she is protected by the wilderness earth.

The larger structure is essentially the same as the gnostic myth but the middle two steps are reversed. This reversal appears to be a function of the splitting of the child from its mother (and rest of her seed).

The structure the previous two myths is completely inverted with the Gospel of Mark. Coming to the water or facing the water is now moved to the beginning, along with the prophet, and is no longer the culmination of the story. In this gospel the water has become a symbol of baptism which is a figure of the death of the old man (as per Paul). In the Gospel of Mark we have the narrative bookended by narratives of death and emergence from death, first symbolically in the water, then finally through the cross.

1. The prophet announces the advent of the man saviour.

2. The saviour figure comes to the water and as he emerges from it.

3. The saviour figure is addressed as a sacrificial victim — the inverse of the power and glory we saw in the other two myths. For “my beloved son” as a signal of a son to be sacrificed see Jon Levenson’s studies on the Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. But the power and glory is still latent because the saviour figure is still the son of God.

4. The spirit (identified as a bird, in this case the dove) drives or propels the saviour figure into the wilderness.

5. The saviour figure is nourished by angels in the wilderness. (Matthew and Luke add the mountain.)

The angels and the bird take on inverted meanings. The angels feed and nourish the saviour in the wilderness, thus doing enough merely to keep him alive after his long fast and encounter with Satan. There is no roaring declaration of the saviour being imbued with power and glory.

The bird has changed from an eagle to a dove. The eagle had the power to rescue and carry a person in flight. The dove drives the saviour figure into the wilderness but has already come to him at the moment he is declared to be the beloved son (for sacrifice).

The Gospel of Mark may be thought of as inverting the rival myths of a messiah or saviour coming with great power. The water has become a means of symbolic death and birth as a “beloved son” destined to be sacrificed.

The earlier myth of power is not completely displaced, however. We see the saviour figure in the wilderness nourishing his followers by the thousands; he then ascendes a mountain before returning to walk upon the water to his disciples. Several details of this narrative indicate it is to be understood as a theophany, or perhaps even originally a post-resurrection appearance. The myth of power is not completely replaced but it is supplemented by an inverted form of the myth to take place first.

 

When is a parallel a real parallel and not parallelomania?

The question of parallels has been raised in different posts and comments lately on Vridar.

Firstly, I questioned Joseph Atwill’s claim that there was a parallel between Jesus calling disciples to become “fishers of men” beside the “sea of Galilee” and a scene in Josephus’ War where Romans kill drowning Judeans in a battle that had spread to a the lake of Galilee. I also took exception to his parallel between the act of cannibalism that Josephus narrates in the same work and the gospel accounts of the Passover.

Soon afterwards, I posted about parallels between the Hebrews Bible and certain Hellenistic myths and other literature in relation to the works of Russell Gmirkin and Philippe Wajdenbaum. Further, I posted something by a classicist, Bruce Louden comparing a scenario in the Odyssey with the biblical story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to which I added further details between Greek myths and the Lot story identified by Wajdenbaum.

So am I being inconsistent in being critical of one of Atwill’s parallels but posting without critical commentary some of the work by Gmirkin, Wajdenbaum  and Louden?

One reader, Austendw, has posted a frequent criticism when this topic surfaces, and no doubt he speaks for many others. I copy just part of his comment:

And as for Saul in Mizpah, you relate Saul in hiding among the baggage, to Rachel hiding the teraphim in the saddlebag. The Hebrew says merely that Rachel “put” them in the saddle-bag; a nit-picking difference perhaps, but bearing it in mind reveals that, apart from the common place-name Mizpah, (a different Mizpah of course – it’s an extremely common place name in the OT), there isn’t a single verbal correlation between the two passages. Therefore your comment that Saul turns up like “Laban’s long-lost idol” (singular, though Laban’s teraphim were plural), strikes me as nothing other than your own imaginative eisegesis; you have imposed a meaning on the text and thereby constructed a parallel between the two stories that simply isn’t found in either of the texts themselves.

The details are indeed very different. But what is it, then, that makes it a “genuine” parallel in the minds of some others? Are we stretching different images almost to breaking point to make them seem somehow, even bizarrely, like one another? Is it reasonable to compare a person hiding in baggage and another person putting an incriminating object in a saddlebag?

Ideal Type compared with specific details

In order to try to understand what is going on here, to help us understand if we are manufacturing artificial parallels or discovering “real” ones, here is something written by Robert Price in The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems. Price is addressing a concept developed by the sociologist Max Weber, the Ideal Type. (Ideal relates to the world of ideas, not perfect ideals.) read more »

The Different Meanings of “Fishers of Men”

Since we have been talking about “fishing for men” and how it can be interpreted in different ways . . .

  • Jindrich Mánek postulates that Jer 16:16 and cosmological myths involving the sea elucidate a sense of rescue in the expression [i.e. “fishers of men”].
  • Charles W. F. Smith argues that the dark motif of judgment in the Hebrew prophets and Qumran literature supplies the expression with an ominous ring.
  • Wilhelm Wuellner suggests that the multivalent usage of fishing in antiquity informs the call of disciples as one denoting partnership in Jesus’ eschatological mission.
  • And J. Duncan M. Derretí posits that the expression is derived from Ezekiel 47.
  • More recently, Joel Marcus has synthesized much of the relevant scholarship:

There may not be any need to choose among these different interpretations; the disciples’ fishing for people is probably a multivalent image that includes their future missionary preaching, their future teaching, and their future exorcisms (cf. 3:14-15; 6:7,12-13, 30; 13:9-10), all of which are understood as a participation in God’s eschatological war against demonic forces; this war, moreover, recapitulates God’s redemption of Israel from Egyptian bondage.

(Wassell 637, my formatting; my bolding in all quotations)

There was once a time when I thought the idea of “fishing for men” was not a particularly irenic image, certainly not for the fish or for comparing people to fish being pulled, gasping, out of the water to die a slow death. I recall trying to rationalize the metaphor. We are “alive in our sins in the world” today and have to “die” or “mortify the flesh” in order to live a new life in a new kingdom. But that didn’t really work because the image offers no pleasant lease of life for the fish.

There was once a time when I felt that the original metaphor as found in Jeremiah 16:16 was more judgmental than pastoral. Sure, if one reads the verse in the context of the previous two or three it does sound quite positive, presenting Jeremiah’s readers with a scene of drawing lost Israelites back from captivity to a restored happy kingdom:

14 Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be said, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;

15 But, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers.

16 Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them;

Reading in context

But when I studied the Book of Jeremiah more attentively I had to discard that shallow interpretation. In its fuller context the image is one of judgement.

10 And it shall come to pass, when thou shalt shew this people all these words, and they shall say unto thee, Wherefore hath the Lord pronounced all this great evil against us? or what is our iniquity? or what is our sin that we have committed against the Lord our God?

11 Then shalt thou say unto them, Because your fathers have forsaken me, saith the Lord, and have walked after other gods, and have served them, and have worshipped them, and have forsaken me, and have not kept my law;

12 And ye have done worse than your fathers; for, behold, ye walk every one after the imagination of his evil heart, that they may not hearken unto me:

13 Therefore will I cast you out of this land into a land that ye know not, neither ye nor your fathers; and there shall ye serve other gods day and night; where I will not shew you favour.

Verses 14-15 are in interpolation from Jeremiah 23:7-8 7

14 Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be said, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;

15 But, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers.

16 Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.

17 For mine eyes are upon all their ways: they are not hid from my face, neither is their iniquity hid from mine eyes.

The image of fishing is associated now with the image of pulling people out of their land and exiling them to “a land they know not”. It is no longer an image of salvation but an image of judgment.

Contrast the Gospels of Luke and John

But in certain of the gospels it clearly is an image of salvation. read more »

“Under Tiberius All Was Quiet” : Or — No, Jesus was not “one of many”

It is S.G.F. Brandon’s fault. At least he shares much of the blame. Way back in 1967, the year of the Six Day War and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, his book Jesus and the Zealots was published. Ever since then it has been de rigueur for scholars to locate the historical Jesus in a Palestine strewn willy nilly with roaming bandits, rebels and apocalyptic prophets.

In vain have I posted here and on other online discussion groups my complaint that there is simply no evidence for any of these figures in the time of Jesus, but that the only reason it is believed that such movements dotted the landscape in his time is by inferring that the zealots and prophets who appeared later (or in one case a generation earlier) were indicative of what must have being happening around the 20s and 30s CE — despite the silence in the record.

But yesterday I discovered a friend who will back me up. I don’t know him personally but I know him through his 1975 article in the journal New Testament Studies. He is Paul W. Barnett, a fellow Australian, who belonged to the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Sydney. (He’s also a bishop, sorry.) The article he had published, and the reason I like him so much, is:

Barnett, P. W. 1975. “‘Under Tiberius All Was Quiet.’” New Testament Studies 21 (04): 564. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688500010043.

Here is his argument. From the outset he points out that

Careful analysis of the incidence of unrest and disturbance suggests that ‘revolutionary’ activity began in earnest during the Second Procuratorial period (A.D. 44-66).

Yes, yes, yes. That’s exactly what I have been trying to say.

What changed to bring on instability from that time on?

  • The unexpected and premature death of Agrippa and the evident paganism and philo-Romanism of his son must have dashed to the ground any hopes for a deliverer from the Hasmonean line.
  • Claudius’ initial policy was not unkind to Judaeans though this hardly compensated for the crises of the forties — the barely averted desecration of the Temple4 (A.D. 40), the death of Agrippa and the return to Roman rule which now extended to Galilee5 (A.D. 44), and the severe famine (A.D. 46-8).
  • However, the appointment as Procurator in A.D. 52 of Pallas’ brother Felixat the behest of ex-High Priest Jonathan was to prove disastrous in Jewish history. Under the procuratorship of Felix (A.D. 52-60) the terrorist activities of the Sicarii began, the prophetic movement waxed strong, whilst Graeco-Jewish relationships in Caesarea were allowed to reach a critical point.

(p. 565. My formatting in all quotations)

There was more. read more »

Response #2 to the Non Sequitur program: “Not even the gospels say Jesus was famous outside Galilee”

From Wikiwand

For the previous response and a link to the Non Sequitur video see Response #1 to the Non Sequitur program with Tim O’Neill: MOTIVES.

At about the 49th minute of the Non Sequitur program Tim O’Neill makes the following claim:

Even if you look at what the gospels say about Jesus — and these are the gospels, by the way, that are trying to boost how significant and important he was — when we look at what they say about Jesus, they’re not actually making terribly big claims. The Gospel of Mark, for example, says he became really famous, he was doing these miracles, he became really famous, he was famous throughout the whole of… Galilee! You can walk across Galilee in a day in a nice afternoon at a brisk pace. So he became really famous across the whole of Galilee. It’s a bit like saying he became famous across the next six city blocks. So they’re not actually making a big claim for him to be famous at all. The Gospel of Matthew takes that bit (and he’s using the Gospel of Mark as his source) so the writer of Matthew tries to pump it up a bit and says he was also famous in Judea and Transjordan and the ten cities of the Decapolis and throughout the whole of Syria. So he’s trying to pump it up. But even in the gospels they don’t depict him as being terribly famous outside his back yard, and Galilee was a backwater even by Jewish standards, and Judea, generally, was a backwater by Greek and Roman standards. So even the gospels don’t make him out to be terribly famous. And remember I just mentioned about Theudas and the Egyptian prophet needing to have their followers dispersed by large bodies of Roman troops. Even the gospels make it clear that in their version of the story that Jesus was arrested by a handful of temple guards; there was a bit of a scuffle and not much happened. Even the gospels aren’t making him out to be terribly famous. So, do we have evidence that this guy was famous even in the Christian material? The answer is ‘no’.

Here is the Gospel of Matthew’s “pumped up” claim since the Gospel of Mark limited Jesus’ fame to Galilee:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. — Matthew 4:23-25

Here is how the Gospel of Mark, according to Tim, limited Jesus’ fame to “the six blocks” of Galilee:

And Jesus with his disciples withdrew to the sea: and a great multitude from Galilee followed; and from Judaea, and from Jerusalem and from Idumaea, and beyond the Jordan, and about Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude, hearing [a]what great things he did, came unto him. — Mark 3:7-8

Jesus mistakenly thought he could hide if he left Galilee but Mark says he was wrong: read more »

Response #1 to the Non Sequitur program with Tim O’Neill: MOTIVES

Last weekend I watched Tim O’Neill present his arguments against the idea that there was no historical Jesus. I said I would respond in a post to his points and expected to cover it all in one or two sessions. But time is getting away from me this evening so here I will address just one point, Tim’s opening claims.

Tim begins by arguing that mythicism is appealing because it pulls the rug out from Christianity.

My response:

I am not interested in and do not refer in my comments to conspiracy theorists and cult-like following of a certain kind of mythicism that I equate more with interest in aliens, UFOs, Holy Grail, type theories. I am referring to the serious scholarly stuff led by the likes of Wells, Doherty, Price, Brodie and Carrier who ground their research and arguments in the publication of biblical and other recognized scholars.
  • I don’t know of any evidence to support that claim, the claim that, in general, people who are attracted to the mythicist viewpoint do so because they are motivated by some anti-Christian animus. No doubt. In fact, the evidence that I have been able to collate suggests that this is not true.  Some mythicist authors have in fact expressed the deepest respect for Christianity (e.g. Francesco Carotta, Paul-Louis Couchoud, Hermann Detering, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, Tom Harpur, Edward van der Kaaij, Robert M. Price).
  • Some mythicists have even remained Christians after embracing mythicism and it is through acknowledgement of Jesus as a “mythical” creation they find deeper meaning in their faith (e.g. Thomas Brodie, Tom Harpur, Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy).
  • I do not recall reading a single scholarly mythicist work that attacks Christianity as a faith. One of the most prominent warriors against Christianity is John Loftus and he has said that arguing mythicism would be the worst way to try to turn someone away from Christianity. I have posted the same thoughts here. Tim O’Neill tells us that Richard Carrier has said the same. So I don’t know if anyone is seriously attempting to attack Christianity by means of arguing that Jesus did not even exist. (No doubt there are some less well informed people who do this sort of thing, or I assume there must be in a universe as vast as ours, but I am speaking throughout of those who are focused on the scholarly arguments for mythicism by such authors as Brodie, Carrier, Doherty, RM Price and RG Price, Detering, Lataster, Fitzgerald, Ellegard, Wells, Parvus, Onfray and such.)
  • Further, if many who are attracted to mythicism are already atheists, then it hardly seems likely that they are motivated by a desire to find pretexts to undermine Christianity. I suppose some atheists are on a vendetta against Christianity, but not even the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens used mythicism as a deadly cudgel. They did nothing more than refer to its possibility in passing and with some diffidence. They certainly held back from using it as serious weapon.

read more »

The Two Steps to move the Lord’s Celebratory Supper to a Memorial of his Death

While speaking about the origin of the Lord’s Supper discussions prompted me to revisit the question of the integrity of our canonical texts and whether we can be confident they preserve what was originally written by Paul and the author of the Gospel of Mark.

Well, I’ve tracked down several studies on just that question and though I will have to wait a few weeks before a number of them arrive I can post the arguments of one critical scholar, Alfred Loisy. Loisy set out his reasons for believing that the passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in which he claims to have received the instructions about the Lord’s Supper from the Lord himself is a later addition, and similarly for the passage in the Gospel of Mark narrating Jesus instituting a mystical rite the eve before his death. On the contrary, Loisy argues, before the ritual of the death of Jesus the Christian communities knew only of a celebratory fellowship meal that anticipated the imminent arrival of the Kingdom where they would all be feasting with Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 11:

20 When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper.

21 For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.

22 What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? what shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.

23 For I have received from [ἀπὸ] the Lord [τοῦ Κυρίου] that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:

24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.

25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.

26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.

Many of us who have read the above passage may at some time, especially when we first encountered it, have had some “back of our mind” sense that there was something slightly odd with it. But of course repetition when and where all around us evidently accept it as unproblematic dulled our curiosity. But Loisy revives and sharpens our early questions:

Direct revelation or from apostolic tradition?

35 There has been much dissertation about the meaning of the preposition από (before τον κυρίου in verse 23), which need not exclude intermediaries between Jesus and the author of the story. But on the hypothesis of intermediaries, as the matter concerns an act of the Christ and not a plain teaching, we should expect περί rather than από. The author places the case of the Supper among the other παραδόσεις which the Corinthians have received from him. Are all these to be transformed into Gospel traditions passed on by the Galilean apostles? Moreover, whether it be tradition or private vision, the story as here given is not in the primitive Gospel.

(Loisy, p. 399 – my heading)

Some strange features confront us in this passage.

  • It is strange that Paul, if he had really told all this to the Corinthians before, should here be obliged to recall it;
  • strange that he should present it as a revelation received by him from the Lord;35
  • strange that a doctrine implying the theory of redemption by the blood of the Christ, and linked artificially to the benediction of bread and wine customary at Jewish meals, should see the light in the first generation, when Christians lived in expectation of an immediate parousia.

On the other hand it is significant that regard is here paid to that expectation. Evidently the vision of the institution of the Supper which Paul professes to have had is conceived in the framework of a story relating the last meal of Jesus with his disciples in which preoccupation with the Great Event was the dominant feature.

. . . .

In the economy of the Supper as a mystic rite this reference to the parousia, made at a time when it was no longer thought of as imminent, is out of place. The mention of it is due to an old and firmly established tradition. There is ground therefore for saying that mystic commemoration of the saving death, the mystic communion with the crucified Christ, is superposed on a form of the Supper as an anticipation of the banquet of the elect in the Kingdom of God, a form clearly indicated in a saying embedded in the oldest tradition of the synoptic Gospels:

Verily, verily, I tell you
   that I will drink no more
      of the fruit of the vine,
   Until that day
      when I drink it new
         in the Kingdom of God.

The account of the mystic Supper, in First Corinthians, belongs to the evolution of the Christian Mystery at a stage in the development of that mystery earlier than Justin, earlier even than the canonical edition of the first three Gospels but notably later than Paul and the apostolic age. It must be dated in the period when the common meal was in process of transformation into a simple liturgical act. The passage in question is a conscious attempt to further the transformation by giving it the apostolical authority of Paul. . . .

(Loisy, pp. 244f, my formatting and bolding)

Loisy suggests that the transformation was made some time in the late first century or early second century, towards, say, the time of Marcion (who esteemed Paul as his sole apostolic authority) in 140 CE.

That makes sense to me. In my earlier post I referred to early traditions, clearly in tension with the one we read in 1 Cor 11: 23-26, that speak of a Lord’s Supper as a happy fellowship occasion for thanksgiving and with no connection at all with mystic symbolism of blood and flesh.

But what of the canonical gospels? If the mystical ritual in Paul’s letter was not part of what Paul himself wrote, and if the earliest canonical gospel that of Mark, was (as some argue – Tarazi, Dykstra, R.G.Price) indebted to Paul’s ideas, how do we explain the gospel account of Jesus instituting that ceremony? read more »

Paul on the side of State Terror

Romans 13:1-7

1 Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.

2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.

3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.

4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.

5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.

6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.

7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.

After listening to historian Tom Holland (see the video clip in the previous post) claim Paul’s seven letters were the revolutionary “depth charge” whose ripples essentially civilized Europe and the West I found myself turning to some studies on the influence of Greco-Roman philosophical values on Paul. One passage stood out. It is by Niko Huttunen in his comparison between Paul’s and the Stoic philosopher Epictetus’s views on law.

We may ask if Paul really meant what he said in Rom. 13.1-7. What would he say a couple of years later, during Nero’s persecution (Tacitus, Ann. 15.44)? Did he think that the sword of the authorities punishes wrongdoers when the sword – as the legend goes – beheaded him? We do not know. What we do know are the words in Rom. 13.1-7. Horsley and his companions think that we can find Paul’s critical attitude towards the empire if the gospel he proclaimed is read in the imperial context. Paul really had an alternative content for such designations of emperors like  ‘son of God’ and ‘Savior’ – just to pick up a few examples that scholars have taken as showing his anti-imperial stance. But these words are not aimed at opposing the Roman imperial order if Paul was honest when dictating Rom. 13.

For example, Luke-Acts begins with the hymns of Mary (Lk. 1.46-55) and of Zechariah (Lk. 1.67-79) in which it is possible to hear national overtones, such as in the phrases ‘he has brought down the powerful from their thrones’ and ‘he has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David’ (Lk. 1.52 and 1.69). Then Luke continues with the birth of Jesus, which can be seen as a variant of imperial legends (Virgil, Ecl. 4; Suetonius, Aug. 2.94). Luke 1-2, however, is not meant to be a political proclamation against authorities. The same holds with Paul. I see no reason to understand Paul’s gospel as being anti-imperial though he used words known in the imperial propaganda. When we deal with Paul’s view on the authorities our primary source must be the passage that openly speaks of the State.

The terror regime which Paul approves motivates people by negative means: do what is commanded in order to avoid death and pain! Paul mentions only in passing that the authorities also use a positive spur, approval (v. 3), and he forgets this immediately. There is only the negative trait, wrath, mentioned in the summary (v. 5), which also includes a new reason for loyalty, the requirement of conscience. Yet, it is Paul – not the authorities – who invokes conscience, and only as an additional point (ου μόνον – άλλα καί). The authorities, as described by Paul, only use the system of the stick and the carrot, and the former prevails. The apostle accepts this system without reservations.

Niko Huttunen

Scholars may attempt to find ways to interpret Paul being a cryptic anti-imperialist by suggesting his use of imperial titles (‘son of god’, ‘saviour’) for Jesus is an ironic challenge to authority and this interpretation no doubt helps activist Christians remain on the side of the angels. But my recollection of years of studying European history from late antiquity through to modern times suggests to me that Paul has been used far more often to justify state terror.

In Huttunen’s assessment, Paul comes off a poor second to Epictetus on this little matter.

It may be that Paul himself did not write those words and that they were added there by “proto-orthodox” as a few scholars but that’s beside the point. Romans 13:1-7 as it stands has been a staple of Church teachings through the ages.

(But Tom Holland may be able to change my mind when his new book is published. Let’s see.)


Huttunen, Niko. 2009. Paul and Epictetus on Law: A Comparison. London ; New York: T&T Clark.


Paul’s “Rulers of this Age” — Conclusion (Part ?)

Is this really the concluding post? No doubt I will find more reasons over time to add to the arguments.

Earlier posts in this series:

    1. Are the “Rulers of the Age” in 1 Cor. 2:6-8 Human or Spiritual? – the sea change
    2. Who Killed Christ? Human rulers and/or angelic rulers. Addressing 1 Cor 2:6-8.
    3. Who Crucified Jesus – Men or Demons? Continuing Miller’s Study of 1 Cor 2:6-8
    4. What they used to say about Paul’s “rulers of this age” who crucified the “lord of glory”
    5. More older arguments for Paul’s “rulers of this age” being spirit powers
    6. Once more on the “Spiritual Rulers” in Paul’s Cosmic Drama

(Addendum: “Demons Crucified Jesus ON EARTH” – according to ancient sources and modern analysis)

–o0o–

Here we return to the arguments of Robert Ewusie Moses [REM] in favour of the Paul’s “rulers of this age” who “crucified the Lord of Glory” being spirit powers.

Argument #1: Context

I have had several people try to convince me that “rulers of this age” has to refer to human rulers because in the preceding chapter and more Paul has been talking exclusively about the divide between human and godly wisdom. Yes, he has. But it does not follow that he will not shift into a higher gear in 1 Cor. 2:6.

The first reason REM offers for Paul’s “rulers of this age” being a reference to demon rulers is that the term would be “arbitrary and redundant” if it was speaking about human rulers. Recall that Paul has already (in the preceding “paragraphs” leading up to 1 Cor 2:6) made it very clear that “earthlings” — sages, scribes, philosophers, all the wise of this world — cannot and never could understand the “wisdom of God”. Had Paul said “none of the wisest persons on earth could understand God’s wisdom, and not only those wisest of all, but even our rulers, too!” — no, it would not work. Most subjects are discreet about it but they snickeringly know that their Herods and Pilates and Caiaphases are not really all that bright no matter how powerful they are. Paul has prior to 2:6 made it clear that the lowly believers are privy to a wisdom beyond the very wisest of this world.

What Paul is doing here is furthering the crescendo: not only the wisest of humans but even “the rulers of this age who are even right now in the process of being disemboweled.” Woops, disemboweling cannot apply to demons, surely, but Paul used another word that means being sapped of all power, being rendered inoperative”. The rulers of this age, Paul said, are in the process right now of being conquered. Later, in chapter 15, he will refer to a time in the future when that conquest will be complete (see point #2).

So, the logic of Paul’s argument goes like this:

  1. not only all the wisest men on earth
  2. but even those powers that rule this age and who are in the process of right now being conquered by Christ with God’s angels
  3. are bereft of the wisdom of God.

The implication here is that these rulers of this age

  • would be expected to have superior knowledge but they don’t
  • would be expected to have superior power but they are in the process right now of losing that power
  • would be expected to be immortal — though if so, the status of that immortality is now in doubt

It is no coincidence, suggests REM, that “superior knowledge”, “superior power” and “immortality” are the three attributes that define “gods” in the Greco-Roman world.

Argument #2: Rulers are now being disempowered

Let’s look again at that detail about the rulers of this age currently losing their power and becoming inoperative. The verb Paul uses is καταργέω (katargeo). He uses the same verb again in 15:24 but this time to describe a past action, something has been completed.

then the end, when He shall hand over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He shall have annulled all dominion, and all authority and power.

When we read that chapter it is evident that Paul is talking about all powers in both earth and heaven. In 1 Cor 2:6 Paul uses the present passive participle of the verb καταργέω to depict an event currently underway. REM returns to the insight of Dibelius who pointed out that Paul cannot be saying that “the High Priest, Herod, and Pilate” are in the process of losing their power. Paul’s words only make sense of the battle between spirit powers that will culminate in total victory for Christ at the end.

Believers are already the bearers of a revelation that the cross was the site of the powers’ demise; but the powers are still at work in the world, though believers know that their days are numbered, for they are being rendered inoperative.

(REM, p. 134)

Argument #3: Apocalyptic passing of ages

Note, further, that the wisdom that the rulers of this age are ignorant of has been hidden in a mystery since even before “this age” began. And the reason it was hidden till now? Answer: For the unique glory of the believers.

As noted by Clifton Black, these are apocalyptic terminologies that portray the death of Jesus as an apocalyptic event, the turning point of the ages. For Paul, then, the advent of Christ is the decisive moment in history which ushers in a new age and, in turn, sets in motion the gradual fading out of the old cosmos (1 Cor 7:33).

(REM, p. 134)

Up till 1 Cor 2:6 Paul is clearly addressing human wisdom. He speaks of human reversal so that the low-class people become exalted in God’s eyes above the powerful “in the flesh”. read more »