Tag Archives: Morton Smith

Was Paul Really Persecuted for Preaching a Crucified Christ?

Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne, Saint Paul Stoned in the City of Lystra
Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne, Saint Paul Stoned in the City of Lystra

Was Paul persecuted for preaching a crucified messiah?

In 1 Corinthians 1:23 we read that the message of “Christ crucified” was a “stumblingblock” or “offence” to the Jews. There is no explanation to inform us exactly why Jews were so offended by Paul preaching that a messiah had been crucified but that hasn’t prevented many readers from knowing the reason without any shadow of doubt.

The assumption has generally been that the Jewish idea of a messiah was a superhero who would conquer the evil powers of the world and set up the Jewish people as the ruling kingdom over everyone else. There is a further understanding that the Jews hated Paul enough to persecute him because his teaching about the messiah was so outrageous and offensive.

Let’s try the prediction test on the latter of these hypotheses.

If Paul’s crucified messiah really was a scandalous polar opposite (so opposite as to be virtually inconceivable or blasphemous to many Jews) to a standard messianic idea with which Jews as a whole identified, then we would expect to find Paul addressing that contrary messianic figure somewhere and making it clear why it was deficient and why his crucified messiah was indeed superior.

Unfortunately we find no evidence of any such polemic. Paul’s writings nowhere hint of that sort of clash of views.

And this is not surprising when we attempt to find out what the “Jewish” idea of a messiah actually was in the time of Paul. There was none. Or more correctly, there were several ideas alongside an apparent lack of interest in the idea altogether.

This post is not a synthesis of wide readings on scholarship of the nature and place of messianic concepts in Second Temple Judaisms; it is restricted for most part to two quite old publications by Morton Smith:

  • “What is Implied by the Variety of Messianic Figures?” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Mar., 1959), pp. 66-72
  • “The Reason for the Persecution of Paul and the Obscurity of Acts” (1967) in Ubach, E.E., Werblowsky, R.J. Zwi, Wirszubski, C. (eds.), Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershom G. Scholem on his Seventieth Birthday, pp. 261-268

After addressing instances where scholars have read documents as if they were inkblots in a Rorschach test to find references to a messiah, Morton Smith in the 1959 article wrote: read more »

Theologians Who Mistakenly Think They Are Historians

Morton Smith

Some theologians (I won’t mention any names) continue to call themselves historians despite never having majored in any historical studies. One renowned (or infamous to some) biblical scholar understood this as a serious problem in historical Jesus studies. He wrote of the anomaly of Jesus-studies supposedly having so much “primary documentation” yet being so fraught with unknowns, uncertainties and unresolvable disputes:

Yet Jesus should be one of the better known figures of antiquity. We have at least half a dozen letters from Paul, who perhaps knew Jesus during his lifetime (II Cor. 5:16), and joined his followers within, at most, a decade after his death. We have four accounts of Jesus’ public career – the canonical gospels – written anywhere from forty to seventy years after his death; these are generally thought to rest, in part, on earlier written material. Few public figures from the Greco-Roman world are so well documented, but none is so widely disputed. This suggests that there is something strange about the documents, or about the scholars who have studied them, or both.

Probably both. Most of the scholars have not been historians, but theologians determined to make the documents justify their own theological positions. This has been true of liberals, no less than conservatives; both have used “critical scholarship” to get rid of theologically unacceptable evidence. But not everything can be blamed on the scholars. They could not have performed such vanishing acts had there not been something peculiar in the evidence itself.

(pp. 3-4 of Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God? by Morton Smith, my bolding) read more »