This one is my own “find” (if it is indeed a real find; that’s up to you to decide). I begin with Paul’s reference to the veil of Moses. That’s the easy part. What we are looking for, however, is not scattered references to “Old Testament” passages but indications of lengthy passages that have been rewritten for a “New Covenant” context.
So we begin with Moses veil and Paul’s comparison of that with the blindness of the unsaved as well as the complementary comparison of both Moses and Christians taking on the glory of God.
What precedes Paul’s points about being changed into a glorious image is
Paul’s refusal to visit the Corinthians and instead sending them a letter that made them grieve
An appeal for mercy to the wrongdoer
The image of the church as a procession of a divine epiphany that promised life and death [many translators have described a prisoner in a Roman triumphal procession but we will see that that image is incomplete and misleading]
Comparison of letter and spirit: letter kills.
What precedes Moses having a shining face is
God’s refusal to go with his people and their remorse
Moses appeals to God for mercy for the wrongdoers
God showing himself to Moses and making promises of both mercy and death
The ten commandments repeated: the cause of the death of 3000
What follows Paul’s point about being transformed into God’s glory is a discussion of
our earthly tabernacle and how we long to have it changed into a heavenly tabernacle, with tabernacle being a metaphor for body, of course.
What follows the description of Moses face shining with divine glory is
the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness.
2 Corinthians 2-5
Paul’s refusal to visit the Corinthians and instead sending them a letter that made them grieve
God’s refusal to go with his people and their remorse
An appeal for mercy to the wrongdoer
Moses appeals to God for mercy for the wrongdoers
The image of the church as a procession of a divine epiphany that promised life and death
God showing himself to Moses and making promises of both mercy and death
Not administering the letter which kills, spirit gives life
Ten commandments engraved in stone by Moses
Christians transformed into glorious image of Christ
Moses face transformed by and into God’s glory
Our earthly tabernacle and how we long to have it changed into a heavenly tabernacle
The construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness
Recall that a case can be made that the epistle to the Galatians, for all of the “raw emotion” that we read there where Paul accuses his readers of stupidity and orders them to stop and think whether they received Christ by faith or by works of the law, was not at all written in white heat by an indignant apostle but by a calm and methodical author who was imitating a passage in the book of Jeremiah. See
Well, a funny thing happened to me the other day as I was strolling through Jstor articles made available through the State Library of Queensland: I found another article making the same point, only this time in relation to 1 Corinthians 5-6. The author is Sean M. McDonough, professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Massachusetts. The article is “Competent to Judge: The Old Testament Connection Between 1 Corinthians 5 and 6” and was published in The Journal of Theological Studies in 2005.
Before setting out McDonough’s main points I should protect his integrity and warn you that his conclusion is very different from mine. McDonough thinks Paul was so immersed in meditations on the Old Testament writings that he shaped his way of addressing a contingent administrative issue with the Corinthian church by mentally structuring his message as a mirror of a passage in Deuteronomy.
Here is what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5-6. I think you’ll agree that it certainly looks like a genuine instruction from an offended apostle addressed to a very specific church:
5.1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! 2 And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. 3 For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
6.1 Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
9 I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.
12 For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? 13 But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” [as per many Bible’s with marginal notes Paul is here quoting Deuteronomy 17:7]
Paul concludes by quoting the “cast out” passage (he uses a form of the same word found in the Septuagint) that we find in Deuteronomy’s instruction on how to respond to “abominations” in Israel’s midst — “which is clearly parallel to Paul’s discussion of removing from the church the man living with his mother-in-law.” The passage in Deuteronomy 17 has God telling his people how to respond to “abominations” in their midst.
McDonough acknowledges in an interesting footnote that the larger passage’s similarity to Deuteronomy 17 is not immediately noticeable:
The relevance of Deut. 17:1-6 is obscured in most treatments of I Corinthians 5, probably due to the fact that commentators feel its contents are adequately summarized in 17:7. My thanks to Professor Morna Hooker for emphasizing its significance here. Brian Rosner does note the significance of Deut. 17:2, 3 in his treatment of 1 Corinthians 5; see Rosner, Paul, Scripture, and Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians 5-7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), pp. 65, 69.
Mythicists regularly claim (as one commenter on this blog recently did) regarding Paul that “Our earliest Christian source claimed to have learned nothing from the Christians who came before him. He claimed to know what he knew by divine revelation.”
Since the subject has come up once again, in the same form in which it always seems to, let me devote a blog post solely to this topic, in the hope that any mythicists who desire not to be like creationists (who are notorious for repeating the exact same arguments even though they have been addressed adequately on countless other occasions) may at least show a willingness to consider the evidence and respond.
Here are the main relevant points that need to be considered.
First, in Galatians 1:15-17, Paul claims not to have consulted with anyone before starting to proclaim the Gospel.
That “first main relevant point” that McGrath informs readers needs to be addressed simply avoids the problematic verse that the commenter was addressing. McGrath begins with Galatians 1:15 but fails to acknowledge that the commenter, Vinny, was referring to Galatians 1:11-12. Vinny’s comment that McGrath claims to be addressing is:
Our earliest Christian source claimed to have learned nothing from the Christians who came before him. He claimed to know what he knew by divine revelation. He didn’t tell us why he persecuted the Christians who preceded him. Most of the communities he addressed were communities that he founded. The only evidence we have for what those communities knew and understood about Jesus is what we find in Paul’s letters. It is not unreasonable suppose that they knew other things but any declarations concerning what those things actually were are little more than conjecture and speculation. How much of his message came from those who preceded him and how much was the product of his own imagination and creativity is also a matter of conjecture and speculation. Those are pieces of the puzzle that we don’t possess.
The passage to which Vinny was referring was Galatians 1:11-12 (I am using the same NIV translation as McGrath is using):
11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
But let’s see how McGrath addresses the comment. As we just noted, he glosses over the above verses and begins at verse 15:
Here is how the New International Version renders it:
But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.
Important things to note are
(1) that Paul had previously persecuted the church(Neil: The persecution reference is two verses earlier), and so was not entirely unaware of what Christians had to say,
(2) his aim here is to emphasize that his authority is not dependent on the apostles in Jerusalem,
(3) he does not in fact say that he received everything he knew about Jesus or the Gospel by supernatural revelation, and finally
(4) if he did mean to claim that everything that he knew was by supernatural revelation, no historian would believe him, since there is obviously a more mundane explanation available for how Paul knew the things that he did.
I think we can all agree with the first three of McGrath’s four things to note. Concerning #4, historians have no problem “believing” that mystics and visionaries claim to have visions and revelations from spirit realms. Historians acknowledge that Joan of Arc heard voices without believing that a heavenly saint really was speaking to her, that Saint Francis had visions without believing God was really communicating with him, and that people speak in tongues without believing that a real “holy spirit” is doing the work. I learned through an article by Stephen Young that “the now classic analysis” explaining the difference was set out by Wayne Proudfoot in 1987 in Religious Experience:
Descriptive and Explanatory Reduction
We are now in a position to distinguish two different kinds of reduction. Descriptive reduction is the failure to identify an emotion, practice, or experience under the description by which the subject identifies it. This is indeed unacceptable. To describe an experience in nonreligious terms when the subject himself describes it in religious terms is to misidentify the experience, or to attend to another experience altogether. To describe Bradley’s experience as simply a vision of a human shape, and that of Mrs. Edwards as a lively warm sense that seemed to glow like a pencil of light, is to lose the identifying characteristics of those experiences. To describe the experience of a mystic by reference only to alpha waves, altered heart rate, and changes in bodily temperature is to misdescribe it. To characterize the experience of a Hindu mystic in terms drawn from the Christian tradition is to misidentify it. In each of these instances, the subject’s identifying experience has been reduced to something other than that experienced by the subject. This might properly be called reductionism. In any case, it precludes an accurate identification of the subject’s experience.
Explanatory reduction consists in offering an explanation of an experience in terms that are not those of the subject and that might not meet with his approval. This is perfectly justifiable and is, in fact, normal procedure. The explanandum is set in a new context, whether that be one of covering laws and initial conditions, narrative structure, or some other explanatory model. The terms of the explanation need not be familiar or acceptable to the subject. Historians offer explanations of past events by employing such concepts as socialization, ideology, means of production, and feudal economy. Seldom can these concepts properly be ascribed to the people whose behavior is the object of the historian’s study. But that poses no problem. The explanation stands or falls according to how well it can account for all the available evidence.
(Proudfoot, 196f. bolded emphasis mine)
Thus McGrath’s suggestion that Paul’s claim to have received by revelation his gospel of Jesus is implausible confuses acceptance of Paul’s claim with belief in Paul’s own beliefs about his claim. Historians can and should explain Paul’s words without themselves personally believing Paul’s interpretations. It is absurd to suggest that they should reject Paul’s words because they themselves don’t believe his account.
So we can correct #4 to say that “if Paul did mean to claim that everything that he knew was by supernatural revelation, no historian would believe his visions were genuinely from another realm; historians would be quite content to accept that he claimed to have had a direct revelation by whatever means.”
Another post I promised a commenter, this time Paul George. The point here is to clarify the grounds upon which Nodet and Taylor claimed that our canonical gospels are not the best place to start in order to understand Christian origins. The evidence they cited for this claim came from the Christian writings we have prior to the appearance in the literature of any explicit knowledge of our gospels. Our gospels evidently carried very little (= zero) weight as authoritative information about Jesus until the late second century.
Before there was a “written authoritative reference point”, that is, before the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were embraced as standard narratives about Jesus, how did Christians write about Jesus?
Ignatius of Antioch (we will assume here the conventional identity and date for Ignatius, with his writings dated early second century)
For Ignatius, the documents about Jesus to be relied upon were not written in ink:
My documents are Jesus Christ; my unimpeachable documents are his cross and resurrection, and the faith that comes from him. — Phil. 8:2
The Roman Creed
1. I believe in God the Father Almighty
2. And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord;
3. Who was born by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary;
4. Was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried;
5. The third day he rose from the dead;
6. He ascended into heaven; and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
8. And the Holy Ghost;
9. The Holy Church;
10. The forgiveness of sins;
11. The resurrection of the body (flesh)
Ignatius speaks often of Christ, but refers to precise events only in succinct statements which are very close to the primitive kerygma—the proclamation of the saving death and resurrection—or which resemble those of the Roman Creed. (Nodet and Taylor, 4)
As Christian Scripture he knows at most 1 Cor and recalls the context of crisis in which it was written. He refers often to salvation in Jesus Christ, but, like Ignatius, without ever alluding to the facts of the life of Jesus. Only once does he cite words of Jesus (13:2), but the logion is not known in this form in the NT, which shows that for Clement there is no official text (although that does not, of course, exclude the existence of some documents). He speaks of Jesus only by way of the OT. Thus, when speaking of Christ as the suffering servant, he makes no direct reference to his life but uses only a biblical passage (the song of Isa 53:1-12). It is interesting to note that Heb 10:5 does exactly the same: “Coming into the world, Christ said: ‘You did not want sacrifice or oblation, but you formed for me a body [. . .]’ (Ps 40:7).” (Nodet and Taylor, 5)
The Didache knows and interprets the OT. It also quotes words of Jesus related to the Sermon on the Mount, but without a precise literary link with the Matthaean text, and a very similar version of the Lord’s Prayer; there is probably a common origin in the liturgy. (Nodet and Taylor, 5)
Didache chapter 9: 1. And concerning the Eucharist, hold Eucharist thus: 2. First concerning the Cup, “We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which, thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child; to thee be glory for ever.” 3. And concerning the broken Bread: “We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. 4. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.” 5. But let none eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptised in the Lord’s Name. For concerning this also did the Lord say, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”
Not mentioned by Nodet and …. but surely significant is that the Didache interprets the eucharist as a thanksgiving meal without any relationship to a death of Jesus.
The Didache further admonishes a high regard be held for those who spread the word, for the importance of staying with likeminded saints and warning against false teachers. The scenario appears to be entirely oral. No written gospels (nor even epistles, for that matter) to rely upon to maintain true teaching.
The Epistle of Barnabas is a Christian interpretation of traditions from the OT or related texts . . . . This interpretation is totally based on a typological reading of the OT, with several facts or words relating to Jesus, but in a rather stylized form and in any case without a literary link with the gospels as we know them. (Nodet and Taylor, 5)
Polycarp of Smyrna, whose background is similar to that of Ignatius of Antioch, is familiar with the writings of Paul and makes a number of references to them. He has some knowledge of Matt, perhaps in the form of written notes (compilations of logia), but certainly not as a normative work. (Nodet and Taylor, 5)
Polycarp also speaks of being attentive to the word handed down orally in order to refute those who deny the incarnation.
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
If you find the following mix of machine translation and my own editing horrific enough you may prefer to read the original French itself that I copy afterwards. But first, some background will help. Earlier in the article several redactions of Paul’s epistles have been postulated (credit to Turmel):
The original letters of Paul:
inspired by his faith in the forthcoming restoration of the kingdom of Israel which had been announced by Jesus and which constituted the initial substance of the Gospel.
A second redacted version had been attributed to Marcion and
corrected this messianic nationalism by the anti-Jewish gnosis of Marcion.
A third series of redactions produced the versions closer to what we have today, and
maintained the Gnostic Spiritualism of [Marcion’s edition] by dismissing or hiding its anti-Judaism.
The following passage we read a modified hypothesis:
(2) After the revolt of the Jews in 66 and their final crushing in 70, a strong current of anti-Judaism spread in the eastern part of the Roman Empire but especially in Syria. The Judeo-Christians of Jerusalem had retreated to the confines of Transjordan, where they lingered, under the name of “Nazarenes” or “Ebionites”, away from the rest of the Christianity, almost foreign to his life and evolution, so that they soon became heretics.
Antioch became the great metropolis of the Christian world. There was formed a “school of theology” which claimed Simon, the former Esmoun of the Phoenician coast, became the saviour god of the Samaritans. It repudiated the God of the Jews, considered the spirit of evil. It was said that Simon, whose name means “obedient”, had come from heaven to obey the will of the Most High and bring to men the “Gnosis”, that is, the true knowledge, that of their origin, of their nature and their end. The mind, it was said, came from God but fell because of an original fault, in the bonds of the flesh. It can recover its original purity and return to lost Paradise only by rejecting the traditional laws, especially those of the Jews, made to enslave him, and professing a docile faith in the liberating doctrine of Simon. With him, by the grace of the supreme God of whom he is sent, one is freed from sin. It is liberated from this mortal body to reach the life of the spirit by the practice of mortification, abstinence and continence.
It is a Christian transposition of this simonian gnosis offered to us in the econd redaction of Paul’s epistles. It differs singularly from the first. If it was added by a series of skilful interpolations and convenient suppressions, it was because she found there points of attachment which allowed her to benefit from the prestige of the Apostle without risking the disfavor of novelty in religion.
(2) Après la révolte des Juifs en 66 et leur écrasement final en 70, un fort courant d’anti-judaïsme se répandit dans la partie orientale de l’empire romain mais surtout en Syrie. Lés Judéo-Chrétiens de Jérusalem s’étaient repliés sur les confins de la Transjordanie, où ils végétèrent, sous le nom de « Nazaréens » ou d’ « Ebionites », à l’écart du reste de la Chrétienté, presque étrangers à sa vie et à son évolution, de sorte qu’ils firent bientôt figure d’hérétiques.
Antioche devint la grande métropole du monde chrétien. Il s’y était formé une Ecole de théologie qui se réclamait de Simon, l’ancien Esmoun de la côte phénicienne, devenu le Dieu Sauveur des Samaritains. L’on y répudiait le Dieu des juifs, considéré comme le Génie du mal. On y disait que Simon, dont le ùom signifie « obéissant » était venu du ciel pour obéir à la volonté du Très-Haut et apporter aux hommes la « Gnose », c’est-à-dire la Science véritable, celle de leur origine, de leur nature et de leur fin. L’esprit, expliquait-on, est issu de Dieu mais tombé par suite d’une faute originelle, dans les liens de la chair. Il ne peut recouvrer sa pureté première et regagner le Paradis perdu qu’en rejetant les lois traditionnelles, surtout celles des juifs, faites pour l’asservir, et en professant une foi docile en la doctrine libératrice de Simon. Avec lui, par la grâce du Dieu suprême dont il est l’envoyé, on s’affranchit du péché. On se libère de ce corps mortel pour atteindre à la vie de l’esprit par la pratique de la mortification, de l’abstinence et de la continence.
C’est une transposition chrétienne de cette Gnose simonienne que nous offre la seconde rédaction des Epîtres de Paul. Elle diffère singulièrement de la première. Si elle lui a été adjointe par une série d’interpolations ingénieuses et de suppressions opportunes, c’est qu’elle y trouvait des points d’attache qui lui permettaient de bénéficier du prestige de l’Apôtre sans risquer la défaveur qui s’attache aux nouveautés en matière de religion.
Alfaric, Prosper. 1956. “Les Epitres de Paul.” Bulletin Du Cercle Ernest Renan 35 (April). p. 4
Please note, though, that I present the above as a summary of an idea that has connections with others that have been presented on this blog, especially though Roger Parvus’s posts — in the last of which he finds himself leaning towards a historical Jesus at the root of it all. As for my own views they are far from decided. There is simply so much material I have yet to consider and think through.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my revised hypothesis basically adds only two things to Loisy’s scenario: (1) I would identify the above “Christian groups which believed themselves heirs of the Pauline tradition” as Saturnilians. (2) I would identify the above “mystery of salvation by mystic union with a Saviour who had come down from heaven and returned to it in glory” as the Vision of Isaiah. I also said, earlier in this post, that my recognition of the role the Vision plays in the Pauline letters had changed my perspective on a number of early Christian issues. Before closing I would like to say a few things about perhaps the most significant of them: the historicity of Jesus.
Continuing and concluding the series ….
I am now much more open to the possibility that the version of the Vision used by Paul’s interpolators included the so-called “pocket gospel.” The Jesus of that gospel is docetic. He only appears to be a man. Such a Jesus could explain curious Pauline passages such as this one:
Thus it is written: There was made the first man, Adam, living soul; the last Adam lifegiving spirit. But the spiritual is not first, the first is the living, then the spiritual. The first man, being of earth, is earthy, the second man is of heaven. As is the earthy, so too are the earthy. As is the heavenly, so too are the heavenly. And as we have borne the likeness of the earthy, we shall bear the likeness of the heavenly… (1 Cor. 15, 45-49)
Commentators say that we have to understand here a resurrected Christ as the second man; that Christ too was first earthy, and became lifegiving spirit by his resurrection. But notice that the resurrection is not mentioned in the passage. And it doesn’t mention a transformation for Christ from earthy to spiritual. We are the ones who are said to be in need of transformation.
Moving on: In the pocket gospel there is not a real birth. As Enrico Norelli explains 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)
This could explain why, in Gal. 4:4, Jesus is “come of a woman, come under the Law.” The use of the word γενόμενον [genômenon] (to be made/to become) instead of the far more typical γεννάω [gennâô] (to be born) could signal a docetic birth. The Jesus of the Vision comes by way of woman—and since she was Jewish, he thereby came under the Law—but he was not really born of her.
The pocket gospel may actually give us an earlier and more accurate look . . . at what a historical Jesus could have been like.
And, in general, with the pocket gospel as background the interpretation of the crucifixion by “the rulers of this world” in 1 Cor. 2:8 ceases to be an issue. Likewise the improbable silences in the Pauline letters. We can account for why, apart from the crucifixion and resurrection, there is practically nothing in the Paulines about what Jesus did or taught. For the Jesus of the pocket gospel is not presented as a teacher. Not a single teaching is put in his mouth. He is not even any kind of a leader. He is not said to have gathered disciples during his lifetime. All we get is this:
And when he had grown up, he performed great signs and miracles in the land of Israel and Jerusalem. (Asc. Is. 11:18)
These “signs and miracles” need be no more than the kind of bizarre things that, according to the pocket gospel, accompanied his so-called birth. They would be like the curious coincidences that happen to people all the time. But in his case they took on added significance once someone had a vision of him resurrected from the dead. “Hey, I remember once he put his hand on Peter’s mother-in-law when she was sick, and it was weird the way she seemed to get better right away.”
In other words, I think the pocket gospel may actually give us an earlier and more accurate look than the canonical gospels at what a historical Jesus could have been like. He was not a teacher or even a leader of any kind. If he went up to Jerusalem with some fellow believers in an imminent Kingdom of God—perhaps a group of John the Baptist’s followers—he was not the leader of the group. Once in Jerusalem he may have done or said something that got him pulled out from the others and crucified. That would have been the end of the story. Except that another member of the group had a vision of him resurrected, and interpreted it as meaning that the Kingdom of God was closer than ever. Jesus thereby began to take on an importance all out of proportion with his real status as a nobody. The accretions began. And the excuses for why no one had taken much notice of him before.
Why Jesus? Why not a vision of a more significant member of the group? Why not a vision of a resurrected John the Baptist? I don’t know. Maybe John was still alive at the time. Maybe Jesus just happened to be the first member of the group to meet a violent end. Hard to know.
And I’m not sure whether, according to Bayesian analysis, such a further reduction of Jesus increases or decreases the probability of his historical existence. But it does seem to me that such an extremely minimal Jesus can reasonably fit the kind of indications present in the Pauline letters. So sadly, I find I must change my affiliation from Mythicist to Agnostic (but leaning Historical).
. . . at a minimum, the Saturnilians are addressing the same kind of issues we see in addressed in Paul’s letters. At a maximum, . . . 1 Corinthians could be providing us with a window . . . on the Saturnilian church sometime between 70 and 135 CE.
Continuing . . . .
What we would have in Galatians is not Paul’s version of events but Saturnilus’ version of Paul.
There have been biblical scholars who rejected—and not for religious reasons—the Galatians version of events and, on some points, were willing to accept that of Acts.
4th Jan 2021: See comments below for revisions by Roger Parvus to his original post:
If in the Pauline letters someone—whether Saturnilus or someone else—has made Paul the recipient and bearer of a new gospel i.e., the Vision of Isaiah, it would mean that our knowledge of the real Paul is more questionable than ever. The widely accepted rule in New Testament scholarship has been to give Paul’s letters the nod whenever their information conflicts with that of the Acts of the Apostles, especially concerning Paul himself. His information is first-person and earlier than Acts. The author of Acts seems to be more ideologically-driven than Paul. So Paul’s account in Galatians 1:1-2:14 of how he came by his gospel and became an apostle is considered more accurate than what Acts says about the same matters. Likewise regarding Paul’s account of how in the presence of James, Peter and John he defended his gospel and received their approval of it. But this preference for the Galatians account of events takes a hit if it was in fact written by someone like Saturnilus who was looking to promote the gospel he had projected onto Paul. What we would have in Galatians is not Paul’s version of events but Saturnilus’ version of Paul.
There have been biblical scholars who rejected—and not for religious reasons—the Galatians version of events and, on some points, were willing to accept that of Acts. Alfred Loisy was one:
The legend of Paul has undergone a parallel amplification to that of Peter, but on two different lines: first, by his own statements or by the tradition of his Epistles designed to make him the possessor of the true Gospel and of a strictly personal mission for the conversion of the Gentile world; and then by the common tradition for the purpose of subordinating his role and activity to the work of the Twelve, and especially of Peter regarded as the chief instrument of the apostolate instituted by Jesus.
Relying on the Epistles and disregarding their apologetic and tendentious character, even in much that concerns the person of Paul, though this is perhaps secondary, criticism is apt to conclude that Paul from his conversion onwards had full consciousness of an exceptional calling as apostle to the pagans, and that he set to work, resolutely and alone, to conquer the world, drawing in his wake the leaders of Judaic Christianity, whether willing or not. And this, indeed, is how things happened if we take the indications of the Galatian Epistle at their face value. There we encounter an apostle who holds his commission from God only, who has a gospel peculiar to himself given him by immediate revelation, and has already begun the conquest of the whole Gentile world. No small claim! (Galatians i, 11-12, 15-17, 21-24; ii, 7-8).
But things did not really happen in that way, and could not have so happened…
Interpret as we may the over-statements in the Epistle to the Galatians, it is certain that Saul-Paul did not make his entry on the Christian stage as the absolute innovator, the autonomous and independent missionary exhibited by this Epistle. The believers in Damascus to whom Paul joined himself were zealous propagandists imbued with the spirit of Stephen, and there is nothing whatever to suggest that he was out of his element among them. Equally, he was quite unaware at that time of possessing a peculiar gospel or a vocation on a different level from that of all the other Christian missionaries. That idea he certainly did not bring with him to Antioch, where he found a community which others had built up and which recruited non-Jews without imposing circumcision. For long years he remained there as the helper of Barnabas rather than his chief... (La Naissance du Christianisme, ET: The Birth of the Christian Religion, translation by L.P. Jacks, University Books, 1962, pp. 126-7)
My hypothesis supports Loisy’s claim that the real Paul was commissioned as an apostle in the same way that other early missionaries were: by being delegated for a mission by a congregation which supported him. And that the real Paul’s gospel was no different from theirs: the kingdom of God is at hand and Jesus will be coming to establish it. But if that is the way the real Paul was, why does Acts try to take him down a notch? Continue reading “Revising the Series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity”, Part 3”
Thus I think we need to look between 70 and 135 both for the author of the Vision and for the one who projected it into Paul’s letters. We are not necessarily looking for two people. There is no reason why one and the same person could not have done both tasks.
Continuing . . . .
The Best Candidate
To my mind easily the best candidate for both tasks is a man whose name is variously rendered as Saturnilus, Saturninus, or Satornilos. A Latin mistranslation of the name in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies is believed to be the source of the confusion. The original Greek version of that work is not extant, so there is presently no way to be sure. In this post I will use the first rendering: Saturnilus
The information available on this man consists primarily of two paragraphs in the aforementioned Against Heresies (1.24.1-2). Though meager, I think it is sufficient to establish him as our lead candidate. He lived in Syrian Antioch and founded a Christian community (or communities) sometime within our target period of 70 to 135 CE. Prior to becoming a Christian he was a Simonian. Irenaeus says he was a disciple of Menander, Simon of Samaria’s successor. At some point, however, Saturnilus apparently switched his allegiance. Although Simon and Menander had put themselves forward as Savior figures, it is Jesus who is named as Savior in the teaching of Saturnilus. Alfred Loisy puts it this way:
In many respects, therefore, he (Saturnilus) was a forerunner of Marcion. Though much indebted to Simon and Menander, he, unlike them, does not set himself up as the Saviour sent from on high, but attributes that role to Jesus. Consequently, heretic though he be, we cannot deny him the qualification of Christian, while, from the Christian point of view, Simon and Menander qualify rather for Antichrists. (La Naissance du Christianisme, ET: The Birth of the Christian Religion, translation by L.P. Jacks, University Books, 1962, p. 302).
Justin Martyr includes Saturnilians among those who consider themselves Christians, though he himself views them as “atheists, impious, unrighteous, and sinful, and confessors of Jesus in name only, instead of worshippers of him” (Dialogue with Trypho, 35). Justin’s doctrinal objection is that “some in one way, others in another, teach to blaspheme the Maker of all things, and Christ, who was foretold by Him as coming, and the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob.” According to Irenaeus, Saturnilus believed God to be “one Father unknown to all,” and that the God of the Jews was in reality just one of the lower angels, one of the seven who made the world. Such beliefs are not explicitly present in the Vision of Isaiah but may be implicit. God there is called Father but never maker or creator of the world. In fact, the world is “alien” (Asc. Is. 6;9), and so is the body (Asc. Is. 8:14), and so are the inhabitants of the world (Asc. Is. 9:1). True, the angels of the world are not referred to as its makers either, but they appear to have been in control of it from the beginning and are not afraid to say “We alone, and apart from us no one” (Asc. Is. 10:13). Regarding Jesus, Saturnilus was a docetist, teaching that he only appeared to be a real human being (Against Heresies 1.24.2). As we have already seen, the Jesus of the Vision’s “pocket gospel” was docetic.
Saturnilus’ Simonian past, however, provides us with another connection to the Vision of Isaiah. The main storyline of that writing is an ancient one, going back, as Richard Carrier points out in his book On the Historicity of Jesus (pp. 45-47), to the Descent of Inanna. It is a storyline that has been adapted and adopted many times in history, including by Simon of Samaria and Menander. The points of contact are obvious in what Hippolytus says about Simon’s teaching: Continue reading “Revising the Series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity”, Part 2″
This post revises a hypothesis I proposed a few years ago in the Vridar series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity.” In those posts I argued for a scenario in which Paul was in reality Simon of Samaria, and the seven allegedly authentic Pauline letters were in fact letters of Simon that, in the early second century CE, received a makeover by some proto-orthodox Christians. By means of certain additions and modifications to the letters these people in effect co-opted Simon’s work and turned him into a proto-orthodox Paul. I argued too that the gospel message embraced by the author of the original letters was some form of the Vision of Isaiah (chapters 6-11 of the Ascension of Isaiah).
I had misgivings about the hypothesis even before I finished the series, but two years of mulling it over has left me even less enamoured. I am still quite convinced that the Vision of Isaiah is the correct background for several key passages: 1 Cor. 2:6-9; Phil. 2:6-11; 2 Cor. 12:1-10. I have come to doubt, however, that these passages belong to the earliest parts of the letter collection. My changed understanding of 2 Cor. 12:1-10 in particular has led me to think it more plausible that the bulk of the letters was composed not by Simon but by later followers of his who converted to Christianity sometime between 70 and 135 CE. In my revised scenario Paul, not Simon, is the author of the original letters; and the bulk of the additional material — material that turned letters into epistles — was likely composed by a circle of Saturnilians, a community founded by the ex-Simonian Saturnilus of Antioch. Proto-orthodox input consisted of some final sanitizing touch-ups.
This revised scenario bears a definite resemblance to that of the biblical scholar Alfred Loisy (1857-1940) and I acknowledge that a re-reading of his later writings has contributed to my change of heart. Loisy held that only a kernel of the seven allegedly authentic Paulines really went back to Paul, and that the rest consisted largely of stitched-together late first, early second-century materials. He characterized many of these materials as gnostic but preMarcionite. Where I go further than Loisy is in recognizing the role of the Vision of Isaiah in the letters, and in proposing a specific provenance for their incipient gnosticism: Saturnilian Christianity.
Before I explain this revised scenario in more detail I should first review the Pauline texts that show, in my opinion, that their author knew the Vision of Isaiah. It is clear, in general, that the Vision would be a congenial text for Paul’s congregations, for Isaiah is described as receiving his revelation in the midst of a gathering of forty prophets. They look to him for guidance and
And they had come to greet him, and to hear what he said. And they hoped he would lay his hands on them and that they might prophesy and he would listen to their prophecy (Asc. Is. 6: 4-5)
While this was going on
they all heard a door opened and the voice of the Holy Spirit (Asc. Is. 6:6)
Now recall the passages on pneumatic gifts in 1 Corinthians where Paul gives guidance and encouragement to his Spirit-filled congregation regarding the gifts of the Spirit and especially prophecy. In the church at Corinth we are again among a gathering of Spirit enthusiasts. But apart from this general affinity there are three texts in particular in which the Vision of Isaiah shows through.
(One last preliminary: Please note that when I refer to the Vision in this post I am also including the so-called “pocket gospel” as part of it. It is found at 11:2-23 of the Ethiopic [E] and first Latin [L1] versions of the Ascension of Isaiah. For reasons that will become clear as we go along I am willing to accept that it was part of the text that the Pauline interpolators knew.) Continue reading “Revising the Series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity”, Part 1″
What if the Testimonium Flavianum, the passage about Jesus and his followers, in Antiquities by Josephus was written in full (or maybe with the exception of no more than 3 words) by Josephus? I know that would raise many questions about the nature of the rest of our sources but let’s imagine the authenticity of the passage in isolation from everything else for now.
What if the passage about Christ in Tacitus was indeed written by Tacitus? Ditto about that raising more questions as above, but the same.
What if even the author attribution studies that have demonstrated the very strong likelihood that Pliny’s letter about Christians to Trajan was not written by Pliny were wrong after all?
What if that “pocket gospel” in the early part of chapter 11 of the Ascension of Isaiah were original to the text and not a subsequent addition? (I think that the most recent scholarly commentary by Enrico Norelli on the Ascension of Isaiah does actually suggest that scenario but I have not read any of the justifications if that is the case.)
What if 2 Thessalonians 2:13-16 which has Paul saying the Jews themselves killed Jesus in Judea was indeed written by Paul thus adding one more inconsistency of Paul’s thought to the already high pile?
What if, contrary to what has been argued in a work opposing (sic) the Christ Myth hypothesis, the passage about Paul meeting James the brother of the Lord was originally penned by Paul after all?
Would the above Imagine scenarios collectively remove any reason to question the assertion that Christianity began ultimately with a historical Jesus?
23 For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; 24 and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, This is my body, which is for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 In like manner also the cup, after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord’s death till he come.
Richard Bauckham’s analysis:
On the other occasion when Paul explicitly states that he “received” a tradition, he is also explicit about the source: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Cor 11:23). The tradition is about the words of Jesus at the last supper (vv. 23-25) . . . . Paul certainly does not mean that he received this tradition by immediate revelation from the exalted Lord. He must have known it as a unit of Jesus tradition, perhaps already part of a passion narrative; it is the only such unit that Paul ever quotes explicitly and at length. . . . Paul’s version is verbally so close to Luke’s that, since literary dependence in either direction is very unlikely, Paul must be dependent either on a written text or, more likely, an oral text that has been quite closely memorized. . . . Paul cites the Jesus tradition, not a liturgical text, and so he provides perhaps our earliest evidence of narratives about Jesus transmitted in a way that involved, while not wholly verbatim reproduction, certainly a considerable degree of precise memorization.
. . . .
[Paul’s] introduction to the tradition about the Lord’s Supper in 11:23 (“I received from the Lord”) focuses on the source of the sayings of Jesus, which are the point of the narrative, and claims that they truly derive from Jesus. He therefore envisages a chain of transmission that begins from Jesus himself and passes through intermediaries to Paul himself, who has already passed it on to the Corinthians when he first established their church. The intermediaries are surely, again, the Jerusalem apostles, and this part of the passion traditions will have been part of what Paul learned . . . from Peter during that significant fortnight in Jerusalem. Given Paul’s concern and conviction that his gospel traditions come from the Lord Jesus himself, it is inconceivable that Paul would have relied on less direct means of access to the traditions. . . . the authenticity of the traditions he transmitted in fact depended on their derivation from the Jerusalem apostles. We might note that his claim, as an apostle, to have the same right as the Jerusalem apostles to material support from his converts (1 Cor 9:3-6) is based on a number of reasons, but the final and clinching argument is a saying of the earthly Jesus (9:14).
(Bauckham, pp. 268 f.)
Bruno Bauer’s analysis as set out by Albert Schweitzer:
The Lord’s supper, considered as an historic scene, is revolting and inconceivable. Jesus can no more have instituted it than he can have uttered the saying ‘Let the dead bury their dead.’ In both cases the offence arises from the fact that a conviction of the community has been cast into the form of a historical saying of Jesus. A man who was present in person, corporeally present, could not entertain the idea of offering others his flesh and blood to eat. To demand from others that while he was actually present they should imagine the bread and wine which they were eating to be his body and blood would have been quite impossible for a real person. It was only later, when Jesus’ actual bodily presence had been removed and the Christian community had existed for some time, that such a conception as is expressed in that formula could have arisen. A point which clearly betrays the later composition of the narrative is that the Lord does not turn to the disciples sitting with him at table and say, ‘This is my blood which will be shed for you,’ but, since the words were invented by the early church, speaks of the ‘many’ for whom he gives himself. The only historical fact is that the Jewish Passover was gradually transformed by the Christian community into a feast which had reference to Jesus.
(Schweitzer, pp. 132 f)
Bauckham, Richard. 2008. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Schweitzer, Albert. 2001. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Edited by John Bowden. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
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:
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)
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.
A frequent line of argument by scholars and others attempting to “prove” the historicity of a Jesus behind the gospel narratives is to focus on biblical passages pointing to the “humanity” of Jesus, and sometimes his geographical and temporal location. It often appears that such people assume that a figure who is human and said to appear in Palestine in the early first century is clearly historical. Of course only a moment’s thought should dispel a necessary connection between “human” and “genuinely historical.” Would it even be possible for anyone to finish counting the number of fictional “human” characters in stories, ancient and modern, in the world? If we confine ourselves to biblical and ancient Jewish stories that look like history, I suspect the number of fictional “humans” would still outnumber those who we can be sure were historical.
But all of that is just an aside. Let’s continue with Earl Doherty’s discussion of the “born of a woman” expression in Galatians 4:4. So far we have the following:
Recall that the reason we are delving into Doherty’s discussion of the Galatians passage in such detail is to demonstrate the extent of the failure of scholars, in this case Simon Gathercole, to even characterize a mythicist argument correctly, let alone engage with it, and to show just how wrong it is to assume that a mythicist argument must rely on some cheap interpolation card to deny the “natural meaning” of a text. One does have to wonder how many critics (Bart Ehrman included) have actually taken the trouble to read Doherty’s work in full. We will see in the following post how Gathercole has likewise demonstrated his failure to read anything but a few excerpts of the hypothesis he is opposing. Until scholars do really read a book before opposing it I suggest that they will only ever be addressing their own closed circle and supporters while complaining about the unwashed general public being so benighted as to too often sympathize with “mythicism”.
So let’s continue:
As noted by Edward D. Burton in the International Critical Commentary series (1924), the two qualifying phrases, “born of woman, born under the Law” (genomenon ek gunaikos, genomenon hupo nomon) are descriptive of the Son, but not specifically tied to the ‘sending.’ Burton says [Galatians, p.218-19]:
The employment of the aorist [a past tense participle] presents the birth and the subjection to law as in each case a simple fact, and leaves the temporal relation to exapesteilen [“sent”] to be inferred solely from the nature of the facts referred to….But the phrases are best accounted for as intended not so much to express the accompaniments of the sending as directly to characterize the Son, describing the relation to humanity and the law in which he performed his mission.
For those phrases, Burton is not ruling out an understanding of an intended temporal relationship to the verb, but he is saying that it is not grammatically present (such a thing would normally be done by using the present participle). Yet if “born of woman, born under the Law” can be seen as not necessarily qualifying the sending itself, this further frees that ‘sent’ thought in verse 4 from having to be a reference to the arrival in the world of the incarnated Christ in a human body.
At the same time, we might suggest that this absence of a linkage between verb and participles would more likely be the product of an interpolator than Paul himself who, if he intended the phrases to qualify the “sent” idea, would normally have put the participles in the present tense rather than the aorist. An interpolator, on the other hand, would have been focused on the “fact” of these ‘born’ phrases to serve his own purposes, as we shall see. (Doherty, 204)
The lay public interested in these questions are on the whole educated enough to take an interest in such grammatical arguments. They would love nothing more than to see mainstream scholars engage with them for their benefit. When the question of interpolation is raised it is done so with sound contextual and grammatical justification.