Tag Archives: Paul

Revising the Series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity”, Part 3

The previous post concluded with

. . . 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. 

The Real Paul

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? read more »

Revising the Series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity”, Part 2

The previous post concluded with

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

Antioch of Syria

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: read more »

Revising the Series “A Simonian Origin for Christianity”, Part 1

Nicolas Poussin, “The Ecstasy of St. Paul”

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.) read more »

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 »

How the New Testament Works

David Trobisch reminds us in The First Edition of the New Testament that the books of the New Testament canon have been arranged in way that conveys its own message to readers. So editors responsible for the arrangement of the books send a message to readers. This is part of what Trobisch explains is “the editorial concept”.

So we open the New Testament and the first book we see is the Gospel of Matthew. Now the author’s name is nowhere found in the book itself. Someone has added the title and author heading to it. So who is this Matthew? We read the book and see Matthew is one of the Twelve Disciples. So the reader is led to understand that this first book is written by one of the Twelve who were with Jesus.

Next comes the Gospel of Mark, and the reader is left curious as to Mark’s identity. But the editor has collated other books and perhaps even added the odd “incidental” line that leads the reader to learn who he is, too. I’ll return to this later.

Then we read The Gospel of Luke. This work begins with a claim that leads readers to understand many others had attempted to write gospels before this one. The reader has already turned the pages of two of these. Now this Gospel is tied by the preambles to the Book of Acts that soon follows. Now Acts concludes suddenly with an imprisoned Paul preaching in Rome and waiting trial. The reader was expecting to read about the death of Paul. Moreover, some passages in Acts are written in the first person. It is natural, then, for the reader to conclude that Acts was written prior to the death of Paul.

And if Acts was written in the life-time of Paul, then so must have been the Gospel of Luke that precedes Acts. Yet the reader has seen that Luke follows earlier gospels still, such as Matthew and Mark. It is natural, then, for the reader to view these first three gospels as all being composed very early and during the life-time of Paul and other apostles.

read more »

Mark, Canonizer of Paul

dykstra1Until recently I have had little interest in arguments that our apparently earliest written gospel, the Gospel of Mark, was composed as an attempt to teach the ideas of Paul as found in his letters. After reading Mark, Canonizer of Paul by Tom Dykstra I am now more sympathetic to the possibility that the author of this gospel really was writing as a follower of Paul.

Dykstra introduces his argument by pointing out how curiously uninterested the author of the Gospel of Mark is in the contents of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is said to teach with authority and crowds are said to be impressed with his teachings but exactly what he taught in the synagogues or to those who crowded around to hear him in a house is left unsaid. Jesus does teach a lot of parables warning hearers of the consequences of not believing the gospel but the content of that gospel, the detail of what they must believe, is never stated. About the only teaching Mark’s Jesus is said to have delivered is little more than “Keep the commandments”.

Then there is the curious ending: why does Mark virtually leave the resurrection details out of the story altogether?

Dykstra sums up his argument:

The explanation I offer in this book can be summarized as follows. Mark’s primary purpose was to defend the vision of Christianity championed by Paul the Apostle against his “Judaizing” opponents. He undertook this defense because epistles written in the Apostle’s name were no longer deemed adequate, possibly because Paul himself was no longer around to personally defend his authority. Mark didn’t report any new teachings of Jesus because none were available to him: his main sources were the Old Testament, the Homeric epics, and Paul’s epistles, not the disciples or oral tradition. And so he wrote a Gospel that implicitly validated the authority of Paul and his epistles. . . .  My goal in this book is mainly to present the evidence for a literary relationship between Mark and Paul’s epistles. (p. 23, my bolding)

This situation makes sense, Dykstra suggests, if Paul had died and his teachings were in danger of being eclipsed by his opponents.

In chapter two and relying primarily upon Michael Goulder’s argument in St. Paul vs. St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions Dykstra presents a scenario of a sharp divide between two different types of gospels. Goulder was reviving (and responding to criticisms of) an 1831 interpretation by Ferdinand Baur.

Peter’s mission believed that the heavenly kingdom had already arrived and believers were already enjoying the resurrected life, while Paul stressed that the resurrection was yet to come and believers’ present life was more like the crucifixion. . . . Peter’s mission stressed tongues and visions and gifts of the spirit, while Paul’s stressed love and charity; Peter’s mission stressed the need to give away all of one’s possessions since the end had already come, while Paul’s mission advised people to keep working and earning a living. As will be seen, some of these differences are reflected in the text of Mark’ Gospel. (p. 35)

If the evangelist wanted to create a narrative to bolster the embattled teachings and authority of Paul he would need to project a dispute of his own and Paul’s day back into that narrative. The narrative would also need to show that apostles who came prior to Paul, even those claiming to be his brothers and those who were reputed as “pillars” in the church, failed to understand Jesus.

read more »

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 9: The Source of Simon/Paul’s Gospel (conclusion)


This post continues my discussion of the Vision of Isaiah.

It will briefly consider some additional aspects of that writing that make it an attractive candidate as the source Simon/Paul’s gospel.


An Assembly of Prophets

The Vision of Isaiah gives a significant role not just to Isaiah himself but also to a group of unnamed fellow prophets. Isaiah’s arrival at King Hezekiah’s court is the occasion for a gathering of forty of them who “came that they might greet him, and that they might hear his words, and that he might lay his hands on them, and that they might prophesy and that he might hear their prophecy” (Asc. Is. 6:4-5).

With Isaiah seated in their midst and his higher ranking confreres on his right (an arrangement that matches the Vision’s description of the lower levels of heaven), they hear, together with the king, the door to the heavens opened and the voice of the Spirit (Asc. Is. 6:6). And afterwards they are part of the select group that is allowed to hear Isaiah relate what he saw:

And after Isaiah had seen this vision he recounted it to Hezekiah, and to Josab his [Isaiah’s] son, and to the other prophets who had come. But the officials, and the eunuchs, and the people did not hear, apart from Samnas the secretary, and Jehoiakim, and Asaph the recorder… but the people did not hear, for Micah and Josab his son had sent them out… (Asc. Is. 6:16-17)

. . . it could explain why in Paul’s communities prophets played a prominent role, one second in importance only to that of apostles

The amount of attention and the role given to the prophets have led a number of scholars (Enrico Norelli, Robert G. Hall, Morton Smith, and Michael E. Stone) to surmise that the author was projecting his own community into the time of Isaiah. That is to say, the practices the author describes may well be the practices of his own community. Norelli, for instance, is of the opinion that

the Ascension of Isaiah reflects two phases in the history of a group of prophets who laid claim to a role of very high authority in the Christian community, a role much like the prophets who, gathered around Isaiah, are center stage in chapter 6. (Ascension du prophète Isaïe, p. 74, my translation).

Now if this is correct, and if the Vision was the source of Simon/Paul’s gospel, it could explain why in his communities too prophets played a prominent role, one second in importance only to that of apostles: “God has designated some in the church to be, first, apostles; second, prophets… (1 Cor. 12:28). Apostles who were also the recipients of revelations from the Lord were prophets too. But their apostolic ministry as itinerant preachers meant that those prophets who did not travel around were, in effect, the highest authorities on site in the various churches. read more »

Making of a Mythicist, Act 4, Scene 5 (How Paul Was Made)

brodie3Continuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here.

Chapter 16


The last post in this series concluded with

If Brodie’s analyses are correct then it is clear that

the epistles and Luke cannot be taken at face value in writing a life of Paul. (p. 144)

One thing is clear. In recent years there has been a growing interest in literary analysis of the Bible and an increasing awareness of the use of the Septuagint in the composition of the New Testament works. And if literary analysis increasingly sheds light upon the Septuagint as a source of the epistles and Acts, reconstructing the life of Paul must become increasingly difficult.

So who or what was Paul and where did this character come from?

I’ve posted on a section of Alter’s book in The Literary Artistry of Genesis and drawn upon Alter’s principles to discuss the fictional character of the Gospels in Why the Gospels Are Historical Fiction.

For Brodie, the answer hit him (“with a shock”) in 2008 after years of absorbing the contents of the work of Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative. To see Brodie’s thoughts on his first encounter with Alter’s work return to Act 3, Scene 1 (Too Strange!). In one of those light-bulb moments it suddenly occurred to Brodie that almost every chapter of Alter’s book aptly explained the New Testament epistles.

Like Hebrew narrative, the epistles are reticent. And composite. And repetitive. And, standing out from the list: like Hebrew narrative, the epistles are historicized fiction.

Historicized fiction.

A mass of data had suddenly fallen into place.

What hit me was that the entire narrative regarding Paul, everything the thirteen epistles say about him or imply — about his life, his work and travels, his character his sending and receiving of letters, his readers and his relationship to them — all of that was historicized fiction. It was fiction, meaning that the figure of Paul was a work of imagination, but this figure had been historicized — presented in a way that made it look like history, history-like, ‘fiction made to resemble the uncertainties of life in history’ (Alter 1981:27). (p. 145)

Rosenmeyer not mentioned by Brodie, but very pertinent to his argument.
Rosenmeyer not mentioned by Brodie, but very pertinent to his argument.

No doubt some will dismiss such an idea as unrealistic but to those people I would highly recommend reading Patricia Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions — some critical details are discussed in an earlier post. (Brodie does not list Rosenmeyer in his bibliography.) Brodie refers to other known cases of epistolary fictions: the letters between Paul and Seneca, as well as more recent examples.

My own thoughts in response to Brodie’s view is that such a Paul would explain how it was so easy for so many different Pauls to appear, each one representing a different type of Christianity. We have more than one Paul represented in the canonical epistles. We have another Paul in Acts; and another in the Acts of Paul and Thecla. And so forth. The many Paul’s appear to have been sculptured out of various theologies, not biographical memoirs.

Brodie nonetheless wants to emphasize that such a notion does not mean Paul has no value for the faithful. The Good Samaritan is a fictitious character but represents an inspiring “truth”. Similarly, Paul remains an inspiring character who captures the essence of Christianity. Brodie quotes C. Martini (The Gospel According to St Paul):

Paul is a representative figure for all of Christianity. (Martini 2008:15)

Paul is a figure to be imitated, a model for the faithful. Christianity is encapsulated in his persona. There may have been an inspiring figure on which the literary person was based, but that historical person is not the literary one.

Brodie was not the first to come to this view. Bruno Bauer had also concluded that both Jesus and Paul had been “non-historical literary fictions”. Bauer’s doubts were taken up by many of the radical critics among the “Dutch, French, Anglo-Saxon scholars at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century”. Brodie intimates that their doubts faded from the scene because their methods were largely undeveloped. (I’m not so sure that their views were sidelined because of criticisms of their “methods”. Brodie is surely being very optimistic in relation to his peers.)


Paul as a Literary Figure – Direct Evidence from the Epistles

1. Authorship

It is now widely accepted that Paul did not write all the letters attributed to him in the NT. read more »

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 2: The Letters of Paul

This is the second post in the series: A Simonian Origin for Christianity.

Some argue that Paul’s theology just underwent a very rapid development.

Or that he changed his position to suit changed circumstances.

Others chalk up the inconsistency to his temperament. He was impulsive and wrote things in anger that he probably regretted later.

Or he toyed with ideas that he never seriously embraced.

Some say he just had an undisciplined mind and that we should therefore not expect logical consistency from him.

Was he even aware that his assertions were contradictory? Some scholars think so, and that love of paradox may explain his apparent unconcern for contradictions. But others think he was clueless.

. . . from the very first indications in the extant record of the existence of a collection of Pauline letters voices were raised to protest that it had been tampered with. . . .



A Reworked Collection of Simonian Letters


Pauline Zigzags

A much rarer author portrait of St Paul C9th, ...
A much rarer author portrait of St Paul C9th, follows similar conventions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A major problem for Pauline interpreters has always been how to explain the inconsistency of Paul’s theology. The inconsistency shows up especially when the letters deal with subjects about which the proto-orthodox and early gnostics had differing positions. It is particularly noticeable in passages concerning the Law.

For instance, has the Law been abolished? Or is it still valid?

You can find passages in the Paulines to support both positions.

Can anyone actually do all that the Law requires?

Again, one can find Pauline passages to support either a yes or no answer.

Was the Law given by God? Or by angels?

That depends on which Pauline passage you look at.

Was the purpose of the Law to incite man to sin and multiply transgressions? Or to lead men to life?

Again, the letters can be enlisted to support either.

Did the author of the letters think that being under the Law was something to be rightfully proud of? Or was it slavery?

It depends.

All kinds of explanations have been offered to account for the zigzagging, but with nothing close to a consensus reached. There are those, for instance, who argue that Paul’s theology just underwent a very rapid development. Or that he changed his position to suit changed circumstances. Others chalk up the inconsistency to his temperament. He was impulsive and wrote things in anger that he probably regretted later. Or he toyed with ideas that he never seriously embraced. Some say he just had an undisciplined mind and that we should therefore not expect logical consistency from him. Was he even aware that his assertions were contradictory? Some scholars think so, and that love of paradox may explain his apparent unconcern for contradictions. But others think he was clueless:

[T]he thought wavers and alters with heedless freedom from one letter to another, even from chapter to chapter, without the slightest regard for logical consistency in details. His points of view and leading premises change and traverse without his perceiving it. It is no great feat to unearth contradictions, even among his leading thoughts. (William Wrede, Paul, p. 77, my italics)

Ten scholars who argue for interpolation

But there have always been scholars who solved the problem of Pauline inconsistency by questioning whether the letters were in fact the work of only one writer. And not just the Deutero-Pauline letters, but also the seven generally regarded as authentic. The inconsistencies existing right within the individual letters are such that many think it more likely that more than one writer was involved:

If the choice lies between supposing that Paul was confused and contradictory and supposing that his text has been commented upon and enlarged, I have no hesitation in choosing the second. (J.C. O’Neill, The Recovery of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, p. 86) read more »

A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 1


A Vridar reader, Chris S, recently expressed interest in my hypothesis that Christianity was Simonian in origin but pointed out that it would be helpful to have it laid out systematically in a post or series of posts. As it is, my proposals are scattered among random posts and comment threads. So this series will provide an overview of the hypothesis. I will first summarize the main ideas and then briefly defend them and show how they fit together.


A Simonian Origin for Christianity


Status of the Hypothesis

I want to acknowledge up front that my hypothesis is not completely original. It builds on the identification of Paul as a reworked Simon of Samaria that has been argued by Hermann Detering in his The Falsified Paul and by Robert M. Price in his The Amazing Colossal Apostle.

And I want to be clear that my hypothesis is still a work in progress. There is much that I continue to mull over and much that needs to be added. I am aware too that it is speculative. But, as I see it, one of its strengths is that it draws from the earliest extant descriptions of the internal quarrels that plagued Christianity at its birth and can plausibly account for a remarkable number of the peculiarities in those records.


State of the Evidence: The Problem

The proto-orthodox claimed that their brand of Christianity was the original, and that their earliest Christian competitor, Simon, was the first who corrupted it. But there are good reasons to doubt their veracity. Their many known forgeries, false attributions, fabrications, plagiarisms, and falsifications are acknowledged even by mainstream scholars (see Bart Ehrman’s Forged for examples). Their one canonical attempt to write an account of primitive Christianity—the Acts of the Apostles—fails miserably to convince. It is widely recognized that its description of Paul and his relationship to the Jerusalem church is a deliberate misrepresentation.


The proto-orthodox claim to unbroken continuity with the Jerusalem church doesn’t add up. . .

Did the proto-orthodox have no one to stand up to Simon’s successors between 70 and 140 CE?

They concede a continuous line of succession for heresy . . . yet are at a loss to tell us who prior to Justin undertook to refute those heretics.

And their claim to unbroken continuity with the Jerusalem church doesn’t add up.

If they were in existence earlier than the 130s, why is Justin their first known heresy-hunter? Justin names no predecessor for that function in the generation before him. Nor do Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus. Did the proto-orthodox have no one to stand up to Simon’s successors between 70 and 140 CE? They concede a continuous line of succession for heresy (Simon, Menander, Basilides and Satornilus), yet are at a loss to tell us who prior to Justin undertook to refute those heretics.


The Question to Investigate

So I think it is entirely justifiable to question whether the proto-orthodox were in fact the first Christians. Basically, what I am doing is taking the few bits of information they let slip about Simon of Samaria, and seeing whether the birth of Christianity makes more sense with him as its founder.

I am investigating whether it makes more sense to see proto-orthodoxy as a second-century reaction to a first-century Simonianism that had grown, developed, and branched out.


The Hypothesis

In summary form my hypothesis is this: read more »

Functions of Dionysiac Myth in Acts, #2

Continuing the Jesus and Dionysus posts (sharing the 2006 Hermathena article by John Moles) . . .

The status of Christianity against Judaism

The Dionysiac myth also serves as a framework through which to address the status of Christianity in relation to Judaism. The god came to Thebes, to his own people among whom he was born to Semele, but he came as a stranger, unrecognized, even punished by the king as a trouble-maker for introducing something new that had no rightful place in the established order.

Christianity must also be presented as something “new” (“new wine” and the “sweet wine” claims made at Pentecost) but as nonetheless legitimate. Luke achieves this by portraying Jesus as the natural progeny, the rightful heir, fulfilment, of the (reputedly) ancient Jewish religion. All the Jewish scriptures spoke of him.

The above is my own interpretation of the state of affairs and my own synthesis of a longer discussion by John Moles. I’m open for others to make modifications or corrections.

Interestingly another scholar, Lynn Kauppi, has found that the same scene of Paul “on trial” before the Athenians is bound intertextually to another famous Greek play, Eumenides by Aeschylus. Kauppi cites F. F. Bruce and Charles H. Talbert as earlier observers of this link.

See Kauppi: Foreign But Familiar Gods for three posts addressing the details.

Creating a new work by weaving together allusions to more than one earlier master was consistent with literary practice and the art of mimesis in that day.

In Acts 17 we come to a scene that serves as a mirror for the narrative of the whole of Acts (p. 85).

Paul enters Athens and attracts notice as a purveyor of “strange deities” and a “new teaching”. Since Paul has just visited the synagogue in Athens to discuss his teachings we know that what he is bringing to Athens is far from “brand new”. It is an interpretation of the existing Jewish scriptures.

The scene evokes the Athenian reaction to Socrates. Socrates, we know, was also accused of introducing new deities. So the Athenians are doubly in the wrong: they are repeating the sins of their forefathers who condemned the wise Socrates and they are themselves enamoured of novelty. Indeed, they are no different from the “strangers” among them who share the same shallow interests. So Athenian prestige and distinctiveness is cut down by narrator.

“Luke” plays with the ironies of double allusions here: the Athenians are like their ancestor judges who condemned Socrates for introducing “new” ideas and like Pentheus who condemned the stranger for introducing a “strange” god. All the while, along with the “strangers” in their midst, they condemn themselves for their own love of the novelty. The Jews in Athens, on the other hand, condemned themselves for their love of the old and rejection of the new revelation.

The relationship between Jesus-religion and Dionysus-religion

At one level Dionysus represents the totality of pagan gods and here (in Acts 17) we find Paul using a “recognized Jewish proselytizing technique” to bring pagans to Christ through their own gods. read more »

Pharisees and Judaism, Popular (Gospel) Caricatures versus Modern Scholarly Views

Updated 18th January, 2013. 8:40 pm.

I recently confessed that I have too often written with the assumption that my points are surely so well-known that there is no need to explain them. This post attempts to make amends for one such recent gaffe. I explain why I claimed Hoffmann is out of touch with most scholarship with his views of the Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s day.

In my latest post addressing Hoffmann’s argument for an historical Jesus, I dismissed his claim that Paul came from a tradition that knew only a vengeful God incapable of forgiveness. I assumed most readers would know that such a view of the Judaism of the early and mid first century is widely understood to be a misinformed caricature of reality. One commenter pulled me up on that point.

So here I quote views of scholars on the nature of Judaism, and the Pharisees in particular, in the time of Jesus and Paul. First, here are Hoffmann’s words:

[Paul] finessed his disagreements into a cult that turned the vindictive God of his own tradition into a being capable of forgiveness.

I brushed this aside with the following comment:

I am astonished that Hoffmann would write such an unsupportable caricature as if it were fact. His view is surely out of touch with most scholarship that has addressed this question.

So I pulled out books from my shelves that I could quickly identify as having something to say about this question. I avoided any titles that might be associated with scholars of mythicist leanings or left-right-out-radicals, however. I tried to stick to well-known or highly respected names in the field and especially to include relative “conservatives” in the mix.

So here are the sorts of things I have been reading over the years and that have led me to conclude that certainly a good number of scholars no longer accept Hoffmann’s characterization of Judaism or Pharisaism today. Note the number of times they denounce as a modern myth any notion that God was harsh or that Jews did not know divine forgiveness.

maccobyHyam Maccoby: The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (1986)

In recent years, many Christian scholars have come to realize that this Gospel picture of the Pharisees [i.e. severely and cruelly legalistic, hypocritical and self-righteous] is propaganda, not fact. Our main source of authentic information about the Pharisees is their own voluminous literature, including prayers, hymns, books of wisdom, law books, sermons, commentaries on the Bible, mystical treatises, books of history and many other genres. Far from being arid ritualists, they were one of the most creative groups in history.

Moreover, the Pharisees, far from being rigid and inflexible in applying religious laws, were noted (as the first-century historian Josephus points out, and as is amply confirmed in the Pharisee law books) for the lenience of their legal rulings, and for the humanity and flexibility with which they sought to adapt the law of the Bible to changing conditions and improved moral conceptions. . . . (p. 19) read more »

Paul and “The Ektroma” (Revisited)

Inquisition condemned (Francisco de Goya).
Person hiding face and showing posture of shame (while wearing a Sanbenito and coroza hat) in Goya’s sketch “For being born somewhere else”.  (Francisco de Goya). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Was Paul ashamed of his “claim to knowledge by revelation”?

Ed Jones recently sent me an email in which he once again repeats his view that the text of the Sermon on the Mount we find preserved in Matthew is authentic Jesus-movement tradition, while on the other hand Paul’s letters represent a “Great Mistake.” He writes:

Paul had one abiding problem – as he acknowledged “I was born out of time”; he never met the HJ [Historical Jesus], and thus denied the one indisputable basis for authority, apostolic witness. The best Paul could do was to claim knowledge by revelation. To make sense of this point one needs the get the history straight. Christian Origins and Jewish Christianity are serious misleading misnomers. [The term] “Christian” was first used of Barnabas and Paul’s mission in Antioch [Acts 11:26]; it was never used of the Jesus movement. (Ed Jones)

I have to disagree with at least two of Ed’s assertions. First, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the Acts of the Apostles when it comes to biographical information about Paul. In fact, anyone who argues that the Judean and Galilean followers (i.e., the “disciples”) have a claim on authenticity while Paul was a charlatan should certainly hold the Acts at arm’s length. For here we have an apologetic, late (second-century CE) work that desperately tries to gloss over Peter’s and Paul’s differences while practically erasing James altogether. Moreover, we have no evidence that Paul himself ever used the term “Christian” or for that matter would have even recognized the term. The only other NT book that uses Christian is the first epistle of Peter, also a very late work.

There’s that word again

Second, Paul never said he was “born out of time.” I fear we will never be rid of this awful translation. In 1 Cor. 15:8 Paul said, rather, that he was the ektroma. As I wrote earlier:

This translation masks an unusual word – ἐκτρώματι/ektromati — which refers to a miscarried fetus (ektroma). The untimeliness of the birth does not refer to lateness, but to being born too soon, and presumably means that Paul was calling himself some sort of monster. However, his meaning is far from clear and has long been the subject of debate. (Me)

Lately I’ve been researching the terms “born out of due time” and “ektroma,” and I’m now leaning toward Robert M. Price’s conclusion. But first some thoughts on terminology.

read more »

Paul: Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’


Chapter 7 of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ presents what I understand are the arguments of mainstream New Testament scholarship that Paul’s epistles testify to the existence of an historical Jesus. Its author, Mogens Müller (MM), is responsible for what has been praised as the best work to date on the expression “Son of Man”. He is also a leader in a project undertaking a new look at the relationship among the canonical Gospels that extends to recognizing their place in the wider Gospel literature, including apocryphal and gnostic gospels. In this chapter he places the Gospel of Luke around 120-130, which is interesting, and not very far from views often expressed on this blog, though I suspect MM’s reasons would be to some extent different from my own. His view that the synoptic gospels — Mark, Matthew and Luke — are successive stages of theological and narrative development surfaces regularly in this chapter. (I also like the look of his book The First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint.)

This is the irony one encounters when reading many New Testament scholars’ works. There is so much that is so interesting and thought-provoking. But when it comes to addressing the historicity of Jesus one is struck by the way the reader is asked to accept tenuously justified assumptions and sometimes what looks at least to this layman like circuitous reasoning. So my bias will show in what follows.

MM argues that the primary evidence for the historicity of Jesus is the impact such a figure had on believers after his death. read more »