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THE JESUS PUZZLE :: Was There No Historical Jesus?


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Did Christianity begin with a mythical Christ? Was the original Jesus a man or a mythical savior god? Solving the Jesus Puzzle through the Christian and ancient-world record, from the Pauline epistles to the Gospels to the second century Christian apologists, from Philo to Josephus to Jewish and Hellenistic philosophy.

Christian faith evolved from a Jesus myth to an historical Jesus. New Testament scholarship needs to uncover that original evolution and rewrite the history of Western religion.


THE JESUS PUZZLE
Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty


THE SOUND OF SILENCE
200 Missing References to the Gospel Jesus in the New Testament Epistles

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"TOP 20"

"The Sound of Silence" begins with a selection of 20 missing references, chosen from the full spectrum of the epistles, silences which should strike any observer as being notably surprising and perplexing. Within this group of 20, I have tried to cover all the principal aspects of the Gospel story, while at the same time demonstrating what the epistles show us to be the true nature of the early Christian movement and its view of the Christ it preached.

 1. Romans 1:19-20

    19For all that may be known of God by men lies plain before their eyes; indeed God himself has disclosed it to them. 20His invisible attributes . . . have been made visible . . . in the things he has made. [NEB]

My first choice is a somewhat innocuous-seeming passage, and yet one which reveals a telling void in the mind of an early Christian writer like Paul. Unlike later commentators from the 2nd century on, Paul here shows no conception that Jesus on earth had been a reflection of God himself, the Son demonstrating the Father’s invisible attributes in his own incarnated person. Even more important, how could Paul fail to conceive and express the idea that Jesus himself was the primary revealer of "all that may be known of God"? It is difficult to explain how any Christian writer, cognizant of a recent life and ministry of Jesus, could show such a void on any role played by Jesus on earth, and yet we meet that silence at every turn, as we shall see.


 2. – Romans 16:25-27

This is one of several passages throughout the epistles which give us a clear picture of the nature of the early Christian movement. It tells us the source of Paul’s knowledge about the Christ, and how the movement started. At the same time, it leaves no room in the picture for an historical Jesus.

    25Glory be to God who has strengthened you, through my gospel and proclamation about Jesus Christ, through his [God’s] revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages, 26now disclosed and made known through the prophetic writings at the command of the eternal God that all nations might obey through faith—27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ. Amen. [Various, ED]

The concept of a divine "mystery," a secret kept by God for long ages, recurs several times in the Pauline corpus (cf. Col. 1:26 and 2:2, Eph. 3:5, Titus 1:3, etc.). The plain meaning of the above words would seem to define the mystery as Christ himself, now revealed through Paul’s gospel (and that of others) after being hidden for long ages. There is no occasion for understanding any incarnation in these words, and we have the added element that what is known and proclaimed to the world comes through the scriptures.

The passage is also full of "revelation" words: apocalypsis, the verbs phaneroo and gnoridzo. Such words are used throughout the epistles to describe what has happened in the present period (cf. 1 Pet. 1:20, 2 Tim. 1:10, etc.). This language marks the 1st century as an age of revelation, when inspired knowledge came through a new reading of the sacred texts. It is scripture, and ultimately God, to which preachers like Paul regularly point as backing for their claims, not the remembered life and teachings of Jesus. The "mystery" has resided in the sacred writings, awaiting the inspirational key God has provided to unlock it.

[ Here is a good example of the opportunity to read Gospel preconceptions into a passage. Several translations use the phrase "through my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ," with the possible implication that it is the preaching by Christ that is meant. The Greek is "to kerygma Iesou Christou" with "Jesus Christ" being a genitive which should be taken as objective, that is, Jesus Christ is the object of the preaching, not the one doing it. "Kerygma" in the epistles consistently refers to the preaching of apostles like Paul, with Jesus as the content of the message. Bauer’s Lexicon specifies this phrase as meaning "preaching about Jesus Christ." The NAB is surprising lucid in the meaning of the entire passage, with its: ". . . the gospel I proclaim when I preach Jesus Christ, the gospel which reveals the mystery hidden for many ages but now manifested through the writings of the prophets . . ." Between the long-hidden mystery and its decipherment from scripture by those like Paul, there is no room for an historical Jesus.

In passages like this we detect no sense that Jesus had recently been on earth, revealing himself through his own preaching. Scholars like to claim that the mystery now disclosed refers to God’s long-intended plan for salvation. But even were this the meaning, did Jesus himself not have a key role in disclosing that plan, in disclosing himself as its cornerstone? Yet Paul has left no room or role here for Jesus’ career; instead, he places the focus of revelation and the coming of salvation entirely upon apostles like himself. ]


 3. – 1 Thessalonians 2:2

    . . . we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the face of great opposition. [RSV]

Early Christian writers like Paul are constantly referring to the message they carry as the "gospel of God." They also talk of the work of God, the saving actions of God, the call of God (cf. Romans 1:16, 3:24, 1 Cor. 1:9, Phil. 1:6, Gal. 4:7, etc.). If these apostles were preaching a message about an historical Jesus who had himself taught about God and his own relationship to him, surely they would style it the "gospel of Jesus." Why is there no mention in the epistles of an earthly ministry of Jesus? On the other hand, if Jesus is a spiritual figure, a "mystery" known only through scripture and God’s revelation of him, then Paul’s message is indeed the gospel of God (see especially Romans 1:1-4), and God is the primary "Savior" (see also Titus 1:3).


 4. – 1 Thessalonians 4:9

    Now, about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. [NIV]

An astonishing silence on Paul’s part. Was not the centerpiece of Jesus’ teaching the love commandment? Could Paul possibly be ignorant of that? What Christian, when admonishing the believer to show love to fellow human beings, would choose to say that God was the teacher of such a doctrine and ignore the entire weight and focus of Jesus’ ministry? Yet this silence on the love command recurs consistently throughout the epistles: see Romans 13:8, 1 Cor. 13:1, Gal. 5:14, Eph. 5:1, James 2:8, 1 & 2 John (passim). Note that here it is not a case of failing to refer to something because everyone already knew it; Paul’s statement is an exclusion of any such assumption that Jesus had taught about love.

[ J. P. Holding has a very strained explanation for this startling phenomenon, claiming that since Jesus spoke in God’s name, all these teachings are correctly ascribed to God. I pointed out in my response to him—see Reader Feedback—that it is inconceivable that all Christian letter writers would conform to such an esoteric consideration and deliberately avoid attributing any teachings to Jesus himself. See the section "A Twenty-Pound Gorilla" (his title) in my response to him for a thorough summary of the situation we face regarding the silences in the epistles: Response to J. P. Holding ]


 5. – 1 Peter 3:9

    Do not repay evil with evil, or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. [NIV]

Even the Jesus Seminar regards the admonition to "turn the other cheek" as authentic to a preaching Jesus. And yet the writer of 1 Peter (presumably Jesus’ own chief disciple) can express the above sentiments without so much as a glance at the words recorded in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount: "Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left" (5:39); and "Love your enemies" (5:44). The epistle writer gives us not even an "as Jesus himself taught us." It is not to be expected that every writer would provide such a phrase on every occasion, but a reference to an earthly Jesus and his words would seem natural in such a context, both to strengthen the authority of the action being urged by the writer, and to honor Jesus as the source. With the possible exception of two "words of the Lord" in 1 Corinthians (which are often interpreted as directives Paul believes he has received directly from Christ in heaven: see the Appendix and "Part One" in the Main Articles), we never get such an attribution from any epistle writer.


 6. – Galatians 2:8

    7. . . [the Jerusalem apostles] acknowledged that I had been entrusted with the gospel for gentiles as surely as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for Jews. 8For God ["he"] whose actions made Peter an apostle to the Jews, also made me an apostle to the gentiles. [NEB]

Not only are the epistles silent on Jesus the teacher, they are silent on any appointment of apostles by Jesus on earth. (Cf. 1 Cor. 12:18, 2 Cor. 10:13, Eph. 2:20). Here Paul identifies both his own and Peter’s call to apostleship as coming from God. (The Greek has the pronoun "he" where the NEB inserts "God" and this is the way most translators interpret it. Some translations leave the "he" but none I am aware of changes it to "Jesus".)

Moreover, Paul is clearly allowing for no distinction in quality or origin between his apostleship and that of Peter. In all the argument over the legitimacy of his credentials as an apostle and the opposition he faced from other preachers of the Christ (e.g., 2 Cor. 10 & 11), can we believe that no one would ever have used against him the fact that others had been apostles of Jesus during his lifetime, whereas Paul had not? Yet Paul shows no sign that such an issue was ever raised, and never addresses such a consideration.


 7. – Titus 1: 2-3

2. . .Yes, it is eternal life that God, who cannot lie, promised before the beginning of time, 3and now in his own good time he has brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior. [NEB/NIV]

Here is another passage in the epistles which draws a picture of what has happened in the present period, leaving no room for any role Jesus might have played in recent salvation history. In the past lie God’s promises of eternal life, and his first action on those promises is the present revelation to apostles like Paul who had gone out to proclaim the message. Jesus’ own proclamation of eternal life, his own person as the embodiment of that life (as the Gospel of John so memorably puts it), has been shut out.

Note the reference to "God our Savior." The term "Savior," throughout the epistles, is applied in the vast majority of cases (cf. 1 Tim. 4:10) to God, and only in a small minority to Christ Jesus. This does not speak for a strong sense of immediacy for Jesus in the minds of his followers, or for the role he had played in the historical events of Calvary and the rising from the tomb. Instead, while Jesus was the Son who had undergone sacrifice, no one had witnessed this event, since it had taken place in the spiritual realm (like the salvific acts of all the savior gods of the day). The immediate agency in the present time has been God, revealing his Son and the redemptive activities of that Son. Thus, to the minds of men like Paul and his successors, including the writer of Titus, there is a primary sense of God being the "Savior" and providing them with hisgospel.


 8. – 2 Corinthians 6:1-2

    You have received the grace of God; do not let it go for nothing. God’s own words are: "In the hour of my favour I gave heed to you, On the day of deliverance I came to your aid." The hour of favour has now come; now, I say, has the day of deliverance dawned. [NEB]

Another blatant passage which moves from God’s predictions of the past, contained in scripture, and the present moment of salvation now being put into effect by God. Paul quotes Isaiah 49:8, seeing it as God’s ancient promise that a time will arrive when he will come to humanity’s aid and grant salvation. But what is that time? It is one thing for Paul, as he often does, to focus on his own apostolic career to the exclusion of any mention of Jesus’ ministry. It is quite another for him to claim, as he does here, that the prophetic words of scripture foretell not the time of Jesus’ life as "the hour of favour," not Jesus’ acts of sacrifice and resurrection as "the day of deliverance," but Paul’s own activities and his preaching of the Christian message!

Luke at least could recognize the monumental inappropriateness of this (if he had even read Paul), for in 4:19 of his Gospel, he has Jesus in a Nazareth synagogue read a similar passage from Isaiah (61:1-2) and declare to the startled assembly that it is he to whom this sacred prophecy refers.

Note once again how the passage quoted above begins with an exclusive focus on God as the one doing the work of the present time; grace has come from him. Paul seems impervious to any thought of a role in this culminating period of salvation history for the man he is supposedly preaching.


 9. – 1 Corinthians 15:12-16

    12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 15Moreover, we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. [NASB/NIV]

There are some devastating implications to be drawn from this passage. Paul expresses himself as though the raising of Christ from the dead is a matter of faith, not of historical record as evidenced by eyewitness to a physical, risen Jesus at Easter. He is so adamant about the necessity to believe that the dead will be raised, that he is prepared to state—and he repeats it four times—that if they are not, then Christ himself "has not been raised." If men he knew had witnessed the actual return of Jesus from the grave, I do not think he would have thought to make even a rhetorical denial of it.

Moreover, the verb for "witness" (martureo) is often used in the sense of witnessing to, of declaring one’s belief in, an item of faith, not of factual record (though it can mean this in some contexts). Such a meaning here is strongly supported by what follows this verb: kata tou theou, or "against God." Translators often seem uncertain of the exact import of this phrase, but Bauer’s Lexicon firmly declares it as meaning "give testimony in contradiction to God." The idea that Paul is trying to get across here is that if in fact God did not raise Jesus from death (which would have to be the conclusion, he says, if all of the dead are not raised) then, rhetorically speaking, he and other apostles have been contradicting God and lying about Jesus’ resurrection.

The point is, and it’s unmistakable, Paul is saying that knowledge about Jesus’ raising has come from God, and that his own preaching testimony, true or false, is something which relates to information which has come from God—in other words, through revelation. Not history, not apostolic tradition about recent events on earth. In all this discussion about the trueness of Christ’s resurrection, Paul’s standard is one of faith, faith based on God’s testimony—meaning, in scripture. (Cf. Romans 8:25, 10:9, 1 Thess. 4:14.) Historical human witness plays no part.

[ It may be claimed that the famous passage just before this, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul’s statement of his gospel that "Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures (kata tas graphas), that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures," followed (v. 5-8) by a listing of all those who "saw" him, constitutes an appeal to historical witness. But we note that Paul twice says that his gospel is derived from scripture, for such a meaning can be taken from the kata tas graphas. We also note that in the subsequent discussion (v. 12-16) about whether Christ is raised or not, Paul does not repeat or refer to that list of "seeings" as evidence that Christ was raised. Why not? Because the list refers to a series of visions of the spiritual Christ (Paul includes his own, an acknowledged vision, using exactly the same language for them all), a Christ who, as part of the scripture-based gospel about him, is declared to have been raised on the third day. (The latter point comes from Hosea 6:2, not the Gospel chronology of Easter.) These "events" of Paul’s gospel were part of the higher spiritual world of myth, and thus there is no immediate sequential relationship between the "raising" and the occurrence of the visions, which is why the latter are not stated in either spot as a proof of Christ’s resurrection. See my Supplementary Article No. 6: The Source of Paul’s Gospel for a full discussion of the 1 Cor. 15:3-8 passage. See also this passage in the file on 1 & 2 Corinthians, below.]

But there is yet another important silence to highlight in this passage. Paul is most anxious to persuade his readers of the feasibility of human resurrection. If one accepts certain Gospel accounts, or assumes that such traditions very soon developed, ready evidence lay to hand. Stories of the revival of Jairus’ daughter, the astounding emergence of Lazarus from his tomb (not to mention Matthew’s recording of corpses rising from their graves at Jesus’ crucifixion), would have provided Paul with undeniable proof for his readers that in fact humans could be resurrected from death. Lazarus might still have to die again, but an eternal resurrection would surely be seen as prefigured by the temporary ones granted by Jesus on earth, and there is no way Paul would not have appealed to these miracles in his argument.

Nor would he have passed up an appeal to Jesus’ own promises on the matter. Luke records these sayings: "You will be repaid on the day when good men rise from the dead" (14:14); and: "Those who have been judged worthy of a place in the other world and of the resurrection from the dead, do not marry, for they are not subject to death any longer" (20:35). The Gospel of John, too, is pervaded by Jesus’ promise that "he who believes in me will have life everlasting." Had such words, or such traditions about Jesus’ miracles, been circulating in the Christian communities of Paul’s time, there would have been no need for his plaintive inquiry: "How can you say there is no resurrection from the dead?"

Indeed, this sort of consideration discredits the entire rationalization for Paul’s silence on the historical Jesus and his ministry, that he "had no interest in Jesus’ earthly life." Paul had an undeniable interest in the question of the resurrection of the dead, as he did in many other matters, and if Jesus had preached about such things while on earth, Paul could not help but have been profoundly interested in what Jesus had to say on these matters and the examples he had set. Not to mention the inevitable interest his congregations would have had in such things. Paul’s letters should be full of references to what the historical Jesus, the incarnated Son of God, had said and done while he was on earth.


 10. – James 5:10

    Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. [NIV]

The little epistle of James probably has more silences per square inch than any other New Testament document, but none of them are as striking as this one. How could the writer not draw on Jesus himself as the best and most compelling example when urging his readers to show patience in the face of suffering? Even if the Gospels were not yet in existence when this early epistle was written (many date it to the mid-1st century), oral tradition would surely have progressed to the point where Jesus’ behavior before Pilate and his Jewish judges would entail such an idea. Here there is very much a "need" to refer to Jesus, even if the reader were familiar with the fact.


 11. – Romans 6:2-4

    2We died to sin: how can we live in it any longer? 3Have you forgotten that when we were baptized into union with Christ Jesus we were baptized into his death? 4By baptism we were buried with him, and lay dead, in order that, as Christ was raised from the dead in the splendour of the Father, so also we might set one foot upon the new path of life. [NEB]

If any defining moment of Jesus’ career had impressed itself on early Christians, it would surely have been its inauguration: that dramatic scene amid the waters of the Jordan, with a fiery John in camel’s hair coat crying for repentance and thundering his doom-laden warnings upon the crowd. What an impact it must have made when Jesus received John’s sudden deferential homage, when he immersed himself in the waters of the river, to emerge with the dove and God’s voice descending upon him from heaven. Even if the Holy Spirit and the divine words were a later elaboration, they indicate that the incident of Jesus’ baptism must very soon have been invested with mythic significance.

Yet one would never know it from Paul. For Paul, baptism is the prime sacrament of Christian ritual. Through baptism, the convert dies to his old, sinful life and rises to a new one. Through baptism, the believer partakes of the spiritual body of Christ. In Romans 6:1-11 he breaks down the baptismal ritual into its mystical component parts. Yet never do any of those parts relate to the scene of Jesus’ own baptism. No significance is given to any details of that scene, for from 1st century writers like Paul we would never even know that Jesus had been baptized.

If Paul had known a tradition that the Holy Spirit had descended upon Jesus at his baptism, that he had been welcomed by God himself as his Beloved Son, can we possibly believe that Paul would not have integrated such motifs into his own presentation of the rite? Paul everywhere stresses that believers have been adopted as sons of God, as in Romans 8:14-17. How could he fail to seize on the Father’s words to the divine Son and apply them to the baptized convert? In that latter Romans passage, he also says that "the Spirit of God joins with our spirit in testifying that we are God’s children." Since Paul’s baptism involved the descent of the Holy Spirit into the initiate, it is unthinkable that he would not point to the descent of the Spirit into Jesus at his baptism as an archetypal parallel, had any such tradition existed.

And where is the Baptist? In Christian mythology there is hardly a more commanding figure short of Jesus himself. The forerunner, the herald, the scourge of the unrepentant, the voice crying aloud in the wilderness. Until the Gospels appear, John is truly lost in the wilderness, for no Christian writer ever refers to him. Even as late as the turn of the 2nd century, the writer of 1 Clement is silent on John when he says (17:1): "Let us take pattern by those who went about in sheepskins and goatskins heralding the Messiah’s coming; that is to say, Elijah, Elisha and Ezekiel among the prophets, and other famous names besides."

Are we to see John the Baptist buried in that last phrase? He hardly deserves such passing anonymity. Besides, Clement goes on to detail examples of those "famous names" and they are all from the Old Testament. Hebrews 11 also fails to include John in its enumeration of heroes of the faith who suffered, faced jeers and scourgings, stoning and prison and even death. (For that matter, as we shall see, it also fails to include Jesus.)

There was a common Jewish belief that the coming of the Messiah would be preceded by the appearance of the ancient prophet Elijah, to herald his advent. If 1st century Christian preachers were at all concerned with justifying their claim that Jesus had been the Messiah, John the Baptist would have been invaluable as an Elijah-type figure to fulfill this expectation.


 12. –Hebrews 9:19-20

    19For when, as the Law directed, Moses had recited all the commandments to the people, he took the blood of the calves, with water, scarlet wool, and marjoram, and sprinkled the law-book itself and all the people, 20saying, "This is the blood of the covenant which God has enjoined upon you." [NEB]

At the core of this writer’s theology lies the new covenant established by Christ’s sacrifice, a sacrifice which takes place in heaven. (See Supplementary Article No. 9: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews.) His exegetical technique revolves around the drawing of parallels between the community’s ritual and theology and the embodiment or prototype of these things in the scriptures. And yet the prime scriptural event which had established the old covenant, the blood sacrifice of animals conducted by Moses and the words spoken over this ritual (Exodus 24:8), is presented without the slightest glance toward Jesus’ own establishment of the new covenant by the words he spoke over the bread and wine at the Last Supper.

The parallel between the old and the new, the very striking similarity between the words spoken by Moses in Exodus and the words spoken by Jesus at the sacramental meal which established the perpetual celebration of his sacrifice, should have been so compelling that the author could not possibly have avoided calling attention to it. The only conclusion to draw is that he knew of no such event, and no such words spoken by Jesus at a Last Supper. (The mythical scene in 1 Cor. 11:23f which Paul presents to his congregation as a product of personal revelation—see the section "Learning of a Sacred Meal" in Supplementary Article No 6: The Source of Paul’s Gospel—has apparently not yet reached the community of the Epistle to the Hebrews.)

[ We might point out that the turn of the 2nd century Christian document known as the Didache (Teaching) also shows a stunning silence on Jesus’ establishment of the Eucharist. In chapter 9, community prayers attached to a thanksgiving meal are quoted, and they contain no sacramental element whatever. The bread and the wine in this communal meal in no way signify Jesus’ death. Jesus did not institute this ceremony. It is attached to no incident in his life, certainly not the eve of his sacrifice. Jesus’ role in the theology of this community seems to be nothing more than a kind of (spiritual) conduit from God, as indicated by this passage, quoting a verse from the prayers:

"At the Eucharist, offer the eucharistic prayer in this way. Begin with the chalice: ‘We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the holy vine of thy servant David, which thou has made known to us through thy servant (or child) Jesus.’" In fact, the Didache in its entirety is notably silent on any aspect of Jesus’ life and death. ]


 13 – Hebrews 12:15-17

    15See to it that there is no one among you who forfeits the grace of God, no bitter, noxious weed to poison the whole, 16no immoral person, no one worldly-minded like Esau. He sold his birthright for a single meal, 17and you know that although he wanted afterwards to claim the blessing, he was rejected. [NEB]

Dante in his Inferno places Judas in the pit of Hell, locked in ice, gnawed on by Satan. The arch-betrayer who planted his deceitful kiss on Jesus’ cheek and helped deliver him to death was to become a symbol in Christian minds of all falsehearted and disbelieving Jewry. Judas inaugurated the Jew as demon, and an entire race suffered fiercely for it over two millennia. Yet before he appears to fill his treacherous role in Mark’s Passion story, no ghost of Judas haunts the Christian landscape. He is notably missing from the above passage in Hebrews, where the selling of the Lord himself for 30 pieces of silver by a man embittered, jealous and deceitful, would surely have been a more apt symbol of the bitter, poisonous weed that arises unchecked within the community of the holy.

Hebrews is usually dated either just before or just after the Jewish War. It is in this period (60-80) that scholars usually place the writing of Mark, where Judas first surfaces. Considering Hebrews’ apparent ignorance of such a figure, either Mark should be dated later, or else the first Gospel contains ideas which were not widely known among Christian communities of the time. Or both.

We might note that the writer of 1 Clement also deals with the theme of jealousy, but to his list of Old Testament figures who suffered at the hands of jealous men, he fails to add Jesus himself, betrayed by the perfidious apostle in his own company.


 14. – Romans 13:3-4

    Rulers hold no terrors to those who do right. . . If you wish not to fear the authorities, then do what is good and you will have their approval, for they are God’s agents working for your good. [NIV/NEB]

Can Paul possibly have any sense of Jesus’ historical trial and crucifixion and still express such sentiments? Pilate, whether he believed in Jesus’ innocence or not, delivered this righteous man to scourging and unjust execution. If the story of such a fate suffered by Jesus of Nazareth were present in every Christian’s mind, Paul’s praise of the authorities, whether Jewish or Roman, as God’s agents for the good of all, and from which the innocent have nothing to fear, would ring hollow indeed.

In fact, all the early writers lack the essential atmosphere of the Gospel presentation of Jesus’ death: that this was the unjust execution of an innocent man, beset by betrayal and false accusations and a pitiless establishment. Instead, Paul in Romans 8:32 extols the magnanimity of God who "did not spare his own Son but surrendered him for us all," and for the writer of Ephesians (5:2), it is Christ himself who in love "gave himself up on your behalf as an offering and a sacrifice whose fragrance is pleasing to God." This seems far from the dread Golgotha of the Gospels and its scene of deicide. (See Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus? for a full discussion of the nature and location of the spiritual Christ’s redemptive ‘crucifixion’.)


 15. – 1 John 4:1-3

    1Dear friends, do not believe every spirit [i.e., prophetic utterance, spoken under the influence of God’s Spirit], but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. . . [NIV]

This passage tells us that in early Christian preaching, the test which determined whether a Christian apostle was speaking the truth related to the spirit which God had sent him. This epistle was written probably in the last decade of the 1st century. One would expect that by this time Christians possessed a body of material regarded as proceeding from Jesus himself, transmitted to them over the decades through a chain of authorized apostles and community leaders, a process of transmission through "apostolic tradition." Yet such an idea is nowhere to be found in any of the epistles (cf. 2 Cor. 11:4). We do not encounter even the barest concept of a teaching passed on between generations, arising out of an apostolic past attached ultimately to Jesus. Instead, doctrine comes directly through revelation from God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, though some "spirits" may come from the devil.

In the above passage, the test of the true spirit is whether the message being preached corresponds to the writer’s own position, which he has arrived at through the spirit: the belief that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Though no time or circumstances are offered, such a rivalry between different "spirits" shows that at the end of the century, the doctrine that the heavenly Christ had been on earth (something known through the Holy Spirit, or revelation) was not being accepted by every Christian. (See my Supplementary Article No 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John, for a full discussion of the meaning of this passage.)

We might compare the Didache, chapter 11, which contains a lengthy discussion about how to judge the legitimacy of wandering apostles, both in their teaching and their charismatic activities. No part of this judgment is based upon any links with apostolic tradition; there is no question of tracing authority or correctness back to Jesus, or to a group of apostles who had known and followed him on earth.


 16. – 1 Corinthians 10:11

    . . . For upon us the fulfilment of the ages has come. [NEB]

One of the driving forces of the Christian movement was the expectation that the end of the world and the arrival of Christ to establish God’s Kingdom was at hand, part of a longstanding Jewish anticipation of the Day of the Lord.

The conception and pattern of history was simple. The period stretching back through history was the "old age," an age of sin and evil and darkness, when God had permitted Satan to rule, when the righteous were persecuted and divine justice was delayed. The "new age" would begin with the arrival of some heavenly figure or messianic agent of God, who would direct the overthrow of Israel’s enemies and the forces of evil generally. The highlight of all this would be a day of judgment when the righteous would be exalted and the sinner and oppressor consigned to punishment. The pattern of salvation history, stretching in a line from past through future, fell into two sections: the old age and the new. Scholars refer to this pattern as "two-age dualism."

In the orthodox picture of Christian origins, however, a radically new dimension has been added to the pattern. The Messiah had come, but not the Kingdom with him. Christ had died and been resurrected, but still the new age had not dawned. That was to be delayed until his return, this time in glory and as judge at the Parousia. Between the two comings of Christ, as brief a period as that might be, the gospel message had to be carried to as many as possible and the world had to be made ready.

If this was indeed the scenario faced by the first couple of generations of Christian preachers and believers, we would expect to find two things. First, a significant recasting of the two-age pattern. The coming of Jesus would have to be seen as a pivotal point in the ongoing scheme of redemption history. After all, the Son of God had come to earth; his life had included the act of salvation itself, the atoning death and divine resurrection which guaranteed the resurrection of Christians at the Parousia. The "interregnum," that period between the life of Christ and his second coming, would have to be seen as a separate period of its own, during which forces were operating which had previously been absent, when precedents set by Jesus awaited their final fulfilment.

"Upon us the fulfilment of the ages has come!" Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 10:11, pointing to the Parousia which he believes is very near. Does he see no "fulfilment" in the recent past in Jesus? Preceding this comment has been Paul’s enumeration of symbolic events in Israelite history at the time of the Exodus. Those events looked toward the future, "for our benefit." But that future is cast entirely in terms of believers like Paul, who await the imminent End. Paul, here and elsewhere, has not the smallest glance for an intervening event in the earthly life and work of Christ. To the extent that Paul has a past "pivot point" at all (as will be seen in Romans 8:22-3), it is the time of revelation, the "giving of the spirit," sometimes the sending of the spirit of the Son. The turning point of salvation history was the arrival of faith when God revealed Christ and people responded to the carriers of the revelation—most importantly, Paul himself. When Paul occasionally looks backward, it is to the unveiling of the mystery about Christ, the visions and inspirations, the "seeing" of the Christ by so many apostles, including himself (1 Cor. 15:3-8). These are the events he regards as inaugurating the final period of the old age leading to the new.

Neither here, nor in any of the other passages like it, does Paul address what should have been the key question: Why did the actual coming of the Messiah not in itself produce the turn of the ages? For this had been the expectation of centuries. No one could have anticipated that the arrival of the Messiah would not be accompanied by the establishment of the Kingdom. We would expect to find some kind of apologetic industry arising within the Christian movement to explain this unexpected and disappointing turn of events. Yet every single epistle writer is silent on such a thing.

[ There have been many analyses of the Christian conception of time which purport to see the early Christian view according to a recasting of the two-age pattern. A famous and influential one is Oscar Cullmann’s Christ and Time, 1955. Cullmann professes to see a new, three-stage conception in Paul: first, primal history (going back to the myths of the patriarchs); second, the historical event of Jesus of Nazareth, the pivot through which all redemptive history is now seen to pass; and third, the future eschatological (end-time) myth and expectation. Cullmann sees in Paul an orientation that is no longer eschatological (looking to the future); rather it is "toward He (sic) who has already come."

Unfortunately, Cullmann’s picture is a figment of his imagination, a product of his preconceptions which he will impose on Paul no matter what Paul says. No. 2 in our list, Romans 16:25-27, and No. 7, Titus 1:3 (along with others to come), speak of the long-hidden divine mysteries that God has revealed in the present time to apostles and prophets. There was certainly no "second stage" there, occupied by the recent Jesus of Nazareth and his redemptive life, no pivot point of salvation history which now lies in the past. Paul’s orientation is very much toward the future, as the present passage and others to come will show (including Romans 8:19f and 13:11-12). ]


 17. – 1 Corinthians 1:7-8

    There is no gift you lack, while you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you till the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. [RSV]

This passage is representative of many in the epistles which speak of the anticipated coming of Christ (the Parousia). In many cases, as here, the verb employed is a revelation word. That is, the writer speaks of the "revealing" of the Christ (cf. 1 Peter 1:7 & 13, 2 Thess. 1:7). This is a strange way of putting it, if Jesus had just lived a full life on earth within living memory.

Another common mode of expression is the use of the verb "to come" (erchomai). Greek has no specific word for "return" in the sense of coming back to a place one has visited or been at before. The word erchomai is a basic verb of motion and can mean to come, or to go, or to pass; a specific meaning, which can include "return," is conveyed by adjuncts or the context. Other passages convey the idea of Christ’s coming by using words like "the appearance of" (e.g., 1 Tim. 6:14). With one possible exception (Hebrews 9:28, which will be touched on in connection with Hebrews 10:37 and dealt with fully in the Appendix), nowhere does any writer attempt to convey the sense of "return." For example, the simple word palin, "again," employed with erchomai, could have served this purpose, yet no one ever uses it. (Cf. also Phil. 1:6 and 3:20, Titus 2:13.)

Such reticence is in sharp contrast to New Testament scholars who, when translating or interpreting such terms as "come" or "appearance" in the epistles, routinely use the word "return" or the phrase "second coming." But if readers can free themselves from the Gospel background, they will find that all these references convey the distinct impression that this will be the first and only coming to earth, that this expectation, this longing to see Christ, has in no way been previously fulfilled.

We keep wanting these writers to clarify, to acknowledge, that Jesus had already come before, that he had begun when on earth the work he would complete at the Parousia; that people had formerly witnessed their deliverance in the event of his death and resurrection; that he had been "revealed" to the sight of all in his incarnated life as Jesus of Nazareth. But never an echo of such ideas do we hear in the background of these passages.

[ Note: A related but separate issue is whether the "coming" on the Day of the Lord is envisioned as the coming of Christ himself (as it is here), or only the older Jewish idea of the coming of God. This will be discussed in connection with James 5:7. ]


 18. – Romans 10:9

    (This is the word of faith that we preach:) That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus [homologeseis . . . kurion Iesoun], and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. [KJ]

Here is Paul’s basic declaration of faith, which he preaches in his missionary work, and I will use it to highlight one of the fundamental silences to be found in all the New Testament epistles. The above translation is from the King James version, and reflects the literal Greek, unlike most modern translations which render the key phrase: "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord." (The NASB gets close with its "If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord," its italicized "as" representing a supplied word that is not in the original.)

For all the discussion about faith which he indulges in throughout his letters, Paul never itemizes the one element of faith we would expect, the one that must come at the start. Indeed, even in modern Christian preaching to the outside world, we encounter it constantly: that Jesus of Nazareth, a human being who lived at a given point in the past and did certain things, was in fact the Son of God and Messiah. In all the New Testament epistles, no one is ever enjoined to believe that an historical man was anything. Paul’s faith declarations are a belief in something. One believes that such a being exists, that he possesses certain powers and heavenly status, that he is God’s instrument of salvation. But never that a recent human being was such-and-such.

When read straightforwardly (as the KJ does), the above declaration says: "if you confess the Lord Christ," which is a statement that the believer acknowledges Christ’s existence and his power. If Paul were speaking of a recent historical man, that man would be the starting point of his thinking, and he would frame his faith declarations in terms of what that man was, his nature, identity and role. Instead, here as everywhere else, his starting point is the divine Son in heaven, the object of God’s revealed gospel. Claims are made about this spiritual figure, all of it based on scripture.

Paul places such a declaration entirely in the realm of present faith, not history. Even if we assume the common modern translation of "if you confess Jesus is Lord," we note the present tense and the fact that the statement is a confession about a given heavenly figure. Paul acknowledges that "Jesus is the Lord of us," which has the effect of an address directly to the divinity: "You are Lord."


 19. – James 5:15

The Gospels tell us how the sick pressed to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment; how they stood in the byways and called out to him as he passed, crying for deliverance from their afflictions. Jesus had shown mercy to them all, even if those today who wish to bring the Gospel accounts down to earth suggest that many of these healings were psychological. How could the tradition have grown so strong that Jesus had performed such healings if he had not in fact brought relief to many sick and disordered people in the course of his ministry?

Yet we would never know it from James 5:15:

    Is one of you ill? . . . 15The prayer offered in faith will save the sick man, the Lord [here there is no doubt the writer means God] will raise him from his bed, and any sins he may have committed will be forgiven. [NEB]

It is inconceivable that the writer would not have appealed to the fact that Jesus himself had done these very things, had he possessed any such traditions. Mark 2:1-12 presents us with a miracle scene in which Jesus does both. To the paralytic he says: "Take up thy bed and walk," and at the same time he pronounces the man’s sins forgiven. The writer of James has clearly never heard of it.

Nor has he who sent the letter known as 1 Clement, from Rome to Corinth, at the very end of the first century. In chapter 59, "Clement" delivers a long prayer to God which must have been in the liturgy of the church at Rome. Here is one part of it:

    "Grant us, O Lord, we beseech thee, thy help and protection. Do thou deliver the afflicted, pity the lowly, raise the fallen, reveal thyself to the needy, heal the sick, and bring home thy wandering people. Feed thou the hungry, ransom the captive, support the weak, comfort the faint-hearted."

The Gospels tell us that Jesus did these very things, from healing the sick to feeding the hungry. In God’s own name, as he walked the sands of Galilee and Judea, he pitied, he supported, he comforted, he revealed God. The reader should be left dumbfounded at the silence of Clement and his community about any such activities.


 20. – Philippians 3:10

    All I care for is to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings . . . [NEB]

The final silence in our "Top 20" is one that resonates throughout the entire record of early Christian correspondence, but we can focus on it through one passage in Paul. This striking and pervasive silence, perhaps the most telling of them all, can be summed up in one question: Where are the holy places?

In all the Christian writers of the 1st century, in all the devotion they display about Christ and the new faith, not one of them ever expresses the slightest desire to see the birthplace of Jesus, to visit Nazareth his home town, the sites of his preaching, the upper room where he held his Last Supper, the hill on which he was crucified, or the tomb where he was buried and rose from the dead. Not only is there no evidence that anyone showed an interest in such places, they go completely unmentioned. The words Bethlehem, Nazareth and Galilee never appear in the epistles, and the word Jerusalem is never used in connection with Jesus. Most astonishing of all, there is not a hint of pilgrimage to Calvary itself, where humanity’s salvation was consummated. How could such a place not have become the center of Christian devotion, how could it not have been turned into a shrine? Each year at Passover we would expect to find Christians observing their own celebration on the hill outside Jerusalem, performing a rite every Easter Sunday at the site of the nearby tomb. Christian sermonizing and theological meditation could hardly fail to be built around the places of salvation, not just the abstract events.

Do Christians avoid frequenting such places out of fear? Acts, possibly preserving a kernel of historical reality, portrays the Apostles as preaching fearlessly in the Temple in the earliest days, despite arrest and persecution, and the persecution has in any case been much exaggerated for the early decades. Even such a threat, however, should not and would not have prevented clandestine visits by Christians, and there were many other places of Jesus’ career whose visitation would have involved no danger. And, of course, there would have been no danger in mentioning them in their correspondence.

Even Paul seems immune to the lure of such places. He can speak, as in Philippians, of wanting to know Christ, to know the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings. And yet, does he rush to the hill of Calvary upon his conversion, to experience those sufferings the more vividly, to throw himself upon the sacred ground that bore the blood of his slain Lord? Does he stand before the empty tomb, the better to bring home to himself the power of Jesus’ resurrection, the better to feel the conviction that his own resurrection is guaranteed? This is a man whose letters reveal someone full of insecurities and self-doubts, possessed by his own demons, highly emotional, a man driven to preach else he would go mad, as he tells us in 1 Corinthians 9:16. Would he not have derived great consolation from visiting the Gethsemane garden, where Jesus is reported to have passed through similar horrors and self-doubts? Would his sacramental convictions about the Lord’s Supper, which he is anxious to impart to the Corinthians (11:23f), not have been heightened by a visit to the upper room in Jerusalem, to absorb the ambience of that hallowed place and occasion?

Once again, such considerations render unacceptable the standard rationalization that Paul was uninterested in the earthly life of Jesus. Moreover, when Paul undertakes to carry his mission to the gentiles, surely he would want—and need—to go armed with the data of Jesus’ life, with memories of the places Jesus had frequented, ready to answer the inevitable questions his new audiences would ask in their eagerness to hear all the details about the man who was the Son of God and Savior of the world. Instead, what does he do? By his own account in Galatians, he waits three years following his conversion before making a short visit to Jerusalem, "to get to know Cephas. I stayed with him for fifteen days, without seeing any of the other apostles except James, the brother of the lord." Nor was he to return there for another fourteen years. Did Paul learn all the data of Jesus life on that one occasion? Did he visit the holy places? Not having felt the urge to do so for three years, his silence on such things is perhaps not surprising. But if he did, can we believe he would not have shared these experiences—and they would have been intensely emotional ones—with his readers? If not here, then at least at some point in his many letters?

But it is not only the places of Jesus’ life and death. What about the relics? Jesus’ clothes, the things he used in his everyday life, the things he touched? Can we believe that such items would not have remained behind, to be collected, clamored for, to be seen and touched by the faithful themselves? Would not an apostle like Paul be anxious to carry such a memento of the man he preached? Would not a rivalry develop between apostles, between Christian communities (as it did later), to gain such mementos and relics for worship and as status symbols? Did not one single cup survive from the Last Supper—one that would be claimed to have touched Jesus’ own lips? Was there not a single nail with Jesus’ flesh on it, not one thorn from the bloody crown, not the centurion’s spear, not a piece of cloth from his garments gambled over by the soldiers at the foot of the cross—not, in fact, a host of relics claimed to be these very things, such as we find all through the Middle Ages?

Why is it only in the 4th century that pieces of "the true cross" begin to surface? Why is it left to Constantine to set up the first shrine on the supposed mount of Jesus’ death, and to begin the mania for pilgrimage to the holy sites that has persisted to this day? Why would someone in the first 100 years of the movement not similarly seek to walk on the same ground that the Son of God himself had so recently walked on? The total absence of such things in the first hundred years of Christian correspondence is perhaps the single strongest argument for regarding the entire Gospel account of Jesus’ life and death as nothing but literary fabrication.

[ It is often claimed, in relation not only to this silence but to a host of others, that the epistles, being "occasional" writings, simply don’t happen to contain any "occasion" for mentioning such things. Well, the object of the present exercise is to demonstrate that this is not the case. But there is a larger rejoinder to such a rationalization. Had these things existed in the early Christian world, they would have been impressed on the minds of the epistle writers, commending themselves for mention; such writers would have made occasion for working them into their letters. Indeed, they could not have prevented themselves from doing so.

If one analyzes the epistles, one finds a consistency in the motifs employed, the modes of expression used. To a great extent these are drawn from the Hebrew Bible; and they reflect the atmosphere of revelation and inspiration which characterized the 1st century. But if the words and deeds, the places and relics of Jesus’ recent life had been in the air, remembered and discussed and visited and touched, these are the things around which we would find an inevitable orientation of thought and expression. Such a phenomenon would have been unavoidable if everything had begun with a response to an historical man whose life and death so impressed his followers and those who were told of him. A focus on the man himself, and the physical trail of him, would pervade the record. But for these writers to show not the smallest sign that any of Jesus’ words, deeds, places and relics were present in their thoughts when they took pen to paper, is a situation so bizarre, so unlikely, that we are obliged to look for another explanation. The one which most commends itself is that they knew of no such things and no such person.

Perhaps by the time we have gone through the entire corpus of New Testament epistles, and the picture of the extent and arresting nature of the silence is complete, you the reader may come to the same conclusion as well. ]


To File No. 3: Romans

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Following on the "Top 20" silences, we will return now to the very head of the epistolary corpus and the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Romans. The opening verses of this epistle could well be ranked next in line, for they contain an important and telling insight into the source of Christian ideas about God’s Son, and an explanation for those ‘human’ sounding features occasionally given to him.

 21. – Romans 1:1-4

    1Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle [or, apostle by God’s call: NEB], set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised [or, announced: NEB] beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son . . . [RSV]

The way Paul presents it, the scriptures prophesied the gospel of the Son which Paul carries, not the life or person of Jesus himself. This is an odd way of putting things, and yet it is extremely revealing, for it implies, once again, that between God’s foretelling of the gospel in the prophetic books, and the revelation of that gospel to Paul and others, no life of Jesus intervened. Instead, scripture, newly interpreted, tells of the Son whose existence and work has been previously unknown, and who operates in the higher spiritual realm. This will be supported by the later part of this passage (below).

Two additional silences here: the "gospel" is a product sent from God. No role for a preaching Jesus, as originator of the gospel about himself, is hinted at. This, and the "call" which in other places is clearly identified as being a call by God and not Jesus (see 1 Corinthians 1:1), not only supports the silence on any historical Jesus as the source of the Christian gospel, it negates Acts’ legend of a direct call to Paul from the exalted Christ in a vision on the road to Damascus.

    . . . who was descended from the seed of David according to the flesh, 4and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness [or, the Holy Spirit: NEB] by his resurrection from the dead. [RSV]

As the sentence is constructed, Paul is saying that his information about Jesus being "of the seed of David" comes from the gospel imbedded in scripture, and not from any historical record or tradition. The sacred writings contained many prophecies that the Christ/Messiah would be of David’s line, and Paul would have had to find a way to apply them to his heavenly Son. When one considers that the second element of this statement, Christ being declared Son of God in power "according to the Spirit," was almost certainly derived from Psalm 2:7-8 and refers to a perceived heavenly event, one is led to take both these ‘gospel’ elements as referring to information known about the Christ from scripture, and as referring to spiritual-world features. For an explanation of the term "according to the flesh" in such a context and how a spiritual Christ could be perceived as related to David, as well as for a fuller discussion of this entire passage, see Section II of Supplementary Article No. 8: Christ As "Man". This passage will also be extensively discussed in the Appendix.


 22. – Romans 1:16-17

    16For I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the saving power of God for everyone who has faith . . . 17because here is revealed God’s way of righting wrong . . . [NEB]

Once again, Paul attributes the gospel to God, and its power to God. Even the gift of righteousness bestowed on the believer is assigned to God. There seems to be no impingement on Paul’s consciousness of a recent historical Jesus and his role in producing and embodying the gospel and its effects.


 — Romans 1:19-20 – See "Top 20" #1


 23. – Romans 3:21-25

    21But now, quite independently of law [i.e., the Jewish scriptural Law], God’s justice has been manifested, borne witness to by the Law and the Prophets [i.e., the Mosaic and prophetic books of scripture]. 22It is God’s way of righting wrong, effective through faith in Christ for all who have such faith . . . [NEB, ED]

An involved but very revealing passage which we’ll look at in two parts, containing important silences. Following this passage, in verse 26, "God’s justice" is specified as something which has been revealed (the verb phaneroo) "at the present time." Paul is saying that the present period is one of revelation, not the arrival of Jesus on earth and his saving acts. And rather than Jesus "bearing witness" or testifying to God’s justice, it is scripture that does so, a direct statement that this is where Paul and others have learned of it, not through the person and preaching of a human Jesus in recent history. Once again, the agency is God, not Jesus. The means is through faith: faith in the spiritual Christ, a newly-revealed figure.

    . . . 24all are justified by God’s free grace alone, through his act of redemption in [the person of: NEB] Christ Jesus. 25For God set him forth [proetheto] as a means of expiating sin through faith in his blood [i.e., in his sacrificial death].

Here the focus remains on God as the performer of saving actions in the present time. It is God who does the act of redeeming, not Jesus. The NEB’s words "in the person of" are not in the Greek, but reflect a desire to compensate for Paul’s failure to make Jesus the direct agent of redemption. Christ is brought in only as God’s instrument of that redemption, the object of a required faith, and a redemption effected through further faith in his sacrificial death. All this language is compatible with Christ being an entirely spiritual figure who has now been revealed, and whose sacrifice took place in the spirit realm. (And anyone who doubts that "blood" could be spiritual and be shed in the upper heavenly world need only read Hebrews 8 – 9.)

This revelation of Christ—not his presence on earth—is supported by the verb protithemi, one of whose meanings is "to set forth publicly" in the sense of "disclose to general knowledge." God is revealing Christ and what he has done, through scripture, to the likes of Paul, and has revealed the benefits to be drawn from Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. Note the exclusive pervasiveness of the idea of "faith" in regard to Jesus, faith in what scripture—and Paul—have revealed. There is nothing of history here.

[ For a discussion of that ubiquitous Pauline phrase "in—or through—Christ," signifying a Christ who is an agency of salvation and a spiritual medium through which God reveals himself and does his work in the world, see Part Two of the Main Articles. See also the optional text under 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 (#55). ]


 — Romans 6:2-4 – See "Top 20" #11


 24. – Romans 6:17

    But God be thanked, you, who once were slaves of sin, have yielded whole-hearted obedience to the pattern of teaching which was handed on to you . . . [NEB]

Now, if this teaching that was handed on to the believer was in fact wholly or in part the product of Jesus, preached while he was on earth, why wouldn’t Paul simply say so? Regardless of whether the believer knew where it came from, the natural thought and expression would surely have been: "the pattern of teaching given to us by Christ Jesus," or some such words. [Cf. 1 Timothy 6:3 – see Appendix: 1 Timothy 6:13 / (and 6:3).]


 25. – Romans 8:19-23

    19For the created universe waits with eager expectation for God’s sons [i.e., the faithful believers] to be revealed [i.e., revealed for all the world to see] . . . [NEB]

Early Christianity, along with most Jews, believed that the end, or transformation, of the world was near. As we saw in "Top 20" #16 (1 Cor. 10:11), this "two-age dualism" envisioned the present age of world history as about to change into the new age of God’s Kingdom, usually under apocalyptic circumstances. In this and other passages, we can see that Paul’s outlook is focused on what is yet to come, not on what has just happened. Here, his expectation is in terms of the imminent revelation of the Spirit of God through believers; none of it is in relation to recent historical events in the person of a Jesus of Nazareth.

    . . . 21the universe itself will be freed from the shackles of mortality and enter upon the liberty and splendour of the children of God. . . .

If Jesus’ recent act in history had effected this, Paul’s expression should have been pulled into the past tense, such as: "creation has been freed from . . ."

    . . . 22Up to the present, the whole universe groans in all its parts as if in the pangs of childbirth. . . .

The whole universe is groaning, waiting. Where is the sense of any past fulfilment in the life and career of Jesus? Were some of the universe’s pains not assuaged by his coming? Indeed, the universe is laboring to give birth, a birth not yet achieved. Paul seems to relegate Jesus’ life to some pre-natal kick. "Up to the present," says Paul, has the universe labored, leaving no room for what should have been regarded as the pivot point of salvation history, the releasing moment of the world’s long labor: Christ’s very life and salvific act on Calvary. Paul gives no hint of such a thing.

One might also wonder why it did not occur to Paul to regard certain Gospel events as part of the ‘groaning of the universe,’ namely the earthquake at Jesus’ crucifixion recorded in Matthew, or the three hours of darkness covering the earth recorded by all the Synoptics. Notably missing as well are Jesus’ miracles, which were regarded by later Christians as part of the ‘signs’ leading up to the change of the ages. Paul, neither here nor anywhere else, has a word to say about Jesus’ Gospel miracles, not even as auguring the approach of the new age.

    . . . 23Not only so, but even we, to whom the Spirit is given as firstfruits of the harvest to come, are groaning inwardly while we wait for God to make us his sons and set our whole body free.

Key silences here. When Paul does refer to present or immediately past events, the preparatory stage to this awaited freedom for the universe, what does he have in mind? Only the "giving of the Spirit," the act of God in revealing the gospel, which has enlisted men like Paul to preach Christ and herald the Kingdom. The recent career of Jesus himself, which at the very least should have been regarded as the ‘first installment’ of God’s actions in the present period, is nowhere in sight.

"We wait for God to make us his sons." How can Paul say he is waiting for God to do this? Had he not already done so, and much more, through the incarnation? Indeed, why would Paul not express the idea that it was Jesus himself and his deeds on earth which had set people free and made them sons of God? How can he not insert the recent life of Jesus of Nazareth into the picture of the unfolding of salvation history? The question of "need," or the readers’ existing knowledge of such a thing, has nothing to do with it. Paul’s vivid description of the present age cries out for the natural, unavoidable inclusion of the recent life of Jesus, and we do not get it. If, on the other hand, the sacrificial death of the spiritual Son of God was a timeless, mythical event which took place in the upper spiritual world, then it was not part of the present age that is about to pass away; it did not form part of the picture Paul is creating. Christ impinges on the present age only in God’s revelation of him, in the sending of the spirit of this Son regarded as an intermediary (cf. Galatians 4:6), in the taking effect of the benefits of redemption through Christ in this new age of faith.


 26. – Romans 8:24-25

    24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is not hope at all; for who hopes for what he already sees? 25But if we hope for something we do not see, we await it with patience. [NIV/RSV]

Following on the previous passage, Paul again implies that the characteristic of the present age is one of faith, faith in something that will happen in the future. How could he not envision that the incarnation of the Son, witnessed by so many (even if not by himself personally), constituted a "seeing" of salvation and the events which brought this about? In fact, the witness to Jesus’ physical resurrection, as recorded by all the post-Markan evangelists, was a "seeing" of the very thing Paul and his readers hope for: the physical resurrection of the dead. As was Jesus’ miraculous reviving of more than one Lazarus, in full public "seeing"! This passage illustrates the void in Paul’s mind about any fulfilment, or even witnessing, of God’s saving plan for humanity in the historical figure and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth.


 27. – Romans 8:26

    For we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. [RSV]

Could Paul have been ignorant of the Lord’s Prayer, taught to his disciples by Jesus? If not even this element of Jesus’ preaching reached Paul by oral transmission, or if Paul made not even this degree of effort to learn what Jesus had said, how can he claim to be preaching this man, and how could he possibly satisfy the needs and demands of his listeners to know at least something about Jesus’ own teachings? Paul simply could not ignore such basic data of Jesus’ ministry, and thus the "explanation" offered by those who say he had no interest in Jesus’ life cannot stand up to scrutiny. (See my book review of Robert Funk’s Honest to Jesus for extensive discussion along these lines.)

Should not Paul have regarded the ministering Jesus as having "interceded" with God on humanity’s behalf, a claim which Jesus himself makes more than once in the Gospels?


 28. – Romans 10:3-4

A profound silence on an historical Jesus reigns throughout chapters 10 and 11 of the epistle to the Romans, one that defies acceptable explanation. Paul is addressing the question of whether the Jews can expect an ultimate salvation from God, and it hinges on their faith in Christ. He begins chapter 10 this way:

    3For they [the Jews] ignore God’s way of righteousness, and try to set up their own, and therefore they have not submitted themselves to God’s righteousness. 4 For Christ ends the law and brings righteousness for everyone who has faith. [NEB]

Where is the sense of Jesus’ historical ministry? God is the primary agency here, with Christ a present force under his direction, so Paul casts Christ’s activities in the present tense. Rather than "Christ brought righteousness" in recent history, it is now, through God’s revelation and the preaching of Paul, that he does so. Throughout these passages, in all the discussion about the Jews’ failure to believe and their misguided attempts at righteousness, there is a resounding silence about their failure to heed the person and message of Jesus himself, during his recent incarnation on earth. This will be continued in greater detail in the following two items (29 and 30).


 — Romans 10:9 – See "Top 20" #18


 29. – Romans 10:13-21

Continuing with his consideration of the Jews’ prospects for salvation through faith in Christ, Paul now addresses the question of what opportunities they have had to know Christ, and how they have responded to those opportunities. He asks a series of questions, prefaced by a quote from Joel (2:32 LXX) in which "Lord," unlike the original meaning, is taken to refer to Jesus the Messiah:

    13For [scripture says] "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
    14But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed?
    And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?
    And how are they to hear without a preacher?
    15And how can men preach unless they are sent [out to preach]?
    As it is written: "How beautiful the feet of those who preach good news!" . . . [RSV]

As Paul presents it in these verses, the Jews’ opportunity to know Christ is limited to hearing Christ preached by men like Paul, sent out as apostles on their beautiful feet (a quote from Isaiah 52:7). There is not a hint here of a very important opportunity which the Jews—at least those of Galilee and Judea a generation earlier—had enjoyed, namely the seeing and hearing of Christ himself, preaching in his own person. In highlighting the guilt of the Jews in not believing in Christ, would Paul have totally ignored their dramatic rejection of the incarnated Son on earth? He goes on:

    16But not all have responded to the good news. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our message?" 17Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes from the preaching of [i.e., about] Christ. 18But I ask, can it be that they [the Jews] never heard it? Of course they did: "Their voice went out to all the world, and their words to the ends of the inhabited earth." . . . [NEB, ED]

From this, too, it is clear that Paul is speaking solely of the preaching of commissioned apostles like himself. This cannot include Jesus. The genitive "of Christ" in verse 17 is an objective genitive, Christ being the object of the preaching. In Verse 18, Paul gives himself an opening to deliver the strongest answer, the most culpable reason for the Jews’ guilt and possible loss of salvation: they had heard the message from the lips of the Lord himself and had rejected it. But Paul fails to follow that opening. How could he not highlight his countrymen’s spurning of the Son of God in the flesh? Instead, all he refers to are those apostles like himself who have "preached to the ends of the earth" (a bit of hyperbole on his part). Paul, throughout this entire passage, is not only silent on, he has made no room for an historical, preaching Jesus.

Paul goes on to quote three more passages from scripture:

    19Again I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, "I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry." 20Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, "I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me." 21But of Israel he says, "All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people." [RSV]

Here Paul passes up the obvious contrast between Jew and gentile. In the first two quotations he highlights the shame of the Jews vs. the merit of the gentiles, but he fails to make the point that whereas the Jews had rejected the message even though delivered by Jesus himself, the gentiles had accepted it second-hand. And in Paul’s final quote, the concept of Jesus’ own hands, stretched out to his people during his ministry on earth, apparently did not occur to him.

[ C. K. Barrett (Epistle to the Romans, p.189) is one scholar who seems perturbed by the silence in Romans 10, for he tries by a dubious device to work Jesus into the picture. In the second of Paul’s four questions quoted above (v.14-15), the phrase in Greek "hou ouk ekousan" is almost universally translated: "of whom they have not heard." Bauer’s Lexicon gives this meaning, but occasionally commentators (Sanday, Cranfield) will maintain that akouo with the genitive means "to hear someone," that is, directly. The "unusual" meaning "to hear of" is permitted, some say, only in poetry. Well, perhaps we might hold that Paul is very close to poetry in these rhythmical, balanced questions, all of which are parallel in structure and begin with the same word.

At any rate, Barrett seizes on this view to stipulate that the "hou" in the second question should be translated "whom (not of whom) they have not heard," for, he says, "Christ must be heard either in his own person, or in the person of his preachers." Apart from wanting it both ways, Barrett fails to take into account that forcing Jesus into the mix here destroys Paul’s finely-created chain, a chain which focuses entirely on the response to the apostolic message. This is why even those who maintain that the grammatical meaning is to "hear him" (not ofhim) nevertheless take Paul’s idea as identifying the voice of Christ with that of the preachers. As Cranfield puts it (International Critical Commentary, Romans, p.534), Paul’s thought is "of their hearing Christ speaking in the message of the preachers." Thus, Jesus is speaking to the Jews only by proxy. This still leaves unaddressed the larger question of why Paul fails to make a specific reference to Jesus’ own ministry, but at least such an interpretation conforms to the passage’s integrity as Paul presents it. Barrett’s does not. When he wraps up his comment on this chapter by saying: "Through the Son, both in his incarnate person and by means of his apostles, God has pleaded with Israel, and met with nothing but rebuffs," Barrett is not only showing us what we should rightly expect to find there, he is letting what he cannot believe is missing override what is clearly not there in Paul’s words. Besides, to maintain that Paul, in his picture of the unresponse of the Jews, would choose to limit Jesus’ key role in that picture to an ambiguous two-letter (in the Greek) relative pronoun, seems little short of ludicrous. ]


 30. – Romans 11:1-6, 7-12, 20

As part of his criticism of the Jews’ failure to respond to apostles like himself, Paul refers to Elijah’s words in 1 Kings (19:10):

    . . . 3Lord, they have killed thy prophets . . . [NEB]

This was a largely unfounded accusation popular among some Jewish sectarian circles. Paul may have subscribed to it, but it is surely a telling silence that he does not add to this supposed record the ultimate atrocity of the killing of the Son of God himself. Then:

    7. . . (Israel) was made blind to the truth . . . 8(God) gave them blind eyes and deaf ears . . . 11they stumble(d) . . . 12trespass(ed) . . . 20(the Jews) were lopped off for their lack of faith.

Such mild language (cf. 1 Peter 2:8, the Jews who "stumble when they disbelieve the word": NEB) hardly seems to encompass the sin of deicide. Rather, it confirms the view that the Jews’ guilt, in Paul’s mind, is limited to their failure to heed the preaching apostles, to respond to the call to have faith in the spiritual Son, revealed by God, which Paul and others are delivering.


 31. – Romans 12:3

Chapters 12 and 13 of the epistle to the Romans (next five items) are a treatise on Christian ethics. Several of their admonitions bear a strong resemblance to teachings of Jesus as found in the Gospels. Yet not only are these not attributed to him, there is no mention even of the fact that Jesus was a teacher, that he was the very foundation of Christian ethics. Not only that, there seems little evidence in Paul’s mind that anything has proceeded from Jesus, whether teachings or personal gifts. In 12:3, he says:

    In virtue of the gift that God in his grace has given me . . . think your way to a sober estimate based on the measure of faith that God has dealt to each of you.

This does not sound like a man who has personally experienced a call by Jesus himself, either on the road to Damascus or anywhere else. Nor does it sound like one who possesses any sense of a Son who had lived an incarnated life during which he bestowed so much on his followers, and on the world, in the way of gifts, teachings and example. Paul goes on (v.4-5) to speak of himself and his readers as "limbs and organs, united with Christ, forming one body," a highly mystical concept which better fits a Christ who in Paul’s mind is a cosmic, mythological figure inhabiting the heavenly world, to whom believers—in keeping with the philosophical outlook of the age, as reflected in the Greek mystery cults—could be united in spiritual ways.


 32. – Romans 12:14

One of those elements of Christian ethics which bears resemblance to Jesus’ Gospel teachings is this:

    Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

Matthew, in his Sermon on the Mount (5:44), has Jesus say: "Love your enemies, and pray for your persecutors." There are those who say that this admonition was a revolutionary one for the ancient world, and even the invention of Jesus himself. If so, it would seem natural that Paul would say so, that he would attribute such an innovative ethic to the man who had come up with it, to the man he has supposedly devoted his life to preaching.


 33. – Romans 12:17-18

    . . . Never pay back evil for evil . . . live at peace with all men.

This encapsules Jesus’ other innovative admonition, as embodied in Matthew 5:38-39: "You have learned that they were told, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But what I tell you is this: Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left." In his study of Ephesians, E. L. Mitton argues that this ethical principle is "the spirit of Christ" embodied in his whole career on earth. Was Paul unaware of this? How can we explain Paul’s astounding failure to quote a reference to Jesus’ words which for two millennia have been held up as the quintessential Christian teaching (even if rarely followed): turn the other cheek? As for being at peace with all men, what of Matthew 5:24 with its admonition to "make peace with your brother"?

Paul even goes on (v.19-20) to make quotations to support his admonitions. What are they? They are Old Testament texts, verses from Deuteronomy and Proverbs. These include feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, but Paul gives not a hint of Jesus’ thoughts and directives on these very things.

[ Can an argument like J. P. Holding’s "there was no need" for an explicit reference to Jesus possibly hold water here? Paul obviously has a "need" to back up his admonitions with some sacred support. Why would he choose ancient, anonymous writings to provide this when he has the very words of the Son of God himself during a recent earthly ministry? Any claim that Paul could have been ignorant of such key teachings, that he would have been conducting a ministry of his own to preach Jesus Christ without knowing the most fundamental things about Jesus’ career on earth and the ethics he taught, is simply too ludicrous to countenance. (Let’s keep a conclusion like this in mind when we get to the Appendix, with its discussion of a handful of allusions in the epistles to things which may sound like references to a presence or event "in flesh," but which can be interpreted otherwise: as derived from scripture, and as fitting into the higher-world mythological thinking of the age.) ]


 — Romans 13:3-4 – See "Top 20" #14


 34. – Romans 13:7

    Render to all what is due them: pay tax and toll, reverence and respect, to those to whom they are due. [NASB/NEB]

One could hardly get a closer sentiment to one of Jesus’ most famous sayings, as recorded in Mark 12:17, Matthew 22:21, and Luke 20:25: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s." Even modern fiction writers have used this beautifully balanced dictum to portray Jesus as a politically correct maneuverer and one who could think on his feet. If Paul was familiar with it (and how could he not be, if anything of oral transmission had reached him?), is there any conceivable reason why he would not have referred to such a saying by Jesus to support his argument? (See the similar silence in 1 Peter 2:13).


 35. – Romans 13:8-9

    He who loves his neighbor has satisfied every claim of the law. For the commandment(s) . . . are all summed up in the rule, "Love your neighbor as yourself." [NEB]

In the Gospels, Jesus more than once (e.g., Mt. 22:39) quotes the "Love thy neighbor" commandment from Leviticus when asked for his opinion on the greatest commandment of them all. Paul twice (here and in Galatians 5:14) can express himself exactly as Jesus did and speak of the whole Law being "summed up" in the one rule, yet he shows no sign that he realizes he is doing so. Further directives on love in the epistles (e.g., James 2:8) similarly lack even a sideways glance at Jesus’ sentiments on the subject.


 36. – Romans 13:11-12

Following on Romans 8:19-23 (#25), Paul continues in the same vein about the expectant state of the world, and the present period of history leading up to the time of salvation:

    11Remember how critical the moment is . . . for salvation [deliverance] is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12It is far on in the night; day is near. [NEB]

Day is near? There has been no dawn of any kind with the incarnation of the Son of God? Jesus’ recent presence on earth had failed to dispel any of night’s darkness? Even salvation itself is something which lies entirely in the future, and the only point of reference for it in the past is not Christ’s act of redemption itself, but the moment when Christians first believed in Christ. How can Paul use the word salvation and not introduce Jesus’ own act?

This is not a post-messianic world, it is not post-Jesus. Paul and his apostolic colleagues have embarked on a mission that is entirely forward-looking. In Paul’s mind, the factor which began it was not the life of Jesus, but the call by God, the revealed gospel, the long-hidden secret now disclosed: Christ himself, God’s agent of salvation, the Son who will arrive for the first time at the imminent End, to bring night to a close and launch a new day.


 37. – Romans 14:13

    Let us cease judging one another, but rather make this simple judgment: that no obstacle or stumbling block be placed in a brother’s way. [NEB]

Paul evidently felt no need to point out that Jesus himself had said: "Judge not, that you be not judged," as Matthew records in his Sermon on the Mount (7:1; cf. Lk. 6:37). That sermon also has things to say about how to treat a brother (5:22, 7:3-5) on which Paul is equally silent.


 38. – Romans 14:14

    I am absolutely convinced, as a Christian [as one who is in the Lord Jesus: NIV], that nothing is impure in itself. [NEB]

Here Paul also seems unaware of Jesus’ pronouncements on the cleanness of foods. This was a burning issue within the early Christian movement. Was the new sect to continue to apply the strict dietary laws urged by the Pharisees, with their obsessive concerns over the purity of certain foods? If ever there were a moment amid an emotional argument when Paul would have seized on Jesus’ own declared position for support, this passage in Romans is surely it. His silence can only indicate that he is truly ignorant of such scenes as those recorded in Mark 7 where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy and tells the people: "Nothing that goes into a man from outside can defile him." The evangelist drives home the point by concluding, "Thus he declared all foods clean."

The same silence during a discussion about foods occurs in 1 Timothy 4:4. And the early 2nd century epistle of Barnabas devotes an entire chapter (10) to an attempt to discredit the Jewish dietary restrictions, yet not even here, not even this late, does a Christian writer who knows his traditional scriptures inside and out refer to Jesus’ own words on the subject.


 39. – Romans 15:3-4

    3For Christ did not please himself, but, as it is written, "The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me." 4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. [RSV]

Paul here draws on Psalm 69:9 to characterize—not Jesus’ life, as G. A. Wells puts it (Historical Evidence for Jesus, p.36), but his exemplary sacrifice for the greater good, and his rejection by the world (in the preaching movement) in parallel to the rejection experienced by the Christian believer. Wells points out that Paul, had he possessed any Gospel information on Jesus, might have drawn on Jesus’ own saying, as in Mark 8:34: "If any man come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Instead, the voice of Christ, and with it knowledge about him, comes directly from the scriptures, a feature of early Christian thought we will encounter many times.

E. B. Cranfield (International Critical Commentary, Romans, p.732) admits that "it has struck many people as very surprising that at this point Paul should, instead of citing an example or examples from the history of Christ’s earthly life, simply quote the Old Testament." Cranfield tries to rationalize this, but the real insight lies in verse 4. Not that Paul is reflecting his conviction that "Christ is the true meaning of the law and the prophets," as Cranfield declares, but that these sacred writings are the sole source of information about him, and the primary witness on which believers place their hopes, rather than on memories and traditions of Christ’s recent words and deeds. This focus on passages from scripture rather than the record of Jesus’ own life, whether oral or written, is a prominent feature of the epistles (see especially 2 Peter 1:19), and would be a bizarre choice in the context of a movement begun by a life which should still be vivid and alive in the minds of the members.


 — Romans 16:25-27 – See "Top 20" #2

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