Editors: Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas S. Verenna
Bibliographic info: viii + 266 + 13
Publisher: Equinox, 2012
Buy it at Amazon
With thanks to Equinox for the review copy!
Read Part I of the review.
The second section of this book, Paul and Early Christianity: Historical and Exegetical Investigations, is comprised of three chapters. I was intending on writing out lengthy reviews of each chapter but, due to tiredness, I have instead opted to only do so for the third essay, though I will provide a very brief summary of the other two chapters.
The first chapter in this section is from Robert Price and is called “Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?” In it he discusses Marcion’s connection to the Gospels and the relationship between the Gospels and Paul’s epistles. The next chapter, the seventh of the book, is by Mogens Müller. It is titled “Paul: The Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus.” As the title suggests, he believes that the writings of Paul can be used to support the case for a historical Jesus. Here is a nice quotable snippet:
Paul is the oldest witness to the transformation of the historical person, that is, Jesus of Nazareth, into a heavenly saviour, although this transformation occurred in such a way that Jesus, as a historical person of the past, has nearly disappeared. (118)
Thomas Verenna is the author of the eighth chapter, “Born under the Law: Intertextuality and the Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus in Paul’s Epistles.” Before I get into the arguments provided in this chapter, I have to get something off of my chest. Footnotes! While I am a footnote enthusiast there is such a thing as too many footnotes. Many of the footnotes in this essay were simply too long and/or superfluous. For instance, footnote #11 takes up about a third of a page and is simply on the use of the word “Christian” as a designation for Paul or anyone in the first century. My favorite is footnote #38 which begins with “I would like to briefly comment on this section…” and then continues to take up about half a page!
The key thrust of Verenna’s essay is that “Paul did not believe his Jesus was ever historical in the first place” (132), mentioning in an accompanying footnote that he isn’t necessarily arguing against the historicity of Jesus, but only that one cannot find such a historical figure using Paul’s epistles. He sets out using “a method formed from analyzing intertextuality” (132), with the intent of showing that “what Paul is interpreting, what he is expressing, is not an earthly figure, but an allegorical one” (133). Thus, this essay is “an attempt to look past modern interpretations of Paul, which are far too focused on discovering what he has to say about an assumed historical entity – Jesus – and less about discovering how Paul’s initial audience would have understood his meaning” (135).
Verenna first discusses the crucifixion of Jesus in the (genuine) Pauline epistles, with his contention being that there “is little doubt; Paul knew of a crucifixion, though he never suggests it happened on earth” (140). At one point in this section he says:
In Sumerian mythology, there is a tale of Inanna’s descent into the underworld, her crucifixion and death, her resurrection and ascension; after this ascension she appears to local deities … It is well known that this story had already permeated Jewish society long before Christianity; Ezek. 8:14 states that women were mourning for Tammuz at the north gate. Tammuz was the one God who refused to bow down at first in front of Inanna after she had arisen and ascended. As a result, she banished him to the nether world. (141-42)
I am curious as to how one can say that Inanna was “crucified”, as all that I can find on this story is that after she was killed, her body was hung on some type of hook (and it sounds like all this occurred in the underworld). The translation Verenna quotes says that “the corpse was hung from a stake”, but I can’t see how this is a legit reason to say that Inanna was crucified (unless one has a pretty loose definition of the term). The only reasoning I can see behind the use of “crucified” is similar to that found when parallelomaniacs fabricate parallels between Jesus and other deities in order to give the reader the “oh my Gawd!” factor when they discover that early Christianity wasn’t without its antecedents. Also, are we meant to think, based on this single verse in the Hebrew Bible, that the story of the “crucifixion” and “ascension” of Inanna had “permeated” Jewish society before Christianity came along? Seems almost like a sly attempt of trying to sneak in some parallelomania whilst maintaining plausible deniability. This discussion of Inanna, however, is accompanied by a (lengthy) footnote in which the author adds the disclaimer that he is neither advocating “parallelism” nor the idea that Paul had access to this Inanna narrative. So what was the point of brining up Inanna? He explains:
The purpose of this exercise is to bring to light the fact that a story about a crucified God who rose from the dead and ascended does predate the Passion narrative and Paul’s crucified savior. When scholars rely upon the probability of the historicity of the crucifixion because they cannot understand how a Jew in antiquity would worship a crucified Messiah, they are really only showing how little they understand the socio-cultural landscape of the ancient world. (143)
Apart from rejecting the notion that the story of Inanna is about a “crucified God” who existed before Christ, I nevertheless agree that it is a good example, and one of many which could be pointed to, showing the prevalence of a dying-and-raising/death-and-rebirth motif in Paul’s cultural milieu. But surely that is nothing strange or amazing, right? I thought this was pretty uncontroversial stuff. Heck, isn’t this motif perpetually present in the cycle of nature (i.e. the death of winter and rebirth of spring)? Regardless, if one wants to attempt to show how the concept of a dying-and-rising god was not unknown in Paul’s day, one could do it in a manner which doesn’t smack of parallelomania.
Verenna continues by saying that “Paul’s crucifixion account did not come from a historical event, but from the Hebrew Bible” (144), specifically singling out Psalm 22. But I didn’t see a case being made arguing that the Hebrew Bible was the source for Paul concocting his Jesus. Instead, the logic seemingly was that if Paul used the Hebrew Bible to speak of Jesus then Paul must have created him, i.e., correlation must equal causation.
Verenna then turns to building a case in order to support the idea that Paul never envisaged Jesus’ crucifixion as being an actual historical event. He discusses how Paul speaks of being crucified with Christ in a spiritual sense (e.g. Gal. 2.20) and that when taken in conjunction with Paul’s “esoteric language” in 1 Cor. 2.6-8 (which apparently implies that Paul is talking about a “mystery rite”), we can safely arrive at the conclusion that Paul always meant a spiritual sense when he talked about the crucifixion. The main point in his argument for this is that the archons (“rulers”), whom Paul says are responsible for crucifying Jesus (1 Cor. 2.8), are in fact spiritual beings, not actual people (e.g. Pontius Pilate). He also sees the archons as being the same as the stoicheia (“elemental spirits”) in Galatians 4 and Colossians 2.
Concerning 1 Cor. 2.8, Verenna notes that the only other place Paul uses archon (Rom. 13.3) is to denote earthly rulers. But he believes that Paul is using it here in 1 Cor. 2.8 to speak of spiritual beings due to it being used in the phrase “the rulers (archōntes) of this age (aiōnos).” But if one looks at how aiōn is used elsewhere in surrounding chapters, one sees that it is referring to the earthly realm (“the debater of this aiōn” 1.20; “wisdom of this aiōn” 2.6; “he is wise in this aiōn” 3.18). Another thing is that the plural, archōntes, is a typical Greek expression for ruling authorities, examples of which are seen in Acts 3.17 and 13.27. Lastly, the context of 1 Cor. 2.8 makes it pretty clear that Paul is speaking of earthly rulers. In 1 Corinthians 1-2 Paul is discussing the folly of man’s wisdom (read 1.20–2.8 with an eye for the use of the word “wise”). A reference to spiritual rulers would be out of place here, but a reference to earthly rulers makes perfect sense; it is as if Paul is saying, “Human wisdom is useless and dumb. Heck, look at the so-called wisdom of our own rulers! They crucified the Lord of glory! Their wisdom is worthless!” Oddly enough, I don’t remember Verenna referencing any of the scholarly literature that has been published specifically on 1 Cor. 2.8, nor even general commentaries on 1 Corinthians.
At one point Verenna mentions a text discovered at Nag Hammadi, called Hypostasis of the Archons, which apparently “[lends] more credibility to the argument that this was a common understanding of Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians” (149), and “that at least some early Christians knew of this interpretation” of Paul’s understanding of the archontic rulers as spiritual entities, not earthly people. The Hypostasis of the Archons is, however, simply too late to be of any use for interpreting Paul’s epistles, not to mention that Paul wasn’t Gnostic (though I think Verenna labels him as such).
After the discussion on the crucifixion, Verenna turns to the allegory of the two women in Galatians 4. I found it hard to wrap my mind around this one. He says that “[t]he law is the spiritual custodian of the flesh, a teacher which Paul feels leads one to life. It is through this custodian, the spirit, per Paul, that we are also saved” (152). Paul feels that the law leads one to life? Paul equates the spirit with the law? It is through the law that we are saved? Huh?
While correctly noting that Gal. 4.21-31 is an allegory (which is pretty obvious as that is what Paul himself says), Verenna says that the phrase “born of a woman” (Gal. 4.4), which is in reference to Jesus, is also just an allegory, with the “woman” being a reference to Sarah, “the Jerusalem above” of verse 26. I really don’t get the logic behind this one. Assuming Verenna’s allegorical reading of 4.4 is correct, this would mean that when Paul says Jesus was “born of woman, born under the law” (4.4), the “woman” Jesus is born under would have to be Hagar, not Sarah! (because Hagar is figurative for Mount Sinai, i.e. the law!; see verse 24).
Turning to another issue, Verenna again uses allegory (not an intertextual method drawing upon emulation/imitation) to discuss Paul calling Jesus the “the seed of David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1.3). He says that the reader has two options:
(1) we are left to believe that either David was literally Jesus’ father (the Greek is […] literally ‘of the seed/sperm of David’), which would mean that Jesus’ mother was impregnated by one of David’s celestial ‘seeds’ or that (2) Paul means this allegorically. (152-53)
What about option (3): Paul is not using an allegory but believed Jesus to be descended from the house of David. While Verenna does mention that Paul doesn’t say “from the seed of Joseph, descendant of David” (153), he forgets to mention that Paul was Jewish and so saying “seed of David” doesn’t necessitate that Jesus would have had to been the result of a Mary and David hookup. Also, in footnote 55 Verenna says [in regards to my third option]: “In fact, to interpret this passage in that manner is to read Paul through the lenses of the Gospel genealogies” (153). Huh?! Or maybe it is simply interpreting Paul through ideas current in Second Temple Judaism, e.g., the belief of a coming Davidic messiah. The promises regarding the Davidic dynasty (e.g. 2 Sam 7; cf. 4QFlor) and other references to a Davidic “prince” (e.g. Ezek. 34.23, 37.24), as well as a multitude of other passages (e.g. Ps. of Sol. 17), show that there was a prevalent hope within streams of Judaism during Paul’s time which expected and hoped for an eschatological messiah who would come from the lineage of David. The argument for an allegorical reading here in Rom. 1.3 is worse than the one presented for Gal. 4.4.
Verenna also discusses Paul’s references to the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11) and to “James, the brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1.19). In regards to the latter, Verenna relies upon the (pretty lame) argument that “brother” here refers to the practice of believers calling each other that. Instead of admitting the simple and obvious truth that Paul is referring to James as the physical brother of Jesus, Verenna instead opts to speculate that “[t]he use of the language [adelphos] may be similar to a type of rank in the mystery religions of the day” (157). Unfortunately, he also opted to ignore why Paul would have singled out James as being a figurative “brother” when speaking of him in conjunction with two other figurative brothers, Peter and John.
An overarching drawback I found with this essay (apart from the footnotes!) is that when I finished reading it, I had no idea what the “method formed from intertextuality” even was. The author does talk a little bit about “imitation” and “emulation” towards the beginning, though didn’t really seem to offer a definition of what these concepts are. The closest I could find was when he said: “Emulation, in this study, means establishing intertextuality” (137). By the time I got to the end of the chapter, I still hadn’t figured out how imitation and emulation had been used as a heuristic device to demonstrate that Paul didn’t believe Jesus to be historical. It seemed to me that the author was simply arguing that since Paul spoke about Jesus in a manner which employed the Hebrew Bible, coupled together with Paul speaking of Jesus in allegorical and spiritual fashion, that this must led one to the conclusion that Paul only envisaged Jesus as a fictional character.
It was a spirited attempt by Verenna to prove that Paul didn’t believe in a historical Jesus, but ultimately it was utterly unsuccessful.
Read Part II