Paul’s two perspectives on Jesus

I hope it is not controversial to say that Saul of Tarsus before his conversion must have shared what was probably the majority view in Israel – that Jesus of Nazareth was an offender against the Torah and a misleader of the people, who had rightly suffered the death of one accursed.

Even our first record of Jesus’ early career (Mark) moves immediately from a 16-verse introduction to a string of 88 verses in which ten out of twelve stories portray Jesus transgressing the literal sense of seven different points of the Law:

1. Sabbath-breaking (Mk 2:24 & 3:6)

2. Neglect of fasting (2:18)

3. Neglect of family (3:33)

4. Contact with lepers (1:41)

5. Eating with sinners (2:16)

6. Blasphemy i.e. Authority to forgive sin (2:7)

7. Alliance with Satan (3:22) i.e. authority over demons (1:27, 34, 39, 3:11)

Mark’s source for the early career of Jesus clearly relies heavily on stories of apparent law-breaking, most of which are accompanied by Jesus’ own prophetic rationale for setting aside the Law.  Can it be doubted that many reports of the deeds of Jesus were circulating without benefit of the sayings attached by Mark?  I think Mark’s emphasis suggests that lawbreaking was an issue for Jews who criticized the mission of Jesus in his lifetime and after the crucifixion.

To an unsympathetic ear it would make no difference if these stories circulated with or without Jesus’ rationale attached.  Because it was I think a matter of common knowledge – also confirmed by Mark (8:11-12) – that Jesus had refused to provide the test-sign demanded by the religious authorities in proof of his authority.  This constituted for them a warrant of the Law itself for disregarding Jesus’ prophetic claims.

I think this is the perspective of the old Saul – knowing that Jesus, despite his alleged works, had after all refused to authorize his mission by the sign required by Moses, Saul had judged that the Law justly regarded his sin as worthy of condemnation and death.

The perspective of the new Saul is best seen from the standpoint of his brief and electrifying encounter on the way to Damascus (Acts 9:2-9).  I trust this report to represent not a dream or myth but a genuine revelation event.  Saul sees and hears for himself what the martyr Stephen had claimed to see – that this Jesus who for all appearances had set the law aside – who under the Law of God was made to be sin and was crucified – is now in the power of the spirit alive.

Saul’s revelation doesn’t give him faith in the fact of the resurrection (one doesn’t ‘have faith’ in experienced facts).  The true object of Saul’s faith is his rapidly-developing view of the meaning and value of the resurrection.  This view was illuminated by Saul’s faith in God, which was never in question.  In its light he comprehends that it is the God of Israel who has raised Jesus from the dead.  A corollary to this faith is the belief that the risen one is God’s anointed, the hope of Israel.

All of which will be quite formative and quite problematic for the future of Christianity.

Advertisements

How Paul got his gospel on the Damascus Road

In his letter to the Galatians Paul claims an apostolate not through man but ‘through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead’ (1:1).  He further says he ‘did not confer with flesh and blood’ regarding the Gospel he preached until three years after his conversion (1:16-19).  How is such independence possible?  Where did his Gospel come from?

I think the ‘miracle’ of Paul’s independent acquisition of a gospel and an apostolate has only one supernatural element: his very brief encounter with the spirit of Jesus Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-6).  Because once he has accepted the spiritual reality of that encounter, I think he might easily have inferred from it the truth of all four pillars of what he calls his gospel.

Inference 1 – The Resurrection:  If Jesus, who was crucified and buried at Jerusalem, has appeared to him in the spirit near Damascus, Saul could with great confidence infer the truth of the resurrection – that God himself must have raised this Jesus from the dead.

Inference 2 – The Christ:  If this Jesus whom the God of Israel raised from the dead identifies himself with those whom Saul is persecuting – who proclaim him messiah – then it must be inferred that Jesus is in fact he whom Saul had been so furiously denying – the Christ, God’s anointed.

Inference 3 – The Cross:  If it is manifest from 1 & 2 that the mortal destruction of God’s anointed was accomplished on the cross in the process of punishing one who was judged worthy of death in accordance with the law, the need of a rationale for preaching ‘Christ crucified’ becomes apparent.  We should also expect to see a development of a theology of sacrifice which combines the idea of a divinely sponsored Law which had ‘made him to be sin’ with the idea of a divinely willed death of one ‘who was without sin.’  This gets complicated, but for Paul creates the possibility of reconciliation and peace between man and God.

Inference 4 – Grace, the free gift:  If God’s anointed was crucified under the Law, then the effect of its paradoxical result (reconciliation of God and man) must be intended by God to take the place of the Law.  The inference from this is the end of the Law with respect to justification, and a new dispensation of grace in which all who otherwise were destined to condemnation either under the law or outside the law now have justification by faith in the free gift of the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

I do not mean that Paul perceived all the details of his gospel in the twinkling of an eye.  I only argue that there is no reason to doubt that he apprehended it in its broad outlines immediately and independently of Ananias or Cephas or any other evangelist – in that moment of truth in which he recognized and accepted the identity of the one who came to him so suddenly on the way to Damascus.