Conflicting Theology: Review of “Paul and Jesus” Part 2
This post is the continuation of a review of James D. Tabor’s Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity begun last week in my last post.
Dr. Tabor is a decades-long scholar of the New Testament, an archaeologist and totally fascinated by the Apostle Paul and his influence. He declares,
“… Paul became the most influential defining figure for later Christianity, even beyond the historical Jesus, but he is also a man waiting to be discovered, even after nearly two thousand years. Paul transformed Jesus himself, with his message of a messianic kingdom of justice and peace on earth to the symbol of a religion of otherworldly salvation in a heavenly world. Recovering the authentic Paul, as he was in his own time, and from his own words, is my task in this book.”
You know how authors and speakers often say, “If you only get one thing from what I’m saying, get this ….”? I don’t recall that Tabor says exactly this in Paul and Jesus. It would be tough, if he did, to single out one thing. But the summary above seems pretty close. Fortunately, the larger picture he is presenting can be seen, “taken in” and remembered as a whole fairly readily. I find it quite clear if we have “eyes to see.” The problem he faces, and he knows it, is that we are long-conditioned to not recognize or accept it. Our entire understanding of who Jesus was and is, of personal salvation, of “the second coming” of Christ and much more is shaken as in an 8-point quake if we see the earliest Christians in this way, taken though it almost completely is, from the New Testament. Particularly so for those who have experience and education as Christians. We have been taught to see Paul’s work as a seamless extension of that of Jesus. Tabor is only one of numerous scholarly authors in the last couple decades who are saying, “Not so!”
We won’t remember all the details of the picture as presented by Tabor, of course, but readers can and should retain the main features of both foreground and background. If one doubts but finds the picture plausible, worth considering more seriously, he or she can pursue the many footnotes and works referred to, both supporting and challenging Tabor’s conclusions. I’m confident the author would consider any open re-examination by readers a success for his effort, as would I. And the lighter reader who may have more curiosity than personal “investment” in the subject will find it easy enough to understand what Tabor is saying. And with that, to also grasp the importance of Paul’s new, profound yet speculative and often confusing concepts leading to the kind of Christianity most of us “know” on one level or another, Christian or not.
Here is my own summary of his core point in only slightly different words. The concept bears repeating: Paul transformed the beliefs and practices of Jesus and subsequently of his original followers into a new and otherworldly religion that replaced the former Israel-and-earthly-kingdom focused (apocalyptic) sect of Judaism.
Now the differences of belief and practice should not be exaggerated either…. Some key concepts were shared by Jesus’ direct disciples and Paul — centrally that of God’s Kingdom, introduced by a Messiah figure who was believed to have been raised from the dead to the “right hand of God” and who was very soon to return to culminate that Kingdom at his “appearance” (later termed “second coming”). But what kind of resurrection did they believe in? One in which Jesus’ body was still in material form though obviously transformed, only partially corporeal? And in which Jesus appeared numerous time to various of his disciples, proving the physicality of his new status although he soon after somehow “ascended” through the atmosphere to go to the Father in heaven until his return? (This the disciples obviously expected to be within their lifetimes, including the “last of all” of the apostles — per his designation — Paul, who had not been with the earthly Jesus.)
Tabor reminds us that according to most traditional Christians, from theologians to informed lay people, it was the resurrection of Jesus that transformed the dejected, perhaps nearly hopeless disciples, upon Jesus’ death, into determined, evangelizing and joy-filled people. Something apparently did do that, as the record seems clear that key disciples, including “The Twelve” Apostles (with Judas replaced, and not including Paul) did gain a sizable following for some kind (more on this later) of belief in Jesus and his return to establish the Kingdom of God. This was for about the first 40 years until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. After that, as Tabor repeatedly points out, we lose track of the Jerusalem-based early “Christians” (not yet split off as distinct from Judaism). This pivot of history opened the door for the ultimate victory of a Pauline theology and worldview, built upon but largely apart from Judaism. This “victory” was over the original disciples’ and Apostles’ concepts of a Jewish Kingdom of God and Messiah (a human, divinely appointed) with continued Jewish observances toward “righteousness.” Perhaps most centrally, this did not involve a substitutionary atonement for our sin by a uniquely human-divine Jesus.
In fact, it is this massively influential event of the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70 which sets the stage for what developed in the writing of probably all, or nearly all of the New Testament (NT) besides seven letters (of 27 total books) definitely written by Paul during the 50s to the early 60s. Tabor astutely and clearly traces how the development of the Gospels apparently went, from just after the war until a few decades later, under heavy Pauline influence much more than influence of the Jerusalem leaders which included James, the brother of Jesus. (Most prominently him, as the clear head, though he is downplayed so much in the NT that his lengthy, key role is almost passed over there, and is even unknown to many lay people today who think of only Peter in those terms, while he was no more than “second in command”).
Tabor keeps reminding us that understanding how things developed in the first century of Christian faith, including how the Resurrection was viewed, is best grasped by reading Paul’s genuine letters first (1 Thes., Galatians, 1 and 2 Cor., Romans, Philippians and Philemon, in roughly that order). Only then should one go to the Gospels, beginning not with Matthew but with Mark, then Matthew, Luke and John. The Acts of the Apostles was written by the same person as the Gospel of Luke (traditionally considered to be Luke) and after it. It is the only other substantial source of information about Paul in the NT. In fact, this only “history” of the first 30 or so years of the Church is about Paul, his conversion and subsequent missionary work and his relationship with the Jerusalem leaders, more than the rest of what was happening in Jerusalem or Israel itself. (Almost none of Paul’s evangelizing and teaching was in Israel and he considered himself the Apostle to the Gentiles although Jews were part of his audiences and congregations as well, in the many cities and regions they had dispersed to.)
As Tabor illustrates well, Luke’s agenda in Acts is clearly to smooth over the strong theological conflict and high animosity of which Paul speaks, between himself and the Jerusalem leaders. Luke takes pains (often at odds with Paul’s direct testimony, and likely around 40-60 years later) to indicate that actual or potential disagreements on major issues got resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. As such, he presents an apparent “unity of the faith” by the time the historical and theological summary, in story form, just trails off with Paul headed toward Rome as a prisoner in the early to mid 60s.
Now, back to the critical resurrection question and how Tabor handles the many puzzles surrounding it in the NT. Since it seems to have been so central for Jesus’ original followers, then for Paul and on down to most present day Christians, how are the contradictions (within the Gospels) and the confusions (between the Gospels and Paul) to be sorted out? Is there any pattern or meaning to them? What does any resolution leave us to understand? As to pattern, Tabor contends that the chronological approach of Paul to Mark to Matthew and Luke (with John likely following last but differing in focus and theology) gives us the keys. The story is too involved to summarize well here. But it is basically this: The disciples do return, disheartened, to Galilee (as omitted fully by Luke). There Peter is probably first (as Paul reports) to have “seen” Jesus, followed soon by others, perhaps in joint visionary experiences. At some point, with faith in the still-coming Messianic Kingdom renewed, and expecting Jesus to very shortly bring it in from God’s throne, these Galileans re-gather in Jerusalem.
According to Paul, his vision and all the other appearances of Jesus were of the same nature — visionary. Though Paul refers to Jesus as crucified, buried and raised on the third day, he shows no interest in his tomb being found empty. Tabor relates, from the Gospel texts themselves, how it probably was discovered empty because Joseph, the tomb’s donor, had moved the hastily and temporarily entombed body to its final burial place. Whether or not this vital fact was discovered by the disciples later sometime, as it seems it would have been, is not a crucial point. The Gospel writers wouldn’t include it if it was, decades later while passing along either the existing tradition and/or building their own case for a corporeal resurrection; and Paul was unconcerned with the physical body’s disposition, in his firm belief that Jesus became a “life-giving spirit,” having a “spiritual body,” and using similar phrasing frequently. An additional indication that Paul refers to merely visionary appearances, not a body of “flesh and bones” as in the Gospels, is that he refers to an appearance to “over 500 brethren at once” (1 Cor. 15).
No hint of this comes up in the Gospels, despite the fact that they go to great lengths to detail convincing appearances, confirmed by multiple witnesses…. Did Paul hear wrongly about something this major? Did he just make it up? (Probably not, implying one could locate some of the living participants, though his Corinthian letter recipients were far from Israel.) Or were all the appearances of visionary nature? The last of these makes much the best sense to me, consistent with Tabor’s emphasis (although Tabor does not analyse this particular detail as he does others). Still, any interpretation of how Paul comes to the “over 500” statement presents real problems for the Gospel contention that Jesus made a point of being touched, showing his wounds, eating, etc. (that is, he was not a ghost). In seeking to relate Jesus’ “many convincing proofs” of bodily presence (Luke in Acts 1:3), how is the appearance to over 500 left out? (Luke seems to indicate a smaller total group of disciples before the ascension, numbering it “about 120”, Acts 1:15.)
Now, in getting so detailed on mainly Paul and the Gospels on the resurrection, I have merely given a sample of the approach of Tabor in Paul and Jesus. He goes into both helpful detail and effective summary in covering Paul’s theology and how it differed so radically from that of the Jerusalem leaders who apparently were distant enough from Paul’s work most of the time that the true differences only came out gradually and were confronted in Paul’s final trip (of three) to Jerusalem. According to Luke, who Tabor calls questionable, at best, as to his historical claims although Luke obviously has consulted sources, this confrontation indirectly leads to Paul’s arrest and transport to Rome. We get no clear sense of how the examination of Paul there actually turned out. However, as Tabor develops at some length, Paul’s later writings show clear disdain for and opposition to alleged apostles who he believes (as do I) are the Jerusalem leaders and their representatives (“apostle” is a fairly broad term not always referring to “The Twelve” and/or Paul).
I’ve taken the time and space here to highlight factors from this excellent book because I believe it is both very important and appeals to a broad readership… virtually anyone interested in their own Christian faith or in the religious history of the first century. I find Tabor impressively proves his point that Jewish (and some “hellenist”) Jesus-followers, mainly in Jerusalem, and Pauline Christians made up at least early “Christian” groups. The two groups were mostly distinct and geographically separate with distinct beliefs and practices which did overlap in part and shared a common base in Jewish messianic hope. That one, following Paul’s “revelations,” eventually prevailed has meant that we have mostly lost touch with what it originally meant to be a “Christian” in the early years in Israel, and what that seems to say about Jesus and “the Gospel.”
Have you read the book? Do you intend to? Please share your thoughts whether you have or not, intend to or not!