Monthly Archives: August 2012

Christianity without Paul?

It is commonly, but perhaps unfairly said:

“But without Paul, Christianity would have remained a Jewish backwater, never to become the world religion it is today.”

There is no way we can second-guess history, but if we theoretically remove Paul from early Christianity, we are still left with a very interesting situation.

Before Paul started his mission, there were already non-Jewish converts to the Jesus movement. Some were probably “spontaneous” converts who may have chanced to hear Jesus’ own teaching, or the apostles’ preaching. Others may have converted by dialoguing with members of the “Hellenist” Jewish Christian party which was expelled from Jerusalem after Stephen’s martyrdom. In any case, it is clear that not all non-Jewish converts were “brought in” by Paul.

It is to these non-Jews that Jesus’ brother James – head of the church – compassionately and pragmatically extended the hand of brotherhood.

James decided that non-Jewish converts could simply follow the handful of simple rules contained in the Noahide Covenant – the covenant which, Jews maintained,  Yahweh had made with all humankind, long before the Abrahamic-Mosaic covenant was established. James’ decree freed gentile converts from kosher, obedience to the Mosaic Law, and circumcision. Thus, James had, early on, planted a perfect gateway for gentiles to enter the Jesus movement without first “becoming Jews”.

So already we see that the Jesus movement was priorly designed to accept Gentiles by way of a very simple rule. It is entirely possible that this small but colossally important step would, of itself, have successfully planted seeds of its own in the Empire, quite apart from Paul’s missionary activity. From Paul’s own letters, we know that there were many missionaries in the extra-Judean, Greco-Roman world. We even know that sometimes Paul would send letters to churches that he himself had not founded. That is, Paul did not found every extra-Judean church, nor were all the other missionaries necessarily “Pauline”.

Therefore, the idea of a Gentile, Greco-Roman Christianity without Paul, is not, on the face of it, at all absurd.

In fact, depending on its reception among Hellenistic synagogues, the original Jewish-sectarian form of the Jesus movement may have burgeoned into a new branch of Judaism: a form of Judaism that followed Jesus’ Torah-interpretation, his teachings about the here-and-now presence of God’s Kingdom on earth, his parables, his poverty ethic, etc. After all, this was already being done in Jerusalem, the chief opposition being only the priesthood. In the extra-Judean Empire, distanced from the priesthood, perhaps the movement would have flourished in ways it could never have in the land of its origin.

Perhaps, then, the concept of a large Jewish Jesus-movement, successful and influential in the wider Empire, without Paul, ought not to be lightly dismissed. It may not have ultimately amounted to a “world religion”, but it could have had the potential of being a strongly influential branch of Judaism which, refracted through the character and teachings of Jesus, welcomed both Jews and non-Jews to a common table within the fulfilled Jewish promise of a heavenly kingdom functioning on earth.

A Non-Trinitarian Jesus 1

This is the first of some brief comments aimed at refuting the traditional but erroneous notion that “Jesus is God”. Nothing complex or daunting at first, just some thoughts “off the top of my head”.

By definition, the Christian God is said to be both omniscient and omnipotent. In the NT (New Testament), Jesus constantly prays to God. If Jesus were God, these prayer-instances would convey an utterly incoherent picture, namely “God-Jesus” praying to God. But God cannot pray to God. Thus, because Jesus prays, he himself can’t be God.

The NT Jesus himself gives no support to the notion that he is God. For example, in John’s Gospel – the Gospel said to contain the highest christology of all NT works – Jesus says things like, “I am a man who heard God’s word, and I obey it”; “I cannot do anything on my own, only as my Father commands me”; “the Father is greater than I”; “I ascend to your God and my God”, etc. From these passages it is clear that, far from being God, Jesus has a God, to whom he prays, and whom he obeys.

Moreover, still in John’s Gospel, Jesus identifies himself as God’s messianic agent-emissary, or shaliah. In ancient times, and in ancient Judaism in particular, the agent and the principle were associated so closely that they were seen to share a legal identity. What the agent does for the principle is equivalent to the principle himself acting. What is done to the agent is equivalent to doing it to the principle. Hence, when Jesus says things in John such as “Who sees me sees the Father”, “the Father and I are one”, etc., he is illustrating his closeness to God as the shaliah. He is not making a claim to be the God whom he represents. John’s Jesus does exercise a divine authority, but only as God’s agent, not as some Trinitarian “son”.

The same factor is operative in the Synoptic Gospels, where, for instance, Jesus as the messianic “Son of Man” forgives sins. The typical Trinitarian explanation is that no one but God can forgive sins, so because he forgives sins, Jesus must be God. This is misphrased, because NT christology actually connotes it slightly, but importantly, differently: “In forgiving sins, Jesus is acting like God.”

That is, Jesus as shaliah is doing what God has deputized him to do: to forgive sins “on earth”. So the question, “Who can forgive sin but God alone?” has its answer from Jesus’ own ministry: “God forgives sins, and so does His special agent, whom He has ordained to forgive sin”. When the NT Jesus forgives sin, he is doing it by virtue of the power that God invested in him. The situation is much the same in those Gospel texts where Jesus empowers his disciples to forgive sins – a gift which, for all its power, did not turn Jesus’ disciples into God. As the Father deputized Jesus to forgive sins, so Jesus passed this ministry along to his disciples -without Jesus or the disciples being God.

One biblical unitarian, Anthony Buzzard, entitled one of his books, The Doctrin of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound. Although I disagree with much of Buzzard’s fundamentalistic interpretations, I believe that his christology is healthy and based on the monotheistic Jewish foundations of the NT. The Trinitarian “wound” fractured Yahweh’s unity and elevated his prophet Jesus to the status of “God”, thus alienating Jews, Moslems, and people of common sense throughout history. If this wound could be healed, we might see a great moving-together and new solidarity among the Abrahamic faiths. However, the task is daunting, since mainline churches teach Trinitarianism from birth, and insist upon catechizing converts into Trinitarianism. They say if one does not accept the Trinity/accept Jesus as God, then one is a heretic who has no hope of truly understanding Jesus, God’s nature … and has no hope of salvation. That is: Accept the Trinity – or else.

Since I am a Buddhist, this may not seem to be “my fight”. But it very much is my fight, because if Jesus was a human being who went through a spiritual transformation, then he is aligned with the many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in my Mahayanist tradition – mortal human beings who at some point realized their true spiritual identities. But if Jesus is eternally, ontologically “God”, then his mission and life become little more than E.T and his Adventure on Earth. Jesus moves from being a mortal human with human struggles to an “eternal Son” who briefly incarnates in a human body.

Thus, I believe that the highest teachings, mystical claims and ethics that the NT reports of Jesus are far too humanistically important to dismiss as mere Olympian proclamations of an “incarnate God”. My own bias favors the view of Jesus as a Jewish mystic in the stream of Jewish mysticism, who attained spiritual knowledge, rather than as a God laying down commandments through a temporary puppeteering of a human body. And I think the NT evidence supports this view, as does the extra-biblical evidence which has been pieced together over many decades.  More on this subject will appear in later posts.

A Mythicist Cliche

One typical Mythicist claim is that the Gospel Jesus – a great teacher and miracle worker – is not mentioned by contemporary historians and Roman legal and political writers. Hence, they conclude, Jesus never existed. But is this idea about “history’s silence” a sound one? My question is quite the opposite, namely, why should we expect Jesus to have been mentioned in contemporary records?

The basic assumption is that contemporary records would mention significant people and events. This seems sensible. But not so much when applied to Jesus. According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus spent most of his missionary career in Galilean towns, which were considered “podunk” backwaters by the influential centers in Judea, especially in the capital, Jerusalem.

When we recall that when Jesus had his “fifteen minutes of fame”, it was not in Galilee, but in Jerusalem. That is, his only noticeable public – and therefore “historical” – impact purportedly took place in the very short week between his entrance into the city on “Palm Sunday” and his arrest on the Thursday evening of that week.

His entrance into the city is said to have been heralded by a relatively small crowd of pilgrims who gave him a royal welcome by spreading palm branches on the road he traveled as a sort of “red carpet” treatment. It is then told that Jesus entered the Temple precincts and disrupted the selling of sacrificial animals. This is the famous but ill-named “Cleansing of the Temple” – the “driving out of the moneychangers”. Even after this provocative act, the Gospels relate that Jesus was permitted to return to the Temple to teach. But it is also told that from the moment of “the Cleansing” onward, the priests, apparently biding their time, started to conspire to get rid of Jesus (Mark 11:15-19). The story is that they whispered in Pilate’s ear that Jesus had disrupted the all-important Temple trade – on which Rome depended for its “cut” of Jewish wealth; and that Jesus was preaching about a kingdom whose king was not Caesar. Apparently Pilate saw these two factors as dangerous enough to have Jesus arrested and executed.

That’s it. One short week in Jerusalem; the quick dispatching of a backwoods Galilean prophet: these were the only real historically pertinent items in Jesus’ career. Due to their brevity and general lack of consequences, it is almost ludicrous to expect historians to have recorded them. After all, Jesus’ real significance in the Greco-Roman world evolved over decades, after extra-Judean missions to “the Gentiles”, and after mass conversions to the pacifistic, monotheistic movement had begun to be a bureaucratic headache to Roman officialsin the wider Empire. Jesus’ actual importance many decades earlier, in Judea in the year 33 CE, was extremely minor to both Jews and non-Jews. He was, except of course for his followers, a mere flash in the pan.

Therefore, I believe that the Mythicists are wrong-headed to lay heavy significance on the fact that no contemporary sources mention Jesus. The most probable reason is: he just wasn’t worth mentioning – even had they known of him.