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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Are Paul and Jesus Antithetical? Introduction

Albert Schweitzer once said that Paul told us virtually nothing about Jesus. Walter Kaufmann once called fundamentalism the triumph of Paul over Christ. These are only two of myriad modern voices that see a fundamental antagonism between the religion of Jesus and the religion of Paul. Perhaps, to Americans, Thomas Jefferson, with his truncated "Bible" made up of various ethical maxims of Jesus, is the most famous of the "Paul against Jesus" school.

Are Paul and Jesus in fact antithetical? Certainly the major media (Peter Jennings' recent broadcast and the editors of major news magazines come to mind)leave the impression that the Jesus whom Christians have worshiped and studied for two millennia is a falsehood unmasked by our knowing, "scientific" age. Yet, could it not be that such a view is credible only to an era which has lost a basic familiarity with the New Testament?

To return to Albert Schweitzer, he also commented that the various 18th, 19th, and early 20th century scholars who sought to create a "historical" Jesus stripped of miraculous and theological trappings only looked down the well shaft of 20 centuries to see their own faces reflected in the bottom. Schweitzer, in his _Quest for the Historical Jesus_ challenged the humanitarian and humane Jesus of his theologically liberal colleagues by seeing in Jesus a frustrated apocalyptic prophet of doom, thereby focusing on an aspect of Jesus' life and teaching ignored by the academic biblical scholarship of his day, and shocking his academic colleagues. The current essay sees in Schweitzer's caveat concerning the scholarly consensus at the beginning of the 20th century an important warning which has too often gone unheeded.

Yet despite Schweitzer's putting a period on the "old quest for the historical Jesus", newer "quests" emerged. Academic German theology of the interwar period found in Jesus an "Aryan" rebel against Judaism, and while extolling Luther's _On the Jews and their Lies_, blamed Rabbi Paul for "Judaizing" the original Gospel promulgated by an "Aryan" Galilaean; despite the same Paul being the fountainhead of so much of the historical Luther's theology. Nor did this so-called Positive Christianity die with the Third Reich, the execution of Vidkun Quisling (one of its prominent advocates), and the chastised admission of guilt for the Holocaust offered by the German Protestant churches in the postwar era. Instead, it took on a new life with the New Left of the 1960's and '70's, which sought to portray Jesus as a fellow "revolutionary", a Jewish guerrilla fighter against the Romans, an impulse that continued down through the late Yasser Arafat's assertion that Jesus was the first "Palestinian freedom fighter" (and Arafat's amnesia about Jesus being a Jew).

The attempt to find a "merely" human Jesus continues today in the media embrace of Jesus as the tortured neurotic displayed in Scorcese's _Last Temptation of Christ_ (based on Nikos Kazantzakis' novel of the same title) and the Jesus Seminar, in which nothing challenging to the mix of worldly-wise cynicism and New Age credulity of the post-modern era is allowed to stand as "authentic".

In all of these efforts there to divorce the "Jesus of history" from the "Christ of faith", there seems to be a common attempt to divorce Jesus from Paul. Jesus, it is argued, presented a "simple" and "practical" faith of love and good works, the definitions of which are invariably compatible with our own era's notions of right and wrong, while Paul somehow turned Jesus' "simple" teachings into something spooky, priestly, and other-worldly. And, it is argued, the Christianity of following ages following ages opted for Paul over its nominal savior. Paul (plus the much later Augustine of Hippo) is blamed for everything from medieval persecutions to modern fundamentalism's stubborn unwillingness to "get with" the sexual revolution.

These originally Christian crises of faith have further been taken over by Islamic polemicists, who gleefully report that "Christian" experts have come around to the Islamic position that Jesus was only a human prophet; and perhaps hope that a generation of confused Christians will buy into such medieval forgeries as the supposed "Gospel of Barnabas" (apparently the work of a 12th century Italian or Spanish convert to Islam) and become Muslims.

But is this "simple human Jesus" at all credible? The standpoint of this series is that such a creature is only the creation of modern prejudice, ignorance, and credulity. Indeed, the older quest for the historical Jesus was cowed by the insistence of the 19th century Treitschkes and Bauers that nothing supernatural could be "historical". The more recent quest seems animated by a nagging doubt that liberal religion receives no aid or comfort from anything in the canonical New Testament; hent the Jesus' Seminar's frantic clutching at straws like the historically late Coptic Gospel of Thomas, and finding in it teachings sympathetic to modern feminism, despite its position that Mary must become male to enter the Kingdom!

The time has come to admit that Jesus is known to us chiefly from the New Testament as a whole; that other sources, whether Gnostic, Rabbinic, or pagan Graeco-Roman, are at best secondary. Hence, a new look at the connections between Jesus and Paul (such as that undertaken by F.F. Bruce in the 1970's) rather than their antitheses is in order. For those who accept the Gospels as creations of the late first century, Paul is actually the earliest witness to the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. While there are weighty and compelling reasons for dating the Gospels far earlier than the 70's-90's of the first century, this by no means reduces Paul's status as an important witness to who Jesus was and is.

To understand the connections between Paul and the Jesus he worshiped, several important New Testament themes will be explored:

1. Jesus as Messiah of Israel

2. Apocalypse in both Jesus and Paul

3. The Divinity of Jesus

4.Jesus as savior of the elect

5. Emphases of the Gospels and of Paul

6. Structure of the Gospel narratives

7. Ethical emphases of Paul

8. How credible are late "Gospels"?

It should be noticed that several topics involve matters disturbing to the modern reader. This, however, is done to remind both believing and unbelieving readers that Jesus was not a man of the 20th or 21st century (nor of the 18th or 19th, for that matter), but one born in the days of Caesar Augustus of Rome and Herod the Great of Judaea. While Paul's seeing that time as "the fulness of time" (Gal. 4:4) may make the unbelieving reader feel insulted while making the believing reader feel humbled, no understanding of Jesus and the community whose members saw him as important is possible unless the time and place, with its hopes and fears, is taken into consideration.

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