Placing Paul / Thinking Out Loud

Subscribing to a number of bloggers who belong to Biblioblogs keeps me busy realizing how much I don’t know. I say this by way of making clear that this is a “thinking out loud post” – not a “here’s how it is” post, and also to give me an opportunity to say how grateful I am that these students of the Bible are willing to share their thoughts and expertise with hoi polloi in blog form.

So… I guess we all know who Paul was. We ought to – more of his words appear in the New Testament than do those of any other figure, and he doubtless had influence on the writers who came after him. Nevertheless, even with the abundance of his letters, and supplementary information about him from Acts, there are still places where we might like to know more – or at least have greater certainty about what we know.

One such area is the question of Paul’s Christology. Would he have assented to the later Trinitarian twin doctrines that Jesus was “fully God” and “fully human”? (Here the “Jesus-mythers” are apt to say that Paul may have thought the former, but not the latter. I disagree vehemently with the mythicist position, and don’t know anyone who really takes that position seriously except for those who hold it). The question of whether Paul saw Jesus as fully God, however, is worth a closer look. In the past few days, one aspect of that question has been debated by a couple of guys from Biblioblogs. I refer you to their posts here and here, arguing that Paul saw Christ as subservient to God, and here arguing the contrary side. On this controversy, without the benefit of specialized knowledge, I’m inclined to favor Michael’s view that Paul saw Christ as “subject to” God. I would have argued further that we should have seen evidence of a controversy between Paul and the Jerusalem church on this point (more so than on the questions surrounding gentile converts and the status of the Law). In fact, I think the schism might have been irreparable if Paul departed so much from Jewish montheist thinking as to openly preach Christ the equal of God. I think that, had that been the case, we would see a very different picture from the New Testament (if we had a New Testament at all).

Another area where I imagine there are questions that might keep us awake at night is Paul’s cosmology. Well, not really, since I doubt anyone cares much one way or another about Paul’s cosmology. Nevertheless, I’m building to something here, so I’ll point it out. Paul says very little about his cosmology, but I would like to point out 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 and Ephesians 3:9-10. What we find here are a) multiple hierarchical? heavens – the highest? of which is paradise b) ruled by archons or angelic ‘principalities’, wherein c) secret knowledge may be learned. There are a lot of speculative viewpoints on the meaning of all this. I don’t claim to know precisely what Paul was talking about, but I will say that nothing here deviates radically from viewpoints that were current at the time. If anything, Paul is a touch stingy with his heavens.

What is clearest from Paul, I suppose, is his soteriology. Adamantly faith alone, apart from works. Hopefully someone will correct me on that point if I’m wrong. But, the next clearest thing we know from Paul was the suspicion in which he held “the flesh” (σάρξ, as the Bibliobloggers would say).

By now, I expect that someone is hoping I don’t go there… hoping I won’t accuse Paul of being a “gnostic”. Well, I won’t. First, I’m not even sure I know what gnostic is. Second, I don’t think gnosticism was seriously distinguished from proto-orthodoxy until after Paul’s time. Third, Paul’s soteriology is foreign to what we call gnosticism, and his Christology is certainly not gnostic. Even if it isn’t “lower” than the Nicean Christology, it certainly isn’t a matter of superceding the Hebrew God.

So, I don’t think Paul is a gnostic, but I do have to point out these hints of ideas on his part that from a 21st century perspective might fit more comfortably within our view of gnosticism than our view of orthodoxy. And, I point out that there is evidence that gnostic communities used Paul’s letters, and even wrote apocryphal Apocalypse in his name. Just to recap what I haven’t already made explicit… The notions I am talking about that seem from this distance and time to be at least “gnostic”-flavored are these:

1) Multiple heavens
2) Heavens ruled by Archons/Prinicipalities
3) Secret knowledge
4) Severe denigration of the flesh, elevation of the spirit

The significance of this to my mind is that these thoughts were likely current and uncontroversial not only with Paul, but with early Christians generally. So at least some of the seeds of what would eventually become gnostic communities were already present in the earliest churches… perhaps more of them than we learn from Paul. This means that later, by the late second century when the church was radically diverse, it is likely that more than one of the various schools of thought could make significant claims of priority based on their relationship to their forbears in the earliest church. This isn’t to detract from the proto-orthodox line so much as to find the foundations of some of the other lines. Certainly, the orthodox could make some unique priority claims that carry force and privilege that point of view even if its contemporaries were also grounded in the first century church.

Any way…. I warned you at the outset. This is thinking out loud… and that means rambling. And I’m afraid I’m at an end of it now, without much to say “in conclusion”. I’ll just say that it’s interesting how much room for debate there is over the best known figure in the New Testament, and arguably the best known figure in first century history!

2 comments to Placing Paul / Thinking Out Loud

  • smijer,

    Just one clarification. I was not arguing that Paul did not see Christ as subordinate to God. I was arguing only that 1 Cor 3 does not suggest this. I think however that it is indeed suggested at least in 1 Cor 15 (I think 1 Cor 8 is available).

  • Thanks for the clarification. I should have picked up on that.

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