In James’ recent review of Ch. 9 of Earl Doherty’s book, he makes the following claim:
In addition to the passages we have mentioned so many times already which hint at Jesus’ humanity through their mention of his brother, his blood, his death by crucifixion, and his descent from David according to the flesh, consider the following as well:
Romans 9:4-5 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the Israelites. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them the Messiah according to the flesh.
Philippians 2:7-8 he made himself nothing by taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
Hebrews 2:14-17 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil…For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
No hint? Surely this is more than exaggeration.
I believe James is really stretching here. But before I argue my reasons, I’d like to stress that I don’t think you can use Paul to prove anything about the historicity of Jesus. In fact, in my forthcoming paper on the subject, I argue that using Paul as a source of testimony for Jesus’ historicity is doomed to fail. But I don’t think you can argue Jesus didn’t exist from Paul’s letters either. There are too many unknowns when it comes to Paul. How much did Marcion manipulate? How much did the church fathers alter to refute Marcion? Did Paul write all of the supposed ‘authentic letters?’ Did an editor (Marcion? Someone else?) redact several letters into one (like Romans)? Are we certain that ‘Paul’ is not a name given to the authorship of the letters due to a sort of cultural memory or tradition? Or to bolster credibility of the letters in the eyes of the communities of Christians? We know very little, and we have all accepted, as an academic body, certain tradition values to fill in the large gaps of our knowledge. We hope that these traditions are grounded in reality, but we don’t know. Perhaps Tertullian is right and Marcion ‘found’ Galatians at a convenient time and manner (i.e., he wrote it himself), or perhaps Tertullian is wrong. Perhaps it was written to counter Luke. Or perhaps Luke was written to counter Galatians. In any event, the point we must stress is that we know less about Paul than we’d like, but we should not confuse our comfortable acceptance of this tradition with hard fact. This must be remembered as how we understand our position is how we will translate and understand Paul.
It seems James’ point here is anchored on the phrases ‘το κατα σαρκος’ (‘likeness of flesh’; Rom. 9), ‘αδελφοις ομοιωθηναι’ (‘made like [his] brothers’; Heb. 2:17–NOTE: ‘in every way’ is in the Greek, but doesn’t necessarily clarify the way it is translated above. See comments on this post for further details), and ‘ομοιωματι ανθρωπων’/’σχηματι ευρεθεις ως ανθρωπος’ (‘likeness of man’/’found in the form of a man’; Phil. 2:7). So my point will rest in how we interpret these phrases. But let me step back a second and press an issue I think is often missed. Paul is stressing, quite hard, that Jesus wasn’t human but ‘in the likeness of’ a man or ‘flesh’. In Heb. for example, the word ‘ὁμοιόω’ is found in many classical sources referring to non-human likenesses, for example, in Euripides’ Helen 33-4:
But Hera, indignant at not defeating the goddesses, made an airy nothing of my marriage with Paris; she gave to the son of king Priam not me, but an image (ὁμοιόω), alive and breathing, that she fashioned out of the sky and made to look like me;
And in Plato’s Phaedrus 261e speaks of how one can manipulate speech in drama (art) to resemble something they are not:
The art of speech is not confined to courts and political gatherings, but apparently, if it is an art at all, it would be one and the same in all kinds of speaking, the art by which a man will be able to produce a resemblance (ὁμοιοῦν) between all things between which it can be produced, and to bring to the light the resemblances produced and disguised (ὁμοιοῦντος) by anyone else.
Indeed, σχημα is quite telling in and of itself. In Aristophanes Wasps, σχημα is used to mean ‘costume’ (1170), and in Aristotle’s Poetics he uses the word when talking about drama:
For just as by the use both of color and form (σχημασι) people represent many objects, making likenesses of them (1447a, 19).
I think this is symptomatic of the issue here. If James seeks to use these passages to show an ‘apparent reference to a human (fleshly) existence of Jesus’, he cannot accomplish his goal. Not even Paul himself (or whomever) agrees with him! Indeed, Paul is stating it quite plainly that Jesus was not human. Not at all. In these instances, the use is quite clear: when ‘likeness’ is used they mean, quite specifically, that it isn’t what people believe it to be. Paul does not mean that Jesus was ‘fleshly’; this is a modern anachronistic interpretation, one that stems from our desires to Euhemerize the context into our rational meaning in the same way Palaephatus Euhemerized the Centaurs into the past by claiming they were the first people to ride horses. Paul doesn’t mean to suggest that Jesus was a human at all! He is quite explicit about his meaning, even down to the language, he was not a human but that he was an illusion.
The second we start ignoring this context we start down a slippery slope of rationalizing an allegorical phrase into a historical context, whereby we lose the context completely. What do I mean? Consider how thisis any different than saying ‘Well the Biblical authors meant that one year was a thousand.’ No, they didn’t, and Paul didn’t mean ‘he was a human on earth’. Quite specifically, the second we start to interpret Paul’s ‘likeness of human flesh’ as ‘human but interpreted as a likeness’ we are redacting Paul’s words to fit our own modern (academic, even) cultural milieux. If James wishes to do that, he is, of course, welcome to do so. But I would ask he present evidence that such interpretations are acceptable in multiple cases (he can start with Euripides). Otherwise, we must interpret Paul’s words the way he meant them, that is, that to his knowledge the figure of Jesus was an illusion (as the word is used); his humanity was, quite definitively, a fiction. And this seems to be how the other words (i.e. σχημα) are used as well.
Then James makes leap to suggest that, not only must we interpret the words of Paul counter to how he has written them, but we must demand that ‘in likeness of human flesh’ also means ‘on earth’ without realizing that Paul himself speaks of planes of existence where Jesus was crucified (he speaks, for example, of the ‘Jerusalem above’). But this requires more time and effort than I’d like to give on this brief discussion, and I’ve already argued it in detail in my forthcoming treatment on the subject, so I won’t spend too much time rehashing those arguments. The treatment is quite long and I suspect it will speak for itself (esp. on those verses most used, like Gal. 4:4, Rom. 1:3, etc…).
To conclude, however, I will reiterate to the reader that what we know of Paul is nothing beyond tradition. And how we interpret the text must be based on the recognition that we don’t have Paul’s cultural setting, we don’t know his background (other than that he thinks Pharisees are trash), we don’t know if we even have his true words in every case (or, perhaps, in any case). We just hope. There are many references to mystery rites and the language seems to resemble a certain initiation language which has been seen in other literature (including discussions of the Essenes in Josephus), but there is no definitive way to know since we cannot even agree on what is Pauline and what isn’t and I don’t particularly find the arguments for the validity of the tradition convincing (particularly in light of the studies done by Tyson and Pervo which raise the importance of Marcion’s role in the formation of that tradition). The best argument that can be made is that Paul is inconclusive (at best) on, or (more controversially) does not make reference to, a human figure of Jesus. And a handful of verses won’t make or break this; the context, overall, is what will make a difference. And since that context is damaged, or possibly even lost to us, I again ask that James use more caution when making claims like this. Overstating the evidence will not help your position. One must always recognize the limitations of the data we have.
Filed under: Belief, Blog Memes, Defining Mythicism, Early Christianity, Jesus, Life, New Testament, Paul, Scholarship Tagged: | epistles, historical jesus, historicity, jesus, Jesus historicity, mythicism, Paul