Friday 6 February 2015

Paul: disciple or distorter of Jesus?

From time to time the idea goes round that Jesus founded an inclusive, loving, knit-your-own-sandals kind of community before Paul came along and went and invented intolerance, bigotry and institutionalized religion.

Happily there have been those who have defended Paul – David Wenham has been doing a splendid job in recent years (see e.g. here). Before Wenham though, there was F.F. Bruce whose 1974 work Paul and Jesus (see what he did there? ‘Paul and Jesus’ not ‘Paul or Jesus’) is one of the most helpful books on the subject of their relationship.

Central to the book is the insight that Paul’s gospel involves both tradition and revelation. On the one hand there is tradition. Paul describes himself as someone who has been passing on the traditional gospel:

-         I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. (1 Cor 11:2)

-         So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thess 2:15)

-         I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand… For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,  that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:1-4)

As Bruce outlines, Paul passes on ethical teaching, traditions about Jesus (in particular concerning the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor 11) and shares a basic gospel message as he outlines in 1 Cor 15. Most likely he received such traditions during his time with Peter and James (described in Gal 1:18-20) and then again later with Peter, James and John (Gal 2:1-10)- indeed it’s hard to imagine Paul not pressing Peter, John, and Jesus’ brother for all the stories they could tell about their time with Jesus. And as he is at pains to emphasize he fulfills the criteria he sets out later in 2 Tim 2:2 – he himself has proved reliable in passing on these traditions.

On the other hand one of the strange features of Paul’s letters is the relative absence of detail about Jesus’ life, teaching and miracles. How do we explain that? Is it because he is pursuing a radically different agenda? Bruce says no and offers a few explanations. In part it is because his letters are occasional – responding to the needs of the congregations. He mentions Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper because that’s an issue he needs to address in the church in Corinth. But there is a more fundamental reason, namely that Paul’s message also constitutes fresh revelation in light of the fact that Jesus is now raised and ascended and enthroned.

“Paul, wrote Albert Schweitzer, ‘shares with Jesus the eschatological worldview and the eschatological expectation, with all that these imply. The only difference is the hour in the world-clock in the two cases. To use another figure, both are looking towards the same mountain range, but whereas Jesus sees it as lying before him, Paul already stands upon it and its first slopes are already behind him.’ Without some such appreciation of the eschatological factor, it will be difficult to discern the true relationship between Jesus and Paul.” (F.F. Bruce, Paul and Jesus, p17)

Bound up with that eschatological factor is the idea that Paul has received fresh revelation. He is not simply preserving memories of the earthly ministry of Jesus. Rather, he is given insight into the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the main ways he describes this is in terms of mysteries now revealed:

The mystery hidden for ages by God

Romans 16:25 Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages
Ephesians 3: 8-9 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things
Colossians 1:26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.

The mystery revealed to Paul, proclaimed by Paul and passed on by Paul

Ephesians 3:3-4 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ
Ephesians 6:19 [Pray] also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel
Colossians 4:3 At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison
1 Timothy 3:9 [Deacons] must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.

The mystery concerning Christ

Ephesians 1:9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
Colossians 1:27: To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
Colossians 2:2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ

Which is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles

1 Corinthians 2:1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the mystery of God with lofty speech or wisdom.
1 Corinthians 2:7-8 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

And yet this mystery is being embraced by the Gentiles during a time of hardening for Israel, which itself is a mystery:

Romans 11:25  Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

In many ways this is the key to understanding the relationship between Paul and Jesus. Back in 1974 Bruce helpfully focused attention here and so it’s surprising that no-one until very recently has explored the theme of mystery in Paul in much more depth. Happily though there is now Hidden but Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery by Greg Beale and Benjamin L. Gladd (see here) which works through each of these texts of Paul and is well worth a read…

For now though, as much as Paul’s gospel involves fresh revelation, it’s worth noticing that you still can’t drive a wedge between Paul and Jesus because

-         The revelation was made by Jesus (Acts 9, 22, 26)
-         The revelation was made to the apostle appointed by Jesus (Gal 1:1, cf. the same Acts passages)
-         the revelation is about Jesus (the mystery now made known is Christ and his work – Col 1:27, 2:2)
-         In all of this Paul sees himself as the slave of Jesus (Rom 1:1, Phil 1:1, Titus 1:1)