In a nutshell: Paul chastises the Corinthians for some liberal sexual attitudes, but has to backpedal on past comments that seem to counter Jesus’ advice to gather among those who “respectable society” would consider immoral and unwanted.
Judging outsiders is not my business, is it? But judging insiders is your business, isn’t it? God will judge the outsider…
—1 Corinthians 5:12–13b
30 Days of Paul around the Web
- Running Dirt Roads on Galatians 5–6 continues to explore the value of Paul’s letters through the lens of liberation theology: “What a journey Galatians has been. Starting with such evident anger, Paul builds to a crescendo that is beautiful, and so very powerful. And it is all centered around one, coherent message: through Christ, we are now set free from the shackles of the law. Our lives of faith negate any need for the law, and a return to it indicates a lack of faith and a backsliding of our relationship with God.”
- Glynn Cardy ruminates about how to handle destructive personalities on the Community of Saint Luke Facebook page: “It was fun reading out loud 1 Corinthians 5 to our Wednesday Communion group wagging my finger in a Rowan Atkinson style “do not associate with… [someone who is] sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber”. Laughter is sometimes the only way to cope with these readings. That said there has always been an issue of how a religious community deals with a member who is destructive – trying to destroy others, trying to destroy the wellbeing of the community, and often destroying themselves.”
- Westar Fellow Susan (Elli) Elliott contributed helpful insights about the Mithra or “mountain mother” cult from her research on our Day 3 reading (scroll down to the comments to read in full): “It may be of interest to consider that the power struggle is not only with other leaders in the early Jesus-movement communities, but also with the popular religious devotion to the Mountain Mother goddess in her various local forms. She was served by self-castrated cultic functionaries known as the galli. The cult is called the cult of the Mother of the Gods or the cult of Cybele and Attis in the context of Greco-Roman religions, but in Anatolia the goddess was most often identified as a mountain overlooking a territory. Meter Dindymene, for example, was the Dindymene Mother, Mount Dindymus. Other aspects of the local context are also important, including the prevalence of curse inscriptions. It’s also no accident that circumcision is the central issue. Circumcision is the problem for Paul precisely because of the context.”
Who Was Paul’s Jesus?
Who was Paul’s Jesus? This isn’t quite the same as asking who the historical Jesus was. The Jesus Seminar and other Westar academic Seminars have produced a number of resources on the historical Jesus. Paul’s Jesus is a different story. It’s a little tricky to hear Jesus in Paul’s letters because two thousand years of Christian tradition have reshaped Paul’s language and taught us to emphasize some elements of his writing over others. What Paul said is not necessarily how we read what he said.
Westar Fellow L. Michael White in the PBS program From Jesus to Christ reminds us of this all-important point going into any conversation about Jesus and Paul:
So when we hear Paul talking about the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified, we’re beginning to get for the first time in the New Testament the language that will become the hallmark of all the later Christian tradition. Indeed it’s where we get much of the vocabulary that makes Christianity distinctive. The term “Christ” is a title. It’s the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messioc and they mean exactly the same thing. They both refer to someone who is anointed. … It’s identifying him as a religious figure in a new way.
… [However] for Paul to use the term “Christ” does not automatically signal that we’re dealing within a Christian frame of reference that everyone would have recognized. The term Christ, Messiah, could have been used by any number of different Jewish people and still meant different things. So just to hear that term even in the Greek city like Antioch probably wasn’t all that unique, and yet it had to have sparked some interest. It’s significant therefore that the Book of Acts tells us that the term “Christian” is a follower of the Messiah or a proponent of some Messiah.
So what are a few things Paul did believe to be true of Jesus? I have compiled the list below based only on the letters we’ve read so far: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians.
6 Assumptions Paul Made about Jesus
1. Jesus was crucified.
This might seem obvious, but given that it’s becoming popular these days to question whether Jesus ever existed at all, here is a basic observation about Jesus from Paul, who represents our earliest existing source of such information: Jesus was crucified. In Galatians 6:14, Paul writes, “As for me, I absolutely refuse to take pride in anything except the cross of our lord, Jesus, God’s Anointed—the same cross that crucified this world for me and me for this world.” The crucifixion of Jesus also plays a key role in his arguments beginning in chapter 1 of 1 Corinthians, where he wants to argue that wisdom begins in unity around Jesus. “At a time when Jews expect a miracle and Greeks seek enlightenment, we preach about God’s Anointed crucified!” (1 Cor 1:22–23). In other words, crucifixion should have been an embarrassment the movement, but instead the people who have rallied around Jesus as their anointed king are claiming it proudly.
2. Jesus rose from the dead.
While this would, for good reasons, be struck from the list of information we’d count toward a portrait of the historical Jesus, it is extremely important to Paul to see Jesus as a reborn king. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15:12, Paul writes, “Now if our message is that the Anointed has been raised from among the dead, how can some of you possibly be saying that there is no such thing as resurrection from the dead?” To deny this, Paul goes on to say, would make the followers of Jesus into a pretty pathetic group without any hope at all. (Whether you and I agree with Paul is a different matter!)
3. Jesus taught about the Empire of God against the Empire of Rome.
This point is fleshed out more fully in Brandon Scott’s book The Real Paul. In later tradition, “the Jews” were the enemy of Jesus. However, the nature of Jesus’ death (crucifixion) and the imperial language used by Paul (much of it probably inherited from the Jesus movement around him) represent a direct argument with the official applications of imperial language. Throughout Paul’s letters, Jesus is called “the Anointed” and “lord,” in direct and obvious reference to traditional stories from the Jewish scriptures of selecting new kings. People are called to join God’s “empire” or “kingdom” and exchange God’s “peace” rather than the Romans’ ironically violent idea of peace. The list goes on.
4. Just as priests can expect support for serving God in the Temple, messengers of Jesus had a right to request support in exchange for sharing their good news. However, Jesus’ messengers could not turn up their noses at the support they received.
Paul explicitly cites Jesus to support this claim: “The lord commanded that those who proclaim the news about the God’s Anointed should receive their living from their work of proclamation” (1 Cor 9:4–18). By the way, they could also be accompanied by their wives, and apparently were! In this passage Paul is trying to show off his street creds by one-upping Jesus’ command and not actually asking for support from the communities he serves. Compare Paul’s description of what Jesus’ emissaries are allowed and expected to do with this one from the Gospel of Thomas 14:4–5, with parallels in Q/Matthew and Luke:
When you go into any region and walk through the countryside, when people receive you, eat what they serve you and heal the sick among them. For what goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it is what comes out of your mouth that will defile you.
This suggests a really obvious reason Paul was so angry in his letter to the Galatians about Cephas’ behavior at mealtimes! “Eat what they serve you” seems like a pretty straightforward teaching from Jesus in Paul’s mind!
By the way, this doesn’t actually tell us the content of the message God’s messengers were to share. It only tells us how they were expected to behave. Unlike Paul, the Gospel of Thomas version of this command also emphasizes the importance of healing the sick in exchange for support. In 1 Cor 12:9 Paul does include healing in his list of gifts, but in verse 29 he places it among the least of gifts in importance. Frankly, I think this is because Paul himself could not heal people, so he doesn’t emphasize it, even if Jesus did.
Whatever Jesus taught or believed, Paul personally did not believe everyone was called to abandon their belongings and become messengers spreading the good news. (1 Cor 12:28)
5. Jesus taught people to reserve judgment until his return. This includes judging people who are considered immoral.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:3–5 makes a big deal of not judging “before the time is right for it, before the lord comes.” I would be a little leery of quoting this in favor of refusing to judge others, though. This isn’t quite the same as the famous saying to “judge not lest ye be judged,” because Paul also thinks those who belong to the Anointed will participate in judgment. See, for example, 1 Corinthians 6:3, in which Paul claims, “Don’t you know that we are going to judge heaven’s messengers, nevermind earthly matters?” In later tradition, some people fantasized that this meant Jesus people would even rise above and judge the angels, the original “messengers” of God who in popular Jewish tradition became corrupt.
Paul seems to think that weakness and sickness are signs that people are behaving badly (e.g. 1 Cor 11:30), so this can’t easily be described as a consistent teaching of Paul. I will offer an alternative reading of this verse when we get to 1 Corinthians 11.
More interesting, at least to me, is the fact that Paul seems to be aware of Jesus’ proclivity to hang out with all and sundry. The evidence for this pops up in today’s reading, 1 Corinthians 5:9–10:
When I said in the letter I wrote to you that you should keep your distance from sexually immoral people, I did not mean that you should have nothing at all to do with immoral people in society, or with people motivated by greed, or who cheat and steal, or who worship phony gods. In that case you would have to go clear out of this world.
It’s easy to imagine here what the Corinthians must have said to an earlier letter from Paul about this issue. “Jesus spent is life with such people, and we are doing likewise! What’s the matter with that? Who are you to question the words of Jesus, Paul? Isn’t this the sort of behavior that sets us apart from other communities?” Paul just doesn’t want them to take it quite so far. As Jack Caputo asked us during the launch of the God Seminar, “What is this action in service of?” Why did Jesus go to the poor, the unliked, the unwanted?
At the heart of this issue is a bigger question about diversity and morality. How do you model radical acceptance and maintain some semblance of respectability at the same time? I’ll come back to this theme in a future post. Obviously Jesus may have had a different answer from Paul, who has exhibited caution in his letters around this issue.
Finally, Paul seems to emulate this practice of Jesus somewhat in 1 Corinthians 9 when he claims famously, “To the Jews I behaved like a Jew … To the weak I behaved as if I were weak …” He specifically explains in verse 22b, “I have accommodated myself in all sorts of ways to all sorts of people so that by all these means I might save some.”
6. Jesus taught people to serve one another and to “turn the other cheek.”
This appears in Paul’s letters all over the place! This shouldn’t be surprising, given that Paul himself came to love his enemies and so may have been profoundly affected by this particular teaching. Along with the complementary instruction (discussed above) to consort with people who are not considered special by “respectable society,” consider Paul’s comment to the Thessalonians, “I don’t need to add anything to the God-given precept that you should love one another” (4:9). In 1 Thessalonians 5:15, he writes, “Make sure that you don’t retaliate against evil, but always seek the good for each other, even for outsiders.” Likewise in Galatians 5:13b–14: “Don’t use your freedom as a license for self-indulgence but, out of love, serve one another. After all, the whole law in summed up in one injunction: ‘You are to love your neighbor as yourself.'”
This is getting a little ahead of myself, but in 2 Corinthians 6:10, Paul writes, “In pain we’re always joyful, impoverished we enrich many, owning nothing we have everything.” In Romans 12:14 he writes, “Ask for God’s blessing on those who harass you; ask for God’s blessing, not a curse upon them.” Note, however, that Paul’s concern to protect his communities from heavy persecution leads him to frame this in terms of judgment and justice a few verses later.
These are just a handful of things we can say Paul thought about Jesus, based just on the letters we’ve read so far. This gives us some idea of the character of the community Paul wanted and supported. It gives us a sense of the message he was so busily sharing across the Roman empire, and I hope especially it reminds us that Paul didn’t exist inside a vacuum. Something in what he first experienced in the Jesus movement had to be powerful enough to move him to relate with Jesus, identify with him, and eventually travel the world sharing a message about him. Of course Jesus is present in Paul’s letters, even if it’s not always the person you or I might consider the historical Jesus.
Questions for the Road
- How do you balance openness and acceptance of others with the need to protect yourself and your community from harm? If you’ve never watched the movie Patch Adams, now might be a good occasion. To what extent is the Adams’ desire to give healing undermined by the tragedy he experiences? How does Adams’ work compare with Paul’s? (If you’re unfamiliar with Patch Adams, you might think instead of Marianne Mulvaney in Joyce Carol Oates’ novel We Were the Mulvaneys, whose choice to forgive her rapist instead of pressing charges means her father can’t find the justice he feels is needed.)
- If you were following along yesterday and gave some thought already to Paul’s Jesus, how did your portrait compare to mine? Do we differ on any key points?
Thanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.