This post is revised from a comment I made over at Reddit on r/DebateAChristian. The original Reddit post, by the brilliant Basilides, concerns whether Paul actually preached about an earthly Jesus, the Jesus defined by and understood through the gospels of the New Testament. My argument is that Paul’s letters make far more sense if read in isolation from the gospels.
Paul implicitly commands his followers to abide by the dictates of earthly rulers, whom he declares to be sanctioned by God. According to the apostle, all governments and authorities on earth have been established and sanctioned by God (Romans 13:1). This ostensibly includes the Roman Empire, the authority according to the gospels responsible for Jesus’ torture and execution. Furthermore, Paul claims that had the “rulers of this age” understood the message of Christ, the execution would not have taken place:
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Corinthians 2:6-8, RSV)
There is a problem with this passage for Christian orthodoxy and I’d like to briefly address it before making my main points. Paul states that his message of Christ is “a secret and hidden wisdom of God.” This is the language of Gnosticism. Spiritual gnosis, or knowledge, is hidden and can only be found through a mature understanding of revelation and scripture. Paul speaks in this kind of language throughout the epistles, but this element of the apostle’s message is beyond the scope of this post.
Let me return to my primary focus. The author states that had the “rulers of this age” known of Christ’s wisdom, which through the lens of orthodoxy we would assume to be salvation through Jesus, they would never have crucified him. Yet I thought the earthly crucifixion, Jesus’ sacrifice, was essential for human salvation.
These seeming contradictions make far more sense if one sees the writings attributed to Paul as being proto-Gnostic teachings, where the true gospel of Christ is not passed down in any historical way, from a once living person (Jesus), but is only revealed through understanding the supposedly true message of scripture.
We can easily see the revealed nature of Paul’s gospel in examining his opening to his letter to the Romans:
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in holy scriptures…(Romans 1:1-2)
Paul here is not claiming his gospel has been derived from an earthly Jesus, but rather plainly states it has been “promised beforehand” via Hebrew scripture, as he similarly does in the 1 Corinthians passage quoted above (“decreed before the ages for our glorification”). In other words, his message comes not from Jesus’ life or the preachings of the apostles, but rather through revelation alone.
We can find a similar, though more explicit, pronouncement on the source of his revelation about Christ in Galatians:
For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12)
Again, a definitive statement that his message about Jesus is not historically based, but is rather spiritually based. No one taught him of it. He didn’t read about it, hear stories of the gospel. It is definitively a message rooted in mystical experience, not of this world.
All that being said, the works attributed to Paul seem highly schizophrenic. Immediately following Paul’s opening to Romans quoted above, the author continues:
…the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 1:3-4)
This is one of the passages apologists have long held up as proof that Paul preached the historical Christ. First, he writes of one “descended from David.” However, if we consider Paul’s previous salutation that he is preaching a message revealed by God “beforehand through his [God’s] prophets in holy scripture,” we can clearly see the Davidic reference in Psalms is not literal:
Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son, today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” (Psalms 2:1-8)
In other words, just like the kings of Israel and Israel itself (for whom this passage was meant to represent allegorically) Jesus, whom Paul declares the “Son of God,” is proclaimed to be king and descendant of David, for whom this Psalm was meant (“A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.” Psalms 2:12) This interpretation solves the seemingly contradictory basis for Paul’s message as being one simultaneously delivered spiritually through revelation and also acquired by means of a story based in history. Interpreted this way, Paul’s Christ is a spiritual king, as revealed through scripture.
Furthermore, we should also examine the statement of Paul that Jesus was not only “descended from David” but supposedly as such “according to the flesh.” This is an esoteric and vague statement to say the least. What does “according to the flesh” actually mean? Are we to really to define it as “born in physical form?” Let’s look further into what Paul says about the flesh in Romans:
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on things according to the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:3-8)
Does this mean Jesus, if he existed here on earth, of the flesh, could not please God? Seems likely. And would the author of such a statement actually believe the redeemer of humanity he called the Christ was literally born of the flesh? Most likely not. It’s clear that in Paul’s theology, neither “according to the flesh” nor “according to the spirit” are meant to be descriptions of actual reality here on earth. They are better understood as philosophical distinctions, differing ways of living life, one rooted in faith, the other in sin. According to Paul’s theology, Jesus never became flesh as we would understand it.
Paul deplores the flesh. His Christ existed from the start of creation, on a spiritual plane (Colossians 1:15). There’s never a single mention in the writings attributed to Paul of Jesus’ earthly ministry to be found, no miraculous birth, healings, walking on water, feeding the poor, not even his words and pronouncements on issues Paul was concerned about in his writings. No. Paul’s Christ lived not in the flesh, but was rather a higher, spiritual power revealed only through Hebrew scripture, and only to those with proper gnosis.