So far, Dunn’s question in Part 4 has not really been answered, “How loosely was the term ‘god/God’ used in biblical texts and in ecclesiastical deliberations, and what was Jesus’ relationship to that term?” We pick up again on this question shortly, when we also broach, in Part 6, the NT usage of the Greek word logos specifically in the Gospel of John.
BUT FIRST WE need to ask about who Jesus was within his social-political context. In so doing, we must look again at Paul, his claims affecting how we understand the Jesus movement and Paul’s likely motivations.
Jesus In Context
Always recalling biblical studies Professor James D. G. Dunn’s previously stated observation that the first ‘Christians’ were ‘those who call upon or invoke the name of Jesus,’ we find him moving, in his book, Did the First Christians worship Jesus?, to the question of:
If worship defines the one worshipped as god/God, then who is to be defined as god/God, alone worthy of worship? (p. 91)
It is a sobering thought that god (God?) could be defined as anyone or anything worshipped by man—as if there is no independent truth apart from what man chooses to believe and to make his ‘god.’ Perhaps that is why Allah has directed man to tie his belief to objectively observable human prophets who receive revelation from God.
As an initial test of Jesus’ status among the first Christians, Dunn looks for evidence among the[biblical] New Testament Gospel accounts to answer the embarrassing question, which shouldn’t have to be asked: “Was Jesus a monotheist?” Dunn informs us:
[This question] conjures up fanciful pictures of Jesus engaged in the great debates of the fourth and fifth centuries on God as Trinity, and the possibility of his [Jesus’] refusing to affirm the Nicene Creed, or even [of Jesus] siding with Jews and Muslims of later centuries in accusing Christians of tri-theism [three gods] (p. 93).
Put in another way, wouldn’t Jesus have shared the common beliefs of his fellow Jews of the time and wouldn’t he have affirmed, strictly and unreservedly, that “the Lord our God is one Lord” (Bible, Deuteronomy 6:4)? (p. 94). For Dunn, Jesus passes this test of pure monotheism with flying colors—although there is a hint that Jesus once referred to himself in mystic visionary terms (Bible, Gospel of Mark 14:53-65, especially verses 60-64)
when responding to Bani Israel’s high priest, who was questioning him about his status as God’s chosen agent, the “messiah.” Dunn interprets Jesus’ answer as somehow challenging the status and authority of God (pp. 100-101); more likely, though, is that Jesus in this passage would have been challenging the irresolute action of the high priest—since that high priest undoubtedly was protecting his vulnerable community from the chaotic uprising that most certainly would result from still one more popular messianic movement.
This time the messianic movement was Jesus’ call for reform within the ranks of Bani Isrâ’îl—and Jesus’ activities as messianic teacher of the Jewish masses were threatening the high priest’s secure status with Roman officials since the high priest was held responsible for social order in Roman-held Palestine.
Mystic Vision Of Supernatural Rescue
Among the cryptic words found on the lips of Jesus—within the Gospel books of the New Testament—are the problematic ones concerning “the Son of Man seated at the right side of the Almighty and coming with the clouds of heaven!” (Bible, Gospel of Mark 14: 62, with slight variations found also in the Gospel of Matthew 26:64
and in the Gospel of Luke 22:69).
Is Jesus quoted here as alluding to a prophetic event of past Hebrew experience, known to the High Priest, so as to indicate that something equally dramatic is about to happen at the hand of a God-sent agent (namely, Jesus speaking as prophet), whom the authorities of his people are unwilling to accept as bringing divine guidance to their precarious state of affairs? The Jewish authorities were faced with putting down Jewish rebellion against their Roman colonial masters. If the rebels could not be controlled, then the privileged Jewish status within the surrounding pagan world could be lost entirely. In fact, the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed within a few decades and the people exiled. Their leadership refused to accept the message of repentance to God as the means of their [political] salvation.
If these cryptic words of supernatural rescue are correctly recorded verbatim (and if we can come across their precise allusion), then they bring us to the question of what do they mean to Jesus’ teaching—and how are they related to an alternative [Pauline] teaching of Jesus as ‘Lord.’ There is voluminous evidence for the concept of Jesus as ‘Lord” in the writings of Paul—but it is a different story when it comes to the Gospel books of the NT, which narrate the sayings and doings of Jesus. Recall that “LORD” is a title regularly used of God, and of Him alone, in the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”).
The common modern Christian catchphrase ‘Jesus is Lord,’ Dunn notes in his book here under scrutiny:
is the core affirmation of Christian faith, and it can be traced back firmly to … the visionary experiences … of Jesus as risen from the dead and exalted to heaven. (pp. 101-102)
Dunn refers to 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 [quoted below] as evidence that this belief came from the earliest Christians—even before Paul’s conversion (p. 102). It seems that Dunn wants to interpret Paul’s statement as meaning that Paul got his message from Jesus’ Disciples/”Apostles” and passed the same belief system on to the Christians in Corinth
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Corinth#Biblical_Corinth[located on the coast within the Peloponnesian Straits of ancient Greece]:
Bible, Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 15:1-8: [Paul writes:] And now I want to remind you, my brothers, of the Good News which I preached to you, which you received, and on which your faith stands firm. That is the gospel, the message that I preached to you. You are saved by the gospel if you hold firmly to it—unless it was for nothing that you believed. I PASSED ON TO YOU WHAT I RECEIVED, WHICH IS OF THE GREATEST IMPORTANCE: THAT CHRIST DIED FOR OUR SINS, AS WRITTEN IN THE SCRIPTURES, that he was buried and that he was raised to life three days later…that he appeared to Peter and then to all twelve apostles…to more than five hundred, … most of them still alive … then … to James … last of all … to me. [italics added]
Did Paul receive his message [of salvation from sin] from Jesus’ Disciples? The above biblical passage does not have Paul saying from where he got his “gospel” teaching! Paul in this verse simply says that what he had received he passed on. Paul claims in his Letter to the Galatians (1: 6-7…11-12…17-19) that he got his message from no man, but rather from the (spiritualized, raised-to-heaven) Jesus Christ:
I am surprised at you! In no time at all you are deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ, and are accepting another gospel. Actually, there is no “other gospel,” but I say this because there are some people who are upsetting you and trying to change the gospel of Christ … Let me tell you, my friends, that the gospel I preach is NOT OF HUMAN ORIGIN. I DID NOT RECEIVE IT FROM ANY HUMAN BEING, NOR DID ANYONE TEACH IT TO ME. IT WAS JESUS CHRIST HIMSELF WHO REVEALED IT TO ME … nor did I go to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me. Instead, I went at once to Arabia, and then I returned to Damascus. It was three years later that I went to Jerusalem to obtain information from Peter, and I stayed with him for two weeks. I did not see any other apostle except James, the Lord’s brother.
Yes, Paul did pass on what he had “received”; the point which Paul was emphasizing, above, in his Letter to the Galatians was that his message came from the visionary Jesus Christ—whose company he cultivated, presumably during his time in “Arabia”; most tellingly, Paul avoided the companionship of the Disciples mentored by Jesus, those charged with spreading Jesus’ teaching to the Jewish Diaspora. In a fit of outrage at having his message questioned and abandoned, Paul vigorously denies having received “his” gospel from those who knew Jesus intimately!
The Problem Of Paul
A crucial fact you need to know about Paul is this: Jesus did not ‘appear’ to Paul at the same time, or even in the same manner, that he ‘appeared’ to Peter and all twelve Apostles after the events of his Last Week in Jerusalem—that is, Jesus did not appear to Paul “in the flesh”; in fact, Paul had never met Jesus in real life. Paul’s ‘meetings’ with Jesus were exclusively visionary (Bible, Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-10; Galatians 1:11-12, 15-16) and Paul’s relationship with Jesus’ actual Apostles was ‘stormy’ at best—according to Paul’s own description of events and relationships (Bible, Galatians 1:16b-22; 2:1-2, 6, 11, 13; 3:1).
Jesus’ real Apostles were the Twelve Disciples mentored by him and commissioned to pass on his message—to the scattered Bani Israel people in Diaspora among the nations. The Apostles—having split up and spread out in all directions from Jerusalem—were busy accomplishing the task of calling the worldwide Jewish people to the message given them by the earthly Jesus when Paul came on the scene with his own “gospel of Jesus Christ.” Paul then had the chutzpah to claim that it was Jesus’ Disciples who had “perverted” the “gospel” version that Paul was teaching—a message not from the earthly Jesus but a message claiming to be based on the supernatural power resident in the risen-to-heaven “Lord Jesus Christ.”
At odds with Dunn’s conclusion that the ‘apotheosis’ (deification) of Jesus took place before Paul’s conversion and charismatic teaching career—based on Dunn’s reading of 1 Corinthians 15:3 [above, in capital letters]—is the fact that Paul refused to listen to, or associate with, Jesus’ Disciples/ Apostles (Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 1:17-19; 2:6) and that he claimed to have gotten his teaching, not from the Apostles at all, but “directly” [in visionary form] from the risen-from-the-dead Jesus Christ:
Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 1:11-12; 2:6 … 9: Let me tell you, my brothers, that the gospel I preach is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor did anyone teach it to me. It was Jesus Christ himself who revealed it to me. … But those who seemed to be the leaders – I say this because it makes no difference to me what they were; God does not judge by outward appearances—those leaders, I say, made no new suggestions to me. … James, Peter, and John, who seemed to be the leaders… [italics added]
So, if we believe Paul in his own words—as recorded in the Christian New Testament scripture—then the ‘gospel of Christ’ (Gal. 1:7) is his own teaching, which he claims to have received as revelation from the exalted and deified Christ. We know also from Paul’s wording that there were others (Jesus’ Disciples!) who challenged Paul by teaching ‘another gospel’ (Gal. 1:6). What Paul ‘passed on’ to the ‘believers’ at Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:3 above), then, was what Paul got in personal visionary experiences, not from apostolic teaching—as apostolic teaching was clearly at odds with Paul’s teaching, Paul himself complains!
Weren’t those that Dunn refers to as the ‘first Christians,’ then, actually the followers of Paul and not at all the followers of Jesus or of his Apostles! The transmutation of the “gospel” message according to the teaching of Jesus—Arabic injîl in the Quran—to the “gospel” according to Paul’s writings, is actually chronicled within Christian scripture. The process begins with the acceptance of Paul, then the infamous persecutor of Jesus-followers, on the part of Barnabas:
Bible, Acts of the Apostles 11:25-26: Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul. When he found him, he took him to Antioch, and for a whole year the two met with the people of the church and taught a large group. It was at Antioch that the believers were first called Christians. [italics added]
Through this association Paul gained his initial credibility, and then charismatic appeal. In the end, Barnabas left Paul in disagreement, overtly over the choice of travel companion. The Church credits the two with opening the way for non-Jews (“gentiles”) to be part of the widened Christian movement with Paul’s message of universal ” salvation” in any of its various interpretations.
Notes on the above-quoted verse (Acts 11:26):
- ‘Saul’ was the original Hebrew-language name of Paul; ‘Paul’ is a Greek-language name, used after his conversion.
- The two cities mentioned, Tarsus and Antioch, are located in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea coast in Asia Minor, the first in modern-day Turkey and the second in Syria—both remote from the nerve center of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem.
- The Greek word used in this verse, translated “Christians” (Greek: christianoi), means “Christ initiates,” reflecting its mystery cult association; in that context it also implies “those who call upon Christ”—a far cry from a link with Jesus’ Judaism, in which one “calls upon” God alone!
The First “Christians”
‘Those who call upon or invoke the name of Jesus,’ as Dunn repeatedly refers to them, were the ‘first Christians,’ and they started with those associated with Paul in the city of Antioch, in what is now Turkey. In fact, however, from the beginning—before Paul crashed the scene—the followers of Jesus were not called ‘Christians’ but rather ‘Nazarenes,’ as we know from a reference to them by a Roman official (Bible, Acts 24:5).
The true followers of Jesus, by contrast to the followers of Paul, were seven centuries later to be referred to in the Qur’an (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:113) as naṣârâ, a transliteration of the proper name “Nazarene.”
What NT scholars, including Dunn, consciously or subconsciously realize but apparently do not accept as significant is that the core teaching of Jesus was sidelined or lain aside, early on, in deference to the teaching of Paul. One can only conclude that they have been thrown off track by the fact that the story and message of Paul have been paired with that of Jesus within the canon of the Christian scripture—and by the fact that the final knighting of Paul has put him beyond suspicion as spokesman for Jesus and developer of Jesus’ message.
In fact, the evidence for this very insight is found within the NT itself! Christians typically accept the teachings of Paul as ‘Gospel truth,’ so to speak, and they interpret the dramatic, event-filled story
of Jesus as a run-up to Paul’s interpretive teaching—even in the face of patent contradiction between the teachings of Jesus and Paul.
Traditional NT scholars try to reconcile Paul with Jesus, on the assumption that the two have always been part of the same belief system. What happens to scholars who are willing to recognize and articulate this intrusion of Pauline interpretation into the story of Jesus? Some of them convert to Islam. And the others? Well, maybe they haven’t yet considered the corrective witness of Prophet Muhammad œ and the Quran. Yeah, it is almost as if Dunn were writing this study for Christians confronted with these very suggestions and anomalies.
Paul’s Motivating Force
Back to Dunn’s text: As to Paul’s reason for having persecuted the followers of Jesus before his ‘conversion’ to the Christian ‘Way’—whose primary spokesman he would become—Dunn notes that Paul himself attests to his zeal for his ancestral traditions (Bible, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 3:6,
Dunn interprets this to mean that the Jesus people were a threat to Paul’s fundamentalist understanding of ‘Judaism’ as well as a threat to Israel’s losing her set-apartness to God in a predominantly pagan, Græco-Roman cultural world (pp. 113-114).
More to the point, I suspect, is that the then-current increasing popularity among Jews for following Jesus was a threat [from Imperial Rome] to the survival of Paul’s own Bani Israel/ ’Jewish’ people in Palestine. The first followers of Jesus clearly were Jews who were attached to Jesus in preference to standing with the Jewish establishment. Perhaps, also, Paul felt that unless he stepped in and did something drastic, there would no longer remain Pharisaic Judaism as he knew it—or Judaism at all. What did happen was that Pharisaic Judaism survived in the form of Rabbinic Judaism.
Not only was the survival of Judaism at risk. If the Jewish people as a whole, with their leadership, had followed Jesus as their prophet, there would be no Christianity, either; instead, there would be a different kind of Judaism that included Jesus as a great reviver or reformer prophet. There would be no compromised monotheism, no deification of Jesus. So maybe instead of asking, “Why did Paul persecute the followers of Jesus before his conversion,” we should ask, “Why did Paul apparently ‘convert’ to a form of religion different from the religion of Jesus, his fellow Jew?” Or, perhaps…Did he remain a covert Pharisaical Jew and not convert at all? Did he simply pretend to convert and then, by design, proceed to alter—and thus eliminate—the greatest challenger to his historical Judaism?
In view of the fact that Paul’s ‘gospel’ differed dramatically from the Gospel of Jesus as found in the opening sections (Gospel books) of the New Testament, we can argue that Paul did not convert to Jesus’ Gospel (injîl) at all, even though Paul is today generally celebrated as ‘the second founder’ of the worldwide religion that venerates Jesus, called ‘Christianity’!
In fact we can say that Paul was the first ‘Christian’ and that his activity served to supplant the genuine teaching of Jesus. Whereas Jesus continued pure monotheism and called for his people to return to their trust in God, Paul, by contrast, violated monotheism in teaching a ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ as deserving of worship alongside God. So, just how was this substitution, or hijacking, maneuvered?
To be continued, inshâAllah, in PART 6