Where is the 800 pound gorilla?

The formative period of Christianity was a turbulent time, to say the least. For several decades, Jews and gentiles, some Christianized, some not, belonged to the same diaspora synagogues. Many contentious issues show up in the New Testament, especially regarding the rules for the inclusion of gentiles. But there is a glaring omission. A pivotal battle which should have been occured didn't take place. To ignore it is literally like not noticing an 800 pound gorilla standing in the corner of a room. The discussion of the battle that wasn't has huge implications for Christian claims.

The writings of the apostle Paul are the earliest stream of Christian thinking available to us today. He wrote from circa 50 CE to perhaps the early 60's. Only the epistle to the Hebrews competes with Paul for primacy in time. Paul never wrote a fully developed theology, nor did he offer much description of the history of his exploits, but in his letters addressing issues troubling particular congregations, we can look over his shoulder and get a feel for the situations he was addressing. His insistence that gentiles be admitted to full membership in the synagogues set off a host of issues since many of them brought some of their customs with them.

Among the problems which distressed Paul were sexual immorality, eating food offered to idols, losing hope, improper observance of the supper, observance of holy days, inter-congregational relations, charity, and the understanding of the means of salvation. But no issue dominated his conversation more than that of the inclusion of gentile believers into the congregation without becoming fully observant Jews. Paul fancied himself as the man tasked with converting the gentiles and bringing them into the true Israel of God. His letter to the churches of Galatia, generally considered to be his first, is targeted directly to this issue.

In the Epistle to the congregations of Galatia Paul takes issue with Judaizers, emmissaries from Jerusalem, who are insisting that his converts become fully observant Jews. The initiation rite of circumcision was used as the term standing for adherance to the whole Torah including following kosher rules for eating, ceremonial washing, wearing proper clothing, observing holy days, etc. While some of the gentile converts to Paul's preaching were willing to follow some of the laws of the Torah, some were not. And the biggest issue was that of circumcision itself. This rite of entrance into the covenant with the God of Abraham was obviously not something an adult male would wish to undergo, sans anesthesia. Yet the Judaizers contending with Paul were convincing some of his converts to undergo the procedure and to become subject to all the rules of the Torah. Those who were resistant were under pressure to submit. Paul was apoplectic.

Historical context must be appreciated at this point. It must be remembered that the crisis with the Greek king Antiochus IV was fresh in the mind of every Jew. In the 160's BCE, in his conquest of Judea, Antiochus disallowed circumcision under pain of death. He intended to force his subjects to receive the blessings of his superior Greek culture, and destroying the temple-state culture of the Jews was paramount in his mind. Parents who circumcised their sons on the 8th day were routinely killed. Many followed the prohibition out of fear. Others continued to circumcize and rose in rebellion eventually throwing off the rule of Antiochus and brutally re-establishing proper Torah observance and the necessity to circumcize (commemorated in the festival of Channukah). Many of those who refused circumcision were circumcized forcibly. Others were exiled, many to the region of Galilee. To the Jews, these events were like yesterday. The issues were fresh. The necessity to be fully observant was no longer a question. The requirements were clear and final. The religious police were actively enforcing the rules.

To Paul, this was a crisis of ultimate importance. To his rivals, the argument was foundational. One must be a full Jewish convert in order to find inclusion within the covenant community. Paul argued strenuously against that necessity, stating that faith alone was sufficient; that the promise to Abraham to be a blessing to all nations (gentiles) through his seed was to be enjoyed without submission to the Torah.

Paul indicates that he had gone to Jerusalem to meet with the pillars, specifically Cephas and James, and received their blessing on the inclusion of gentiles based only on their faith and willingness to abstain from various immoralities. Circumcision and adherance to the entire Torah would not be required. From Paul's point of view, his arguments carried the day.

But as important as the issue of Torah observance was, it pales beside the issue which defined Judaism. That issue is the nature and identity of God. This issue is fundamental to Judaism and preceeds observance to the laws in that the laws proceed from God, and he is recognized and defined in the most important prayer of Judaism. This prayer, and the identity of the 800 pound gorilla standing unnoticed in the corner, is known as the SHEMA.

The Shema is the prayer which begins and ends the day of every observant Jew. It is recited at the time of death. It is the recognition that there is one God, transcendent, above all, and requiring of recognition and obedience as he calls his people into covenant with himself. Here is thereading of the Shema:

שמע ישראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד
Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Deut 6:4

Note that the name of God YHWH is rendered "Adonai" (the Lord) so as to avoid accidentally pronouncing the holy name. To observant Jews, the person of God is frequently called "Ha Shem" which in Hebrew means "The Name." The name of God is not to be pronounced, so holy is it. The Shema defines Jews as monotheists. This cannot in any way be minimized. They believe in the one God, the Most High, the Almighty, The Lord, and there is none like him. No image can represent him. Nothing on earth can be worshipped. There is nothing of correspondence between YHWH and his creation.

Now, referring back to the crisis of Greek rule under Antiochus IV, the event which triggered the bloody rebellion of the Maccabean Jews was when Antiochus put his own image in the most holy place in the temple. Antiochus promoted the cult of the living ruler. He proclaimed himself to be the incarnation of Zeus on earth, the supreme God in human flesh. He demanded that the Jews offer worship and sacrifice to his image. The Jews would have none of it. That a man would be proclaimed to be God was the ultimate abomination. The Jews under Judas Maccabee rose up and killed both the Jewish collaborators and the foreign soldiers, reinstituting the worship of the one true God and ejecting the image of the man who claimed to be the incarnation of God.

Why is this an issue, an 800 pound gorilla which no one wants to notice? Because Paul and presumably others were proclaiming that Jesus was God. Next to this claim, the issue of whether or not to circumcize would pale into insignificance. If there was one issue which should have been the ultimate point of contention in the early Christian proclamation, this was it. Where were the Jews ready to take up stones against Paul for blasphemy claiming that a man was God? Where was Paul's argumentation defending the proposition that God had come to earth and lived as a man? Where is the discussion with the Pillars in Jerusalem over this issue? Was the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols really more fundamental than the claim that God had been recently incarnated? A war had recently been fought over that very claim. To claim that anyone or anything in the material realm could have ontological correspondence with the Most High was anathema.

No issue could be expected to come to the fore more than the issue of identifying Jesus as God. Yet, it didn't happen. What are we to make of this conundrum? There are several possibilities:

POSSIBILITY 1. Paul never claimed divinity for Jesus, therefore no battle over monotheism would be expected:

This is not a credible suggestion based upon clear statements from Paul's authentic epistles. Some examples:

"Who (the Son) is the image of the invisible God, the first born of every creature: for by him were all things created, that are in heaven, that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him and for him: he is before all things and by him all things consist." Col 1:15-18. This sounds rather God-like. The Son is being presented as the Creator of Genesis.

"Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who being in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal with God." Phil 2:5,6. Literally "not something to be held onto." This is in the hymn showing the Son descending and ascending. Again, the claim of divinity for Jesus is clear.

It is apparent that Paul did proclaim the divinity of Jesus. Possibility number 1 is thus null and void.

POSSIBILITY 2. There was a battle over the claim that Jesus was God, however, the record has been lost:

That something so fundamental could have gone unmentioned in the book of Galatians is difficult to believe. Could there have been a battle not mentioned elsewhere in Paul? There are at least two epistles of Paul which are lost to history. His epistle to the Colossians mentions an epistle to the church of Laodicea. We have no information as to its contents. The second epistle to the Corinthians mentions "a letter of tears" which does not seem to be a match with first Corinthians.

Since these have been lost, and since others not mentioned could have been lost, it is possible that a great discussion over the issue of Jesus as God could have ensued, but it cannot be known. If God had been providencially protecting his word, not allowing these letters to be lost might have been a good place to start (this has implications for the doctrine of innerancy). This possibility, however, is difficult to maintain, for it can be safely assumed that such a discussion would have touched all the epistles which were preserved. It is simply too fundamental an issue to have gone unmentioned in the foundational period of Christianity. To claim that a man was God incarnated would have been the ultimate hot button issue and an offense to Judaism. Silence on the question indicates that the battle did not take place.

Therefore we must conclude that possibility 2, while not absolutely falsifiable, is overwhelmingly unlikely.

POSSIBILITY 3. Paul did not assume that Christ Jesus had lived on earth as a Jew just a few years prior to his own conversion. If he did not consider Jesus to have been a man, no battle over monotheism would be expected:

This is not as far-fetched as it may seem at first gasp. Mark's Gospel, the first documented mention of Jesus living in the recent past, would not be written for many years after Paul's epistles. It is nothing more than an inferrance to assume that Paul was envisioning the Jesus of the gospels. He himself is silent on the details of the "Jesus of history."

The questions must be asked, Is it legitimate to read into Paul the beliefs of others from a later time? Since later writers referred to Jesus "of Nazareth" is it a necessary implication that Paul had that personage in mind? Orthodoxy would answer yes to both questions. Those accepting a priori that all writings which were collected into the New Testament were inspired, non-contradictory, and are different aspects of a single truth will feel free to harmonize Paul with the gospels, but if we examine Paul in isolation, his Jesus inhabits a very different universe than did Jesus of Nazareth. Just because Christians of later years would choose to compile a collection of disparate documents together, does not necessarily indicate that they belong together nor that their authors shared a common outlook.

Paul had much to say about Jesus. His Jesus, though, does not share much commonality with the Jesus of the gospels. Imagine for a moment that Mark's gospel had never been written, or like some of Paul's letters, lost. What would we know of Jesus from reading Paul and the other epistle writers? The obvious answer is nothing aside from the activities of a descending and ascending heavenly savior who has created a new Israel through faith.

Where, for instance, does one find in Paul:

A. Any mention of the birth of Jesus
B. The virgin Mary
C. Joseph
D. The family of Jesus
E. The birthplace of Jesus
F. His hometown of Nazareth (a town which may not have existed at the time)
G. His baptism by John in the Jordan river
H. His temptation in the wilderness
I. His healing miracles
J. His exorcisms
K. His preaching ministry in Galilee
L. His cleanshing of the temple
M. His disputes with the Pharisees in the synagogues
N. His disciples
O. His betrayal by Judas
P. His struggle in Gethsemane
Q. His arrest
R. His trial
S. His questioning by Herod
T. His crucifixion in Jerusalem
U. The two thieves
V. His burial in Joseph's tomb
W. The empty tomb
X. The resurrection appearances to the women
Y. The great commission
Z. The ascension before a crowd of witnesses

Many more details of the life of the Jesus of the Gospels are missing from Paul of course, but we've run out of alphabet. That which we are touching on here is The Pauline Problem. The problem is that Paul never locates the activities of Jesus in a particular historical period nor in a particular geographical location. He seems to be completely unaware of the gospel details of Jesus of Nazareth. He specifically says that he received his information about Jesus through direct revelation or interpretation of the Jewish scriptures, not by oral tradition or knowledge via human agency. His Jesus operates in the cosmos.

Is it possible that the reason the issue of Jewish monotheism didn't come to the fore is because Paul wasn't making pronouncements which would be in conflict with it? If that is the case, what would the explanation be?

Judaism in that period was very eclectic, and freely made use of hellenistic philosophy. For instance, God was seen as being so transcendent that some intermediary form was needed to communicate with man. It was not seen as a contradiction of belief in the one God to envision "emanations" or "aspects" of God acting in lower regions of the heavens, even treating them as somewhat separate persons.

Some Jewish writers and poets of the period freely spoke of Wisdom, or Sophia, as an aspect of God, even as the feminized consort of God, or the Spirit of God. She was pictured as being sent forth by God to communicate to man but was rejected and returned to the highest heaven. In some instances she was pictured as being a virgin mother to an anointed (Christ) Son of God who was a savior to those who believe. Philo, a contemporary of Paul and platonic philosopher/theologian and historian, spoke of the logos (word) of God who was God's agent in the creation of the world and cosmos. God Himself was seen as being too transcendent to deal directly with the lower material world; he used an intermediary to create, but still an aspect of Himself. Philo's concepts were the source for the preamble to John's gospel, "in the beginning was the 'logos' (the word) and the logos was with God and the logos was God. Through him were all things made that were made."

The Jewish religious literature of the period is rich with speculation and contemplation of the aspects of God descending through the heavens for the benefit of man. Diaspora Judaism was living in a Greek universe, and was immersed in Platonic thought. The concepts from that literature were the basis for many of the foundational ideas which we find in the NT and other early Christian literature. Many of the Jewish texts eloquently describing the saving aspects of the personified emanations of God sound utterly Christian until one notices that they are not referring to a man named Jesus. Some of the literature makes much of the coming of God's holy spirit and savior and uses the term "the anointed" which in Greek is simply "Christos." Paul's heavenly savior has an apropros name in "Jesus" which literally means Yahweh Saves. To refer to him in Paul's manner as "Christ Jesus" would not be foreign to the Jewish literature of the period, meaning the Anointed One through whom Yahweh Saves. There is no reason in Paul's context that "Christ Jesus" cannot be a title as much as a name. Paul's "Son of God" character did not even receive the name "Jesus" (savior) until he had ascended back to God's side. Phil 2:5-11 (nothing remotely resembling the naming of a baby in Bethlehem)

It is difficult for us moderns to get into the ancient mindset with a seven layered heaven with God in the 7th and highest layer and intermediary levels descending until the first heaven just above us. But Paul believed in it. He even claimed to have known someone who had been to the third level of heaven 2 Cor 12:2, perhaps he was speaking of himself in the third person. The concept of descending and ascending aspects of God was a commonplace to the first century Jewish mind. Aspects of God such as the logos, the spirit, Wisdom, or the son, could easily move through the different levels. The lower the descent, the more they would take on material characteristics and become less spiritual so as to be more understandable to man.

If Paul were referring to Christ Jesus as a descending and ascending Son-of-God savior figure rather than to a man, the problem ceases to exist. We wouldn't expect to find contention over monotheism if Paul were not envisioning a recently living man as God incarnate. Shema, the 800 pound gorilla, would no longer be in the room. Paul would simply be extrapolating the implications of Jewish thought already in vogue in his milieu. He would also be in harmony with the Greek-Egyptian hero/dying and rising sons of God common in the mystery religions of the era; Dionysus, Attis, Osiris, Adonis, Bacchus, et al.

To summarize, the absence of a battle over monotheism vis a vis claims to the divinity of Jesus must be explained. It is too fundamental to first century Jewish though to just gloss over. The need to answer the "WHY?" is overwhelming. The explanation must fall into one of three categories: Early Christians didn't think of Jesus as being divine; The story of the intense battle has been lost; Paul wasn't identifying Jesus as a man who had been his contemporary in Palestine. Only the third theory offers a coherant resolution to the question.

Bart Willruth
March 2, 2008