The Basis of Paul’s Ideas of Christ

George A. Wells

In my previous Free Inquiry, article, “Jesus: What’s the Evidence?” (August/September 2011), I noted that the Jesus of the earliest extant Chri stian literature is fundamentally a supernatural personage. By “the earliest extant Christian literature,” I mean the early Epistles, including those most scholars accept as authentically Pauline (that is, written by Paul himself). In these documents, Jesus is portrayed as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” who had assisted God in the creation of all things (1 Cor. 1:24; 8:6). God sent him as his own son to die by crucifixion as a sacrifice for sin “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3). Where and when Jesus lived and died in this likeness is not indicated in these documents, which in no way suggests that he was a contemporary or near-contemporary of their authors.

Paul had written his Epistles by the year 60 ce. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all composed between 70 and 100 ce, depict a Jesus who had been crucified ca. 30 ce and whom Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, characterizes as “a skilled artisan from a not very distinguished town in a backwater province occupied by foreign armies” (in fact there were no Roman forces then in Galilee, although Romans ruled in Jerusalem), and hence something like an ancient equivalent to “a car mechanic from somewhere near Basra.” Nevertheless, the archbishop regards him—as do Christians generally—as one and the same person as the Jesus of the early Epistles; so we must suppose that Jesus came to be venerated as almost divine “well within the lifetime and the neighbourhood of those who had known him intimately.”

The Christian case, then, is—as the New Testament scholar Christopher Tuckett admits—that by the time of Paul a surprisingly “enormous amount of christological development” had taken place. According to Tuckett’s colleague the late Martin Hengel, more happened in this regard within this period of barely two decades than in the whole of the next seven centuries. Larry Hurtado, another New Testament scholar, can barely contain his amazement at this speedy development. In his How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?, he repeatedly calls it not merely remarkable but “astonishing,” “amazing,” and “extraordinary.”

It seems to me, as it has to others, easier to believe that the two Jesus figures were originally quite distinct—and that an original personage, supposedly supernatural, was in due course provided with a detailed biography (as happened with the gods of Greece) and in this way was identified with a real human being who had preached in Galilee in the early first century. This article hints at how this identification of the two figures could have come about, but it is more concerned with explaining on what basis Paul and other early Christians worshipped as their redeemer a supernatural figure whom they believed to have been crucified on Earth well before their own lifetimes.


The religion of one day is often largely a reshuffling of ideas of yesterday; and so we may appropriately scrutinize the religious ideas of earliest Christianity’s Hellenistic environment. The pagan mystery religions prominent there have often been held to supply significant parallels. John M. Court noted that the cultic drama of these mysteries was often an enactment of the fate of the relevant deity—of his dying and in some cases of his rising again. Such ideas, he says, may well have exerted influence on many an infant Christian community, as when Paul speaks of “baptism into Christ as incorporation into his death and resurrection” (Rom. 6:2–7).

However, Christianity originated as a Jewish sect, and so it is within Judaism that one must look for the most significant antecedents. Here the Jewish Wisdom literature is particularly relevant. It is extremely varied. In some passages, Wisdom figures as a primordial being who, as in the Wisdom of Solomon from the Old Testament apocrypha, sits beside God’s throne as his consort (9:4) and, according to Proverbs 8: 22–31, participates with him in the creation of the world. When Wisdom sought an abode on Earth, mankind refused to accept her, whereupon she returned in despair to heaven (1 Enoch 42:1f). Tuckett notes that these ideas were “heavily exploited in early Christianity, where the texts concerned were applied to Jesus.” The article “Jesus Christ” in the 1993 Oxford Companion to the Bible (Bruce M. Metzger and Michael David Coogan, editors) states that a “Christology of pre-existence and incarnation,” according to which Christ existed in heaven before his birth on Earth, is “generally agreed” to “have developed from the identification of Jesus with the wisdom of God.” In the Pauline and deutero-Pauline letters (early Epistles whose authorship remains disputed), we find that Jewish statements about Wisdom are made about Jesus. I have already quoted 1 Cor. 1:24 and 8:6. And Col. 2:3 claims that “in Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” The previous chapter of Colossians (1:15–20) spells out these ideas. Like the Jewish Wisdom figure, Christ sought acceptance on Earth but was rejected and returned to heaven.

Admittedly, the Jewish Wisdom literature does not state that Wisdom lived on Earth as a historical personage and assumed human flesh in order to do so. However, commentators have shown how easy it would be for readers to suppose that, when the texts spoke of Wisdom “setting up tent” on Earth (e.g., Eccles. 24:8), the meaning was that Wisdom lived a human life, because “house of the tent” or simply “tent” is used (even by Paul, 2 Cor. 5:1 and 4) in the sense of man’s earthly existence. We may recall 2 Peter 1:14, in which Peter is represented as foretelling his own martyrdom with the words: “I know that the striking of my tent will come soon.” From the tradition that Wisdom was active in creation and sought a dwelling-place with humanity, it is, as Martin Scott observes, “only one final logical step” to “Wisdom became flesh”—a natural drawing out of the process of Wisdom’s “development as an active force involved in the affairs of the world.”

Another aspect of the pre-Christian Jewish Wisdom literature was the genre known as the “wisdom tale” according to which the righteous man—no particular person is meant—will be persecuted but vindicated postmortem. In the Wisdom of Solomon, his enemies have him condemned to “a shameful death” (2:20), but he then confronts them as their judge in heaven, where he is “counted among the sons of God.” Cognate is the martyrological book 2 Maccabees, with its belief in the resurrection of the faithful. Meanwhile, 4 Maccabees adds to this the idea that someone steadfast in the faith unto martyrdom can benefit others because God will regard his death as a “ransom” for their lives, as an expiation for their sins (6:28–29; 17:21–22).

Wisdom traditions also underlie the Gospels’ story of a Galilean Jesus; both he and John the Baptist are represented as messengers sent by Wisdom (Luke 7:33–35) to preach the need for repentance before an imminent and final judgment. That Wisdom traditions, however different in kind, underlie the portraits of both the Pauline and the Gospel Jesus may well have facilitated giving to the former the kind of human biography characteristic of the latter.

That a martyr’s death could function as an atoning sacrifice, to be followed by his immortality, was, then, a not unfamiliar idea in Paul’s Hellenistic environment. A “shameful death” could be envisaged, allowing the idea of death by crucifixion; and Paul and his contemporaries would have known of crucifixions of holy men that had occurred well before their own lifetimes. Josephus tells that Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria in the second century bce, and the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus of the first century bce both caused living Jews to be crucified in Jerusalem. He expressly notes that in these cases this punishment was not inflicted only after execution by other means, as it often was. Both periods of persecution are alluded to in Jewish religious literature (for instance in the Dead Sea Scrolls), and Jannaeus’s crucifixion of eight hundred Pharisees left a strong impression on the Jewish world. Such knowledge could well have seemed to Paul to confirm what he supposed the Wisdom traditions were telling him—namely that a preexistent personage had come to Earth in human form to suffer a shameful death there. His musings on the Old Testament could also have suggested similar ideas. He does say that “the mystery,” long hidden, is “now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations” (Rom. 16:25–26).

In Paul’s environment, then, he would have known that pious Jews had earlier been crucified, although dates and circumstances would have been known by many only vaguely if at all. Of course Christianity could not have been based on vague historical reminiscence. The earliest documents show that it was based on emotional needs, on mystical beliefs and contagious delusions by people who were expecting the end of the world to come upon them. It was molded in the meetings of the congregations under the influence of preachings, prophesyings, and speaking in tongues. Early Christianity was certainly a charismatic movement in which ecstatic experiences were, as Heikki Räisänen has said, “daily bread.” Paul and his fellow Christians were convinced that they were receiving messages from the risen Jesus. They possessed “the Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9), and at their gatherings this spirit prompted them to speak words of “wisdom” or “knowledge” or to utter “prophecy” (1 Cor. 12:7–10). Through the Spirit, God had revealed to them “what no eye had seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived” (1 Cor. 2:9–10)—in short, the “mystery of Christ,” not known to earlier generations but “now revealed to his holy apostles and prophets” (Ephes. 3:3–5).

An element in this mystery was that Christ “died to sin” on the cross and that believers similarly die to sin when they reenact his death, burial, and resurrection at their baptism: into the water represents death, under the water represents burial, and out of the water represents resurrection. Thus those who have been “baptized into Christ Jesus” were “baptized into his death” and so must consider themselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:2–11; cf. Coloss. 2:12). Hence Paul can say: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” for “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20). Christians have been transferred from one lordship (that of sin) to another (that of God), and the transfer has been effected by their participation in Christ’s death. David Seeley comments that when Paul speaks in this way of dying with Christ, he seems to think of Christ’s death not as merely a past occurrence but as “in some sense a mythical event.” He has “mythologized the concept of death” so that it means to “leave the dominion of sin.” The individual who emerges from dying with Christ is still in some sense his or her former self, but Paul “emphasized the fissure between old and new very strongly.” Seeley adds that, unsurprisingly, precisely how Paul conceived all this “is not spelled out in his letters.” Tuckett observes in his 2001 book that “at times Paul seems to assume that the person of Jesus is some kind of macro-entity enveloping and encompassing all Christians so that they are ‘in’ him.” Hence he can say that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

In Paul’s thinking, Christ’s death by crucifixion is a particularly appropriate form of the requisite “shameful death” because he thereby became accursed. Paul quotes Deuteronomy: “Christ redeemed us—having become a curse for us—for it is written: ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13). Bart Ehrmann explains what Paul had in mind: yes, Christ was cursed, but not for any unrighteous acts of his own but for those of others. Sin entails punishment from God, and Christ suffered the requisite punishment on mankind’s behalf. He “suffered for the sake of others who had violated God’s will and stood under his wrath.” He died “so that they themselves would not have to pay the price for their own sins.”

Räisänen notes that by the time Christianity originated, there was an increasing tendency to emphasize the role of transcendent heavenly figures in the end-time events expected and that this may well “reflect a certain disillusionment with human Messiahs, and consequently a desire to diminish politically dangerous messianism.” This would have allowed the development of the idea that a supernatural personage came to Earth and suffered in weakness for others, instead of fighting in strength for them. Paul’s Jesus was “crucified in weakness,” but his “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9; 13:4).

In sum, what Paul says of Christ’s crucifixion is the sheerest mysticism and has no obvious connection with the supposedly historical execution of a Galilean artisan some twenty years earlier. Indeed the earliest record of this Galilean Jesus has no account at all of his death. It consists mainly of his sayings and is known as the Sayings Gospel Q (Quelle, German for “source”). No copy of Q has survived, but it can be reconstructed from the material common to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that they did not draw from the Gospel of Mark (their other major source). In a 1992 article in New Testament Studies, Seeley observed how surprising it is that Q is “apparently so indifferent” to Jesus’s death when this event is so important in the extant canonical books. The author of Mark may not have known Q, but he certainly knew Q-type material. (For instance, both Mark and Q speak independently of John the Baptist and his relationship to Jesus.) And it was Mark who first combined Q-type Jesus material with Pauline-type traditions of a Christ who died by crucifixion. In my previous article, I noted Bultmann’s statement to this effect, and other New Testament scholars have since followed his lead. Thus Seeley gives the following approving summary of Burton L. Mack’s view: “Mark decided to combine the ‘Jesus tradition,’ whose interest lay in recounting the words and deeds of Jesus’ ministry, with the ‘Christ cult,’ known to us through Paul’s writings.” In effecting this combination, Mark naturally gave Jesus’s death a date and a setting consonant with what was known of the Galilean preacher, thus transforming the mystical Pauline Christ into a recognizable historical figure. This is the case I have argued in detail elsewhere—most recently in my 2009 book, Cutting Jesus Down to Size (Open Court). Whether or not I am right, it remains true that the Pauline-type and the Gospel-type traditions do not fit together and that it is not plausible to align them by positing an “amazing” christological development in the brief period that separates them.

Further Reading

  • Court, John M., and D. Cohn-Sherbok, eds. 2001. Religious Diversity in the Graeco-Roman World. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press.
  • Ehrmann, Bart. 2006. Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.
  • Hurtado, Larry. 2005. How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
  • Räisänen, Heikki. 1987. Paul and the Law, 2nd ed. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr.
  • Räisänen, Heikki. 2010. The Rise of Christian Beliefs. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress.
  • Scott, Martin. 1992. Sophia and the Johannine Jesus. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press.
  • Seeley, David. 1994. Deconstructing the New Testament. Leiden, Germany: Brill.
  • ———. 1990. The Noble Death. Sheffield, U.K.: JSOT Press.
  • Tuckett, Christopher. 2001. Christology and the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Tuckett, Christopher. 1996. Q and the History of Early Christianity. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson.
  • Williams, Rowan. 2007. Tokens of Trust. An Introduction to Christian Belief. Norwich, U.K.: Canterbury Press.

George A. Wells

George A. Wells is emeritus professor of German at the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the origins of Christianity and on German intellectual history.

In my previous Free Inquiry, article, “Jesus: What’s the Evidence?” (August/September 2011), I noted that the Jesus of the earliest extant Chri stian literature is fundamentally a supernatural personage. By “the earliest extant Christian literature,” I mean the early Epistles, including those most scholars accept as authentically Pauline (that is, written by Paul himself). In …

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