The Jesus Puzzle


Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
Supplementary Articles – No. 8: Christ As “Man”: Does Paul Speak of Jesus as an Historical Person?

Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?

Enlarging on the Main Articles, this section of The Jesus Puzzle web site examines a wide range of topics in New Testament scholarship. Each one adopts the viewpoint that such problem questions or documents relating to the subject of Jesus and Christian origins are best solved when approached from the position that there was no historical Jesus. These studies will help provide a greater insight into the nature of early Christianity, the object of its worship, and the source of its ideas.
The author reserves all re-publication rights. Personal copies may be made as long as author identification is preserved.
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Supplementary Article No. 8

Does Paul Speak of Jesus as an Historical Person?


— I —

While scholars are the first to admit that Paul is woefully silent on just about everything the Gospels tells us about Jesus of Nazareth, they are quick to point to a handful of passages in his letters which seem to indicate that he has an historical figure in mind. For all the talk in the New Testament epistles of Christ Jesus as a transcendent deity, of scripture and the Spirit as the channel of knowledge about him, or the constant reference to God as the source of Christian ethics and the Christian gospel, most scholars continue to fall back on a limited number of phrases about Christ’s nature as “man,” his “flesh” and “blood,” words implying birth, or his “coming into the world.” Such things they take as proof that all these writers, even if seemingly indifferent to the Gospel story, nevertheless know that the human man existed and had recently walked the earth.

But do they? Is there another way of reading such passages? If the Christ of the epistles is in other respects a revealed entity, a mystery or “secret” newly disclosed by God who seems to operate in an entirely spiritual dimension with mythological characteristics, can we look for an interpretation of these “human” sounding features which fits into such a context?

Higher and Lower Worlds

We have to start by realizing that the modern mind has long abandoned those views of the universe which for the ancients governed their beliefs in gods and salvation. The concepts of the first century CE have little resonance with the scientific knowledge of the 20th and 21st centuries. When the eye of the ancient philosopher or even the average layperson looked skyward, it imagined it could see a populated spirit world where the bulk of the workings of the universe took place. Near the bottom of this multi-level system lay humanity’s sphere of material existence; only Sheol or Hades, the underworld, was lower. Various supernatural layers (usually seven) extended upwards, filled with spiritual life forms, reaching to the highest heaven of pure spirit where the ultimate God dwelled in timeless perfection. Most important, the nature of this reality involved far-reaching correspondences between the higher and lower realms, between spirit and matter.

Even before Plato, near eastern mythology envisioned primal or archetypal forms existing in heaven, of which earthly things were counterparts. But it was Plato who inserted into the intellectual consciousness of the ancient world the concept that the upper realm of spirit contained the primary manifestations of things, in perfect and eternal forms, and that the lower material world contained only transient, imperfect copies of them. Platonism eventually envisioned a ‘chain of generation’ from the mind of God, through emanative spirit prototypes and models, down to earthly end-products in matter.

These concepts became expanded in various ways, showing a range of expression in Greek philosophy as well as in Jewish and other near-eastern thought. A sacred site such as the Jerusalem Temple, for example (as in Hebrews 8 and 9, Wisdom of Solomon 9:8, etc.), was the earthly counterpart of a greater, more perfect heavenly Temple. (Even the Babylonians had held such an idea.) Nations, rulers, groups on earth possessed a corresponding angelic or divine being who represented them, a superior counterpart in heaven, a champion. Evil nations possessed evil angels. This counterpart embodied the qualities which they claimed for themselves, or looked forward to achieving when the time of salvation arrived (such as in the Similitudes of Enoch: see below.) Events expected to take place on earth had already been worked out in some fashion in archetypal processes in the heavenly realm, or in the mind of God; figures to be revealed in the future already existed and were preparing themselves in heaven. And so on.

Paul and the earliest Christians thus lived at a time when the world of matter was viewed as only one dimension of reality, the observable half of a larger, integrated whole, whose other—invisible—half was regarded as the “genuine” reality, accessible to the intellect. It was characteristic of mythological thinking that the heavenly counterpart was more real and permanent than the earthly one, and prior to it in order of being. (See John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, p.150.) Such an outlook must be taken into account in all interpretations of the earliest Christian writings. (Note that some of the ideas dealt with here have been presented in previous articles, notably in Part Two of the Main Articles and in Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?)

The World of Myth

When a culture lives with the dominant sense that the world it inhabits is an outpost or antechamber of a more important world, a visible dimension beside or below a vast invisible dimension, it must create a relationship as well as links between the two. Myth is really just a pictorial presentation of the things going on in the unseen dimension and how they interact with the one humans live in.

Discussing myth in the ancient world is hampered by the fact that there was no uniform way of regarding it, since this was a multi-cultural milieu and many ancient streams fed into its collective thinking. To complicate the picture, we have philosophical schools applying themselves to theories about the workings of the spiritual universe, and this influenced the way religious movements formulated their sacred stories. Christianity’s myths were shaped by the whole range of mythological thinking of the era, some of it with roots going back into prehistoric times. We cannot expect to find a uniformity, or even a consistency, in many of its ideas.

Myths represent the other end of the channel flowing between the spiritual world and the human one, by which the latter is sustained and vitalized, given meaning and purpose. Before Platonism, myths were generally set in a dim, distant past. This was the approach (and largely still is) of all pre-scientific societies around the world. And although by the period of early Christianity mythical thinking tended to be recast along more Platonic lines, this long tradition of primordial myth continued to flow as an undercurrent.

Anthropologists of religion like Mircea Eliade (see Bibliography at end) call this distant time of myth the “sacred past.” This was a primordial time at the beginning of things when supernatural beings created the world and first performed acts and established institutions which set the patterns of behavior and belief that present society follows. Primordial time has set the paradigm, the model; present society embodies its copy, its repetition. Human beings have always needed to justify their beliefs and practices, even their sufferings, to invest them with greater-than-human significance, by anchoring them in some divine precedent, in a time and setting which bestows on them a venerable authority. On a personal level, we have here the fundamental appeal of religion: through myth the individual is invested with significance; he or she is rendered sacred by acknowledging a divine, primordial ancestry and entering into a new state of being—a rebirth into union with the supernatural paradigm.

A suitable past, therefore, has to be created. And so do links with that past. This is the purpose of rituals and sacraments, the essential companion pieces to myth. By performing a rite which “re-creates” the primordial event, society keeps it alive, makes it recur for itself. The vitality and benefits which the divine act had originally generated are regenerated in the present, and those participating in the rite can draw on that regenerated power. Primordial time, in the language of the anthropologists, is made into an “eternal now,” always accessible and repeatable. A simple example is the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist. By staging the rite in the celebration of the Mass, the priest draws Christ into the present proceedings, embodied in the priest’s reenactment of Christ’s original act. That act is kept alive, its benefits continually available to the devotees.

Ancient views of myth had, by the first century, been dramatically affected by Platonic philosophy. Even though processes continued to operate in a similar fashion, the time and place of mythical happenings had largely been shifted from the distant primordial past to a higher world of spiritual realities. (Whether the average devotee of the mystery cults adopted the Platonic outlook or still regarded the myths as inhabiting a prehistoric past is impossible to say, as we have no surviving record of the views of the common people in these matters. But all the expressions we do have, indicate a higher-lower world mentality.) Instead of looking back to archaic beginnings, religious ritual could reach into that parallel, upper dimension and find its paradigms, its spiritual forces, right there. In this higher world, the myths of the savior gods and of earliest Christianity had taken place. Here Attis was castrated, here Mithras had slain the bull, here Osiris had been dismembered. For more sophisticated thinkers like Plutarch and the 4th century Sallustius, such mythical stories were not literal, but merely symbolic of timeless spiritual processes which the human mind had difficulty grasping. See, for example, Plutarch’s Isis and Osiris, chapter 11.

In this upper world, too, Christ had been crucified at the hands of the demon spirits (1 Corinthians 2:8, Ascension of Isaiah 9; see Supplementary Article No. 3). For Paul and his contemporaries, such things as Christ underwent and the available benefits which flowed from them, are God’s secrets. They are the “mysteries” of this higher sphere, taking place “before or beyond time” (the pro chronōn aiōniōn of 2 Timothy 1:9; see Part Two). Such mysteries have now been revealed by God, through scripture and the Spirit. For the writer of Hebrews, the sacrificial acts of Jesus the High Priest have taken place in a heavenly sanctuary, a higher world of a Platonic type. (The next Supplementary Article will be devoted to the Epistle to the Hebrews, focusing on its Platonic character.)

Note that, unlike most of the pagan cults whose mythical stories about their gods went back to a time when they were envisioned as having taken place on earth in a primordial past, Christianity in its earliest phase (as in the epistles) had no ‘mythology’ about a Christ Jesus that involved similar earthly sounding events. There was little or no Jesus “story,” not even relating to his death and resurrection. The epistle writers give us no ‘biographical’ details pertaining to these acts of salvation. This void illustrates the recent vintage of the Christ cult, when Platonism was the dominant way of perceiving these things, and Christ was regarded as operating in a spiritual realm, not a primordial historical one. The ‘material’ characteristics he is given, such as the ‘likeness’ of flesh and blood, and aspects like a relationship to David, are not only derived from scripture, they fit into the Platonic scheme of things, as we shall see later in this article.

But even within its basic Platonic nature, Christian myth was further qualified and affected by its Jewish heritage. Whatever the primitive Hebrew view of a “sacred past” may have been in its earlier stages, it eventually moved into a more concrete setting. Primordial figures and processes were transferred to an archaic history, embodied in legends of human patriarchs who had enjoyed special contacts with the Deity. All of it became firmly anchored in an historical past which could be chronicled year by year. Neither Abraham nor Moses—who may or may not (though probably not) be based on actual historical figures—were located in a true sacred past or higher reality. The promises God made to them, the precedents they set, such as the practice of circumcision, were pinpointed in historical time. This heritage fed into Christian myth and qualified the type of thinking Christianity had taken from the conceptual world of the Greeks.

Thus where the Greek myths were essentially timeless, unrelated to a chronicled past, Paul’s myth of Christ had to be ‘located’ to some extent in an historical sequence. It had features which were derived from scripture, a scripture which presented an ongoing system of salvation history. The redemptive actions of the mythical Christ in the spiritual world had to be ‘fitted into’ this ongoing pattern. For example, Christ had to be “of David’s stock” (Romans 1:3), for the spiritual Christ was now equated with the Messiah, and the clear testimony in scripture that the Messiah would be a descendant of David could neither be ignored nor abandoned. He thus, in some way, was viewed as possessing a Davidic nature. (This also fitted the Platonic view of higher-lower world counterparts, all things in the lower world of humans having a more primary equivalent in the upper world.) As an expression of a new covenant, Christ had also operated under the old law with the purpose of abrogating it. The ‘historicity’ and human characteristics of scripture rubbed off on the picture of Christ presented by early Christian writers, such as declaring him “born of woman” in Galatians 4:4, under the influence of Isaiah 7:14. (All this made the evolution of the spiritual Christ into an historical figure much easier.) In a moment we will examine in greater detail these and similar key passages in the epistles.

Rites, Sacraments and Paradigms

Just as today we perceive natural laws and forces working in nature and the universe, the ancients perceived spiritual forces operating between the natural world and the supernatural, between the present, earthly reality and the primordial past or higher divine reality. For Paul, the rite of baptism was a true sacrament, something which drew on invisible spiritual forces operating between past and present, between heaven and earth. Baptism linked the Christian initiates with Christ in the spiritual realm. It made them part of a collective, mystical body: Christ the head, believers the limbs and organs (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:15). It also linked them with Christ’s mythical act of death and resurrection, conferring a new birth upon them (as in Romans 6:1-11). Paul calls this effect “dying and rising to Christ.” Drawing on the spiritual forces generated by Christ’s redemptive act, the believer dies to his or her old life in sin and rises to a new one free of sin; and he or she inherits the promise of future resurrection.

Such sacramental thinking was not derived from Judaism, but from Hellenistic religious thought, as expressed in the mysteries. (See, for example, F. W. Beare, The First Epistle of Peter, p.57.) In describing the relationship between the upper and lower worlds, scholars (e.g. Collins, op.cit., p.150) speak of a “parallelism of action” between heavenly and earthly counterparts, a “structural homologue” (G. Theissen, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity, p.121). Actions by divine beings in the spiritual realm have their consequences for those on earth who are joined to them. This idea is the key to understanding the concept of salvation which early Christianity shared with the Greek cults. The absorption of the spiritual power generated by the deity and his acts is accomplished through a pattern of “likeness.”

Here is the way Paul puts it in Romans 6:5: “For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.” (NASB translation)

In other words, the spiritual force set up by the acts of the deity in the primordial past or higher reality impacts on the devotee in the present in a parallel way. Death creates a “death,” resurrection creates a “resurrection.” Whether in the primordial or higher world setting, the spiritual model sets the pattern for the earthly copies. Christ’s act of resurrection guarantees the resurrection of the convert who undergoes the baptismal rite; the rite is the means of harnessing that available spiritual force and making it flow to the believer.

It all fits into that most fundamental of ancient concepts outlined earlier: that earth was the mirror image of heaven, the product proceeding from the archetype, the visible material counterpart to the genuine spiritual reality above. Heavenly events determined earthly realities. It follows that in such a philosophical system, the determining acts of divine forces which conferred salvation would of necessity be located, not on earth, but in that higher realm. Everything Paul says places him in that sort of thought world.

The Paradigm in Heaven

The concept of a paradigm in heaven who determines the fate of his counterparts on earth can be illustrated by a couple of examples from Jewish apocalyptic. In the 7th chapter of the Book of Daniel, we are introduced in a vision to the “one like a son of man,” a heavenly figure who is brought before the throne of God following the overthrow of the last of earth’s great empires. This figure receives power and dominion from God, an act which signifies (so an angel informs Daniel) that the righteous elect of Israel, the “Saints of the Most High,” shall receive such a sovereignty over the earth. Some scholars regard this “one like a son of man” as an angel, others simply as a poetic image of the saints he represents. Still others suggest he is an actual divine figure who serves as a heavenly representative for the saints on earth. Here the issue need not be resolved. Whatever the writer had in mind, Daniel’s figure can serve as an example of the paradigm who undergoes an experience in heaven which guarantees a corresponding experience on earth by his human counterpart. (Daniel’s “son of man” was by the middle of the first century CE to evolve, in some Jewish and related circles, into a definite divine figure, expected from heaven as an apocalyptic judge. He appears in Jewish apocalyptic documents, but also in the Galilean Kingdom movement represented by Q, proceeding from there into the Gospels.)

In the Similitudes of Enoch (chapters 37 to 71 of 1 Enoch, probably written in the mid first century by a Jewish sect) the figure called the Elect One or Righteous One—also Son of Man and Messiah—is revealed to be waiting in heaven. Soon he shall appear on earth to render judgment, he will raise the oppressed and overthrow the wicked rulers and those who reject the Most High (God). He is the champion of a group on earth, the suffering righteous and elect. In the Elect One dwells those qualities, holiness and righteousness, shared by his earthly counterparts. They await the changes he will bring, including their own glorification and reception of eternal life. This Righteous One (a ‘spiritual Messiah’ idea among Jews!) is not a sacrificial figure, however; the Enochian sect had not evolved in this direction.

But whoever wrote the christological hymn quoted by Paul in his letter to the Philippians (2:6-11) has done just that. Here we have a divine being who “shared in God’s very nature,” who humbled himself and in obedience accepted death. As a consequence, “God raised him to the heights,” where he received the homage of all powers and beings on earth and in heaven. The implication is that this self-sacrificing divinity (who operates in the celestial spheres, not on earth: see Supplementary Article No. 3) is a paradigm for believers on earth, who will similarly be exalted as a consequence of their own obedience and death. As Morna Hooker puts it (see Bibliography): “Christ becomes what we are (likeness of flesh, suffering and death), so enabling us to become what he is (exalted to the heights)”.

— II —

We can now go on to consider how writers like Paul describe their paradigmatic Christ and whether such terminology as they use can be fitted into the contemporary picture of a multi-level, homologic universe.

The Gospel About the Son

At the very beginning of the collection of New Testament epistles, in the opening verses of Romans, lies a statement which many declare requires us to go no further. Even if Paul were never to breathe a subsequent word about Jesus of Nazareth, they say, in verse 3 lies something which unmistakably points to the concept of an historical man lying in the background of Paul’s thought about the Christ. And yet, the situation is quite the opposite. This illuminating statement has stood at the head of the Pauline corpus for almost two millennia, and should long ago have revealed both the true beginnings of Christianity and the role scripture played in them, as well as the absence of any historical Jesus in Paul’s mind. All it needs is the application of common sense to the words Paul has written. Let’s see if we can do just that.

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised (or, announced) beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who . . .
And he goes on to itemize two elements of that gospel about the Son, which we’ll look at in a moment. But first, let’s take a sideways glance at another statement in Paul, in Romans 16:25-6 (possibly inserted by a pseudo-Pauline writer), which clearly defines the source of Paul’s gospel: “. . . according to the revelation of the mystery kept in silence for long ages but now revealed, and made known through prophetic writings at the command of God . . .” This and several other passages in the Pauline corpus identify scripture and revelation through the Spirit as the source of Paul’s (and of those who came after him) information about the Christ, and we can keep this in mind as we look closely at Romans 1:1-4.
Consider what Paul is saying in these verses and ask yourself: Is there something wrong with this picture?

The gospel is God’s, received through revelation. Not from other men, not from Jesus himself through channels of apostolic transmission. There seems to be no sign of a role for an historical Jesus here in formulating the gospel.

God had promised this gospel beforehand, or announced it: both are valid translations of the Greek proepangelō. (The root of the verb is the same as the word for “angel,” God’s “announcer” and messenger.) This gospel had been announced in scripture, in the holy writings of the prophets. This is where Paul has gotten his gospel about the Son. It was all there ahead of time, encoded by God into the writings, awaiting Paul’s discovery. God in scripture had looked ahead—not to Jesus, but to the gospel that told of him.

How could Paul have presented things in this bizarre way? He is telling the Roman Christians that scripture contains the forecast of his own gospel, not the forecast of Jesus and his life. But if God had encoded in scripture information about Jesus that would form part of Paul’s gospel, then God would have been first and foremost foretelling Jesus. Any sane mind would have made the simple adjustment and said that God had announced information beforehand about Jesus. Not about Paul’s gospel.

As Paul presents it, scripture was not the prophecy of Jesus’ life and activities. It was the prophecy of the gospel which told of those activities.

This means that no life of Jesus intervened between the writing of scripture and the revelation of the gospel to Paul. Wherever or whenever the activities of the Son had taken place, it had not been located in history between the two events.

This is perfectly consistent with the manner of presentation we can see throughout the New Testament epistles, especially in connection with the revelation of God’s “mystery.” The secret of Christ has been hidden for long ages, and the first bringing to light of that secret, the first action on God’s age-old promises, has taken place not in a life of Jesus in the recent past, but in the inspirations and activities of missionary prophets like Paul.

We are forced to conclude that in Paul’s past, there was no historical Jesus. Rather, the activities of the Son about which God’s gospel in scripture told, as interpreted by Paul, had taken place in the spiritual realm and were accessible only through revelation.

The Seed of David

But let’s go on. In Romans 1:3-4, Paul gives us two items of this gospel about the Son, encoded by God into scripture:

. . . who arose from the seed of David according to the flesh, and was designated Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness [or, the holy spirit] after his resurrection from the dead.
This part of the sentence is frustratingly cryptic, as reflected by the many different translations of its various elements. (The above translation of verses 1 to 4 are partly my own, in an attempt to lean toward the literal Greek.) Here, Paul offers two elements about the Son. One is kata sarka, literally “according to the flesh,” a vague and particularly cryptic phrase that is used throughout early Christian literature in a variety of subtle ways, often with unclear meaning. The other is kata pneuma, literally “according to the spirit.” Whether the latter is a reference to the Holy Spirit is also uncertain. Perhaps Paul is using kata to refer to something like “in the sphere of the flesh” and “in the sphere of the spirit,” which is a suggestion put forward by the eminent scholar C. K. Barrett. Such a translation is, in fact, quite useful and possibly accurate. But let’s look at kata sarka first.
. . . who arose from the seed of David, according to the flesh [or, in the sphere of the flesh] . . .
Is this a piece of historical datum? If it is, it’s the only one Paul ever gives us, for no other feature of Jesus’ human incarnation appears in his letters. But the fact that it is linked with the second element, which is an entirely spiritual event derived from scripture, suggests that it is not a biographical element Paul is offering.
In fact, it follows, grammatically and conceptually, out of what Paul has just said: it is an element of the gospel about God’s Son which has been pre-announced in scripture. Paul has told us clearly and unequivocally that this is where he has gotten this piece of information. In verses 1-2, Paul has focused on the message to be found in the sacred writings. Why would he suddenly step outside that focus and stick in a biographical datum about Jesus of Nazareth derived from historical knowledge—then return to scripture (as we shall see) for his second element? In fact, scripture was full of predictions that the Christ, the Messiah, would be descended from David. Paul, in reading these, would have applied them to his particular version of the Son, the Son who was a spiritual entity, not a human one.

Was it possible for the divine Son who operated entirely in the spiritual realm to be “of David’s stock,” and in a way that was “in the sphere of the flesh”? I will suggest (based on the discussions above and to come) that the answer is yes, and that Christ’s “arising from David” is a characteristic of Christ in the spirit world, a mythological element.

Paul here uses the same verb for “arose” (descended, born of) which he also uses in Galatians 4:4 (“born of woman, born under/subject to the law”). When I discuss this latter passage below, I will explore more fully the point that this is not a straightforward verb of “birth” but rather of “becoming,” of “coming into existence.” Its broader implication fits the atmosphere of myth, the workings of the higher world where these processes went on.

A Window in Scripture  

But let’s continue with the second element of Paul’s gospel about the Son, derived from scripture:

. . . and was designated Son of God in power, according to the spirit (or, in the sphere of the spirit), by his resurrection out of the dead.
This is obviously an entirely spiritual event, taking place in heaven after Christ’s death and resurrection (which were themselves spiritual events). The epistles, especially the Pauline ones, contain several scenes and glimpses into the spiritual realm, supporting the view that this was as much a part of reality to these writers as any events on the material earth. But where specifically did Paul get the information about this particular heavenly event?
The partial sentence above contains two relevant features: Christ’s designation as Son of God, and the phrase “in power”. Where in the sacred writings could Paul have found an important passage which contained these two elements side by side?

Psalm 2 is a royal coronation hymn. God is represented as welcoming and anointing his king, and the writer warns the foreign nations to beware of their plots and ambitions. In verses 7-8 God declares—and both Jews and Christians took these words as directed to the Christ, the Messiah:

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 give you the nations as your inheritance,
and the ends of the earth as your possession.
Here, surely, is the source of Paul’s second ‘gospel’ element: Jesus is proclaimed God’s Son by God himself. And he is invested with power, receiving the nations of the earth as his possession. (The original Psalm writer had Israel herself, through its king, in mind, though the sentiment was no doubt rhetorical.) The theme of Jesus as king runs like a thread throughout the entire history of Christian tradition, and it certainly was not based on Jesus’ recorded life experiences.
The two elements, the one in the sphere of the “flesh” (the lowest heavenly sphere, associated with the material world: see below), the other in the sphere of the spirit (the highest level of God, to where Jesus ascended after his death), go hand in hand. They are both parts of God’s gospel about his Son, the Son’s activities in the spiritual realm, found in scripture. Paul is preaching a Jesus entirely derived from the Hebrew bible.

The early Christian movement, as reflected in Paul, was not a movement of slaves and disenfranchised poor. That was a later development which is often read back into the earliest stage. In fact, Paul himself and the circles he moved in were highly intelligent and sophisticated. We can see that in his letters. These people were thoroughly immersed in the religious philosophy of the day, both Jewish and Greek, philosophies which could be highly mystical. It was quite possible for minds like Paul’s to regard scripture (that all-important force which governed their lives) as a window onto the higher world of “genuine” reality, where spiritual processes took place which had counterparts and effects in the world below.

This analysis of Romans 1:1-4 has led to the conclusion that it is the sacred writings, the ‘window’ onto the spiritual realm, which have determined many of the features given to the divine Christ. If scripture said that the Messiah was descended from David, then in some way this had to be so, even if the Christ was now regarded as an entirely spirit-world entity. Because the universe held parallel counterparts, Paul could well envision that in a prototypic way, in the parallelism which existed between the higher and lower parts of the universe, Christ himself could bear a relationship to David. (This will be further supported when we come to examine the concept of Christ as “man”.) And since Paul and his contemporaries are constantly speaking of the “mysteries” of God, the “wisdom that is folly,” we should not require of them that they understood in any logical or scientific sense exactly how this was so. (To our modern minds, of course, it would simply be gibberish.)

Sprung From Judah

We might cast a comparative glance at Hebrews 7:14, which is another passage that speaks of Christ’s ‘racial’ lineage and which points toward scripture as the source:

For it is very evident (prodēlon) that our Lord is sprung (anatetalken) from Judah, a tribe to which Moses made no reference in speaking of priests.
First of all, this statement is made in the midst of a theological argument, not a recounting of historical facts. The whole tenor of Hebrews is one of presenting Christ as a new High Priest, one who supplants the old cultic system which was run by the priestly class of the tribe of Aaron, the Levites. The writer finds Christ’s “archetype” in Melchizedek, who was also not a member of the Levites (what tribe he may have been is never stated). The point is, Christ must be of a new line in order to create a new order of priesthood.
And where does the writer find confirmation that the new High Priest is indeed of a different line than the Levites? How does he support this very necessary claim that Christ is “sprung from Judah”? Well, there is not a word spent in appealing to historical facts or apostolic traditions concerning Jesus of Nazareth, no reference to Mary or Joseph, no mention of his lineage as recounted in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The word “prodēlon” means “clear, manifest” to the senses or to judgment (compare 1 Timothy 5:24, 25); it does not mean “a matter of historical record.” It fits the sense of “clear to someone who knows the scriptures,” which in itself fits the thought world of the entire epistle.

The verb “anatellein,” to spring (by birth), is also the language of scripture. It is used in several messianic passages, such as Ezekiel 29:21 (“a horn shall spring forth”), and Zechariah 6:12. Hebrews pointedly never says that Jesus is a descendent or “son” of David; the latter is a figure the epistle shows no interest in. The author simply needs scriptural support for the concept of a priest arising from a tribe which has never “had anything to do with” the old cult (7:13), a priest who can establish a new law to supplant the impotent old one, and a new hope (7:18 and 19). And to confirm Jesus’ role as High Priest, the writer turns to nothing in history, he draws on no deed or saying from the story of Jesus’ life, but delves instead (7:17) into the timeless pages of scripture: “Thou art a priest forever, in the succession of Melchizedek.” This line from the all-important Psalm 110 he takes as God’s word to Jesus.

Buchanan, in his Anchor Bible Commentary (Hebrews, p.124) notes that “In none of the Old Testament usages of the verb anatellein (spring from) was it imployed to mean a “descendant” of a certain tribe or family.” We might also note that “is sprung from” is in the perfect tense in the Greek, not a past-tense aorist, such as we might have expected had the writer meant: “Jesus of Nazareth was sprung from Judah.” Instead, he uses the perfect “has sprung” which fits the mythical outlook: such things have happened, but they are also eternal and timeless, just as scripture, the timeless word of God, continues to inform us of these spiritual events. Buchanan, in his Anchor Bible Commentary (Hebrews, p.253) admits that “the author may not have received the information from local tradition at all . . . (but) from his use of scripture.” Scripture: God’s ‘window’ onto the higher spiritual world and its counterparts to earthly things.

Born of Woman

The second Pauline passage most often appealed to in support of Paul’s knowledge of an historical Jesus is Galatians 4:4-5.

. . .God sent his own Son, born of woman, born under the Law (literally, becoming or arising out of woman / the law) to purchase freedom for the subjects of the law, in order that we might attain the status of sons.
This passage, too, with the verses that come after it, does not have to be read as it always has been. It needs a closer examination.
First, let’s detach and look at the principal phrase, “God sent his own Son.” There is no problem in taking this in the sense of the present-day revelation of the spiritual Christ by God to apostles like Paul. This is borne out by verse 6, which says that “God has sent (exactly the same verb) into our hearts the spirit of his Son. . . .” This is hardly the coming of the historical Jesus of Nazareth into the world, but the arrival of the spiritual Christ in the current phenomenon of divine revelation.

Verse 7 piles the evidence of Paul’s meaning even higher: “You are therefore no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then also by God’s own act an heir.” If Paul had had the acts of an historical Jesus in mind when he spoke of freedom and attaining the status of sons (verse 5), why does he now revert to calling such things the result of an act of God? If, however, he has in mind the revelation of the Son and his acts in the spiritual realm, the idea of the agency of God becomes fully intelligible. And Paul continues his characteristic focus on God in verses 8 and 9.

Further, in the Greek of verse 5, the subject of the verb “purchase freedom” (literally, redeem) remains God. In other words, Paul has introduced Jesus into the present period, but he has failed to follow through by expressly having him do the redeeming while he is here! Again, if Jesus is only being revealed in the present time, God’s role remains primary.

Finally, the two qualifying phrases, “born of woman, born under the Law,” are descriptive of this Son, but not necessarily tied to the present “sending.” The International Critical Commentary (Burton, Galatians, p.216f), points out that the way the verb and participle tenses are used in the Greek, the birth and subjection to the law are presented as simple facts, with no necessary temporal relation to the main verb “sent.” In other words, the conditions of being “born of woman” and being “made subject to the law” (Burton’s preferred meaning) do not have to be seen as things that have occurred in the present. Paul has simply enumerated two of the characteristics of the spiritual Christ which are revelant to the issues under discussion. (There are those who maintain that these two qualifying phrases may be later redactions, which is always possible.)

Burton also notes that the word usually translated as “born” (genomenon) is not the most unambiguous verb to use for this concept; a form of gennao, to give birth, would have been more straightforward. Instead, Paul uses a form of ginomai, which has a broader meaning of “to become, to come into existence.” “Out of woman,” of course, implies birth, but the point is, the broader concept lends itself better to the atmosphere of myth, if that is what Paul has in mind. And his “born of woman” is not only something that was said of certain mythical savior gods, like Dionysos (and various other products of Zeus’ mythical dallyings), it is a detail he could well have based not on history, but on the source he uses for all he says about the Son: the Jewish scriptures. The famous passage in Isaiah 7:14,

A young woman is with child, and she will bear a son and will call him Immanuel. . .
was taken by Jew and early Christian alike to refer to the Messiah. Paul links this idea with Jesus being “subject to the law.” The latter was a paradigmatic feature which Christ had to possess, so that he could stand in parallel with those whom Paul is addressing, those who had themselves been “subject to the law”—until Christ abrogated it in this new age of revelation and faith.
Again, as in the Romans 1 passage, if Isaiah referred to the Messiah as “born of woman,” Paul would have concluded that in some way there must have been a spiritual world archetypal process to which this scriptural passage pointed. There would have been little difficulty in accepting this, given the overriding philosophy of the day which saw all things on earth as counterpart copies of primary manifestations in the higher spiritual realm. And as the mythical stories of all savior gods contained human-like features, including “births” from women, such a characteristic of the spiritual Christ would not have seemed out of place.

A glance back to the sentiments of Galatians 3 should confirm that, however Paul saw Christ as “born of woman, born under the law,” he didn’t see him as arriving in the present time through that “birth.” The key verses are 3:23 and 25:

Before this faith came, we were close prisoners in the custody of the law, pending the revelation of faith . . . Now that faith has come, the tutor’s charge is at an end.
Clearly, the present event of salvation history is not the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose life and death are once again missing from the picture. Rather, it is the arrival of faith in the response to the missionary movement represented by inspired apostles like Paul. Here Paul is consistent with the way he expresses himself in many other places.
As for the intermediate verse 24 (the lacuna in the quote above), the New English Bible translates it as “the law was a kind of tutor in charge of us until Christ should come,” which illustrates the tendency to read Gospel preconceptions into the epistles. But an alternate translation is provided in a footnote: “a kind of tutor to conduct us to Christ.” This reflects the simple Greek words “eis Christon” (to Christ). Thus we can easily arrive at the meaning “leading us to faith in Christ” or to his revelation, or to the time of such things.

Earlier, in verse 19, Paul speaks of “the arrival of the ‘seed’ to whom the promise was made.” Since Paul has just defined this “seed” as Christ himself, some claim that this is a clear reference to the arrival of Jesus in the historical sense. But they overlook the fact that such a definition was made in order to link the gentiles to Abraham through Christ, so it is the present-day believing gentile who can be in mind here. Besides, it would be awkward to say that it is to Christ that “the promise was made.” In any event, the case has already been made that when early Christians speak of Christ “coming,” this can readily be taken in a spiritual sense.

Allegorical Mothers

Paul, of course, never tells us the name of his “woman” nor anything about her. And as a final aside to our look at Galatians we might ask, if Paul is supposed to have Mary in mind in 4:4, why does she not appear in his elaborate allegory in the same chapter? In 4:24-31 Paul makes his own interpretation of the story of Abraham and the two sons he had by his two wives. The first woman is Abraham’s concubine, the slave Hagar: she gives birth to Ishmael, who stands for the Jewish race which still exists in slavery under the Law and the old covenant. That race and that covenant is represented by Mount Sinai. And what is the other half of the parallel? The second woman is Abraham’s legitimate wife, the free-born Sarah: she is the mother of Isaac, the true inheritor of God’s promise, Abraham’s spiritual heir. In a manner unspecified, Paul links his gentile readers with Isaac; they too are children of the promise, children of Sarah, who is symbolized by the heavenly Jerusalem. This represents the source of the new covenant.

Paul strains for some of this allegory, but on the surface the whole thing might seem to hang together. Yet something is definitely missing here. Something we would expect to find, especially as Christ “born of woman” is still fresh in Paul’s mind. He is talking about mothers and sons. Why is Mary not worked into this analogy, if only as a secondary part of the interpretation? She was, after all, the mother of Jesus himself who established the new covenant. She is surely an antitype to Sarah’s archetype. So is Jesus himself to Isaac, both symbols of sacrificed victims. (Even though Isaac was not actually killed, he assumed this significance in Jewish thinking.) Paul has spent much of Galatians 3 linking the gentiles to Abraham through Christ as his “seed”: why not double such a link through Mary and Sarah? Could not Mary be allegorized as the mother of Christians? And where, for that matter, is the thing which should have been obvious as the symbol of the new covenant, in parallel to Mount Sinai as the symbol of the old one: not the heavenly Jerusalem but the Mount of Calvary where Jesus was crucified, the earthly site of the blood sacrifice which established that new covenant? Paul once again shows himself to be totally immune in his thought and expression to all aspects of the incarnated life of Jesus of Nazareth.

In “Flesh” and “Blood”

It should be clear by now that Christ in the spiritual realm possessed properties which could be called “flesh” and “blood”—in that state which the spirit world bore in counterpart with the world of matter. As Hebrews 2:14 says: “Since (Christ’s children) have blood and flesh, he too shared the same things in a like manner.” This will recall the discussion above concerning inter-world relationships based on the pattern of “likeness.” We find such a stereotyped emphasis in several places, in Jesus being “like” or “in the form of” a man. In the hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, Christ descends, “bearing human likeness and the fashion of a man.” Why this oblique phraseology: had he not literally been a full, actual man? In the Ascension of Isaiah 9, the spirits of the heavens which the Son enters and where he is crucified, “think he is flesh and a man.” Here the clear implication is that he is not, that he has assumed only some related resemblance. In the Hebrews quote above, the word for “in a like manner” is “paraplēsios”. This does not mean “identical,” but “near to, similar.” (This is fortunate for Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:27: if his illness had been identical to death, Paul would be writing an obituary and not praising God for his colleague’s recovery.)

But the concept of a god possessing the spiritual world equivalent of flesh and blood needs to be qualified in certain ways. As examined in greater detail in Supplementary Article No. 3, some savior gods were envisioned as descending from the highest sphere of heaven, where in their pure spirit form they could not suffer, and to take on the semblance of flesh as they reached the lower celestial layers. Here they could undergo human-like experiences, suffer and die. Paul seems to have seen Christ’s suffering as real, that is, Christ’s flesh and blood were close enough to the real thing that he genuinely suffered, in contrast to more sophisticated philosophers (such as Plutarch, Sallustius and the emperor Julian: see Bibliography), who, as mentioned above, regarded the various savior god myths as merely symbolic of abstract spiritual processes.

The term “in flesh” (en sarki, or kata sarka) is also a stereotyped phrase in the early Christian epistles. If we take into account C. K. Barrett’s suggestion in his translation of Romans 1:3 (see above), it may simply have signified the entry of Christ “into the sphere of flesh,” which included that lower celestial realm where Satan and the demon spirits dwelled and wreaked their havoc on the material world. (Again, see Supplementary Article No. 3.)

In more general terms, the phrase may have served to signify the world of myth itself, where gods acted out their roles concerning salvation and paradigmatic action. The Greeks, too, could spin stories about their deities, born in caves, slain by other divinities, sleeping and dining and speaking in human-sounding ways, and none of it was now regarded as taking place in history or on earth itself. (The story of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23f fits into the same category as the sacred meal myths of the Greek cults, and is something devised by Paul through perceived revelation—he received it “from the Lord”; I have dealt with this at length in Supplementary Article No. 6, in the section “Learning of a Sacred Meal,” and will not repeat it here.) The bull dispatched by Mithras was not historical; the blood it spilled which vitalized the earth was metaphysical. No one searched the soil of Asia Minor hoping to unearth the genitals severed from the Great Mother’s consort Attis. To which we might compare first-century Christianity’s utter disinterest in the places and relics of Jesus’ activities (see Part One).

And so we have 1 Peter’s “put to death in flesh” (3:18, followed by a rising “in spirit”), 1 Timothy’s (3:16) “manifested in flesh” (where it says he was seen only by angels); the latter is part of a hymn which the writer calls a “pious mystery,” another of God’s secrets rather than an historically witnessed event. We are told in Colossians 1:22 that God has reconciled humanity to himself “by (Christ’s) death in the body of his flesh.” And Hebrews 5:7 tells us something which Christ had done “in the days of his flesh,” something derived from verses in scripture.

In Hebrews 10:5, Christ is spoken of as “coming into the world,” but this is the world of scripture that Christ is entering, in its timeless, mythical present—or rather, the higher mythical world onto which scripture provided a window. (These and other examples of the “human” elements assigned to Christ in the Epistle to the Hebrews will be dealt with more fully in Supplementary Article No. 9.)

— III —

Christ as “Man”

We can now proceed to what is perhaps the most significant term used by Paul which seems to speak of Jesus as an historical person. This is the word “man”: anthrōpos. The only other document to give Jesus this label is 1 Timothy (2:5) but this can easily be seen to be dependent on Paul and adds nothing to what Paul himself says. Paul uses the expression in three passages: Romans 5:12-19, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 and 15:45-49. In all three, the concept is part of a comparison with another “man”: Adam.

We have to recognize that one of Paul’s main concerns in these passages is to create a parallel and a contrast. He is setting up Christ as an antithesis to Adam, and therefore he wishes to present his divine figure in ways which can fit this position, both philosophically and poetically. Let’s begin with Romans 5. Paul offers the view (one he shared with a central line of Jewish thought) that Adam was responsible for the introduction of sin—and its consequence, death—into the world; after him, all men have also sinned and fallen under the power of death, a fate cutting its universal swath throughout human history. At the other end of this baneful pendulum’s swing lies Christ. By God’s “grace in the one man Jesus Christ,” (simply an expansion of Paul’s common phrase “in Christ”: see Part Two), sin and its consequences have been swept away. In the interests of his parallel and contrast with Adam, Paul calls Christ “man.”

But Paul is also interested in something more. An important feature of early Christian thought is the need to find archetypal figures or events in scripture which serve as “models” for later figures and events, especially those to do with Christian beliefs and expectations. (Perhaps a more ‘horizontal’ version of the vertical correspondence envisioned between higher and lower worlds.) So Paul needs Adam to represent a “type” of which Christ is the “antitype.” This is clear from what he says in Romans 5:14: “. . . and Adam foreshadows the Man who was to come.” This NEB translation, as so many of them do, once again reads Gospel preconceptions into a text which is at best ambiguous. Literally, “. . . Adam, who is the type of the one coming,” may mean one who was to come in the past, or one who is still to come. (We’ll take a closer look at this telling phrase later.)

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul sets up further parallels and contrasts, types and antitypes. Adam is the “first man” and Christ is the “second man” or “last Adam.” Adam was the prototype for all humans in his earthly body; Christ will provide the prototype of the heavenly body which all Christians will receive at their resurrection. Thus Paul’s overall presentation of Christ as “man” serves his theological and literary purposes.

Actually, Paul uses the word “anthrōpos” of Christ only three times throughout the three passages. He seems to be more interested in calling Christ the last Adam (which in Hebrew means “man”) in order to provide an antithesis to the first Adam, rather than in making any statement that Christ was a human man. We should also remember that Adam himself was in current Jewish thought a larger-than-life figure, almost mythological, which would make Christ as “man” in a heavenly, mythical sense more comparable with him. Both, for Paul, are representative figures, not historical individuals.

But on what basis can Paul call Christ “man” if he was not a recent human being who had lived and died in Palestine? Paul is making a statement about the divine Son, labeling him “man” as one of his attributes. His starting point is the spiritual Christ in heaven, not a recent human being who had walked the earth in historical times. Such a man he never refers to; such a man is notably missing in his presentation of Adam and Christ, especially in the second Corinthians passage, as we shall see. In what way, then, can a divinity in heaven, one who has never been on earth, be spoken of as “man”?

The Heavenly Man

The answer is a complex one—and uncertain, for there is more than one way Paul could have viewed things. And the question involves a much-debated type of speculative thinking in ancient myth about which we know too little. Even to make generalized statements about the concept known as the “Heavenly Man” (or Primal Man, Archetypal Man) is difficult, since its various expressions show little consistency and the evidence is largely fragmentary. But we can approach it through a writer who has left us enough to provide one specific view of the idea: the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo.

In adapting Platonic-style ideas about a Heavenly Man to the Jewish scriptures, Philo had invaluable, if unintended, help from the compilers of the Book of Genesis. Centuries earlier these editors had found themselves with two different creation stories on their hands, both old, from different parts of the nation. They ended up largely juxtaposing them in the first two chapters of the Bible’s opening book. And so someone like Philo could read these two separate statements in the sacred writings:

Then God said: Let us make man in our image. . . . So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him. . . .” (Genesis 1:26-27)
Then the Lord God formed a man (or Adam) from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” (Genesis 2:7)
What better evidence that God was a Platonist? For the first statement, in Genesis 1, surely described the creation of the Platonic Idea of man, the spiritual prototype in heaven. He was part of the creation of the whole “intelligible world” (the one known by intellectual understanding), that upper realm of ideal, perfect things of which the lower world of matter, the “perceivable world” (the one known by the senses), was only an imperfect copy.
Genesis 2, on the other hand, recounted the creation of the ideal man’s copy, made out of the dust of matter. It is the first—spiritual—“man” who is said to be made “in the image of God,” and this fitted the Platonic conception of God’s emanations forming the first “being” apart from himself, his direct image, his “first-born.” (This Philo sometimes identifies with his general term “Logos” which he uses for the sum of God’s primary emanations and powers which work on the universe.)

But let’s quote Philo’s own words:

“There are two kinds of men. The one is Heavenly Man, the other earthly. The Heavenly Man being in the image of God has no part in corruptible substance, or in any earthly substance whatever; but the earthly man was made of germinal matter which the writer [of Genesis] calls “dust.” For this reason he does not say that the Heavenly Man was created, but that he was stamped with the image of God, whereas the earthly man is a creature and not the offspring of the Creator.” (From Allegorical Interpretation of the Law 1,31, translated by C. H. Dodd.)
In speaking of God’s “image” Philo is not referring to anything anthropomorphic, for God possessed no “shape” and certainly not a human one. Elsewhere, Philo says that “the word ‘image’ refers to the mind which is the governor of the soul.” He regards the earthly material copy of the Heavenly Man as a replica only in an internal way, sharing the higher divinity—and being ultimately a copy of God himself—only in regard to his soul, not his outward appearance. The Heavenly Man is incorporeal and incorruptible, neither male nor female; he remains transcendent in heaven with God. (For more on Philo of Alexandria, see Supplementary Article No. 5.)
The dualistic Platonic distinction between a celestial man and an earthly man seems not to have been made in more mainstream Jewish thinking about Genesis. Rather, Adam himself tended to be glorified by the rabbis and made into a prototype, an extraordinary First Man of far greater scope than we see in the familiar Genesis—almost mythological. Other parts of the Old Testament show traces of a legendary first man as a kind of demi-god, exceedingly wise and sharing God’s counsel. (See Job 15:7f and Ezekiel 28.)

And what of the broader Hellenistic world? What connection did such a glorified Adam in Jewish tradition have with what seems to have been a more widespread myth of a Primal Man (which scholars usually refer to by the German term “Ur-mensch”)? This Primal Man used to be thought of as deriving from ancient Iranian and Babylonian mythology. He was a heavenly being, a first-born, who existed with God from the beginning, sometimes as a king of paradise. He was involved in struggles in the heavenly realms with forces of evil and chaos. Out of these struggles the world of matter and humans came into existence. In some versions, humanity even contains fallen portions of this Primal Man. Eventually he becomes a Redeemer who descends to earth, reveals God to humans and the fact that they possess divine elements within themselves; finally, he shows them how to ascend to heaven and regain their original divine home.

In some Gnostic documents, the figure just described is only a “son” or “son of Man,” for in that ‘chain of generation’ mentioned near the beginning, the Primal Man is the supreme God himself, since in him lies the image of all creation, including material man. Some have suggested that the Gospel term “Son of Man” may have arisen from this meaning, that the coming End-time figure is the Son of God, referred to as Man.

Lately there has been more skepticism about the pervasiveness of a Primal Man myth in pre-Christian times. Such ideas emerge clearly only in the Gnostic faiths of the 2nd century and in the later Mandaean and Manichaean religions centered in Mesopotamia. The debate rages around the question of how far back we may read such doctrines into earlier mythical thought. Might early strands of Gnosticism have existed in centers like Antioch? Did they have a form which could have influenced Paul and others? If Paul seems to cast things in a more Jewish mold, had his Jewish milieu, especially through its connections with Persia and Babylon, already absorbed the effects of such Oriental myths?

These questions cannot yet be answered, if ever they can. Perhaps ultimately we are thrown back on analyzing what Paul himself actually says. It is legitimate to keep in mind, however, that a broader pool of ideas about a Heavenly Man were part of ancient world thought, regardless of just when the surviving evidence allows us to place any specifics chronologically; and that the Alexandrian Philo, who largely precedes Paul, clearly shows one very important type of “heavenly man” to which Paul’s concept might be compared.

The Physical and the Spiritual

But let’s turn to the Pauline passages themselves and see what can be gleaned from them. The most important for our purposes is 1 Corinthians 15:44b-49. Here it is in a more-or-less literal rendition based on standard translations:

[44b] If there is (such a thing as) a natural/physical body, there is also a spiritual (body). [45] And so it is written: “The first man, Adam, became a living soul”; the last Adam (became) a life-giving spirit. [46] However, the spiritual (body) is not first; rather, the material (one), then the spiritual. [47] The first man (was) out of the earth, of earthly (material), the second man (is) out of heaven. [48] As the man of earth (was), so also (are) those of earth; and as (is) the man of heaven, so also (are/shall be?) those of heaven (or the heavenly beings). [49] And as we bore the image of the one of earth, we shall also bear the image of the one of heaven.
There can be few passages in the epistles where scholars are more guilty of reading into the bare words all that they wish to see in them. The first thing to note is that there is a lot of ambiguity in this passage, for Paul has left out almost all the verbs. Some of those supplied are natural, but read the passage without the words in brackets and one can see how much critical ambiguity resides in the sense of it all. Translators tend to use verbs and prepositions which connote the idea of Christ as someone who recently came from heaven down to earth, fitting the Gospel presentation. (As Jean Héring puts it, Christ “descended from heaven.”) But the Greek words convey no necessary sense of movement. We can compare a similar common misreading of 15:21:
For since it was a man who brought death into the world, a man also brought resurrection of the dead. (NEB)
Here such verbs are supplied by the translators. Literally, the sentence reads: “For since through a man death, also through a man resurrection of the dead.” The verbs usually inserted convey the sense of some recent event on earth, yet the next verse, 22, actually points to the future: “So in Christ all will be brought to life,” which may be closer to Paul’s concept of Jesus as “man”: something oriented toward the future. We’ll look at this point more closely in a moment.
But the most critical mistranslation occurs in verse 45:

The first man, Adam, became a living soul; the last Adam (became) a life-giving spirit.
The verb “became” (egeneto) governs both parts, the references to both Adam and Christ. Yet the English “became” is misleading, for it suggests a conversion from one thing, one state, to another. This is indeed one of the meanings of “ginomai” but it cannot be so here, for such a concept cannot apply to Adam. Paul must mean ginomai in the more fundamental of its senses, that of “coming into existence as,” to form the nature of, for he surely means that Adam was created as “a living soul” (just as the Genesis passage he is quoting does). He is defining Adam here, not speaking of a change from one state into another. (The preposition “eis” need not denote “into” in the sense of conversion, but has more the sense of “as” in a predicate accusative phrase, like 1 Maccabees 11:62: “He took the sons as hostages.”)
It follows that the second half of the verse (where the verb is only understood) should imply the same thing: that Christ is of the nature of a life-giving spirit, not that he went from some previous state to another state. Yet the latter is the way scholars like to interpret it—indeed, they are forced to do so: their preconceptions about an historical Jesus require them to maintain that Paul is referring to Jesus’ state only after his resurrection, when he had taken on a spiritual body, even if this is not borne out by the text or its context. Jean Héring (1 Corinthians, p.175) is the only commentator I have seen who provides what I suggest is the proper kind of translation:

The first Adam was created to have a living nature, the second Adam to be a life-giving spirit.
This removes any implied reference to the resurrection of Christ. We are thus left with a passage (verses 35-57) which focuses on the resurrection of Christians and what form their raised body will take, and yet one which makes not the slightest glance toward Jesus’ own resurrection—an amazing silence! The scholarly claim that Paul is describing the body Christians will receive in terms of the one possessed by Christ after his resurrection has no foundation in the text.
An Impossible Silence

Paul’s silence on this point is extremely revealing. If by the term “man” Paul were referring to Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure, then such a silence could not be allowed to stand, for it would get Paul into all sorts of difficulties. The recent presence of Christ on earth as an “earthly” man would destroy Paul’s carefully crafted antithesis. Note how he compares Adam and Christ. The main point of contrast is that the first “man”—Adam—is made of earthly material; this material corresponds to the “flesh” which Paul has been discussing in the previous verses (35-44a), where he contrasts earthly bodies of flesh with heavenly bodies, the sun and stars which were regarded as spirit beings or angels. He sums up (verse 44a) by saying that the present “physical” body of the Christian is to be raised as a “spiritual” body, which for him is something completely different in substance from the physical one.

This is the whole point of his discussion, that the spiritual body will be something new and different. His purpose here is to counter those in Corinth who seem to have denied the resurrection of the dead because they could conceive only of the resurrection of the physical body, something Greeks generally rejected as repugnant. Paul is presenting an alternative: the resurrection body will be a spiritual body, modeled on Christ’s own.

But how can he do this? How can he go on to offer the last Adam, Christ, as the prototype for the resurrected body of Christians? For Christ himself, when on earth, would have possessed a body not of heavenly material but of earthly stuff, the same as Adam’s. If Paul’s term “man” as applied to Christ refers to the man Jesus of Nazareth—which most scholars declare it does—this ruins everything, for that man did not possess a spiritual body but one made of the same, physical, material which Christians are now composed of. It would be absolutely necessary for Paul to clarify things. If at no other place in his letters, here he would have to make a clear reference to the historical Jesus. He would have to point out that the “man” he is referring to, the body which this “man” possesses, is not the body he had when he was on earth, the one of dust like Adam’s, but rather the one he now possesses subsequent to his resurrection. A clear reference to the resurrection as producing a change of state would be unavoidable.

Scholars, of course, declare that this is implied. But a mind as precise and comprehensive as Paul’s would not have left this ambiguity hanging in the air, especially when it could have been dealt with in little more than a phrase. He could not have gone on to align earthly beings with the earthly man Adam, and heavenly beings with the heavenly man Christ, and totally ignore one glaring loose end: what was the earthly man Jesus of Nazareth to be related to? How did he fit into this neat, two-compartment picture of things? (I am not, of course, questioning here that Paul believes in Christ’s resurrection, which he refers to often; but neither here nor anywhere else is that resurrection presented as one from an historical human body to a divine heavenly one.)

But more than that. There is something else which Paul could not possibly have ignored, an opportunity he would never have passed up. If Christ is now a “spirit,” possessing purely heavenly stuff, then he provides the perfect illustration for the point Paul is striving to make. For Jesus of Nazareth, from his physical, earthly body passed through resurrection and took on a different spiritual body. Is this not exactly what Paul is contending will happen to his own readers? Why would Paul pass up the ideal analogy in Jesus’ own resurrection?

This also raises a collateral difficulty, but perhaps the reader is already ahead of me. Paul here and elsewhere is stating, adamantly and unambiguously, that human resurrection is to a new state. As he says in verses 50-53: “flesh and blood can never possess the kingdom of God . . . the dead will rise immortal and we shall be changed . . . mortality will be clothed with immortality.” Robin Scroggs (The Last Adam, p.93) is forced to conclude that verses 47-50 “indicate that for the Apostle his Lord rose from the dead in a spiritual body.” What then would Paul make of the Gospel tradition that Jesus rose in the flesh, that he appeared to his disciples in earthly form, and even let Thomas press his fingers into his fleshly side and wound? If Christ (in the scholars’ context of ‘implication’) were to provide a parallel to the fate in store for Christians, a resurrection not into flesh but into spirit, how would Paul deal with this contradiction? How could Jesus serve as a model if his own resurrection experience doesn’t fit Paul’s presentation of things? The very fact—according to the Gospel story—that Jesus had risen from flesh to flesh would present a glaring anomaly with the pattern of resurrection that Paul is setting up in this passage, and would have to be dealt with.

By now, of course, we know that Paul nowhere addresses such complications. By now, the reasoning reader must realize that Paul knows of no bodily resurrection, of no recent physical incarnation, no human Jesus of Nazareth. When Paul wrote, no story of the empty tomb existed; the graphic accounts presented in the Gospels were unknown to him. Scroggs goes on to allow that Paul understood that Christ had appeared to him (the vision described in 1 Corinthians 15:8) in an entirely spiritual form, and that he equated this appearance with the appearances to all the others (the ones described in verses 5-7). Modern critical scholars have recently come to acknowledge that they were all the same (see Supplementary Article No. 6). Scroggs, writing in 1966, contents himself with remarking that “the New Testament church does not agree about the nature of Christ’s resurrection body.”

Paul’s Heavenly Man

We can now go back to 1 Corinthians 15:45-49 and take a fresh look at things. If the last man is a life-giving spirit, the term “man” is obviously being used of a heavenly figure. Since no qualification is put on this to relate it to a previous physical state of this “man” on earth, since there is no addressing of the complications which all that the latter would involve, we are justified in concluding that the concept of a purely “heavenly man” exists for Paul, and that Christ is such a man. Here we also see another Christian thinker (cf. Hebrews 10:5, above) using the term “body” and locating it in the spiritual world, which allows us, by implication, to do the same for terms like “flesh” and “blood.”

Most scholars cannot bring themselves to such plain conclusions. Moffat (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p.258f) fudges Christ’s spiritual body and Paul’s rigid separation between physical and spiritual by offering a far too sophisticated—and modern—reading of Paul’s thought, no doubt wishing to preserve the later Apostles’ Creed declaration that we shall indeed be resurrected in the flesh. Scroggs (op.cit., p.100f) recognizes that Paul calls Christ “man” even though in a spiritual body, and so he is led to define Christ’s heavenly nature as “human,” a prime example of forcing words into so-called meanings which exist only in the minds of those who must engage in this kind of double-think. To justify this by defining “human” as the post-resurrection destiny of human beings after the End, using phrases like “eschatological humanity” and “true man,” could only be done by a theologian. It need hardly be said that Paul himself gives us no hint in the text of all this tortured, implicit meaning.

Paul makes straightforward statements about his heavenly man. As opposed to Adam, who was of earth and made of earthly stuff (“the dust of the earth,” as many translations put it), the second man is “out of heaven” (ex ouranou), meaning he belongs to, or is a product of heaven, just as Adam is “out of earth” (ek gēs). Here again we can see the problem of misleading translations, for if ex ouranou is rendered “from heaven,” implying that Christ came to earth from there, this makes nonsense of the ek gēs, for where did Adam come to “from earth”? No, the preposition in both places (it’s the same one) simply means that each figure belongs to its own sphere. Adam is a part of earth, made of earth (choikos); Christ is a part of heaven, made of heavenly stuff (understood). Scroggs calls it non-corporeal and “like that of the angels.” It is this heavenly stuff which resurrected Christians will take on; they shall bear Christ’s “image,” meaning his nature, as verse 49 states.

One final point: the so-called sequence of “first” and “second/last” is automatically assumed to support an understanding of Christ as a recent historical person. He arrived “second”—in history—in contrast to Adam who was, historically, the first man. If Paul, it is claimed, were reflecting some kind of Primal Man idea, or Platonic concept of prototypic man, Christ would need to be ranked first, before or higher than Adam. Perhaps so, but there is nothing to prevent Paul from coming up with a special ranking for his own purposes, one he can justify. Here Paul’s need is to provide a parallel to the destiny of Christians, to their progression from an earthly body to a spiritual body (verse 46). He may legitimately present Adam and Christ in the order in which these respective “men” had an effect on humanity. At the beginning Adam brought sin and death into the world, but in this present, final age it is the man of heaven who has been revealed, the one who provides salvation from sin and death and a prototype for the resurrection body.

A Man Yet To Come

But there is another, simpler way of regarding Paul’s sequence, one which helps us to define more closely his concept of “heavenly man,” Christ is the heavenly man who will be arriving on earth at the imminent End-time. The other pole of Paul’s “historical” sequence lies in the future. This eschatological meaning Paul points to in his use of the word “last” (eschaton), which he interchanges with “second” (deuteros). In fact, Paul earlier in 1 Corinthians 15 does more than point, he spells it out for us. The action of Christ in bringing resurrection to Christians lies not in the recent past, but in the future, at the Parousia:

As in Adam all men die, so in Christ all will be brought to life; but each in its proper order: Christ the firstfruits [i.e., at his own resurrection, a mythical one] and afterwards, at his coming [the Parousia], those who belong to Christ. [15:22-23]
Now we can see the critical nature of that ambiguity in the texts which is so often given an historical slant when verbs are supplied. Any “coming” from heaven, any “bringing” of resurrection, needs to be placed not in the past, not in any recent life of Jesus of Nazareth, but in the future. When Paul in Romans 5:14 says that “Adam foreshadows the man to come,” (literally, the one coming), he is not speaking of an incarnated Jesus but of the heavenly man (like the Gospel “Son of Man,” though Paul never uses this term) who will arrive at the Parousia to judge, resurrect the righteous and establish God’s Kingdom.
Now, perhaps, we can even allow for some sense of movement “from heaven” in the way Paul describes him, the sense which translators inevitably try to work in. But this is a movement which has not yet occurred. Barrett (First Epistle to the Corinthians, p.376) assumes this eschatological meaning, but then runs up against a glaring silence, which he blithely dismisses with this comment: “It is not part of Paul’s argument here to say that the heavenly man has already come in the form of earthly man.” Unqueried assumptions are a great pacifier, and Barrett has managed to close his mind to the impossibility of Paul making such a statement which makes no allowance, stated or unstated, for any previous “coming” of this eschatological man. Witness also Barrett’s comment on 15:22. Here (p.353) he admits that Paul speaks of neither Adam’s nor Christ’s activities specifically in terms of historical events. Yet: “As Paul knew, this event had happened very recently, and its character as an historical event raised no doubt or problem in his mind.” The ability to read such a mind, and to absolve it of the problems it never had an inkling of, is clearly an invaluable asset in interpreting such passages.

Thus, in the end, Paul’s “heavenly man” may be a relatively simple one to understand, the man essentially of Jewish apocalyptic expectation, though for Paul his Messiah is a divine one. Still, we can sense vibrations from other trends of thought, which undoubtedly fed into Paul’s formulations. Like Philo, Paul’s heavenly man is a resident of the spiritual world and incorporeal, not made of matter. Like the related Platonic concept, he is pre-existent and provides a pattern, the substance of what Christians will become when they are resurrected. Whether other “Primal Man” influences are present is difficult to say. But passages like Romans 8:29 show that Christ for Paul is the prototypic “first-born” of God’s sons (in that ‘chain of generation’), believing Christians being his younger brothers, modeled after the eldest. Finally, as in current Jewish exegetical practice, the heavenly man provides a “type,” though Paul has also placed him at the other pole of the antithesis and makes Adam the “type” for Christ.

Much of all this is simply an intellectual exercise on Paul’s part and no one but the theologian should feel constrained to invest it with some kind of cosmic reality. Paul was a preacher, one who pored over the sacred writings, a deep thinker in the darkness of the night, no doubt. He read things, absorbed influences from the world around him, and constructed his philosophical fantasies according to his needs. In the glaring absence of any identification of his “heavenly man” with the recent earthly Jesus of Nazareth, we are fully entitled to place Paul’s anthrōpos within the larger, contemporary philosophical setting of the time, Jewish and Greek, leavened through his own intellect and faith.

And to conclude that this “man” had nothing to do with an historical Jesus. [1]


Selected Additional Bibliography Not Provided in the Text:

Dillon, John: The Middle Platonists: 80 BC to AD 220, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY (1977)

Randall, J. H.: Hellenistic Ways of Deliverance and the Making of the Christian Synthesis, ch. 7, Columbia University Press, NY (1970)

Murray, Gilbert: Five Stages of Greek Religion, ch. 4

Ringgren, Helmer: Word and Wisdom: Studies in the Hypostatization of Divine Qualities and Functions in the Ancient Near East, p.90f, (1949)

Rankin, O. S.: Israel’s Wisdom Literature, p.236f, (1936)

Eliade, Mircea: Birth and Rebirth; Myth and Reality; The Myth of the Eternal Return

Sanders, J. T.: The New Testament Christological Hymns, p.64-87, Cambridge University Press, London (1971)

Talbert, C. H.: The Myth of the Descending-Ascending Redeemer in Antiquity, NTS 22 (1976), p.418-440

Wedderburn, A. J. M.: Philo’s “Heavenly Man” Nov. Test. (1973)

Hooker, Morna: Philippians 2:6-11, in Jesus und Paulus, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht (1975) p.151-164

Nock, A. D.: Concerning Gods and the Universe (Sallustius, Neoplatonist) Cambridge University Press (1926)

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament:
Vol.II, p.389-396 (eikon)
Vol.III, p.510-11 (ekklesia)
Vol.VIII, p.412f, 470-473 (ho uios tou anthropou)

Plutarch: Isis and Osiris, Loeb Classical Library (1993)

Sallustius: On Gods and the World, 9

Julian: Orations V

Home Page
Further Supplementary Articles:
No. 1: Apollos of Alexandria and the Early Christian Apostolate
No. 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John
No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?
No. 4: The Odes of Solomon
No. 5: Tracing the Christian Lineage in Alexandria
No. 6: The Source of Paul’s Gospel
No. 7: Transfigured on the Holy Mountain: The Beginnings of Christianity
No. 9: A Sacrifice In Heaven: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews
No. 10: Josephus Unbound: Reopening the Josephus Question
No. 11: Revelation: The Gospel According to the Prophet John


This essay has been posted in full here for my personal references for my future writings. Full acknowledgements to its  source. It has been highlighted by me in BOLD and/or italics for easier location and reference. Any observations will be posted from time to time.


[1] The Jesus Puzzle:

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