Paul, Mark, and the Historical Context

I start this with fresh hopes that I will be able to wrap up the epistle in an expedient and succinct manner. However, given that I printed the combined summaries of Chapters 1-14, and it ran to 32 pages of 11-point Times New Roman (single space; double between paragraphs), that’s probably not bloody likely.

First, let me congratulate myself on my instincts for putting 1 Corinthians in between Mark and Matthew. The stuff we learned, especially in Chapter 15, was hugely important for understanding the historical process by which the early followers of Jesus eventually turned into Christians. The sheer amount of incidental historical information, and the inferences that can be drawn from what is said and what is between the lines is nearly staggering. This letter acts as a real historical check on the gospels. Putting the three epistles that we’ve done together with Mark will give us some really keen insight into Matthew. We will, with some degree of certainty, be able to trace how the stories about Jesus the wonder-worker turned into the Good News of the Anointed, the Son of God. Paul has not6 only corroborated that there were different versions of the Jesus story–he told us as much in Galatians–he has given us some idea of what one of these other traditions taught: that there was at least one tradition that did not believe Jesus was raised from the dead. Given this, I think we are probably justified to think that the followers of this tradition did not believe that Jesus was divine. The two beliefs are not necessarily connected, but there is, I believe, a strong probability that there was such a connection.

That there were different traditions makes complete sense. If you’ve ever seen the “Sermon on the Mount” scene from Life Of Brian, you will understand why. Standing at the back of the crowd, what they hear is “blessed are the cheesemakers” and “blessed are the Greeks”. This is, of course, wildly exaggerated for comedic effect, but it’s an exaggeration rather than something made up of whole cloth. Many people heard Jesus; many of these people heard different things from each other. When they told others about what they heard, these secondary recipients heard different things. And so on. Indeed, saying that there were multiple traditions is–at least, it should be–a commonplace; what would be truly remarkable is if there had been only one tradition. And indeed, scholars discuss the traditions that Matthew and Luke received, whereby they got the stories they share that are not in Mark. Of course, the most famous of these is the alleged Q.

Given what Paul told us about the other gospel, at this point I am more or less convinced that my reading of Mark was at least in the ballpark. I won’t claim complete vindication, but I don’t think I was too far off. I do believe that Mark was heir to two (at least) distinct traditions: a wonder-working human Jesus, and a divine son of God who was raised from the dead. In fact, I more than believe this since Paul has corroborated that there was a strand, a tradition, a group of followers that did not accept Jesus as divine. They did not accept that Jesus had been raised from the dead. I think that’s pretty much beyond argument, let alone doubt. Now, it is a leap to say that this is what the first part of Mark, the Wonder Worker Story (WWS) represents, or to claim that the WWS tradition was identical to the group that didn’t believe Jesus was raised from the dead. But I would hazard to guess that the many who ascribed to the former also ascribed to the latter. The two feel more like two sides of a coin than like separate beliefs. But again, go back to the multiple threads. No doubt that there were different permutations of the same beliefs. For example, think about what Paul says about baptism in 1 Corinthians. It seems like it was not something he fully supported. But given its fully Jewish provenance, James and Cephas and perhaps Apollos did believe this. But James and Cephas agreed with Paul on the resurrection. At least, we can, I think, infer this as a possibility since they all saw the risen Jesus. Given the animosity Paul has for Apollos, I wonder if he was one of the nonbelievers. Again given that Apollos disappears from the rest of the NT, this seems distinctly possible, since he was on the wrong side of history. But it is only an inference.

Paul tells us a good deal about the situation in Corinth in his lifetime.

In the same way, I believe we are justified in reading the second part of Mark as the Christ section; however, we cannot simply assume that it came to Mark by way of Paul. That is, we cannot be sure that Paul stood at the font of the Christ tradition that came down to Mark. We do not know a) where Paul got this tradition (or even if he was the originator); or b) the chain of transmission by which it came to Mark. Much has been made that Mark was not writing in Judea/Palestine; if he were a member of an expatriate Jewish family, he could have picked up Paul’s tradition from one of the Communities Paul established, or nurtured. Or he could have picked it up from someone else, like Cephas or Apollos. Or perhaps one of James’ apostles, who were possibly heirs to both traditions. We don’t know and we can’t know, barring additional evidence.

One thing that needs to be mentioned. I tend to suspect that the Christ tradition originated outside Judea. Why? Stop and think for a moment. The WW stories do not accept Jesus as divine, and do not accept that he was the Messiah. That is pretty much the definition of what separates Christians from Jews to this day. We have noticed several points at which the story has taken on elements that more likely came from a pagan rather than a Jewish background. The first is the idea of a son of god walking the earth, who then (second) becomes a dying and rising god. The idea of a son of god would have been immediately understandable to a Graeco-Roman pagan; Alexander the Great was one, too. Also, the dichotomy between flesh and spirit is very Greek.  There are others, but these are perhaps the three major ones; rather, I think these are the most significant. These Graeco-Roman ideas meant that it would not have been necessary for pagans to overcome the aversion to a divine man and a dying and rising god that was felt by the Jews. In light of this, those passages in Mark in which Jesus tells the disciples to keep his identity a secret truly start to make sense. They are intended to explain why Jesus had not been accepted as the Christ in Judea; at least, this seems a likely possibility. On the one hand, Jesus is preaching about the kingdom; OTOH, he’s telling his followers to keep his identity a secret. That is rather odd behaviour for someone who is talking about a kingdom to come.

There are many other themes in the letter, which provide really good insight into what, exactly, Paul believed, and what he taught his community to believe. In this line, I think that commentators and scholars often overlook the level of pastoral guidance that occurs in this letter. I was not aware of it. Paul is a de facto bishop, carrying out the duties of later bishops; but Paul was doing it before the term had been invented, or the need for such “overseers” had been understood.

At this point there are two issues that require attention. The first is the summary of the topics covered in the chapter. There are a lot of them. My commentary on Chapters 1-14 ran to 32 pages of 11-point Times New Roman, single-spaced with an extra line between paragraphs. The comment to Chapter 15 required three installments.  The other issue is more subtle, but probably more important, if less tangible. That is the assessment of how the information contained in this letter fits in with Mark and the other letters, and the clues it provides about the status of Jesus’ followers in the first few decades after his death. We will begin by dealing with the first aspect.

I prefer to take the subjects in order of importance rather than sequentially by chapter. Hands down, without a doubt, far and away the most significant topic in this chapter was the statement about followers who denied the resurrection of Jesus. However, since we have discussed this very extensively—if perhaps not adequately—in the summary to Chapter 15, I won’t follow up on that here. It’s only now that I look back that I realize that, by volume or length, the two topics that take up most of the letter are what can be lumped as proper behavior—with emphasis on sexual morality—and the topic of eating food sacrificed to idols.

Behavior gets the lion’s share, and sexual morality gets the lion’s share of that. There was nothing in Mark like this, in the sense of a protracted or extended discourse. Paul goes on—and on—at length. Sexual morality is a very, very big deal for him, to the point that I feel somewhat vindicated in my hypothesis that much of “Christian” morality is, in fact, “Paulist” morality. He is especially harsh on anything that can be described as homosexual practice. As such, he has had an enormous impact on subsequent history, and to this day we are still working out and divided by Paul’s strictures on this topic. I don’t propose to discuss this from a moral standpoint, but the historical context is very important. I made this point in the chapter summaries, that the Hebrews had the herder’s aversion to agricultural fertility rites, which generally included—or were centered on—what Christians would consider promiscuous sex. The idea was to procreate, for the same reason that farm families have a lot of kids: the more kids, the more land one can cultivate, and farming is very amenable to economies of scale. Indeed, this is part of the revelry of “carnivale”, something that the church in the later middle ages fought tooth and nail, and which was only, finally, squelched after the Reformation. The Hebrews had reacted against such rites among the Canaanites, and Paul reacted against such practice by the (upper-class) Greeks and Romans.

But sexual morality is a means; it’s not the end. The end is salvation. Paul says that sexual morality—and other types of morality—are the key to salvation, or to the kingdom; neither ‘of heaven’ nor ‘of God’ are appended to the term. And, given this in conjunction with the need to be sacred on the day of the lord, we are justified in doing a little reasoning based on the transitive property of equality. If a=b, and b=c, then a=c. We are told that drunkards and other practitioners of moral turpitude will not gain the kingdom. In other places, we are told that we need to be pure for the day of the lord—IOW, the Parousia. As such, since morality is the middle term—the ‘b’ of our identity–I believe we are safe in the inference that the day of the lord, the kingdom, and salvation are all the same thing.

Being honest, I am a bit surprised by how implicit all of this is. The central teaching of Christianity is, in my experience, the idea that we live a good life and we receive a reward of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven. And yet, none of this is spelled out explicitly. At least, it’s not spelled out in a single, coherent, unified narrative set down in a single place. We have had to piece it together, Now, the failing may be mine; I may be the victim of overheated expectations. Perhaps I should have known better; the point remains, however. Now, a perfectly plausible explanation for this lack of coherence immediately presents itself: Paul was writing a letter to deal with real-world problems faced by a real community. As such, he really wasn’t taking the time to set out a theological position in what was essentially a pastoral letter that was intended to solve the community’s problems. An eminently plausible explanation.

But what about Mark? It is arguable that Mark’s intent was to provide the proto-Christian story, complete with all the details. This would explain why he chose to use what we now call the gospel format, sort of an enriched biography. It includes the figure of Jesus, something Paul doesn’t do. Does Mark set out the salvation narrative any better than Paul? Not really. There are bits and pieces scattered about, but nothing resembling a unitary, coherent, or deliberate narrative description of the idea of salvation. It’s all very jumbled together, much like it is here, with references to the kingdom, or to salvation, or eternal life, or perhaps the Life. Mark’s treatment, in turn, should make us wonder about Matthew’s treatment. How will his explanation of the process of salvation be handled? Will it be more straightforward? If so, I would suggest that this would be a major prop for the argument of Markan priority of the gospels. This is, admittedly, the general consensus, the majority opinion, and I feel very strongly that it is accurate. As I’v said, legends grow, they do not shrink or become condensed. That this is the majority opinion doesn’t necessarily make me feel more secure, since the majority opinion believes in Q, a belief I do not share.

There is one other very interesting aspect of the salvation doctrine. Think back to 1 Thessalonians 4, where Paul tells us that the faithful in the Christ will be raised up into the air to meet the lord coming down from…on high. This sounds something like a mass assumption, using the term used by the Roman teaching of the assumption of the BVM. If one reads this carefully, it becomes apparent that Paul expects this to happen to the faithful while they are still alive. This is not a teaching about an afterlife. The proof–and I use that term in its most definitive sense–of this is Paul’s explanation that those who have already died will not be excluded. Rather, they will precede the living when the trumpet sounds. This is very important. If the faithful are to be assumed heavenward while alive, there is no need for the resurrection of the body. The body will still be alive when taken up to the Christ. What this means is that Paul’s insistence on the resurrection of the body was something that only came about later.  The Community of Thessalonika, apparently, had concerns about this. Paul wrote an answer to assuage those concerns. He did this by positing the resurrection of the physical body. Perhaps he did not mean this as a general doctrine, but the passage of time only increased the necessity for this teaching. More people died. Paul is still writing at a time when a considerable number of people who had seen Jesus were still alive, but that number was steadily dwindling. This made a resurrection of the body ever-more imperative. But it was not part of the original teaching of Jesus or any of his followers.

One of the possible implications of the idea of the physical assumption is the actual meaning of the word ‘saved’. We have discussed this; the root sense of the word ‘to save‘ is the preservation of the physical body. “To save one’s life” in a literal sense. If the body is to be taken up, then its preservation becomes a very important concern. So, early on, we are not talking about a disembodied spirit, or soul, going to its reward; we are talking about a body. And think of it this way: while we are talking about eternal life as a reward, the whole idea of eternal punishment of any sort is very sketchy. In fact, it has so far been nonexistent in Paul, and was only mentioned once or twice, very much in passing, very much in an offhand manner, in Mark. Perhaps the idea was that the body was saved as a reward for faith, but the bodies of those who were not faithful decayed in the ground. Hence, the talk about ‘being saved’; hence the talk about ‘being saved’ means saving the body so it could be taken up physically to…wherever it was going. We have not seen any sort of description of ‘heaven’. That does not come into being, biblically, until the Book of Revelation. That was written several generations after Paul, or even after the evangelists. Again, this will be an important them to note as we read Matthew.

The idea of an immediate Parousia, of the coming of the kingdom, of course, has tremendous implications for what Jesus actually taught. At this moment, it feels an awful lot like decisive proof–again in the strict sense of the word–that Jesus did preach an end-time that would come, and very soon.

Or, the other possibility is that Jesus taught no such thing at all, but that this is something that grew up later. I introduce this right now as a logical position rather than as a position or a case that I can argue. It is possible that Jesus spoke of the coming kingdom in very metaphorical terms, like the “prophecies” in Daniel, but that his followers–like, well, Paul–took this a step further. “Have I not seen the Lord?” he asks in 9:1. This was discussed in one of the summaries to Chapter 15, so I won’t belabor the point. In fact, let’s leave all this pending future evidence.

As for the topic of eating food sacrificed to idols, while this consumes a significant section of the chapter, thematically it doesn’t really require too much discussion in summary. This is sort of the flip-side of the discussion in Galatians. There, the discussion was about how far one has to go to accommodate Jewish practice’ here, it’s a question of how far one can go to accommodate pagans. Personally. I believe that Paul came up with a measured and very sensible response on this question. It’s not the food that matters; it’s the company. In particular, it’s the company of idols. My last HS religion teacher once told me “Roll in the mud, some of it’s going to stick”. And I think that is more or less what Paul had in mind. If someone has joined the Jesus Community, leave the old way of life behind. That is psychologically sound advice.

It is eating of another kind that we turn to next. This letter provides some really interesting information about the Lordly Supper, the Last Supper. The treatment here is a bit…confusing, or perhaps internally inconsistent would be the better description. It appears that the Corinthians are treating this like a meal, a full meal. And this is causing problems within the Community because the wealthier members are dining, while the poorer members are going hungry. From what Paul says, it seems that people are bringing there own food into the communal worship, or dining area? I end that with a question mark because the process and logistics are not entirely clear. I infer that the meal is certainly not prepared communally, or there would likely not be a problem. But there is a problem, and it’s another source of division in the Community. But then later, Paul reminds the Corinthians that he had ‘handed over’ the tradition directly from the Lord. He then sets out the words that Catholics and Episcopalians (at least; these are the only two I’m familiar enough with to speak to directly) are accustomed to hear during the part of the mass known as, IIRC, the Consecration.

There are two problems. First, if Paul gave them the tradition he received from the Lord, then why did the Community stop following Paul’s guidelines, and start following this other practice, in which the members eat an actual meal. Is this part of the ‘other gospel’ that Apollonius was preaching? Is this something from Cephas? The question is, in short, which of these two practices are authentic? Or, are either of them authentic? Now, Paul tells us that he received the tradition ‘from the Lord’. But, since he never met Jesus, he could not have gotten it directly from Jesus. He could have been told about it by Cephas, or someone who was there. But that is not ‘from the Lord’, but comes by way of human agency, and he claims he did not receive his instruction from any mortal. This is the third or fourth time that Paul says he got something from Jesus; in 9:1 he asks, “Have I not seen the Lord?”

This was also part of the discussion about Chapter 15. Paul is very willing to use Jesus–or, more properly, the Lord, or the Christ–as his source for all his teaching. That is another way of saying that Paul taught by divine inspiration. By revelation. This is not the sort of transmission of knowledge that an historian can recognize. In such a case, the historical judgement has to be that the words Paul sets down in the letter are not words that Jesus spoke. I came to the same conclusion when we encountered Mark’s version of these words. They are the words of someone who knew what was about to happen; they are prophetic. From the historian’s point of view, that pretty much means they were written after the fact. But when? Also, I was reading a piece by James Tabor, and he pointed out that the idea of ‘drinking blood’ is wholly contrary to Jewish dietary practice. In fact, part of what makes meat kosher is that the blood has been drained out. So in his opinion, it doesn’t make sense that Jesus would tell his disciples to ‘drink his blood’.

Which brings us to the second problem with all of this. From the way this is written, does anyone else get the impression that Paul is imparting these words for the first time? I believe they have that feel. Now, as an historical argument, that is–as my first year Latin prof used to say–absolutely risible. [ from the Latin, rideo, ridere, risi, risum, to laugh, so it’s “laughable” ] But think about it: if this is what he implemented, why does he need to repeat the whole process? I mean, sure, it makes sense that he would write it out so that they have it and can use it. I suppose. Because what we have to understand here is that Paul is talking about having the Corinthians celebrate a symbolic meal, rather than a real one. We have to ask ourselves, which practice is more in keeping with the mores of the times? Back then, sharing a ritual meal was part of a lot of pagan cult. When Jews have a Seder, it’s an actual meal; there are symbolic trappings, but it’s a real meal. Given these two things, doesn’t it make more sense that the symbolic meal was the innovation? And let’s recall that we began this part of the discussion with the topic of idol meat; is it a coincidence that Paul is providing instructions on a symbolic meal in the same breath as he’s discouraging the actual meal of a pagan sacrifice?

There is one other theme that deserves mention. This is Paul’s use of the body metaphor to explain how all members of the Community have a role to play, and all are equally important. Paul delineates some of the various gifts different members may have: speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, and prophecy, to name a few. Interestingly, prophecy does not seem to be a particularly awe-inspiring gift. The point is that this was a remarkably progressive attitude for his time. It’s remarkable enough for our time, when money and status still make some people more equal than others.  And I would be remiss if I did not mention the famous passage about Love. As mentioned, “agape” is not a word used by Classical–or secular–authors. Paul has introduced a new concept of Love into the world, and he spends several paragraphs describing what this new love is like. This is justifiably one of the most famous (the most?) passages in all of the Pauline corpus, a staple at weddings. While the love between two people committing themselves to each other for life is not exactly what Paul had in mind, his definition of “agape” is broad enough to include this love, so this passage very much belongs in a wedding ceremony.  The combination of this new definition of love, and the idea of a single body of believers, represent a spectacular innovation into the thought world of the World. These two concepts, which are arguably two facets of the same idea, is truly original thinking, a truly novel idea, a very important step forward in human thinking and belief.

To sum, here is a partial list of the topics discussed:

  • Not a big proponent of baptism
  • Divisions within the Community
  • Rivalry with Apollos
  • Sexual immorality, and the need to be pure to enter the kingdom
  • Food sacrificed to idols
  • The Last Supper, and the change to a symbolic meal
  • Paul’s willingness to speak on his own authority, sometimes claiming it was a revelation directly from the Lord
  • Multiple gospels; one includes the belief that Jesus was not raised from the dead
  • The adoption of pagan ideas about a god on earth
  • Apostles have a right (lit = ‘power’) to claim support from the Community. Is this the basis of the sending out of the apostles in Mark?
  • Paul (unconsciously) posits a distinction between Jesus and God
  • Marriage, of a follower to a pagan; Paul takes it upon himself to say it’s acceptable
  • Women are to keep their heads covered and their mouth shut during worship; not what we would call progressive, but it is a rather harsh reminder of the times
  • The Resurrection Body

There are others, but I believe this gets to the most of them.

And at long last, let us turn to Matthew.

About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on September 17, 2014, in 1 Corinthians, epistles, General / Overview, gospel commentary, Historical Jesus, Paul's Letters, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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