But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, 'We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'

-Matthew 11:16-17


Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.

-Luke 6:21

I am big; I am small; I contradict myself'

- Walt Whitman


Monday, August 16, 2010

Through the Galatians Darkly

I have long held that if the genuine Pauline epistles were all had to go by in assessing the early Christianity, some amazing things would probably be easily agreed to by most students of the first Jesus movements. For example, it seems clear not only that Paul was the only apostolic figure who preached the crucified Christ, but also that he believed Jesus to be Christ precisely because he was crucified. In other words, it seems that the Nazarene missions of James initially did not think of Jesus as Messiah at all, precisely because Christ crucified would have been an obstacle(σκανδαλον) to them, just as he was to the other Jews.'

Galatians is a case in point. Paul claimed that his was the only true gospel, and cursed those who preached to his flock something other than he did (Gal 1:7-8). That he meant specifically missions from Jerusalem in which Cephas figured prominently, of that there is little doubt. Mind you, there is a number of exegetical theories arguing that Paul opponents were really not Jerusalem missionaries but home-grown Judaizing Christians, spiritualists or gnostics, but most scholars would not be swayed by exegesis of stand-alone passages or verses, around which these theories seem to be spun (e.g. W.Luetgert, J. Munck, J.Tyson, W. Schmithals). But, to my mind, the text is emphatic that Paul’s rivals come from Jerusalem or rely on the authority of its assembly. Paul’s poetic association of Sarah and Isaac with Jerusalem above (4:26) cannot be meaningful if the missions from James’ earthly abode are not referenced by it. Similarly, in 5:10, the ‘whoever he (the malefactor) may be’ (οστις εαν η) , would have no impact if the judgment were not invoked for an individual or corporate authority.

But if Paul had a deep, unbridgeable difference with the Nazarenes, why would he insist on collecting money and goods for their saints around the Mediterranean ? There are two answers to that, I believe. The shorter one is, ‘Jesus Christ’, the longer ‘Paul’s psychology’. Let us look at Paul’s motives of going to Jerusalem in the first place, and the structure of the Jerusalem church as it is revealed to us by the epistle to the Galatians.

How many times was Paul in Jerusalem ?

Galatians records two visits of apostle Paul to Jerusalem. As I have hinted in the previous blog (Paul’s Conversion – 9/8/2010), the first journey in 1:18-24 looks doubtful. It appears that Tertullian, in Adversus Marcionem (5.3.1) had no knowledge of the first visit. He refered to Gal 2.1 saying [Paul] writes that after fourteen years he went up to Jerusalem, to seek the support of Peter and the rest of the apostles, to confer with them concerning the content of his gospel, for fear lest for all those years he had run, or was still running, in vain—meaning, if he was preaching the gospel in any form
inconsistent with theirs.
Similarly, Irenaeus alluded to the same verse in Adversus Haereses (3.13.3) without the adverb ‘again’. (This relies on H.Detering’s Latin text of Irenaeus, which misses ‘iterum’ in the verse. www.hermann-detering.de/DetGalExpl.pdf). In the case of Tertullian, the failure to cite the omission as an example of Marcion’s ‘mutilating’ the Pauline text is surprising, as he evidently knew a version of Galatians which contained 1:18-24 (1:21 possibly excepted) and quoted from it (ref. to 1:18, 1:24 in Prescription Against Heretics, XXIII.). Among the possible explanations, the one which would be fair to Tertullian is that The Prescription was written after a critique of Marcion (against the Chronology of bishop Kaye).

Apart from the likely textual witness, there is a truly mind-boggling failure of the NT exegesis to observe that Paul on his second visit has no reference to Cephas and James from the first visit. In Gal 2.2, Paul avers he went by revelation to lay his gospel privately (ιδιαν) before those who ‘seemed to be leaders’, or ‘those of repute’ (τοις δοκουσιν). But that does not make sense, does it ? Paul had a revelation, but could not connect it to Cephas and James, whom he ostensibly met eleven years prior, and who he then should know himself were the leaders of the church, i.e. the persons with whom to do business in Zion. Instead, Paul wrote this verse as though he anticipated the outcome of his visit (no doubt to fulfil the revelation), i.e. getting to talk to people who were going to be pointed to him as having some - undetermined - influence in the church. In other words, the fact that Paul had to rely on directions from casual informants to get to talk to James, Cephas and John, belies most decidedly any previous personal contact with the Jerusalem assembly.

Therefore, I discount the report of the first visit which appears motivated by a desire to show that Paul had a much earlier dealings with the church, made perhaps to harmonize his own writing with the legends of Paul in the Acts, where he is a frequent visitor to Jerusalem (chapters 9, 11 , 15, 18 ,21).

The tale of two James’es

Let us now turn our attention to the structure of the Jerusalem community as it is revealed through Paul’s writing. It is interesting that Paul was to meet James, the Lord’s brother, during his first journey to Jerusalem (Gal 1:19). I say that in consideration of the use of the title, which stands in sharp contrast to Paul describing seemingly the same person later as simply one of those who 'seemed to be pillars'. We do have Paul referring to brothers of the Lord elsewhere (1 Cr 9:5) so the appellation existed in his time. The question whether it meant a designation of kinship to the Nazarene Jesus, or whether it denoted some liturgical function, seems to be a rhetorical one, since one cannot presume the use of non-titular Lord to denote kinship to a human – now matter how venerable - among Jews who worshipped in the Temple. The term 'brothers of the Lord' appears to be a cultic designation, akin perhaps to les Templiers, the abbreviation of Les chevaliers du Temple, whose actual full title was Le pauvres chevaliers du Christ et du temple de Salomon à Jerusalem. In analogy, the brothers of the Lord, were likely a truncated familiar version of a title, nonetheless one of respect. One possible full title that comes to mind is οι αδελφοι εν τη διακονια του κυριου, brothers in the service of the Lord.

Irrespective of the authenticity of Gal 1:18-24, and the appellation in 1:19 belonging to him, James the Just was venerated by the community. One glimpse of the unparalleled respect he commanded as the leader of the Jerusalem community of saints is provided by the Gospel of Thomas :

Jesus said to them, "Wherever you are, you are to go to James the Righteous, for whose sake heaven and earth come into being." GoT(12)

This saying predates the death of James (62 CE) as the instruction would serve no purpose after he was gone. Other notable witness of James the Just, the cameo by Hegesippus in Eusebius’ Church History, also describes him is a saintly ascetic man who by all appearances was peerless. One could safely assume that a community which apprehended its leader on those terms would not likely proclaim him as a part of ‘collective leadership’ or tolerate the profaning of his name. This of course prefigures the assessment that James the Just was one of the ‘so-called pillars’ whom Paul met but who added ‘nothing’ to Paul’s stature as apostle. If that were true – i.e. if Paul went to Jerusalem by revelation and achieved what he sought to achieve, i.e. acceptance of himself as bona fide apostle by the highest authority in Jerusalem, why the bitter, disrespectful tone in Paul’s writing ? In the next verse after the identity of Paul’s interlocutors was revealed (2:10), they urged Paul and his co-workers ‘to remember the poor’, the very thing that was on Paul’s mind. Some exegets, notably J.D.G. Dunn, read the aorist active infinitive (ποιησαι) as indication that Paul has already delivered on this intent, however that instantly obscures the function of the pillars’ reminder. I would stand by the standard translation. Who are these poor ? I dare to presume that they are the ‘poor saints’ that Paul provisions in Rom 15:26. Herein, a big surprise !

In my reading of Galatians Paul went to Jerusalem for the first time after fourteen years from his conversion. The number of years coincides with the time of writing sections of 2 Corinthians, (2 Cr 12:2) which are overwhelmed by Paul’s concern for his apostolic status. It appears Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, and offer James the Just his material support for his recognition of him as fully approved apostle of the church. However, he did not make it past the initial screening, because his doctrine of the Law fulfilment in Jesus Christ was judged completely unacceptable (Gal 2:4-5). Paul was instead handled by the three pillars of the church material support (Cephas and the Zebedees), i.e. its missionaries, who themselves travelled and collected money for the poor saints. With them he would have made a deal for his mission to the Gentiles (which was perhaps not as exclusive as Paul made it sound). It appears that there was some promise (or belief of Paul that such promise was made) on behalf of the three, to intercede on behalf of Paul with the church leaders to grant him an audition. This is what I believe can be gleaned from Rom 15:31.

Very well then, when Gal 2:9-10 are cross-referenced with Rom 15:26, 28, 31, a very interesting picture emerges. One, the James of the pillars is not James the Just. Two, the ‘seeming pillars’ do not belong tp the Jerusalem saints. Paul speaks of the pillars (and the Judaizers, in general) in a disrespectful, off-handed manner (no doubt coloured by what happened later), which would hardly be possible to deploy in reference to James the Just. At the same time, he deems it important to record the request of his interlocutors for material support, which again Paul dismisses as superfluous because he himself intended to support the third party, identified as ‘οι πτωχοι’ in Galatians (2:10), and ‘οι πτωχοι των αγιων των εν Ιερουσαλημ’ in Romans (15:26). I much prefer the straightforward translation of the Romans’ double partitive by William Barlow in KJV (independently supported by Luther, Calvin and Blahoslav of the Czech Bible of Kralice) which renders the Greek as ‘poor saints (which are) at Jerusalem’.

At any rate, James, Cephas, and John asked Paul for the support of the saints, from which they are excluded by the context. In Paul’s letters the term saint denotes purity and freedom from sin. The Judaizers themselves do not keep the law – hence the charge of hypocrisy against Cephas and his mission at Antioch. But it is hardly credible that Paul meant to include James the Just himself was an impious law-breaker, who wanted to glory in the Galatians’ flesh. So, if Paul wanted to collect for James and his poor saints, it may be safely assumed they were not among those against whom he riles. Paul needed the acceptance of James the Just to silence his detractors, and as it is apparent from Galatians, the missions from Jerusalem formed a big part of that problem.

What is on the other side of the ledger ? Could James the Zebedee have been still around for Paul to meet ? I am frankly surprised at the degree of consensus that exists among NT scholars on the identity of James in 2:9, given that the only historical markers here come from the Acts in which the execution of James the Zebedee (12:1) precedes the ‘conference’ (15:4-29), the latter which does not track with Galatians at all. But in fact, there are echos of Gal 2 all over Acts 11, including Peter’s following orders from above to break kashrut, men coming from Jerusalem to Antioch, and Paul with Barnabas going to Jerusalem, though not with just a promise of aid but delivering it. The objection then has more to do with traditional beliefs of Paul connecting with the highest echelons of the Jerusalem hierarchy, than anything that could be described as historical evidence for it.

However in reality, not just Paul but the 'pillars' themselves did not figure as the church top leaders. Their being on top surely looks like a part of the myth of self-foundation of the Christian church in Jerusalem as proclaimed by the Acts. But as we shall see (in one of the future blogs) there is another, much more realistic scenario of the Jesus cult beginnings in Jerusalem. James the Just’s assembly acted as the shelter and protector for a variety of messianic and apocalyptic cults. Jesus’ entourage was adopted into the church and sent to proclaim Jesus as the prophet of last days. The pillars were Jesus missionaries of James. Similarly, there were disciples and missions of John the Baptists in the assembly and in the Diaspora. It is only later, after the first Jewish war, when Christianity consolidated outside of Palestine, that the church of James began to be portrayed exclusively as ‘Christian’ church, and James the Just as Jesus’ brother. Figures like Cephas and the Zebedees rose in prominence as chief figures of James’ assembly, eventually displacing him in importance as the gospels came to be written with the focus shifting exclusively on the Nazarene Jesus.

But Paul tells us something else: the pillars urged him to support the poor saints, a body of venerated church sages to which they evidently did not belong themselves. That Cephas, specifically, ranked much lower than James the Just is also apparent from the incident at Antioch. He ate with the Gentiles until certain men came ‘from James’. Then he quickly distanced himself. Cephas could be thought of as a high-ranking church dignitary, if he were not a member of mammalian species where males are organized in functional hierarchies. At issue here is his yielding to members who presumably were of lower ranking than he on fear that a faction within the church (the circumcision party) would have prevailed in a showdown before James. It is hard to grasp that Cephas, an established leader within the church and a former confidante of Jesus would have not have a standing that would protect him from petty tyrannies of subordinates. If the organization was built as a memorial cult of the Nazarene Jesus, and he was on record saying things like ‘nothing a man eats can defile him’ (Mk 7:15), Cephas would have been well within his rights to eat whatever he pleased, even before the Holy Spirit told him so on the roof of a house in Joffa. It appears then, that if Cephas changed his behaviour at a mere sight of men coming who had audience with James, then James was a highly dominant figure over him and an undisputed head of an assembly which was built on different values than Cephas was accustomed to. The incident is best explained by his conforming to expectations established wholly outside of his assigned competence. His craven retreat from the Gentile dining halls also explains why Paul did not have to bother to distinguish between James ‘the pillar’ (in 2:9), and James the Just (in 2:12). James the Just was a name that presumably needed no introduction in the circles that Paul moved. His authority was understood by all who had association with the sectaries.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Paul's Conversion

Only a few of the stories in the gospels and Acts can compete for high drama with the ambush of Saul by Jesus on the road to Damascus. Saul, ‘still breathing threats and murder’, receives commission from the high priest in Jerusalem to arrest Jesus followers in Damascus (Acts 9). As he and his party draw near their destination, a flash from heaven knocks Saul rudely to the ground with a public audio feed demanding to know why Saul is persecuting the assaulting party. (In the repeat of the story in chapters 22 and 26 it is the video that goes public and the audio only feeds to Saul). The voice identifies itself to Saul as 'Jesus whom you are persecuting', and instructs him to enter the city and wait for further instructions. To assure Saul’s compliance, and underline the Risen One’s displeasure with his adversary’s persecutory lust, Saul is blinded, and made unable to feed or hydrate himself. Given what Jesus later tells the reluctant healer Ananias (9:15), it is clear that Saul (soon to be renamed to Paul) is pressed into service under duress, and with no real options.

The tale of Paul’s conversion in Acts is most likely Luke’s invention. It has a Lukan signature prominently displayed also in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), the disembowelling of Judas' (Acts 1:18-19) and in Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-5:11), namely – as I have already hinted above - persecutory lust. I see no other motive for telling such stories than Luke’s rather exquisitely sadistic relish in justice. Be it as it may: Paul’s encounter of the unpleasant kind on the road to Damascus has sunk deep as Christian lore, and remains firmly planted in the minds of not only the regular church-goers but also the most sophisticated theologians.

In their Search for Paul, J.D.Crossan and Johanthan L.Reed, more or less take the Damascus incident for granted. They operate on the unquestioned premise (one supplied by Luke with no real support of contemporary sources) that the church of James the Just proclaimed the Nazarene Jesus as Messiah, and that Paul opposed the apostles violently for reasons unknown. The authors state that the account of Acts agree with Paul (Gal 1:17) in that Damascus was the inaugural apparition, revelation, conversion and vocation for Paul. Unfortunately, this noble effort at harmonization will not work. Not only Gal 1:15-17 does not in any way support the Acts story, it blatantly contradicts Luke :

But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus (εις Ἀραβιαν και παλιν υπεστρεψα εις Δαμασκον ).

Paul knows nothing about a mission to Damascus to round up Jesus believers. He receives his commission directly from God, does not consult with any man, and goes first to Arabia (Nabataea) and then returns (!) to Damascus. Further, and that I hold is of crucial importance in assessing Paul’s change of heart, he does not experience his revelation of Christ in the first instance as a hugely dysphoric, expiatory ordeal. Paul is called by God, through his grace (δια της χαριτος αυτου). That does not square with Luke’s account of heavenly Jesus robbing Saul of joie de vivre as a first thing in the process of introducing himself as a loving deity to the Gentiles. It is curious how even highly respected exegets miss on such important details in attempts to align the texts. Not all of them, of course. E.P. Sanders e.g. (Paul, Oxford 1993) states plainly that the Galatians 1:15-17 flatly contradicts Luke’s tale. But not so one of the leading Pauline scholars of the day, J.D.G. Dunn. He sees 'the three Acts accounts' as confirming what Paul himself says : God revealed his Son in him, in order that he might preach him among Gentiles. Dunn believes that Paul’s gospel was 'shared' with Jerusalem (J.D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1998, p.178). The problem, if not quite the devil, however is in the details.

Did Paul Persecute the Church ?

I am not altogether convinced Paul persecuted the church. For one, a singular church of Christ (that thought of itself that way) did not yet exist. Also, the verses in the genuine Paulines in which Paul admits to persecuting ‘the church of God’ unfortunately all appear in passages of dubious authenticity (1 Cr 15:9, Gal 1:13, 1:23, Phl 3:6). They bear marks of later heavy-handed attempts to make Paul look like an apostolic figure converted to Christ through the confluence of personal revelation and the agency of the church as it developed later. But the mechanics of the conversion as shown in Acts look contrived and false. Paul received the Holy Spirit from God and not through church ordination (9:17). Paul had absolute certainty about his commission, and its provenance and it was not dependent on men in the least. Galatians, especially speak to Paul’s independence from Jerusalem. True, Paul went to Jerusalem but clearly it was to seek approval for his doctrine and the confirmation of his apostolic status, not to be tutored (Gal 1:17, 2:2).

The two passages in Gal 1 which mention Paul’s persecution (13-14, 18-24) look suspicious: the first breaks Paul’s expose of his credentials, uses a word not known elsewhere in the corpus (ιουδαισμος), and asserts he persecuted the church ‘excessively’ or ‘violently’ (καθ’ υπερβολην) trying to destroy it. The remarks, although not unbelievable in themselves, simply do not fit in the context. The digression to Paul’e pre-conversion status seems contrived, as is the church in singular (εκκλησια) coupled with the vehemence of Paul’s pursuit. The verses protest too much. There are similar issues with the other passage, the one dealing with Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem. Paul goes there to ‘acquaint himself’ (ιστορεω) with Peter. This again is a strange hapax legomenon, as is the classing of Cephas, as an apostle, contra 1 Cr 9:5 and 1 Cr 15:5. The ου ψευδομαι oath in 1:20 only heightens the suspicions arising from Tertullian and Irenaeus, both apparently knowing a text of Galatians that lacked the mention of Paul’s first visit. The biggest issue that I see with the 1:18-24 passage however is that Paul on the second visit does not seem to know himself who to contact in Jerusalem and relies on forward references from the church. He ends up with three functionaries of the church 'reputed to be pillars' (οι δοκουντες στυλοι). It strikes me frankly as incredible that Paul, having spent a fortnight with Cephas some time previous and naming him an apostle (by logical implication, 1:19) would not go to him directly as a known leader of the highest ranking. Surely, the grace given to Paul that Paul said Cephas thought worthy of fellowship, would not have had to wait eleven years after the two men first set sights on each other.

Paradoxically, it seems to be the epistle to the Galatians outside of these passages which suggests the likely origin of the legend that Paul persecuted the church of the Nazarenes. The tone of the letter is uncompromising: it is either Paul’s gospel or the flames of hell:

…not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. Gal 1:7-8
I have confidence that you will take no other view than mine and he who is troubling you will bear his judgment …I wish those who unsettle would mutilate themselves Gal 5:10-12

There seems to be a gentlemanly agreement among the learned exegets not to take Paul’s hostile outbursts and curses lobbied in the direction of the James’ missions on their face value. Most of the NT scholarship subscribes to the view that there was one mother church for all Jesus believers established by the mass baptism on the Pentecost (or a silent agreement among the disciples) shortly after Jesus was crucified. All looked to Jerusalem whence Jesus was preached as Christ. In these scholarly circles Paul’s apostolic agony tends to be discounted as a minor skirmish over observances. In my reading of Galatians, however, the issue central to Paul is his teaching of the crucified Messiah, which concept was alien to the Nazarenes in Paul’s time. They believed in Yeshua as an apostle of the last days, killed by lawless Gentiles and their temple priest collaborators (Acts 2:23, interpolated 1 Th 2:14-15). Jesus entourage was subsequently absorbed into a pre-existing congregation of James the Just whose assembly likely sheltered heterodox messianist beliefs and leaderless cults, among them the followers of John the Baptist. The martyred Galilean Yeshua was connected by midrash with the vision of Zechariah 3, and venerated in the church as a heavenly intercessor for the coming of Davidic messiah to restore Israel. This plan for the last days clashed head on with Paul’s revelation of Jesus as the resurrected heavenly messiah himself, who would in near future return and collect his faithful flock above ground. It was the resurrectional schema of Paul which came under attack in Galatia. Paul’s all-out counter, in which judgment was invoked, might have been the type of verbal assault that earned Paul the reputation as the persecutor of the Nazarenes.

None of this, naturally, excludes the possibility that Paul did speak out against the Nazarenes or other sects of apocalyptic messianism prior to his conversion. He probably did do that, as he was a man of strong convictions. The tradition that Paul was a Judaic traditionalist before receiving his calling appears genuine. I am persuaded of this by the remarkable schism on Paul’s pre-conversion view of Jesus in the NT texts. On the one hand, there is the unapologetic view written into the Gal. 1 passages and Philippians 3:6. Paul was a godly, upright learned Jewish tradesman, who was called upon by God to proclaim his revelation. This version of Paul is probably authentic tradition, as it fits Paul’s self-image he consistently presents elsewhere (Rom 1:1, 1 Cr 1:1, 7:20-24, 2 Cr 1:1, 3:5, Gal 1:15-17). There is no shame or even a shade of ‘repentance’ present in Paul’s conversion. Quite the contrary, it is very clear that Paul considered his ministry an election, a service for which he was called and for which he received adequate resourcing. Sharply contrasting with this image, is one of repentant Paul, written into the Acts legend of the Damascus encounter, 1 Cr 15:9, and what appears a shameless retroactive falsification of Paul’s mind in 1 Ti 1:13-14 (‘though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me…’). These, naturally, do not have much to do with Paul, the man who is the subject of my study.

To sum up, my scepticism touches on the level of hostile engagement against the Nazarene assemblies imputed to Paul by some texts. Let this be said plainly: there is no evidence in Paul’s writing that he was either violent personally, or encouraged physical violence against adversaries. It is unlikely that Paul’s conversion would have radically changed his behavioural patterns with respect to advocating or orchestrating the use of violence. Paul’s hostility would have been verbal and confined to denunciations of opponents.

What Did Paul Believe about Jesus prior to Conversion ?

Paul was a hellenized Jew, who was born and lived in the Diaspora likely all his life. His social status was middle class, probably on the lower end of the middle. By Luke’s account he made a living as a tentmaker (σκηνοποιoς – Acts 18:3). Paul’s education is an unknown variable to most NT scholars, as Luke’s account of him as a disciple of Gemaliel (Acts 22:3) is best set aside as a story-teller’s license. For one, Saul’s blood lust against the Jesus sect that Luke swore by, would have been at odds with the teachings of Gemaliel and rabbinism generally. Nor is there in Paul a discernible trace of formal education, obtained through a public gymnasium or a private παιδαγωγος. Paul does not concern himself in the least with Greek philosophy even though the apostle certainly looks like someone keenly aware of his superior intellect, one with high intellectual ambitions, and one none too shy to display his learning. I am persuaded by an echo of the familiar tune of Frank Sinatra omnipresent in Paul letters, that their writer was self-sufficient in everything. As he apparently did it (all) his way, he would have been also self-educated.

As Paul was highly intelligent he would have easily dominated in most social settings where he put appearance. His learning and literacy would have been considered a mark of superiority in the circles he moved, regardless of pedigree. In this connection, one needs also to take into account the new situation that the translation of the Tanakh into Greek created. The Septuagint would have an effect similar to that of the Bible in the Middle Ages appearing in native languages of the European continent. The wider availability of the scripture meant that it could no longer be claimed by a small class of scribes and interpreters. It would have been accessible to bright urban autodidacts like Paul and his social milieu. ( Paul’s later missionary focus on the Gentiles interested in Judaism, would have also assured Paul’s supremacy as only the Jewish sages learned in the scripture would have been in a position to challenge Paul’s reading of the texts. And no doubt they would have found Paul outrageous. Start with the passages of non-titular Lord that the mystagogue abducted to make them seem to refer to his visions of a heavenly Redeemer.)

What Paul’s theology was prior to conversion is difficult to gauge. We may assume that he was conservative, and tending to a pietist variety of the faith. Paul’s manner also makes it quite probable that the ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude, so often present in his letters would have been a character trait preceding Paul’s career as an apostle of Christ. This Paul presumably did not have a friendly disposition to the missions of apocalyptic messianists from Jerusalem that he was encountering. He would have regarded the ecstatics, their ways and their beliefs them as plainly crazy (1 Cr 11:23, 14:23).

We are told by Paul that he once regarded Christ κατα σαρκα, i.e. from a vulgar point of view (2 Cr 5:16), which means he knew of Jesus from ordinary communication with other humans prior to receiving his revelation. This interpretation and the other apparently direct link to Jesus of the Nazarenes (1 Cr 2:2) was challenged by Earl Doherty on one of the discussion Boards. He stated that Paul’s adversaries believed in another version of the Christ myth, in which Jesus was not crucified. Unfortunately, he was not able to explain how Paul could have claimed that the Nazarene missions wanted to avoid persecution for the cross of Christ (Gal 6:12), if this cross was of a non-earthly origin. If the crucifixion was mythical and everyone knew it, then Paul’s injuction ‘will know nothing among you, other than Jesus Christ and him crucified’ equals in significance a taboo on discussing the deeds of Prometheus prior to his liver getting pecked out. Far worse though, accusing Cephas and his mission of fear of being persecuted for something they did not believe existed, would have reduced Paul’s apostolic reach only to the most destitute among the intellectual paupers.

Paul’s pre-conversion view of Jesus, κατα σαρκα, is summarized by 1 Cr 1:23 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,
Paul, the urbane Hellenist, simply would not have accepted the proclamation of a prophet who was crucified by authorities as a criminal. It would have been folly to him. Why would God want to choose some illiterate Galilean peasant to incite a riot about the coming kingdom ? Besides, the authorities do not punish innocent people. In his conservatism, Paul could not even conceive of an unjust punishment (Rom 13:1-5). His view would have been seen as extreme even in his own time , but it is not one that is unparalleled in the history of religious thought. The Islamic theologian ibn Taymiyyah, who lived during the Mongol invasions of the Middle East, held similar opinions, saying famously that sixty years of tyrannical rule were preferable to one day of civil disorder.

Paul, the pious Jew, would have been outraged by the idolatry of the Nazarenes to an executed criminal proclaimed as a holy apostle of God (Hbr 3:1) and a martyr for his kingdom (Mt 23:37-39). This man was hanged on a tree (or the era’s equivalent punishment) and therefore demonstrated as one accursed of God. How could he become the heavenly intercessor for the coming of God`s kingdom ? The nomenclatura of the messianist sectaries would have no doubt offended Paul’s sense of righteousness cultivated by faithful observance of Jewish legalities and customs.

One final question on pre-conversion Paul concerns his own messianic expectations. I do not think they were strong, for a number of reasons. Paul had a tragic view of human existence which was not something brought about by his acquaintance with Christ. Much more likely it was the other way round. IMHO, it is unlikely that his belief that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cr 15:50, originated in the revelation of Christ. It looks rather an antithesis to the materialistic messianism which Paul had rejected. The Diaspora middle class that Paul counted himself in, would have been far removed from the popular clamour for a ‘shepherd king’ a la David, to restore Israel as sovereign kingdom, free of injustice and oppression. Its focus would have been on the local community, with whatever temporal issues it faced. A few prosperous Diaspora Jews would have been overwhelmed by eschatological speculations. Similarly the intellectuals: Josephus, even though a proud Jewish patriot, would not have seen the rise of a restored kingdom of Israel, as displacing Rome’s power in its vicinity. Rome’s emperor would have done fine as messiah. Philo’s primary interest lied in the integration of Jewish monotheism into the overwhelming influence of the Greco-Roman civilization. His interest lied squarely in marrying the Jewish wisdom traditions to Greek philosophy, an interest which was alien to the messianist vistas of a restored kingdom. The reality of Rome’s power was driven home to all Jewish intellectuals who were familiar with it. Only a few harboured hopes for a supernatural intervention by God, in making it all happen. Paul would not have been among them.

The Ecstatic Experience as Conversion

The wide acceptance of the road to Damascus incident as real history has had one interesting side effect. Paul has been classed as an epileptic, almost universally. This is not a modern view of Paul. Epilepsy has been called St.Paul’s Disease in Ireland for centuries. No doubt, the photism and collapse of Paul during the vision as described by Luke has led most to conclude that Paul suffered from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE). This view is strengthened the story revealing that Paul, though blinded, was able to walk on his own. If Paul had suffered a stroke he would not have been able to walk far. Since TLE is known to produce strong religious conversion experiences, a little attention has been paid to Paul’s letters and the clues they provide as to his medical profile. In consequence, his assumed epilepsy has not been seriously challenged with the exception of those who caution that there is not really much to go on in a way of diagnosis. Despite the occasional disclaimer there has not been, to my knowledge, a serious interest from the medical professionals to assess Paul condition based on articulations he himself provides.

An historical review by D.Landsborough (Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, 1987:50) St.Paul and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy provides a fair example of how the assessments are done. Paul’s personal data are lifted from the Acts, and the composite sketch relies on such verities as his inheritance of Roman citizenship, and his formal education received in Jerusalem. He is said to be the 'first man of letters in the early church'. Paul’s self-described out-of-body journey to third heaven with the consequent attacks by Satan, is seen as bearing ‘a close resemblance to the psychic and perceptual resemblance of a temporal lobe seizure, albeit of spiritual experience for Paul’. The author cautions that we do not know whether Paul showed any abnormal physical signs. ‘If this was TLE it is very unlikely that there were – ‘the story is all’ ‘. He also cites C.H.Rieu assessment (Acts of the Apostles, Penguin 1957) of Paul as ‘a whirlwind of passions: ‘Hate, anger, depression, jostle with tenderness, love and hope, and all in extremes’. The essay goes on to mention Galatians (4:13-14) acknowledging Paul’s preaching of the gospel on account of illness. The apostle’s not being ‘despised’ for his condition is taken to mean he was free from being spat upon (morbus qui sputatur). Spitting can be described as a superstitious reaction by by-standers to an attack of epilepsy, though the article admits that the rude treatment was not necessarily specific to that disease.

In the analysis of 2 Cor 12:1-9, a number of indicators are seen as the artifact of a seizure, a disembodied state, aura of depersonalization, and inability to describe the experience are in the view of the author due to an ‘ intensely esoteric, rapturous state associated with an elaborate auditory sensation whose details cannot be recollected’. The writer believes that τη υπερβολυ των αποκαλυψεων (which his translation renders as 'wealth of visions') may bespeak of a number of experiences, which have a disagreeable sequel to them, described as a ‘thorn in the flesh’, and interpreted as recurring unpleasant motor disturbances. The latter is also seen as possible reference to the inner experience of a grand mal seizure. Generally, it is affirmed that the conversion, the recurrence of attacks and the nature of personality changes, which a quoted source describes as ‘inter-ictal’ such as ‘increased concern with, and writing on philosophical, moral and religious issues’, diminution of sexual activity, aggressiveness, are consistent with the diagnosis of TLE.

It is interesting to observe how easily Paul matches the epileptic profile in studies like these. There seem to be almost no counter-indications. Paul’s self-described illness and states of mind seem to fit seamlessly into the Damascus incident.

Yet, we do have the evidence of R.M.Bucke (see the preceding blog The Origin of My Interest…) , a trained physician who would immediately have recognized the epileptic nature of Paul’s visionary experience (as he would have known his own). Paul describes himself as glossolalic (1 Cr 14:18) and apparently insists that this activity be controlled when the church assembles. It is hard to credit that Paul would have attempted to regulate tongue speaking if this activity was spontaneous and beyond the control of the sufferers. He classes himself as a member of the spiritualist assembly. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and all were made to drink of one Spirit (1 Cr 12:13). The metaphoric intoxication by the Spirit is an important diagnostic clue, as it permeates the texts (e.g. the marriage at Cana, in John 2, the mass baptism at the Pentecost, Acts 2, Thomas 13 & 108). At minimum, this suggests that Paul’s ecstatic seizures, or seizure-like symptoms, were triggered periodically by protracted episodes of euphoric excitement. If we read Paul’s prominent displays of moodiness in this context, the diagnostic profile will soon tilt to issues of loss of control of moods, and the letters can be read as almost classical self-describing exhibits of manic-depressive illness. (More on Paul’s bipolar challenge in a future blog).

Does 2 Cor 12:1-9 describe Paul’s Conversion ?
As I have indicated already, there is a significant difference between the conversion experience as portrayed by Luke in Acts 9, and Paul’s own testimony in Gal 1:15-16. God called Paul through his grace and was pleased to reveal his Son in Paul. Some textual commentators say that the phrase οτε δε ευδοκησεν ο θεος, (but when God was pleased) is a later addition. If it is not, it shows Paul misallocating his affective tie to the event, projecting it as God’s feelings. At any rate, the phrasing shows that the revelation was received as a positive and ennobling transport by Paul contrasting sharply with the assault on, and abduction of, Saul by vengeful Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Gal 1:15-16 seems to be elaborated by 2 Cor 12:1-9:

1) I must boast; there is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.

The lead-in verse is important in that it should take care of exegetical objections that what follows may not be the description of the inaugural Paul’s revelation of Christ. With this verse, it is really difficult to see why Paul should would omit reference to his first revelatory experience, if the preceding defence of his apostolic status vis-à-vis competition is not strong enough argument.

2) I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.

Paul switches here to the third person singular to stress both the unreality of what he experienced and the loss of self in the euphoric ascent. It is also important to grasp Paul’s relating himself as in Christ even after all these years - which is to stress the lasting effect the conversion had.

3) And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—
4) and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.

Reaching a euphoric peak (the paradise), Paul could not distinguish between internal and external stimuli. The gnosis imparted was not permissible to speak about – although the question arises whether by this manoeuvre Paul seeks to convey the lack of communicability of the inner state brought about by sustained mental excitement.

5) On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.
6) Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.

Paul asserts that he – as a mature individual with a sense of identity – has no claim on the theophany. This connects with Paul’s description of the son revealed in him (εν εμοι) in Gal 1:15. Paul observes this protocol in his letters distinguishing his personal view and the commands or revelations of the Lord. The border however becomes blurred as Paul seems to appropriate the mind of Christ (υμεις δε νουν Χριστου εχομεν – 1 Cr 2:16) for his group, and sees himself as the unchallengeable spokesman for it (Gal 5:10, Rom 2:16, Rom 16:25).

7) And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.

Even though the thorn in the flesh (σκoλοψ τη σαρκι) does not specify the nature of the discomfort it is clear that in Paul’s mind it reduces the grandiose inflation of self-esteem which characterizes the initial phase of the transport, through torment and physical suffering. This is a most significant disclosure of Paul, as it captures the counter polarity to his euphoria, and grasps its function in returning Paul to reality.

8) Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me;9) but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Verses 8-9 confirm the cyclical nature of the process. Paul goes up to the pinnacle of euphoria where he is showered with glorious revelations and is brought down each time into decrepitude through a painful manifold of persecutory calamities (for an inventory see 2 Cr 11:23-33). To protect his ego from becoming too damaged in the falls from grace, he disengages himself from the glorious heights and assigns them to the risen Lord, of whose glory he is sent to testify.

I have found through many years of discussions most people seem reluctant to accept that 2 Cor 12:1-9 describes Paul’s visions and revelations (ὀπτασίας καὶ ἀποκαλύψεις) of the Lord. Even though Paul tells them it does, their upbringing and schooling makes them look subconsciously for an event resembling the road to Damascus. It is not there, ergo it cannot be the conversion experience ! I had a discussion on this with a very intelligent and knowledgeable historian of antiquity. He said he was not convinced that 2 Cor 12:2 describes the inaugural revelation of Christ to Paul. I asked him what reason Paul would have to omit the most important event of all, given the context of the defence of his ministry, in which the account was given. Why would he hold back ? He did not know. I suggested that the scepticism was simply an ingrained habit of thought which seeks to connect Paul’s letters to the Acts. He said 'maybe'. But it appears there was no Saul on the road to Damascus. It is a literary, fictional adaptation of Paul’s onset of acute bipolarity, in which he began to experience the Spirit (as described in The Doctor Who Could not Heal Himself – July 2010).

How did Paul connect his experience to the Nazarene Jesus ?
This is probably the question of all questions. My view is this: Paul was doubtless shaken up by the experience once his first episode was over. We do not know whether he had at the beginning of his experience of boundless euphoria some discussions, agonized arguments, or thoughts on the subject which then carried on into the episode. It is most likely however that Paul became preoccupied with Jesus during the protracted period of agitation (the mean duration of hypermanic excitement is about six weeks) , and as it progressed in stages to mind-states totally unfamiliar to Paul, he began to ascribe the uncanny joy to the Jesus entity. This continued through the terrifying, persecutory stage of the episode, which Paul came to associate with Jesus’ death on the cross. It was no cheap metaphor. Eric Kraepelin, the German psychiatrist who defined the manic-depressive disorder, wrote ‘very commonly it is asserted that the disease is a greater torture than any other, that the patient would far, far rather endure any bodily pain than disorder of the mind’. (E. Kraepelin, Manic-Depressive Insanity and Paranoia, tr. By Mary Barclay, Edinburgh, 1921, p.22).

Coming out of the episode, a part of which was hugely exhilarating but which then morphed into a nightmare of living hell, Paul must have been scared stiff. He realized how totally defenceless he was in his madness , and he would have defined his behaviour as such once he regained his faculties. He was now like the ecstatic freaks which he previously despised.

Reflecting on his own states of non-compos mentis and physical afflictions after the mystical peaks, he paralleled them with the reports of Jesus' sayings and doings, and decided that the earthly Jesus was "led" by the same spirit as he, Paul, was and that he followed the spirit as it led him inexorably to the cross. The kingdom Jesus believed could be brought to earth from heaven by God in the messianic age (as Paul received it through the grapevine from the disciples' following) were delusions, but delusions planted by God (2 Cr 5:21). Paul reasoned that if Jesus was deluded by God and crucified because he, in his delusions was made to break the Mosaic law, then his death could not signify but the absurdity of human life. But if Jesus' death had a hidden meaning, and his apparent madness that caused his violent end was actually designed by God to show Paul (and through Paul) that Jesus' and Paul's own madness was not what it seemed to others then there was hope. If the delusions of grandeur, were actually how God worked and the ecstatic peaks of pleasure and fulfilment a revelatory preview of the life in Jesus Christ that comes after one has faithfully served God, then Paul was not mad and Jesus was Lord. If Paul could dissociate his ego from the grandeur he was experiencing he would retain a measure of sanity and win salvation by proclaiming the glory as Christ's. Whatever else can one say of Paul, he convinced enough fellow pneumatics of his and their special commission, and they in turn found enough following in their communities for it, that they built a solid believer base. That base was Paul's proof that he had seen the Lord.