St. Paul’s Influences
Fr. Gabriel Rochelle · August 29, 2012
Fr. Gabriel examines the theology and texts that came before St. Paul in order to prove that he was an inheritor and not an inventor of the Christian faith.
I’d like to speak this time about several Bible passages, so if you happen to have your copy of the Orthodox Study Bible handy, that would be fine. If you have another study Bible that you use, that would also be fine.
I want to talk this time about Paul, and specifically I want to talk about Paul’s predecessors, I guess you would say: some of those influences and actual texts that came before Paul wrote that would serve to prove that Paul was an inheritor and not an inventor of the Christian faith. The reason why I want to do this is because you will still find in conversation people who say things like, “Jesus was a wonderful guy, but Paul came along and ruined Christianity by making him into a god. Paul invented the whole notion of the Resurrection and therefore took a simple Jewish rabbi and propelled him into a mythological character.”
There are still many people around who, due to the lack of information, perhaps due to the lack of information that’s provided to them even by pastors and priests, think that Paul was the great innovator in Christian history and that if it hadn’t been for him, we would have a simply ethical kind of Christianity that was a continuation of the Judaism in which Jesus himself grew up.
I’d like to to suggest that this is an error. I’d like to go even stronger than that and say that it’s a terrible mistake to think that Paul was the inventor of Christianity. There are numerous passages in Paul that stand out that can prove this. Let’s begin.
If you happen to have the Orthodox Study Bible, please turn in it to I Corinthians 15. I Corinthians is, of course, one of Paul’s major writings. We are absolutely certain—there is no scholar around who doesn’t think that I Corinthians comes from the pen of St. Paul; let’s put it that way. Here’s the passage: I Corinthians 15:1-11, but the ones that I’m really interested in are verses three through six. Here’s what that says in the Orthodox Study Bible.
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James then by all the Apostles. Then last of all, he was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
Here’s the point about this passage: the terminology that’s used here for “I delivered to you that which I also received,” those two words in the Greek language were used among the Jews at that particular time also to talk about traditions, that is to say, things which were handed over, which were simply passed on as part of the faith itself. You can tell from this passage that it sounds credal, if you’re familiar with the Western Church, and particularly that creed that is known as the Apostles’ Creed, which is shorter than the Nicene or Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. You’ll see the passages here: “Christ died for our sins according the Scriptures—kata tas graphas—according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he rose again on the third day,” again, according to the Scriptures—kata tas graphas, and that he was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. Cephas, an interesting name; it is, of course, Peter, rock, Cephas being the Aramaic word for rock. “And then by the twelve,” and the twelve certainly would have made connections in the minds of Jewish Christians: the twelve tribes of Israel that came before them.
What I want to say about this passage is: “I deliver to you first of all that which I also received,” and there should be, as there is in the Orthodox Study Bible, a colon at that point. Then the next phrase should actually be in quotation marks. The little Greek word, hoti, which begins: “that Christ died for our sins and that he was buried and that he rose again the third day and that he was seen by Cephas.” All of those may be seen as quotation marks, and the quotation then ends at “then by the twelve.”
Paul adds after that, “He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present but some have fallen asleep,” and what Paul wants you to know at that point is if you are an original recipient of this letter, that you can go and find these people and talk to them about the Resurrection. My point here is clear: Paul is passing on a tradition. He’s passing on something which is virtually credal. He did not invent this; he is not the innovator.
That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures—these things are part of the tradition which Paul has already gotten. Perhaps he got it from Ananias; perhaps on the occasion of his own baptism; perhaps this was a kind of primitive catechesis that Paul himself received before he came into the faith after having been the persecutor thereof. There are a number of speculations about where it may have come from, as I say, that it could have come out of the church in Damascus in Syria, but it’s very clear at the same time that this is not something that comes out of a Roman or Greek background. When it says, “He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve,” you know that this is going to be a Palestinian context for this particular passage.
We have here a passage which comes from before Paul, a passage which speaks clearly, albeit simply, about the fact that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that, if you would check into the Greek text at that particular point, you would see that this is probably an allusion to Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the great Servant passage which we hear annually during the Lenten period: the Suffering Servant. He is the one who died, hyper, for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.
Here is instance number one of a passage that throws us back before the time of Paul, which indicates to us rather clearly that Paul was not an innovator; Paul did not invent the resurrection as if it were a fairy tale. He received this as part of his own education in the faith as he was about to go out and become a missioner for the Lord. That’s the first passage.
By the way, I should have mentioned that was on page 1569 in the Orthodox Study Bible. If you turn back just a few pages, to I Corinthians 11, I want to point out a second passage which comes prior to Paul. Paul is talking about problems with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist, as it’s called, in chapter 11; this is on page 1563. Paul is talking about the fact that people are corrupting the supper by virtue of their practices in verses 17 through 22, and then he goes on to say—and you’ll recognize these terms again:
I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you.
Same words as in I Corinthians 15; same words once again that indicate that this is a tradition which is being passed on. The word “tradition,” itself, of course, does mean “that which is passed on. It’s kind of a redundancy to say that, but in order to emphasize, I do that.
I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus, on the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.
So once again we see a passage where Paul has not invented this. He didn’t make up the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. He wasn’t stealing from mystery religions, which has sometimes been said at that particular point. This is a tradition which he himself has received, the tradition being that Christ says, “This is my body, broken for you.” In the context of I Corinthians 11, Paul also uses a kind of double entendre where he refers to the celebrating community as also the body of Christ, an image which he uses frequently throughout his writings. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.” And we could translate that, perhaps, as: “Do this as often you drink it,” that is to say, as frequently this happens in the context of worship. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” So you see there is also this idea that the second coming of Christ is anticipated in this particular passage.
Once again, this is a passage that should be surrounded by quotation marks to indicate that this is something that comes, not from the hand of Paul, but it comes from before Paul, something which he has memorized and something which he has then subsequently embedded in the writing before us.
So there’s two instances—I Corinthians 15, I Corinthians 11—of passages which come from before the time of Paul that are, I guess you would say, doctrinal in nature. Of course, the one from I Corinthians 11 is also a kind of prescription for the central portion of the anaphora, the Eucharistic prayer, which we call the verba, the words of institution, and the memorial that goes along with it.
You can see that these are the primary words, no doubt, and the gospels, the synoptic gospels, each of which records the institution of the Eucharist “on the night in which he was betrayed,” as it says, utilize, undoubtedly, Paul’s rendition of these words as a backdrop and as a model for their own. So Paul’s words here at this particular point which he has received from a source prior to himself then become the basis for the recording of the Eucharist in the synoptic gospels.
I want to move to two other passages just to give indication of this backdrop. Remember that the point of this is that Paul is not the author, not the innovator, of a Christianity that’s based upon the resurrection of Christ and Christ’s death, as it says, for our transgressions or our trespasses; for our sins. Paul is not the author or the innovator of these things, but has in fact been the one who receives them.
I want to look again next at a passage from Philippians with which you’ll be quite familiar. It’s on page 1613 in the New Testament of the Orthodox Study Bible. It begins with a beautiful passage about if there’s any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, etc., Philip, my joy by being like-minded, Paul says. But then he goes on to say—and it’s interesting how Paul seamlessly utilizes these traditions which he receives from before his own ministry. We’ve seen that now in I Corinthians 15 which is the beginning of a whole long chapter about the resurrection, and we see it also in I Corinthians 11 where the words of institution are embedded in Paul’s words about how the church in Corinth is not living up to the reality and the standard, if you will, of the Eucharist. Now here, at Philippians 2, we read:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, [...] and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This is an extraordinary passage, and I don’t want to go into it in too much detail, because that would take a great deal of time, and there are whole books that are written about this. Ralph P. Martin has a book out, of great length, about this hymn in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It parses out in poetry; it definitely looks like it was written as a hymn and may indeed have been sung in the early Church. We don’t have any evidence for hymns with actual notation prior to the end of the fourth century, but in this case it’s obviously laid out in a kind of a strophic way, that is to say, as if there are stanzas.
The verses break out into something like: who, being in God’s image did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, to be seized.” On the other hand: he poured himself out, taking the form of a servant, becoming in men’s likeness, becoming like unto us. You get the idea—I don’t have to go through this, I think, in great detail, but you see the idea here that this is definitely a Christian hymn which Paul has embedded in his letter to the Philippians, and it breaks out, as I say, in a kind of poetic way.
The passage stands in the middle of a section that begins at 1:27 and picks up once again at chapter 2, verse 12. It’s as if the hymn interrupts the flow of what Paul is talking about, which is paranetic tradition, that is to say, it’s oriented towards ethics. In the middle of this, Paul drops this hymn as a way of indicating his great love for and appreciation for the fact that God has sent Christ into our midst. It’s an amazing passage in that many of the words in it are not to be found in Paul elsewhere. This whole idea of “a thing to be grasped”—that is not to be found in Paul elsewhere. As a matter of fact, the word “form—morphē” is not found anywhere else in Paul. He actually uses the idea of emptying, and the Greek word is kenosis; he uses that word only four other times in the rest of his writings. But there, in the other writings, he uses it in the sense of simply making something empty; that’s not really what the point of it is here. It has a different meaning than the idea of being empty completely. The point here is that Christ becomes a servant. He becomes that suffering servant that we read about in Isaiah 52 and 53.
So here’s one more instance of Paul’s using a tradition and approving it very much by his use in the context of his own writings. As I said before, you could take this out of the letter to the Philippians and see how chapter 1, verse 27, simply leads into chapter 2, verse 12. Try it; drop it out and just read through the passage without that, and you’ll see that this is something that Paul has added. I think the evidence is really sufficient to warrant us thinking of this as a pre-Pauline Christian hymn. I have no idea where it came from. It has a certain ring of Hellenism to it. The way in which it’s laid out could be… The Greek in it is very good, and sort of high-born Greek; it’s not the kind of Greek that Paul himself is normally given to writing.
The question of where it came from may well be that it came from Syria, where there was a whole community of Hellenistic Jews, many of whom had obviously become Christian. I’m not sure about that; I don’t have a final answer for that one, and I don’t think it’s actually important in terms of the simple concept that I’m trying to get across in this broadcast, which is that Paul utilized a lot of material that came from prior to his own ministry, prior to his own entry into the Christianity that he would know at that point.
There’s one other small hymn that I want to look at, and it is in Ephesians 5:14, so you don’t have to turn back too far for that. You only have to go back to page 1608. It’s set off in the Orthodox Study Bible as a separate verse:
Therefore, he says,
“Awake, you who sleep.
Arise from the dead,
And Christ will give you light.”
There are those who think that this probably is a baptismal hymn. As a matter of fact, I note, of course, that it’s put that way in the orthodox Study Bible itself. Baptism is referred to as photismos, as illumination or enlightening, meaning the enlightening of the mind, the enlightening of the senses, and the enlightening of the heart. So Christ is the one who’s going to give you light. We might think in terms of people who go down in submersion in a pool or in other running water somewhere; they are now plunged under water, and as they come out, either they or other people surrounding them sing, “Awake, you who sleep! Arise from the dead!” Remember that Paul utilizes this imagery in Romans also, that we go down into death with Christ, and we rise back up with him. That’s in Romans 5 and Romans 6; you find Paul’s analogy here, going down into death and coming back in faith.
Here’s yet one more instance, and it’s quite clear. I mean, even the way that it’s set out in the Orthodox Study Bible is a clear indication of the fact that this is something that comes from before Paul. The idea, I think, is probably that you’re supposed to wake up out of the state of sinfulness that you find yourself in. You’re supposed to wake up to the possibility of living an ethical life. You’re supposed to wake up and see the world now through a prism which is colored with the colors of the Christ, so to speak, and with the promises that Christ will shine upon you, will enlighten you, will bring you light.
The introductory phrase in Greek, by the way, would lead us to expect that what follows is a citation from Scripture, but it isn’t a Scriptural passage. It looks like some thing that you might find in Scripture; it kind of looks like Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine, for your light is come and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.” It kind of looks like that, but it seems to me that it’s not that close of an analogy to really suggest that it rests upon that. I think our best shot for it is to simply say that here we have a pre-Pauline hymn of baptism that is modeled most likely upon Greek poetry that may have something to do with other religious formulations at that time. It has a kind of invocational style to it, as if someone says this upon the person who is baptized.
Well, these are four instances, and again remember, though we didn’t go into these in great detail, I think I went into them far enough for you to recognize and to see that here you have clear support for the notion that Paul is not the innovator of Christian faith, that he utilizes things—and we could have gone into many other things that he utilizes. There are many words of Jesus which are embedded in his writings some of which are easily recognizable, others of which are somewhat covert.
There is a whole lot of material that you find that comes from prior to the Apostle himself, but the point is clear: Paul did not invent Christianity. Paul did not invent the Resurrection. Paul did not invent the death on our behalf. Paul did not invent the Eucharist. Paul did not invent the idea that Christ is the one who has emptied himself out on our behalf. All of these things come from before Paul, but he becomes the one who utilizes this material and writes beautifully and brilliantly about it, in commentary and in extending the metaphors that you find within these hymns and within these writings.
Thank you very much for listening. We’ll be back again in several weeks with another consideration in our series of Musings from the High Desert. This is Fr. Gabriel Rochelle saying thank you very much for listening. I hope you’ve gained a little bit of understanding today, and I hope that your day is blessed.