The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§8)

Now that we’ve considered what “Gospel” means for Paul, Dunn moves on to some essentials of Christology: Jesus Christ the human, crucified, resurrected, and ultimately pre-existent. This chapter focuses on how Paul understood the relevance of Jesus’ incarnate life.

. . .

Chapter 4: The Gospel of Jesus Christ

§ 8: Jesus the man

If we were to write a history of Jesus based solely on Pauline literature, it would be very sparse. We would know that he was a human Jewish man from the lineage of David. Aside from that, Paul choose to focus almost exclusively on Jesus’ death—the essence of his gospel. 2 Corinthians 5:16 states that we once knew Christ from a human point of view, but we no longer know him that way. While this has provided plenty of fodder for 19th century liberal lecture halls, we should be careful not to read too much into silence. In Dunn’s words, “‘Taken-for-granted’ does not mean ‘couldn’t care less'” (185).

It is absurd to think that until the Gospels were written there was no interest in Jesus’ life in the churches. Bare kerygmatic assertions (i.e. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4) could not possibly satiate a new believer. Further, with Paul’s emphasis on teaching and tradition, it would be natural to assume that Paul encouraged the churches to take an interest in the life of Jesus. Paul would have had a number of opportunities to learn about Jesus’ life for himself:

  1. Pharisees were difficult to find outside Jerusalem—Saul likely studied in Jerusalem while Jesus was ministering and would have heard rumors of Jesus’ work.
  2. Paul would have been instructed about Jesus from the Damascus believers following his conversion/commission (1 Corinthians 15:1).
  3. Paul spent a couple weeks getting to know Peter within a couple years of his conversion (Galatians 1:18). Paul would certainly be concerned to set the record straight in order to understand the truth behind the negative views of Jesus he was steeped in.

While these are largely speculative arguments, they lead us to ask whether there is any indication in Paul’s letters of an interest in Jesus’ life.

Before looking at indications of Jesus’ life in Paul’s letters, we need to remember two things:

  1. Paul had a lot in common with his churches, even those he had not established (i.e. Rome).
  2. Paul’s letters were occasional—if there was no controversy on a detail of Jesus’ life, we should not expect Paul to mention it.

With that in mind, here are five places in Paul’s letters where we see echoes of Jesus’ life:

  1. As we saw in the last chapter, Paul’s use of gospel relies on Jesus’ self-understanding of Isaiah 52:7.
  2. There is a parallel between Jesus and Paul on the kingdom. Jesus says far more about the kingdom than Paul, but Paul says far more about the Spirit than Jesus. This is because the Spirit is the presence of the kingdom still to come in fullness (Romans 14:17).
  3. Paul in his controversy with Peter assumes Jesus’ role of eating with sinners.
  4. Paul spoke of the “Abba” prayer that Jesus taught (Romans 8:15-17; Galatians 4:6-7), a common experience of early Christians.
  5. There is further evidence that we will look at in chapter 23. However, if we can now assume that much of Jesus’ life and teaching were implicit in Paul, then references to Jesus’ death could refer to his ministry as a whole. Also, Paul’s talk about putting on Christ (Romans 13:14) certainly refers to more than a one-time application of the merits of Jesus’ death.

Jesus ministry, then, is an integral part of Paul’s theology, although not referred to often.

Some theologians suggest that Paul’s use of the personal name “Jesus” apart from his titles (“Jesus Christ,” “Christ Jesus,” “the Lord Jesus,” etc.) indicate Paul’s interest in the human life of Jesus. This suggestion is weak, because of the 16 times “Jesus” is used alone in Paul’s writings, the great majority refer to his death and resurrection.

The title, “Christ” (Hebrew: “Messiah”) is so common in Paul that it almost becomes a proper name for Jesus. This suggests that the fact of Jesus’ Messiahship was no longer controversial in the early church. Still, there is evidence that Paul as a Jew is still concerned with the fact of Jesus’ Jewishness. Paul’s distinct title for Jesus as “Christ Jesus” implies the force of the title (“Messiah: Jesus”). This is another indication that Jesus’ human life as the Messiah mattered to Paul.

Next we need to examine Paul’s Adam Christology (especially: Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:20-22). For Paul and the early church in general, Christ’s death and resurrection corresponded to Adam’s sin, making Christ the “eschatological counterpart” (200) of Adam. We know that Psalm 8:4-6 was understood to refer to Jesus in early Christian reflection. That Psalm makes it clear that humans were created to exercise authority over creation. The first Adam didn’t succeed at this so Jesus stepped in and restored humanity to its rightful relationship with creation. In order to do this, Jesus had take on the weakness of human flesh (Romans 8:3). In the words of Athanasius, “He became man that we might become divine” (in Dunn 204).

Last, we should look at Paul’s understanding of incarnation. We see in the Wisdom hymn of Colossians 1:15-20 that the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Jesus. Just as God’s power and presence fill the universe, it came to dwell in Christ. This thought is repeated in Colossians 2:9 with the key words fullness and dwells repeated. Here, though, two additional hapax legomena are added:

  • In bodily form (sōmatikōs): Jesus in his flesh is the best picture of the divine indwelling of humanity.
  • Deity (theotēs): This refers to what makes deity divine.

The incarnation, then, is hinted at if not present in Colossians 2:9.

In sum: Paul knew and cared about the ministry of Jesus prior to his death, assuming it and allowing it to form his theology. This leads to three further notes:

  1. Paul viewed his gospel as standing in continuity with Jesus’ teachings.
  2. Jesus’ teachings and Jewishness were things to be joyously affirmed.
  3. The Jewish Messianic hope that Jesus embodied is now extended to humankind (Adam) as a whole.

. . .

The discontinuity between Jesus the Jew and Paul the Christian has been overplayed for decades. This chapter helped to put to rest a lot of nagging questions about their relationship even as it cast the apparent discontinuity in stark light. Dunn makes a lot of assumptions, but that’s something you have to do with a closed corpus of occasional writings. Although there was a lot of arguing from slim data, Dunn’s logic won me over.

< § 7: Gospel

§ 9: Christ crucified >

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