Jesus and Paul
What did Paul really think about Jesus? It is strange that he cited Jesus’ words only once in 13 epistles and he never referred to his way of life or anything he did. Perhaps the communities he was writing to all had “gospels” or collections of Jesus’ “sayings” and he didn’t feel he needed to repeat them. But given the practical problems he addressed in those letters, one would think the example of Jesus’ life would have been applicable to a number of issues. But he never says a word about it. For Paul, it seems, it was Jesus’ death, not his life that was important.
But perhaps this strange anomaly has a source and reason. The witnesses to Jesus’ message, his disciples, had to find a way to explain the crucifixion. They clearly had not been prepared for it by Jesus. Christianity, I believe, was born in that search for an explanation. His followers concluded that Jesus’ execution by the Roman occupational forces was not, as it appeared, the defeat of an earthly human project, it was rather the triumphant climax of a “heavenly” cosmic project that was not apparent in Jesus’ life and words. It seems that Jesus’ teaching, work as healer and simplicity of life were all seen by Paul and other Greek Christians as virtually insignificant in comparison with the “work” that “saved” humanity: his death on the cross — the rectification of the cosmic order … reversing the disobedience of Adam … “buying back” the world from Satan … gaining immortality for humankind … redemption!
“Redemption” says in one word what Greek Christianity is all about … in contrast to what Jewish Jesus was all about. Jesus was a Jew. His message was about how Jews should live on earth, not about the Greek obsession with immortality. His life-style was an example of what he preached and that included the way he died. Greek Christians, on the other hand, as evidenced by the letters of Paul, were focused on the fact that Jesus died, and what his death meant to “God” and the cosmic order. For Paul, Jesus’ death changed ”God’s” relationship to us, making us, for the first time, participants in divinity. Jesus, on the other hand, had a different agenda. He was focused on changing our attitude toward “God” making us imitators of divine forgiveness, love and generosity. For Paul, Jesus’ death created a new intimacy with the immortal God, something never heard of before, giving us a share in divine immortality. But for Jesus, his quiet acceptance of death at the hands of the imperial Roman thugs bore witness to an intimacy with “God” that was as old as Judaism itself. Immortality was not the issue for Jesus; trust in his “Father” was. Paul’s vision implied another life after death; Jesus’ vision contemplated turning life on earth into a paradise of justice and love — what he called the “kingdom of ‘God,'” (a term, by the way, that Paul never used). For Paul Jesus’ life was consistent with the transcendent significance of his death. For Jesus, his death was consistent with the simple, trusting, loving way he lived his life.
Here’s the story in a nutshell. At the beginning of the “common era” (ce), a Jewish “messiah” tried to change the world and was killed for it by the foreign empire that occupied and was plundering his land. Today we can appreciate what Jesus was trying to do and so we see it for the human triumph that it really was. We have seen others triumph in like manner: Romero, Bonhoeffer, Gandhi. What Paul may have considered insignificant for “redemption,” we see as the saving power of the struggle for human justice … the only hope for our species and our planet. The Catholic Church’s insistence on the absurd doctrine of “Original Sin” derives from the almost exclusive focus on a belief in Jesus’ supernatural “redemptive” death as opposed to his human message and simple life-style. Other worldly “redemption” has come to dominate western Christian thinking on who Jesus was and why he was significant for us. That situation has changed in our times. We see things differently. “Salvation” means something utterly human to us. We need to explain the significance of the cross for us … without any metaphysical fantasy about the Garden of Eden, or how Jesus’ death placated and “changed” the attitude of an angry “God.”
Jesus’ changeless “Father”
Jesus’ new understanding of the traditional Covenant — the contract — between Israeland Yahweh did not represent a change in the character of Yahweh; rather it involved a change in the cultural assumptions of the Jewish people. Jesus’ vision of the covenant as love and not a quid pro quo of prosperity for obedience was built precisely on the changeless fidelity of a benevolent “God.” Augustine’s traditional doctrine of “Original Sin,” on the other hand, implies a change in “God’s” relationship and attitude toward us, dependant on human behavior. It imagines this change occurred more than once. “God” changed from love to anger because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden, and then back again from anger to love because of Jesus’ obedience at the crucifixion. But even with that, Augustine still could not account for the suffering we endure in life — notwithstanding “redemption” — without positing an enduring anger in “God” that co-exists with his love. By Augustine’s own theological categories this is preposterous.
Jesus saw things very differently from all of that. For him, there was never any change in “God.” What he saw was that his loving “Father’s” unconditional benevolence had never been understood from the very beginning. He made it his mission to correct that misunderstanding and to set his companions and co-religionists straight on what Yahweh was really like. This was not some personal “shtick” of his. It was consistent with a long line of Jewish prophetic teaching focused on the same issue going way back in Jewish history. The quid pro quo “contract” mentality was challenged very early … as early as the Book of Job in the 6th century bce. Job had a blinding vision of “God’s” superabundant generosity and came to love “God” gratuitously — not holding Yahweh bound to the terms of the contract. It was the beginning of the re-evaluation of the “covenant.”
The Hebrews, like all the peoples of the near east in ancient times, assumed they had a “deal” with their national “god.” Prosperity in return for moral and ritual compliance would presumably enhance Yahweh’s standing among the nations and their gods. Job’s culture-shattering insight broke with that assumption. It was based on a vision of the vastness of creation itself. Yahweh was the overwhelming creative power behind all things that were. There were no other gods. Yahweh had no need of Job’s obedience and ritual sacrifices, and “he” punished no one for “he” forgave without limit. Job realized his suffering did not come from this Yahweh. Once Job saw reality for what it was, his complaints ceased for they had no basis. There was no “deal.” The “deal” was superabundant love.
The prophets, trying to understand the breakdown of the Jewish state, continued Job’s reassessment as they agonized over the utter destruction of the Northern Kingdom and the humiliating exile and decimation of the population of Judahin 587 bce. Where was the traditional “covenant” in all this? The prophets challenged the stock answers viz., that they were being punished for breaking faith with Yahweh. … “No”! the prophets said, “God” loves us no matter what. Despite Israel’s failures, the exile was not the act of an angry “God” who had been denied the blood of sacrifice and obedient submission, but rather the direct consequences of relying on power and wealth in an unjust social order. “I don’t care about your sacrifices,” they poetically imagined Yahweh saying. “What I want is that you treat one another with justice and compassion.” The exploitation of the poor by the rich was always at the center of the prophets’ denunciations, and setting things right was the heart of their vision and their mission.
Taught by Jesus, his disciples developed an awareness of what the entire history of the relationship to Yahweh was saying with an evolving clarity. They were learning at Jesus’ knee that the Covenant — the contract — was not a quid pro quo. It was not about national or personal prosperity in exchange for obedience and ritual compliance. The covenant was simply about love and the unconditional acceptance between God and people — “Father” and children — that necessarily accompanies it. “God” our “Father” loves us unconditionally; we, his children, embrace our provenance, our genetic inheritance, and surrender to love unconditionally just like our “Father.” And just as Job decided to “love” God and accept that “God” loved him despite the overwhelming losses he suffered, Jesus’ death represented the ultimate sign that the relationship to “God” was bedrock — no matter the context — for “God” does not change. For Jesus, as for Job, there was no guarantee of recompense whatsoever, for there was no contract. Death did not represent a “change” in the relationship with our “Father.” The clearest way to announce that realization definitively was to say that the symbol of our trusting relationship to “God” was Jesus’ death on the cross. Death had no power over the love between “Father” and son.
This is very different from Paul’s interpretation of what Jesus did to “save” us. Paul was changed by what he saw on the road toDamascus. Paul saw a “new” Jesus transformed by death, and decided to live his life based on that Jesus, not the one who walked and died among us whom he never knew. For Paul, death changed Jesus, and Paul believed that “God” changed in response to the death of Jesus. But Jesus would have disagreed. For Jesus “God” does not change. “God’s” love for us does not depend on us or our behavior. There is no law or contract with the creative power of the universe. “God” is not now nor was “he” ever angry with us. There was no “original sin.” There is no Satan who “owns” us. “God” punishes no one and death is a natural part of the gift of life.
From what, then, do we need to be “redeemed” … except our nightmares?