Vermes, The Changing Faces of Jesus - Paul

Paul dominated the imagination and doctrine of the Western Churches in much the same way as John dominated the Eastern Churches. Vermes terms him the "Odd man out" among the Apostles because, strictly speaking, he was not an apostle at all; he did not conform to the ground rules (Acts 1:21-22). He was therefore always somewhat defensive about his status (cf Galatians). He claimed that he had been chosen by God (1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:1; 1 Corinthians 9:1; Galatians 1:16).

All that Paul says he knows of the life of Jesus is of his death and Resurrection (Romans 1:3-4; 1 Corinthians 15:3-7) but he claimed direct communication from God for his witness (Galatians 1:16-17). It is questionable whether he learned about the Institution of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 10:14-22; ) or whether he set a pattern for the later Synoptics.

Paul's main preoccupation is with the meaning of Christ's death and the consequent foreshortening of eschatological time, heralded by his return, so anxiously sought that there was a rumour (2 Thessalonians 1:1-8; 3:6-12) that this had already happened. Jesus and Paul both lived in conditions of "feverish insecurity" but whereas Jesus was talking to Jews who shared an ethical framework Paul, addressing Gentiles, had to create a framework.

Paul uses the word Jesus sparingly and never uses the word Messiah. He may equate Jesus with God (Philippians 2:6-11 but this may be a 2nd Century interpolation; and the meaning of Romans 9:5 is not clear. Paul places Christ below The Father in prayers and doxologies and explains this in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28. There is a marked contrast between the incarnational Jesus (John 1:1) and Jesus who became The Son at the Resurrection (Romans 1:1); he is The Son of atonement and salvation (Romans 8:3); and God caused the sacrifice (Romans 8:32). This develops into a simple Creed (1 Corinthians 8:6).

Paul's central theme is the drama of salvation (Romans 8:34). Unlike the Gospels, this is independent of what Jesus taught or said of himself. His theology depends upon: the Jewish notion of sin as rebellion from God, focused on Adam; the reinterpreted significance of the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22); atoning blood (1 Corinthians 5:7); and transcendental atonement (Romans 6:6; 5:10). Resurrection is the necessary counterpart of Crucifixion (Romans 6:9), realised in Baptism (Romans 6:3-4). There is no mention of judgment.

Paul's treatment of Adam as the starting point for salvation accounts for Catholicism and Lutheranism. Adam brought death to humanity (Romans 5:12-14) but we are freed by the Second Adam (1 Corinthians 15:21-22). Our participation in salvation depends not therefore upon Judaic law but upon justification by faith (Galatians 2:15-16).

Paul does not advocate praying to The Father nor to Jesus (although he recognises Jesus' mediating function) and so he advises followers to imitate him; this accounts for the power of the Church as mediator. Paul, the trained Pharisee, never explicitly referred to Jesus as divine; it was left to the authors of the Deutero-Pauline letters to stretch out towards the image in John.

Partly taken from

Vermes, Geza: The Changing Faces of Jesus, Allen Lane, 2000, ISBN 0 713 99193 3

KC iv/08

Related Study Sheets…