Paul the Apostle-Scholars Answer Questions About Paul-Part 2

By: Staff Writer; ©2004
Dr. Ben Witherington answers the following questions: What happened to Paul on the Damascus road? Was Paul psychologically primed to have a vision of Jesus? Did Paul see an actual physical body or a spiritual body? What did Pharisees believe about the resurrection? Did Paul invent Christianity? What did “tradition” mean to people in the first century? What sacred tradition was Paul passing along in 1 Corinthians 15? From whom did Paul learn the sacred tradition? What was Paul’s message? When did Paul learn this sacred tradition? What were some of the earliest “creeds” or “confessions” of the church? What does Philippians 2 tell us about how the early church thought of Jesus Christ? Why is the cross so prominent in Paul’s teaching? How did the resurrection of Jesus differ from what Paul the Pharisee expected? Did Jesus really say “this is my body” at the Last Supper?

Paul the Apostle – Dr. Ben Witherington

What happened after Paul was converted on the Damascus road? How did this man come to be known as the Apostle Paul? Where did he get the message that he preached? Did he “in­vent” Christianity? We asked several scholars to comment on these and other questions.

Dr. Ben Witherington

[Ph.D. from University of Durham, England; currently Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary. Author of The Jesus Quest, The Christology of Jesus, Jesus the Sage and The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus.]

What happened to Paul on the Damascus road?

Dr. John Ankerberg: You’re a scholar in terms of doing a lot of study on Paul. And Paul is a real mystery to a lot of scholars, because the psychological profile of Paul, there’s no reason why he would have become a Christian, there had to be that X again. Describe for the folks that are listening what we’re talking about.
Dr. Ben Witherington: Well, remember Saul’s background. He’s a Hebrew among Hebrews, that means he spoke that traditional language of Hebrew or Aramaic; he’s a Pharisee among Pharisees, that means he belonged to one of the strictest sects of early Judaism, very punctiliar about obedience to the Mosaic law, down to the last jot and tittle, and even more traditions than that. We’re talking about a person who according to his own testimony in Galatians 1, was a persecutor of early Christianity, persecuted it violently he says in Galatians chapter 1, and of course Acts confirms this as well as a secondary piece of evidence. What kind of thing could have happened to him to change him from all out zealot against the early Messianic movement that we call Christianity to a strong zealous advocate of the same? Some dramatic about face, u-turn had to have happened to Paul on Damascus road. And I know of no better term to de­scribe this than conversion. It’s not true, of course, that he was going from no beliefs to Christian beliefs. It’s not true that he was going from a false religion to a true religion. What he be­lieved was that he was becoming a completed Messianic Jewish person, and that the belief that Jesus was that Messiah figure was the missing piece of the puzzle that completed the picture, and rearranged the whole way that he would look at life. Previously he had looked at life through the lens of the law, now he was going to see life through the eyes of Christ.
Now I know of no better way to explain that kind of dramatic shift in a person’s life than to say he had a close encounter of the first kind with the risen Jesus, and that’s what changed his life. What’s interesting to me is that even some of the recent Jewish scholars who have dealt with Saul of Tarsus have been willing to say something dramatic had to happen to him to cause this change.
Ankerberg: Where is modern scholarship in terms of evaluating what happened to Paul? Where are the majority of scholars, in other words, what do they attribute to the conversion of Paul?
Witherington: Well, you know, there used to be this old psychological profile. Saul was an angst ridden person, guilt ridden because he had persecuted some of his fellow Jews, who had become Christian, and agonizing over all of that, he converted to Christianity through wrestling through his own guilt. Now the thing that’s interesting to me about that is that Paul himself says nothing to suggest this, and the book of Acts says nothing like that. He was going to Damascus to persecute some more Christians. He was not going to Damascus to join them. And so, you know, the evidence as we have it suggests that something other than a sort of psychological process along the way is what changed his life.

Was Paul psychologically primed to have a vision of Jesus?

Witherington: Well, now here is the sort of ultimate case, really. I mean, it would be possible to argue, yeah, yeah, the followers of Jesus, it’s wish fulfillment. They believed they saw him after he died, bless their hearts, you know, they wanted to believe so badly, and there’s no stories about Jesus appearing to Pontius Pilate or this or that or the other disbeliever. Give me a piece of evidence that says Jesus appeared to a disbeliever. Well, Saul of Tarsus is that piece of evidence. “Last of all” says Saul of Tarsus, “he appeared to me as one untimely born.” And it’s not just that he is a disbeliever, or a nonbeliever, he is an ardent anti-believer in this Messi­anic Jewish movement of followers of Jesus. This is the problem. What kind of psychology did he have to got through, psychological change did he have to go through, to get from point A to point B, you know, from being the ardent persecutor of early Christians to being the ardent advocate of Jesus as the son of God.
Something dramatic had to happen to him in his life. And there’s nothing, from reading Paul’s letters, there’s nothing that suggests that he was a tremendously unstable person before his conversion, or a wishy washy person. On the contrary, he was a great intellectual mind, I mean most scholars would say that he was the greatest amongst the minds of the early Christian writers. After Jesus the greatest figure in early Christendom. Someone who had a very stable set of core beliefs as a Pharisee, was adamant about those beliefs, and yet he totally changed his perspective on Jesus. What did that to him? Some kind of dramatic experience.

Did Paul see an actual physical body or a spiritual body?

Ankerberg: In Paul’s own writings, was he talking about a real body appearing to him when he saw Jesus, or a spiritual body?
Witherington: Well, he uses the phrase pneumatikon soma. Now in some translations this is rendered “a spiritual body.” What he means by that is a body animated by the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t mean a body not made of any substance. The Greek word pneumatikon means having been effected by this thing called Spirit. Having been animated, vivified, kept alive, eternalized by the Spirit. So what he’s not talking about is a body made out of spiritual substance or non­material substance. He’s talking about a body fully animated by the Spirit. That’s what he’s talking about there.

What did Pharisees believe about the resurrection?

Ankerberg: Was Paul a Pharisee?
Witherington: Paul was a Pharisee. I mean, he claims to be, and evidence from Acts sug­gests that he was a Pharisee, and indeed, his parents, his father was a Pharisee.
Ankerberg: And what did they believe?
Witherington: They believed in bodily resurrection. I mean there’s all this wonderful specula­tion from early Judaism you know, in the resurrection will you have all the hair follicles you had before you died? And there was speculation: Will I be raised at my peak powers, you know, at 27 year of age, looking good, or will I be raised at the same age at which I died? And there’s all this speculation about the physicality of the resurrection. When a Jewish person talked about somebody died, being buried, and coming back from the dead, it was a bodily resurrection.

Did Paul invent Christianity?

Ankerberg: You are an expert on the Apostle Paul. A lot of people have said that Paul was the one that really created Christ, the Messiah, the God-man, if you want. What would you say to those folks?
Witherington: Well, if Paul was a person operating 50, 60, 70 years after the time of Jesus, that could be a reasonable historical argument. We could actually debate that. But the truth of the matter is that Paul was converted within three or four years of the death of Jesus. And Paul himself tells us that among the other things that he did, he went up to Jerusalem and he con­sulted with the pillar apostles. Galatians is very clear about this. He talked with Peter, James and John. And you may be sure that they didn’t talk about the weather. They talked about mat­ters of theological and ethical importance. Missionary strategies: who was going to go to the Gentiles, who was going to go to the Jews. I mean it’s the height of naiveté to suggest that Paul could have invented a Gospel about Jesus as the Christ, or as the son of God, not run it by the pillar apostles in Jerusalem, and gotten away with it. I mean, the truth of the matter is that there weren’t millions of followers of Jesus in first century A.D. Rather there was a rather tightly inter­woven group of Christians in various parts of the empire and all of them had as their touchstone the original Christians in Jerusalem: Peter, James and John and the original followers of Jesus.
And so, if Paul affirmed these things, you may be sure that he affirmed them in agreement with the earliest apostles.
Ankerberg: Yes, in 1 Corinthians 15 he says “whether it was we or they, this is what we all preached.”
Witherington: And this is what we all believed. And he says that this was handed down a sacred tradition.

What did “tradition” mean to people in the first century?

Ankerberg: Let’s pick that word up, because a lot of people, they do not understand the importance of the word “tradition.” There may even be some Christians who think that is a bad word. Okay? That’s not how we’re talking about it. Define it for us.
Witherington: Well, tradition, when we are talking about religious tradition, we’re talking about the oral and written sources of the materials that are now part of our holy Scriptures. That’s what we’re talking about. The truth of the matter is that what Scripture contains is those sacred traditions. So there’s not a fundamental contradiction between tradition and Scripture.
Ankerberg: The authoritative message that needed to be passed on, right?
Witherington: Exactly.

What sacred tradition was Paul passing along in 1 Corinthians 15?

Ankerberg. Alright, now. Fit that into the context of 1 Corinthians 15. Take the folks through what Paul is saying in terms of transmitting this oratative message that was held by the Chris­tians. Now we’re talking about the early apostles, going right back to Jesus. Weave that all together.
Witherington: Let’s set the setting just for a second. Paul’s writing to a largely Gentile group of Christians, in a bustling metropolis called Corinth.
Ankerberg: About what time?
Witherington: Somewhere in the mid-50’s A.D. Within 20 or 25 years of Jesus’ death. Now he’s writing to an audience of people, a congregation, that was highly pneumatic. They had what we would call charismatic gifts. They spoke in tongues, they prophesied. The spiritual gifts were really high on their wish list of things they wanted to have and do in their worship service. And traditionally speaking, whenever you’ve got a sort of charismatic approach to Christianity, traditions play less importance. There’s not a lot of focus on being well-grounded in the past. You’re looking forward to the experience of the moment or the future things that God’s going to prophesy and that sort of thing.
Now what Paul tries to do in 1 Corinthians is ground those pneumatic Corinthians Christians in the sacred traditions that Christians elsewhere believed. And he wanted them to be a form of Christianity that comported with the other forms that were out there. So, among other things that he does, is he deliberately cites some of the specific sayings of Jesus, for example Jesus’ teaching about no divorce (1 Cor. 7). In 1 Corinthians 11 he says “I’m passing on to you what I have received that on the night that Jesus was betrayed He took bread, broke it, and said, take, eat, this is my body.” And in 1 Corinthians 15 of course he says the same thing, “I have passed on to you already that which I myself received.” Now this is technical early Jewish lan­guage for the receiving of the Sacred Tradition that needs to be preserved and passed on intact. It’s so important it needs to be memorized, and memorable.

From whom did Paul learn the sacred tradition?

Ankerberg. Not only that, but Paul said he got it from somebody else.
Witherington: Exactly. It comes from the earliest Christians.
Ankerberg: How do we know that he got it from somebody else, or who is it that he got it from?
Witherington: Well, the best perspective on that I would say is that probably his earliest Christian teaching that Paul himself received was in Damascus. We will remember that after his conversion on Damascus Road, or his dramatic close encounter of the first kind, he was taken to Damascus and was with Christians in Damascus, and it surely must have been there that he received his first Christian instruction. Later, of course, he went up to Jerusalem and talked with the pillar apostles as well, but his basic, nodal Christian instruction must have come in Dam­ascus from some of the early Christians there, such as Ananias, who laid hands on him.

What was Paul’s message?

Ankerberg: Alright. Take us back to 1 Corinthians 15 and what Paul was saying.
Witherington: Well, the key phrase here is “I passed on to you that which I received.” Notice this is technical early Jewish language used by Pharisees, non-Christian Jews as well as Chris­tian Jews. And the language here is the language of the careful transmission of sacred beliefs, sacred traditions. And what he is passing on, he says he himself received. Now what did he himself receive? It was the tradition about the death, the burial, the resurrection and the appear­ances of the risen Lord. He gives us this long grocery list of appearances, with himself being the last of all. And so you may be sure he’s added something to the list, namely the appearance to him, but otherwise, this was received tradition that was believed, not just by him, but believed by the other early church Christians, and it was transmitted in various congregations. And he’s trying to get that Corinthian congregation to conform to the form of early Christian belief that’s found elsewhere in early Christendom.
Ankerberg: Yes, this is a flag that’s planted in the ground around 55-57 A.D. in essence, which is 25 years after the time Jesus passed off the scene.
Witherington: Right.
Ankerberg. And Paul is saying he got that information, which the community of Christians already holds, and is teaching other places, and the fact is, he got it from someplace else. How early did he get it?

When did Paul learn this sacred tradition?

Witherington: Well, again, it seems to me that since everywhere in Paul’s letters the es­sence of the matter is “Christ, and him crucified, and the risen Lord,” it seems to me only logical to conclude that this was some of the very first teaching he received.
What most scholars would say is that the earliest tradition that probably received a written form, the earliest continuous narrative, was the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This was probably the earliest part of the Gospel that was put into written form as a continuous narrative. It’s very possible that at some point Paul had read such a narrative. What we know, though, that he had contact with some of the eyewitnesses that actually experienced these things, and he could consult with them.

What were some of the earliest “creeds” or “confessions” of the church?

Ankerberg: Take me back to some of the creedal statements that precede the writing of the New Testament. That which was being preached that will show up in the book of Acts, and why are some of those important?
Witherington: Well, let’s take probably the earliest confession that Christians’ made: Jesus is the risen Lord. We find this in various places in Paul’s letters. He says, this is what you’ve got to confess with your lips and believe in your heart that Jesus is the risen Lord. Well, that seems to have been the very earliest distinctive Christian confession.
Ankerberg: Why do scholars hold that? I mean, how do you guys figure that out?
Witherington: Well, if you go back to the actual stories of the visit to the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus, what is it that the women go and tell the male disciples? “He is risen! He is risen indeed.” I mean, this is actually going back to Easter morning itself. This is the original proclamation. This is the proclamation that Mary Magdalene made to the male disciples, even though, initially, they scoffed at it. And so, we’re talking bedrock here. This was the most primi­tive confession. It distinguished Jewish Christians from non-Christian Jews.

What does Philippians 2 tell us about how the early church thought of Jesus Christ?

Ankerberg: What about Philippians 2? The critical scholars accept Philippians as a Pauline epistle. What do they do with Philippians 2?
Witherington: Well, now that’s a really interesting one. Because what we’ve got in Philippians 2 is what I would call a “Christ hymn.” If you are a student of Greek you will know that this is in a sort of rhythmic cadence. It’s a sort of poetic form, it has a V pattern. There’s a three point sermon here about his pre-existence, his earthly existence, and his existence in heaven beyond his time of his earthly career. So it’s a kind of V pattern, he came down, humbled himself to the form of a servant, even to the point of death on the cross. Because of this God has highly exalted him. Now what we know is that when we compare Philippians 2 to John chapter 1, when we compare Philippians 2 to Colossians chapter 1 we’ve got these V pattern hymns about Christ in various different document of the New Testament which suggests to most scholars that this is an early Christological hymn. Predating Paul in terms of his own performance of this particular hymn in Philippians 2, predating the writing of the Gospels. So what we know is, and what scholars have stressed is that these Christological hymns show that a high Christology was a very early Christology.
Ankerberg: What does a “high Christology” mean?
Witherington: Well, it means that it’s a Christology that affirms not only the true humanity of Jesus, but also his divinity.
Ankerberg: Where did that come from, then?
Witherington: Well, it came from the assessment of the impact of the Christ event. You see, what a person is, what a person claims to be, and what others claim about him can all be differ­ent things. No Christian scholar that I know of is denying that the early Christians ascribed to Jesus, or said about Jesus, more than Jesus said about himself. The question is, is that “more” grounded in who he actually was, or not? It’s not so crucial whether Jesus actually claimed this or not. The question, was he, indeed, the son of God? Was the one that God sent from heaven to redeem the world or not? The earliest Christians all believed that was certainly the case. And they believed that was grounded in who he actually was. So this confession, this Christ hymn goes back to the earliest Christians and what they believed about Jesus.

Why is the cross so prominent in Paul’s teaching?

Ankerberg: In the theology of Paul, the cross is prominent. Is this something that goes back to Jesus as well?
Witherington: Certainly I think it does. Jesus, it’s not, I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, it’s not amazing to me that Jesus got himself crucified. What’s amazing to me is that he lasted as long as he did, considering what he was doing and what he was teaching. The truth of the matter is that Jesus would not have had to been a particularly prophetic figure to foresee that he was going to come to a violent end. What’s interesting to me about that is that it’s not clear to me when exactly he realized that that end would take the form, not of stoning, which he might have expected, like Stephen got, but of crucifixion. In those great passion predictions of Mark 8, 9, and 10, what Jesus says is that the son of man must suffer many things, and be killed, and on the third day rise. He doesn’t use the verb crucified. He simply says be killed. I think that it’s probably as we get down towards the last week of his life that it begins to become clear that the particular form in which he was going to die was the most shameful way to die. And this is why there is this wrestling in the Garden of Gethsemane. He does not want to drink the cup of God’s wrath in front of the whole world, and be shamed in front of the whole world by being crucified. But if that’s what God wills, then Thy will be done, says Jesus. I think it is true that it may well be that Jesus used the term take up your cross and follow me metaphorically. Maybe he had an inkling that this was where this was going anyway. But in any case, I think it is certainly the case that Jesus understood that he was the man born to die, and that he believed that God would be in that death.
Ankerberg: That shaming part must have really gotten to the apostle Paul.
Witherington: Well, I think it did. You know, the impression you get of somebody like Saul of Tarsus is that he was tremendously proud of his Jewish heritage. He lived in an honor and shame culture, and he believed that he had lived an honorable Jewish life. When he reflects in Philippians 3 about his Jewish pedigree, he says in regard to legalistic righteousness that comes from the law, I was faultless, kept it, every last jot and tittle. Here’s a tremendously proud man. Someone who believes in his Jewish heritage, has a good clean conscience, believes he’s live a good Jewish life, and then what happens? God asks of him what seems to be the impos­sible: by the way, I want you to believe in a crucified manual worker named Jesus as your Mes­siah, as the savior of the world. Now, it takes a major intellectual battle to get from Saul the Pharisee to Paul the convinced preacher of Jesus.

How did the resurrection of Jesus differ from what Paul the Pharisee expected?

Ankerberg: It takes an appearance of Jesus to him as well, and putting two and two together. What did the resurrection mean to Paul?
Witherington: Well, as a Pharisee, he believed that in the future, when Messiah came, there would be the resurrection of the saints in general. Most Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the just or the righteous. Not the resurrection of everybody. But he believed in the resurrection. Now what’s odd about the Jesus tradition is that out of the blue we have this isolated individual resurrected in the midst of history. Now, for the Pharisee that meant an adjustment in what you believed about resurrection. And so Paul uses this terminology: Jesus being the first fruits, and those who are in Christ being the latter fruits of the resurrection. So he’s had to rethink this whole belief in the resurrection. He doesn’t abandon the belief, but in light of his own encounter with the risen Lord, he has to now believe differently. There was a resurrection back here, there is going to be more in the future.

Did Jesus really say “this is my body” at the Last Supper?

Ankerberg: Did Jesus really say at the Passover ceremony, where he had communion “This is my body”? That seems to be in contention. Is there any reason for that contention?
Witherington: Well, of course, the reason is that, if he said something like that he must have had some kind of atonement theology that referred to the salvific significance of his own death, and you know, there are various scholars who want to avoid that conclusion. But the truth of the matter is that even if you left all the Gospels out of the account, we still have Paul, a witness from 20 some years after Jesus died saying well, this is what was said. And not only does he say this in 1 Corinthians 11, he says “this is the tradition I received from the earliest Christians.” Now it seems to me straining credulity to the breaking point to say, “Okay, we know that Paul affirms that ‘this is my body, this is my blood’ stuff. We know that Paul says that he received it from earlier Christians, but he couldn’t have received it from the eyewitnesses who were there with Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed. He must have received it from Christians who kind of ‘theologized’ about Jesus somewhere along the line, but they weren’t really in touch with Peter, James and John and those sort of folks. Now that argument is just straining credulity to the breaking point. The truth of the matter is that Jesus is the one that said this. The earliest disciples picked it up and remembered it as a sacred tradition because he was changing the Passover ritual. The thing that they had memorized since they were children suddenly had a new and different significance, because he’s now talking about himself, his body and his blood being the symbolic things that bring about the exodus, the redemption, the Passover of all human kind. For sure they were going to remember how he changed that ritual. And the earliest Christians transmitted this as a sacred tradition that we now call the Lord’s Supper.


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