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From the spring of about the year 30 C.E. and through the following year, a small group of Jews formed what we may call a Jewish sect. Paul of Tarsus joined the movement toward the end of that brief period, or a year or two later, but the sect was already growing rapidly, evidently in a number of locations, and developing into what we know as the Christian church. Central for an important number among them, presumably from the beginning, was what they called their gospel, the particular story that they told, and one that Paul learned from them. They accompanied the telling of this story with a cultic meal which developed into the Eucharist. Gospel and Eucharist, a story and a meal of thanksgiving, appear to have been essential marks of some of those little communities from their beginning, or at least from before Paul's adhesion to the movement. This study will focus on that story and how it took shape.
Some of the first members had been followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and the story they told centered on the end of his life. There may have been other communities whose founding members had been followers of Jesus and who told other stories about him, but this study will concentrate on those who told the story that Paul repeated. It was certainly about Jesus, but it had not been learned by following his activities or listening to his teaching in Galilee. Indeed, in the condensed form that Paul rehearses, Jesus was not even given his own name. That condensed story, as reported by Paul twenty to twenty-five years later, was "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve" (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). A fundamental question, which this study will explore, is: what are the origins of this story?
What became of this little Jewish movement with its story and its cult is well known, however: the movement expanded in time, becoming the Christian church, and its story, augmented by reflection on it and by other stories about Jesus, was expanded into the writings of the New Testament and of the early Church Fathers. The expansion resulted largely from the movement's inclusion of non-Jewish members, a practice that contributed to its separation from its original context, that of the Jewish people. The separation probably arose over a number of issues, in a variety of places and at different times, but the break was definite within a hundred years, and relations were growing ever more acrimonious.
My question is not about what resulted from the formulation of the story, however, but about the formulation or discovery itself. Where did the story come from? What accounts for its specific formulation, as reported by Paul? How did the followers of Jesus come to tell it in the form we find in verses 3, 4, and 5 of the fifteenth chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians? I take this question to be in the first place a historical one.
It is also a biblical question, if the term "biblical" includes how Jews in the first century of the Common Era read and understood their Bible. Since the striking phrase "according to [or in accordance with] the scriptures" occurs at no less than two points, and since the authors of this gospel were Jews, any answer must depend upon understanding how Jews read their scriptures at this time. My question, then, concerns Jewish exegesis or interpretation some thirty-five years before the outbreak of the Jewish war of independence that ended with the Roman capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.
The question also has a theological aspect, however, but one that is partly independent of the religious commitments of those who seek to answer it. Any answer will not only have to include some account of the god who is implied in the story or gospel, but will also reveal, in the respondent's account of the story's origins, his or her own understanding of god. Thus we must consider both what sort of god the gospel presupposes, and also what sort of god is presupposed in any account of how it was formulated. I think it is possible to answer the first of these questions, if not the second, apart from one's religious commitments.
Since this investigation concerns the prejudices or presuppositions of the discoverers of the gospel, it is especially important that we recognize our own prejudices. We shall be considering the origins of Christianity and, therefore, the beginnings of the Christian-Jewish conflict, and this involves delving into the minds of premodern thinkers. Scarcely anyone could enter these matters without some prejudice, be they orthodox or liberal Christians, orthodox or liberal Jews, Enlightenment or post-Enlightenment humanists, or any combination of these identities. These observations are not intended to hide my own presuppositions. On the contrary, the nature of the question makes it imperative to lay all presuppositions on the table, those of the author and also those of the reader, and submit them to examination. So let me be as honest as I can about mine, while I ask the reader to do the same.
I am a Christian, first by birth and upbringing, then by conviction, and finally by critical reflection. But I am a Christian who has become aware of a living Jewish tradition. Since this discovery ran counter to central features of the theological tradition that I had been taught, I set about reconstructing how Christian theology might look if it incorporated an acknowledgment of the Jewish people as continuing, living Israel. I have been at this task ever since.
I am also a child of the Enlightenment, but one who insists on holding up for critical scrutiny every tenet by which the Enlightenment criticized previous understandings of the past and present. This includes any prejudice that tries to tell us that "facts" exist independently of interpretation. Perhaps this statement, without further elaboration, will encourage the reader to face up to her or his own prejudices in approaching the inevitably self-involving question addressed in this study.
Finally, the historical question, whence came the early gospel of 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, also bears on Christian practice. However it is answered, the answer will touch on Christian and Jewish identities and on the difference between them. This will generate some view of the past and present relationship of the church to the Jewish people and some judgment of the relations that ought to exist between Christians and Jews today.
By defining my question as primarily historical, I do not deny that it can be answered by an appeal to revelation. One could say that the early gospel was revealed by God to Peter and his companions, either by a heavenly voice, in a dream, or by some other divine intervention. But even with such an answer, the historical question would remain: by what human means did such a revelation take place? This concerns the human words in which the gospel was formulated. What, in the realm of human thought and activity, lies behind and led to precisely the formulation that Paul said he received?
The question is sharpened by a distinction made in Paul's earlier letter to the Thessalonians. There he thanked God for the fact "that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God" (1Thessalonians 2:13). The question is not the self-identifying one, whether the early gospel of 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 "really is" a divine revelation, "the word of God." To tell the truth, I think it is, but this does not answer the essential question. What I want to understand is how the message came to be formulated, that is, the origin of those "words of men" that Paul heard other human beings speak and that, in their words or in his revision, he passed on to his hearers and readers.
The answer that I propose takes the form of a tentative historical reconstruction. This will be the subject of Part I, "The Gospel of the Scriptures." I can argue for no more than a hypothesis, since the sources for any reconstruction are quite limited. If more than a hypothesis is demanded, then the wisest answer is "We don't know." The hypothesis is this: that the gospel of 1
Although the hypothesis cannot be proved, attention to the historical context of the early gospel renders the hypothesis at the least plausible. A plausible account of the origin is better than none, and this hypothesis offers an explanation of how that gospel could have come to be formulated. It also shows why its discoverers claimed that it was "according to the scriptures."
If the hypothesis is in any way accurate, it also throws a fresh light on the important matters that will concern us in Part II, "The Scriptures of the Gospel." First, it shows the continuity of the traditions of ancient Israel in their postbiblical Jewish interpretations and in the assertions of the Christian church. It brings to light both the indissoluble connection between the two parts of the church's Bible and the priority of its Old Testament. Second, the hypothesis demonstrates that Judaism and Christianity are grounded in two different interpretations of the same tradition. Defining the difference between the two traditions as one of interpretation does not diminish that difference but, rather, opens the possibility of attending to both interpretations, of following one without forgetting the other. It invites us to a dual reading of Israel's scriptures that does justice to and testifies to God's providential will to preserve two bearers of Israel's tradition into the present.
To return to our starting point, I can offer no more than a hypothesis in answer to the basic question. The objection can always be made that we simply cannot know for sure. I respect the historian's concern to distinguish what can be firmly established on the basis of reliable evidence from what cannot, but I find the objection finally unsatisfactory, for it leaves us with no account of the origin of the gospel of 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. Other objections could also be made, but they would depend either on a debatable concept of divine intervention in human affairs or a better description of the context in which that gospel originated.
This context, we shall find, consists of a few "bare facts" that I believe are not disputed, together with a rich, but debatable, framework. Before the facts and the framework can be considered, however, it is necessary to examine the language of the gospel that Paul said he received.
|Pt. I||The Gospel of the Scriptures|
|1||The Gospel before Paul||10|
|3||"According to the Scriptures"||30|
|4||From the Depths of the Scriptures||38|
|5||The Gospel and Paul||51|
|6||The Gospel and the Gospels||60|
|Pt. II||The Scriptures of the Gospel|
|7||So What about the Scriptures?||71|
|8||Old Testament, not Tanak or Hebrew Bible||83|
|According to the Scriptures|
|9||On the Art of Reading the Old Testament||94|
|10||Who Then Is the Beloved Son, and Whose?||105|
|11||The Gospel in a Dual Reading of Scripture||118|
|12||Our Irreplaceable Old Testament||129|
|Index of Names||142|
|Index of Scripture References||144|