“Born of a Woman”: Paul’s Perfect Victim and the Historical Jesus
by R. Joseph Hoffmann
One of the more absurd aspects of Christ-myth studies is the suggestion that the “neglect” of the historical Jesus by Paul is at least indirect proof that Jesus never existed. This absurdity is sometimes compounded by the suggestion that Paul did not exist, creating a kind of literary dittograph of Russell’s famous teapot argument as it is sometimes argued in the philosophy of religion: If the fate to be avoided is Aquinas’ infinite regress as it applies to finite causality, then What created God? In this case the question has to be, Who created Paul, and why?
Implicitly the answer would be, So that “Paul,” in a singular act of farsightedness, could create Jesus (who might have lived at any point in time except when he is supposed to have lived), who would then precipitate the mischief or malice of gospel writers, who may have thought (or not) that he really existed, thus causing the church. All of these figments live together in a little crooked house.
The myth theory does not get more cowboy than this, shooting at anything that comes across its path with the unarguable logic of a bullet. Mythicism is not so much a conspiracy theory as a mass of cobbled improbabilities that can only be compared to explaining the existence of a discovery by postulating that the scientist credited with formulating it was really created by a mad scientist who invented the first and a third who created the one who created him. This is comparatively easy to do when all you have is the theory and an opinion about it. After a dozen mad scientists have been postulated, however, you must ask where reality lies. For mythicists, it seems, it doesn’t really exist anywhere. It certainly doesn’t exist anywhere near where the evidence points, and to think otherwise sullies your credentials as a skeptic.
In a previous and more formal contribution to the Jesus Process, I gave what I consider to be the strongest reason for Paul’s imputed “silence” concerning the historical Jesus: namely, Paul’s psychological predicament. He is a man obsessed with the death and resurrection of Jesus, not his life and teaching. That is clear from his earliest letters: “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come to you proclaiming the mystery of God in obscure words of wisdom. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2.1-2.; cf 1 Cor 1 cor 1.23).
It is superficially clear that Paul understands this crucifixion as a real event, not as an historically ambiguous “moment” that happened once upon a time—his time, or someone else’s time. Insofar as Paul cares anything about real time, it is God’s time in relation to a historical event he cares about, the pleroma tou kronou (Gal 4.4-7).
As far as we know, or he tells, Paul himself was not affected directly by the death of Jesus. It was not an event of his biography. When he enters the picture—perhaps as early at the 40’s of the first century—interpretation and meaning have replaced anxiety and disappointment. So has a rudimentary and developing church structure replaced the informal network of followers and believers. A rationalized eschatology that borders on uncertainty—and in some cases trespasses on uncertainty–has already arisen in various Christian communities (1 Thes 4.13ff.)
One effect of this is that resurrection has replaced the urgent eschatology of the first several years following the unanticipated death of Jesus, and the “hope” of resurrection has been extended to include a belief that is not highly developed in the gospels: that all believers who believe in the saving effects of the death of Jesus will experience a resurrection like his ( 1 Thes 4.16; 1 Cor. 15. 1-58; but cf. Mt 27.51-53). It is clear that belief in the fate of a believer being linked to belief in the resurrection of Jesus is Paul’s distinctive and appealing contribution to Christian theology.
In effect, eschatology has been turned on its head between the writing of the earliest of Paul’s letters, which sees Jesus returning in a flurry to finish his messianic mission, and the belief that resurrection of the dead “in Christ” will bring all those who have died to a new life. Put bluntly, while Paul does not say that the coming of Jesus is not to be expected (cf. 1 Cor. 16.22, Gal 4.1-11 ), the primary expectation is not that but the coming of the resurrection (1 Cor 15.51f). The “historical” return of Jesus is not what he would prefer to talk about, even if it is on the minds of his (and other) congregations (1 Thes 2.19; & cf. 2 Ptr 3.4)
Paul is obsessed with this “problematic”— something which both theologians and New Testament critics used to emphasize more than they do currently. The promise of resurrection is the bright side of the threat of judgment, but the death and resurrection of Jesus typifies both (Rom 6.5-11). There is nothing within the gospel tradition, such as it was in his day, that could have solved the problem for Paul–and nothing “biographical” concerning Jesus that would have served his political purposes in relation to the wayward congregations he is trying to keep in tow. He is reticent to use the phrase logos tou kyriou and when he does (1 Thessalonians 4:15, for example) it seems to refer to dominical tradition rather than to Jesus himself. The question is not Why does Paul not quote Jesus more?, but whether Paul quotes Jesus at all.
Paul does not exactly “invent” the idea of a general resurrection of the dead—Pharisaism and its outgrowth, rabbinical Judaism, floated the idea in conjunction with belief in a messianic age—but as far as we know he is the earliest writer to use the belief as a mechanism for shoring up the flagging faith in the immediate return of Jesus, such as we find it expressed in the “half way return” concocted in 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18, a peculiar blend of traditional apocalyptic based on an otherwise unattested word of the lord (4.15) and equivocation (5.1-8), but bolstered by the belief that “Jesus died and rose again” (4.14), which is for Paul an unshakeable historical occurrence.
Paul says all anyone might expect a man with a special agenda to say about a man he knows only by report, considering (a) his evangelical purpose–to interpret the gospel in his own way and (b) his professional agenda, to defeat the interpretations of others (who may or may not have lived through the events described eventually in the synoptics). It is not at all clear what more he might say if we grant his own admission that he did not know Jesus according to the flesh, that it is not important to have known Jesus according to the flesh, on his interpretation, and that the saving significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection must necessarily transcend the need to know Jesus according to the flesh. Paul’s disuse of historical tradition while deliberate rather than passive or uninformed, leads him to criticize both the temporal and geographical limits placed on the movement by the superior apostles (Gal 5.12; 2 Cor 11.13ff.) For Paul the focus is almost entirely on the next performance, not the drama as it was performed the previous evening.
In my previous essay for the Process I said that Paul’s neglect of Jesus is motivated by a more sinister reason: jealousy. Jealousy is a human emotion. Its normal coordinates are older-younger, wiser-less wise, power-powerlessness, and precedence-dependence. Those coordinates could easily be a map of Paul’s motifs in the authentic letters.
Paul’s jealousy is not a well guarded secret: He is transparently jealous of his missionary rivals, who may or may not have known the historical Jesus (but there is no reason to suppose they did: Gal 1.6-10); obviously antagonistic towards those who “were apostles before [him]” (Gal 1.17); spiteful towards what he perceives as the precedence and subsequent hypocrisy of Cephas (Gal 2.6-10; 11-14); and bitter towards the “men from James” who “spied out his freedom” (which may or may not have been rubber-stamped by the superior apostles (Gal 2.12; 2 Corinthians 11.5-20), and even eager to say his preaching is not especially impressive: 1 Cor 4.10; 1.20, apparently directed at his more consequential opponents. No one who was not really suffering under a yoke of inferiority could have produced such exquisite rancour as the Paul of 2 Corinthians, and it is difficult to imagine why anyone would want to manufacture a record of this fracture in the (later) vaunted unity of the apostolic community as it appears, originally, in Acts. As if these were not thorns enough to bear, the apocryphal tradition about Paul was that he was ugly to boot, “[He was] a man of middling size, and his hair was scanty, and his legs were a little crooked, and his knees were projecting, and he had large eyes and his eyebrows met, and his nose was somewhat long” (Acts of Paul and Thecla).
The mythicist opinion concerning Paul’s “silence” crumbles before the apostle’s puling self-defense of his mission and right to be an apostle on the same terms as those who followed Jesus according to the flesh. The Paul of 2 Corinthians is at the end of his rope, suspicious of competitiors, insistent on his role, his legitimacy and the specifics of mission—and obvioiusly aware of where the trouble is coming from: the vaunted, self-aggrandizing, intrusive, men of so-called repute in Jerusalem who cause Paul to resort to “boasting”: “Are they Hebrews? So am I; are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one” (2 Cor 11.22-23).
It is a general trait of mythicism to cry foul (or interpolation) in those few instances when they cannot prove a point by silence or misuse of analogy. If this requires overturning by random fiat or uneducated guesswork the conventional wisdom of two centuries of critical study, all the better. We have already explored the passages where mythicism breaks its bones on the rock of texts that show, beyond any serious doubt, that Paul was aware of the life of Jesus, as much as he was aware of his death (Romans 6.5-6), the manner of his death (1 Cor 1 .23; 11.23-24) and reports and visions of the risen Christ (1 Corinthinas 15.5ff), which he uses strategically to insert himself into the tradition—but within an explicitly historical context that includes Peter, the eleven, and James. It makes infinitely dim sense to explain that Paul was not aware of an historical Jesus but was at war with those he knew were relations and followers of Jesus and witnesses to his teaching.
Despite the enhancement of the story of Paul’s “conversion” by the author of Acts (9.3-6, 22.4-16; 26.9-18), the conversion itself marks the transition—at least in Paul’s mind and language—between history and meaning (Gal 1.15-16). This “bifurcation” is not especially novel: Just as there would be no pressing reason to discuss the biography of Plato in order to discuss his ideas, it is not unusual that Paul chose interpretation over details to discuss Jesus–except insofar as the choice to omit the details was forced on him by his own historical situation, by the jealousy he felt, and by a certain petulant quality that made him, probably, one of the most active early missionaries.
I am not suggesting therefore that Paul’s silence means ”nothing” in terms of the historical Jesus but that it means something significant. Paul’s jealousy, his need to protect and defend his mission, his contempt for rivals and intruders, and finally his verdict on the “ historical” apostles and claims of Jerusalem are not hidden in his letters. The sheer density of Paul’s theology has tended to obliquate these personal struggles and their historical derivation. For mythicism this has made it possible to focus merely on what Paul doesn’t tell us with a resounding and repetitive “Why not?” For traditional theology, it has meant something nearly as unimpressive: that all we need to get from Paul is his message of faith, grace, love and salvation—or, on the Catholic side, how these things are made available within the Christian church and the sacraments, especially baptism and the eucharist. Paul’s real-life struggles are inconvenient to the former camp, as it brings them to a reckoning with the immediate followers of a historical Jesus, and embarrassing to the latter because Paul’s theology, instead of inspired and authoritative, begins to look contrived, petulant, and exceedingly personal.
Mythicists have special antipathy for Galatians 4.4: ὅτε δὲ ἦλθεν τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου ἐξαπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ, γενόμενον ἐκ γυναῖκος, γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον, since there is no serious suggestion that it is interpolated or “unoriginal” to the letter. Its reference to the mother of Jesus as “a woman” (γυνή) rather than a virgin is tantalizingly removed from the nativity and virgin birth legends of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which seem to have been unknown to the writers of John and Mark; indeed, in John 2.4, Jesus addresses his mother as “γύναι” –“Woman.” As it is generally agreed that Paul has no special interest in arguing any particular doctrine about the birth of Jesus, this single phrase is unparalleled in his genuine letters. The question is, Why does he mention it at all? It will take until the time of the fourth gospel in the late first or early second century before the birth of Jesus acquires theological stature as the “incarnation” of God. With Paul, we are probably two generations away from that shift in thinking.
But we are not far removed from another theme that would have been relevant to the finer points of Paul’s sacrificial view of the death of Jesus as a “price” for sin. “Sonship” is on Paul’s mind in Galatians 4, so he seems to permit himself a digression on the birth of Jesus as he knows it.
By the fifties of the first century, Paul’s Jewish opposition included the well-known slander that Jesus himself was illegitimate, that his mother had been a prostitute. I discussed some of this tradition a number of years ago in a small anthology (primarily designed for the convenience of undergraduates) called Jesus Outside the Gospels. In even shorter form, the core of the report is contained in Rab Shabbath, 104b, repeated in almost identical words in Bab. Sanhedrin, 67a. The report reveals confusion over the parentage of Jesus and a bowdlerized tradition that he had been known as “one who had gone astray” (or the son of one who had gone astray from the teachings of Judaism), as the son of an adulteress and a gentile known simply as “Panthera.”
Ben Stada was Ben Pandera. Rab Chisda said: The husband was Stada, the lover Pandera. (Another their own said): The husband was Paphos ben Jehuda; Stada was his mother’ (or) his mother was Miriam the women’s hairdresser; as they would say at Pumbeditha, S’tath da (i.e., she was unfaithful) to her husband.
In JOtG I remarked that clues concerning the “multiple Mary” conundrum of the gospels might be found in seeing the confusion as an effort to write around (or write out) the tradition that it was Jesus’ mother rather than a woman acquaintance—Mary Magdalene—who had the scarlet reputation (keeping in view that the floating tradition of the woman taken in adultery, usually assigned to Luke, is unnamed). Miriam, “the women’s hair-dresser,” seems to be simply another name-play of the Ben Stada and Ben Panthera variety as we know it from the rabbinical sources. Miriam, “the women’s hair-dresser,” is in the original Miriam, “megaddela nesaiia”; and Miriam Megaddela, or Mary Magdalene seems to derive from this murky tradition.
For a Jew the combination “Miriam of Magdala” was equivalent to saying Miriam the harlot, as Magdala Nunayya (near Tiberias and the sea of Galilee) was notorious for the looseness of the lives of its women. As far as rabbinical tradition goes, it is likely that we have in the symmetry between the Magdalene and Megaddela tradition the origin of the otherwise strange combination Miriam the women’s hair-dresser and Mary the mother of Jesus.
While the references to this tradition are scattered and at times linguistically ambiguous, our earliest gospel makes no reference to Jesus’ father, and Paul does not mention the name of the mother—if he knew it. Matthew on the other hand seems to struggle against reports that Mary’s pregnancy is a source of scandal and humiliation (1.18), a tradition he obviates by saying that before the couple consummated their marriage Mary was pregnant ‘by the holy spirit,’ but that Joseph was (naturally) skeptical of her story; and that divorce was only averted by a vision that ensured Joseph she was not promiscuous. Luke turns this scenario, whether independently or not, into a Hellenistic tale of a virgin birth, without any trace of scandal or suspicion. While Matthew’s focus is on pedigree and legitimacy, Luke’s is on divine sonship.
It is my view that Paul is referring to this contentious tradition in Galatians 4.4. Jesus is born of a woman, according to the law ἐκ γυναικός, γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον. This also establishes the identity of Jesus as a Jew, a fact necessitated by Paul’s distinctive view of the atonement.—What the effect of the death of Jesus is on the power of sin and death depends on his legitimacy and the role of the law. But for this calculation Paul requires a spotless victim, and for that reason it becomes necessary that Jesus is born according to the law, untainted by “unusual circumstances.” In effect, it is not Matthew or Luke who create the paternity of God, but Paul when he writes “In the fullness of time God sent forth his son.”
But the crucial thing for Paul is to dispose of the historically inconvenient tradition that Jesus was born outside the law–a tradition that would have made his entire theological enterprise suspect: Only a victim who was born according to the law could die in accordance with the scriptures (1 Cor 15.3; Romans 12.1-2; Rom. 5:12-21), erase the encumbrances brought on by “the first man” and serve as a model for the “resurrection life.”
This almost spasmodic reaching into and beyond history for meaning is one of the more difficult aspects of Paul’s theology, but it seems to me that there is no other explanation for why the “birth” of Jesus intrudes, in just the way it does, into his letter to the Galatians.
Far from being ignorant of the Miriam-tradition, Paul needs to deal with it. It is possible, in fact, since he does not reflect anything like a developed apologetic stance toward the polemical Jewish tradition, that the only bit of historical information he knows is the Jewish side. Paul, in this case, becomes the inventor of the “fatherhood of God”-motif later exploited in the gospels This however is sufficient to explain why Paul refers to Jesus’ legitimacy “under the law” as a fact believed by Christians, denied by Jews, but absolutely vital for his theological agenda. If I am right, it means that the notion Paul knew “nothing” about the historical Jesus tradition is false; it means that not only did he know a strongly antagonistic tradition that remained a live issue for the gospel writers, but that his early theology pivoted on sweeping it aside. It is also rather explicit proof of the way in which Paul could dispose of problematical historical tradition in the interest of getting on with his work.