02 Dec 2012 
#2 Paul and Jesus' pre-existence: what can we determine from his epistles?

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I am rather certain Paul did not express in his epistles the belief Jesus was not pre-existent. Even if he did not probably believed in the pre-existence early on, that does not show (but I wish it did!). Or does it? Instead, mostly in his last letters, Paul came out for the pre-existence. Or did he not? I have my reasons, and I'll explain them in the comments during the exchange of ideas. But for now, it is your turn to speak out ...

Cordially, Bernard

Tags: {Jesus' pre-existence} {Paul}
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Comment from: gakuseidon

This is a very interesting topic! Scholars like Dunn and Ehrman have thought that the earliest Christians were adoptionists, whereby the man Jesus was 'adopted' by God as His Son. I think that they have a good case, though I'll admit there are some passages that are difficult to explain if that were the case.

I'll respond in the next day or so, to make my case that Paul didn't consider Jesus either divine or pre-existent (which go hand-and-hand, as I will explain.) I'll work from your excellent website page (http://historical-jesus.info/hjes3x.html) as well as comments we have swapped elsewhere. Looking forward to a good discussions on this with you! I hope others will join in as well.
Comment from: gakuseidon

Clearly Christianity by the end of the Second Century considered Jesus as both divine and pre-existent. Apologists like Tertullian and Minucius Felix attacked the habit of the Hellenized world (hereafter called 'pagan') of making gods of dead men. Tertullian wrote in Ad nationes:

"[O]f course, nothing which some time or other had a beginning can rightly seem to be divine... It is a settled point that a god is born of a god, and that what lacks divinity is born of what is not divine."

M. Felix wrote the same:

"Therefore neither are gods made from dead people, since a god cannot die; nor of people that are born, since everything which is born dies. But that is divine which has neither rising nor setting."

Neither went on to describe exactly why Jesus Christ didn't fit into those statements, but they didn't have to. For them, Jesus had always existed, even if he had taken a short detour to earth at some point. That was the nature of divinity.

But what about Paul, the author of the Gospel of Mark (hereafter called 'Mark') and other early Christians? Did they see Jesus as pre-existent and divine? Scholars like James Dunn and Bart Ehrman have suggested that they did not. For them, the earliest Christians were adoptionists; that is, Jesus was a man who was adopted as Son of God. And I think a strong case can be made along those lines.

I believe that the earliest Christians saw Jesus as "pre-ordained" rather than "pre-existing". We see something like this in Jer 1:5 "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations." God's plan was that the prophet Jeremiah would be sanctified and made a prophet. This occurred before he was born.

Similarly, we see in 1 Peter 1:19-20 (NKJV): "but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained (foreknown, destined) before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you." If Jesus was "foreknown" before the foundation of the world, it suggests to me that he was not actually there.

Justin Martyr writes about Christians in his time who did not think that Jesus pre-existed. He writes in "Dialogue with Trypho" (Chapter 48):

"Now assuredly, Trypho," I continued,"[the proof] that this man is the Christ of God does not fail, though I be unable to prove that He existed formerly as Son of the Maker of all things, being God, and was born a man by the Virgin. But since I have certainly proved that this man is the Christ of God, whoever He be, even if I do not prove that He pre-existed, and submitted to be born a man of like passions with us, having a body, according to the Father's will; in this last matter alone is it just to say that I have erred, and not to deny that He is the Christ, though it should appear that He was born man of men, and[nothing more] is proved[than this], that He has become Christ by election. For there are some, my friends," I said, "of our race, who admit that He is Christ, while holding Him to be man of men..."

It is not scientific, but I would think it more likely that Christian belief would gradually morph from "just a man" to "pre-existing being", rather than the other way around. At the least, it is hard to imagine the scenario that would cause people who believed that Jesus was a pre-existing deity to change to that of "just a man", outside Judaism. If so, it suggests that the "just a man" belief was either earlier, or both beliefs were present from the start.

Bernard, I see that in http://historical-jesus.info/hjes2x.html, you write that "at this time (52C.E.), Paul's Christology did not feature yet Jesus as pre-existent & as the 'Son of God'" (I will look at specific passages suggesting pre-existence in my next post), so you may well agree with me up to this point.

I'll end on the "Adam Christology" that Dunn and Ehrman see in Paul. Dunn uses this to interpret the famous Phil 2 passage, which I will look at in my next post. But the main point I want to introduce here is that Paul saw Christ as a "second Adam". The first Adam was the father of all mankind according to the flesh. From his lack of obedience, death entered the world. The second Adam is the father of all mankind according to the spirit. His obedience means life for all those who believe in him.

The passages in Paul dealing with Adam:

Romans 5:14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

1 Cor 15:21 For since by man [came] death, by man [came] also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

1 Cor 15:45 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam [was made] a quickening spirit.

All the above is background. More tomorrow.
Comment from: gakuseidon Continuing...

I'll look at various passages in Paul often thought to indicate pre-existence, starting with the most well-known: Phil 2. Apologies for not having page references to Dunn where I use him. Details are from Dunn's "Christology in the Making".

Usually the passage examined is Phil 2:6-10 only, as though Paul was making an argument on Christ's nature. But in fact, Paul's point here is "Do nothing through selfishness or ambition. Follow the example of Christ.":

Phil 2:3 Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.
4 Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,
> 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.
9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name,

Usually this passage is interpreted as Paul alluding to a pre-existing Christ emptying himself of divine power to become a man -- in other words incarnation. For Dunn though, this is part of Paul's Adam Christology. Dunn notes that being "in the form of God" is another way of being "in the image of God", i.e. as Adam was in the image of God before his fall. While Adam grasped at being God by eating of the fruit, Christ was obedient unto death. The emptying that Jesus undergoes is an emptying of ambition (rather than of divine power), which suits the meaning that Paul is trying to convey to his readers. So, while Jesus could have come as King, he came as a servant, as just a man, i.e subject to death.

I find that Dunn's "Adam Christology" reading has a lot going for it. But I do find it difficult to parse the statements "coming in the likeness of men" and "being found in appearance as a man", since these imply that Jesus was not a man. The argument is that "man" here means subject to death and estrangement from God, which is the lot of all men after Adam, but I'm not aware of any distinction in early writings between "sinless men in the image of God" and "man" that would explain those passages. It's a conjecture that nicely explains the statements in terms of Dunn's Adam Christology, but it is built on speculation only, so should be questioned.

Other passages:

Romans 8:3 and Galatians 4:4 talk about "God sending Jesus". Dunn sees a dozen or so references where "God sends" human messengers, and believes that all we can say is that Paul's readers would most probably think simply of one sent by divine commission.

1 Cor 10:4 "And all of them drank the same spiritual drink. For all of them drank from the spiritual[ly significant] Rock which followed them, for that Rock was Christ." Dunn sees this as a "type", an allegory relevant to the Christians of his day. The Israelites were baptized into Moses, as Christians in Paul's time are baptized into Christ. The rock = Wisdom in Alexandian allegory, so rock = Christ in Christian typology.

Hebrews 1:2 "[God] has in these last days spoken to us by [His] Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world;"

For Dunn, God created the world "through" Christ by simply having him in mind. Like Jeremiah, Jesus was foreknown (rather than pre-existing) and his role was fore-ordained, so it could be said that the world was created for the role to be carried out. We see something similar in gThomas, where it is written: "Jesus said to them, "No matter where you are you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being."

Again, I see this as speculative. It might be a correct reading, but more evidence is needed. One website quotes the following from "Everyman's Talmud": http://www.amazon.com/Everymans-Talmud-Major-Teachings-Rabbinic/dp/0805210326#reader_0805210326

>>"The belief was general that the sending of the Messiah was part of the Creator's plan at the inception of the Universe. "Seven things were created before the world was created: Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden (i.e.Paradise), Gehinnom, the Throne of Glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah" (Pes. 54a). In a later work there is the observation: "From the beginning of the creation of the world king Messiah was born, for he entered the mind (of God) before even the world was created" (Pesikta Rab. 152b)

Naturally speculation was rife as to who the Messiah would be, and Scriptural texts were studied for enlightenment. On one point the Rabbis were unanimous, viz. he would be just a human being divinely appointed to carry out an allotted task."<<

I'm not saying these are slam-dunk arguments. There are some difficulties, as I note above. But I believe that Paul's Adam Christology is evident throughout the letters, i.e. "Christ is the new Adam, and we can become his children through faith." (I believe NT Wright also believes the texts support this, though he believes this is not inconsistent with Jesus' pre-existence.) Showing that Paul viewed Christ as "pre-ordained" rather than "pre-existent" is a more difficult matter.
Comment from: mullerb

Nice expose but I am far from convinced.

Let's take Phil 2:6-10: Why would the author specify two forms for Jesus: form of God then form of a bondservant? Is form of God the same as form of a human? I beg to differ.
After "form" of God, we have a statement that Jesus could have been equal to God. Would that be realistic from a human being? I think not.
Then after "form of a servant", we have: "being made in human likeness.", seemingly in order to justify the aforementioned.
Then, between the statements about the two forms, we have: "he made himself nothing", which would explain very well the passage from a divine heavenly entity quasi-equal to God to a mere humble human.

Galatians 4:4 implies the Son existed before being sent to earth.
"But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law,"
Also from Romans 8:3, the same:
"by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh,"
Note: I notice in ancient literature "likeness" is used to indicate an incarnation from heavenly being to human or humam-like:
a) Homer, 'The Iliad', Bk5 "... now Ares [god of war] is with him [Hektor] in the likeness of mortal man."
b) Herodotus, 'Histories', Bk7, Ch56 "It is said that when Xerxes [the Persian king] had now crossed the Hellespont, a man of the Hellespont cried, "O Zeus, why have you taken the likeness of a Persian man and changed your name to Xerxes, ..."
c) Apollodorus, 'Library and Epitome', Bk1, Ch9 "But Poseidon in the likeness of Enipeus lay with her, and she secretly gave birth to twin sons ..."
d) Jewish author Philo of Alexandria, (died 45-50), 'On dreams', I, (238) "God at times assumes the likeness of the angels, as he sometimes assumes even that of men"
e) Acts14:11-12 NKJV "Now when the people saw what Paul had done, they raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!" And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker."
f) 'The Ascension of Isaiah' 4:2-3 (quoted next in where Beliar (Satan), from the firmament, comes down to earth as Nero (through an earthly mother!) "in the likeness of a man".
I think too much has been written as Christ being the second Adam. Sure Paul used the fact Jesus had been human to make a point (as he does in Gal4:4), but I do not think he intended that to be considered a key point of his Christology. Anyway that second Adam concept does not necessarily imply Jesus was not pre-existent.

For the rest, I won't comment. Just that Dunn seems very apological and is trying to find (dubious) pretext in order to justify his agenda.
But I do see that Paul had Christ as a rock during the Exodus (1Cor 10:1-5). He said that very directly :"and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ." (1 Cor10:4)
And he did not present the story as being a metaphor (but he did just that in Galatians 4:24-25 in order to introduce an allegory).

Please, feel free to object.
Comment from: gakuseidon

>>Bernard: Why would the author specify two forms for Jesus: form of God then form of a bondservant? Is form of God the same as form of a human? I beg to differ.<<

For Dunn, "form of God" = "image of God". Adam was created as Son of God and in the image of God. But after the Fall, death entered the world. (Rom 5:14 "Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.") The implication was that Jesus was born as a new Adam, without sin or possibly mortality. However Adam was ruler of his world but ended up as a servant; while Jesus could have been a ruler, but voluntarily became a servant.

>>Bernard: After "form" of God, we have a statement that Jesus could have been equal to God. Would that be realistic from a human being? I think not.<<

Dunn speculates that Paul thought that Adam tried to do just that. In Gen 3:5, the serpent says that if they eat of the fruit, then "ye shall be as gods". In Gen 3:22, God says "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil". There is also John 10:34 and Psalm 82:6, with "ye are gods", meaning "judges". I suspect that "equal to God" here is making one's own decisions about what is good and evil.

>>Bernard: Then after "form of a servant", we have: "being made in human likeness.", seemingly in order to justify the aforementioned.
Then, between the statements about the two forms, we have: "he made himself nothing", which would explain very well the passage from a divine heavenly entity quasi-equal to God to a mere humble human.<<

Yes, I agree that this is the weakest part of my argument. The argument goes that Jesus was the new Adam, made in the image of God. But he came as fallen man -- the legacy of Adam -- but, unlike Adam, was obedient to death, so reversing what happened with Adam. Unfortunately the text doesn't quite say that!