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Fleshing Out Jesus
Written December 2016 - January 2017


 

 

Although the apostle Paul’s lifetime is sadly coming to a close here in the year 62 AD, he’s still preaching.  In recent years he has expressed his beliefs about his Lord in heaven, Christ Jesus, in eight epistles:  a letter to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, others to the Galatians and Philippians and Colossians and Thessalonians, and a note to Philemon.  These will eventually become part of what will be known as the New Testament.

After Paul’s death, Christianity will continue to develop, and Mark will write the first “gospel” describing the earthly life of Jesus.

Later gospels will add more biographical material bit by bit.  For example, Matthew will insert stories about a miraculous birth [1:18-25], wise men from the East [2:1-12], a family escape to Egypt [2:13-15], a recommended prayer [5:9-13], thirty pieces of silver [26:14-15], ominous earthquakes [27:31, 28:2], and a final appearance on a mountain in Galilee [28:16-20].  There will be new teachings as well.

In the years after 70 AD, some of the new details will be referenced in “pseudo-Pauline” letters that falsely claim Paul as their author.  These later epistles include Ephesians, Second Thessalonians, Titus, Hebrews, and First and Second Timothy.

Not everyone will welcome all this as gospel truth.  A writer claiming to be the apostle Peter will disavow “cleverly devised myths.”  [2 Peter 1:16] 

Even 19 centuries later, George A. Wells will cite several controversial additions that are largely ignored.  “Few Christians live in perfect confidence that God will always supply them with food and clothing.  [Matthew 6:25-33]   Nor do most follow Jesus’s injunction to hate or abandon their families in order to be his disciples.  [Luke 14:26]  Many do not find nonresistance to evil acceptable.”  [Matthew 19:29, 5:39] 

And Bart D. Ehrman will agree, “Everyone picks and chooses what they want to accept in the Bible.” 

But all that will take place after the meeting we imagine in the following narrative.

 

When I entered the building that afternoon, I found a Roman soldier guarding the apartment.  [Acts 28:16]  He allowed me to knock.  Presently a tall man opened the door.

“Greetings,” said I.  “Have I the honor of addressing Paul, the apostle of our Lord?”

“No, no,” said the man.  “Paul is resting inside.  I’m only his doctor.  My name is Luke.”  [Colossians 4:14] 

“Oh, yes, Luke!  I am Theophilus.”

“Most excellent Theophilus, ‘Friend of God!’  [Luke 1:3]  We have heard much about you, noble sir.  You are welcome in this place.  We are all Christians here.”  And he showed me inside.

Paul was lying on a couch, propped up on one elbow, talking with a younger man. 


LUKE, BY EL GRECO


PAUL, BY REMBRANDT

The apostle immediately greeted me.  “So you are Theophilus!  Grace and peace to you, from the Lord.”  He extended his hand.  “You must pardon me for not standing to embrace you, but my affliction has confined me to this bed, I’m afraid.  I have been quite weak lately.”

“Is the illness serious?” I asked.

“As serious as a shipwreck,” his doctor answered.  “But it cannot silence him.”

“Not at all,” said Paul.

“He’s been living here in Rome for more than a year,” Luke explained, “and he proclaims the kingdom of God to everyone who comes calling.  [Acts 28:30-31]  For example, we have this guest today.  His name is John Mark.”

“Hello, sir,” said the man sitting by the couch.  “Glad to meet you.”

“Likewise,” I replied.  “How do you know Paul?”

“We met in Jerusalem.”

“Pffah, Jerusalem!” Paul interjected.  “Mark was one of the good ones there.  All the other unbelievers in Judea refused to listen to me.”  [Romans 15:31] 


MARK, BY BLASHFIELD

Mark continued, “And then my cousin Barnabas and I joined Paul on some of his missionary journeys.  [Acts 12:25]  Now I’ve come to be with him here in Rome.”  [Colossians 4:10] 

“And what about the soldier at the front door?”

“Well, as you know, Paul is under house arrest.  He isn’t allowed to leave this apartment.”

“That,” Paul muttered, “is a nuisance.  I cannot go out.  But it doesn’t stop me from teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ to anyone who comes in!”

“Glory be to God,” I said.  “Amen,” said Dr. Luke.

“For example, I was just explaining to Mark here how God set forth Christ to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God — to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness, that he might be just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus.  Where is boasting then?  It is excluded!”  [Romans 3:25-27] 

We all nodded, not really comprehending.  Mark noted, “Some people say that Jesus actually is God.”

Paul disagreed.  “For us, there is one God, the Father,  from whom everything comes.  And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom everything comes.  [1 Corinthians 8:6]   He existed before creation began.  The whole universe was created through him and for him.  [Colossians 1:16-17]  He had always been God by nature, yet he did not cling to his prerogatives.  He made himself obedient, even to the point of death — death on a cross!”  [Philippians 2:6-8]

Divine Inspiration

“How is it,” I asked Paul, “that you’ve come to know so much about the Lord?”

“By revelation.  All this has been revealed to me.  You might say I have been crucified with Christ, who loved me and gave himself up for me.”  [Galatians 2:20] 

“So you were acquainted with him while he was in human form?”

The apostle looked at me strangely.  “No, of course not.  Christ Jesus died.  He died on the cross.  Jesus loved me; this I know, for the scripture tells me so.”  Paul began reciting a formula.  “In accordance with the scriptures, he died for our sins.  In accordance with the scriptures, he was buried, then raised from the grave on the third day.”  [1 Corinthians 15:3-4] 

“The third day,” Luke echoed.  “I once heard a proverb: three days is only a visit, but four days means a permanent residence.”

Paul continued, “He disarmed Satan’s cosmic powers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them.  He led them as captives in his triumphal procession.  [Colossians 2:15]  Now he sits on the right hand of God.  [Romans 8:34]  In recent years, he has begun to make appearances to people here on earth.  By this we know the end of the world is at hand!

“Before the end, the gospel must be preached to all nations.  [Mark 13:10]  But this present generation will live to see it all.  [Mark 13:30]  When the command is given, when the archangel’s voice is heard, when God’s trumpet sounds, then the Lord himself will descend.  [1 Thessalonians 4:16]  Yes, you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Almighty and coming with the clouds of heaven!  [Mark 14:62]  Those who have died as Christians will be the first to rise.  Then the rest of us who are still alive will be swept up with them into the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And after that, we shall be with him forever.”  [1 Thessalonians 4:17] 

Mark was rapturously rocking back and forth, imagining his glorious levitation that was sure to come within the next few years.  Later he would repeat Paul’s predictions in his own writings.  But Luke whispered to me, “My son thinks this apocalyptic part is ridiculous.  He says it’s not going to happen.”

Be that as it may, Paul was still speaking about divine manifestations.  “I mentioned that the Lord has already appeared to some of us here below.  Cephas saw him first, and afterwards the men we call The Twelve.  Next he appeared to more than 500 of our brothers at once.  Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles.  Last of all, he also appeared to me.  It’s as though I was born too late.”  [1 Corinthians 15:5-8] 

Paul’s Revelation

“Tell us again,” Mark urged, “about the time he appeared to you.  The first time.”

Paul leaned forward, cleared his throat, and began to tell his story.  “My name was Saul back then, and — can you believe it? — I had been doing my best to root out the Christians.”

“Why?”

“I was a Pharisee.  [Philippians 3:4-6]  Even more than most Jews, I was fervently devoted to the traditions of our ancestors.  [Galatians 1:14] 

“I resented my religion being perverted by this new cult of Nazarenes, who no longer believed that salvation comes from following the Law.  Now they were claiming that salvation comes instead from faith in a mystical sacrifice, the ‘Christ.’

“I swore I’d eradicate this lawless ‘new Way’ of theirs.  I went door to door in Jerusalem arresting the heretics, and I got a warrant to make arrests in Damascus as well.  [Acts 8:3, 9:1-2] 

“So I was on my way to Damascus.  I’ll never forget it.  It was about noon.

“Suddenly I saw a flash of light!  It blinded me, and I fell to the ground.  I heard a voice, too.”

“An epileptic seizure,” Dr. Luke whispered to me.  “That would be my guess.”

“And the voice said, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’


PAUL'S CONVERSION, BY TINTORETTO

“‘Who are you?’ I asked.  The voice answered, ‘I am Jesus.  You think you're persecuting me, but kicking against the goad of truth will only hurt you.  Now get up!  Go on to Damascus!  There you’ll be told what to do.’

“When I arrived and recovered my sight, a highly respected Jew called Ananias was standing beside me.  I described my experience to him, and he said God wanted me to tell the world.  Not just the Jewish world, but the Gentiles as well.”  [Acts 22:6-15, 26:14] 

“And did you tell the world?” I asked.

“Immediately!  I went off into the desert, to Arabia, without consulting a single person.  I didn’t even go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles there.  Afterwards I returned to Damascus.”  [Galatians 1:16-17] 

Paul Rules Out Human Sources

“You’re saying you didn’t learn about the Lord from eyewitnesses to his earthly life?”

“Certainly not!” said Paul.  “I want to make this clear:  The good news I preach is not of human origin.  No one gave it to me.  No one taught it to me.  I received it directly through a revelation of Jesus Christ!”  [Galatians 1:11-12]

“Have you had many such revelations?”

“I hear voices all the time.   I have been handed over to the courts and summoned to appear before governors and kings.  But when I’ve been on trial, I’ve never worried about what I was going to say, because it is not I who speak but the Holy Spirit speaking through me.  [Mark 13:9, 11]

“One night, while Silas and I were in Troas, I had a dream.  A Macedonian man was standing there begging, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’  That clearly meant that God wanted us to sail across the Aegean Sea.  [Acts 16:9-12]  So we crossed over, fearing no danger, fearing no storm, because even wind and sea obey the Lord.  [Mark 4:37-41]  When we landed and met the Philippians, we felt sorry for them.  They were like sheep without a shepherd.  We began to teach them many things.  [Mark 6:34] 

“Yes, the heavenly Christ continually discloses further truth about himself to his followers.  I know a man — I don’t want to boast, but this man was caught up as far as the third heaven.  I don’t know whether it was an actual physical experience; only God knows that.  He was caught up into paradise, where he heard words that cannot be translated — must not be translated into human speech.  I’m honestly proud of an experience like that.  [2 Corinthians 12:2-5]

“Anyway,” the apostle continued, “we were recalling that first appearance.  When I returned to Damascus I preached about Christ in their synagogues.  The people were astonished at my teaching.  Unlike the scribes they were used to hearing, I spoke with confident authority.  [Mark 1:21]  But they were suspicious because they knew I’d come to their city to arrest Christians.  Some of them wanted to murder me, but I escaped over the wall, and I did visit Jerusalem.  [Acts 9:20-25] 

“I stayed two weeks with Peter, but I saw none of the other Brethren of the Lord.  Except James, that is.  [Galatians 1:18-19]  Those who were reputed to be pillars of the community imparted nothing further to me.  [Galatians 2:6] 

“As I was praying in the Temple, I fell into a trance again.  I saw the Lord speaking to me.  ‘Leave Jerusalem quickly,’ he told me, ‘for they will not accept your testimony about me.  Go, for I mean to send you far away to the Gentiles.’  [Acts 22:17-21] 

“My good news was nothing more than what Moses and the prophets told us would happen.  I once explained this to King Agrippa, but Governor Festus called me crazy.  He said my great learning was driving me insane.  I don’t think I’m out of my mind.  Do you?”  [Acts 26:22-25] 

No Interest in Biography

I needed to pin Paul down on one point.  “So you never met the man Jesus, and you spoke only briefly to the ‘pillars’ who might have done so when he was alive.  You can’t prove there ever was a man Jesus.”

“Any details about his life here on earth mean nothing to me.  I don’t care about such things.  To me, the Christ of Heaven is all.”

“What do you mean?”

“He had always been God by nature.  That is why God has now lifted him so high.  [Philippians 2:6, 9]  The first man Adam came out of the earth, a material creature.  The second Adam came from heaven and was the Lord himself.  Flesh and blood can never possess the kingdom of God.”  [1 Corinthians 15:47-50] 

“Nevertheless,” Luke interjected, “flesh and blood are important to those of us who are still on earth.  There are many who are curious about what this Jesus was like while he was with us here below.  Where did he live?  What did he teach?  Did he perform any mighty deeds?  Where was he crucified?  How long ago was this?  Who was his wife?  Does he have children still living among us?”

“Entirely irrelevant,” Paul snorted.  “We know from the scriptures that Christ Jesus assumed human form as a descendant of David, so this must have happened after David’s reign.  [Romans 1:3]  It must have happened sometime in the last thousand years.

“Beyond that fact — who cares?  I have resolved to concentrate entirely on Christ and his death upon the cross.  [1 Corinthians 2:2]  Even though we knew Christ as a man, since the resurrection we do not know him like that any longer.  Our knowledge of men can no longer be based on their outward lives.”  [2 Corinthians 5:16] 

Making the Abstract Concrete

“But Paul,” said Mark, “I too have been thinking about Luke’s concerns.  People are asking about the life of Jesus, and we’ve been unable to give them any details.  Perhaps we could create some details.  Then we could tell the good news in narrative form, as an epic myth.”

“A what?” I asked.

“He’s talking about an allegory,” explained Luke, showing off his Greek learning.  “That’s a story with a hidden meaning.”

Mark recalled his Greek philosophy.  “Plato wrote about a group of prisoners who spend their whole life chained in a cave.  They see nothing of the outside world except some shadows on the cave wall.  To them, those shadows are reality.  Then a prisoner is freed from his chains and discovers the actual objects producing the shadows.”

“And where is this cave?”

“Nowhere.  It’s a fictional story.”

“Then why tell it, if it’s a lie?”

“It’s a memorable way to present profound ideas.  For example, the world we perceive with our senses is only a poor copy of the real world.”

Another Example of a Metaphor

Mark observed that the Jewish scriptures are full of allegories.  “Consider the 80th Psalm,” he said.

God of Hosts, restore us,
and make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.

You brought a vine from Egypt;
you drove out nations and planted it;
you cleared the ground for it,
so that it struck root and filled the land.

The mountains were covered with its shade,
and its branches were like those of mighty cedars.
It put out boughs all the way to the sea,
its shoots as far as the river.

Why have you broken down the vineyard wall
so that every passer-by can pluck its fruit?

“Now obviously the Psalmist’s words are not literal truth.  No giant vine was transplanted from Egypt to Israel.  No single vine had tree-like branches spanning from the Mediterranean to the Jordan.  God’s ‘vine’ metaphorically represents God’s nation and what has happened to it.”

Mark Has an Idea

I asked Mark what he had in mind.  “Perhaps, Theophilus,” he replied, “I could write an allegory myself.  It would be the tale of a hero.  I’d describe a wise Jewish rabbi who teaches the doctrines that Paul, here, has been preaching.  Paul’s concepts can be hard to grasp — justification and propitiation and all that.  But if my readers can picture those ideas demonstrated by a real person, perhaps they will understand.”

“That’s true,” I responded.  “We relate much better to stories about people than to arcane arguments about abstractions.  No offense, Paul.”

 

Click here to proceed to Part 2, in which Mark devises dialogue to support Paul's theology, recasts an old miracle tale (twice), and describes a Passover that includes a dinnertime arrest and a rooster. 

 

TBT

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