Thursday, June 7, 2018

Was Paul, the Apostle, a Mystic?

Mysticism is defined as "the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality." See more on mysticism here. In other words, it is an experience in which an individual becomes one with God; that is to say, God is me and I am God. Such a concept carries such a great deal of baggage so that most modern folk will likely find the idea difficult to accept as logical or reasonable. That appears not to be true of the first-century human being Paul.

A few weeks ago in Baptist Bible study, the class was pondering 2 Cor 4:7-12 and we encountered a perplexing statement by the great apostle. Paul writes: We are "always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies" (2 Cor 4:10). How does one make sense of this statement? How can Christians carry in their physical bodies the literal death of Jesus? Nevertheless, that is what Paul said! Had he said something like "always retaining in our memories the death of Jesus, so that the new life given us through belief in Jesus' resurrection might be evident in our living," there would be little difficulty with understanding it. But how can living persons bear in the body the actual death of another person? And how can the life of the resurrected Christ be evident in believers' bodies, which are always in some state of aging and mortification?

Here are a few explanations by some biblical commentators chosen at random. J. H. Bernard1 claims that the statement is interpreted by 4:11: "we are always being given up to death, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh." But this interpretation creates further problems: how is the life of Jesus evident in a believer's mortal flesh? M. E. Thrall2 argues that Paul is possibly thinking that his own sufferings are like "a replica or image of Christ's death." In order for this explanation to work, however, one must assume that Paul thinks of his sufferings as being like Jesus' death, although experiencing suffering and being dead are quite different things. James Thompson3 explains 4:10 as indicating "that Paul…on his missionary journeys is following in his Lord's footsteps," which means that Paul suffered as Jesus suffered. But of course Paul could have said exactly that without creating such perplexity over what he did say. F. J. Matera. says, "By being afflicted, bewildered, persecuted, and struck down, [Paul] reflects in his person (his body) the kinds of sufferings that Jesus endured in his passion." This idea regards Paul's sufferings as similar to the sufferings of Jesus, but Paul did not refer to the "kinds of sufferings" Jesus endured, but rather he asserted that believers carry about in their bodies the dying of Jesus. Paul Barnett says: "The 'dying of Jesus' that takes place 'in [Paul's] body' is the bewilderment, persecution, and humiliation mentioned in 4:8-9." In other words the apostle's sufferings image the sufferings of Jesus. But that seems to be different from what Paul claimed. Paul said he was always carrying in his body Jesus' death (nekrĊsis), which is something different than suffering in a similar way to Jesus. In fact all of these explanations seem to take Paul's suffering experiences as being something similar to what Jesus suffered.

Thrall provides a summary of views as to how the statement has been understood.5 In my view one explanation, rejected by Thrall, seems to make better sense of Paul's statement in 2 Cor 4:10; the statement seems easiest to understand from the perspective of Paul's mystical union with Christ in baptism: "Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:3-4). Paul seems to hold that in baptism the believer is mystically united with Jesus in his death and as a result the believer comes to share his resurrection. In other words baptism is not a symbolical act but a mystical union, a direct communion with ultimate reality—in this case the death and resurrection of Jesus.6 Reading 2 Cor 4:10 in the light of Paul's statement about baptism gives the reader a context for understanding his statement as a mystical experience: believers carry in their bodies the dying of Jesus because they have shared his dying in baptism.

And that raises the following question: if Paul understands religious faith mystically, was early Pauline Christianity a type of mystery religion?

How do you read 2 Cor 4:10?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Expositors Greek Testament (1956), vol. 3: 62-63.
2Commentary on Second Corinthians (ICC, 1994), 334.
3Second Letter to the Corinthians (1970), 66.
4II Corinthians. A Commentary (2003), 110.
5Thrall, II Corinthians, 332-35.
6Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary (1990), s. v. "mysticism."

12 comments:

  1. Good Evening Charlie,

    I see I waited too long to ask a follow-up question on your previous blog post, so I will sneak it in at the end of one- if that's ok.

    1) I just received your book "Secrets of the Gospel of Thomas," but I have not read it yet owing to my rule that I never start a new book until I finish my current reading material. (This is not an easy rule for me to follow) Having said that, I'm not exactly sure what a gnostic is, butI seem to remember that you said it was having something to do with a mystery religion. So yes- I can see how some would view Paul as a mystic or a gnostic. Have you ever publicly referred to Paul as a mystic at your church- and what kind of reaction did you receive? Do your fellow church members perceive mysticism as heretical in their church community? Most people I know regard mystics (Christians or otherwise) as being "weird" or "out there." Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of mystics, generally speaking?

    2) I read 2 Cor. 4:10 as being an exhortation to "crucify the flesh." In fact, a pastor of a church I once attended inserted that exhortation into his email address "DieDailyMcClung@...." For some reason, it's important to many Christian pastors to emphasize the need to "die" to ourselves on a daily basis. I assume they got this idea from Paul the Mystic. Where do you think they got this idea from? Have you heard this idea expressed in your bible studies?

    3) I have two additional questions regarding your previous blog: a) Were you taught that the synoptic gospels and John's gospel the Last Supper was in fact the Passover Seder, turned into a mystical symbolic meal of Jesus's flesh and blood? Were you taught that the supper was actually partaken on the day of Passover observance? b) Were you aware that the synoptic gospels, due to the Passover date, place Jesus's crucifixion on the 15th day of Nissan... But that the writer of John's gospel for some reason places his crucifixion a day earlier on the 14th day of Nissan? Why do you think there's a difference in those dates?? I do have a theory, but I'd like to hear yours first.

    Thank you so much! Elizabeth

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    1. Good Morning Elizabeth,
      Paragraph one: Yes I have referred to Paul as a mystic. I cannot generalize about how "most" Baptists regard mysticism or if any Baptists (except theologians) even think about mysticism, but Baptist groups reflect a kind of Pauline Christianity. Hence a mild form of Christ mysticism is reflected in the tradition. What do I think of mystics? I think we delude ourselves when we think we are merging with deity.
      Paragraph two: I think Paul's views had a great deal to do with the idea of "dying to self," which is reflected in the more conservative branches of Christianity.
      Paragraph three: In the Gospel of Mark the "last supper" was celebrated as a Passover meal (Mark 14:12). But in the Gospel of John the last meal was not a Passover meal (John 13:1) and Jesus was crucified before the Passover (19:1; 19:14; 19:31; 19:42). The description of the two meals are remarkably different (Mark 14:22-26; John 13:1-30). I have no idea why John has the crucifixion earlier than the Passover. I have heard it explained as Jesus was crucified on the day the Passover lamb was killed.
      I hope I addressed all your questions.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. That is also the explanation I heard from Rabbi Singer... that the evangelist who wrote Johns gospel had a particular narrative of Jesus being the lamb of God- so he made a editorial change from the other gospels. Apologists brush off this inconsistency by saying, "Well John wasn't an historian. He was interested in the deeper meaning of Christ's crucifixion."

      I'm not sure how they know that.

      Elizabeth

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  2. Hi Charlie,

    Crossan and Reed write of 2 Cor 4:10: "For Paul, being 'in Christ' is not just metaphorical trope, but mystical identity. It determines everything in his theology, so that Paul does not think that those 'in Christ' need to be given ethical norms, legal rules, or communal instructions. They should know them internally, intrinsically, , organically (the way a trained athlete reacts correctly and properly, but spontaneously and immediately)." [In Search of Paul, 2004, p.278]

    We find some clarification also in Gal 2:19-20: "...I died to the law so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the live I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

    In context it seems clear to me that what died was Paul seeking righteousness by obedience to law, and what lives is Christ within creating righteousness by means of the gift of faith.

    So was Paul a mystic? I would say yes, but not in the sense of the merging or loss of self in the holy, but in the sense of the holy entering and completing the self.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. Good Morning Gene,
      How would you understand "the holy completing the self"? It would seem to me that participating in deity would necessitate the total loss of self otherwise deity would be diminished by the little bit of the sinful creature that persisted in deity as a result of the merge. That seems to be the thrust of Gal 2:19-20, which you quote above.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Hi Charlie,

      My interpretation of Paul may be less literal than your own.

      As I see it, everything for Paul in some way falls under the rubric of law-and-faith. E.g., Did you receive the Spirit by doing works of the law or by believing what you have heard?" (Gal 3:2, NRSV). It's all about Spirit/faith replacing law/works. "Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh." (Gal 5:16). In these remarks it even sounds like after the Spirit enters one can choose to return to flesh.

      As we have seen in the several quoted passages, there are times when Paul seems to replace Spirit with the living Christ in how he explains the inner experience of moving from law to faith. It was impossible for the Paul-in-flesh to move from law to faith; for that the Paul-in-Spirit or in-Christ was required. And perhaps, "It's no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me," is Paul's over-the-top/exaggerated way of saying that "It is no longer Paul-in-flesh who lives...". But, as I said above, it looks like there is the possibility of falling back.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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  3. I think this might be one of the earliest references and documentations of it, regarding the "original," from the beginning of the third century. At the end of AM 5.11, Tertullian (in Latin) quotes it this way: “For he gives prominence to the statement, 'That the life also of Christ may be manifested in our body,' as a contrast to the preceding, that His death is borne about in our body.” (The “he” Tertullian is speaking about is Marcion.)
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega Ga.

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  4. I believe I found it (or something similar) a bit earlier than Tertullian, in Irenaeus AH 5.13.4. ""Always bearing about in our body the dying of Jesus,106 that also the life of Jesus Christ might be manifested in our body. For if we who live are delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, it is that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh."
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega Ga.

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    1. Thanks for both of these observations Dennis. For those of you who wish to see the argument of Tertullian AM is "Against Marcion." I could not find AH Dennis. Could you tell us what that abbreviation cites? I found another use of 2 Cor 4:10 by Tertullian in Ante-Nicene Fathers, page 577 (Tertullian "On the Resurrection of the Flesh."
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. AH = Adversus Heresies.

      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

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  5. Is the passage in question a good and fair translation of the original?

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    1. Good Morning Mike,
      Yes the translation is a "good and fair" translation of the original Greek text.
      Charlie

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