Did Paul Have a Distinctive Christology? Did He Think of Jesus as a Pre-Existent Human Being?

Did Paul Have a Distinctive Christology? Did He Think of Jesus as a Pre-Existent Human Being? June 29, 2013

In a recent blog post, Larry Hurtado noted Morton Smith's observation that Christology never turns up as an issue between Paul and the more conservative Jewish Christian groups that he interacted with directly and indirectly, centered in Jerusalem. And so this seems to confirm that Paul did not take a Jewish Messianic figure and turn him into something else for a Gentile audience.

How does this relate to our overall interpretation of Paul's Christilogical statements, such as those from Philippians highlighted in David Capes' recent posts about the “Carmen Christi” and Jesus as “lordly example”? Presumably regardless of whether one sees pre-existence in Philippians 2:6-11, it is not to be thought of as any other sort of celestial existence than the pre-existence of the Messiah, as depicted in Jewish works such as the Similitudes of Enoch.

James Waddell's recent book (which I reviewed last year) makes a compelling case for the Similitudes being earlier than the 1st century CE, and having been known to and an influence on Paul.

And so, if there is a good case to be made that Paul thought in terms of Jesus having had some sort of prior heavenly existence before appearing on Earth, it was most likely the pre-existent Messiah he had in mind, a view not incompatible with his also having had a normal birth (which Paul also mentions) and having been fully human. How the prior existence related to the historical human one, no one seems to have yet been concerned to answer.

An interesting question is whether Paul could have also had in mind, in his talk about Jesus as the “last Adam,” something of the idea of a heavenly Adam as we find in Philo. There, of course, it is the heavenly Adam who is first, created in Genesis 1 while the earthly copy is made in Genesis 2. In 1 Corinthians, it seems as though Paul does not envisage the heavenly human coming into existence first. But either way, in Paul there is a connection with earlier Jewish interpretation of Genesis. And it is possible that such Adamic ideas influenced his view of Jesus as having been a pre-existent human being.

Interpreting Paul's language about Christ as mythological, as about Jesus having had a prior existence before his earthly life, not as a divine hypostasis but as a pre-existent human being (whatever that may have meant for these ancient authors), may help us not only to fit Paul into his Jewish context, but also explain why Paul could say the things he did about Jesus and not have them be felt to be controversial, as though they were modifications of or departures from Jewish monotheism.

What do others think? I recall that some objected to James D. G. Dunn's attempt (in his Christology in the Making) to see Philippians 2:6-11 as about the human Jesus contrasted with Adam, that Dunn was “mythologizing” Jesus' humanity. I wonder whether that is not precisely what Paul – and presumably other early Christians before and after him – did, just as non-Christian Jewish thinkers did with reference to the Messiah when not yet identified with some actual historical individual.

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  • newenglandsun

    1 Corinthians 8:6 seems to suggest Paul believed in a pre-existent Jesus. BUT…he also believed firmly in a new creation in Jesus as well so this could just be referring to the new creation.

  • Pre-existence is implied in 1Corinthians 8:6 & 10:4, Philippians 2:6-11, Galatians 4:4 and Romans 8:3.
    Cordially, Bernard

    • Yes, many understand those passages to imply pre-existence. My question here is whether, if pre-existence is intended, it is the pre-existence of a human person in some form, or of a divine hypostasis.

      • The second option is the most correct one in my view.
        Paul had the pre-existence as a heavenly entity (Php 2:6), One Lord Jesus Christ as co-creator of the world (1Cor 8:6), Christ (1Cor 10:4) and Son of God (Gal 4:4, Ro 8:3).
        Paul never gave Jesus the title of Son of Man.
        Cordially, Bernard

  • Michael Wilson

    I agree with Smith that the lack of debate in Paul’s letters about differences in Christology between himself and Peter and James is evidence that they had very similar views. I suspect that the sort of thinking that we find in the Similitudes of Enoch was present in the groups that spawned the Jesus group and Paul’s own mystical leanings. What seems to be the case in Enoch is that the man, Enoch, who is not pre-existent, becomes through his holiness and mystical practices unified with the Son of Man, or Metatron, who is the image of God that Adam was fashioned after. For the Jesus people, their own teacher, not Enoch, was the first person to make this ascension. For them Jesus becomes one with a form that was pre-existent, virtually identical to God, but still not God, just a perfect image.

    • It is less clear than one would wish whether that sort of identification of Enoch with the heavenly Son of Man is intended in 1 Enoch. That is clearly how later Jewish tradition took it. There is an interesting suggestion in Dale Allison’s most recent book about the possibility that Jesus thought of the Son of Man as his heavenly Doppelgänger.


    No Paul persecuted the Christian believers at first. then on the road to Damascus he had a great nearly blindingg light upon him Acts 22:7-8 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ “‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. ” ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. NO EASY ROAD FOR PAUL AFTER THAT AS IT IS WRITTEN Acts 9:16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”