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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