Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty
 Supplementary Articles - No. 6: The Source of Paul's Gospel

Did Jesus exist? Are the origins of Christianity best explained without a founder Jesus of Nazareth? Before the Gospels do we find an historical Jesus or a Jesus myth?

Enlarging on the Main Articles, this section of The Jesus Puzzle web site examines a wide range of topics in New Testament scholarship. Each one adopts the viewpoint that such problem questions or documents relating to the subject of Jesus and Christian origins are best solved when approached from the position that there was no historical Jesus. These studies will help provide a greater insight into the nature of early Christianity, the object of its worship, and the source of its ideas.

The author reserves all re-publication rights. Personal copies may be made as long as author identification is preserved.

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Supplementary Article No. 6

The Idea of “Reception” (paralambano) in 1 Corinthians 15:3, 11:23 and Galatians 1:12

The Call of An Apostle

Paul lives in a world of divine revelation. He moves amid wide-ranging and diverse circles of apostles who preach the Christ, none of whom show any sign of tracing their authority or knowledge about such a divine figure back to a ministry on earth, or to a group of apostles who had been participants and witnesses of that ministry. As I discussed in my first Supplementary Article (“Apollos of Alexandria and the Early Christian Apostolate”), neither Paul nor any other writer among the New Testament epistles gives us evidence of the concept of apostolic tradition, or of the idea that anyone had known Jesus personally. The latter idea is notably missing in Paul’s direct references to the Jerusalem apostles, with whom he has important disputes; and it is equally missing in his discussions of the question of who is to be considered a legitimate apostle.

In 1 Corinthians 9:1 Paul asks plaintively: “Am I not an apostle? Did I not see Jesus our Lord?” It would seem that for Paul the mark of the true apostle is the reception of the proper visionary revelation and authority from God. In 2 Corinthians 10 to 12, Paul defends his apostleship and compares himself to unnamed rivals (they are not from the Jerusalem group) who are competing for the Corinthians’ allegiance: “Someone is convinced, is he, that he belongs to Christ? Let him think again, and reflect that we belong to Christ as much as he does” (10:7). And he goes on in 11:4 to reveal the source of all these competing messages and claims to legitimacy:

Paul operates in a world of perceived revelation from God, populated by self-appointed apostles who learn about the Christ, and formulate their own interpretations of him, through the Spirit.

In all of his arguments over the legitimacy of his position, Paul never addresses the issue in this way: “Yes, I know others were appointed by Jesus in his earthly ministry, but the way in which I was called is just as worthy . . .” Had there been such a thing as appointment by Jesus, can we believe that this, or a link to those who had been so appointed, would not be the ever-present benchmark by which all apostles were measured? Could Paul possibly have ignored such a standard throughout the debates in which he engages concerning apostolic legitimacy? In fact, Paul’s arguments reject the very idea that there could be any deficiency of qualification on his part. And the implication of 1 Corinthians 9:1 is that, since his "seeing" of the Lord is to be regarded as legitimizing his apostleship and this "seeing" was entirely visionary, the legitimacy of the others he is comparing himself to, which includes the Jerusalem apostles, is based on the same measure, namely visionary revelation.

That this is the universal standard is clear from 2 Corinthians 10:18. Paul declares: “It is not the man who recommends himself, but the man whom the Lord recommends.” There is no suggestion of a separate basis of authority or pre-eminence based on having known and been chosen by a Jesus on earth. Here “Lord” refers to God (cf. 3:4-6), which is in keeping with the way Paul regularly expresses himself about his call to preach the gospel. Acts has so imposed on Christian consciousness the legend of the dramatic event on the road to Damascus that it comes as a surprise that Paul nowhere refers to such an experience. (Note that Paul’s vision of the Christ mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:8 is not described as a conversion experience, and the Damascus road event is notably missing in his reference to “visions and revelations” in 2 Corinthians 12:1f.)

In fact, Paul consistently tells us that it was God himself who called him to be an apostle. In 1 Corinthians 1:1, “the will and call of God” has led him to preach. In 1 Thessalonians 2:4, he is “approved by God.” It is God, in 2 Corinthians 3:6, who qualified Paul to dispense his new covenant, God’s actions which made him an apostle to the gentiles in Galatians 2:8. (Those same actions of God also made Peter an apostle to the Jews!) As for his knowledge of the Christ, Paul tells his readers in Galatians 1:16 that it was God who revealed his Son to him, not Jesus who revealed himself.

Even the pseudo-Pauline writers express things in the same vein. It is the “commission God gave me,” in Colossians 1:25. Paul is commissioned “by the will of God” in Ephesians 1:1; in 3:7 he is “made a minister by God’s gifts and powers.” Whenever all these passages were penned, it is difficult to imagine that the writers possessed any concept that Jesus had called or appointed apostles, whether on earth or even through spiritual channels. In fact, Paul clearly excludes such an idea in 1 Corinthians 12:28: “In the church, God has appointed in the first place apostles . . .” No writer who had the Gospel picture before his mind could possibly have said such a thing.

The gospel which apostles like Paul preach is likewise never said to have had its source in Jesus or his ministry. Paul constantly refers to the “gospel of God” (Romans 1:1, 1 Thessalonians 2:2); 1 Peter 4:17 condemns those “who refuse to obey the gospel of God.” Occasionally, Christ is the object of the gospel (1 Thessalonians 3:2), but its source is consistently God himself, and it comes to the minds of apostles like Paul through the channel of God’s Spirit.

A Gospel of Prime Importance

The above verses from 1 Corinthians come a few sentences before a passage which many regard as the most important in all the Pauline epistles. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul states his basic gospel, following it with a list of “appearances” of the risen Christ to various people in Jerusalem, culminating in Paul’s own, similar experience. Where did Paul get all of this information?

First let’s take a preliminary look at verses 3 to 8 and get a sense of their structure and the elements which make up the passage:

3  For I delivered to you, as of prime importance, what also I received:
     that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures,
4    and that he was buried,
     and that he has been raised on the third day according to the scriptures,
5      and that he was seen (ophthe) by Cephas, then by the twelve;
6      afterward he was seen by over 500 brothers at one time, most of whom 
               are still alive, though some have fallen asleep;
7      afterward he was seen by James, then by all the apostles;
8      last of all, as to one abnormally born, he was seen by me as well.
On the face of it, the passage could be divided into three parts (the three indentations above): One of the principal challenges in analyzing this passage, something which scholars have long recognized, is to decide the relationship between parts two and three. As the sentence is structured (it is a single one in the Greek), everything seems to follow on the main verb “delivered” in verse 3a. But do all the elements of what follows have a similar weight and meaning?

Let’s glance back to verses 1 and 2 which lead into this passage. There Paul says to the Corinthians:

When we add to these sentiments the phrase in verse 3a, “of prime importance,” we realize that Paul is referring to a message, a doctrine, which is so crucial in his mind that he sees salvation dependent upon it. It should immediately become clear that all of the information following on the “delivered” of verse 3 cannot possibly assume an equal weight. A belief on the part of the Corinthians that Paul had in fact seen the Christ, or that 500 of the brothers had done so, can hardly be said to be crucial to their salvation, nor can it be suggested that Paul had such an idea in mind. Indeed, some have felt that it is more than faintly distasteful to regard any of the appearances as having equal rank with the statements about the Christ, that they were an equal part of Paul’s “gospel of first importance.” There must be a division in emphasis, even in character, between what comes before, and what comes after, the “and that” which begins verse 5.

Is there a way to see the two sets of information, the 3-element gospel of the Christ and the list of appearances, as following a logical sequence of thought in Paul’s mind, each having a certain degree of “importance”? (We can consider that both had previously been told to the Corinthians and that Paul decides to remind them of both.)

Considering how Paul habitually uses the term “gospel”—as something received from God through the Spirit, a message proclaimed by the apostles of his day each according to the revelation he claims to have enjoyed—the nature of the second set of information would hardly fit that category. And yet it could have been regarded by Paul as an important element of what he has told the Corinthians. For him (regardless of the reasons for the list forming as a unit of tradition in the first place, if it is pre-Pauline), it may have been in the nature of ‘supporting’ material, a witness to the veracity of the gospel itself, or perhaps a pointer to the power and presence of the Christ about whom such doctrines were being preached.

It is common knowledge that when self-styled prophets, including modern evangelists, make their claims to speak with the voice of God, they inevitably support and justify their claims by an appeal to personal experiences of that God, to wonders or miracles they have known of or been a part of. Though other motives may be involved in Paul’s enumeration of all these revelatory experiences, the need to ‘support’ the doctrine could well be the principal purpose for including them in his preaching and his reminder here, and for stressing them as “important,” even if they are not on a par with the gospel itself, nor crucial for salvation.

A second observation needs to be made about the list of appearances. There is nothing to suggest that, in Paul’s mind, they were not all of the same nature. And since neither Paul himself, nor anyone on his behalf down to the present day, has ever claimed that his “seeing” of the Christ was anything but a vision of a spiritual figure, this has to imply that Paul regards the other appearances as being in the same category. In other words, they were all revelatory experiences; none were thought of as encounters with a bodily-risen Jesus of Nazareth. (This has recently been recognized by modern liberal scholars such as the Jesus Seminar and John Shelby Spong.)

Indeed, the language Paul uses implies this very meaning. Even the sense of “vision” may be too strong. In a study of the meaning of ophthe here, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. V, p. 358) points out that in this type of context the word is a technical term for being “in the presence of revelation as such, without reference to the nature of its perception.” In other words, the “seeing” may not refer to actual sensory or mental perception. Rather, it may simply be “an encounter with the risen Lord who reveals himself...they experienced his presence.” If what we have here is more an experience of Christ’s “presence” than a full-blown hallucinatory vision, this would make it easier to accept that so many individuals and even large groups could imagine they had undergone such an experience.

It is far from clear, therefore, that Paul in 15:5-8 is describing anything more than a series of experiences in which many people, most of them within a group already formed for a religious purpose, felt a conviction of faith in the spiritual Christ, experiences which may well have grown in the telling.

I might point out in passing that this not only eliminates Easter, it means that there is no necessary chronological proximity between Jesus’ “raising” and the list of visions, in fact no sequential connection at all. The death and resurrection (and even the “burial,” though it has been suggested, e.g., by Jean Héring, that this phrase may be a later addition) can be entirely mythological, revealed through the sacred writings; Paul’s repeated phrase “according to the scriptures” could be so interpreted. These people, at the time of the beginning of the movement, simply experienced a revelation of or about the Christ and his spirit world activities.

Reception and Transmission

But we have thus far passed over the most important—and contentious—element of this 1 Corinthians passage, and analyzing it will carry us beyond this chapter, even beyond this epistle. Consider once again verse 3a:

The first verb in the Greek is the past tense (aorist) of paradidomi: to hand over, to pass on, to deliver; the second, of paralambano: to receive, take over, learn or acknowledge. Commentators are quite right in pointing out that this pair of words is often, even usually, technical language for the receiving and passing on of tradition along a human chain of teaching and transmitted heritage. This sense is unmistakably present in the first verb of this passage. Paul is passing on his teaching to the Corinthians, and to everyone else he preaches to. But does it apply to the second verb, the “received” element?

The perusal of that question involves several interlocking elements. First, consider one of the difficulties we face if, along with almost all commentators past and present (operating on the assumptions of the Gospel picture), we regard the “receiving” as referring to the reception by Paul of this doctrine and information from others, from apostles before him, and presumably from those who are supposed to have known Jesus.

The difficulty is that it would make nonsense of verse 8. As noted above, the list of appearances are seemingly of a piece, including Paul’s. Yet if Paul is speaking of things he learned from others, this would hardly encompass his own experience of the Christ. This problem, however, is not so serious since, as I have just argued above and will enlarge on shortly, we don’t have to hold Paul to the strict letter of his statements.

The main problem, however, is decidedly serious. Quite apart from the specific verb being used and any claims as to its usual meaning, we need to compare ideas expressed by Paul in two different passages, the one here in 1 Corinthians 15:3, and another in Galatians 1:11-12:

Paul could not make himself any clearer. The gospel he preaches is not something passed on through human channels. He “did not receive it from any man.” If the verb “received” in 1 Corinthians 15:3 is claimed to represent such a thing, then the statements in the two passages stand in direct contradiction to one another. Given his passionate declaration in Galatians, it is not likely that Paul would turn around and say to the Corinthians that he in fact got his gospel “from men.”

Certain scholars in the past have tried to get around this incompatibility. They claim that Paul must have two different gospels in mind in the two passages, or perhaps different interpretations or emphases. But the words themselves allow for no such distinctions. The stated gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 is pretty basic stuff, the essentials for salvation. In Galatians, the “gospel” is not spelled out, but the starkness of the language more than suggests that Paul is speaking of his basic preaching, and this is borne out by the preceding verses. There he admonishes the Galatians (v.6) for turning away and “following a different gospel,” declaring: “If anyone preaches a gospel different from what you received (from me), let him be cursed!” Taken with verses 11-12, this can hardly be anything other than his bottom-line preaching of the dead and risen Christ, as enunciated in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.

We are entitled to assume the strong likelihood that Paul would be consistent in his statements about the source of his gospel, namely that it is something he received through revelation, regardless of the particular verb he uses. The unambiguous nature of the passionate declaration in Galatians must be allowed to govern the meaning in 1 Corinthians 15:3. And as we saw by the early part of this article, such an interpretation is perfectly in keeping with all that Paul says about the spirit of his times and the dynamics of the early Christian preaching movement. We noted the complete absence of apostolic tradition, any idea of information or authority passed on through a chain going back to Jesus himself.

Instead, each apostle’s doctrine and knowledge of the Christ comes through the Spirit, through revelation from God. It is God who has called Paul, God who supplies the gospel about his Son. Remember that Paul just before the passage in 15:1-4 has spoken in no uncertain terms of divine communication: “Did the word of God originate with you? Are you the only ones to whom it came?” With such sentiments hanging in the air, what source can we assume Paul is speaking of when he goes directly on to state the saving gospel he has “received”?

To secure this conclusion, however, we must be able to see the actual verb Paul uses, paralambano, as compatible with the idea of divine revelation. Two considerations tell us that it is. The first is how Paul uses the verb in the Galatians passage. Let’s look again at the key verse 1:12:

Paul makes our task a little less than automatic, since he does not actually repeat the verb in the last phrase. But we all do this sort of thing in speech and writing, and when we do, the natural understanding is that we are silently supplying a verb we have just used, not something else. The understood verb in the final phrase above cannot be the “taught” verb just preceding it, since this would be in clear contradiction to the idea of revelation (apokalupseos). We are left with the most natural understanding of “but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ,” the “received” being the same verb Paul has used in the first phrase of the sentence, “I did not receive it from any man.” And in fact, this is how most translators and commentators render it. Thus, in this one sentence, Paul has used the verb paralambano in the sense of receiving a passed on tradition, as well as in the sense of receiving a revelation.

The second consideration which makes paralambano compatible with the idea of divine revelation is its usage in the wider Graeco-Roman world. As long ago as Schweitzer it was recognized that: “In the language of the mysteries, paralambano and paradidomi signify the reception and communication of the revelation received in the mysteries” (The Mysticism of St. Paul, ET ed. 1956, p. 266). But to claim (as Schweitzer and others do) that Paul is not here being influenced by Hellenistic usages and conceptions is to beg the question, since such an immunity cannot be proven. In fact, it goes against common sense, if only because Paul was himself a Diaspora Jew and could hardly have led a life insulated from Hellenistic thought and expression.

Even in rabbinic usage, to which the most frequent appeal is made, the idea of “received” is not always confined to the idea of passed on teaching through human channels. Hyam Maccoby, in Paul and Hellenism (p. 91-2), refutes Joachim Jeremias’ argument that paralambano corresponds to the Hebrew ‘qibel’ which always refers to reception as part of passed on tradition. Maccoby proves that this is not so by quoting from the Mishna: “Moses received (qibel) the Torah from Sinai.” Here we have “received” used in the sense of direct reception from the divinity himself. Thus, it would seem that nothing stands in the way of interpreting the “received” of 1 Corinthians 15:3a as meaning that Paul’s gospel is a product of perceived revelation from God, based on Paul’s reading of scripture, as he twice states.

Some might point a few lines ahead to verse 11, where Paul says: “This is what we all proclaim, and this is what you believed.” But there is no problem here. Just because certain others preach a doctrine about the Christ which may be similar to Paul’s own does not mean that he got it from them. If all Christian missionaries are dependent on divine revelation (those who come to similar conclusions are reading the same scriptural passages), Paul can claim his own personal channel in this regard. And he may well have his own particular twist on what others preach. “Dying for sin” may be a specific Pauline interpretation of the salvific purpose of the spiritual Christ’s death.

The Gospel and the Appearances

Now we can reevaluate the full passage from verses 3 to 8. Let’s repeat it here:

3  For I delivered to you, as of prime importance, what also I received:
     that (hoti) Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures,
4    and that (kai hoti) he was buried,
     and that (kai hoti) he has been raised on the third day according 
                to the scriptures,
5      and that (kai hoti) he was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve;
6      afterward he was seen by over 500 brothers at one time, most of whom 
                are still alive, though some have fallen asleep;
7      afterward he was seen by James, then by all the apostles;
8      last of all, as to one abnormally born, he was seen by me as well.
Earlier we noted that if “received” were interpreted as a passed on tradition, this created a problem with verse 8, since Paul’s own vision could not be fitted into such an idea. In a similar way, we might face a corresponding problem if “received” is taken to refer to a divine revelation, for such an idea could not possibly include the visions of Peter and the rest, or even of Paul himself. This information can hardly be said to have come to Paul through a revelation. Except for his own, it is obvious that he has learned about these experiences from others.

But we have already determined that the list of appearances is to be separated in some very qualitative way from what comes before, since Paul would hardly rank such information at the same level as his gospel about the Christ, as beliefs “by which you are saved” (verse 2). If some sort of closure exists in Paul’s mind after verse 4, then the idea of “received” does not have to carry past that point, and thus interpreting it as referring to a divine revelation would not create a problem.

Can we go further with such a line of reasoning? On the face of it, the words do convey a sense of carryover. After all, the “and that” (kai hoti) stands plainly at the beginning of verse 5, in parallel with the previous kai hoti’s, creating the sense that the earlier idea which governed the statement of the gospel also continues to govern the rest of the passage. Unless we entertain the idea that something has happened to the links between these verses in scribal transmission, perhaps a misunderstanding by some later copyist which led to an emendation (something by no means impossible), we might face a potential anomaly here. But I think there is a simpler explanation.

One thing must be kept in mind when analyzing Paul’s letters, something which perhaps tends to be overlooked when trying to glean the meaning and intent of any epistle writer. We can pretty well assume that most of the letters of the New Testament are not carefully constructed treatises. (Hebrews is a notable exception and possibly some of Romans, perhaps Ephesians as well.) And Paul did not physically write his letters himself; he dictated them to a scribal companion. (One of these, a certain Tertius, adds his own greeting toward the end of the epistle to the Romans.)

What might Paul have been doing while he was dictating? For all we know, it may have been at the end of a long, tiring day. Perhaps there were distractions about. Perhaps he was taking a bath. To expect that every epistolary passage has been carefully considered with an eye to perfect clarity and sequence of thought is highly unrealistic. Paul may have asked the scribe to read back to him certain passages or even the entire epistle, but since the writing was done on a continuous papyrus scroll, he is not likely to have said, except under the direst of circumstances, “Redo that part, I didn’t quite express things properly.” Perhaps no review was done at all.

Thus, we can expect vagaries in the construction of sentences and the sequence of ideas, and indeed, there are clear instances in many epistles of such ‘slips between cup and lip.’ (The garbled sentence in Galatians 2:6 is a good example.) What kind of ‘slip’ may have occurred in this passage of 1 Corinthians 15?

3  For I delivered to you...what also I received, 
   that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures,
4  and that he was buried,
   and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures,
5  and that he was seen by Cephas...(etc.)
In this sequence of thought, the verb “delivered” is the governing one, while “received” is a secondary idea. It is the “delivered” word which introduces what Paul is going to say. He is dictating as the ideas come to him. We can be reasonably sure that there has been no advance planning or ‘outline’ to the letter. In the preceding verses, Paul has been talking about the gospel he preached which confers salvation. When he begins verse 3, the idea foremost in his mind is that he is going to remind the Corinthians of what that gospel was and is, and as he begins he also throws in the fact that he received it through revelation.

He then states the gospel in its three parts. By the time he has reached the end of what is now verse 4 and the scribe’s pen has caught up to him, we might speculate that it occurs to Paul also to remind his readers of the visions which testify to that gospel, to the spiritual Christ’s power and presence. These experiences of the living Christ legitimately follow on the governing verb “delivered,” for presumably he has in the past told the Corinthians of such visions. Thus, he can sensibly tack on another “and that” (kai hoti) and continue with this further information. He either forgets or ignores the fact that the listing of the visions does not logically follow on the “received,” but the latter was a secondary idea and anyway, this would hardly strike him as critical if he did realize it.

Everything from verse 3b on, the gospel and the supporting visions, follows in a logical sequence from the verb paradidomi; all were “of prime importance,” even if not equally so. The “received” idea, intentionally or not, has been abandoned after verse 4. When the scribe came to read it back to him (if he did), Paul may not have noticed, or cared. Perhaps he was washing his feet at the time.

Idle speculation? Of course. Some might call it a bit irreverent. But the point is, dashed-off letters that eventually get turned into holy writ do have a genesis, and we can be sure that it is more often than not a mundane and imperfect one. (For purposes of this argument, I have not taken into account the general consideration that passages in 1 Corinthians, as in any Pauline letter, may be later insertions or the result of various editorial emendations. Indeed, 1 Corinthians, in view of its very length and diversity of material, is a good candidate for being, at least in part, the end product of an accumulative or composite process.)

Learning of a Sacred Meal

When we balance 1 Corinthians 15:3 with Galatians 1:11-12, and take into account the picture Paul presents throughout his letters, we arrive at a compelling picture of an apostolic movement operating solely on divine inspiration. In such a context, Paul’s use of the verb paralambano can well mean “received through revelation.” But this conclusion reverberates through another important passage, also in 1 Corinthians, one no less critical to our whole evaluation of the nature of Paul’s Christianity.

In 11:23f, Paul introduces the one scene in all of his letters which seems to lift a curtain upon an incident in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. He tells the Corinthians this story, in order to dissuade them from squabbling over the food and drink at their community’s fellowship meal:

23  For I received from the Lord what also I delivered to you,
    that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was “delivered up” 
        (most translations choose to render this “betrayed” 
         or “arrested”: see below), 
    took bread,
24  and having given thanks broke (it) and said:
    this is my body, which is for you,
    do this in remembrance of me.
25  In the same way, after supper he took the cup...
That opening line is very like the one we examined in 1 Corinthians 15:3, only here the ideas are reversed. Now the “received” idea is the primary one and governs what follows. Are we to allot to this use of paralambano the same meaning as the one arrived at for 15:3? There are several logical and compelling reasons why we should.

Although the words of Jesus at the establishment of the Eucharist may not be part of Paul’s fundamental “gospel,” we may well suspect that anything he preaches about the Christ would fall within the spirit of Galatians 1:11-12, Paul’s firm declaration that he has received his message from “no man.” Certainly, his use of paralambano to refer to a revelation a few chapters later, in 15:3, does lend weight to the validity of such an interpretation here. But there are more immediate considerations we can draw on.

First, Paul plainly says that he received this “from the Lord.” If he is speaking of a passed on tradition from other men, Paul’s words are on the surface illogical, even a falsehood. If other apostles gave him this information, presumably the ones who were present at such a scene, then he did not get it “from the Lord.” By clearly stressing that the Lord was the source of his information, Paul is denying any intermediate human step. Moreover, if such traditions about a Last Supper (Paul, alone in the New Testament, calls it “the Lord’s Supper”) were circulating through Christian circles, including Corinth, by means of oral transmission and general knowledge, and were in fact the source of Paul’s own familiarity with them, what kind of impression would Paul be giving his readers if he seemed to be claiming that he knew of these words through some personal revelation?

Perhaps recognizing all this, scholars have long tried to interpret the opening of verse 23 in a different way. We might call it “the battle of the prepositions.”

In the Greek of the time, when someone speaks of information received from another as the immediate, direct source, the preposition “para” is most often used. On the other hand, the preposition “apo” is most often used to signify the remote, or ultimate source of a piece of information. Thus Paul, they say, if he had meant to say that Jesus had delivered this information to him personally, would have used para. As it is, in using apo, he is referring to Jesus as the originator of these words, as if to say, “these words came ultimately from the Lord himself.”

Unfortunately for this argument, these different usages were not strict. (See Moulton: A Grammar of New Testament Greek, vol. 1 Prolegomena, p. 237.) Even the New Testament contains apo used in the opposite sense (Colossians 1:17, “as you learned from Epaphras,” and Matthew 11:29, “learn from me.”) Thus, there was no guarantee that the Corinthians would have understood such a “remote antecedent” meaning, or that Paul intended it.

Besides, if Jesus were being referred to only in the sense that he is the ultimate source of the words, this gives Paul’s statement another less than logical cast. If he is going to go on to say that Jesus spoke certain words, why preface it with a separate statement which identifies Jesus as the source of these words? This is at best a very awkward redundancy.

Thus, we must conclude that Paul is saying what the words seem to make him say: that this scene, which he has previously imparted to his readers, was the product of a private vision or inspiration coming from the heavenly Jesus. Once this is acknowledged, the way is open to regarding the scene Paul creates as a myth attached to the spiritual Christ, a myth designed to explain (as many myths do) the origins of a practice within the community, or at least, the origin of the significance that has now been attached to an older practice. To the meal of fellowship which is undoubtedly derived from the traditional Jewish thanksgiving meal, in a version (like the so-called “messianic banquet”) which has apocalyptic overtones (see 11:26), Paul has overlaid a sacramental significance based on a new interpretation of the meaning of the traditional bread and cup. This meaning is grounded in a mythical scene which may be Paul’s own invention, derived from a perceived personal revelation. The Gospel versions would probably ultimately be traced back to him. (We should also note that the establishment of the Eucharist is missing in other places in the rest of the early Christian record where we would expect to find it, such as the eucharistic prayers in the Didache, chapters 9 and 10, and in Hebrews 9:15-22 and even 7:1-3: see Supplementary Article No. 9: A Sacrifice in Heaven.)

But this “sacred meal” and the type of sacramentalism it entails, are not of Jewish derivation. Eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Deity—of any god—would have been a repugnant and blasphemous concept to any observant Jew, making it certain that an historical Jesus could never have established such a rite or foisted it upon his followers (see Maccoby, Paul and Hellenism, p. 99). Instead, Paul’s sacramental myth is strongly Greek flavored, and his Lord’s Supper is very close to the sacred meals of the Greek cultic mysteries, down to the word he uses, deipnon.

Such a meal signified the union of the initiates with the god of the cult’s worship, and a sharing in his nature and saving act—usually an overcoming of death in some way. We know of myths that were attached to such cultic meals. The Sabazius cult observed a communal supper which symbolized the heavenly banquet of the blessed which the initiates could look forward to after death. The cult of Mithras had an origin myth which explained where its sacred meal had come from. After Mithras had slain the bull (the ‘salvific act’ in Mithraism), he and the sun god Helios sealed a covenant by dining together on loaves of bread—some say on the meat of the bull himself—and drinking from cups which contained water and wine mixed. The goddess Isis was looked upon as having personally established the mystery rites associated with her, and this included a sacred meal. None of these gods and their activities were regarded as based in identifiable history.

As for the ‘narrative’ elements in verse 23 (“on the night of his arrest/betrayal”), there is nothing to prevent mythical stories from being set “at night,” especially ones involving death and sacrifice. And if the Corinthian Supper is observed after sundown (Paul does not specify), the origin myth would likely be placed at a corresponding time. But since so much of early Christian belief comes from scripture, it would not be surprising if this feature were dependent on Paul’s study of the writings. Unfortunately, he does not enlighten us, though 1 Corinthians 5:7 does link Christ’s sacrifice with Passover, whose meal is celebrated after dark.

Translators have a tendency to use the terms “arrested” or “betrayed” (the latter alluding to Judas) in rendering “paradidomi” in this part of the verse. This, I would suggest, is governed by Gospel preconceptions. The verb means, in its basic sense, to “hand over” or “deliver up” and is a technical term in the context of justice or martyrdom. In the Gospel story it can take on the meaning of arrest or betrayal (as in Mark 14:21), but in Paul there is no need to see it this way. He uses the same verb in Romans 8:32: “He (God) did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all.” Here it can hardly imply betrayal or arrest. In Ephesians 5:2 and 25 it is Christ who “gave himself up on your behalf.” No thought of Judas or of an arrest on Passover eve would be present here.

We might also note that the Greek shows a curious use of tenses. The verb “was handed over” (paredidoto) is in the imperfect, which literally makes the meaning “on the night he was being delivered up.” This implies that the act of surrender was going on all through the Supper! It seems that Paul could hardly have had the Gospel scene in mind, and scholars who have noted this (e.g., Robertson and Plummer, International Critical Commentary, First Epistle to the Corinthians, p.243) suggest that Paul is “taking a broader meaning,” perhaps of surrender by the Father as in the Romans passage. Curious, indeed.


When we allow Paul to speak for himself, rather than impose upon him the narrative world of the evangelists, we find a consistent picture throughout the letters. The governing force in his life’s work, as it is with all the competing apostles who roam the byways of the empire preaching the divine Christ, is the power of God’s Spirit, manifested through revelation and a study of scripture. No historical man who had recently begun the movement hovers in the background of Paul’s thought. His gospel comes from God, and its subject matter is the Christ, the intermediary Son who is the hallmark of the religious philosophy of the age. Everything Paul has to say about his Christ Jesus (including his features “according to the flesh”) comes from scripture, that window onto the higher spiritual world of God and his workings (see Part Two of the Main Articles).

Paul occasionally feels himself in direct contact with his Christ Jesus in heaven, receiving instruction from him, as in that handful of pronouncements which scholars call “words of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11, 9:14, 11:23, and 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). And he, like all contemporary Christians, awaits the arrival of this Son and Lord from heaven at the imminent End, when they shall set eyes on his person for the first time. In 1 Corinthians itself, Paul refers three times to the coming, the “revealing” of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:7, 11:26, 16:22). In not one of them, nor in any of the other dozen occurrences throughout the Pauline corpus, do we sense any suggestion that this will be a second coming, the return of a figure who had previously walked the earth in Paul’s own lifetime.