pagels on the tension between paul and james

Noted scholar Elaine Pagels points out the tension between the teachings of Paul and the teachings of James and the Twelve:

Paul’s impassioned preaching soon attracted a considerable following of Gentiles in the Syrian city of Antioch, but it also embroiled him in bitter disputes with other followers of Jesus. People who belonged to the Jerusalem group led by Jesus’ brother James apparently charged that Paul’s “gospel” was so radical that it contradicted what they had heard from the most respected leaders, including James himself and the disciples Peter and John. Although what Luke later wrote in the Book of Acts glossed over these disputes, Paul’s own words suggest that initially he was concerned that Peter and James—or, at any rate, their followers—might oppose him for preaching to Gentiles a “gospel” that had dropped all Torah requirements, although he says that finally they agreed to let him teach it.

So when other leaders in the movement accused Paul of having no credentials to speak for Jesus, whom he had never met, Paul burst out in anger. He sarcastically called his accusers “super apostles” who were forcing him to talk about matters that made him feel foolish and uncomfortable, since what he had to say would sound like boasting. Paul insisted that he taught only what came to him directly “through revelation”—not from Peter, James, or anyone else on earth. Paul insisted that his authority came straight from God—from “visions and revelations of the Lord.”

Pagels, Elaine. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (p. 44). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


When John accuses “evildoers” of leading gullible people into sin, what troubles him is what troubled the Essenes: whether—or how much—to accommodate pagan culture. And when we see Jesus’ earliest followers, including Peter, James, and Paul, not as we usually see them, as early Christians, but as they saw themselves—as Jews who had found God’s messiah—we can see that they struggled with the same question. For when John charges that certain prophets and teachers are encouraging God’s people to eat “unclean” food and engage in “unclean” sex, he is taking up arguments that had broken out between Paul and followers of James and Peter about forty years earlier—an argument that John of Patmos continues with a second generation of Paul’s followers.57 For when we ask, who are the “evildoers” against whom John warns? we may be surprised at the answer. Those whom John says Jesus “hates” look very much like Gentile followers of Jesus converted through Paul’s teaching. Many commentators have pointed out that when we step back from John’s angry rhetoric, we can see that the very practices John denounces are those that Paul had recommended.

Pagels, Elaine. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (pp. 53-54). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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Fracking Primer

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N.T. Wright Interprets “Flesh” for Everyone

New Leaven

In two recent posts, we explored the meaning of sarx (“flesh” in ESV, NRSV, and “sinful nature” in T/NIV and NLT) as used by Paul.  We even had Wayne Leman, a professional linguist and translator of Better Bibles, going back and forth with Kyle Phillilps here.

Well, I decided to consult a Paulinist on the matter at Romans 8:5-11:

But what do “fleshly”…mean?  ….[“Flesh”] is so problematic that it would be nice (as I have tried to do with some other technical language) to avoid it altogether, but I have found that doing so produces even worse tangles.  Better to learn, once and for all, that when Paul uses the word “flesh” and other similar words he does not intend us simply to think of the “physical” world, in our normal sense, as opposed to the “non-physical.”  He has other language for that.  The word we translate, here and elsewhere…

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A Warlord Messiah

Found in The The Son Of God scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls:

Column 1
(1) [the king. And when the Spirit] came to rest upo[n] him, he fell before the throne. (2) [Then Daniel arose and said,] ‘0 Wing, why are you angry; why do you [grind] your teeth? (3)[The G]rear [God] has revealed to you [that which is to come.] It shall indeed all come to pass, unto eternity. (4) [There will be violence and gr]eat [Evils.] Oppression will be upon the earth. (5) [Peoples will make war,] and battles shall multiply among the nations, (6)[until the King of the people of God arises. He will become] the King of Syria and [E]gypt. (7) [All the peoples will serve him,] and he shall become [gre]at upon the earth. (8)[… All w]ill make [peace,] and all will serve (9) [him.] He will be called [son of the Gr]eat [God;] by His Name he shall be designated.

Column 2
(1) He will be called the son of God; they will call him son of the Most High. Like the shooting stars (2) that you saw, thus will be their Kingdom. They will rule for a given period of year[s] upon (3) the earth, and crush everyone. People will crush people, and nation (will crush) nation, (4) until the people of God arises and causes everyone to rest from the sword. (5) His Kingdom will be an Eternal Kingdom, and he will be Righteous in all his Ways. He [will jud]ge (6) the earth in Righteousness, and everyone will make peace. The sword shall cease from the earth, (7) and every nation will bow down to him. As for the Great God, with His help (8) he will make war, and He will give all the peoples into his power; all of them (9) He will throw down before him. His rule will be an Eternal rule, and all the boundaries..

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Legends of Melchizedek


Melchizedek is a character found in Genesis. Abraham gains spoils of war, and then he meets a mysterious priest of the “most high” God. To this priest, Abraham tithes. This priest is named Melchizedek:

Gen 14:17 After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).
Gen 14:18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.)
Gen 14:19 And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth;
Gen 14:20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

Melchizedek is mentioned two other places in the Bible. There is a mention to the “Order of Melchizedek” in Psalms 110 (which is not necessarily a reference to Melchizedek himself). Jesus takes this psalm as a reference to “the Christ” in Matthew 22:24.

The second reference to Melchizedek is a very interesting description in Hebrews 7 (starting in Hebrews 6:19):

Heb 6:19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain,
Heb 6:20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.

Jesus is said to have gained the priesthood of Melchizedek. Jesus is said to become a priest “forever” a term also used in Psalms 110 (perhaps the author of Hebrews was identifying Jesus as the subject of the psalm). Melchizedek’s order seems to have been commonly viewed as an eternal priesthood. Those of the line of Melchizedek were in some sense immortal, as the author of Hebrews goes on to claim. This point is less obvious in Psalms 110, although the same ideas could have been around during the writing of this psalm.

Heb 7:1 For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him,
Heb 7:2 and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace.
Heb 7:3 He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.

Melchizedek is said to have no beginning of days. He is said to live forever. He is said to resemble the “Son of God” and be a priest forever. The reference is that Melchizedek is like Jesus (or an argument to the reader that Jesus is like Melchizedek). Recall that Jesus is said to “have become” a priest of the order of Melchizedek in the previous chapter. In any case, Melchizedek looks to be some sort of divine creature within these pages.

Melchizedek is said to be greater than Abraham. This is a very important point to the author of Hebrews, as he is attempting to explain how Jesus is superior to Levite preists:

Heb 7:7 It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior.
Heb 7:8 In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives.

“Whom it is testified that he lives” suggests the author has access to some sort of reference stating that Melchizedek has not died. From this source, the author appears to have gained the information that Melchizedek has no beginning and no end (verse 3). Very likely this is a reference to texts that existed which are similar to our current texts of Enoch and certain Dead Sea Scrolls legends.

The Dead Sea Scrolls describe Melchizedek as a Messiah figure:

13 But, Melchizedek will carry out the vengeance of Go[d’s] judgments, [and on that day he will fr]e[e them from the hand of] Belial and from the hand of all the sp[irits of his lot.]

The entire text is about Melchizedek but the translator abstracts the text:

The figure Melchizedek in 11Q13 (11QMelch) has usually been described as an angel (Martínze 1992, 176). However, some scholars argue that Melchizedek is a divine title (Van de Water 2006, 75-86). In order to understand the figure of Melchizedek, it is necessary to discuss how the manuscript interprets the Old Testament passages in relation with Melchizedek. 11Q13 interprets a number of verses from Isaiah, Leviticus, and other books in the Old Testament dealing with remission of debts and liberation of slaves at the end of a jubilee cycle as referring to the last judgment.

In Second Enoch (Exaltation of Melchizedek, Slavonic Enoch), Melchizedek is given a virgin birth before the Noahic Flood. Furthermore, he is born fully clothed and ages supernaturally. He is immediately marked for the priesthood:

Sopanim was in the time of her old age and in the day of her death. She conceived in her womb, but Nir the priest had not slept with her.

When they had gone out toward the grave, a child came out from the dead Sopanim and sat on the bed at her side. Noah and Nir came in to bury Sopanim and they saw the child sitting beside the dead Sopanim, wiping his clothing. Noah and Nir were very terrified with a great fear, because the child was fully developed physically, he spoke with his lips and blessed The Lord.

Noah and Nir looked at him closely, saying, “This is from The Lord, my brother.” And behold the badge of priesthood was on his chest, and it was glorious in appearance. Noah said to Nir, “Behold, God is renewing the priesthood from blood related to us, just as He pleases..”

Noah and Nir hurried and washed the child, they dressed him in the garments of the priesthood, and they gave him bread to eat and he ate it. And they called him Melchizedek .

Slavonic Enoch is a first century AD text. This is likely a typical view of who Melchizedek was. Taken in conjunction with Hebrews 7 and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Melchizedek is portrayed as some sort of divine agent who functions as a God’s agent in the world. Likely there were other legends that survived about Melchizedek, even informing the Psalms 110 reference to his eternal priesthood. The 4th century Gnostic text, The Coming of the Son of God Melchizedek, identifies Melchizedek as Jesus.

The identification of Jesus as Melchizedek is improbable in the 1st century. In Hebrews, Jesus is being compared to Melchizedek and initiated into the line of Melchizedek. All these events as said to happen after the Levitical priesthood and the law have been formed (events which post-date the first meeting of Melchizedek in Genesis). Hebrews 7:11 reads:

Heb 7:11 Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?

Jesus had two options for priesthood. Jesus, Hebrews admits, was not descended from Judah, and thus his priesthood had to be through Melchizedek. The author spends some time defending the idea that the Melchizedek priesthood is superior to the Levitical priesthood, thus giving Jesus a preferred status. If Melchizedek was Jesus, this would be the time to state as much to prove Jesus’ obvious superiority. But the argument is that Melchizedek is greater than Abraham who is greater than Levi. Since Jesus is of Melchizedek then Jesus is above Abraham and Levi by Transitive Property.

All these facts put Christians in a strange place when dealing with Melchizedek and Hebrews. The Christian can affirm one of the following:

1. Melchizedek is a divine being (without beginning and end).
2. The author of Hebrews is using the story of Melchizedek in a legendary sense. Like a pastor preaching about Jesus using popular culture (like Star Wars), Hebrews is associating Jesus with Melchizedek.
3. The author of Hebrews believes in a divine being without beginning and end, but is wrong. The book of Hebrews is not canonical, as Luther maintained. Eusebius also mentioned it was a disputed book.
4. That Melchizedek is Jesus (as in the Gnostic text), and texts about Jesus being initiated after the Levite Priesthood and law have been established must be reworked.

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The Galatian Heresy

F.F. Bruce attempts to recreate the arguments against Paul being advanced by the Galatians. From The Epistle to the Galatians by F. F. Bruce:

“The Jerusalem leaders are the only persons with authority to say what the true gospel is, and this authority they received direct from Christ. Paul has no comparable authority: any commission he exercises was derived by him from the Jerusalem leaders, and if he differs from them on the content or implications of the gospel, he is acting and teaching quite arbitrarily. In fact,” they may have added, “Paul went up to Jerusalem shortly after his conversion and spent some time with the apostles there. They instructed him in the first principles of the gospel and, seeing that he was a man of uncommon intellect, magnanimously wiped out from their minds his record as a persecutor and authorized him to preach to others the gospel which he had learned from them. But when he left Jerusalem for Syria and Cilicia he began to adapt the gospel to make it palatable to Gentiles. The Jerusalem leaders practised circumcision and observed the law and the customs, but Paul struck out on a line of his own, omitting circumcision and other ancient observances from the message he preached, and thus he betrayed his ancestral heritage. This law-free gospel has no authority but his own; he certainly did not receive it from the apostles, who disapproved of his course of action. Their disapproval was publicly shown on one occasion at Antioch, when there was a direct confrontation between Peter and him on the necessity of maintaining the Jewish food-laws.” (Galatians, 26).

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Joseph Conrad on Starvation


“No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well, I do. It takes a man all is inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonour, and the perdition of one’s soul – than this kind of prolonged hunger.

-Joseph Conrad

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