Did Paul Think Jesus was Pre-existent?

This may seem like a question with an obvious answer to many Christians who have grown up believing in the Trinity. Trinitarian doctrine was developed after decades of debates over the nature of Christ and the Godhead in the early church beginning in the second century. But Paul lived in the first century and wrote his letters around the middle of that century. He was an observant Jew who came to have trust in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. What did he think about the Messiah/Christ’s origins?

To understand the question adequately, one needs to review the beliefs of first-century Romans and Hellenized (Greek-acculturated) Jews with regard to the divine and earthly realms. Unlike the pervasive opinion today, the dividing line was rather porous between these two realities. Gods often crossed over into the mundane world of humans and humans were often known or believed to have been elevated into the divine realm. Their presence in the divine realm did not turn these beings into God (with a capital “G”). They may have been considered as gods or lesser divinities but they did not take on the identify of Zeus, Jupiter, or Yahweh. Daemons, angels, and other beings existed in the divine realm, according to common belief, without being God.

When early Jewish believers in Jesus the Messiah claimed that he had risen from the dead and was now seated at the right hand of God, they did not mean to say that he was God/Yahweh. They could not do so without violating their monotheistic, or better, henotheistic, beliefs. To say that Jesus was now divine, however, was not a violation of Jewish faith in Yahweh. Jews believed that a number of humans had been divinized in the past. Torah described Enoch as going to heaven (Gen. 5:24); 2 Kings 2:11 tells of Elijah’s ride into the next realm. Later Jewish traditions spoke of Moses ascending to heaven (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 4a; Pesikta Rabbati 20:4; Josephus, Antiquities 4:325-6). Jesus spoke of Abraham as residing there (Luke 16:19-31). This relocation did not make any of these patriarchs God. Neither was Jesus, strictly speaking, God, according to Paul.

But Paul and others came to understand the risen Jesus as having been more than just a good man divinely vindicated by God and adopted as his Son in a unique sense. Greater divine qualities were ascribed to Jesus, qualities that mirrored those many Hellenistic Jews identified with the personification of God’s Wisdom. Like God’s Word, made famous for Christians in the Gospel of John, God’s Wisdom was sometimes personified by Jews as a kind of emanation of God’s being, a force that could act on God’s behalf. Yet, for Jews, this was not a separate God – it was a manifestation of one of God’s divine attributes. Jews writing wisdom literature generally identified Wisdom in female terms and described her many actions on God’s behalf as she attempted to offer humanity her particular gifts but often found herself rejected.

The Jewish wisdom literature can be found in the Hebrew Biblical canon (some Proverbs, Psalms, parts of Job, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes) but the concept is more fully articulated in texts appearing in Catholic Bibles (deutero-canonical) and Protestant Bibles as apocrypha (Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach). To detect Paul’s use of Wisdom literature, compare these passages:

“She [Wisdom] caused their [Israelites wandering in the desert after the Exodus] works to prosper by the hand of the holy prophet [Moses]. They wandered through a desert in which no one lived…They thirsted and cried out to you. You [Wisdom] gave them water from a sharp rock, and their thirst was quenched by liquid from that hard stone” (Wis. 11:1-4 CEB).

“I [Paul] want you to be sure of the fact that our ancestors [the Israelites] were all under the cloud and they all went through the sea. All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. They drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:1-4 CEB).

Here Paul identifies Wisdom with Christ indicating a pre-existent Christ with divine attributes. Paul is even clearer earlier in the letter: “But to those who are called – both Jews and Greeks – Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:24 CEB). Paul seems to describe Christ/Wisdom as coming to earth from the divine realm in the famous “Christ-hymn” now found in his letter to the Philippians:

“Christ Jesus: Though he was in the morphē of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the morphē of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:5-8 CEB).

The Greek morphē can be translated in a number of ways: “form,” “appearance,” “condition,” “status,” “image,” “mode of being.” Though vigorously debated by scholars, these are all acceptable translations if we think of the Wisdom identity of Christ. Is this the same as Paul saying that Jesus Christ is one of three persons in the Trinity and thus equal to God?

A clue might be found in this contested passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

“The Jewish ancestors are theirs [the Israelites], and the Christ descended from those ancestors. He is the one who rules over all things, ho ōn epi pantōn theos eulogētos eis tous aiōnas amēn” (Rom. 9:5 CEB).

The last Greek phrase has been translated in several ways in English:

“[…the one who rules over all things,] who is God, and who is blessed forever. Amen.” (CEB)

“[…Messiah.] God who is over all be blessed forever. Amen.” (NAB)

“[…the Messiah,] who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” (NRSV)

The translation makes a difference. Is the Messiah God who is blessed forever? Or is God blessed forever? Or is the Messiah blessed by God forever? It is not an easy question to answer. Personal faith often interferes with objective translation. But even the first translation need not offend Jewish sensibilities if Christ is understood as Wisdom, a characteristic, or manifestation, of God rather than one of three in the holy Trinity.

In my approach to Paul, context means everything. Historically, Paul should be understood as an observant, Hellenistic Jew, who is faithful to (his interpretation, at least, of) scripture. Paul’s own concerns about Jewish objections to his ministry had to do with whether Jesus was the Messiah and how his death affected Gentiles. There does not seem to be any argument in Paul’s letters about Christ-believing Jews objecting to his characterization of Christ himself.

It seems totally plausible, therefore, that Paul and other observant Jews could have come to understand Jesus Messiah/Christ as the embodiment of God’s Wisdom, sent in human form to call humanity to righteousness. As Wisdom herself was often rejected by humanity (“I invited you, but you rejected me; I stretched out my hand to you, but you paid no attention. You ignored all my advice, and you didn’t want me to correct you” – Prov. 1:24-25 CEB), Christ, too, was rejected to the point of execution, “death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). To his followers, the resurrection vindicated Christ’s mission and person, (re-)placed him in the divine realm, and made him also the unique Son of God. All early believers seemed to subscribe to the expectation that Christ would return to do those things messianic Jews expected of their messiah. As Paul put it, in the end, the Messiah:

“…hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he brings every form of rule, every authority and power to an end. It is necessary for him to rule until he puts all enemies under his feet. Death is the last enemy to be brought to an end… When all things have been brought under his control, then the Son himself will also be under the control of the one who gave him control over everything so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:24-28 CEB).

The Messiah is certainly subject to God the Father, according to Paul. For the time being, however, according to Paul and those who thought like him, the Messiah remained in the divine realm awaiting the final days when, with his help, God’s creation would be returned to its intended perfect state.

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