Dissertation, or, My Life These Last Few Years

I recently received one of the happiest emails of my life. My PhD dissertation final drafts had been approved! Since I had been working on this dissertation in some form for almost four years, this was a major relief. Now that the course has been run, I thought I would share a few comments on my topic, why I chose it, and how my research panned out.

In terms of my topic, at the front end, I wanted to pick something that would serve me well in pastoral ministry. Many PhD dissertations are rather arcane: the details of a specific grammatical construction, or the scribal habits of a certain NT manuscript. As helpful as these things might be, this was not my interest. I wanted a topic that would get me squarely in the New Testament, familiarize me with key passages, and give me the chance to study New Testament theology.

I stumbled into my topic via a rather circuitous route. I set out in 2012 to begin writing a book about Paul’s undisputed letters as our earliest sure witness to Christianity. I was struck with the fact that seven of Paul’s letters are undisputed in terms of authorship, and that this voice so close to the beginnings of the church had really not been tapped as an argument for the reliability of the faith.

IMG_20160322_141542955_HDRI quickly realized, however, that there was a major objection to my thesis. “Sure,” many skeptics would say, “Seven of Paul’s letters were written by him, and they indisputably give us insight into his form of early Christianity. But Paul was a corrupter of the message, and was not faithful to the message that Jesus proclaimed! Paul proves nothing except the early Christians splintered immediately into different competing factions.”

I realized that I would have to deal with this weighty objection, and so I began studying up on the “Jesus and Paul” problem. I realized that this would be a great dissertation area, since it would directly inform the book I wanted to write. Additionally, the historical Jesus in the gospels and Paul’s letters were my favorite parts of the New Testament.

Basically, I wanted to join the conversation in the Jesus-Paul debate and argue for some aspect of continuity, instead of discontinuity. Many aspects of Jesus and Paul’s theology and practice have been discussed over the years, and for a while I despaired of finding an angle that was “new” enough to warrant a PhD dissertation.

Back in the fall of 2012 I wrote a paper for our NT backgrounds class on first-person claims to perform miracles in the ancient world, and first-person claims to have witnessed miracles in the ancient world–particularly accounts where the authorship of the documents in question are sure. Again, I had my book on Paul in mind–significantly, Paul claims to perform miracles in two of his undisputed letters (2 Corinthians 12:12; Romans 15:18-19). In the process of writing this paper, I learned that such a claim was almost unparalleled in the ancient world. That same semester, I also wrote another paper on the famous Testimonium Flavianum, the passage in Josephus’ Antiquities where he calls Jesus “a worker of wondrous deeds.”

With miracles on my mind, I eventually settled on investigating the place and significance of miracles in the ministries of Jesus and Paul. Here was a rather overlooked point of similarity. Significantly, most scholars (even of a skeptical bent) will acknowledge that Jesus performed what were perceived to be miraculous healings and exorcisms. We are on good historical ground here. In Paul’s case, his first-person claim to perform miracles was also historically significant.

My title ended up being: “Signs of Continuity: the Sign-Function of Miracles in the Ministries of Jesus and Paul as Evidence of Shared Convictions.” This was a great study, that I enjoyed immensely. In the end I argued that miracle-working was indeed an example of “family resemblance” between Jesus and Paul, both in terms of how both figures were miracle-workers for whom we can make strong arguments for historical authenticity, as well as in how both figures seem to associate three “sign-functions” or theological significances with their miracles.

What three sign-functions do I mean? First, I argued that for both figures, miracles not only accompanied their message of gracious inclusion, but also in some sense actualized or realized those messages. On the Jesus side, his healings were associated with God’s forgiveness and in some sense restored outsiders back into the worshiping community of Israel (e.g., lepers). On the Paul side, miracles occurred under the “umbrella” of the working of the Holy Spirit, whose presence among Gentile Christians integrated them into the people of God.

Second, I argued that for both figures, miracles were “(qualified) signs of authoritative power in weakness.”  I was struck by how both Jesus and Paul in some sense appeal to miracles as authentication, yet at the same time both give a resistance to asking for a “sign.” Both also combine a miracle-working ministry of numinous power with a lifestyle of personal weakness.

Third, I argued that for both Jesus and Paul, miracles were signs of the presence of the eschatological age of fulfillment. On the Jesus side, Jesus consciously pointed to his miracles as signs of eschatological fulfillment. On the Paul side, miracles were once again under the umbrella of the working of the (eschatological) Spirit. Additionally, echoes of the exodus event in Paul’s language of “signs and wonders” also points toward the presence of the age of fulfillment.

Finally, I also explored whether Paul knew of Jesus miracles, whether there was indeed final continuity between both figures in this regard, and finally whether Paul was imitating this aspect of Jesus’ ministry. I argued yes to all of these questions.


 

By a final way of introduction, here is a copied and pasted section of my introduction that explains and sets up the study. If you are interested, feel free to contact me and I’ll email you a pdf of my dissertation. I might be partial, but I think it is rather interesting. 🙂


Introduction

The relationship between Jesus and Paul is a critical issue in New Testament scholarship and Christianity in general.[1] Several reasons explain this: (1) Paul’s writings comprise a significant part of the New Testament itself; (2) Pauline theology has played a large role in the theology of Christianity; and (3) there are serious arguments that can be made against continuity between Paul and Jesus, arguments that may be taken to support Wrede’s statements that Paul was “the second founder of Christianity,” one who “exercised beyond all doubt the stronger—not the better—influence.”[2]

Assessing this issue is a broad task, and various angles can be explored with reference to both theological continuity and historical connection. Some issues are close to the surface and have thus received much attention (e.g., Jesus’ message of the kingdom and its scarcity in Paul). Some issues are less prominent, and yet may prove significant if enough lines of evidence can be found.

In 1989 Christian Wolff wrote an article that focused on practical similarities in how Jesus and Paul conducted their day-to-day ministries. He noted that both led lives of deprivation, renounced marriage, engaged in humble service, and suffered persecution.[3] While these similarities do not prove Paul’s dependence upon Jesus, they are suggestive for one who urged the imitation of Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 11:1).

In addition to the four connections adduced by Wolff, another similarity between the ministries of Jesus and Paul exists—the place of miraculous phenomena. Both Jesus and Paul are presented as miracle-workers in the New Testament, and in both cases strong arguments for historicity can be made.[4]

This deserves an exploration within the Jesus-Paul debate. The working of miracles is widely acknowledged as being close to the center of Jesus’ activity, and is increasingly being recognized for Paul as well. Significantly, since Acts presents a portrait of Paul as a miracle-worker somewhat parallel to Jesus, we have already in the first-century an interpretation of Paul that sees continuity with Jesus in miracle-working.[5] While miracles are but one slice of the Jesus-Paul debate, any similarities in such a practical aspect of ministry may prove illuminating. This is especially so if we can draw patterns of similarity in how both Jesus and Paul interpreted the significance of their miracles.

Thesis

Similarities in the sign-function of miracles performed by Jesus and Paul strengthen the historical and theological continuity between both figures and suggest that Paul deliberately imitated Jesus in the performance of miracles.

Method of Study

This dissertation particularly builds upon three studies within the Jesus-Paul debate. The first, as mentioned above, is Wolff’s article on parallels between the ministries of Jesus and Paul. In addition to the similarities Wolff notes, this study will add miracle-working as another parallel. As Wedderburn writes of Wolff’s essay, such a similar pattern of lifestyle suggests some cause and effect.[6]

The second foundational study is Twelftree’s Paul and the Miraculous (2013), which fills a gap in Pauline studies.[7] Twelftree argues that the experience of the miraculous was central to Paul, and Twelftree takes what we might call a “maximalist” view of references to miracles in disputed passages like 1 Corinthians 2:4 and 1 Thessalonians 1:5. He finally argues that there is some discontinuity between both figures in that Paul did not actively perform miracles, but that God caused them to happen while Paul was preaching—and Twelftree sets this against the portrait in Acts.[8] We will adopt many of his arguments about the importance of miracles to Paul, as well as his treatment of several Pauline passages. Finally, however, we will challenge his view of major discontinuous elements between Jesus and Paul as miracle-workers.

The third foundational study is Schoberg’s Perspectives of Jesus in the Writings of Paul (2013), which argues for continuity in terms of a “common mindset,” “core commitment,” or “family resemblance,” in which Jesus and Paul persevered despite opposition.[9] Helpful in terms of methodology, Schoberg argues that in order to move the debate forward, three elements must be born in mind: (1) consideration must be given to the results of the Third Quest and the New Perspective on Paul; (2) focus must lie on issues of key importance to both Jesus and Paul; and (3) particularly debated issues (like the significance of Jesus’ death and his identity) must be avoided so as not to prejudice certain ranks of scholars.[10] The three shared commitments that Schoberg develops are: (1) the welcome of outsiders; (2) the need to share in Jesus’ death; and (3) the presence of a theology of new creation.

Schoberg further writes that in order to demonstrate each of these shared commitments, three requirements must be met: (1) the historicity and importance of each element must be established; (2) a “family resemblance” must be demonstrated between Jesus and Paul; and (3) an argument must be made for why Paul is most likely dependent upon Jesus for the similarity.[11]

This dissertation will build upon the results of Schoberg’s study by considering three sign-functions the miracles of Jesus and Paul seem to share, which correspond in varying degrees to Schoberg’s three core commitments. Considering the place of miracles fulfils Schoberg’s first three requirements for how to advance the discussion: (1) Third Quest results and New Perspective considerations will be included; (2) miracles were indeed significant to Jesus and Paul (as we will argue); and (3) the issue of miracles crosses no major fault-lines (at least healings and exorcisms, which most scholars accept in the case of Jesus). This study will also try to emulate Schoberg’s three requirements for each sign-function. In our chapters on proposed sign-functions (Chapters Two, Three, and Four), authenticity and importance will be addressed, and we will argue for a family-resemblance. In Chapter Five, we will go back and present reasons that Paul is likely depending on Jesus.

If this approach is successful, the working of miracles in the ministries of Jesus and Paul will be seen minimally to form its own pattern of similarity, as well as strengthening the shared commitments argued by Schoberg by extending them to a practical aspect of the ministries of Jesus and Paul. Our approach will also ideally suggest that Paul’s practice was done in imitation of Jesus.


 

[1] Indicative of currency on even the popular level are: David Wenham, Did St. Paul Get Jesus Right? (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2010); James D. Tabor, Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012).

[2] William Wrede, Paul, trans. Edward Lummis (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1908; repr., Lexington, KY: American Theological Library Association, 1962), 179–80, italics removed.

[3] Christian Wolff, “Humility and Self-Denial in Jesus’ Life and Message and in the Apostolic Existence of Paul,” in Paul and Jesus: Collected Essays, ed. A. J. M. Wedderburn, JSNTSup 37 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), 145–60.

[4] Historicity in the sense that Jesus and Paul and their contemporaries would have interpreted them as miracle-workers.

[5] E.g., Acts 2:22; cf. 14:3.

[6] A. J. M. Wedderburn, “Paul and the Story of Jesus,” in Paul and Jesus: Collected Essays, ed. A. J. M. Wedderburn, JSNTSup 37 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), 180–81.

[7] Graham H. Twelftree, Paul and the Miraculous: A Historical Reconstruction (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013).

[8] Ibid., 326.

[9] Gerry Schoberg, Perspectives of Jesus in the Writings of Paul: A Historical Examination of Shared Core Commitments with a View to Determining the Extent of Paul’s Dependence on Jesus, Princeton Theological Monograph Series 190 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013), 14, 16.

[10] Ibid., 11–13.

[11] Ibid., 16–17. See also John W. Drane, “Patterns of Evangelization in Paul and Jesus,” in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ; Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology, ed. Joel B. Green and Max Turner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 291.