I recently listened to an episode of Unbelievable?, an apologetics podcast hosted by Justin Brierley based out of the UK, on the information Paul provides us about the historical Jesus (link). This discussion was between atheist Richard Carrier and Christian apologist Jonathan McLatchie. I’m a regular listener and even had the honor of participating in an episode on what the Book of Revelation teaches us about the nature of eschatological punishment in hell (link). I’m a huge fan of the show because Justin has been able to get the world’s best biblical scholars (along with scientists and philosophers) to have down to earth and usually civil conversations about all sorts of really interesting topics related to Christian faith and skepticism. The shows usually include one Christian and one non-Christian contributor in the conversation.
Richard Carrier has tried to make a scholarly argument that the historical Jesus reflected in the Gospels arose after a more primitive Christian belief that Jesus was a celestial being who was crucified in the heavenly realm, and never a historical person. Later Christians projected this heavenly redeemer figure Jesus into history and eventually inscribed this myth in the canonical Gospels of the New Testament. Carrier’s case rests largely on his reading of Paul, our earliest Christian author, who he believes gives no indication of belief in a historical Jesus. To summarize Carrier’s argument (all too briefly), if our earliest sources present Jesus as a heavenly being and only our later sources place him in history, then we lack sufficient evidence for belief in the historical Jesus, according to Carrier.
The radio show discussed several important Pauline texts and briefly touched on the evidence in Acts and the Gospels. There was one line of evidence that didn’t come up, which I think is very problematic for Carrier’s thesis. This is the material from Romans 9:1–5, where Paul describes the blessings of the Jewish people, whom Paul wishes would embrace their Messiah, Jesus, and avoid condemnation. Of most importance, Paul says “from whom (the Israelites, v. 4) is the Messiah, according to flesh…” (ἐξ ὧν ὁ Χριστὸς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα, v. 5). Since this passage didn’t come up in the discussion (unless I missed it) I went to Carrier’s recently published book on the subject (On the History of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt [Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014]) to see if he addresses this passage in his treatment of the evidence from Paul. Carrier’s study includes no detailed treatment of its relevance for the discussion of Paul’s belief regarding the historical Jesus. He refers once to this passage in a parenthetical note (p. 568) and once he makes the connection between this verse and Romans 1:3, which speaks of the Messiah as a descendant of David (p. 575). There is also a discussion of this verse’s relevance to Paul’s belief in Jesus’ divinity in a footnote as well (p. 95 n.69).
In my opinion, this is an important oversight for Carrier’s thesis. In order to highlight the gap in his case, I want to discuss briefly what Paul meant when he described Jesus as an Israelite κατὰ σάρκα (“according to the flesh”). I believe that this evidence in Paul clearly demonstrates that he believed Jesus was a human being who was born into the same world that every other human being was and is, and that Jesus was born specifically as an ethnic Israelite. If this is the case, Carrier’s argument crumbles, because it means that Christianity began as a religion based on the belief in a human Messiah who descended from heaven into the human realm, evidenced by Paul’s writings and the continuity of this belief in the next generation, as the Gospels and latter NT writings bear witness.
What Does κατὰ σάρκα Mean?
This prepositional phrase κατὰ σάρκα occurs 20 times in the letters attributed to Paul, and only two of the occurrences are in the disputed epistles. A similar phrase (which adds the article before σάρκα) occurs in John 8:15. Otherwise, this is a uniquely Pauline term in the New Testament. From my reading of the evidence there are basically two ways that Paul uses this phrase. First, in several instances, κατὰ σάρκα is contrasted with κατὰ πνεῦμα (“according to the Spirit”). When this is the case, the idea conveyed by κατὰ σάρκα seems to be the condition of a human being who is void of God’s Spirit which is the meaning in the several occurrences in Romans 8 (see vv. 4, 5, 12, 13). Within this category is Paul’s use of this expression to depict behaving in an unspiritual way (2 Cor 1:17; 5:16; 10:2, 3, 11:18). While these passages convey important theological concepts, this meaning does not seem to be Paul’s intent in Romans 9:5.
For our purposes, it is most important to observe that Paul regularly uses this phrase to mean something essentially like “as a human being,” or “according to human flesh.” This is the meaning of σάρξ in Hebrews 12:9, which is often brought over with the translation “earthly” or “human.” Thus, in Romans 1:3, Jesus is David’s son “according to the flesh.” In contrast to Jesus’ Davidic sonship because of his “according to the flesh,” in Romans 1:4 Paul says that Jesus was declared to be God’s son “by the Spirit of holiness” (κατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης) when he was resurrected. Scholars have identified this text as a preform tradition that predates Paul’s use of it in Romans. This means the Christology reflected in this passage is not only Paul’s but may also reflect the Christology of those who were believers in Jesus before him. The question that must be asked is to whom does Christ’s resurrection display his divine sonship? If his death and resurrection took place in the celestial realm, then his divine status was already known. This early creedal statement revealed that Jesus is God’s Son to those who were previously unaware. This pre-formed Christological creed makes far better sense if it is taken to attest to Jesus birth in the human realm as a son of David and the Spirit’s announcement that he is the Son of God when he is resurrected, again in the world of their experience.
This reading of κατὰ σάρκα in Rom 1:3 is solidified by Paul’s other uses of the prepositional phrase. Thus, in Romans 4:1, Abraham is the forefather “according to the flesh” of the Jewish people. Paul describes other ethnic Israelites as his “kinsmen according to the flesh” in Romans 9:3. This reading of Romans 9:3 is further supported by Paul’s reference to unbelieving Israelites simply as “my flesh” (μου τὴν σάρκα) in Romans 11:14. We have a somewhat ambiguous case in the occurrences of κατὰ σάρκα in Galatians 4:23 and 29. Paul builds an allegory on the story of Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac. Paul says that Ishmael is Abraham’s son born “according to the flesh” while Isaac is the son born according to promise and the spirit. The idea seems to be that Abraham’s son Ishmael was born apart from divine intervention in contrast to the miraculous and life-giving promise of God to Sarah (cf., Romans 4:17), which overcame her old age and barrenness so that God’s promise to Abraham could be realized through Isaac’s birth. Still, that Ishmael was born “according to the flesh” includes the reality that he was born of a woman in the normal way humans are born. Finally, in two parallel verses, Paul commands Christians who are slaves to obey their “masters according to the flesh” (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:22). These instances clearly mean human masters who have authority over their slaves in the human realm.
Conclusion and the Meaning of Romans 9:5
In none of the instances of κατὰ σάρκα does Paul mean someone who became flesh in the heavenly realm, as Carrier believes had to be the case for Jesus. To suggest otherwise is clearly a case of begging the question and it requires that we turn a blind eye to much material in Paul about what it meant for Jesus to be “flesh.” It would require us to believe that only in the references to Jesus does Paul mean something exceptional by the phrase κατὰ σάρκα. This is an obvious instance of one letting his hypothesis determine what the evidence means, rather than testing his hypothesis against the evidence, and allowing it to be falsified when the evidence demands such. That this is the case in Carrier’s book becomes especially interesting when he suggests that Paul was “all but required” to read the prophecy of 2 Samuel 7:12–14 not as a promise that a descendant of David, born through normal means on earth, would be placed on the throne of an eternal kingdom, but, rather, that God extracted David’s sperm and kept it in heaven to create him a descendant to sit on his throne (pp. 576-7)! If one’s hypothesis leads him to believe that Paul read this prophecy in this way, while citing no Second Temple Jewish evidence that anyone read 2 Samuel 7 in such an incredible way, then I think it is rather obvious that he has taken a wrong turn somewhere in his journey to discover Paul’s beliefs about the historical Jesus.
As we observed above, for Paul to speak of his fellow Israelites in terms of “flesh” is to identify them as fellow descendants of Abraham. He laments their plight apart from faith in Christ, because they have sought to establish their own righteousness by obeying the law (Romans 10:3). However, Christ is the end of the law and the only source of righteousness, which is received only by those who believe (Romans 10:4). Paul believed that God accomplished what the law could not do for his fellow Israelites (and all who would believe) “by sending his son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).
For Paul, if Jesus is to solve Israel’s plight, and the human plight more generally, God had to send him as a genuine human being in the realm of the law’s influence and shortcomings.
This means Jesus had to take on human flesh in this world to overcome the plight of sin. Paul says as much in Galatians 4:4–5—Jesus was sent by God into this world, born of a woman, born under the law—i.e., as an Israelite—so that he might redeem those under the law.
Paul’s point in Romans 9:5 cannot be overlooked in this debate. Paul is concerned about his fellow Israelites, who will suffer judgment for their failure to embrace Jesus as Messiah and Lord. That these Israelites are Paul’s “kinsmen according to the flesh” means that he shares the same ethnicity. Likewise, that Jesus, the Messiah, comes from them “according to the flesh” means that Jesus was an Israelite in the same way that Paul and the kinsmen he is concerned about are Israelites.
For Paul, as for all the early Christians, it was not enough for Jesus to be a human, he had to be the eschatological Adam, a son of Abraham, a son of David, and an obedient Israelite (N. T. Wright has highlighted this point well in his publications).
Paul’s affirmations that Jesus is a descendant of David “according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3; cf., 15:12), the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:16), and an Israelite “according to the flesh” (Romans 9:5) all mean, for Paul, that Jesus was a flesh and blood human who lived in the same world he ministered in and that he died for the sins of God’s people in this world and was resurrected in this world and only then exalted again to heaven as Lord (Philippians 2:5–11; cf. 1 Timothy 3:16). This evidence, I believe, cannot be read fairly in a way that upholds Carrier’s thesis that Paul did not believe in a historical Jesus. Paul’s entire Gospel message is grounded in the reality of the historical Jesus.