Historical Origin of Divine Christology Part 3 – The Origin of Paul’s Divine Christology

Why bother to collect water with leaky buckets from distant wells when one can draw fresh water from the well in one’s backyard? [cf. endnote 7]

One of the most dramatic stories in the Bible is the transformation of Paul after he had a vision of the risen Christ. Paul was bent on destroying the church, but he suddenly turned into a preacher whose influence on the development of Christianity is second only to that of Jesus Christ. F.F. Bruce describes the significance of Paul’s conversion experience on Damascus Road,

No single event, apart from the Christ-even itself, has proved so determinant for the course of Christian history as the conversion and commissioning of Paul. For anyone who accepts Paul’s own explanation of his Damascus Road experience, it would be difficult to disagree with the observation of an eighteenth century writer [G. Lyttelton] that “the conversion and apostleship of St. Paul alone, duly considered was of itself a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a divine revelation.” /𝟏/

The cradle of Christianity was Judaism and Paul could rank himself as among to the finest elite of Judaism: He was born a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” sat at the feet of the outstanding teacher, Gamaliel, who was the grandson of the great rabbi Hillel. He was an emerging leader of the strict sect of the Pharisees who boasted that he was blameless in his observation of the Law (Phil. 3:6). He shared the same dogmatic assurance with his religious cohorts that the tradition handed down to them by their learned rabbis contained the whole truth of the religion. As such, there is no need for new revelation from God.

Paul was offended when he came across the new Christian movement with its audacious claim to have received new revelation through Jesus Christ. It was galling to him that these unschooled Christians regarded Jesus as the messiah when Jesus was evidently cursed by God, since according to Jewish scripture, a hang man is cursed by God (Deut. 21: 22-23). Paul reacted violently and sought to destroy the newborn church, not only in Jerusalem, but all the way to Damascus. “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:13).

But Paul encountered the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus which resulted in a radical transformation of his life. The new truth for him is that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3: 13-14). Salvation is now open to both Jews and Greeks. Paul claims that the message of salvation which he preaches is a direct revelation from Jesus Christ given to him on the road to Damascus. “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11).

The attempts by critical scholars to explain away Paul’s experience as a “subjective vision” (an euphemism for hallucination) seem to have lost traction today and scholars are beginning to take Paul’s words at face value. Paul did see something with all the characteristics of an “objective, external event.” Paul testified that the resurrected Christ appeared to him, accompanied by radiance of glory (2 Cor. 4.6; Acts 9.3; 22.6; 26.13).
The central insight which Paul gained from his vision of Christ on Damascus Road is that Christ is εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ (eikōn tou theou, image of God) (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). /2/ Seyoon Kim notes that in a vision a seer sees an image. Thus in the theophany of God to Jacob, God appears as an εἰκὼν (eikōn, image) of an angel, which is also and εἰκὼν of a human being. “So at Bethel (Gen. 31:11-13) Jacob did not directly see God himself but his εἰκὼν.” /3/ In the same way, what Paul saw in the Damascus road was an image of God which turned out to be the exalted Christ who appeared as the εἰκὼν of God.

Paul became convinced that the exalted Christ is the εἰκὼν and μορφῇ (morphē, form) of God based on his understanding of the linguistic tradition of the Old Testament. R.P. Martin observes that in the Greek Old Testament (LXX), εἰκὼν and δόξα (doxa, glory) are parallel or synonymous terms in the translation of the Hebrew word תְּמוּנָה (tĕmûnâ, form) (Num. 12:8 and Psa. 17:15). He adds that תְּמוּנָה is also translated by μορφῇ in the LXX. Furthermore, the LXX often uses μορφῇ to translate the word צְלֵם (ṣĕlēm) in its meaning of ‘image, likeness’ (Dan. 3:18). A comparison of the Hebrew and Greek texts of Gen. 1:26ff shows that the Hebrew צְלֵם is rendered by εἰκὼν in the LXX. To summarize, these representative passages show that εἰκὼν and μορφῇ are interchangeable or near synonymous terms in other places in the LXX. /4/

R. P. Martin writes, “an εἰκὼν was not held to be a mere representation of an object but was believed in some way to participate in the being of the object it symbolized. In some sense, it was the object it represented. As he [Kleinknecht] puts it, it is the reality itself coming to expression. It is the ‘objectivization of the essence of the object so described. As a Christological term, it refers to the coming into full expression, in the experience of men, of the divine glory. ‘In His face we see the shekinah present in visible form.” /5/

Paul’s familiarity with the term shekinah used in the rabbinic tradition to describe the manifested glorious presence of God helped him to understand that the glory of Christ to be the glory and image of God. Kim concludes, “Hence, the δόξαν κυρίου [glory of the Lord] and the ὴ αὐτὴ εἰκὼν [his image] in 2 Cor. 3:18 refer to the glory and image of Christ that Paul saw on the Damascus Road as the glory and image of God.” /6/

According to Paul, the blinding glory, δόξα (כָּב֥וֹד, kābôd), of the risen Christ which he saw was the same as the diving glory that accompanied God when he revealed his immediate presence to his people in the Old Testament. In 2 Cor. 3:1-4:6, Paul speaks of “beholding as in a mirror (κατοπτριζόμενοι) the glory of the Lord (Christ)” (2 Cor. 3:18a, NASB) and compares this glory with that of the God who “is the One who has shone (ἔλαμψεν) in our hearts to give the light (φωτισμὸν) of the knowledge (γνώσεως) of the glory of God in the face (προσώπῳ) of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6, NASB). Hence, for Paul, the glory of Jesus is an image or εἰκὼν of the glorious form of God. Paul also speaks of how the surpassing glory of Spirit given in the New Covenant surpasses the glory that shone in Moses face in the giving of the Old Covenant (2 Cor. 3:9–11, cf. Phil 3:7–8). That is, when one turns to the Lord [Christ], the glory that was veiled in Moses is removed (2 Cor. 3:16). As a result those who behold the Lord are “being transformed (μεταμορφούμεθα, metamorphousthai) into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18b). It is granted that Paul in the passage is describing the process of the believers’ experience of transformation in Christ, but the transformation is premised on an initial experience of “turning” to the Lord of glory. The close connection between Christology and soteriological becomes clear when Paul argues that to be saved in Christ is also to be transformed (μεταμορφούμεθα, metamorphoumetha) or conformed (συμμορφιζόμενος, symmorphizomenos) into the image (εἰκὼν) of Christ (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor.15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:21).

The Old Testament resources which Paul draws from to shed light on his vision on Damascus road is not restricted a few abstract linguistic terms./7/ Paul could refer to the vision of Ezekiel 1 as a precedent of his vision of the glory of Christ. The parallels between the glory of Christ witnessed by Paul in the Christophany on Damascus road with the glory of God manifested in Ezekiel’s vision of the divine throne chariot (merkabah) vision in Ezek. 1:4-28 are significant. Kim explains, “At the Damascus Christophany in which he received his apostolic commission as well as his gospel, Paul saw “the δόξα of god in the face of Christ” and so perceived Christ as the εἰκὼν of God (2 Cor. 4:4-6). Both the synonymous use of (δόξα,כָּב֥וֹד ) and εἰκὼν, דְּמוּת, dĕmût/ צְלֵם) and the idea of δόξαν κύριου (וּכְב֣וֹד יְהוָ֔ה, ûkĕbôd yĕhwâ) as in a mirror” (κατοπτριζόμενοι, katoptrizomenoi) (2 Cor. 3:18) are strongly reminiscent of Ezek. 1 and the theophanic tradition that originated from Ezek. 1. This suggests that Paul is describing his call vision in the form of the call vision of Ezek. 1.” /8/

We should not miss the parallel description between the glorified Christ and the glorified Son of Man described in Dan. 7:9-14 and 1 Thess. 4:17 based on (1) the use of common vocabulary, (2) common imagery of “clouds” which is a regular element of the theophanies recorded in the Old Testament and which also functions as a means of transport of God. /9/ The use of this imagery in 1 Thessalonians in an apocalyptic setting is probably derived from Daniel’s description of “one like a son of man” being transported to the Ancient of Days, (3) the common theme of believers who were persecuted but who are finally vindicated when they are transported into eternal fellowship with God.

Note also the common themes in both passages – Christ is revealed from heaven with mighty angels, the vindication of the saints and eschatological judgement. The repetition of the same imagery of the second coming of Christ to execute eschatological judgment 2 Thess. 1:5-12 shows Paul’s familiarity and usage of Daniel 7 and gives credibility to the suggestion that Paul was drawing on Daniel 7 to make sense of his vision of the glorified Christ.

The probability that Paul was drawing from apostolic sources that are reflected in the Synoptic Gospels should also be taken into consideration. Paul elsewhere shows that he is aware of actual statements made by the historical Jesus (1 Cor. 7: 10; 9:14; 11:23). One possible source of this knowledge came from his discussion with the apostles when he met Peter and James and the other apostles in Jerusalem (Gal. 1: 18-19; 2:2). As such, Paul is probably alluding to Jesus’ teaching of the Son of Man coming on the clouds accompanied by angels and for the purpose of the gathering of the elect (Matt. 24: 29-44). Paul draws on Jesus’ favorite self-designation, “Son of Man” to identify Jesus with the glorious divine figure, “the Ancient Days” who is enthroned next to God in Daniel 7. Jesus is not only glorified, but is also enthroned next to God and serves as the executor of God’s kingly reign.

However, Paul was mindful that his Greek audience would have difficulties understanding the Semitic term, “Son of Man.” For this reason, Paul substituted the glorified “Son of Man” with the glorified “Son of God.” Hence, while Paul’s vision of the risen Christ at Damascus road reflects the vision of the Son of Man in Dan.7, he recalls the vision as seeing the Son of God in Gal. 1:16. Likewise, in 1 Thess. 1:10 when he reminded the Greek believers of our “waiting for the Son of God from heaven…Jesus, who will deliver us from the wrath to come.” The glory of the “Son of Man” is transposed into the glory of the “Son of God” who in turn is the the εἰκὼν (image) of God.

“To see the risen Christ as appearing ‘like a son of God’ is the same as to see him as having the εἰκόνα of God, and the risen Christ who appeared to Paul as one ‘like a son of God and having he εἰκόνα of God is the Son of God and the εἰκὼν of God. Paul saw the risen δόξα Christ as the Son of God and as the Image of God at the same time, namely at the Damascus Christophany. Hence the parallelism between Gal. 1:16 and 2 Cor. 4:4-6). /10/

To summarize:
1) The origin of Paul’s Christology is found in his vision of the risen Christ on the Damascus road. The risen Christ who appeared to Paul as one ‘like a son of God and having the εἰκόνα of God is the son of God and as the Image of God and the εἰκὼν of God. Hence the parallelism between Gal. 1:16 and 2 Cor. 4:4-6.

2) The sources of Paul’s understanding of the glorified and enthroned Christ include Daniel 7 and Ezekiel 1 and the Apostles themselves. However, since Paul was preaching and writing to a Greek audience, Paul found it more appropriate to refer the risen Christ as the “Son of God” which he uses as a dynamic equivalent of the “Son of Man” title used in Daniel and the synoptic gospels. /11/ However, Paul is not slavish in his use of the Old Testament and the apostolic sources on the sayings of Jesus as he used these historical traditions in his own unique way, based on the new revelation and prophetic insight gained through his vision of Christ on Damascus road.

3) If Jesus is the εἰκὼν, eikon and μορφῇ, morphe of God, then Jesus shares the same divine nature of God. This insight led Paul to conclude that the risen Christ is divine and existed as the image of God before his incarnation (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Phil. 2:6). Rudolf Bultmann explains,

Morphē is the shape, the form, in which a person or thing appears, and in the LXX it is used synonymously with εἰ̂δος (shape, form), ὁμοίωμα (likeness), ὅρασις (appearance) and ὄψις (appearance), not however in contrast to its essence, but precisely as the expression thereof. Hence, it is understandable that in Hellenistic usage morphē can be used to designate divine nature… The “form of God” in which the pre-existent
Christ existed is not mere form but the divine mode of being just as much as the “form of a servant” is the mode of being of a servant (Phil. 2:6f). /𝟏2

4) The enthronement of Jesus Christ next to God confirms his divinity and implies his pre-existence. The question that arises is that how the glorified Christ is related to other mediatory beings like angels (if any) and Wisdom which gained prominence in Jewish traditions. This question calls for further discussions.

Related Post:
Historical Origin of Divine Christology. Part 1 – Apostolic Christology vs Mythological Christology
Historical Origin of Divine Christology. Part 2 – Exaltation Christology in Luke-Acts

1.  F.F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of Heart Set Free (Eerdmans, 1978), p. 75.
2. I shall rely on the seminal work by Seyoon Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Eerdmans, 1981) to elaborate on how Paul’s Damascus experience serves as the origin of Paul’s divine Christology.
3. Seyoon Kim, Paul and the New Perspective (Eerdmans, 2002), p. 167.
4. R.P. Martin, Carmen Christi: Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretations and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship (Eerdmans, 1983), pp. 107-115.
5. R.P. Martin, Carmen Christi, p. 113.
6. Seyoon Kim, Origins of Paul’s Gospel, p. 233.6. Seyoon Kim, Origins of Paul’s Gospel, p. 233.
7. Scholars from the “history of religions school” (Religionsgeschichtliche Schule) like Otto Pfleiderer (1836-1900), Richard Reitzenstein (1861-1931) and Wilhelm Bousset (1865-1920) who claimed that Paul “hellenized Christianity” under the influence of influence of Greek-Egyptian-Phrygian mystery religions with gods like Cybele and Attis, Isis and Osiris or Persian Mithraism, or supposedly, pre-Christian gnosticism have basically been discredited, but this does not stop popular apologists against Christianity from rehashing their theories today. Contrary to the “history of religions school,” Paul relied on the Old Testament to develop his theology that flowed from his Damascus road experience. Why bother to collect water with leaky buckets from distant wells when one can draw fresh water from the well in one’s backyard?

8. Seyoon Kim, Paul in New Perspective, pp. 168-169.
9. Charles Wanamaker,“From the time of the OT the clouds of the heavens were associated with theophanies (cf. Ex. 16:10; 19:16), and in such texts as Is. 19:1 and the vision of Ezek. 1:4–28 a cloud becomes the celestial vehicle of God. It was probably owing to this influence that the writer of Dan. 7:13f employed “clouds” to transport the “one like a son of man” into the presence of God, and from here the clouds passed into the stock of apocalyptic images. The description of the Son of Man coming to earth at the end of the age on the clouds in Mark. 13:26 (par. Matt. 24:30) was based on Dan. 7:13.” Charles Wanamaker, Commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians, NICGNT (Eerdmans, 1990), p. 175.
10. Seyoon Kim, Origin of Paul’s Gospel, p. 257.
11. We should not miss how the vision of the Son of God by Apostle John in Rev. 1 resonates with Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man in Dan. 7.
12. Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament vol.1 (Charles Scribner’ Sons, 1951), pp. 192-193.