Segment 9: Paul on the Death of Jesus
Jennings opens with a description of Paul as a short, bald, unattractive man. He then launches into a discussion of how Paul's thought developed as he engaged in his mission to bring people to faith in Jesus. According to Pagels, Paul saw himself "as Christ on earth, in a way." One of the biggest hurdles to making the Christian message palatable was Jesus' crucifixion; the idea of a crucified man as the object of one's faith was a severe liability. Paul, Jennings suggests, was the first Christian to come up with an explanation for Jesus' horrific death that turned it from a liability into an asset. In Jesus' death, Paul proposed, God had identified himself with the oppressed and suffering masses. The crucifixion was a symbol of hope, not of weakness. While the experts that Jennings has address the issue will have nothing to do with the idea of Christ's death as a blood atonement for sin, they express admiration for Paul and his seeing Christ's suffering as a revelation of God's desire to save the poor and suffering people of the world.
The description of Paul as a short, bald, unattractive man does not come from the Bible, but from later tradition-sources that Jennings the investigative reporter would dismiss in a heartbeat as unreliable in another context. (Remember Jennings's almost scornful reporting on the traditions surrounding popular Nativity sites in Bethlehem and Nazareth in "The Search for Jesus"?) I myself think these descriptions are probably accurate, but wonder at Jennings' criteria for what traditions he will accept.
While Paul no doubt developed the church's theological understanding of Christ's death (under divine inspiration, I would affirm), he cannot be credited with the idea that Christ had died to save mankind. That honor must go to Jesus himself. That Christ had "died for our sins" was part of the church's original confession, something that Paul said he and the other apostles had all taught and passed down to new believers (1 Cor. 15:3, 11). Moreover, the Synoptic Gospels agree with Paul that Jesus had instituted the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:20) as a reminder of his redemptive death. According to Paul, Jesus had said that the cup of wine represented "the new covenant" in his "blood" (1 Cor. 11:25). The language here recalls the blood of the Passover lamb symbolizing the Israelites' redemption from bondage in Egypt as well as the sprinkling of blood when God's covenant with Israel was formalized in the wilderness through Moses as its mediator. Paul is explicit: this was not his theological innovation but the words of Jesus. The Gospels also report that Jesus spoke of his impending death as a "ransom" (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). In these and other ways, Jesus himself laid the groundwork for Paul's teaching that on the cross Christ had died for our sins.
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