r m p




Hugh J. Schonfield, Proclaiming the Messiah: The Life and Letters of Paul of Tarsus, Envoy to the Nations. London: Open Gate Press, 1997.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


Hugh J. Schonfield died in 1988, leaving behind him a great many books, most published, some as yet unpublished. Every one of his books was well worth reading, even when one found one could not quite accept Schonfield's conclusions in every respect. Schonfield was a remarkable man with remarkable convictions, and his unique perspective enabled him to cast a revealing light on whatever subject he treated. Whether he was studying the gospels, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Toledoth Jeschu, the Kabbalah, you could be sure going in that you would be shown how to view something familiar in an altogether unfamiliar way. And this was nowhere more true than in his New Testament translation The Authentic New Testament (second edition: The Original New Testament).

Schonfield's particular array of convictions and sympathies were, I say, unique in the ranks of New Testament scholarship. For one thing, he was a survivor of the generation of such fresh-thinking trail-blazers as Robert Eisler and Rendell Harris. This meant he was willing to widen the scope of relevant sources for early Christian history to include many recondite and apocryphal texts that others too quickly dismissed as fool's gold. For another, Schonfield retained a good measure of the Rationalism of an earlier generation of critics. This is evident particularly in his notorious book The Passover Plot, a book surprisingly conservative in many ways, not least in its belief in the literal accuracy of the gospel stories and sayings, despite the error of their supernaturalism. Schonfield reasoned that Jesus was, as the gospels depict, sure of his messianic mission and that this destiny included crucifixion and subsequent reappearance. But it had nothing to do with divine providence or miracle; it was instead a program masterminded by one who saw his blueprint set forth in prophetic scripture and applied every ounce of energy and imagination to bring God's will to its fulfillment. If, or rather since, he was the Messiah, he ought to be able to accomplish this, the work of the Messiah. And in Schonfield's personal opinion, Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah, a conviction Schonfield held as a Jew, not as a Christian.

One often hears it said, by those who did not read The Passover Plot, that Schonfield advocated the Scheintod ("seeming death") theory of Venturini, Bahrdt, and Schleiermacher, but this is wrong. Schonfield thought that Jesus planned an escape from the cross, but that the unanticipated lance-thrust killed him. Schonfield nonetheless did continue in a Rationalist vein, similar to Kirsopp Lake, suggesting that the resurrection appearances of a "Jesus" who was at first not "recognized" were actually cases of mistaken identity. And despite the scorn of apologists, the only thing implausible about such speculations is that they are based on too literal a reading of the gospels! Like the old time Rationalists refuted so expertly by D.F. Strauss, Schonfield gives the gospels too much credit! 

Those critics of The Passover Plot who pegged Schonfield as an unbeliever did not read him carefully. He was no unbeliever. He was just a heretic. And there was more heresy! Schonfield was also a Spiritualist. He believed in parapsychology and mediumism, what is today called "channeling." Spiritualism seemed to those who espoused it a scientific, empirical approach to something like the miraculous. Indeed, it is almost surprising that Schonfield did not interpret the resurrection of Jesus as Leslie D. Weatherhead did (The Resurrection of Christ in the Light of Modern Science and Psychical Research, 1959), as an ectoplasmic apparition. At any rate, Schonfield's interest in parapsychology enabled him to take very seriously the charismatic phenomena of early Christianity, including the mystical experiences of Paul. And this brings us to the posthumously published Proclaiming the Messiah.

Hugh Schonfield had a number of distinctive views on Paul, his life and his doctrine, and they are set forth here. It must be admitted that these fascinating notions are set forth in more detail in Schonfield's earlier works, but then most of these are no longer readily available. It is to be hoped that the new Proclaiming the Messiah will attract new readers to Schonfield and that they will find their interest sufficiently kindled to search out his previous works.

Surely the most striking of Schonfield's hypotheses is that Saul of Tarsus first considered himself to be God's Messiah, destined to bring the Light of Judaism to the Gentiles, and that his persecuting fury was ignited by the belief that the apostolic preaching of Jesus was a lie sent to deceive the unwary in the Last Days. Saul had arrived at his messianic consciousness through his precocious studies of the kabbalistic Lore of Creation (which was later to shape his Christology of Jesus as the cosmos-spanning heavenly Adam--see Schonfield's Those Incredible Christians, 1968). Like later kabbalists Abraham Abulafia and Sabbatai Sevi, whose studies had led them to the belief in their own messiahship, Saul decided he was the one. And like Sabbatai Sevi's enlightenment, this revelation was accompanied by a dose of mental aberration (and genuine psychic experience, according to Schonfield). Saul's literally insane fury against the young Jesus sect abated only when he had a second epiphany on the road to Damascus. He had to admit now that Jesus was the Messiah, not he, but then Saul adopted the next best role. He viewed himself as the living image of Christ on earth even as Christ had been the image of God. Specifically, Saul believed that he often acted as "channeler" for the voice and persona of the exalted Christ ("I say to you, not I, but the Lord..."). All this is only hinted at in Proclaiming the Messiah. One may pursue the matter in Schonfield's fascinating The Jew of Tarsus (An Unorthodox Portrait of Paul) (1946).

To suggest a comparison that Schonfield himself did not think to use, though I think it is appropriate, Schonfield's Saul might be compared with Hong Xiuquan, the Taipeng Messiah and Heavenly King who believed himself to be the earthly incarnation of the Younger Son of God, whose Heavenly Elder Brother was Jesus. One might even compare him to the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, self-proclaimed Lord of the Second Advent who, as such, is not Jesus Christ himself returned to earth but rather an earthly representative bearing his spirit to carry forward his task. Again, Schonfield's Saul corresponds to Montanus as the Paraclete incarnate. In other words, Schonfield's Saul/Paul still had a messianic consciousness; he had only had to redefine it.

Such a picture of Paul certainly comports with the virtually messianic colors in which Paul and his fans painted him, e.g., as tantamount to a second Moses (2 Corinthians 3:12-13), as completing the remainder of Christ's atonement (Colossians 1:24), of having been crucified for his disciples (1 Corinthians 1:13), even rising from the dead (in the Acts of Paul). Luke, too, is careful to parallel Paul's passion narrative with that of Jesus. Schonfield's picture of Paul as a runner-up messiah is not without history-of-religions parallels, such as the relationship of Jesus and John the Baptist, Simon Magus and Peter, the Bab and Baha'u’llah. I think especially of the case of Dr. David C. Kim, first president of the Unification Theological Seminary, who had first believed himself to be the Messiah until he met Sun Myung Moon and deferred to the latter's messiahship instead. 

Schonfield's quasi-messianic Paul also brings to mind Walter Schmithals's sketch of the Gnostic apostolate appropriated by Paul and other early Christian missioners. Schmithals shows (The Office of Apostle in the Early Church) how the earliest apostles were Gnostic redeemer-mystagogues who preached the gospel of the Cosmic Christ whose light-sparks were scattered among the souls of the elect, to whom they preached. This Christ/Primal Man had never before been incarnated on earth--until now, in the form of the awakened apostolos and his converts, as they together realized their true identity. Schmithals suggested that Paul and others had taken over pretty much the same notion, only on behalf of Jesus of Nazareth, a recent historical figure. On Schonfield's reading, Paul's conception of his mission as an earthly manifestation of a heavenly Christ (albeit one who had lived on earth and returned to heaven) would provide a missing link helping to explain how Paul came to appropriate the Gnostic apostolate.

Schonfield learned valuable lessons from the Tübingen School, and he does not underestimate the gulf separating Paul from the Jerusalem Pillars and the Caliphate of James. But Schonfield also learned (I gather, from Eisler's The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist) that the original Nazorean "Christianity" must have been a nationalistic movement related to the Zealots (see his The Pentecost Revolution: The Story of the Jesus Party in Israel, A.D. 36-66, 1974). Schonfield combines the two perspectives, casting light both on the differences between Paul and his Jerusalem rivals and on the reasons for Paul's missionary tribulations. Schonfield reasons that the issue was not simply one of Jewish Torah-piety ("legalism") and whether it should be required of Gentile converts. No, that would be myopic. Schonfield sees Paul's origins as a Diaspora Jew, and those of the Nazorean Pillars as Palestinian Jews, as the crux of the matter. Paul's gospel was abstractly spiritual, that of the Nazoreans avowedly political. Paul had seen Roman power protect and guarantee Jewish rights in Cilicia; James and Peter chafed under the rule of Pilate and resented, on general principle, outlanders ruling the Holy Land. The Pax Romana facilitated Paul's evangelism; it necessitated that of the Nazoreans. For Paul, Jesus Christ was a heavenly being with whom one might be mystically united; for the Pillars, Jesus was the soon-coming king. For both Paul and his rivals, the Torah regulations formed the sancta of the Jewish people; by one and the same token, the Pillars hoisted the Torah as a battle standard for messianic Jewish nationalism, while Paul dispensed with it for the sake of Christian internationalism. Paul's kingdom was not of this world, whereas that of James definitely was. But both kingdoms had their evangelistic heralds, itinerant missioners making their way throughout the Diaspora, spreading the word of the Messiah Jesus, his recent appearance, and his imminent return. Luke shows Paul getting confused with the Egyptian messiah/prophet, i.e., mistaken for a violent revolutionary. But he also has Paul accused of being a Nazorean agitator. Luke does not try to disabuse us of the notion that these Nazoreans were revolutionaries, advocating customs illegal for Romans, urging Jews to acclaim Jesus king instead of Caesar. No, he means only to tell us that Paul was not one of these Nazoreans. The Romans did not make fine distinctions, but the Christians did. And Paul was constantly getting in trouble because of the reputation of his rivals!

Of course the forgoing scenario only makes sense if one supposes, as Schonfield does, that Acts is correct in depicting Paul always going first to Diaspora synagogues, something his epithet "Apostle to the Gentiles" would not lead us to expect. As Schonfield points out, his pagan converts could have had no interest whatever in the notion of a Jewish national deliverer. So, to be taken for a messianic agitator among Jews, Paul would have had to be preaching his messiah in the synagogues. Schonfield is ambivalent with regard to the historical value of Acts. On the one hand, he considers the tradition likely that the author was Paul's personal physician Luke. On the other, he admits the narrative is largely fictional, especially the speeches, and even calls the author of Acts a "novelist." In practice, Schonfield is willing to accept Acts (as well as the apocryphal Acts of Paul) by default when he has no better information, and in the last chapters of his biographical section he simply reproduces sections of his translation of Acts!

As for Paul's ministry to pagans, Schonfield is unashamed to maintain the now much-despised (but still quite plausible) idea of Paul as the second founder of Christianity. Schonfield sees Paul as having found himself facing such a wide communication gap that he decided he'd best borrow equivalent mythemes from Hellenistic religions in order to communicate his Christ-mysticism. In the end he had created a new religion, the Christian religion. But he had not meant to, any more than Martin Luther had intended to split the Catholic Church.

Schonfield's treatment of Paul's contest with the Pillars over the role of the Torah for Gentile converts is quite interesting, not least because it points up an important ambiguity besetting all discussion of this problem. The standard version has it that Paul thought that the Gentiles had only to believe in Jesus to be saved, while his opponents held that Gentiles must believe in Jesus and shoulder the yoke of circumcision and the Torah, all 613 commandments. Acts 15 depicts a compromise whereby the Gentiles are told they must keep the minimal Noachian commandments traditionally required of the Gentile "God-fearers," the noble pagans who attended synagogue to worship the Hebrew God but who balked at circumcision and all the rest. The way Schonfield sees it, the Jerusalem compromise granted to Paul's converts the second-class status of Christian God-fearers, whereas Paul thought they should be considered first-class, along with Torah-observant Christian Jews.

This much seems fairly clear, but it leaves some crucial areas blurry. For instance, are we to infer that the conservative circumcision party, even before they believed in Messiah Jesus, had dismissed the Gentile God-fearers as mere pagans who were sadly deluding themselves about God's favor? For them, was it full proselyte or nothing? Had they believed people like Cornelius the Centurion were just damned to Gehenna? This seems to be implied, but it seems rather strange. And, once the Jerusalem compromise was reached, what was the envisioned status of Pauline converts who might refuse to heed James' decree and, say, continue to order rare steaks? Would James have viewed them the same way Paul views Corinthian Christians who visit prostitutes and eat idol-meat--as apostates to be delivered to Satan? Is the issue "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Or is it more a question of table manners in Antioch: who can eat with whom? Has Luke over-simplified the issues to the point of confusion?

Schonfield seems to realize that we must make some distinctions Luke did not bother to make. So Schonfield suggests that what Paul really wanted was for the Pillars to grant recognition to his Gentiles, even without the Torah, as Israelites. A modern parallel might be the debates between moderate and liberal Christians over the status of believers in non-Christian religions. Karl Rahner says certain Hindus or Buddhists may be saved if they qualify as "anonymous Christians," i.e., they may be accepted by God for their good intentions but despite their own religions. Raimundo Panikkar says they may be saved by Christ by means of their own religions. Huston Smith and Wilfred Cantwell Smith say that non-Christians are saved through their religions, by their own religions, and on the terms of their own religions. None of these theologians envision non-Christians as damned to perdition; the point at issue is how salvation works. Schonfield, it seems to me, sees Paul as taking a position analogous to Rahner's: Gentile Christians, while not keeping the Law, are a law unto themselves, "anonymous Israelites." But I am not sure the Pauline texts Schonfield quotes really make this point. It seems to me more likely that Paul's position was more like Panikkar's: Gentile converts, even though Paul has granted them a great number of their traditional pagan mythemes and mystery cult sacraments, will be saved through faith in a Jewish Messiah they only dimly understand.

Schonfield makes his case by appealing to passages selected from Romans 11 and Ephesians, and this makes his argument still more problematical. Schonfield apparently never met a Pauline text he didn't like. Astonishingly, he accepts every canonical Pauline Epistle as authentic, even the Pastorals. Here I am reminded of Levi-Strauss's dictum that a Structuralist analysis of a myth need not hesitate to include all versions of the myth on the assumption that the deep structure of the myth, a kind of semiotic DNA, replicates itself in every new version of the myth. Perhaps it is the same in the proliferation of spurious Pauline Epistles. Maybe the essential insights of whatever authentic core there may be of Pauline Epistles recur in the Pauline pseudepigrapha, the Paulinist megatext. After all, Käsemann praised Ridderbos's book on Paul even though Ridderbos, too, made indiscriminate use of Ephesians and the Pastorals.       

Fully half of Proclaiming the Messiah is occupied by a reprint of Schonfield's translation of the Pauline Corpus. Personally, I am a collector of Bible (and Koran) translations and enjoy reading them through in an attempt to prevent the texts from becoming invisible to me by over-familiarity. As Vladimir Schklovsky said, art must take as its task to defamiliarize, to make the familiar appear strange and new again. This Zennish enterprise is well served by Hugh Schonfield's translation, more than most others, with its determined avoidance of ecclesiastical jargon. One will find no bishops and apostles in these epistles, but rather overseers and envoys. No churches, but communities. Schonfield's word choices are often striking and refreshing, as when in 1 Corinthians we read that "the materialist cannot entertain the ideas of the Divine Spirit: to him they are nonsense, and he cannot grasp them, because they have to be discerned spiritually." Schonfield's Spiritualism shines through in his depiction of Paul's heavenly journey: "I know a man in Christ, who fourteen years ago - whether in the physical or astral state, I do not know, God knows, was caught up as far as the third heaven." He's right: the story surely presupposes a metaphysical hierarchy of physical and not-so-physical bodies, as does Acts' story of Peter's guardian angel who is also his spirit double (Acts 12:15). By the way, in light of this very passage (2 Corinthians 12:1-10), it is quite surprising to read Schonfield's assertions that Saul of Tarsus had specialized in the Jewish occult "Lore of Creation" to the exclusion of Merkabah mysticism, the vision of the Throne Chariot of God. As I have argued elsewhere ("Stranger in Paradise: An Exegetical Theory on 2 Corinthians 12:1-10," JSNT 7, 1980) this passage fairly reeks of Merkabah mysticism, which holds the neglected key to its interpretation. In fact, according to Schonfield's own account of Saul's psychic experiences, he has cast Paul pretty much in the role of two of the famous Four Who Entered Paradise (a Merkabah cautionary tale) and beheld the Throne: one went mad and the other became a heresiarch promulgating the doctrine of Two Powers in Heaven.

In his New Testament, Schonfield has tried his best to assist the reader to see the documents stripped of their gilt edges and India paper, as if one were getting a first glimpse of the Dead Sea Scrolls. To this end he has ventured his own chronological rearrangement of the letters and parts of letters. He has separated the two Corinthians into the letter against unequal yoking with idolaters (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1), the letter answering the Corinthians' questions (1 Corinthians), the severe letter (2 Corinthians 10-13), and the conciliatory letter (the rest of 2 Corinthians). Ephesians becomes "To the Communities in Asia - The Ephesian Copy," reflecting theories about Ephesians having first served as an encyclical. The order of the letters is 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Galatians, Corinthians as above, Romans, Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Titus, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy. This arrangement, though begging numerous debates, is helpful for the sake of prying the documents out of their canonical casket. Of course, one can imagine the myriad different hypothetical arrangements that would result if other scholars tried their hand at the same task (--not a bad idea!).

Schonfield's introduction mentions that he had acquainted himself with two major recent books on Paul, Hyam Maccoby's The Mythmaker and E.P. Sanders's Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People. But these books have left no trace on Schonfield's. And this is a shame. It would have been quite illuminating to see Schonfield interacting with two of today's leading Pauline interpreters, especially since the views of Maccoby parallel those of Schonfield at important points, while those of Sanders provide an instructive alternative to that of Schonfield on the crucial point of the Torah and Jewish nationalism. Perhaps it would be too much to expect for Schonfield, in the scholarly work of his last years, to have subjected his theories, forged long ago, to the risk of significant change and development. At any rate, it is an unexpected delight to discover Proclaiming the Messiah, a precious legacy of Hugh J. Schonfield.



Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design