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Did Paul Really Have *That* Exalted a View of Jesus?

With this post I plan to end the rather long-running thread that began with a basic question several blog members asked me.   Some weeks ago I was posting on the unusually important “Christ Poem” of Philippians 2:6-11, where Paul appears to be quoting a poem about Christ, composed earlier and probably by someone other than himself, in which Christ is said to have been a pre-existent divine being who gave up his divine status to become a human and suffer and die, who was then, as a result, exalted up to heaven and made the one to whom all the universe would eventually bow down and worship.

The claims of that poem might seem rather unremarkable to anyone not familiar with the history of early Christianity.  Hey, isn’t that just what Christians say about Jesus?

But for those who do know how ideas of Christ evolved over time, in the early decades and centuries of the Christian religion, it is an absolutely extraordinary poem.  Already BEFORE the vast bulk of the NT was written there were followers of a virtually unknown impoverished, itinerant preacher from a rural backwoods of the empire who was executed for crimes against the state who were saying that he had been made equal in authority with God and the one to whom every living being would bow down before at the end of time?  Really?   Within 20 years or less of the man’s *death*??

My posts tried to explain how to interpret the poem and its remarkable Christology, and to show that it appears to be quoted by Paul, rather than composed by him for this letter.  That would make it earlier than the letter, and thus one of our earliest statements about Christ in existence, several decades, say, before the Gospels were written.

And so some readers asked whether it might be possible that it was not originally part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, but a later insertion – or “interpolation” – into his letter by a later Christian with a later understanding of Christ.  Since we don’t have the original of Paul’s letter, how would we know?

That launched me into…

This post is about one of the most important passages of the entire New Testament.  Was it originally there or not?  If you want to find out, you’ll need to belong to the blog.  Joining is easy and inexpensive, and every penny goes to help those in need, a growing number as we all know so well.  So think about joining — you’ll not only be helping out others, you’ll be giving yourself a gift in these hard times.

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Christians Against Christians: Already In the New Testament
Paul the Misogynist? The Alternative Perspective



  1. Robert
    Robert  March 23, 2020

    A few more micro-text observations. I like the way Paul anticipates some of the key language of the poem in Phlpn 2,3 with “κενοδοξίαν … ταπεινοφροσύνῃ … ἡγούμενοι ὑπερέχοντας”. The first two words are hapax legomena in Paul’s authentic letters, the 3rd is used only two other times by Paul (1 Thes 5,13 2 Cor 9,4), and the fourth is used only one other time outside of Philippians (Rom 13,1). It reads as if he’s already thinking of this hymn that he’s about to quote.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2020

      Yeah, I was thinking exactly the same thing when I reread 2:1-5 yesterday. Hadn’t ever really hit me much before (since I’ve never had to argue against it being an interpolation before). And now I’m confirmed!!

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        paulaaron  April 8, 2020

        Sir, Whether you believe God or not but truth is coming out through you. God must be give lengthy life for you to fight against lies of church. COVID 19 crisis gave a big opportunity to read your messages freely. Because, my faith was stopped by Phil 2; 6-11. I am strongly believe the Paul’s message at Mars hill(Acts:17th chapter) but it directly contradict with Phil 2:6-11. Now I realized “Interpolation”
        Thomas Aaroon

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    RICHWEN90  March 23, 2020

    It looks like in Paul we have something based on an early Christology, especially Paul’s view of the resurrection, spiritual bodies rather than the reconstructed literal flesh of those who’ve died, and an admixture of Paul’s own ideas based on his visionary experience or experiences. It also looks as though Jesus didn’t really provide his followers with a Christology, as such. It all had to be thrashed out after his death, and it went off in different directions until, centuries later, a kind of canonical Christology emerged. But it seems likely that NONE of the these views of Christ is really very accurate. So, some of the characteristics of the early Christology would involve “exaltation”, an expectation of an imminent Kingdom, and a rather different view of what bodily resurrection would mean? Could one say that and not be too far off base??

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2020

      I think I agree with each sentence, but when you say “none” of these views, do you mean none of the later Xcal views? I agree they certainly aren’t like the earlier ones. But I wouldn’t use the term “accurate,” since tehy may be theologically accurate (when measured by ULTIMATE TRUTH) (whatever that is) but not at all what Jesus or his earlier followers thought. See what I mean?

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        RICHWEN90  March 24, 2020

        Ultimate Truth! I wonder whether there really is such a thing? And if there is such a thing, would it be accessible to anyone who doesn’t happen to be God? And since most of us don’t appear to be God, would Ultimate Truth have any practical value? Would it be of any benefit to anyone who can’t know it, or understand it even if it could somehow be “known”? Of course, the answer to the question of what is the Ultimate Truth might be as simple as “42”. Oh. Yeah. Of course.

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    brenmcg  March 23, 2020

    Did ideas of Christ really evolve much from this? Don’t think any christian writer thought of him as any less than lord of the universe.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2020

      Oh yes, the Christological views of the fifth century are FAR more advanced, unlike anything in the NT.

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        brenmcg  March 25, 2020

        Is that not more an advancement in the philosophical discussions on the nature of christ – whether he has two separate or combined natures etc?

        There’s no higher christology development than calling him Lord and yahweh.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 26, 2020

          Christology is always, by nature, a philosophical discussion, on one level or another. And yes, Christology did indeed get higher at time. Just read the views of Tertullian and then the views of Athanasius, and you’ll see.

          BTW, “Lord” did not necessarily mean “LORD GOD ALMIGHTY”; the phrase was used for all sorts of divine and human beings, and so one always has to ask what it meant in this author and context or antoher. And we do not have any record of any early Christian calling Christ Yahweh. The only reason people sometimes say that is that they say, Yahweh is God; Jesus is God; therefore Jesus is Yahweh. That is precisely the interpretive strategy that ancient Christians REFUSED to make. Those who DID say that Jesus himself was God the Father (they never used the term Yahweh for that), were declared heretics at the end of the second century and have always been considered heretics since (sometimes they were called Modalists or Patripassianists).

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  March 27, 2020

            But the name above every name, the name to which every knee will bow is yahweh. This is the name christ is given as the only begotten son and heir. Both god the father and christ have the name yahweh.

            Paul believes there is only one lord – jesus christ. Presumably he still believes that the lord is god. Both god the father and christ are Lord then also.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 27, 2020

            Yes, that’s your interpretation. But what the poem says is that it is at the name of JESUS that every knee would bow, not at the name of Yahweh. I don’t think we can read our own theology into a text like this: we have to see what it actually says. As to whether, theolgoically, a Bible-believing Christian can think Jesus is Yahweh, I think the Bible absolutely precludes it in Psalm 110:1; “Yahweh said to my Lord, sit at my right hand.” Christian interpretation has always held that “my Lord” is Christ. That means he is not Yahweh because Yahweh is speaking to him. If a verse like that was in the author of the Philippians hymn’s mind (or Paul’s) then what he is saying is that Yahweh elevated Jesus to his own level, not that he made him Yahweh. Two different persons; two different names; equal authority and honor.

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            brenmcg  March 27, 2020

            But the poem does not say Jesus’s name has been elevated above every other name, it says he has been granted the name that is above every other name. There’s only one name above every other name, the name of god. It is not the name “Jesus” that every knee will bow to, but to the name of Jesus, the one he has just been granted, the name of god.

            Psalm 110:1 has Yahweh (the Lord) say to the lord to sit at his right hand. This lord will be a priest forever in the order of melchizedek (psalm 110:4). A third lord is then introduced who will be on the second lord’s right hand, psalm 110:5.
            This third lord will have a day of wrath and will judge the nations (psalm 110:6). He therefore must also be god (yahweh).

          • Bart
            Bart  March 29, 2020

            I”m not sure why you’re saying that. The poem ends with: “That at the name of JESUS every knee should bow…” etc. They bow at the name of Jesus, not of Yahweh.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  March 30, 2020

            But “Jesus” is in the genitive. The verse is talking about the name he possesses; the one that has just been bestowed upon him; the name of the Lord; the name above every name; the name which he has earned..

          • Bart
            Bart  March 30, 2020

            Yes, it is in the genitive. It is a genitive of description. Which name is it to which every knee shall bow? The genitive tells you.

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            brenmcg  March 30, 2020

            Ok, but I think it can be interpreted as “the name Jesus possesses”.

            And the correct interpretation should be taken from verse 9 – what’s being talked about is the name above every name. “Jesus” is not above “Yahweh”.

            Every tongue will confess Jesus is lord by confessing he possesses the name of the Lord.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 31, 2020

            It’s never quite clear if you’re open to seeing things a different way from the way you’ve been taught? It’s an important trait, imho — for all of us. Sometimes we just have views that can’t be sustained. Among other things, you will note, the name Yahweh never occurs in this passage (or anywhere in the NT), and it literally says that everyone will bow to the name of Jesus.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  April 1, 2020

            Yes certainly open to seeing things in different ways – although I think this view can be sustained.

            “Yahweh” never appears in the Septuagint either – although its still of course referred to – ” … ἔσται κύριος εἷς καὶ τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἕν … “.

            If Phil had said “ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ ὃν ὑμεῖς ἐσταυρώσατε”, as per Acts 4:10, we couldn’t possibly translate it as, (the name “Jesus” whom you crucified). It would have to be the possessive sense. Removing ὃν ὑμεῖς ἐσταυρώσατε should keep the possessive sense a possibility.

            Apart from anything else “Jesus” was a popular name at the time – can’t be that every knee would bow to the name “Jesus”.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 1, 2020

            As you know, κυριος means lots of different things in Greek generally, in the NT, and in the LXX. So every use of the word is not a reference to YHWH.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  April 2, 2020

            Yes true – thanks for the replies!

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    psauer  March 23, 2020

    If the kenotic poem of Philippians is not considered of Pauline origin, can we find any evidence in other “messiahs” of that generation that also were utilizing this theme of exaltation in explaining divine origin or resurrection of earthly bodies?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2020

      Depends what you mean. The exaltation of the Son of Man in the Similitudes of 1 Enoch, e.g., is very similar.

    • Robert
      Robert  March 30, 2020

      Bren! Get real, you don’t understand the genitive. You want it to be possessive here, I get it, but you are stretching the text beyond it’s breaking point. Do you have an example in the whole of Greek literature of a genitive of a name being used in this sense?

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  March 31, 2020

        Acts 4:10 “… ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ τοῦ Ναζωραίου ὃν ὑμεῖς ἐσταυρώσατε … ”

        Here its the name that (Jesus christ of nazareth whom you crucified) possesses that’s being referred to. It can’t be understand as the name “Jesus christ of nazareth” whom you crucified, because its not the name that gets crucified.

        If every knee in Philippians bent at the name of Jesus whom you crucified, it would clearly be in the possessive sense.

  5. Avatar
    gavriel  March 23, 2020

    What do you think about another much debated passage, 1 Thess 13-16? For instance Raymond Brown’s Introduction (p. 463) lists arguments for and against authenticity, so it seems to be a scholarly tough nut.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2020

      It’s tough, but I think it’s original. The problemwith *that* one is no one can quite figure out what it means, but that doesn’t mean Paul didn’t write it, imo.

  6. Avatar
    Angel Moreno  March 23, 2020

    Philippians 2:6-11: who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be seized,7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

    I hope it’s already obvious how much this text gives us when it comes to Jesus’ divine status in Paul.

    James Dunn thinks word translated here as “nature” in Phil 2:6 is μορφῇ which means “shape”, not “nature”. If Paul had wanted to mean “nature” there are plenty of Greek words that could have been used that give that meaning unambiguously. Exactly what he meant by μορφῇ is not completely clear, but the word refers to outward appearance rather than inner essence and seems to connect to the later reference to Jesus taking on “human likeness”. Since Paul believed in a heavenly pre-existence for Jesus, this probably refers to Jesus abandoning a celestial form and taking on an earthly one.
    There is an argument, especially as pushed by Dunn, that by “form/nature” Paul actually means “image/likeness”, i.e. Paul is saying that Jesus is the “image of God” (not his nature) and therefore a reference to Adam (the only possible meaning given this translation). However, this argument has been totally destroyed by scholarship;

    • Avatar
      Angel Moreno  March 23, 2020

      To cite a crucial matter, with a good many others Dunn asserts that en morphe theou (in the form of God) in 2:6 is simply a variant way of saying “image of God” (eikon theou), basing his assertion entirely on the partial overlap of the lexical range of meanings of the two words morphe (form, outward appearance, shape) and eikon (image, likeness, form, appearance). But, as modern linguistics has demonstrated, words acquire their specific meanings and denotations when used in phrases and sentences with other words. So the question is not whether the general meanings of morphe and eikon have resemblances, but whether the specific expression en morphe theou is actually used interchangeably with eikon theou in Greek texts. The answer is clearly negative. In the Genesis passages eikon theou is used to express the status and significance of the human creature (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1; 9:6), and when subsequent writers wish to make allusions to this idea, they consistently use the eikon theou phrase (Wisd. of Sol. 2:23; 7:26; Sir. 17:3; and as Paul himself does in 1 Cor. 11:7; cf. also Col. 3:10). Moreover, New Testament writers consistently use eikon in statements that seem to make explicit christological appropriations of this theme (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15), and in other passages as well where the allusion/appropriation is less direct but still likely (1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18). By contrast, morphe theou is never used elsewhere in any allusion to Adam. In fact, morphe theou is not used at all in the Greek Old Testament, nor, to my knowledge, in any other pre-Pauline Greek writing. So the alleged use of en morphe theou as an allusion to Adam in Philippians 2:6 would be a singular phenomenon, and a particularly inept one as well. For allusions to work one must use, or at least adapt, at least a word or two from the alluded-to text so that readers can catch the allusion. In Philippians 2:6-8, other than “God,” there is not a single word from the Greek of the Genesis 1:26-27 description of God’s creation of the human in “the image of God” or from the Genesis 3 temptation story. The phrase “being equal with God” (to einai isa thed) is never used elsewhere in any identifiable allusion to Adam.

      • Avatar
        Angel Moreno  March 23, 2020

        It is used, however, in several texts, and always negatively to describe the hubris of human efforts to become or be seen as divine: e.g., a Jewish accusation against Jesus in John 5:18; the dying lament of Antiochus over his own hubris in 2 Maccabees 9:12; and Philo’s scornful reference to human vanity in Legum allegoriae 1.49. (Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, pp. 121-123)

        So Dunn and others attempts to claim that morphe theou (form/nature of God) can actually mean eikon theou (image of God) fails. Some argue that the next line “did not regard equality with God as something to be seized) means Jesus was not equal with God, which I agree with. Of course, subordination Trinitarianism is fully consistent with this. In fact, the German scholar who introduced the argument that Philippians 2:6 should be translated to reflect that Jesus did not seize (rather than exploit) equality with God, Samuel Vollenweider, also agrees that Paul has a divine take on Jesus.According to the late Larry Hurtado, Paul viewed Jesus as divine – that Paul’s letters clearly reflect that Jesus is subject of public, corporate devotion of the earliest among the earliest Jewish followers of Christ, the earliest Christian community, in a way reflective of no other figure in all of Second Temple Jewish literature but God. Hurtado writes;

        But the data that we have examined thus far are not by any means the whole story. In my view it is still more remarkable that at an equally early point in the emergent Christian movement we find what I have described as a “binitarian pattern” of devotion and worship, in which Christ is treated as recipient of devotion with God and in ways that can be likened only to the worship of a deity. David Aune has expressed a similar view: “Perhaps the single most important historical development within the early church was the rise of the cultic worship of the exalted Jesus within the primitive Palestinian church.” I have analyzed the matter in detail in previous publications, and so here shall limit the discussion to reviewing and underscoring major points. (Lord Jesus Christ, pg. 135)

      • Bart
        Bart  March 24, 2020

        Thought I replied to this — but maybe not. I’ve posted on teh Adam-Christology option for teh passage, without naming Dunn; he of course got it from others; it’s been around for a while. But even though I personally wish it were right (it would work better for my understanding of the history of Christology), I don’t think it can be. When I first started looking at the passage closely, it was precisely the morphe tou theou that revealed the problem. It is *not* the same as eikon theou, and if the author really wanted you to think of Genesis, there was zero reason for him not to say eikon.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2020

      Yes, I posted on teh possible Adam-Christology view of the passage some weeks ago. I didn’t mention Dunn by name, and he didn’t come up with the idea himself, but he’s one of the prominent spokespersons. There are very big problems with the idea, but it’s a creative view and deep down I wish it were right!

  7. Avatar
    Chad Stuart  March 23, 2020

    Here’s what is curious to me about the “Christ Poem”:

    Paul says virtually nothing about Jesus in his writings, but quotes this poem. If he knew actual sayings of Jesus then it seems like those would have more power to his audience than a poem by an unknown author.

    While it’s possible Paul knew sayings of Jesus but decided not to use them in his letters, it’s curious that he chose to include the poem instead.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2020

      Yeah, I know. But I’ve known lots of Christians who cared far more about the incarnation than Jesus’ words — I’d say it’s been the vast majority over history.

  8. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  March 24, 2020

    When it comes to Christology, did Paul really know the divine nature of Jesus?

    So Philippians 2:6-11 is not the words of Paul, but that leaves us with the question to what exactly did Paul believe in when it came to Jesus’s divinity? Did Paul fully understand it since the movement was somewhat new in his day?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2020

      Yes, he calls Jesus Son of God, and Lord of all, and lots of other things connected with divinity. And he quotes this passage precisely because he believes it. So yes, he did believe in Jesus’ divinity. Did he “fully” understand it? Most theologians would say no one fully understandds it.

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 24, 2020

        As you’ve been at pains to point out, ‘divinity’ was not held to be the exclusive property of gods–or even among Jews, God. Humans could have divine aspects.

        It occurs to me that the real mystery is what Paul thought of Jesus’ humanity. Did he discount it entirely? He met Jesus’ brother James. He understood there had been a physical being walking around, interacting with others, who had, to all appearances, come into the world the same as anyone else. But to what extent did he think of Jesus in human terms?

        It was Paul’s nature to emphasize divinity over humanity. With Jesus, I’m less sure of that. He seems to understand people all too well.

  9. Avatar
    tadmania  March 24, 2020

    Given that so advanced a Christology exists in such early writing (and if we want to stipulate the close timeline of Jesus’ earthly existence and the Pauline letters as fact), does this not suggest that the Pauline/Joahnian brand of theology preceded both Paul and Jesus? How plausible is it that the story we see expanding thorughout the NT unto the eternal pre-existence of Jesus ‘the Christ’ got laminated onto the actual man after his death? Maybe this high Christology didn’t ‘develop’, so much as it was already established in the mythology of the era and found novel application to Jesus by Paul and others.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2020

      No, I would say that the existence of an idea in thes 50s does not suggest the existence of the idea, say, 50-60 years earlier.

      • Avatar
        tadmania  March 24, 2020

        Golly, it sure seems to have taken some leaps 60 years after. Why one way and not the other?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 26, 2020

          Ideas leap very quickly, and change and emerge, and so on. Doesn’t take much time. But one idea does usually lead to another, and hte trick is figuring out, later, which led to which. In this case it’s pretty clear, given the dates of our sources, etc

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    RickR  March 24, 2020

    So what caused the pivot by the Gospel writers, who (excepting John) didn’t see Jesus as a preexisting higher divinity?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2020

      Are you asking what caused their pivot to think Jesus was divine, even if they didn’t see him as pre-existing? His exaltation at the resurrection. It’s the absolute key. I lay out the entire process in my book How Jesus Became God.

      • Avatar
        RickR  March 24, 2020

        Yes, I get that (about the resurrection) but why didn’t they feel Jesus was initially (before the resurrection) more divine-like, as Paul did?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 26, 2020

          Paul’s view about Jesus’ exalted character came about only *after* he believed in the resurrection. The disciples during Jesus’ lifetime were also dealing with a man ,before he was thought to have been resurrected. It’s only the resurrection that made them come to think he was made into a divine being.

  11. Avatar
    davebohn  March 24, 2020

    Amazing to read, as you suggest, 1 Cor 14:26-39 first WITHOUT v. 34-35, then WITH v. 34-35. Including the verses, which seemed effortless for *all those years*, becomes so clearly abrasive.

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    ManuelNaujoks  March 28, 2020

    Did Josephus write anything about Paul?

  13. Robert
    Robert  April 1, 2020

    Bren, that is not at all a comparable example. Rather it is an example of how everyone (but you) reads this phrase in the Philippians poem. Note the presence of the extensive relative clauses in this verse of Acts: ὃν ὑμεῖς ἐσταυρώσατε, ὃν ὁ θεὸς ἤγειρεν ἐκ νεκρῶν, ἐν τούτῳ.

    Thus you need a crazy examole like … ‘by the secret unmentioned name that belongs to this actually named person, at the mention if this here unmentioned name …’ Nobody talks or even thinks like that. If you contest this, you ought to be able to come up with at least one example in all of Greek literature that seems comparable. Otherwise you are merely forcing your idea into a text.

  14. Avatar
    Kaliko59  April 26, 2020

    Recalling your thoughts about Paul thinking that Jesus was an angel in Galatians. In Catholic grade
    school many years ago we were taught about the rebellious angels led by Lucifer committed the sin of Pride. They thought they were equal to God and led a rebellion and were cast into hell. In contrast the angel in Philippians did not claim equality with God, but was obedient.to death on a cross

    • MohammedFawzi
      MohammedFawzi  July 9, 2020

      Dr Bart ..
      Why according to you , the Evangile , which Paul and others Spoke of , can’t be the Q source ?

  15. Avatar
    mgamez777  May 7, 2020

    Hi Bart, what do you think about the book of Robert Eisenman, James the brother of Jesus. He says that Paul was an enemy of the apostoles even after he had the vision of Jesus and that the letters of Peter against Simon the magician that this Simon is not other than Paul. Also says that Paul killed James and that James took the leader after the crucifixion of Jesus, that he also was leader of factions loyal to Jesus like the Ebionites and to John the Baptist (Mandaeans) that were in the Community of Qumran. Also I would like to know your opinion on Antonio Piñero, he’s a Philologist that had written several books regarding Jesus and Paul, he says that Paul was a Pharisee which he actually was and that he as a Jewish Rabbi told Gentiles to stay Gentiles and Jews to stay Jews just like Judaism today that says the gentiles just have to follow the 7 laws of Noah which by the way there is nothing in the bible reagarding this laws on the contrary the Bible says thay there will be one law for both Exodus 12:49.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2020

      I dobn’t think it is at all convincing. We don’t have any information about the specifics of what Paul taught before he bacame a follower of Jesus, and so any speculations about that are complete speculation!

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