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2 Corinthians 5:16: Any Alternative to Bultmann's View That Destroys Paul?


What are the various historical interpretations of 2 Cor. 5:16? We are aware Bultmann saw it as Paul's direction that we no longer are to know Christ "according to the flesh," and now we know Jesus solely through His resurrected nature. Bultmann thus interpreted Paul as teaching we can safely ignore Jesus' pre-resurrection teachings, just as Paul had done. For a full discussion, see our webpage "Bultmann's Exalting A Paul Who Treated Jesus as Irrelevant."

In this page, we will explore the scholarly attempt to rebut Bultmann. Volgouris will contend that Paul meant we no longer know Jesus as a Jew, but as a resurrected being.

Even so, it does not negate Bultmann's understanding.

Thus, Volgouris' argument is frankly so weak and forced that it reminds us how likely accurate indeed is Bultmann's reading of Paul. (We of course at "Jesus Words Only" endorse Jesus' post-resurrection statement that the true apostles were instructed to "teach everything I have commanded you" - meaning teach what He commanded prior to His resurrection. Hence Paul's teaching as understood correctly, it appears, by Bultmann is falsified by Jesus himself.)


View That Christ's Teachings In The Flesh Are Unimportant Based Upon 2 Cor. 5:16


In the scholarly article by Christos Sp. Voulgaris, "2 Cor, 5:16 and the problem of St. Paul’s opponents in Corinth," Theologia Review 46 (Athens 1975), reprinted online at this link, he recognizes Bultmann's point. Voulgaris summarizes that Bultmann claimed that 2 Cor. 5:16 proves Paul's view was that it is irrelevant to know of the earthly teachings of Jesus. Voulgaris says 2 Cor. 5:16 highlights the

long debated problem of Paul’s acquaintance with the historical person of Jesus Christ, either previous or subsequent to his conversion, and its legitimacy for salvation in Jesus Christ by faith, which he preached. Id.

Voulgaris goes back to Clement of Alexandria from the patristic era. Clement intended us to understand "according to the flesh" in 2 Cor. 5:16 to mean prior to Christ's exultation. After this point is implied "the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the believers, following Christ’s exultation." (Christos Sp. Voulgaris, "2 Cor, 5:16 and the problem of st. Paul’s opponents in Corinth,"  Theologia Review 46 (Athens 1975), reprinted online at this link.)

Hence, Clement's view coincides with Bultmann's view that "according to the flesh" meant the period prior to Christ's exultation / resurrection / ascension.

Voulgaris does not mention Origen, but Origen had a similar view that Paul's reference to Christ "in the flesh" meant a period prior to Jesus's exultation/ascension. Origen spoke of:

announcing Himself as flesh, He calls to Himself those who are flesh, that He may in the first place cause them to be transformed according to the Word that was made flesh, and afterwards may lead them upwards to behold Him as He was before He became flesh; so that they, receiving the benefit, and ascending from their great introduction to Him, which was according to the flesh, say, "Even if we have known Christ after the flesh, yet henceforth know we Him no more." (Origen Against Celsus Book VI at 353.)

But we, who can truthfully boast that "if we have once known Christ after the flesh, but now no longer do we know Him so," Origen Commentary on Matthew Book XI at 177.

Later scholarship moved in the same direction. "Thus «???? ??????» is again referred to Christ’s human existence «according to external distinctions», «by what he is in the flesh»." (Voulgaris, id., citing A. Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corintians (I.C.C., 5th ed., Edinburgh 1956) at 176.)

Bultmann pointed at the question of what does "according to the flesh" modify, for it affects interpretation. "R. Bultmann put it, whether «???? ??????» «??????» and «???????» or the verbs «???????», «?????????» and «??????????»" (Voulgaris, id., citing K. Grobel, Theology of the New Testament, E.T. (New York: T.I.P., 1951) at 238-239.  Cf. Bultmann, Exegetische Probleme des zweien Korintherbriefes (Uppsala 1947) at 17.)


Bultmann leans towards "after the flesh" modifying the verbs:


Bultmann himself leans towards the second alternative...for he says that «…this decision means nothing for the sense of the total context, for a ‘Christ regarded in the manner of the flesh’ is just what a ‘Christ after the flesh’ is» (Voulgaris, id. citing Theology of the New Testament, at 239.


Bultmann and Schweitzer took this then in the direction of what was supposedly the right gospel to preach -- just the Jesus that Paul knew - his kerygma, and not the one known by Apostles Matthew and John in their gospel accounts:


This, as we all know, has taken immense dimension ever since A. Schweitzer’s “Quest of the historical Jesus”, and was climaxed in R. Bultmann’s thought, where the emphasis lies not on the historical person of Christ “according to the flesh”, but rather on its existential meaningfulness proclaimed by the kerygma. (Voulgaris, id.)



Voulgaris's Attempt To Find A Different Interpretation

However, Voulgaris tries to refute that interpretation of verse 16 as seen by Bultman and Schweitzer by first examining its context:

the highly theological expressions in vss. 14-21 exclude the possibility that Paul is here defending himself against charges that he had or had not known Christ “according to the flesh,” as all interpreters suggest. (Voulgaris, id.)

Voulgaris begins his case by saying gar (for, because) in verse 13 proves vv 11-15 are one unit:

This means that vss. 11-15 are bound together and form a literary unit. (Voulgaris, id.)

This does not necessarily follow. But it proves unimportant to dispute this.

Second, Voulgaris points to the topics in vv 14-15 are the same:

This is further supported by the fact that the content of vss. 14 and 15 deal with the same concept, i.e. Christ’s death and its effects upon men. (Voulgaris, id.)

Third, Voulgaris concedes the grammar presents a problem, but tries to unravel it:

But this double “????” in the beginning of vss. 16 and 17 creates a confusion to the exegetes who regard it as introducing a double conclusion from vss. 11-15.  And since, according to them, this cannot possibly be correct, they detach vs. 16 and connect vs. 17 with vs. 15 as its actual conclusion.  (Voulgaris, id.)

Fourth, Voulgaris reconstructs the conditions and results so v. 16 stands as part of the overall passage:

Grammatically, this is not so as overlooking certain facts, and first of all the fact that vs. 16 contains two complete clauses separated by a semicolon.  This first clause (16a) is a result clause related directly to vss. 14-15.  The second clause (16b) is a concessive clause introduced by “?? ???” which commonly admits that a condition exists (granting that), but does not regard it as a hindrance.  Then vs. 17 begins naturally with a conditional sentence by “????” which gives it the form of a conclusion.  This successive use of two consecutive clauses is not unusual, as W. Schmithals thinks, but it serves to emphasize the conclusion or expand it further into a new direction. (Voulgaris, id.)

Finally, Voulgaris says this proves all the verses are conjoined on one topic:

Summing up, we believe that 2 Cor. 5:11-21 is a literary unit distinguished for its organic coherence.

But what does this prove? How does this impact interpetation? He says verse 16 is added to undermine the assumption of the opponents of Paul. But this seems in line with how Bultmann reads the passage. Voulgaris explains:

This is followed by his conclusion (vs. 16) which is contrary to the assumption of his opponents (not stated but implied) and is expanded into a new direction (vs.17 which is developed then into a wider theological statement (vss.18ff). (Voulgaris, id.)

Voulgaris then says for us to understand "according to the flesh" in verse 16 we should realize Paul has taught the abolition of the Law to the Corinthians:

The abolition of the law, of circumcision and of the descent from Abraham Paul had made absolutely clear to the Corinthians during his visit to them to preach the Gospel (cf.1 Cor. 2:1f) and repeated it in his first letter (1 Cor.1:22f; 7:17-20).  He also stated here that >????? ?? ???? ?????????? ?????? ???????????” (1 Cor.7:17).

The foregoing discussion helps us to understand better the meaning of “???? ??????” in vs. 16. (Voulgaris, id.)

So what is this alternative interpretation?

Voulgaris says Paul used "flesh" in different ways in other passages. In Gal. 1:16, Paul used it in an expression to say "man as such." Paul did not discuss his divine call with "man as such." In Gal. 2:20, Paul uses it in a phrase to mean a natural human relationship, i.e., the bonds of Israel. In Romans 4:1 Paul speaks of Abraham as a natural human progenitor by this term "flesh." This leads to this conclusion by Voulgaris:

It is to be noted that in all these cases “???? ?????” modifies substantives and the reference is to natural human relationship, precisely to the Jews.  (Voulgaris, id.)

This conclusion has been the aim of all Voulgaris' belabored steps.

However, it is a bit of a leap to say "flesh" in verse 16 points to "Jews" because in those other contexts that it happens to be Jews according to the flesh was in view. It is an extrapolation or abstraction even in those other verses, and not what the word "flesh" actually means in them. More importantly, verse 16 of 2 Cor. does not limit the context to just Jews. Regardless, Voulgaris concludes -- and we include most of this so one can see the progression of his thought:

In view of this situation therefore, the dilemma posed by scholars with respect to the correct meaning of “???? ?????” in 2 Cor. 5:16 cannot be regarded as a dilemma at all.  As in the other cases, so here, too, the reference is to natural human relationship.  The background is the same.  Paul refutes the ideas of his opponents referred to in vs. 12.  ****

Now on the basis of Paul’s explanation, we can infer the nature of the ideas of his opponents.  Paul’s emphasis upon the universality of Christ’s death and resurrection leaves no doubt that his adversaries tried to minimize the independence of the Gospel from the law and turn it into an internal affair of the Jewish national and religious system on the basis of Christ’s descent “???? ?????” from Abraham.  In other words, they tried to present Christ as one of the great teachers of Judaism.  Undoubtedly this served the ultimate purpose of Judaism to maintain its national unity and eventually its very existence in view of the Church’s expansion among Jews and Gentiles.  This, as was noted, constituted the most serious threat against the Church’s existence.


Against the Jewish misconceptions regarding the Gospel, Paul opposes Christ’s love for all men stresses the universal character of his death.  ‘Christ’s love, he says, forces us; “??????? ????” to assume that one died for all; therefore all died’ (vs. 14).  In other words, Christ’s death did not affect certain persons, but humanity  as a whole in its very nature.  And he died for all, he continues, so that those who live by having appropriated his death, “?????? ??????? ????? ???? ?? ???? ????? ?????????? ??? ?????????” (vs. 15). Therefore, from now on we regard no one according to his descent (“???? ?????”); and even though we have known Christ as a Jew according to his descent, we know him thus no longer (vs. 16).  Thus whoever is in Christ, he is a new creation (“????? ??????”); the old standards have passed away, behold everything has become new (vs. 17).

That this thesis is absolutely in line with Paul’s expressed elsewhere needs not be mentioned.  (Voulgaris, id.)


My Comment on Voulgaris

Voulgaris wants us to understand that verse 16 means "we have known Christ as a Jew" rather than we have known him "according to the flesh." Voulgaris built this grand scheme up to make a point that is simply counter-textual. Paul did not say "Jew" when he used the word "flesh" in the verse examples cited by Voulgaris. The claim "flesh" means as a "Jew" was an abstraction not an interpretation by Voulgaris of 5:16 and those supposed proof texts. Moreover, the literal usage of the term "flesh" in those other passages simply concretely dealt with people or events which differ from verse 16.

Moreover, even if one conceded Voulgaris's point, so what? It is still compatible with what Bultman said. For if we no longer know Jesus as a Jew, it means we no longer know Jesus when He preached the Law's continuity in Matthew 5:17-19, and quoted the Law repeatedly in His earthly ministry. If Paul no longer wants us to know Jesus was a Jewish prophet, as Voulgaris's contends, it still carries the implication of what Bultmann said was Paul's express meaning. We can  supposedly dispense with the message of Jesus when in the flesh (of a Jew) and who taught Jewish legal principles because Paul allegedly has the greater message that the Law is abolished.

Indeed, Voulgaris himself says Paul declared the Law abolished, and thus the refutation of Jesus's words in Matt. 5:17-19 by Paul is plain and clear even in Voulgaris's mind. So whether "in the flesh" meant as a pre-ascension human as Bultmann claimed or as a Jew, as Voulgaris claimed, Paul meant for us to no longer know Jesus through that period of His teachings. We are supposedly only to know Jesus through the post-Ascension period which prior to John's Revelation would mean we were 100% to know Christ through Paul's gospel.

In sum, Voulgaris's highly strained argument which makes no great advance on reading the passage. Bultmann's reading thus appear that much stronger. This is especially true if this is the kind of case one must raise to fight against it.