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The personal presence of Jesus in the writings of Paul*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 February 2017

Markus Bockmuehl*
Keble College, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3PG,


For Paul, where is Jesus now? The Apostle's Christ-mysticism provides one important clue to his sense of continued personal presence, but this coexists with an important eschatological dialectic that involves absence as much as presence. Moreoever, straightforward sublimation in terms of the Holy Spirit in no way exhausts the register of Jesus’ personal presence for Paul, which also finds specific application in repeated visionary experiences, as well as in the church gathered for worship, baptism, and eucharist. The dialectic of absence and presence appears on the one hand personally attuned in the assurance of Paul's Jesus that ‘My grace is sufficient for you’ (2 Cor 12:7), but it is also eschatologically and spatially articulated in the promise that ‘the Lord is near’ (Phil 4:5).

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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This is a revised version of the T. W. Manson Lecture delivered at the University of Manchester on 22 Oct. 2015. I am grateful for comments and suggestions received on that occasion, from Eric Eve, Anthony Harvey, Kylie Crabbe and other members of the Oxford New Testament Seminar, and also from Paul Joyce.


1 In specific areas, church teaching reflects greater definition and nuance, such as Vatican II's account of Jesus’ presence in sacrament and community (see, e.g., Sacrosanctum Concilium 7).

2 Explicit refusal to engage the dimension of Jesus as person or personality was one of the hallmarks of Rudolf Bultmann's project; see below.

3 Though reference works generally omit entries on ‘presence’ or ‘absence’, there are a few exceptions, including, e.g., Gowan, Donald E., ‘Divine Presence’, in New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2007), vol. 2, pp. 146–9Google Scholar; Schilson, Arno, ‘Gegenwart Christi’, in Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche (Freiburg: Herder, 1995), vol. 4, pp. 352–3Google Scholar; Thomson, J. G. S. S., ‘Presence of God, The’, in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), vol. 2, pp. 1750–2Google Scholar. OT and Jewish dimensions are more recently explored in MacDonald, Nathan and de Hulster, Izaak J. (eds), Divine Presence and Absence in Exilic and Post-Exilic Judaism (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013)Google Scholar; cf. also Wilson, Ian, Out of the Midst of the Fire: Divine Presence in Deuteronomy (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1995)Google Scholar; and Orr, Peter, Christ Absent and Present: A Study in Pauline Christology (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014)Google Scholar, discussed below.

4 Bultmann, Rudolf, Jesus (Tübingen: Mohr (Siebeck), 1926), pp. 180–2Google Scholar.

5 Schweitzer, Albert, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1953 [1930]), p. 33 Google Scholar.

6 So e.g. in the commentary on Rom 8:2, 10: Käsemann, Ernst, An die Römer, überarb. Aufl. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1974), p. 212 Google Scholar (quoted in Orr, Christ Absent and Present, p. 24). See further Käsemann, Ernst, Kirchliche Konflikte (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1982), vol. 1, p. 18 Google Scholar; Käsemann, Ernst, Paulinische Perspektiven (Tübingen: Mohr, 1969), p. 13 Google Scholar. Also cf. more broadly the idea of humanity ( Käsemann, Ernst, Der Ruf der Freiheit, 4. Aufl. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1968), pp. 153--55, 239 Google Scholar; Käsemann, Ernst, In der Nachfolge des gekreuzigten Nazareners: Aufsätze und Vorträge aus dem Nachlass, ed. Landau, R. and Kraus, W. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), p. 106)Google Scholar or even the world as God's intended placeholder (Käsemann, Ernst, ‘Zum Thema der urchristlichen Apokalyptik’, Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 59 (1962), p. 282)Google Scholar.

7 So, e.g., in Käsemann, Der Ruf der Freiheit (ET: Jesus Means Freedom, trans. F. Clarke (London: SCM Press, 1969)); cf. further documentation in Orr, Christ Absent and Present, pp. 22–38.

8 Barclay, John M. G., Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015)Google Scholar; Campbell, Douglas A., The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009)Google Scholar; Sanders, E. P., Paul: The Apostle's Life, Letters, and Thought (London: SCM Press, 2015)Google Scholar; Wright, N. T., Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols (London: SPCK, 2013)Google Scholar.

9 For fuller discussion of this theme in the gospels see Bockmuehl, Markus, ‘The Gospels on the Presence of the Jesus’, in Murphy, F. A. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Christology (Oxford: OUP, 2015), pp. 87101 Google Scholar. In relation to Acts, Max Turner and his students rightly foreground the significance of Jesus’ continued saving agency as kyrios in Acts. See Turner, Max, ‘The Spirit of Christ and “Divine” Christology’, in Green, J. B. and Turner, M. (eds), Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ: Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology (Grand Rapids, MI, and Carlisle: Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1994), p. 421 Google Scholar; cf. more fully Turner, Max, Power from on High: The Spirit in Israel's Restoration and Witness in Luke-Acts (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000)Google Scholar; see also Sleeman, Matthew, Geography and the Ascension Narrative in Acts (Cambridge: CUP, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Recent systematic theology recognises this theme of absence vs presence as a key flashpoint in any theology of the ascension: e.g. Farrow, Douglas, Ascension Theology (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2011)Google Scholar, esp. pp. 63–88, also in dialogue with Burgess, Andrew R., The Ascension in Karl Barth (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 135–61Google Scholar.

10 Rothschild, Clare K., Paul in Athens: The Popular Religious Context of Acts 17 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), p. 6 Google Scholar and passim.

11 E.g. Heininger, Bernhard, Paulus als Visionär: Eine religionsgeschichtliche Studie (Freiburg and New York: Herder, 1996)Google Scholar; Heininger, Bernhard, ‘Paulus und Philo als Mystiker? 2 Kor 12,2–4 und Spec Leg 3,1–6 im Vergleich’, in Deines, R. and Niebuhr, K.-W. (eds), Philo und das Neue Testament: Wechselseitige Wahrnehmungen: I. Internationales Symposium zum Corpus Judaeo-Hellenisticum, 1.–4. Mai 2003, Eisenach/Jena (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), pp. 189204 Google Scholar; Rowland, Christopher, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity. London: SPCK, 1982)Google Scholar; Rowland, Christopher and Morray-Jones, Christopher R. A., The Mystery of God: Early Jewish Mysticism and the New Testament (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009)Google Scholar; Segal, Alan F., Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden: Brill, 1977)Google Scholar; Segal, Alan F., ‘Heavenly Ascent in Hellenistic Judaism, Early Christianity and their Environment’, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, 2.23.2: 1333–94Google Scholar; Segal, Alan F., Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

12 Theissen, Gerd, Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology, trans. Galvin, J. P. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1987 [1983])Google Scholar.

13 Callan, Terrance, Psychological Perspectives on the Life of Paul: An Application of the Methodology of Gerd Theissen (Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1990)Google Scholar; Reichardt, Michael, Psychologische Erklärung der paulinischen Damaskusvision? Ein Beitrag zum interdisziplinären Gespräch zwischen Exegese und Psychologie seit dem 18. Jahrhundert (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1999)Google Scholar; Theissen, Gerd, ‘The New Perspective on Paul and its Limits: Some Psychological Considerations’, Princeton Seminary Bulletin 28 (2007), pp. 6485 Google Scholar.

14 Ashton, John, The Religion of Paul the Apostle (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Roetzel, Calvin J., Paul: The Man and the Myth (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998)Google Scholar.

15 Shantz, Colleen, Paul in Ecstasy: The Neurobiology of the Apostle's Life and Thought (Cambridge: CUP, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Ibid., p. 207.

17 Deeley, Quinton and Rowland, Christopher, ‘Review of Colleen Shantz, Paul in Ecstasy: The Neurobiology of the Apostle's Life and Thought, Journal of Theological Studies 62 (2010), p. 319 Google Scholar.

18 See Collicutt, Joanna R., ‘Bringing the Academic Discipline of Psychology to Bear on the Study of the Bible’, Journal of Theological Studies 63 (2012), pp. 20–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar and passim; and note, e.g., the SBL series Frances Flannery, Shantz, Colleen, and Alan Werline, Rodney, Experientia (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008–12)Google Scholar.

19 E.g. James Grieve, Alexander, ‘Presence’, in Dictionary of the Apostolic Church (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918), vol. 2, pp. 266–8Google Scholar.

20 Schweitzer, Mysticism of Paul, pp. 5–6.

21 Marguerat, Daniel, ‘Paul the Mystic’, in Krans, J. et al. (ed.), Paul, John, and Apocalyptic Eschatology: Studies in Honour of Martinus C. de Boer (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 90–1Google Scholar; cf. Schweitzer, Mysticism of Paul. Other classic early twentieth-century treatments included Adolf Deissmann, who detected in Paul a sense of the Christian's intimate fellowship with the ‘living spiritual Christ’: Deissmann, Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History, trans. W. E. Wilson, 2nd edn (New York: Doran, 1926), p. 140; quoted in Dunn, James D. G., The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 391 Google Scholar. Also cf. Wikenhauser, Alfred, Pauline Mysticism: Christ in the Mystical Teaching of St Paul (New York: Herder & Herder, 1960 [1928])Google Scholar; Büchsel, Friedrich, Der Geist Gottes im Neuen Testament (Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1926), pp. 285303 Google Scholar; and Bousset, Wilhelm, Kyrios Christos: A History of the Belief in Christ from the Beginnings of Christianity to Irenaeus, trans. Steely, J. E. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1970 [1921]), pp. 154–7Google Scholar, on the living presence of the Kyrios manifested in communal worship. Leading post-war contributors included Fritz Neugebauer and C. F. D. Moule, among others.

22 E.g. Acts 13:9–11; 14:3; 19:11–13; 20:7–12; 28:3–9 (cf. Marguerat, ‘Paul the Mystic’, p. 80).

23 See Blackwell, Ben C., Christosis: Pauline Soteriology in Light of Deification in Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011)Google Scholar; Campbell, Constantine R., Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012)Google Scholar; and Macaskill, Grant, Union with Christ in the New Testament (Oxford: OUP, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 The important Pauline theology of Wolter, Michael (Paul: An Outline of his Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015 [2011])Google Scholar also has brief chapters on the Spirit (pp. 147–75), on ‘Christ Mysticism’ and ‘Participation in Christ’ (pp. 221–51), but these tend to be confined to language about ‘in Christ’ and ‘with Christ’.

25 E.g., Dunn's, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit (London: SCM, 1970)Google Scholar and Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975). Dunn also discusses the presence of Jesus exlusively in terms of the Spirit in his Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation (London: SCM, 1980).

26 Dunn, Theology of Paul the Apostle, pp. 390–412.

27 Ibid., p. 399.

28 Dunn references Phlm 20, Phil 1:8, 2:1, in Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 400.

29 Ibid., p. 408.

30 Cf., e.g., Thate, Michael J., Vanhoozer, Kevin J., and Campbell, Constantine R., ‘In Christ’ in Paul: Explorations in Paul's Theology of Union and Participation (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014)Google Scholar Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ; and Macaskill, Union with Christ, for recent discussion.

31 Citing, perhaps a little too inclusively, Rom 8:10; 2 Cor 13:5; Gal 2:20; Col 1:27; Gal 1:16 and 2 Cor 4:6; also ‘giving birth to Christ within the Galatians’ (Gal 4:19).

32 Hurtado, Larry W., Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 110 Google Scholar.

33 See also Acts’ portrayal of Paul's visionary experiences (see Dunn, Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 409). Luke and Paul are more ambiguous about whether such experiences are in principle accessible to all Christians or primarily mediated by apostolic or prophetic figures (cf., e.g., 2 Cor 5:20; Heb 12:25).

34 Dunn concludes that ‘for Paul the spiritual reality of Christ was not reducible to the faith experience of individuals or to the tangibility of the church. Christ was still a personal reality . . . in direct continuity with Jesus of Nazareth . . . But “personal” in a sense which is no longer the same as the human “person”, and yet is more sharply defined than talk of God as “personal”’ (Theology of Paul the Apostle, pp. 409–10).

35 Bultmann, Rudolf, Theology of the New Testament, 2 vols, trans. Grobel, K. (New York: Scribner, 1951–5)Google Scholar, vol. 1, pp. 238–9; cf. Bultmann, Rudolf, The Second Letter to the Corinthians, trans. Harrisville, R. A., ed. Dinkler, E. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1985), pp. 155–6Google Scholar.

36 Dunn, Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 322.

37 Ibid., p. 325; cf. p. 410.

38 E.g. Fee, Gordon D., God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), pp. 837–8Google Scholar and passim; further Hurtado, Larry W., God in New Testament Theology (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2010), p. 92 Google Scholar; Hill, Wesley, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), pp. 147–8Google Scholar and passim; Rowe, C. Kavin, ‘The Trinity in the Letters of St Paul and Hebrews’, in Emery, G. and Levering, M. (eds), Oxford Handbook of the Trinity (Oxford: OUP, 2011), pp. 4154 Google Scholar. Fatehi argues that iconic statements like ‘the Lord is the Spirit’ actually represent the complex relationship between two clearly distinguishable agents, neither of whom is reducible to the other. See Fatehi, Mehrdad, The Spirit's Relation to the Risen Lord in Paul: An Examination of its Christological Implications (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), pp. 304–6Google Scholar.

39 Matthew Novenson makes the useful point that the semantic content of ‘Christ’ as an honorific cannot simply be equated with the human person Jesus. Novenson, Matthew V., Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism (New York: OUP, 2012), pp. 117–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Cf. e.g. Hill, Paul and the Trinity; Rowe, ‘The Trinity in the Letters of St Paul and Hebrews’.

41 Tilling, Chris, Paul's Divine Christology (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), p. 255 Google Scholar and passim.

42 Ibid., pp. 137–65. Cf. further Rehfeld, Emmanuel L., Relationale Ontologie bei Paulus: Die ontische Wirksamkeit der Christusbezogenheit im Denken des Heidenapostels (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012)Google Scholar, on Christ-relationality.

43 See, e.g., n. 11 above; also Chester, Andrew, Messiah and Exaltation: Jewish Messianic and Visionary Traditions and New Testament Christology (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), p. 100 Google Scholar, citing Rowland, The Open Heaven, pp. 351–441, et al.

44 Chester, Messiah and Exaltation, p. 101, citing Luz, Ulrich, ‘Paul as Mystic’, in Stanton, G. N. et al. (eds), The Holy Spirit and Christian Origins: Essays in Honour of James D. G. Dunn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 131–43Google Scholar, on the significance of shared experiences of baptism, fellowship and suffering.

45 So also Karrer, Martin, Jesus Christus im Neuen Testament (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998), p. 36 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 Chester argues that Paul's visionary experiences belong in the larger context of Jesus traditions, especially ‘the vision of him as transformed into angelic, heavenly mode in the “Transfiguration”’: Messiah and Exaltation, p. 102.

47 Timothy Johnson, Luke, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity: A Missing Dimension in New Testament Studies (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998)Google Scholar; more recent treatments have begun to address the perceived lacuna – e.g. Dunn, James D. G., ‘Religious Experience in the New Testament’, in Foskett, M. F. and Allen, O. W. (eds), Between Experience and Interpretation: Engaging the Writings of the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008), pp. 316 Google Scholar; Mount, Christopher N., ‘Religious Experience, the Religion of Paul, and Women in Pauline Churches’, in Ahearne-Kroll, S. P. et al. (eds), Women and Gender in Ancient Religions: Interdisciplinary Approaches (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), pp. 323–47Google Scholar.

48 See e.g. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven; cf. Rowland and Morray-Jones, The Mystery.

49 Chester, Messiah and Exaltation, pp. 81–91. Cf. Andrew Chester, ‘The Christ of Paul’, in Bockmuehl, M. and Paget, J. Carleton (eds), Redemption and Resistance: The Messianic Hopes of Jews and Christians in Antiquity (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2007), pp. 109–21Google Scholar.

50 Chester, Messiah and Exaltation, p. 86, also referencing n. 183.

51 Ibid., p. 86, with reference to Wright, N. T., The Resurrection of the Son of God (London: SPCK, 2003), pp. 384–6Google Scholar.

52 2 Cor 3:18; cf. Phil 3:21; also Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 15:49; see Chester, Messiah and Exaltation, pp. 88–90.

53 This is a point rightly stressed by Karrer, Jesus Christus im Neuen Testament, p. 34.

54 Shantz, Paul in Ecstasy; see discussion above.

55 Cf. Karrer, Jesus Christus im Neuen Testament, p. 37 (cf. p. 39).

56 The evidence seems mixed and not ultimately persuasive. On the contrary, passages from Ephesians and Colossians cited earlier suggest that believers enjoy already a heavenly existence with Christ (cf. also Eph 2:5, 12), Christ is present both as the head to the body (Col 1:18; 2:19; Eph 1:22; 4:15–16) and as its composite entirety (Eph 5:30; cf. Col 1:24 and already 1 Cor 12:12–27). There is no significant slippage between Christ and the church as the Temple of God's presence in either Colossians (1:19; 2:9) or Ephesians (2:12, 19–20).

57 Orr, Peter, Christ Absent and Present: A Study in Pauline Christology (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014)Google Scholar; I am indebted to Prof. Edward Adams of King's College London for originally alerting me to this work as a Durham dissertation. Cf. further Rehfeld, Relationale Ontologie bei Paulus; Tilling, Paul's Divine Christology; and discussion below.

58 Orr, Christ Absent and Present, p. 1.

59 Ibid., p. 62. Cf. e.g. Rom 8:29; Phil 3:21.

60 Orr, Christ Absent and Present, pp. 113–14.

61 Ibid., pp. 207, 221.

62 1 Cor 5:4; see also below. Cf. more positive ecclesial instructions and plans in Phil 2:19; 1 Thess 3:11; 4:1–2.

63 Protestant interpreters, including, Peter Orr, are sometimes remarkably cagey on this subject of the eucharist, even if one might retort that Paul's other letters are also strikingly less eloquent on this point.

64 Rom 6:3–4; Gal 3:26–7; cf. 1 Cor 12:13; Col 2:12.

65 I am grateful to Christopher Rowland for underscoring this important point in correspondence, also with reference to Funk, Robert W., ‘Apostolic Parousia: Form and Significance’, in Farmer, W. R. (ed.), Christian History and Interpretation: Studies Presented to John Knox (Cambridge: CUP, 1967)Google Scholar, pp. 249–68. Cf. further Savage, Timothy B., Power through Weakness: Paul's Understanding of the Christian Ministry in 2 Corinthians (New York: CUP, 1996)Google Scholar.

66 1 Cor 9:1; 15:50–1; 1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13–14; 2 Thess. 1:7.

67 Similar categories of presence are proposed for John's Gospel by Dietzfelbinger, Christian, ‘Die grösseren Werke (Joh 14:12f)’, New Testament Studies 35 (1989), pp. 34–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 42–7.