Volume 16, Number 1 (January 2020)
Author: Mike Grimshaw
While there has a been a turn of continental thought to engage with Paul via Agamben, Badiou, Zizek and Taubes1 – and works in their train – this article is the first to read Paul through the lens of Baudrillard. A self-confessed exercise in conjecture2 , it begins with considering the work of Paul as an exercise in the theological hyperreal. Paul never met Jesus yet claimed an encounter with the signifier, the idea, the hyper-reality of Christ. Paul’s letters and his theology therefore proceed as texts of the hyperreal. It rereads Baudrillard’s statement “god is not dead, he has become hyperreal” as having its origin in Paul’s theology of the universal, hyperreal Christ.
The hyperreal context
Through Christ I have become more real than I was before.
– St Paul, Letter to Reims
And it was on the road to Damascus that Saul, who resignified as Paul, encountered Christ who had died, and was made apostle, though he was not among the 12.
– Acts of the Apostle
In The Perfect Crime (1996) Baudrillard talks of the disappearance of God behind the images of “the iconoclaters of Byzantium…behind each of these images, in fact, God had disappeared. He was not dead; he had disappeared. That is to say, the problem no longer even arose. It was resolved by simulation.” (Baudrillard, 1996: 5) Yet, this problem, the problem of the disappearance of God, had in fact been resolved at the very beginnings of Christianity, by the writings of Paul. For what if the text precedes the recourse to images? What if the simulation was firstly textual by Paul, and then – and only then– was the simulation by images in the simulated reality created and maintained by Paul’s letters? For the text as simulation precedes images as simulation.
We can think of Paul’s letters as a hyper-real event, for “what constitutes an event is what breaks with all previous causality” (Baudrillard, 1996:58). That Paul can self-proclaim Apostleship is an event, and this event of the Damascus road then becomes the basis of a claimed new reality. Now, as Baudrillard reminds us, it is reality that is “produced and reproduced by illusion” (Baudrillard, 1996: 16) and this arises from the status of the world as illusion arising from its radical imperfection. For “If everything had been perfect, then the world would quite simply not exist and if, by some misfortune, it were to become so again, it would quite simply not exist anymore” (Baudrillard, 1996: 9).
The simulation, the illusion of the world, and the disappearance of God are therefore all related and come together in the hyperreal event of Saul on the road to Damascus whereupon he becomes Paul, claiming a new reality for himself and the world, a new reality that circulates as the textual event of simulation. We can now also link Paul’s own event to the preceding events of incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection that all arise from the radical imperfection of world and man. In short, it is the Christian narrative of the radical imperfection of world and man that creates the world as illusion, a radical imperfection that is narrated as a series of events that enacts the hyperreal as the founding events of Christianity and the world as illusion that eventuates.
If we begin with that hyperreal text of the Christian bible we find ourselves within what is a circulation of simulations. For the Bible is a book (of books) that in its division claims a founding event that breaks with – yet includes – that which precedes it. The naming itself is an illusion, for the New Testament is only new because it is claimed as event that supersedes that named as Old Testament. Yet this Old Testament is a collection of Jewish texts that are claimed as now leading to this new testament for those Jews and Gentiles who take on the new identity of Christians. But for Jews who remained Jews and the Jewish faith that continues to today, there is no Old Testament nor New Testament, but rather there exist Jewish texts that do not lead to the claimed event of the messiah and the subsequent event of Christianity; neither do these Jewish texts foretell or are part of what becomes the Christian narrative. However as Daniel Boyarin notes, the rabbinic Judaism of today arose from the 2nd century CE and forms as a reaction – or that is, as a hyperreal event – as “a post-Pauline religious development.”(Boyarin, 1991:2) In effect, what has occurred is the rise of both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism as post-Pauline events in relation and reaction to the normative (or increasingly normative) hyperreality of Paul. Boyarin also identifies what can be termed the hyperreal tension of Paul:
“In his very extremity and marginality, Paul is in a sense paradigmatic of “the Jew”. He represents the interface between Jew as a self-identical essence and Jew as a construction constantly being remade.” (Boyarin, 1991: 3)
This reading of the hyperreal tension not only applies to the narrative of the event on the road to Damascus that sees Saul the Jewish persecutor of Christians being remade as Paul the Christian apostle; this remaking continues in the series of letters that the now-named Paul writes to existing Christian communities scattered throughout the Hellenistic Jewish world. These letters are then much later collected together in the Christian Bible, in the New Testament, immediately following the 4 gospels (that are hyperreal in themselves – but that’s another narrative), and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. These gospels actually postdate the Pauline letters, as does the Book of Acts that includes narratives of Paul, his conversion and missionary activity; but they are collated in a progressive, illusionary narrative that creates a Christian narrative reality that is a simulation. For the letters of Paul are in fact the earliest surviving Christian writings, predating the gospels that in fact wrote into and re-narrate a Christian ‘reality’ in large part brought into existence by the event of Paul.
In the Bible, there are 13 letters that have the claimed authorship of Paul, but as biblical scholars well know, only 7 were actually written by him, another 3 are most probably not from him and a final three are certainly not from Paul. Furthermore, the order in which these letters appear in the New Testament is not the order in which they were written and so the Pauline letters in the Bible are a double illusion, an illusion of singular authorship and an illusion of authorial progression. The following discussion will only deal with those 7 texts on which it is agreed that Paul is the author, but then it could also be argued that the other biblical Pauline letters have been themselves a type of Pauline hyperreality, that is, the idea of them being from Paul was – until modern biblical scholarship – more important to Christians than if they actually were or were not from Paul. Even today, for many Christians, these contested letters exist, in the main, as hyperreal Pauline letters, wherein the idea that they are from Paul is considered of most importance and grants them authority. These letters are Ephesians, Colossians, 2nd Thessalonians,
1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus. We must also note the importance of the book Acts of the Apostles (hereafter Acts) which is in itself part of the two-part narrative Luke-Acts but is divided by the insertion in the New Testament of the narrative event of The Gospel of John (a gospel that in its distinction from the Synoptic gospels exists as hyperreal event). Acts, especially in the section on Paul’s conversion and subsequent activities also contributes to the hyperreality of Paul – and sets in train the original hyperreal claim.
In what follows I will undertake a reading of Acts and the 7 Pauline letters as texts of the hyperreality of Paul. I will begin with Acts as that sets the narrative in process for the reader of the New Testament. However, I will then read each of the 7 Pauline letters in historical sequence of composition, beginning with 1st Thessalonians (c50 CE), then Galatians (c53CE), 1st Corinthians (c53-54CE), Philippians (c55CE), Philemon (c55CE) 2nd Corinthians (c55-56CE) and finally Romans (c57CE).
It is in Acts 9:1-22 that a sequential reader of the New Testament first reads of the conversion of Paul, an event presented as a flashing light and a voice that asks why Saul is persecuting him. When Saul in turn asks who is addressing him, it is recorded “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). What is interesting is that Saul has been persecuting Christians but he never met nor persecuted Jesus; yet from the outset this event presents a new double identity: Christians= Jesus; persecution of Christians = persecution of Jesus. Saul remains as Saul after this event, being addressed as Saul by the Damascan disciple Ananais (Acts 9:17) who confirms for Saul his new undertaking, which is the preaching of Jesus as the Son of God, the preaching of a Jesus Saul never met, the preaching of an idea of Jesus more real than the reality (a Jewish prophet crucified), that is, the hyperreal Jesus (Acts 9:19-22). In Acts Saul does not become renamed as Paul until Luke records him leaving Jerusalem for his missionary journeys within the Hellenistic world (Acts 13: 13) because Paul is his Greek name, a name from the Latin Paulus. Therefore, for the Jewish world, Saul remained Saul, but for the emergent Christian world, that is what was a Hellenistic world (or Hellenistic Jews and Gentiles) he was now Paul, named as such here by Luke, but also, crucially, self-named as such by Saul/Paul in his letters to the Hellenistic world.
In Acts we are told Paul has “seen the Lord” (Acts 9:27) but this claim is an illusion, for as recorded he had not seen Jesus but had experienced light and heard a voice, a voice that he did not recognize. We can note how this differs to claims of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Gospels whereby it is a recognizable Jesus who appears (3 times in John). In Luke’s gospel we get the story of the appearance on the road to Emmaus – but here though as a fellow man he is not recognized; and then later he appears as the recognizable Jesus to the disciples in Jerusalem and even eats with them. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus appears post-resurrection to Mary Magdalen; then in a story similar to Emmaus; and then to the 11 disciples. While in the gospel of Matthew Jesus appears – again as a recognizable human to the women, and then as Jesus to the disciples at Galilee.
What Paul proclaims and testifies is something quite different, being not the pre-crucifixion encounter and discipleship of Jesus, nor a post-resurrection encounter with a recognizable Jesus. Rather, what he proclaims and testifies is what can be called the hyperreal event of faith. This can also be termed the hyperreal conundrum of faith because faith itself is hyperreal for there is no reality for the convert except that accepted as faith and by faith. In other words, religion – and in this case Christianity – is hyperreality all the way down.
This is why Paul is so central to the spread of Christianity because it is his hyperreal Jesus preached, proclaimed and testified as Christ (Acts 17:3 in Thessalonia; Acts 18: 5 in Macedonia) which becomes the basis of the hyperreal faith of Christianity.
This hyperreal claim is also one of Paul’s ministry and the authority he proclaims he received, for example:
“…if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24)
While the claim is made, we should note that “the Lord Jesus” is nothing but the claim of an experience from the Damascus road, and the claim of experiences afterwards. These become that noted Baudrillian “event that breaks with all previous causality” (Baudrillard 1996:58); that is, firstly a light and a claimed address by a voice, not an encounter with Jesus. These then lead to another event, the claim of apostleship whereby Paul effectively self-appoints and self-commissions himself to this role.
There is a second version of the conversion narrative in Acts 22:45-16 and in this one there is again the light and the voice but here the name is more distinctive: “I am Jesus of Nazareth who you are persecuting” (Acts 22: 8) and this is the voice that accompanies “a great light from heaven” (Acts 22:6). Yet there is yet another narrative of the conversion experience in Acts and this occurs in Paul’s trial before King Agrippa (Acts 25:13 –26:32). Here Paul never states that he met Jesus, rather – even when persecuting Christians – he did “many things opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9). In this third retelling of the conversion there is still the light, but in this version, it is stated that the voice was in Hebrew (Acts 26:14) and that the voice proclaims “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 26:15). So what we have so far is a type of hyperreal conversion narrative that takes different forms in each retelling, yet for the emergent Christian community and for Christendom that follows and into the continuation of Christianity in late modernity, it is the idea of Saul’s conversion that becomes ‘more real’ than any reality – for this ‘reality’ is from the start a number of competing narratives. In many ways this – and the letters of Paul that follow up and support this hyperreal claim and that of Paul’s apostolic identity – are expressions of Baudrillard’s observation of “the violence writing does to its own context” (Baudrillard 2007: 12). If we consider both Acts and Paul’s letters then we can also see what both Acts and Paul do in expressing this new Pauline reality:
“…we have only our representations. If we’ve rid ourselves of the ambiguity of the world in creating an objective reality, then we’ve also rid ourselves of it by creating a subjective reality. Indeed these two things go together: the real is also made up of this possibility of the subject representing itself as such. It is the interplay of the two that assures things of their ‘reality’.” (Baudrillard 2001:45)
It is by applying this insight of Baudrillard’s regarding reality that we can proceed to engage with the new objective yet subjective reality of Paul’s letters; a subjective yet objective reality in the sense that these letters frame and delineate what can be termed the emergent Christian community. For Paul, in his claim as new apostle, writes his letters to ensure that his subjective reality (the reality of Saul/Paul the apostle of Christ) becomes the objective reality of the far-flung churches of this emergent Christian world.
This occurs in Paul’s first letter 1st Thessalonians (c50 CE), written to the church in the capital of Macedonia, where the claim of Jesus as Lord and Christ (that is the anointed one, the messiah and the saviour) is continually reinforced. Is this indeed the reality? – for we do not know and cannot know. All we have are the hyperreal statements of faith that seek to make the subjective reality the objective one; whether it is statements of “God’s will” or in particular, the claims of the meaning of the crucifixion and claimed resurrection:
“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thessalonians 4: 14)
“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him.” (1 Thessalonians 5: 9-11)
It is through the stating of such subjective realities as objective ones that Paul’s hyperreal faith becomes the foundation for what in itself becomes the hyperreal basis of emergent Christianity.
This hyperreal authority and identity is emphasized in the next letter of Paul, that to the Galatians (c53 CE). Here the epistle begins with the hyperreal claim of apostolic authority:
“Paul, an Apostle – not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” (Galatians 1: 1-2)
This is Paul claiming an identity of what we can term the hyperreal apostle who is in distinction to the existing 11 apostles (once 12 but now 11 with the death of Judas) commissioned by Jesus during his period of preaching, teaching and healing (somewhere between 18 months and 3 years) in Palestine. For Paul was not commissioned by the living Jesus, rather he claims he was commissioned by a Jesus he never met – except as a claimed light and voice on the road to Damascus. This leads him to emphasize the hyperreal claim of identity and authority:
“For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came from a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1: 11-12)
This can be understood as expressing a double hyperreal – the revelation is a hyperreal claim and then the gospel preached is also hyperreal. So we get a statement of double hyperreal authority reinforced by the claim of new Christian faith and identity whereby the subjective reality becomes the claim of a new objective reality:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2: 20)
Here is the basis for the hyperreal claim of Christian faith and identity that continues in Galatians 3 with Paul’s appeal to faith over law and to spirit over flesh which builds into justification by faith in Christ (Galatians 3: 24-26) and the associated freedom from the law, culminating in the central, hyperreal claim of a new identity:
“…there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3: 29)
This foundational statement of Christian identity is then followed by a secondary hyperreal identity:
“And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise”. (Galatians 3: 29)
Therefore here, in a statement of early Pauline Christianity, we get Christianity presented as hyperreal claim of identity and promise. The secret of faith is therefore the idea of a new identity that, for those who take it up, is proclaimed as more real than any existing ‘real’ identity; a hyperreal transcendence of flesh and law.
Such claims of new identity by self-proclamation and reimagined identity continue in 1 Corinthians (c53-54 CE) with the now standard claim by Paul of apostolic identity and authority that is reinforced by the claim of 1 Corinthians 9:1 whereby Paul states: “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”; yet as has already been made clear, Paul never saw Jesus – and his claimed experiences were with a light and a voice, a voice he did not recognize until he was told who was speaking. Here we see the links between hyperreality and claims of authority and power, especially when based in statements of faith made for the maintenance of a faith community. The community is instructed to believe what is proclaimed by the one who proclaims ecclesial power and divine authority. Also, in 1 Corinthians that we are presented with what can be termed the transcendentally hyperreal claim of Paul’s Christianity:
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block.”(1 Corinthians 1:22-24).
While the crucifixion of Jesus is not an idea, to proclaim that the one crucified is Christ is a faith statement, an idea that here is expressed as ‘more real’ than any reality – and more real than either signs or wisdom: the hyperreality of Christian faith. In this letter are also a number of statements that resignify identity by claim of faith, including Paul claiming becoming “your father in Jesus Christ through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4: 14-15); the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12: 27); the announcement of what came to be known as the claim of real presence in the Eucharistic meal, whereby the bread and wine of the Eucharist are participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 10: 16; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-29); and the claim of glossolalia as speaking to God and uttering “mysteries of the Spirit”(1 Corinthians 14:2). Here is Paul resignifying the early Christian community into a community of Pauline orthodoxy. Paul’s Letters to the Philippians
(c55CE) and to Philemeon (c55 CE) just continue this hyperreal push and emphasis. In 2 Corinthians (c55-56 CE) it is clear, as Paul’s theology develops, that the language of faith is also hyperreal language and that faith is a hyperreal way of thinking and talking, including talking and thinking about the new Christian identity:
“…even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, the new has come.”(2 Corinthians 5: 16-17)
As Paul’s theology develops so too do his claims about Christ “who is the likeness of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and whereby also increasingly the role of the Holy Spirit becomes emphasized and normalized for faith: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”(2 Corinthians 3:17) Of course, we could say that this is metaphorical and poetic language, but the intention remains the same of proclaiming a new identity and reality of faith. Yet even more importantly is the way the Christian faith community can respond to and believe these words as expressing a new, often literal reality for that community to live, worship and think within. In short, Paul’s hyperreality became the foundation for Christian hyperreality for the new two millennia.
Yet despite the discussion above, perhaps the most influential hyperreal text of Paul’s is his last epistle Romans (c57 CE). This occurs in the Bible immediately after Acts as Acts concludes with Paul in Rome and so the canonical order continues the narrative of Paul’s journey, if not the historical order of composition. In Romans, Paul continues to speak with a claimed divine authority, whether it is his statements of God’s judgements on sin (Romans 1: 18-32); that a spiritual circumcision is the mark of a true Jew (Romans 2: 278-29); again, on the sacrificial death of Christ (Romans 3: 24-25); that the true descendants of Abraham are those who have faith in Christ (Romans 4: 13-25) or of justification by faith (Romans 5: 1-11).
All of these hyperreal claims made by Paul in his letters have become central elements of the Pauline-derived Christian community and Christian theology, perhaps none more so than Paul’s repeated emphasis that for him – and therefore for all who accept his apostolic identity – what occurred in what is now called the Old Testament refers in expectation to what happened with Jesus called the Christ. This is perhaps the ultimate hyperreal claim, that Christianity is the revelation that fulfils and supersedes the Old Testament, a claim that was to have tragic consequences for the next two millennia through Christian pogroms and persecutions, culminating in the horror of the holocaust, the most sobering example of the real-world dangers of hyperreal claims and attendant beliefs. This is why, in order to think through Paul and hyperreality I now want to turn to two Jewish scholars who have critically engaged with Paul and with what Paul means from a Jewish perspective.
In My Brother, Paul (1972), the theologian Richard L. Rubenstein (1924–) undertook a subjective approach to Paul, arising out of phenomenology. Central to Rubenstein’s understanding is that there is no singular Saul or Paul, for Saul/Paul is such a contested figure that “one arises at a point at which one recognizes that each scholar presents his own Paul.” (Rubenstein 1972:2) [italics in original]. This raises a further element into our discussion of the hyperreal Paul, for not only is Paul writing hyperreal letters/gospels, Paul himself – as he has come down to us as a textual identity, a scholarly identity and a religious figure – is a hyperreal creation. Not only in and of himself as he presents himself in his letters, but hyperreal in the scholarly writings about him – and this essay is no different!
So why is this hyperreal Paul so important? Rubenstein provides the answer in his labelling of what he terms “Paul’s perennial influence.” (Rubenstein 1972: 2). This influence occurs within both Christianity and Judaism, across millennia, from within theology, biblical/textual scholarship and piety, and more recently into discussions of political philosophy, continental thought, philosophy of religion and much more. Therefore, there is no singular Paul – nor even a singular hyperreal Paul; but rather Paul as a precession of simulacra.
Rubenstein also helps us understand how and why Paul became so central to what we can term the hyperreality of faith, because “Paul resolved the conflict between experience and tradition in favor of the authority of his own experience.” (Rubenstein 1972: 6) [italics in original] What Paul resolves is the centrality of the conversion decision whereby faith and the attendant identity becomes a decision. This conversion experience is for the convertee a subjective experience but, if we can try to think of it objectively, is nothing more nor less (and therefore not to be dismissed out of hand) than a hyperreal claim of experience and new identity – and authority. As Rubenstein notes, “Paul’s religious symbols never became transparent to him” (Rubenstein 1972: 20); nor – would I argue – did they to most Christians who follow him; for the symbols became hyperreal, culminating in the situation whereby “Christ, crucified and resurrected, became the most potent religious model for identification the western world has ever known.” (Rubenstein 1972:29)
This model for identification begins with Paul’s own varying accounts of his conversion; accounts that, in tandem with that given in Galatians “offer us a probable description of the conversion as Paul believed he experienced it” (Rubenstein 1972: 47) [italics in original]. Yet – is this not, in the end, the hyperreal that extends as frame into and for what became Christian faith? That is, Paul’s idea of what ‘occurred’ is more ‘real’ – for him and those who follow from him – than what did or did ‘occur’. In fact, all we are left with is the hyperreal. This means that via what becomes Christianity, Paul’s hyperreal became a foundational hyperreal not only for Christianity, but also for western culture and what is more, our notions of faith and the event.
Yet there is also the effect of the hyperreal Paul upon Judaism itself, for as I have mentioned, the Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin observes in A Radical Jew (1991) that rabbinic Judaism forms as “a post-Pauline religious development” (Boyarin 1991: 2). This means that both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism are post-Pauline3 (as are their theologies) and occur in relation and reaction to the (increasingly) normative hyperreality of Paul. However Boyarin makes a crucial comment (which of course can also be read via that of Rubenstein on Pauline scholarship), in his reading of Paul: “Paul lived and died convinced he was a Jew living out Judaism.” (Boyarin 1991: 2) Yet for those in the gentile word, Paul was a Jew who was now a Christian; they followed Paul, were disciplined by him not to become Jews living out Judaism, but to become Christians living out Christianity. As for the two millennia of Christian faith, piety and prejudice that followed, the popular distinction is that he was once a Jew named Saul and via the Damascan road encounter became the Christian named Paul. The break with Judaism that is so central to Christian self-identity, the supersession of “what was” by “the new”, occurs bodily and spiritually in Paul. So, is Saul/Paul, as Jew who is Jew yet Jew who is Christian, as the one who proclaims the primacy of the self-authenticated event and attendant identity, actually the origin of the hyperreal? Is this also not what happens with Paul’s constant discourse toward a new universalism, that takes the monotheism of Judaism and combines it with “the Hellenistic desire for the One”? (Boyarin1991: 7)
This new claim – a claim often in operation as a demand – for a new universalism is likewise a claim for the hyperreal, for it proclaims the idea of universalism as being ‘more real’ than actually existing differences; and as Boyarin critiques, such universalism acts politically to deny differences:
“Pauline universalism even at its most liberal and benevolent has been a powerful force for coercive discourses of sameness, denying…the rights of Jews, women, and others to retain their differences.” (Boyarin 1991: 233)
Pauline universalism is in fact nothing more nor less than Paul’s personal hyperreality extended, through the power of the Church and western culture; a hyperreal claim of new, transcendent identity extended via the hyperreal discourses of a new apostolic authority and the hyperreal claim of the personal authority of faith that, in practice, becomes communal demand and imposition4 . For Christianity is hyperreal from its outset and Paul’s hyperreal is an extension of what was already hyperreal – that is, faith in Jesus who is proclaimed as the Christ; faith that then gets remade and reclaimed in the wake of the crucifixion; faith that in turn gets rewritten and reproclaimed by Paul and those seeking Pauline authority.
So we find ourselves in the position where we can reread and rethink Paul and Christianity via The Precession of Simulacra (in Baudrillard 1994). As might be obvious from the start of my essay, this text has framed my thinking on Paul, even down to, in a homage to Baudrillard, including fake biblical quotes at the outset. As Baudrillard delighted in telling Francois L’Yvonnet regarding his ‘quote’ from Ecclesiastes that begins The Precession of Simulacra, “Nobody spotted it!” (Baudrillard 2001a: 11), except for a Swiss woman who sought help in finding it in her bible. To which L’Yvonnet replies: “People are convinced the Bible is inexhaustible and that you can find everything in it! Everything and its opposite”. (Baudrillard 2001a: 11) Baudrillard responds: “That’s true in a way! But in the case in question the concepts weren’t very biblical!” (Baudrillard 2001a: 11) Yet this example itself points to the way the Bible not only has become hyperreal for most, but also that, underneath, the Bible always was hyperreal. For in the end, as previously stated, it is just a collection of books that differs considerably depending on tradition, translation and how it is read and used.
Our rereading of Paul proceeds from our time of the death of God, but looks back to that claim of the death of God on the cross that inaugurated Saul/Paul as an integral part of the precession of simulacra. As such it is in one sense a rereading from “the era of simulacra and of simulation” (Baudrillard 1994: 6) that rereads because “when the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning.”(Baudrillard 1994: 6) Yet our rereading of Paul – whether as theoretical resource, as faith resource, as belief source, as truth source – all occurs as an act of nostalgia because of what is taken to be the absence of the real in the present day. And yet, is not Paul’s response itself an act of nostalgia; he did not encounter the real Jesus (or as those could say from faith – the real Christ) and so evoked, wrote and circulated “a plethora of myths of origin and of signs of reality – a plethora of truth, of secondary objectivity, and authenticity.” (Baudrillard 1994: 6-7) We could therefore begin and conclude our discussion of Saul/Paul with Baudrillard’s statement “to simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t…. simulation threatens the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false’, between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’” (Baudrillard 1994: 4). This is the basis of Paul’s claims and identity: he did not but did meet the Christ; he was not but now is an apostle; he was and is Jew but is now a universal ‘Christian’; in fact we could go as far as to say that for Paul, his new Christian faith, identity and the truth “is a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself.”(Baudrillard 1994: 3) For as iconoclast, and in response to the ultimate act of self-iconoclasm – the death of the one claimed as God in the crucifixion – Paul creates a series of new simulacrum, including himself – and centrally, himself as divinely inspired and authorized. For now, Paul as iconoclast was made aware of not only “the destructive, annihilating truth…that deep down God never existed, only the simulacrum ever existed, even that God himself was never anything but his own simulacrum”(Baudrillard 1994:4), but that in response he who was Saul could not only remake himself as Paul, but also remake God as what would, two millennia later, be identified as the precession of simulacra. What is more, Paul precisely enacts what is the start of simulation, “the radical negation of the sign as value” proceeding as the claim of “the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference” (Baudrillard1994: 6); for it is Paul who in effect proclaims three deaths of every previous reference: the death of the God who was; the death of the man of God who was born into law; and the death of Saul who preceded Paul. In response, “when the real is no longer what it used to be [and] nostalgia assumes its full meaning” (Baudrillard 1994: 6) Paul proclaims the “resurrection of the figurative where the object and substance have disappeared.”(Baudrillard 1994: 7) There is also the political dimension to what Paul undertakes with his simulation, the political dimension of faith and love over law; for as Baudrillard notes, simulation “…always leads open to supposition that, above and beyond its object, law and order themselves might be nothing but simulation.” (Baudrillard 1994: 20)
Does this not begin with the hyperreal inversion of Paul, the new authority of claimed experience that, by faith, lays bare claims of law and order as final authority? For “simulation corresponds to a short-circuit of reality and to its reduplication by signs”. (Baudrillard 1994: 27) For Christianity is simulation that seeks – via power – to become ideology and Paul is therefore the first Christian ideologue. A Christian ideology that originates in two deaths: the death of god, through which religions emerge (Baudrillard 1994: 326) and the hyperreal death of Saul that gives rise to Paul; no longer the ideologue of Judaism, but now the ideologue of Christ. In this, perhaps Paul is a terrorist for Christ for “the tactic of the terrorist model is to provoke a surplus of reality and to make the whole system collapse under it. (Baudrillard 2001b: 138) Yet in doing so, Paul can also be seen inaugurating modernity for:
“The whole movement of modernity, its negative destiny, lies in the fact of transcribing all that was of the order of the imaginary, the dream, the ideal and utopia into technical and operational reality.” (Baudrillard 1998:50)
This is what Saul seeks to do with his vision, his claimed event-experience, his belief in his new identity as Paul the Apostle. In his letters Paul proclaims a new reality, seeking to collapse that which precedes it; a new reality set out and prescribed in his letters. In doing so Saul creates Paul, creates Pauline Christianity, and perhaps inaugurating, and most certainly understanding, “the violence writing does to its own context.”(Baudrillard 2007: 12) Paul as iconoclast, Paul as hyperreal ideologue of self, faith and event is, in this reading of nostalgia, the origin of the precession of simulacra. For if truth hides the fact that there is none (Baudrillard 1994:2), then the claimed truth of Paul’s letters hides the fact that there is no Paul; his faith event hides that fact that there was no event; and the crucifixion hides the fact that there was no God.
Christianity is the precession of simulacra that for Paul marked the absence of profound reality and now, as made clear by the counter apostle of Baudrillard – he who wrote and spoke in the unacknowledged legacy of Paul – circulates as its own pure simulacrum. As Tertullian might have asked, “What has Damascus do with Paris?” To which we can answer: that it is the route of the precession of simulacra; it is how the hyperreal came to be; it is the journey of simulation.
About the Author:
Mike Grimshaw is from the University of Canterbury, NZ.
Jean Baurillard (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
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Jean Baudrillard (2001a). Fragments. London/New York: Routledge.
Jean Baudrillard (2001b) The Spirit of Terrorism (orig. Le Monde Nov 3, 2001). TELOS Symposium on Terrorism, number 120 Summer 2001: 134-142.
Jean Baudrillard & Enrique Valiente Noailles (2007). Exiles from Dialogue. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Daniel Boyarin (1991). A Radical Jew. Paul and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Richard L. Rubenstein (1972). My brother Paul. New York: Harper & Row.
1 – This ‘turn to Paul/Romans’ includes: Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains. A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005); Alain Badiou, Saint Paul. The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003); Ward Blanton, A Materialism for the Masses. Saint Paul and the Philosophy of Undying Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014); Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew. Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Theodore W. Jennings, Jr, Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul. On Justice. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006); Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, ed. Aleida Assmann & Jan Assmann with Horst Folkers, Wolf-Daniel Hartwich & Christoph Schulte (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004); Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute – or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? (London/ New York: Verso, 2000), Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The perverse core of Christianity, (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2003). It is noted that the re-turn to Paul extends beyond Romans and that this re-turn has become an ever-expanding sub-field in both Continental thought and political theology. For an interesting overview, see Matthew Bullamore, ‘The Political Resurrection of Saint Paul’ TELOS 134, Spring 2006: 173-182.
2 – That is, this article is considering ‘what if’ we consider Paul and Paul’s letters through the lens of Baudrillian hyperreality. As such it offers an alternative way of thinking, not a definitive statement of truth. It proceeds in the full awareness that to consider Paul, religion, the Bible, Christianity or theology as ‘hyperreal all the way down’ may be understood by many as stating that these are ‘false’. Yet, as I discuss in the essay, to term the hyperreality and simulation of the religious and/or theological as ‘false’ is to misunderstand what occurs. As a radical, secular theologian, from my position theology is a wholly human action and critique that responds to the originary hyperreal noun of ‘God’. Therefore, from the outset, theology is a hyperreal activity because what it deals with is hyperreal: the resignification of thought, action and existence. What is important is therefore what we do this resignification in the name of – and why?
3 – This of course raises that ages-old question as to whether Jesus or Paul is properly the founder of Christianity? (A point noted by an anonymous reviewer). My position, via a hyperreal reading, is that Christianity is a Pauline-derived event that is hyperreal in its claims and theology. It was Paul who primarily provided the theology that enabled a Jewish movement to become a Gentile movement; it was Paul who articulated what became Christian – and via this, also western – universalism. It is noted that the Christian Gospels are often positioned against the Pauline canon in terms of ultimate authority (especially in popular piety); yet the Gospels themselves are hyperreal narratives that arise out of an emerging Christianity where Pauline hyperreality is attempting to assume a type of theological and ecclesial normality. As to the ‘reality’ of who is the founder of Christianity, that becomes an article of hyperreal faith, Of course, in the end, the claim of the real founder (whether Jesus or Paul) is, in Baudrillian terms, a subjective reality made objective reality.
4 – The question of imposition was noted by an anonymous reviewer who posited that Christianity as universalism is a choice that can be adopted by citizens of any state; that is, Christianity is not tied to a national identity. While that is in theory the case, in lived ‘reality’ Christianity – and its variants within this hyper-real claim – is experienced and encountered as imposition, as are all religions and, it must be said, politics. If life – via Baudrillard – is hyperreal all the way down, then all our claims of existence and meaning become, to varying degrees, communal demands and impositions. In short, all ‘choice’ is ‘framed’ – and I would say, framed by the hyperreal.