Saturday, November 14, 2009

Was Paul's Jesus Historical? (1)

Few scholars of early Christianity seem to have much patience for the theory that Jesus of Nazareth was an entirely mythological invention. More liberal scholars will often acknowledge that the gospel stories may contain so much legendary material that little about the historical Jesus may be known with any certainty, but most of them still seem confident that such a person existed. Conservative Christian scholars, on the other hand, tend to view the idea that Jesus did not exist as a crackpot conspiracy theory.

Conservative Christian bloggers seem to be even more hostile to the Jesus “mythers” (as proponents of the mythological Jesus theory are known in the blogosphere). Even Bible believing bloggers who are generally willing to engage in cordial debate with atheists and agnostics will draw the line at the mythers. In a way, I don’t blame. Some of the mythers roaming the blogosphere can be fairly obnoxious. The worst of them will just repeat their own arguments ad nauseum without addressing the points their opponents make and they will treat any argument that even plausibly seems to favor their side as ironclad proof of their entire position. Of course there are many conservative Christians who act like that as well, and I suspect that such behavior can be found on both sides of every issue that gets debated on the internet.

I don’t consider myself a myther, but I find it hard to discount the possibility that the historical Jesus may be virtually beyond recovery. The main problem I see with the theory of a completely mythological Jesus is that the mythers’ position would have to be the right one on each and every disputed issue while the historical Jesus prevails if the mythers are only wrong once. Still, I find some of the myther arguments really interesting and I like to try to get conservative Christians to respond to them. I have to be careful in how I raise the issue though, lest I be perceived as a lunatic myther rather than a respectful agnostic.

For me, the most interesting point on the myther side of the ledger is that our earliest Christian writings, Paul’s epistles, don’t demonstrate any knowledge of Jesus’ life and ministry prior to the night before he was crucified. Consider all the questions that Paul leaves unanswered:
  • Where was Jesus from? Was it Nazareth, or could he have been from Egypt or Rome, or Schenectady?
  • Where was Jesus crucified? Was it in Jerusalem, or could he have been put to death in Samaria or Damascus, or Poughkeepsie?
  • When did Jesus live and die? Was it a few years before Paul’s time, a few decades before, or more than a century before?
  • How long did Jesus preach and teach before he was arrested?
  • Did any one Paul knew have personal contact with Jesus prior to his resurrection? Did Jesus teach his followers about ethics and morality?
  • Did Jesus say anything about having a divine nature?
For all we know from Paul’s letters, Jesus could have materialized on the earth on the night of the last supper. No events prior to that night seem to matter to Paul. It is only Jesus’ death and resurrection that are significant to Paul but he doesn’t say when those events took place.

The hardcore myther explanation for this lack of detail is that Paul didn’t believe that Jesus was a historical individual at all. According to this theory, Paul’s Jesus was an entirely spiritual being and his death and resurrection played out in some heavenly dimension rather than on earth in first century Palestine. These mythers think that it was the writer of Mark’s gospel who invented an allegorical story about a Jesus who actually walked the earth. While I haven't studied the issues that closely, I cannot help but be struck by the fact that the teachings in Paul’s letters don’t seem to depend on an actual historical person doing or saying any of the things that the gospels say Jesus said or did during his earthly ministry.

So I guess I come down at about the same place on the existence of the historical Jesus as I come down on the existence of God. I’m agnostic. I don’t find the evidence sufficiently compelling in either direction.


  1. The way I see it, Paul is more interested in the death and resurrection of Jesus than his life. He has never met Jesus in person, and most of his early contact with Christianity is through his (alleged) persecution of early Christians. His conversion to Christianity is highly mystical and therefore he is not interested that much in the flesh-and-blood Jesus.

    Paul was not a preacher of the gospel, but of the Christ. It is this unconcern for the historical Jesus that makes Paul's Christ seem like a Heavenly Being (ala Doherty).

    Personally, I lean towards the HJ position but with sympathies to some of the points raised by mythers.

  2. Romans 3
    What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.

    So the big advantage the Jews had was that they had been given the scriptures?

    So who did Jesus speak to, if not Jews?

    'His conversion to Christianity is highly mystical and therefore he is not interested that much in the flesh-and-blood Jesus.'

    So why were his readers not interested in hearing about the flesh-and-blood Jesus?

    If you have a mystical experience of Haile Selassie appearing to you in a dream, would you then lack all interest in what the historical Haile Selassie had done?

  3. Moreover, his readers' interest in the things Jesus said and did would have been much more than idle curiosity. Even if Paul had not been inclined to directly quote Jesus in support of his own positions, he would have had to deal with his opponents when they did. If the historical Jesus was generally known within the early church, the debate over the circumcision of pagan converts couldn't have been resolved without dealing with what Jesus had to say about the Mosaic law.

    I can accept that Paul thought of Jesus as a flesh and blood human being who walked the earth, but it is hard for me to see how he could have thought that anyone he knew had had anymore contact with that person than he had.

  4. I'm agnostic on the question of whether historical Jesus existed. Since my view is that the divine-human miracle-worker/savior portrayed in the Bible is mythical, I'm not particularly interested in whether that character was based on exaggerated, legendary accounts of an actual person or was fabricated completely.

  5. I thought Paul mentioned that he had met the apostles in Jerusalem. That event might not be historical, but we have no evident to prove that. So I'm leaning to the historical Jesus. I'm looking forward to reading Richard Carrier's book on this topic when it comes out next year.

  6. Granville,

    He does talk about meeting them in Jerusalem, but he never talks about them having any sort of relationship with Jesus that is any different than his. He doesn't talk about them knowing Jesus or talking to Jesus during his earthly ministry or learning from Jesus.

    As far as I can tell from Paul, he considered them to be apostles for the same reason he was an apostle, they had seen the risen Christ. I am inclined toward The Chaplain's view in the previous comment.

  7. Hi Vincent, Paul explicitly refers to James as the brother of Jesus.

    I am Christian, and I see your points, I saw the same thing in Paul never getting into the details of the historical Jesus beyond that he was born of the flesh by the line of David.

    Paul also also mentions not getting caught up in genealogies, words, and history; I will agree Paul spiritualized everything that historically happened. And the great mystery of God spoken of in Corinthians can cause a lot of questions, what was Paul preaching to Initiates (spiritually mature)...could it be that Christ was somehow crucified in another spirit dimension, or was it simply that Jesus was God, which he never explicitly spells out?

    However, a closer reading of his epistles reveal not necessarily direct quotes (there were none available) but basically the same teachings (those who judged will be judged, Jesus fulfilled the Law, etc).

    Anyhow, cheers, nice blog!

  8. Thanks for stopping by S78,

    I am aware of the references to James as the brother of the lord, but is that really enough to conclude that Paul was referring to a biological relationship rather than some particular status with the community of believers?

    As far as the similarity of teachings goes, does that point more towards the Jesus of the gospels as a source for Paul or Paul as a source for the evangelists?

  9. Luke/Acts makes absolutely no mention of this 'James' ever having had any connection with Jesus.

    Nor does Jude.

  10. You could attribute this to Paul's style. He has one of the most distinctive styles of all of the NT writers. Plus, his works were epistles, and if you compare his epistles to the other epistles they have about the same thing going on as he does. That's just epistle style and Pauline style.

  11. Cameron,

    I could attribute it to a lot of things, however, that would not change the fact that I am unable to say what, if anything, Paul knew about the historical Jesus and whether his understanding in any way corresponded to the descriptions found in the gospels. That leaves me unable to say that the stories about Jesus' earthly ministry were foundational.

  12. According to Acts, (which, of course, never claims Jesus had a brother called James), the brothers of Jesus are mentioned just before there was a raffle to see who would get the title 'witness to the resurrection'

    The brothers of Jesus did not even make the raffle ,let alone win it.

    Can you imagine anything more absurd than having a lottery to decide who gets to be called 'witness to the resurrection?'

    I guess these people's hearts were bursting so much with the news that Jesus had been resurrected that they just had to tell the whole world about the resurrection.

    Except that their name did not come out of the hat, so they could not call themselves 'witness to the resurrection'