Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Was Paul's Jesus Historical? (3)

Another argument I have heard is that Paul's writings presuppose a historical Jesus. After all you cannot have a death and a resurrection without a prior life. I think there is some logic to this (although mythers maintain it need not have been an earthly life and death), but I don't see how it helps the case for a historical Jesus.

Paul had an experience on the road to Damascus that he believed to be an encounter with a resurrected Messiah. While this may presuppose that this Messiah had lived and been put to death, it does not presuppose that Paul had any historically reliable evidence for that life and death other than his experience. We could just as well say that Joseph Smith's vision of the Angel Moroni presupposes that a race of native Americans with Caucasian skin tones had lived hundreds of years before his time. So what?

Paul's first source of information about this resurrected Messiah would have been the people he was persecuting prior to his conversion. However, I think experience shows that religious zealots tend not to have reliable information about their victims' beliefs. Jews were believed by their persecutors to be sacrificing Christian babies for their rituals. The Romans thought that early Christians engaged in incest because they called each other "brother" and "sister." The Puritans thought their victims in Salem were witches.

I have often wondered how much of Paul's early information might have come from informants or torture victims who would have been happy to tell Paul any crazy story he wanted to hear. "No. No. I'm not a Christian, but my next door neighbor is and he told me that Jesus appeared to 500 of them at one time!" Would Paul have needed any evidence beyond his vision of the resurrected Jesus to convince him that all the stories he had heard were true?

Christian apologists claim that Paul could have obtained historical information about Jesus when he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem three years after his conversion. Gal. 1:18-24. However, right before he describes that visit, he says "I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." Gal. 1:11-12. Given Paul's superior education and his history of dealing harshly with people who disagreed with him, I cannot help but suspect that it was Paul who did most of the talking at that meeting. Paul was already enjoying success as an evangelist and Peter and James may have been more eager to get on his bandwagon than point out any errors in his historical understanding.

The apologists also point to Paul's later trip to Jerusalem as proof that he got information from the original apostles. "I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain." Gal. 2:2. However, nothing in what Paul writes suggests that he was at all concerned that he had gotten anything wrong. Rather, he was concerned that the guys in Jerusalem were behind the false teachings that were screwing up his work. "This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you." Gal. 2:4-5. If the apostles in Jerusalem had disagreed with Paul, it would not have changed his message. "As for those who seemed to be important—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance—those men added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews." Gal. 2:6-7. Paul then goes on to describe a later meeting in Antioch where he accuses Peter of hypocrisy. Gal 2:11-21.

Everything that Paul writes indicates that he considers his knowledge and understanding of the gospel to be equal or superior to anyone's based on the revelation that he had received. Had he thought that those with whom he disagreed had been personally taught by Jesus for three years, it is hard to believe that he would not have grappled with the fact that others had sources of knowledge that were not available to him.


  1. Setting aside all of your suppositions, suspicions, and hypotheses, let's address your understanding of this one thing:

    "the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ."

    Does that mean the entire life of Jesus was mystically inserted into Paul's head? I doubt it. The gospel of sin and rebellion and salvation by faith in an incarnate God who died on a cross and rose from the dead was revealed to him by Christ Himself.

    Does what Paul said mean that every single thing he knows he learned from Christ, that he never, even learned a single thing from a mortal? No.

    When he met with the other apostles, he confirmed that they were all preaching essentially the same gospel -- i.e., salvation by grace through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ.

    Nothing you've quoted here means that he ignored the experiences of the others just that he had learned the he gospel correctly.

  2. Since Paul never demonstrates much knowledge of anything that happened prior to the night before the crucifixion, I have no reason to think that any of Jesus’ life was mystically inserted into his head, although I wouldn’t think that someone who takes the miracles of the Bible at face value would balk at such an occurrence.

    My guess is that Paul had picked up some general ideas about a Messiah who had been resurrected based on his persecution of what he viewed as a heretical cult in Jerusalem. After he had his vision, he became convinced the resurrection had occurred and worked out its meaning for himself assuming that his newfound understanding was a revelation from the Lord. He then went out preaching his new gospel and never worried much about what the original members of that cult thought.

    As far as the experiences of others go, the only thing Paul mentions is that others had experienced appearances of the resurrected Messiah. However, this only places them on a par with Paul.

  3. The interesting thing is that when Paul met up with the rest of the gang, Peter, John, etc., they were all preaching basically the same thing. They all affirmed Christ's death on the cross, the resurrection of the dead, the fact that Jesus was the Messiah, the idea that salvation comes through the blood of Christ, etc. Obviously Paul's message wasn't too significantly different from the other's, since they accepted him into their group. So I think this points to a fair amount of historicity in Paul's account.

    I agree with Chris that Paul probably picked up quite a bit from mortals about the life of Christ.

    And it is pretty risky to say that there are five hundred people, many of whom are still alive, who can back up your crazy story not too long after it supposedly happened.

  4. In discussing the his meeting with the rest of the gang, Paul says nothing about them preaching any of those points. However, by that time, Paul had been successfully preaching his message for fourteen years all over the region. The gang in Jerusalem would have had good reason to conform its message to Paul's rather than the other way around.

    Paul insists that the gang in Jerusalem added nothing to his message and gives little indication that he knows anything about the life of Jesus. You may agree with Chris, but I don't see what basis you have for your assessment.

    Do you suppose that Paul actually knew the names of all five hundred people who were supposed to have witnessed that appearance? Do you think that he interviewed them? I think it more likely that he heard the story from someone and believed it because of his own experience on the road to Damascus. Paul did not think that he was taking any risk because he truly believed the story.

    You could make a similar argument about Joseph Smith and his stories about the Golden Plates from which he translated the book of Mormon. It was a risky story to tell and yet, many people believed it and followed him. It doesn't make it true though.

  5. So when did 500 plus Christians gather together in the short space of time between Jesus leaving his tomb and his flying into the sky on his way to Heaven?

    That is quite a big church!

  6. Hi Vin, Nice points you made concerning the resurrection over at Michael's blog Pen and Parchment. And saw that like me you were raised Catholic and became a Protestant Evangelical before leaving the fold. I edited LEAVING THE FOLD: TESTIMONIES OF FORMER FUNDAMENTALISTS. My testimony is online, might bring back memories, "If It Wasn't For Agnosticism, I Wouldn't Know WHAT to Believe." Cheers! Edward T. Babinsnki

  7. Ed,

    Thanks for stopping by! I'm honored.