Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (6)

For some reason, Dr. James McGrath thought the following quote was worth passing along:
Indeed, to assume from silence that Paul did not know the Jesus tradition because he does not cite it more explicitly and more often is almost analogous to assuming that the writer of 1 John was unaware of the Johannine Jesus tradition because the document presupposes rather than cites that tradition.

Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

To me, this is just typical apologetic claptrap. Keener accuses the skeptic of assuming that Paul doesn't know about the Jesus tradition (whereas I would argue that the skeptic infers it as the best explanation for Paul's silence). But what does Keener offer in response? A presupposition!  There is something wrong with concluding that Paul doesn't know things that he doesn't mention, but it is apparently perfectly reasonable for Keener to affirm Paul's knowledge of things that he doesn't mention based on presupposition.

I don't see any reason to view Keener's statement (and McGrath's quotation) as anything more than a smokescreen.  Even if I cannot infer Paul's lack of knowledge, I am still left with no evidence of what Paul knew about things that he does not mention, which leaves most of the historical core uncorroborated by the earliest source.  I am still left with Mark as the earliest source for the traditions.


  1. Yes, it's incredibly circular. They seem to be reading into Paul information from the later written gospel narratives. The better explanation would be that either Paul didn't know or didn't care about the doings of the historical Jesus. But a lot of the subject matter that Paul talks about would be settled in a heartbeat if he simply defered to Jesus' teachings.

    It's as though Paul's Jesus didn't have any students.

    In Romans 12:17-21 when Paul talks about not repaying evil with evil, why doesn't Paul quote Jesus (like Matt 5:39) instead of quoting Proverbs 25:21-22?

    In Colossians 2:14-16, why doesn't Paul quote Jesus when he declared that all foods are clean (Mk 7:20-23) instead of making a roundabout argument about why all foods are now clean? Or Mark 2:23-28 in regards to the Sabbath?

    A lot of the issues Paul uses his own arguments to deal with were addressed by Jesus. It makes more sense that Paul's Jesus wasn't any sort of teacher who had students.

    Of course, Paul never mentions anyone who was a "disciple" of Jesus. The pillars that he knows are apostles.

  2. J. Quinton,

    I have always found the apologists' explanations for why Paul didn't quote Jesus unpersuasive, too. However, even if Paul had some reason not to quote Jesus in support of his own arguments, if Paul's Jesus was understood within the community to have been an authoritative teacher, others would have been quoting him, including Paul's opponents. I cannot see how interpreting Jesus' teachings and determining which ones were authentic would not have been such a burning issue in the early church. Yet somehow there is not a hint of that in any of the epistles. Paul is forced to deal with the authenticity of letters attributed to him, but he never has to deal with the authenticity of any teaching attributed to Jesus.

  3. I think this is along the lines of what I said before: This myth hypothesis attempts to extract Paul from his contemporaries and ask why he didn't tell us everything they did.

    Paul wrote letters to people he'd already taught and to established churches he didn't found. He was addressing specific issues in a community where certain information could be assumed to be common knowledge.

    If you want to ask why Paul didn't teach something, you're within your rights. But to suggest that he didn't know anything about the Jesus of the Gospels because he didn't mention any of the things you're looking for is to go beyond the data.

  4. ChrisB,

    I don't think that I'm extracting anything. I'm just limiting myself to what Paul actually says about his contemporaries. I assume that he knew lots of things that he doesn't mention in his letters. I just don't know what those things were so I can't use them to recover any historical information about Jesus.

  5. Keener draws an analogy between John and Paul, claiming that John presupposes some particular version of Jesus and that that's necessary to the reading of John.

    How does he arrive at the conclusion that John presupposes that Jesus? The most obvious possibility would be to say that John's writing makes no sense without that Jesus. (Obviously, there's some question of whether John can be said to make sense even so.) But regardless, there (I hope) some argument for what version of Jesus John's writing necessarily entails.

    Again, Keener has drawn an analogy from John to Paul. Can the same arguments that entail John's Jesus actually be applied to Paul's Jesus? Is there some feature of Jesus that Paul's writing become internally inconsistent if we reject?

    In short, take Keener at face value and apply his analogy. What do you get? (I ask without proposing an answer because I know just about nothing about John.)

  6. Dan M.,

    If I read the quote correctly, I think that Keener is claiming that 1 John presupposes its author's knowledge of the Gospel of John although I would have to read his book in order to see why he thinks that.

    However, I don't see why that should be necessary. The question is whether Paul's epistles presuppose knowledge of Jesus' activities, teachings, and miracles. If Keener could show that, he would not need his analogy.

  7. 'Paul wrote letters to people he'd already taught and to established churches he didn't found. He was addressing specific issues in a community where certain information could be assumed to be common knowledge'

    Yes, Paul does describe what people had learned as 'milk', because they were not yet ready for 'solid food'

    I guess that is his way of referring to the traditions of what Jesus taught and did - 'milk', not to be compared with 'solid food'

    Of course, Paul knew all about the miracles of Jesus.

    Hence he mocks Jews for expecting Christianity to be a religion that had tales of miracles.

    1 Corinthians 1
    Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

    Fancy people demanding to hear about miraculous signs!

    What sort of Jesus did they want? One who walked on water?

  8. ChrisB: Paul wrote letters to people he'd already taught and to established churches he didn't found. He was addressing specific issues in a community where certain information could be assumed to be common knowledge.
    But how do you explain 1 Cor. 15:1-9, where Paul states he is repeating what he specifically had told them before, in order to make a point? If he did it there, why not do it elsewhere as well?