Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About a Historical Jesus (3)

I am certainly open to the possibility that there was a historical Jesus, however, I am puzzled that our earliest source, Paul, doesn't seem to confirm it.  Whenever a scholar like McGrath gives a list of facts that can be known about Jesus, they seem to be facts that aren't found in the undisputed Pauline epistles.  For example, at one point, McGrath listed the following six facts as being part of a "historically reliable core":

  1. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
  2. Jesus called disciples.
  3. He preached “the kingdom of God”.
  4. Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
  5. Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
  6. After his death, his followers continued as an identifiable movement.

Paul does not seem to know any of these facts.  He never mentions John the Baptist. He never mentions Jesus' interaction with any of his disciples. Paul discusses "the kingdom of God" but he never identifies it as something that Jesus preached during his earthly ministry. Paul never mentions Jesus engaging in a a controversy about the temple. He never says where Jesus was crucified. Finally, Paul does not indicate that any of his contemporaries in the movement had been followers of Jesus prior to his death.

There are plenty of references in Paul that could lead to the conclusion that he saw Jesus as a real flesh and blood human being who actually walked the earth.    I don't think that is enough to make his Jesus historical though.  After all, Paul seems to indicate that he considered Adam a real flesh and blood human being who walked the earth and .

The first response I usually get when I question the historicity of Paul's Jesus is that Paul met with the original apostles.  This may be true, but according to Galatians, Paul had already been out preaching his gospel for three years before he went to Jerusalem to meet Peter and James.  Paul's understanding of who Jesus was and what he had done must have had some other source.  What was it?

The only source that Paul acknowledges seems to be direct revelation from God.   "I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. 12I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." Gal. 1:11. "For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you . . ." 1 Cor. 11:23. After Paul had been preaching the gospel to the Gentiles for seventeen years, he finally went to Jerusalem to set it before the other apostles, but he is quite adamant that "those men added nothing to my message." Gal. 2:2,6.

McGrath points out that it unreasonable to accept Paul's claims to divine revelation at face value and that that Paul was simply unwilling to acknowledge any dependence on others for information because he was trying to establish his own apostolic bona fides.   That seems sensible.  However, determining who those others might have been is still a problem since Paul denies that he even met Peter and James until he had been preaching for three years.  The only source would seem to be the Christians that Paul was persecuting prior to his conversion, but how likely is it that such information can be deemed historically reliable.

McGrath also thinks that Paul's persecutions are the logical place to look for his human sources of information about the historical Jesus and he asked what I think is a very revealing question: "Don't you think that it is a priori likely that Paul was led by things he knew about Christianity to persecute it, and thus had some knowledge about it even before he himself became a Christian?"

My response to this question is (and was) that a priori it is likely that Paul was led to persecute the early church by misunderstandings of their beliefs as much as by any accurate information he had about them.  I think that this is the lesson of history.  The pogroms and the Holocaust were not carried out because a sound and rational understanding of Judaism convinced someone that it posed a threat to Russian civilization.   Persecution of the Jews was based on nonsense like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I don't think there is any reason to think that Paul began persecuting Christians because he had an accurate understanding of their beliefs.

Nor do I think there is any reason to think that Paul would have gained an accurate understanding of the early church's beliefs while he was persecuting it.  Paul could very well have used paid informants to identify heretics and he might well have used torture to elicit confessions from his victims.  In either circumstance, Paul was likely to have heard stories that were shaped by a desire to tell him what it was thought he wanted to hear rather than a desire to give him a fair and accurate understanding or theological beliefs.  I would think it quite likely that when Paul had his vision on the road to Damascus, his understanding of early Christian beliefs was likely to contain plenty of misinformation.

John Loftus of Debunking Christianity is also convinced that the link between Paul and the historical Jesus runs through Paul's persecutions:  He commented:
Vinny, in my opinion there is only one way to deny there was a historical founder of the Jesus cult and that is to reject the whole NT tradition in total. Paul said he was persecuting the church in Galatians chapter one so the church was already in existence in some form or another when Paul was converted by his vision. Paul was not the original founder to this original movement, although he did hijack it. So you must deny that Paul is the actual author of the seven letters usually attributed to him, or deny that he existed too, and I find such an utter skepticism unjustified.
I don't think my agnosticism about a historical Jesus constitutes utter skepticism at all.  I simply don't see how we can determine the degree of theological continuity between the gospel that Paul preached and the beliefs of the early church that he persecuted.  We don't know much about what Paul thought Jesus said or did during his time on earth.  Since he does not credit any human sources for his understanding of Jesus, we cannot say how much of his gospel might have been the product his own imagination or creativity, which he then identified as his revelation and we don't know how much was part of some ecstatic visions.  We don't know how much Paul's gospel varied from earlier beliefs as the result of misinformation.  As Loftus pointed out apocalyptic prophets were a dime a dozen in first century Palestine so Paul's gospel even could have been an amalgamation of messianic beliefs that were in the air.  In short, since we don't know how much Paul hijacked the original movement, I think it makes sense to be agnostic about the extent to which Paul's gospel goes back to an earlier historical person.


  1. Not having a forgiven, healed and personal relationship with Jesus puts you at a distinct disadvantage for knowing whether He exists or not - Yes?

  2. It is no greater disadvantage then I am at in trying to figure out anything else about historical reality.

  3. Think of it this way. If Paul was persecuting the church then he had to at the very least learn from them what they believed. Come on now. You can't really expect he knew nothing about their beliefs.


  4. ...and Paul says he persecuted the very church he claims to have accepted.

    Here's what probably happened. Paul persecuted the church and then had a guilt vision that converted him to the same message they preached (what he learned of it anyway). But he had further visions and hijacked the message with additional information from those visions. He also said he met with Peter so even though they had disagreements it sounds like in-house disagreements to me. I mean, really, if they met as Paul claimed and he didn't think Jesus existed and Peter and the rest of the church did sparks between them would really fly.

    The one thing constant that we can see from the rest of the NT is that Paul believed in the coming of the "Son of Man," now understood to be Jesus. That Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who's message Paul picked up on seems to me to be demonstrated unless we're willing to throw it all out.

    Bob Price is willing to throw it all out and is writing a book on the subject where he denies Paul wrote any letter attributed to him, making Paul a fictional character too.

    That's just way too much for me. Conspiracy theories abound because of the paltry nature of historical evidence. As they have shown us almost anything can be rationally denied in history unless we are fair with what the evidence shows us, paltry as it is.


  5. "This may be true, but according to Galatians, Paul had already been out preaching his gospel for three years before he went to Jerusalem to meet Peter and James."

    But does this keep them from correcting any incorrect ideas he had? No. But he says he found they were all preaching the same thing. Wherever he got it, he got it right.

  6. One question that would be of interest is why Saul/Paul thought he should persecute the church. I'll need to think about that, and you should too. What kind of beliefs did he think they had that would justify his persecuting them? And let's say he totally misunderstood them. Is it really probable to think they wouldn't stand before a judge or inquisitor who would question them about what they believed? Was this merely a lynching without a trial? I don't see the Jewish Sanhedrin ever condoning a widespread persecution without some semblance of a trial. But during a trial these believers would be able to say what they believed. What was it then that justified this persecution? That's an interesting question to be developed later.

  7. Thanks for stopping by John.

    My question for you is this: do you think that religious persecution is an activity that is generally known to provide the persecutor with an accurate understanding of his victim's beliefs?

    Consider the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Crusades and the Salem witch trials. There may have been some Crusaders who understood the infidels' religious beliefs, but I doubt this was true as a rule. I would guess that the same holds true for the pogroms and the Inquisition. I don't think that the Puritans in Salem had a clue about what their victims really thought.

    I actually agree with you in large part about what probably happened: Paul had a guilt vision and converted to what he had learned of the message of the cult he had been persecuting. Where I differ, and why I am agnostic about the historical Jesus, is that I don't think that we can be confident that what Paul preached was the same message. It certainly could be, however, given Paul's visions, theological creativity, and misunderstandings, I think it is also possible that Paul hijacked that earlier message to such a degree that his message should be considered a different movement of which Paul should be considered the founder.

    I think it is possible that Paul's message was a continuation of the the message that he persecuted, but I think the evidence is too paltry to compel that conclusion. I think the evidence is equally consistent with the notion that Paul's message originated primarily with him.

  8. Chris,

    You are quite right. It wouldn't stop Peter and James from correcting Paul. However, Paul was much better educated that either Peter or James and he had a reputation for dealing harshly with people who disagreed with him.

  9. I'd love to see some evidence that Jesus really was baptised by John the Baptist.

    John Paul Meier on page 169-170 of 'A Marginal Jew' actually goes so far as to claim that the fact that no such baptism occurs in the Gospel of John is evidence that it happened!

    No wonder McGrath calls people names, when mainstream scholars say things happened because they are not mentioned.

    What is McGrath supposed to do instead? Wave around copies of the Gospel of John and point out that there is no baptism in there, so it must have happened?

    That would just make him look silly.

    Being thought arrogant is much more comfortable than being thought a fool.

  10. JOHN
    If Paul was persecuting the church then he had to at the very least learn from them what they believed.

    In the same way that later Romans persecuted Christians because the Romans thought Christians engaged in cannibalism?

    1 Corinthians 5
    It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father's wife.

    Perhaps Paul persecuted Christians because of the notorious sexual immorality that was occurring among them - of a kind that shocked even pagans?

  11. John,

    Your last question is very interesting. Was Paul the person who was whipping up the persecution of the early church or was he whipped up by someone else? Off the top of my head, I would think that the whipper would have a better picture than the whippee.

  12. JOHN
    The one thing constant that we can see from the rest of the NT is that Paul believed in the coming of the "Son of Man," now understood to be Jesus.

    Really? How do you know that?

    Where does Paul ,James,Jude, Hebrews use the term 'Son of Man'?

    If Paul believed in the coming of the 'Son of Man', would he not have mentioned it?

  13. Curious, Vinny.

    When I read John Loftus’ comment regarding knowing what the persecuted believed, I thought of the Salem Witch Trials as well. While not quite analogous, there the witches were told what they believed, despite their vehement protestations to the contrary.

    But I digress…

    If we are going to talk about Paul persecuting Christians, we need some more information.

    1. What, specifically, did this persecution consist of? We often envision (thanks to Acts) a persecution of killing and torture and severed heads. Yet Paul doesn’t indicate that. What did he do to “destroy” the church? Argue against it? Deny them Jewish privileges? See, the problem is we don’t know what this persecution was.

    2. Where was this persecution? Paul indicates he was unknown by sight in Judea. Gal. 1:22. Considering the various churches—Jerusalem v Galilean v Hellenistic or Peterine v Johannine—which Church was Paul persecuting? If he was persecuting the Gnostics, the Christians would be joining him in a few decades!

    3. Was he doing it by official sanction? Paul indicates he was steeped in Pharisaic Judaism (Gal. 1:14; Philippians 3:5) which would tend to disfavor official sanction, considering the priesthood was Sadducee. (Albeit, Sadducees would align with Pharisee agendas.)

    Without knowing what he was doing, to whom, and by whose authority, any guesses as to what he knew while doing it—while fun, of course—must be tempered with the realization we are far out on the branch of speculation.

  14. Dagoods,

    All good questions and I don't want to hold out anything I have said as anything more than speculation.

    To go back to another analogy (about which you weren't completely keen), maybe Paul and/or Luke exaggerated his opposition to the church to make his conversion seem more dramatic a la Josh McDowell or Lee Strobel.

  15. Vinny,

    I know. It is speculation on ALL our parts. I don’t mind—I wish we could be more definitive as the more probalistic solution.

    Oddly, I think it makes a better argument to claim Paul DID know the tenets of Christian claims. This would demonstrate the minimal facts were not convincing to a person with access to the eyewitnesses and events—why should they be convincing to us 2000 years later? I like to spring off Christian claims of Paul persecution along this line, but between us—we really don’t know.

    Actually your analogy of exaggeration regarding persecution is much better suited to Paul than it was to Peter. Notice the Peter accounts have specific instances, whereas Paul is much more generalized. Peter: “I denied Jesus on this night to these people in this manner and then abandoned him.” Paul: “I persecuted the church because I have such a zealous personality.” The Peterine claim has specific instances of shame, whereas the Pauline claim honors himself (he is zealous) with no specificity to wrongdoing other than being incorrect. Which is not his fault, because God hadn’t revealed it to him yet.

  16. Is it possible that Paul could have made up or exaggerated "former persecutor" role as a recruiting tool? It makes sense to me that Paul could overcome some skepticism among the unconverted with a schtick that was all, "Listen, I used to be even more skeptical than you, I was a full on prosecutor -- but the message is so true, it converted even me, the hardest of the cases!"

    Also, I would think that meeting Peter (how do we know this, btw -- I'm much of a biblical scholar) would hardly be a deal-breaker one way or another regarding Jesus as historical. Whether Jesus existed and Peter existed, or Peter existed and claimed to have met the living Jesus, I don't see anything transpiring in the meeting between Peter and Paul that would lend itself more to either interpretation.

  17. Nice series of posts, Vince. On your point about McGrath attacking only the extreme version of mythicism: I think it makes sense to take on the most well-developed version of the theory, and Doherty's version probably qualifies for that title. But I appreciate the value of calling attention to the full spectrum. Acknowledging that there IS a spectrum, from both sides, might tend to lessen the vituperation that commonly arises in these discussions.

    While I respect your reservations about Paul's beliefs, I think the discussion has to be more broadly based. There are other sources besides Paul: Mark, Q, Thomas, and the rest of the NT. Any theory about the origins of Christianity has to account for ALL of the evidence. These sources present a dazzling array of interpretations of Jesus, but they (mostly) agree that he was an actual person who lived on earth. Moreover, the farther back in time you look in these sources, the LESS mythical Jesus appears. This is just the opposite of what one would expect from a Jesus who began as a myth and was later historicized.

  18. Robert,

    I know you are right about the need to examine all the sources and I know that I have not scratched the surface. That is why I would not be surprised if I eventually find the argument for a historical Jesus persuasive. However, most of the arguments I have encountered so far seem to rely quite a bit on reading the gospels and Acts back into Paul's accounts of his experiences.

  19. OERTER
    Moreover, the farther back in time you look in these sources, the LESS mythical Jesus appears.

    Yes, the first mentions of Jesus are claims that he was a rock in the desert.

    Followed by his giving revelations about how the cult could access his body and blood, by conjuring it up in a ritual cultic meal.

    So no hint of mythicism there....

    After all if Satanists wrote about how Satan told people how to access his body in a ritual meal, then that must be historical....

  20. Steven, you apparently missed my point completely, so I'll say it again: there are sources other than Paul. These sources must be taken into account.

    As long as you keep harping on Paul, you are leaving yourself open to McGrath's charge of picking and choosing your evidence the way creationsists do.

    BTW, can you please explain for me how the rock/body and blood provide support for Doherty's thesis that Christians thought Jesus was crucified in a sub-lunar realm? Because I don't see the connection.

  21. Steve Carr, do you deny the whole NT? Do you deny that Paul wrote any letter attributed to him? You should.

    And since you ask about the existence of other people named in the Bible I could point you to probably hundreds of ancient documents that mention the names of people but they are only mentioned in these documents. Do you then claim that when these documents mention the names of these people that they did not exist unless supported by external evidence? Now I probably agree with you about many of the names in the Bible, but it takes more than someone saying we need external evidence to support those assertions, ya see.

  22. So, it sounds to me as if there's something missing in thinking about a historicist-mythicist spectrum. It's one dimensional, and I suspect a lot of the opposition between the two ends of the spectrum comes from thinking that they're mutually exclusive opposites.

    But there's a second, partially independent, variable. The first variable describes how reality-based the stories and other documents we have about Jesus are. But neither end of that spectrum really addresses how actual Jesus was.

    A historicist might object to mythicism because it means that there was no actual Jesus. But it doesn't mean that, because there could have been an actual Jesus even if essentially no historical stories about him remain. I think Vinny endorsed such a position as consistent with the data, but (due to lack of data) not distinguished it from the position that all we have are myths because there wasn't an actual Jesus.

    And at the other end of the spectrum, a (non-theist) mythicist might object to a historicist on the grounds that having true stories about a god would require there being an actual god. But this also misses a possibility to have it both ways: There could have been an actual Jesus who the early Christians described as best they could, with an understanding that that Jesus was not strictly a natural human.

    Now, sure, not all combinations on the two dimensions are equally plausible. It's hard to imagine a Jesus who existed only as a community meme but than had a highly coherent body of internally-consistent stories written about him. But by and large, the view that Paul didn't know about an actual Jesus doesn't mean there wasn't an actual Jesus.

    Now, I'm no bible scholar and I don't even play on on TV, so maybe it's hard to reconcile a body of myth with an actual person for the rest of the bible, but it sure seems to fit with Paul and the synoptic gospels.

  23. JOHN
    Do you then claim that when these documents mention the names of these people that they did not exist unless supported by external evidence?

    John still unable to name any CHRISTIAN of the first century who had ever heard of Judas, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, Salome, Simon of Cyrene etc etc

    These are ghost people, who only appear in Novels.

    John continues to claim that the Novels are history.

    They are not. They are full of people that are not even in Christian histories. No Christian ever met any of them.

    They did not exist. They are literary inventions, first appearing in an anonymous, unsourced, unprovenance, undated work that does not even claim to be a history.

    Why is it so hard for some people to understand that people in Novels are fictional characters?

    Harry Potter only appears in the Harry Potter novels, just like Judas, Thomas, Joseph of Arimathea etc only appear in the Judas novels.

    There wasn't even a town called Arimathea, let alone a person called Joseph of Arimathea who appeared to collect the body of Jesus, buried it, and then vanished from history.

    Presumably to spend his time chatting with the Angel Moroni and the Angel Gabriel, the wise men who visited Jesus and all the other fictional people that religious writers love inventing.

  24. Robert Oerter completely ignores the first mention of Jesus being somebody who told his cult how to conjure up his body and blood in a ritual meal.

    That just reeks of mythicism.

    Talk about a smoking gun

    The guy's body was conjured up in a ritual meal.

    Just what more do historicists want?

    I see Robert Oerter claims there are other sources beside Paul.

    Yes, there is the Epistles of 1 Peter, James, Jude.

    They talk about anybody except Jesus.

    There is Hebrews 9.

    When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation.

    And Galatians 4 carefully explains, in words that even Robert Oerter can understand...

    'Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.'

    But , of course, no matter how much Paul and the author of Hebrews claim there is a Jerusalem and a tabernacle above us, they will be declared to be silent.

    No matter how clearly Paul speaks, he will be declared to be silent, so mythicists can be said to be arguing from silence.

    Romans 16
    Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him.

    Paul is so outspoken that Jesus has been made known through scripture, that historicists label him 'silent'

    You don't have to listen to people that you have declared to be 'silent', do you?

  25. Apart from the Hebrews quote, Steven is still only referring to Paul and is still failing to address all the other sources (Mark, Q, Thomas, M, L, Acts,...)

    John still unable to name any CHRISTIAN of the first century who had ever heard of Judas, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, Salome, Simon of Cyrene etc etc

    Author of Mark, Author of Matthew, Author of Luke, Author of John.

  26. So unnamed people are named, are they?

    I guess Mr. Anonymous, who hides under a cloak of anonymity, is the best source for people that nobody has ever heard of...

    Especially if he plagiarises another anonymous source.

    That sort of anonymous plagiarism of anonymous sources is like gold to historians. It is the bench mark that all other documents can only aspire to.

  27. Steven seems determined to provide support for McGrath's contention that mythicists argue like creationists. He emphasizes minor points (we have the friggin' documents - does it really matter that much if we know the authors' names?), makes fallacious arguments (even if James, etc., were all proven to be fictitious, that doesn't prove Jesus was fictitious), and refuses to engage with the bulk of the evidence. It's impossible to have a rational discussion with someone like him.

  28. Robert Oerter:

    "Steven is...still failing to address all the other sources"

    The fact that Pauls letters are generally believed to be the earliest Christian documents in existence is probably the reason that they are frequently focused on in discussions of what the earliest Christians believed. That doesn't mean,of course,that the Gospels and later documents are worthless or necessarily less accurate. But,isn't there some value to be placed on the earliest sources?


    "we have the friggen' documents,does it really matter that much if we know the authors' names?"

    Really, Robert? You think having information about the identity,background and source of the authors' information would add little or nothing to their credibility,intentions or historical accuracy?

  29. Dan,

    I don’t want to suggest that Eric’s particular spectrum is much more than a starting point for discussion. There are a great many permutations that it does not contemplate.

    The purely mythical Jesus also seems less plausible to me than an irretrievable historical Jesus.

  30. This post uses the term "historical Jesus".

    The persons using that contra-historical oxymoron (demonstrated by the eminent late Oxford historian, James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue) exposes dependancy upon 4th-century, gentile, Hellenist sources.

    While scholars debate the provenance of the original accounts upon which the earliest extant (4th century, even fragments are post-135 C.E.), Roman gentile, Hellenist-redacted versions were based, there is not one fragment, not even one letter of the NT that derives DIRECTLY from the 1st-century Pharisee Jews who followed the Pharisee Ribi Yehoshua.
    Historians like Parkes, et al., have demonstrated incontestably that 4th-century Roman Christianity was the 180° polar antithesis of 1st-century Judaism of ALL Pharisee Ribis. The earliest (post-135 C.E.) true Christians were viciously antinomian (ANTI-Torah), claiming to supersede and displace Torah, Judaism and ("spiritual) Israel and Jews. In soberest terms, ORIGINAL Christianity was anti-Torah from the start while DSS (viz., 4Q MMT) and ALL other Judaic documentation PROVE that ALL 1st-century Pharisees were PRO-Torah.

    There is a mountain of historical Judaic information Christians have refused to deal with, at: (see, especially, their History Museum pages beginning with "30-99 C.E.").
    Original Christianity = ANTI-Torah. Ribi Yehoshua and his Netzarim, like all other Pharisees, were PRO-Torah. Intractable contradiction.

    Building a Roman image from Hellenist hearsay accounts, decades after the death of the 1st-century Pharisee Ribi, and after a forcible ouster, by Hellenist Roman gentiles, of his original Jewish followers (135 C.E., documented by Eusebius), based on writings of a Hellenist Jew excised as an apostate by the original Jewish followers (documented by Eusebius) is circular reasoning through gentile-Roman Hellenist lenses.

    What the historical Pharisee Ribi taught is found not in the hearsay accounts of post-135 C.E. Hellenist Romans but, rather, in the Judaic descriptions of Pharisees and Pharisee Ribis of the period... in Dead Sea Scroll 4Q MMT (see Prof. Elisha Qimron), inter alia.

    To all Christians: The question is, now that you've been informed, will you follow the authentic historical Pharisee Ribi? Or continue following the post-135 C.E. Roman-redacted antithesis—an idol?