- The earliest epistles don't indicate when or where Jesus lived or died.
- The earliest epistles don't indicate that any members of the believing community knew Jesus personally.
- The earliest epistles never refer to any teachings that Jesus delivered during his earthly ministry.
- The earliest epistles never discuss the meaning of anything Jesus did during his earthly ministry.
The only reference that would seem to establish that Paul thought that his own contemporaries in the community had known Jesus personally is found in Galatians 1:19-20. "Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother." Obviously, if Paul thought that James was Jesus' biological brother, he must have thought that Jesus had lived recently and been known to people within the community. Dr. McGrath seems to rely heavily on this point.
Dr. McGrath also cites two other passages in our discussion. In Romans 1:3, Paul writes "concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh," and in Galatians 4:4 he writes "But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law." These verses indicate that Paul thought of Jesus as a human being who walked the earth, but give no indication of when or where that might have happened. They don't provide us any evidence that Jesus was any less mythical or legendary than Adam and Eve.
Given the lack of any other reference that would establish that Jesus was a contemporary of others in the early church, it seems to me that we must consider the possibility that Paul was referring to a spirtual relationship between Jesus and James rather than a biological one. For example, when Paul lists Christ's appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:6-7, he mentions one appearance to "brothers" and another appearance to "apostles." Perhaps these were two different groups within the early church. Perhaps what Paul meant in Galatians 1:5 is that he met with Peter who was one of the apostles and James who was one of the brothers.
Dr. McGrath criticized me for "working hard" to find alternative meanings for the text, but I don't think his criticism holds water. Biblical scholars regularly consider the possibility that a less obvious interpretation may be the better one if the more obvious interpretation does not fit with the rest of the author's writings. Given the fact that nothing else in Paul indicates that he thought that anyone he knew had personally known Jesus, and the fact that Paul routinely uses the word "brother" to indicate a spiritual relationship, it doesn't seem like any great stretch to conclude that maybe Paul wasn't referring to a biological relationship here. The church itself began doing so before too long when many of the Apostolic fathers concluded that Mary must have been a virgin for her entire life.
I also raised the possibility that the text of Galatians had been corrupted. There were 150 years of copying between the time Paul wrote it and our earliest manuscript. For all we know some well-meaning scribe copying a manuscript of Galatians in 150 A.D. added "the Lord's brother" in order to clarify which James Paul was talking about.
Raising the issue of interpolations with a biblical scholar can be like waving a red cape in front of bull and Dr. McGrath's response did not surprise me.
But if you want to play the unrestrained emendation game, I can grant your emendations and simply posit earlier excisions of verses that seemed to make Jesus seem too human.I understand that we have to make sense of the evidence we have, but we also have to acknowledge its limitations. Some very eminent textual critics think that it doesn't even make sense to talk about what the original manuscripts contained because we don't have them. The best we can do is talk about the understanding of the communities that produced the manuscripts that we do have. We have to be circumspect in asserting certainty about what the "original" meaning of any passage was.
If we had different evidence, we'd draw different conclusions. But mainstream scholarship is about making sense of the evidence we have, not emending it so that it doesn't inconveniently provide evidence, however minimal, that runs counter to the beliefs we already hold.
Moreover, I don't think that I am suggesting "unrestrained" emendations. Given the length of time between the composition of the originals and our earliest manuscripts, the probability that any specific verse was altered can't be trivial even if it may be small. Because it is small any interpretation that depends on hypothesizing multiple emendations must necessarily be speculative. However, if positing a single emendation radically changes the evidence for a particular interpretation, I would think it must be taken seriously.
More importantly, I don't need to rely on the possibility that the text was corrupted. I merely have to posit that a less obvious reading rather than a more obvious reading is correct. When I do, the case for a recently deceased Jesus who had been known personally to the earliest community gets very shaky, very quickly. The possibility of corruption simply adds an additional level of uncertainty. Surely my agnosticism is not completely unwarranted.