Monday, January 10, 2011

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (14): The Earliest Source

Suppose we came to Paul without any expectations. Suppose we simply tried to put together a picture of earliest Christianity based on our earliest source, i.e., not reading anything in Paul through the lens of later writings.

If all we had to go on were Paul’s writings, I don’t think that it would even occur to us that Christianity was predicated in any way on the teachings of a historical person named Jesus who lived in first century Palestine and who had disciples who passed those teachings along to others. Rather, we would think that Christianity was predicated on the teachings of a small group of men, the primary one of which was Paul, who claimed to have had an encounter with a heavenly being and claimed to have received divine revelations from or concerning that heavenly being. We might not think it all that different from the founding of Mormonism, i.e.,Joseph Smith claimed to encountered the Angel Moroni and received revelations. Like Smith’s Moroni, Paul’s Christ had once been a man who walked the earth, but neither Paul nor his contemporaries had known him personally and what they knew about him when he was a man was only known by revelation.

It is true that Paul talks about knowing other apostles, however, Paul never describes them in terms that would lead us to believe that they had had been disciples of an itinerant apocalyptic preacher named Jesus who had recently tramped about Galilee teaching and healing. If we only had Paul to go on, I think we would assume that these were men who were believers because, like Paul, they had experienced appearances of the risen exalted Christ. Without something else to indicate that Paul knew when and where the man Jesus lived or died or what he said and did during his life, I don’t think we would interpret the reference to James as “the Lord’s brother” as indicating a biological relationship.

Of course Paul is not our only source and it is entirely reasonable to try to make sense of what he wrote in light to what others wrote. Nevertheless, Paul is our earliest source and in many ways our best source so I think it makes sense to think about the picture we get when he is allowed to stand alone. Moreover, many of the early sources other than the gospels seem to paint the same picture that Paul does.

The question that causes me to remain agnostic about the existence of the historical Jesus is this: Do we accept as historical any other person where the earliest and best source seems to point so exclusively to a mythical or legendary figure?


  1. Paul's use of "lord" is pretty ambiguous as well. Paul talks about how "the lord" killed some Israelites with snakes at the Exodus (1 Cor 10.9) but also says that "the lord" had a brother named James who he met.

    Without reading the later gospels into Paul, we would have no reason for thinking that Paul is talking about two different people here; we would think that Paul's lord who killed people during the Exodus was the same lord who was James' brother.

    Calling someone the brother of Yahweh was an actual name - Ahijah (1 Sam 14; 1 Kings, and elsewhewre). So there would be no reason to take Gal 1.19 literally. For most Jews, "the lord" is simply the circumlocution they use for saying Yahweh/Jehovah.

    Also reading Paul's letters in isolation, we would think that James was the head apostle, not Cephas (and we wouldn't even know who a "Peter" was [Gal 2:7-8 is probably a later interpolation]). Paul lists James first when he names the pillars in Galatians and then says that Cephas was led astray by "men from James". Surely Cephas had some standing, but not as much as James. So it's possible that "brother of the lord" had some sort of special currency in the nascent Christian assemblies.

    Further evidencing idea that this Christ figure was revealed by scripture, we have Paul say in Romans 10 that "whoever calls on the name of the lord will be saved". This is actually a quote of Joel 2.32. Or it's almost a quote of Joel. Paul implies in Rom 10 that the name "Jesus" is what the name of the lord is that does the saving when called out. However, in Hebrew Joel 2.32 doesn't say "lord", it says Yahweh. This might be evidence that Christians thought that the unnamed "lord" in their Greek scriptures was some sort of Philo-Logos like secondary deity that had to be "discovered" in scripture.

  2. Both my parents had brothers named John and my mother's sister married a man named John. To keep them straight, we sometimes called them "Uncle John Bourbon," "Uncle John Martini," and "Uncle John Vodka." If someone did not know that I had three uncles named John, I think they might draw unintended conclusions if they heard me refer to just one of them by his beverage of choice.

    Is it possible that "the Lord's brother" became associated with this particular James primarily because it was a convenient way to distinguish him from other men in the community with the same name rather than because it provided any specific information about him?