Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?" (4): Does Paul Quote a Historical Jesus?

There are three passages that are usually cited as proof that Paul knew the teachings of a historical Jesus of Nazareth and they all come from his first letter to the Corinthians.
Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. 1 Cor. 9:13-14.
This teaching is reputed to be based on a passage in Luke
“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. Luke 10:5-7
Next is Paul's teaching about divorce.
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.  But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.  To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 1 Cor 7:10-12
This is thought to be based on a teaching found in Mark.
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”      “What did Moses command you?” he replied. They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”  “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied.  “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this.  He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.  And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:2-12
Finally Paul's description of the institution of the Eucharistic meal:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread,  and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 1 Cor 11:23-26
The parallel passage is found in Luke:
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.  Luke 22:19-20  
The first one strikes me as particularly unimpressive.  I think that almost any preacher can independently come to the conclusion that his congregation should support him and that it is the God's will that they do so.  I don't think that Paul needed to have heard an actual saying of a historical person to think that this was what the Lord was commanding.  The second one is more interesting because Paul attributes some of the teaching to the Lord and takes credit for some of it himself.  This suggests that there was some independent tradition concerning divorce that was already known to the Corinthians.

I question whether the tradition Paul knows concerning divorce is necessarily the same one attributed to Jesus in Mark.  Paul's teaching is driven by a couple of elements that aren't found in Mark.  First, he thinks that believers would be better off not marrying at all since the time is short and they should be focusing on the Lord "[f]or this world in its present form is passing away." 1 Cor. 7:30.  He is also addressing the question of whether believers should remain married to unbelievers which isn't found found in Jesus' teaching.   It is certainly possible that Paul's teaching is in some way dependent upon Jesus', but it doesn't seem obviously to be so.

Ehrman also mentions the possibility that someone within one of Paul's communities may have claimed to have received a divine revelation or prophecy which Paul and the community accepted as a valid commandment from the Lord.  Ehrman thinks that this is a reasonable hypothesis for the rapture passage in the first letter to the Thessalonians.
According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 1 Thes. 4:15-18.
However, Ehrman rejects this as an explanation for the teachings on divorce and support of religious leaders for a very curious reason.  "When Paul claims that the Lord said something, and we have a record of Jesus saying exactly that, it is surely most reasonable to conclude that Paul is referring to something that he believed Jesus actually said."  (p. 129)  This seems very circular to me.  Isn't this only the most reasonable conclusion if we have first concluded that Paul actually believed that he knew things the historical Jesus said?  Isn't that what we are trying to figure out here?  Surely we cannot use the assumption that Paul knew the sayings of a historical Jesus in order to prove that Paul knew the sayings of a historical Jesus.

One of the reasons the revelation explanation makes sense to me on the divorce teaching is that Paul ends the discussion with "and I think that I too have the Spirit of God."  I'm just spit-balling here but that sounds to me like the kind of thing you might write if someone else in the community was claiming to receive prophecies or revelations.

With the description of the Last Supper, there can be little doubt that Paul and Luke are part of the same tradition, but there is still a question of which way that tradition flows.  If Paul indicated that he heard about this event from someone who was there, there would be little doubt that he understood himself to be quoting the words of a historical person.  Unfortunately, that's not what Paul says.  Paul says that this was "received from the Lord," i.e., Paul knows this by divine revelation.  While we cannot take such a statement at face value, I think we at least have to allow for the possibility that Paul sincerely believed it to be true.  If the Christian cult practiced some sort of ritual communal meal before Paul came along, he might have believed that its true meaning had been revealed to him and he could have added elements to the tradition that were later picked up by Luke when he wrote his gospel.

In sum then, I don't think that there is any conclusive reason to think that Paul viewed the teachings on divorce or supporting religious leaders as the words of the itinerant preacher described in the gospels.  He does seem to think that is was an actual historical person who instituted the Eucharistic meal, but I think some uncertainty is created by the fact that he claims not to have come by his knowledge of the event in the way that we think people normally come by their knowledge of actual historical events.  I think it's possible that Paul all three passages reflect actual memories of a historical person, but I also think that it's far from the slam dunk that Ehrman makes it out to be.


  1. The significant problem I see is our inability to determine the oral traditions of the time, as well as competing claims to doctrinal issues. Taking the divorce example, it was not exactly revolutionary to indicate “no divorce.” Paul is dealing with a particular difficult in the newness of Christianity, in that one spouse was converting, and what to do with non-Christian spouse.

    Therefore, Paul creates a resolution to the current-problem…Christian’s can’t initiate divorce, but can get married if the non-Christian initiates it. By Romans 7, Paul abandons the exception, and then completely muddles the divorce analogy.

    It is little surprise divorce was an initial issue of the Church and addressed by the Church leaders. When Mark writes his gospel, it is equally of little surprise he puts words in Jesus’ mouth regarding divorce to bolster the current position—that of the latter Paul, not the earlier Paul, might I add.

    The problem comes in Matthew, who creates an exception for pornea--apparently Matthew’s community was looking for an exception, and Matthew creates a huge one here. If Matthew felt free to “put words in Jesus mouth” to conform to his community’s doctrinal needs, why not Mark? And if Mark…why not Paul? I would never use divorce as an example of Paul knowing Jesus’ words.

  2. I am very puzzled by Ehrman's methodology here, especially since I've been so impressed by everything else he has done. The best I would think that a historian can draw from this is that the early Christians probably had a more restrictive view on divorce than the surrounding culture(s).

  3. 'To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.'

    Did Jesus come up with that?

    Isn't that like Al Gore claiming he came up with the rule that candidates for the American Presidency must be over 35 years old?

    I'm sure Al Gore would say such a rule exists, but it did not come from him.

    As that law about woman not divorcing men had dated back centuries, Paul can only mean he regarded Jesus as pre-existent if he believed it really was Jesus who came up with that rule.

  4. Vinny,
    I'm "Sahansdal", following your comments on the DJE? Vridar blog. You do know that Luke 22:19b-20 are interpolated? Ehrman himself proved it by textual analysis. It's inn "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture", check the verses index.

    The Last Supper, Garden of Gethsemane is not what anyone thinks it is. I have determined that in the final analysis it is the succession event of James replacing Jesus as Master of the community. I'll go into the details more in future. It blew MY mind, for sure.

  5. Robert,

    No, I was not aware of that. It's on my list of books to get around to some day. Thanks.