Saturday, December 29, 2012

What Does Paul Mean by "Received": HJA (26)

In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul writes
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,  and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
To the historicist, this passage demonstrates that Paul was simply passing along what he had learned from Jesus' original disciples.

Mythicists, on the other hand, say "Not so fast."  Paul doesn't say where he received the information in this passage.  Moreover, in Galatians 1:11-12, Paul denies that anyone other than God himself taught him the gospel:
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin.  I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
So the mythicist argue that the "received" in 1 Corinthians 15:3 should be read as "received by revelation" rather than "received from earlier Christians" because that is how Paul said the gospel came to him in Galatians. 

One of the things that has kept me on the fence about a historical Jesus is that Paul never says that anything he knows about Jesus came from anyone who knew Jesus personally.  The only two sources of information Paul cites explicitly are direct revelation and scripture.  Nevertheless, I think it is going too far to say that Galatians 1:3 governs the interpretation of "received" in 1 Cor. 15:3.  It seems to me that there are several reasonable arguments for thinking that "received" in 1 Corinthians 15:3 should be read as "received from my predecessors in the faith" rather than "received by revelation."
  1. The former is how Paul uses "received" earlier in the same passage.  In 1 Corinthians 15:1, the word refers to the person-to-person transmission that occurred between Paul and the Corinthians.  If Paul intended the word to refer to a different type of transmission two sentences later, i.e., by divine revelation, we might reasonably expect him to make that clear

  2. When Paul wants to refer transmission by revelation, he knows how to do so as he did in 1 Corinthians 11:23  where he wrote "received from the Lord." 

  3. At least some of the events in 1 Corinthians 15 happened to people Paul knew personally.  All other things being equal, when someone tells such a story, the most likely explanation is that those people told others about the events and the information came either directly or indirectly from those people.  It is possible that Paul invented the stories or that they came to him in a dream, but I wouldn't think that would be our first guess.

  4. Before we read Paul's claim that he was taught nothing by men into 1 Cor. 15, we should want to establish that the information in 1 Corinthians 15 is the same information that Paul claims to have gotten by revelation in Galatians.  Unfortunately, Paul doesn't tell us in Galatians what exactly was included in the revelation.  He merely refers to "the gospel I preached."  Was it just the death and resurrection? Was it also the appearances?  Maybe it was only the theology of the death and resurrection and not the events themselves that were revealed.  When he says that no man taught him the gospel, does it mean that no man ever shared any of his experiences with Paul?  

  5. We should also want to establish any similarities or differences in the contexts of the two letters.  We are all familiar with political candidates who portray themselves as reactionaries when speaking to a gathering of the Tea Party and as moderates when speaking to independent voters.  If it suited his purposes, Paul might very well emphasize his independence from his predecessors on one occasion and emphasize his continuity on another.   In the case of Galatians, Paul's rhetoric was driven bya specific dispute he was having with the pillars in Jerusalem and he needed to show that his to authority to teach the gospel authority did not depend upon any man.   That dispute does not appear to be an issue in Corinth. 
None of these prove conclusively that Paul meant "received from my predecessors in the faith" rather than "received by revelation" in 1 Corinthians 15:3, but I think they may be sufficient to eliminate Galatians 1:11-12 as the kind of trump card that some mythicists try to make it.


  1. Many New Testament commentaries say that Paul’s intended meaning of “received” is that he learned about the Gospel via a revelation from God, and I agree with this interpretation, but I don’t think Paul’s knowledge of the Gospel as well as the life, burial and resurrection of Jesus was solely based on divine revelation or through conversations with other disciples. I think that over time the sources of knowledge get mixed up and reinforce one another.

    As you mentioned, Paul states in Galatians 1:11-12 that he first received the Gospel straight from God via revelation. Then in Galatians 1:18-22 Paul goes on say, “Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. 19I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. 21Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.” Now we don’t know for sure what was said in these meetings with Peter, John, but I think that it’s extremely likely that they talked about Jesus and the Gospel at some point. Next in Galatians 2:1-2 and 6-10 Paul writes, “1Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. 2I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain…6As for those who seemed to be important—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance—those men added nothing to my message. 7On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. 8For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. 9James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. 10All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” Paul states here Peter, James and John agree with the Gospel that Paul has and that nothing needs to be corrected or added. During Paul’s conversations with Peter, John and James Paul’s knowledge of the Gospel and of the life of Jesus could have been reinforced and fleshed out in greater detail by Jesus’ disciples.

    I think that the best example of the influence of the early church on Paul is that Paul is quoting a very early church tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-6. This saying dates back to about five years after Jesus’ death and was a useful tool for church members to memorize church doctrine.

    I think that it’s always difficult to distinguish a source of knowledge when there are multiples sources of the same body of knowledge. According to Paul the revelation from God came first and then he had several later interactions with the early church and Jesus disciples. The two sources of Knowledge could be so intertwined that it would be hard to distinguish which is which, and very likely fuses to become one body of knowledge.

  2. Paul also would have picked up some information when he was persecuting Christian, although after he had whatever experience it was he had, he might simply have viewed all that as part of his revelation.

    I don't know how we can date the particular formulation found in 1 Cor. 15. The various elements may go back to a very early time, but I don't know why that particular creed couldn't have been a comparatively recent development at the time he wrote the letter.

  3. 'To the historicist, this passage demonstrates that Paul was simply passing along what he had learned from Jesus' original disciples.'

    So Jesus original disciples started with a message that had no appearances of Jesus before his death?

    1. It seems that way to me, but I don't think many historicists would agree.

  4. Even if Paul did receive his information from others, this in no way means that he got this information from people who knew Jesus personally. Saying that the meaning of "received" in 1 Cor 15 is that he got it from disciples of Jesus is packing in two assumptions for the price of one.

    1. JQ,

      I absolutely agree. I am only addressing the limited question of whether "received" should be read as "received by revelation" or "received through oral tradition." Either way, I still don't seen anything in Paul that leads me to believe that he thought that any of his contemporaries had known Jesus prior to the crucifixion.

  5. I always wonder why anyone would believe Paul when he claims to have received nothing from anyone else. It seems transparent his polemical point on that subject, and equally transparent from the same letter (about his falling out with Peter) that it can't be true. Seems very odd to take that as absolute truth and read it into anywhere else.

    As for where he got it from, seems a stretch to say he got it from the original disciples. Peter is the only person who our tradition identifies as a disciple who Paul claims to even know, and then the relationship is hardly warm.

  6. Crucial new understandings of the “Jesus Puzzle” made possible by present historical and scientific methods and knowledge.
    Schubert Ogden: “We now not only know that none of the writings of the OT is prophetic witness to Christ, we also know that none of the writings of the NT is apostolic witness to Jesus.” This is a judgment based on historical evidence determined by an insider of the Guild of NT Studies. Eric Zuesse : “The religion of the NT actually has nothing to do with the person of the historical Jesus.” This is a scientific judgment based on scientific evidence determined by an outsider. Hence we now have convincing evidence, both from the methodologies of history and science, that the writings of the NT, Paul’s letters, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT, are not reliable sources for knowledge of Jesus. Our most certain historical evidence can only come from within the Guild of NT Studies, even as our best scientific evidence would reasonably come from outside. No evidence, historical or scientific, is presented to question the basic tenet of the Guild that we have a NT sources containing apostolic witness to Jesus. Only from within the Guild of NT Studies might a scholar have acquired sufficient competence in the Guild’s areas of special knowledge, which necessarily applies, if one is to become enabled to fully access the historical evidence necessary to identify this NT source of apostolic witness to Jesus. As Eric Zuesse’s probe (Christ’s Ventriloquist) demonstrates, full historical NT details of origins of Jesus traditions during the years 30-65, can only be accessed by historical scholars from within the Guild. E.g., Eric’s probe fails to recognize that there were two distinctly different post execution movements (denominations) during this earliest period of Jesus traditions, each with its own understanding of the significance of Jesus, marked by “an extraordinarily intimate, more precisely adversarial, relationship” (H. D. Betz). Both were pre Christian, pre Gospel, partly pre Pauline. The first movement was the Jerusalem Jesus Movement which began with the key disciples returning to Jerusalem, having fled to their native Galilee, purposing to again take up the teachings of Jesus. It was from this Jesus movement, later led by James Jesus’ brother, that we have our most certain source of apostolic witness to Jesus, identified by Betz to be the Sermon on the Mount. The second movement was soon to follow, a pre Pauline Hellenist movement which introduced the notion that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah whose significance was the salvific effects of his death and resurrection, which abrogated the Torah. This was in effect treason for Temple authorities. Paul is introduced as a participant in an apparent put-down by Temple authorities of some kind of anti Torah demonstration, holding the garment of those casting the stones in the Acts story of the stoning of Stephen, the leader of this Hellenist group (a historical reading counter to authorial intent). Next we have Paul as persecutor of this group, having his “vision” on the road to Damascus to where the Hellenist group fled. This resulted in Paul’s conversion to this group, from which he received his Christ myth gospel. In taking his gospel to the Gentile world, first to Antioch meeting with early success, this had the effect of severing true knowledge of Jesus from his teaching and his Jewish roots. As winners in the struggle for dominance, becoming Gentile Christianity, Paul’s Christ myth movement soon could label the Jesus Movement heresy to effectively remove it from the pages of history. The writings of the NT took place in the Gentile world under the primary influence of Pauline kerygma, to become the source for Christianity. Paul was never a member of the Jesus movement, actually he was its arch enemy. Thus the Gospels were written by followers of Paul’s Christ Myth gospel, not followers of the Jesus Movement. All of these developments are sufficiently documented in the NT.

  7. To me, one problem with the Jesus started as a revelation argument is that it doesn’t seem to fit very well with the characteristics of actual religious experiences – at least as far as I understand them.

    One feature of religious experiences is that they appear to be very much culturally conditioned. In fact this cultural conditioning constitutes a pretty good argument against the validity of religious experiences. E.g. if you’re a teenage a girl living in rural France, odds are that you’ll see a vision of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or some other familiar figure. You are very unlikely to have a vision of Ganesh or the Buddha, still less of a previously unknown being, like Thurgon the Deliverer (who I just made up).

    Carrier seems to be arguing for a pre-Christian logos figure named Jesus, and the argument would be more plausible to me if there was good evidence of such a figure, but Carrier’s case seems flimsy to say the least.

    I’m not claiming it’s decisive of course, but there is a certain irony in a bunch of died in the wool atheists appealing to religious experience as a historical explanation. :-)

    1. I think that is certainly a valid issue which any mythicist hypothesis would need to address. However, I would think that a previously unknown being that that was based on known archetypes wouldn't be nearly as much of a stretch as one that came from the pantheon of an alien culture. Whether the risen Christ was such a being is an open question for me.