Friday, January 11, 2013

Making Things Up: HJA (27)

"Why don't the epistles discuss the things Jesus said and did during his earthly ministry?" is the question that most keeps me on the fence about the existence of a historical Jesus.

One of answers I sometimes get is that the epistles dealt with issues that they arose after Jesus' death.  Therefore, the things Jesus said and did during his earthly ministry weren't relevant to the letter writers' purposes.  For example, questions regarding the administration and practices of early Christian communities wouldn't have come up during Jesus' earthly ministry so his teachings would not have been helpful in addressing the issues facing Paul.

I find this unconvincing because it doesn't square for me with what I see the early church doing.  When an issue arose that Paul hadn't dealt with somewhere in one of his letters, people simply forged new letters in Paul's name in order to make it seem as though he had dealt with it.  If Jesus' teachings were accepted as authoritative, I would expect that people would have invented teachings to make it seem that Jesus had addressed problems that he never addressed as well.  It might have been difficult to pass off a letter as being written by Jesus, but conveniently remembering what he said as necessary wouldn't have been hard.

Perhaps Paul had too many scruples to invent things that Jesus said, but I can't imagine that the people who forged letters in Paul's name would have had any such qualms.  Moreover, the guys who wrote letters attributed to Peter surely wouldn't have hesitated to include things that Peter supposedly remembered Jesus saying if they understood him to have been Jesus' closest disciple.


  1. But Paul does include things that Jesus said.

    2 Corinthians 11
    Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

    Even Hebrews includes things that Jesus said.

    Hebrews 2
    For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,

    “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

    13 And again, “I will put my trust in him.”

    And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

    There you are. Hebrews quotes the words of Jesus no less than 3 times.

    Of course, the author of Hebrews regards Jesus as speaking through the Old Testament, rather than on Earth, but nobody can say that the Epistles do not have sayings of Jesus.

    When historicists say that Jesus is silent in the Epistles, they want you not to listen to Jesus speaking in the Epistles.

    Because the voice of Jesus in the Epistles is not the voice of Jesus that they want to hear.

    So they declare Jesus to be silent.

  2. Just to follow up, Hebrews is adamant that Jesus is not silent.

    Hebrews 1 - Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

    How can an author declare to his readers at the very start of his book that a Son to have spoken to us, and have not one word of what this Son said on Earth, and instead have a Son who speaks only through Christian interpretations of Scripture?

    At least when Muslims say Muhammad was a prophet, they then go on to produce oral sayings of Muhammad....

  3. Ever notice how difficult the language of the Bible is? The Bible was actually deliberately written in equivocal ("poetic" or "literary") language; to entertain two or more different theologies at a time. And in the case of Paul's relation to any earlier tradition? It "straddles the fence" - ITSELF.

    It was said in early Religious Studies, that there were two competing branches, main churches of early Christianity: 1) Jerusalem-based, vs. 2) Possily Pauline, and/or Roman or Hellenistic. They were somewhat different - and there was always a war between them.

    So? Likely early or later Bibles, used deliberate ambiguity on the matter of Paul v. Jerusalem. To avoid putting their foot in one camp, or the other. They were written to entertain EITHER theology.

    Just like a poem. It's all how you read it.

    - Brettongarcia

  4. "Why don't the epistles discuss the things Jesus said and did during his earthly ministry?" is the question that most keeps me on the fence about the existence of a historical Jesus.

    Hi Vinny,

    It is an interesting question, but I think the argument from silence in Paul (and elsewhere) as mythicists present it ignores the cautions that mainstream, non-biblical, historians apply when attempting to argue from silence.

    I think most scholars would say that early Christians did invent things that Jesus said ad did. But I don’t see anything odd in Paul not doing this. Why on earth should he? Paul’s letters are much earlier than the pseudepigraphical letters you refer to, so in this instance I think it’s anachronistic to try to project later Christian practice back onto Paul. The guys who wrote the letters attributed to Peter were most likely relatively unimportant Christians who needed to borrow someone else’s kudos to put their point over. I don’t think it would have occurred to Paul that he might need to invent Jesus material, because he thinks he has sufficient authority to slap his opponents down when he needs to, with a bit of help from the OT when things get tough.

    Moreover, the guys who wrote letters attributed to Peter surely wouldn't have hesitated to include things that Peter supposedly remembered Jesus saying if they understood him to have been Jesus' closest disciple.

    Again, I don’t see anything suspicious that these letters don’t include much Jesus tradition either – they almost certainly date from after the composition of the gospels (which treat Jesus as a historical figure), so I don’t see how their silence would be relevant. If something is mentioned in an earlier source but not in a later source, any argument from silence in that later source is going to be on pretty shaky ground.
    In any case, with 2 Peter you have a writer who clearly knows Jesus tradition (the transfiguration), and is probably familiar with one or more of the synoptics but doesn’t choose to relate much about Jesus. Actually I think that illustrates the problem with the argument from silence – familiarity with Jesus tradition (even in the form of one of the synoptics) doesn’t necessarily equate to an author quoting great chunks of it. Trying to make an argument based on what isn’t said is likely to lead you to some erroneous conclusions.

    1. Even if Paul didn't invent things himself, he would have had to deal with the fact that others did. On any issue upon which there was a controversy, someone would have claimed something Jesus said or did--either actual or invented--as favoring their position, e.g., Jesus observed ritual Jewish law so gentile converts should do so as well. I don't see how Paul could have avoided answering such arguments if they were as ubiquitous as they would have been if Jesus earthly teachings were seen an normative.

    2. Vinny: On any issue upon which there was a controversy, someone would have claimed something Jesus said or did--either actual or invented--as favoring their position, e.g., Jesus observed ritual Jewish law so gentile converts should do so as well.

      This solid point bothers me immensely. OK…I get the argument why Paul may not have mentioned Jesus’ mother’s name or his age or where he was born, etc. as these facts would be unnecessary to Paul’s focus. But why doesn’t Paul ever utilize Jesus as an authority on a topic. Especially if Paul considered Jesus God?

      Why write long swaths on divorce, when Jesus covered the topic? Or how the law could be summed up, when Jesus covered the topic? Why long (contrived) arguments regarding resurrection when Lazarus is readily available? Why argue Pharaoh when you have Judas? How can Paul…knowing Jesus…denigrate the Jews for looking for signs, when Jesus was performing miracles all over the place?

      It would appear Paul either did not know the Jesus of the Gospels, OR did not consider the Jesus story in the Gospels as accurate.

      Or…another consideration…is to view the topic from the aspect of Paul’s recipients. Since he was writing to converts, one would wonder what they converted “to.” If to this new religion surrounding Jesus, one would naturally think the converts would be interested in what this Jesus said, did, etc. Why does Paul think his own arguments are more worthy and more persuasive than Jesus’? Is Paul’s gospel different than Jesus’ gospel? Clearly Paul felt his recipients would be more persuaded by Paul’s argument, than Jesus’ example. (I can say, “Clearly…” because it is how Paul writes.)

      Perhaps even if Paul “made up” things about Jesus it would not have made a difference, because the people he was writing to didn’t care or know or consider what Jesus said as relevant to the arguments.

    3. Dagoods,

      Thanks for weighing in. I am so frequently accused of having a will to disbelieve in a historical Jesus that it comforts me that you find this as puzzling as I do.

      One hypothesis I have (which is of course impossible to confirm or disconfirm) is that the historical Jesus was a political activist rather than a religious one and that the religious meaning was only attached to his life and death after someone claimed to have some visionary experience of him raised from the dead. That would explain why the earliest letters don't contain any indication that he was a teacher or a healer. Those stories took some time to develop.

    4. Vinny,

      It seems to me that your argument rests on several assertions that you don’t really justify and that I think need an awful lot of unpacking before you can build an argument around them: about the creation of Jesus material, about the extent to which Jesus sayings and deeds were normative for Christians in Paul’s time, about how Paul should have responded to his opponents on a given issue.

      DagoodS - What are you trying to show here?

      1) That Paul doesn’t know the gospels?
      2) That Paul doesn’t know specific traditions that end up in the gospels (e.g. Lazarus)?
      3) That Paul doesn’t know specific sayings/teachings of Jesus?
      4) That Paul doesn’t know any of Jesus’ teachings?
      5) That Paul doesn’t know that Jesus existed as a historical person?

      These are really a range of separate arguments from silence – some are more convincing than others. The problem is that mythicism needs to prove 5, but you simply can’t argue from Paul’s letters that Paul doesn’t know of a historical Jesus. Not unless (and I'm sorry for repeating myself) you simply ignore the criteria and cautions that mainstream, non-Biblical, historians apply when using the argument from silence.

    5. Regnier loves to silence Jesus, doesn't he?

      But Jesus is not silent in the Epistles.

      He speaks to Paul, telling him about Satan, Jesus speaks in Hebrews.

      But always with the voice of scripture....

    6. Paul Renier,

      I am saying by reviewing Paul’s letters, Paul either does not know the Jesus as described in the gospels, or does not believe the Jesus described in the gospels would be considered an authority to Paul’s letter’s recipients. (More plausibly the former.)

      Which raises the interesting question--why doesn’t Paul know that Jesus? Why doesn’t Paul know the miracle-making, parable-telling, sermon-stating Jesus?

      Obviously the mythicist believes the reason Paul didn’t know such a Jesus is that Jesus didn’t exist. However, those holding to a historical Jesus do not avoid the problem simply by stating Paul knew of a person named Jesus. While I personally DO believe Paul knew a historical person Jesus who was crucified (indeed, I derive that from Paul’s letters) it is still extremely problematic why Paul only seems to know a very bare-bones Jesus, and very little (beyond the Eucharist) of the Jesus as presented in the Gospels.

      Worse, we see Christianity develop myths surrounding Jesus. Every single person acknowledges at least some story about Jesus is mythical. Whether it is the Gospel of Matthew or the Infancy Gospel of Thomas or the Acts of Peter, etc. If we all agree there are (at least) some stories of Jesus as mythical, the next question is developing a method to determine what are myth, more likely myth, unknown, more likely historical or historical. (Obviously the spectrum could be further parsed down and/or broadened. I am using these categories as examples.)

      What I am saying is taking the evidence of Paul’s letters lacking any account of Jesus whatsoever (except the Eucharist), weighs heavily on the canonical gospels being mythical. Just like the non-canonical Gospels, Acts, and Letters.

      While we may retain the historical bare-bones Jesus of Paul, we lose the mythical creation Jesus of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.

  5. Does 2 Peter know the Transfiguration scene from the Synoptics?

    2 Peter 1:16-18
    For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved,with whom I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

    There is no actual Transfiguration here.

    And no mention of the synoptic claim of appearances by Moses and Elijah.

    Perhaps the author was embarrassed by Moses and Elijah speaking to Jesus, and so dropped them?

    Or perhaps this non-transfiguration does not actually use the synoptics at all?

    Even the 'This is my beloved son' bit, is different in 2 Peter from the synoptics, as though the author was using his own version of Psalm 2.

    And, of course, it is historicists who say Jesus is silent in the Epistles.

    Jesus certainly speaks in Paul and Hebrews.

    But he does so in visions or from scipture.

    1. Does 2 Peter know the Transfiguration scene from the Synoptics?

      as I say - With 2 Peter you have a writer who clearly knows Jesus tradition (the transfiguration), and is probably familiar with one or more of the synoptics.

  6. Seems unlikely Paul wouldn't quote Jesus.

    1) Paul thought Christ was God ... but never bothers to closely tie his own thoughts, to the words of God? To prove his ideas were linked to those of Jesus?

    Looks like he just didn't know anything much about a "Jesus" at all. Just offered his own thoughts in the name of him.

    2) If he didn't mind speaking for Jesus now and then? His view of the resurrection, and the status of Christ, his notion of where you see him or hear from him? Seems to be that "Christ is in me," Paul (Gal.2.20, etc.).

    Paul feels Christ is in him; so when Paul has a thought? He can attribute it to Christ if he feels like it. He thinks. What he thinks, Jesus told him.

    3) When he tries his ideas out in Jerusalem? They tolerate him for a week or two ... and a) then start trying to kill him. He claims b) he was authorized by "alleged" "pillars" to speak of his beliefs; but in effect, only to the Gentiles. Then he quickly leaves town. To be beaten in half the towns he visits; for heresy. c) As if what he had to say, didn't really quite match what others believed all around him.

    Not much of a reception in Jerusalem. And it Doesn't sound like there were a lot of authentic witnesses to Christ around, to greet him.

    4)He got his gospel "from no man"; 5) from the "alleged pillars" who 6) "added nothing to" him; what he knew about Christ, came from inner thoughts he had, mostly.

    7) This isn't just an argument from silence; it's an argument from what Paul himself said about his sources.

  7. But there is no Transfiguration in 2 Peter, and the quote of Psalm 8 is a different version to all the synoptics.

  8. VINNY
    If Jesus' teachings were accepted as authoritative, I would expect that people would have invented teachings
    to make it seem that Jesus had addressed problems that he never addressed as well.

    But early Christians did argue about what various teachings meant.

    2 Peter 3
    So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

    SO Christians had conflicting opinions about what Paul had said, and 'Peter' condemns them.

    And Christians had conflicting opinions about what the scriptures had said, and 'Peter' condemns them.

    But it seems early Christians never realised that Jesus had been a teacher, and they could invent new teachings of his.

    2 Peter 1
    First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation....

    It seems 'Peter' is adamant that there are right and wrong ways to interpret scripture.

    Did he think that anybody was interpreting the words of Jesus incorrectly?

    If he did, it seems it wasn't a concern of his.

    Or perhaps nobody was inventing teachings of Jesus.

    1 Corinthians 12
    To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

    I guess nobody was tasked with remembering what Jesus had taught....

    1 Corinthians 14
    When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.

    But not a telling of a Jesus story....

    1. Not exactly; 1) Paul for example constantly notes problems with "false apostles," and others who 2) teach "another gospel" and 3) "another Jesus" than the one he taught.

      There and elsewhere it seems, there were warnings that there was plenty of room for made-up stories about Jesus.

      Even 4) assuming that the original "true" stories, that most accepted, were not made up as well.

      Then 5) there are the rejected gospels that we know from history.... And 6)the various dates of manufacture/appearance of the accepted writings (John c. 90 AD; Paul c. 55; etc.).

      There were many controversies even in the apostle Paul's time, about which stories were really about the authentic Jesus. While new stories were appearing all the time.

    2. But none of that is about any teachings of Jesus.

    3. 1) Well first of all, it's wellknown that there are many different names for God; the "Lord," the "king," the "Christ," and a dozen more. So many it's confusing; and there are signs of some compilation of different gods, lords, in fact, even in the OT (cf. Elohim vs. Jahweh). My own idea is that "Lord" was of course, often a general term that applied to thousands of lords.

      So when someone like God is referred to in Hebrews in connection with "what is man... Son of man," it is not clear that's Jesus; "son of man" specifically say, being an ancient term for "mortal" in some readings.

      2) As for the reliability of the gospels, and what THEY say about Jesus, say? we're not ENTIRELY sure who these bad apostles criticized by Paul were; though they certainly included Peter for example; Cephas/Peter. Who is called "insincere" by Paul. (And called "Satan" by Jesus, in Mat. 16.23!). So that? Apostles who wrote "gospels" - and part of the NT - are beging criticized by Paul, among others.

      Meaning that? Some, even biblical, even perhaps canonical gospel accounts of "Jesus," are not reliable. Even according to the Bible itself. For these and a hundred other reasons.

      In sum? Paul says extremely little - if anything - that MIGHT be from Jesus. While he casts doubts on the other gospels accounts of, perhaps, the Twelve Apostles.

      Leaving us with not much at all that is reliable in the New Testament. Including their portaits of "Jesus." Even according to the Bible, itself, often.

      - Brettongarcia

  9. In other words, to make a long story short? There is a possibility that our own accepted canonical gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John - with their stories of "Jesus" - are among the false gospels, written by unreliable apostles, warned about by Paul.

    And when Paul appears to have Jesus saying things in say Hebrews? Note that more properly, it is usually (even always?) more specifically, the Old Testament and God speaking. Not Jesus himself, directly and particularly, and by name.

    Someone might claim that the Old Testament God IS Jesus; so it's all the same. But most scholars think that Jesus, if he existed, did more than just quote the Old Testament. So that his words that were really his,would be more than, somewhat different than, quotes from the OT;they would contain some distinctive element. And they would be attributed directly to Jesus, in quotes, as his words. While we don't see that sort of thing in Hebrews it seems.

  10. Likely Paul didn't know any other reliable gospels before him; or much if anything orally; he criticizes many who might have been thought to be contemporaneous disciples or first-person witnesses.

    From his accounts of other "apostles" or those in Jerusalem and so forth, Paul MIGHT have known some kind of ALLEGED witnesses some might speculate. Or even pre-gospel drafts by some kind of apostles; perhaps even original drafts of the canon, some might assert, c. 56 AD. But if that is what he is talking about now and then? He does not seem to fully approve of them: he does not mention Mathhew, Mark, Lukes' gospels it seems; and only says many disapproving things about "false gospels"; "false apostles"; "another Jesus" than the one he teached.

    So if Paul met anyone at all, any alleged eyewitness or first-hand apostle who told him much about "Jesus" or whatever, that is not clear. And furthermore, there is the very high probability he did not approve of most of them; he saw them as false apostles.

    Which does not bode well for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.