Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Paul or Jesus?

Even if you are correct that religions typically begin with some sort of religious experience, why would you make that Paul's, rather than that of say Jesus of Nazareth? Dr. James McGrath

Sometimes a good question brings things into focus.

My reluctance to give Jesus's religious experience primacy over Paul's is that I have a very difficult time figuring out what, if any, credible information I have about Jesus's experience.  Paul is my earliest source and he doesn't give me any indication that Jesus of Nazareth ever had any religious experiences that were of any consequence to the early Christian movement or even that he had any religious experiences at all.  Paul writes a number of letters in which he explains the meaning and significance of his own religious experiences, which he seemed to view as some sort of divine revelation from a heavenly being. Paul never indicates, however, that this revelation was informed by anything that the man Jesus of Nazareth said or did or experienced prior to his death.

The fact that Paul is the earliest source doesn't necessarily make his experience the one that gave rise to  Christian belief and practice, but I don't see any clear way to get back to anyone's earlier experiences.   Paul certainly doesn't help much in this endeavor as he claims that his message was revealed to him directly by God and that other men neither taught it to him or added to it.  He indicates that others had some sort of experience with the heavenly being before he did, and that he was a persecutor of such people before he joined them, but he never says what it was about his predecessors that he found particularly offensive.  About the only thing he says about the Christian movement before he came on the scene is that there were some people who believed that a crucified guy had risen from the dead. What led to that belief he does not say.

So Paul doesn't give me any information about the crucified guy's religious experiences, but the gospels tell me some things about Jesus.  Mainstream scholars think it most likely that something about the things Jesus said and did during his life caused his followers later to have experiences that convinced them that he had been raised from the dead.  Paul's writings do not preclude this scenario, but neither do they corroborate it.   What bothers me is how much reading between the lines of the gospels is required to support it.  After all, the gospels tell us that the things Jesus did and the experiences his followers had were miracles. As the skeptic in me thinks that miracles are highly unlikely, I have to figure out some way to parse the gospels to get at what Jesus's experiences might really have been and that's where I run into problems.

My first problem is determining the nature of the experiences that led to the belief that the crucified guy had risen from the dead.  Were they dreams?  Were they visions?  Were they hallucinations?  Were they hoaxes?  Were they cases of mistaken identity?  Were they merely some sort of intellectual insight as John Shelby Spong has suggested.  Frankly, I cannot see any basis for declaring any of the possibilities as being the most likely seed out of which the legends of gospels grew.

My next problem is figuring out how Jesus made such an impression on his followers that they had experiences after his crucifixion that convinced them he had returned from the dead.  Obviously this is made more difficult by the fact that I'm not sure what those experiences were, but even if  I knew that they were dreams or hallucinations, I doubt that I could say what kinds of things it would take to induce someone to have such dreams or hallucinations. It's just not the kind of thing about which I have any data to make comparisons.  I suspect that is part of the reason why every scholar can come up with his own picture of the historical Jesus.  Everyone has there own idea of what Jesus must have been like to have had the effect he had on his followers and there is no way to choose among the various pictures.

The final problem then is to figure out what experiences it was that Jesus might have had that led him to do whatever it was that he might have done to so impress his followers that they had whatever experiences it was that they which convinced them that he had risen from the dead.  It seems like a dead end to me.  Aren't I better off just accepting that Paul is the earliest experience that I have to work with?

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