Friday, August 29, 2008

Another Response to David, Part 5: Paul's Knowledge of Jesus

Since Paul is the earliest writer in the New Testament, a running constant throughout a rational examination of Christian origins is the question: What did Paul know of Jesus? Specifically, what did Paul know of the earthly Jesus, the Jesus before crucifixion. The gospels did not exist yet when Paul was missionizing his churches and writing his letters. The gospels were written well after this time, and a comparison of what Paul writes in his letters with what we read in the gospel narratives raises some fascinating questions. Scholars for over two centuries now have noted the profoundly different views of Jesus which, on the one hand, the early epistles, including but not limited to Paul’s, and on the other the gospels give us. Wells summarizes the problem as follows:

If we now ask what can be learned from Paul of Jesus’s pre-crucifixion life, the answer is: nothing except that he was descended from David (Rom. 1:3) and born of a woman under the Jewish law (Gal. 4:4). Paul never mentions Mary or Joseph (nor does any other NT epistle writer) and says nothing to suggest that the birth was from a virgin mother. For him, Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God with power” by dint of his resurrection (Rom. 1:4), not by a supernatural birth, nor by manifestations of power such as miracle-working or exorcisms during his lifetime. He never even suggests that Jesus had been active in Jerusalem and Galilee. Tom Wright, Dean of Lichfield, says again and again in his 1997 book that Paul preached “Jesus of Nazareth”, whereas in fact Paul never mentions Nazareth and says nothing to link Jesus with the place. Within the NT, the title ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is used only in Acts... The position is no better in respect to Paul’s knowledge of Jesus’s teaching. He never suggests that Jesus taught in parables, even though these are quite central to the synoptic teaching. He also never suggests that Jesus was involved in doctrinal conflicts with Pharisees. At no point in his letters where he is expounding the central content of his gospel does he cite or clearly allude to any saying of Jesus. No question was more central to Paul than whether it was necessary for Christians to keep the Jewish law, yet the controversies on the matter recorded in his letters, and even in Acts, show no knowledge of the various teachings on the law that are ascribed to Jesus in the gospels. In these, the parts of the law most prominent are the regulations about Sabbath and about food; and if Jesus’s attitudes on these matters had been as lax as some gospel passages suggest, this would surely have surfaced in other documents where these issues are to the fore. According to Mk. 7:19, for instance, he declared all foods clean. Paul can have known nothing of this, for he records a furious quarrel with Peter as to whether it was permissible for Christian Jews and Christian gentiles to eat together (Gal. 2:11-16), and it took a thrice-repeated post-resurrection revelation even to half convince Peter to permissiveness on the matter (Acts 10:9-17). Again, at Gal. 4:10 Paul reproves Christian opponents on the ground that they observe special “days”, and this must include Sabbath observance. But he does not support his case with any suggestion that Jesus had transgressed the Sabbath, had allowed his disciples to do the same, and had justified such action publicly in debate – all of which is alleged in the gospels. As to the all-important matter as to whether Christians need to be circumcised, Paul obviously knew nothing in Jesus’s teaching or behaviour to which he could appeal, and has to resort to a quite desperate argument in order to controvert the clear doctrine of Genesis 17:10 (“every male among you shall be circumcised”). How arbitrary Paul’s argument is has been well brought out by E.P. Sanders’s summary of it ([Paul], pp. 55ff). (The Jesus Myth, pp. 58-59)

As we note these and other similar points of remarkable difference between the portrait of Jesus in the gospels and Paul’s treatment of Jesus in his writings, the tell-tale signs of legend-building begin to emerge and make themselves noticeably apparent. But Christian literalists, anxious to protect their religious confession from the threat that such analysis poses for Christianity, busy themselves with the task of damage-control, hoping to discredit the message-bearers if they can’t discredit the message itself.

In the present case, commenter David has listed what he apparently thinks are good indications in Paul’s letters that Paul had knowledge of the Jesus we read about in the gospel narratives. I will review these and see whether they really do point to the Jesus of the gospel narratives, or if they are in fact primitive rudiments which later narrative-constructors adapted in their growing yarn of Jesus’ pre-crucifixion life.

I wrote:

As for whether or not the gospel writers used Paul as a source, this is unclear. However, as I have shown, many of the teachings which Paul gives as his own or as inspired by his interpretation of ‘the scriptures’ are put into Jesus' mouth in the gospels. This suggests that later writers were using sources that were influenced by Paul, even if they did not mention or credit Paul.

David responded:

I haven’t been shown any examples of this,

You have. Go back and check our exchanges. One of the Wells quotes that I gave lists several examples. There are plenty more, but the Wells quote is sufficient to show this.

David wrote:

but I have heard about lots of things Paul doesn’t mention.

Indeed. Does Paul mention Bethlehem? Nazareth? The virgin birth? Son of a carpenter? Escape from the slaughter of the innocents? A baptism by John the Baptist? Miracle-working? Magic cures? A ministry in various towns throughout Judea and in Jerusalem? Conflict with the chief priests? Teaching in parables? The feeding of five thousand? The raising of Jairus’ daughter? The raising of Lazarus? A trial before Pilate? A crucifixion outside Jerusalem? An empty tomb? Pentecost? Etc. Etc. Not only is Paul silent on these things, but all the early epistles are! These elements simply weren’t part of the legend yet. As the story was retold, they began to be added into the mix, until the resulting product is what we have in the gospels (and many non-canonical writings) today.

David wrote:

What about some things he does tell us about Jesus?

Yes, let’s look at them.

David wrote:

Jesus was born in human fashion, as a Jew, and had a ministry to the Jews. (Galations 4:4)

Yes, Paul does say that Jesus was born. But where was he born? When was he born? Who were his parents? Paul gives us no indication of these things. Paul mentions that he had a mother, but nowhere suggests that he was born a virgin. This legendary element came later as some communities sought to assimilate motifs from rival religions into their own version of Christianity.

David wrote:

Jesus was referred to as "Son of God". (1 Cor. 1:9)

On this, Wells notes significantly:

Paul characteristically applies to [Jesus] titles such as Lord and Son of God – titles which already existed within Judaism and also in pagan religions (see [H. Braun, ‘Der Sinn der NT Christology’, Zeitschrift fur Theologie und Kirche, 54, pp 350-1) – although Jewish monotheistic influences prevents the earliest Christian writers from calling him God. (Did Jesus exist?, p. 18)

If this is true – that the title “Son of God” was already in use “within Judaism and also in pagan religions” – this is another motif which Christianity borrowed from predecessor religions and applied to Jesus. As such, it has theological, but not historical meaning: it does nothing to specify a historical setting to Paul’s Jesus.

David wrote:

Jesus was a direct descendent of King David. (Romans 1:3)

David was highly venerated by the Jews, as the legends about him in the OT indicate. Also, since Paul was drawing on OT themes as the palate for his portrait of Jesus, linking him to David would hardly be surprising. Again Wells poignantly nails it:

There are many centuries between David and Paul, and Paul gives no indication in which of them Jesus’ earthly life fell. (Did Jesus exist?, p. 18)

The reference to Jesus as coming from the seed of David opens the possible timeline for Paul’s Jesus significantly.

David wrote:

Jesus prayed to God using the term ‘abba’. (Galations 4:6)

When does Paul have his Jesus do this, and where? How does Paul know? Is Paul making a historical reference, or is he making a theological point? The context of the Galatians passage suggests the latter rather than the former. This interpretation is only buttressed by its appearance in Mark, the earliest gospel:

Jesus in Gethsemane (Mk. 14:36) address God with the Aramaic word ‘abba’ (father). Mark supplies no witnesses who could have heard what was said, and also finds it necessary to put into Jesus’ mouth the Greek translation of the word (making him say: ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee’). Nevertheless, Jeremias insists that the logion is genuine since in Jewish traditions God is never address simply as ‘abba’ without some additional qualifying phrase, such as is preserved in Matthew’s ‘our father who art in heaven’ ([‘Kennzeichen der ipsisima vox Jesu’, in Synoptische Studien, Festschrift fur A. Wikenhauser], p 89). To this the adequate reply has been made ([Haenchen, Der Weg Jesu], p 493) that Paul’s references to an early Christian practice of ‘Abba, Father’ (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6) show that ‘abba’ followed by its Greek translation was a formula current in Hellenistic Christian circles, and that Mark has simply put it into Jesus’ mouth. And a leading Jewish scholar (Vermes, [Jesus the Jew], pp 210-11) has given evidence that ‘abba’ was used in the prayer language of the Judaism of the day in precisely the manner in which Jeremias and other Christian scholars have declared to be ‘unthinkable’. (Did Jesus exist?, p. 75)

So again, we have an early theological reference which was imported into the Christian tradition and later treated as a historical datum.

David wrote:

Jesus expressly forbid divorce. (1 Cor. 7:10)

Does Paul say when, or where, or indicate the circumstances of this delivery? How would Paul know this? That’s right, Paul appeals to revelation as the means by which he learned his gospel. Later writers could easily take such references and put them into a portrait of an earthly Jesus purported by some to be historical. How hard would it be to do this?

David wrote:

Jesus taught that ‘preachers’ should be paid for their preaching. (1 Cor. 9:14)

Another feature that Paul got from the OT. He even quotes Deut. 25:4 in I Cor. 9:9. Paul is not giving evidence of familiarity with an earthly Jesus here; he gives no indication of a historical setting on earth where Jesus would have given such instruction, and attributes the teaching to “the Lord,” for Paul, the risen Jesus, not the earthly Jesus. The later writers (i.e., of the gospels) take this reference, which has ecclesiastical significance for Paul, and give it the impression of historical significance by putting the teaching into Jesus’ mouth (cf. Mt. 10:10; Lk. 10:7).

David wrote:

Jesus taught about the end-time. (1 Thess. 4:15)

Let's look at what I Thess. 4:15 states:

For this we say unto you by word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.

Again, Paul is here appealing to “the Lord” (as opposed to Jesus), which signifies for him the risen savior. Nor Paul does indicate a historical context for the teaching he ascribes to “the Lord.” By referring to “we” here (instead of “they” or some other third person reference), Paul indicates (as he does in other passages) his belief that Jesus’ return was coming soon, probably even within his own expected lifetime. No such luck. But this did not prevent later writers from adapting the gloom and doom eschatology and putting it into Jesus’ mouth.

David wrote:

Paul refers to Peter by the name Cephas (rock), which was the name Jesus gave to him. (1 Cor. 3:22)

Paul tells us that he had a very involved conflict with Peter, but he never tells us that Jesus gave Peter this name. This is not even hinted at in anything Paul says about Peter. In fact, Paul nowhere indicates that Peter was a traveling companion of Jesus on earth before the crucifixion. Later writers were probably perplexed by the use of two names for Peter, and explained it by having the Jesus of their narratives give the name Cephas to Peter in an exchange which is nowhere given in Paul.

David wrote:

Jesus had a brother named James. (Galations 1:19)

We've already beaten this horse to death. Paul never gives a brother to Jesus - that is, a biological sibling to the earthly, pre-crucifixion Jesus. Paul is clear in reference James as "the brother of the Lord," which title signifies the post-resurrection Jesus. James, it was seen, was referred to as one of the "pillars" of the church by Paul. It is most probable then that Paul is referring to James with a fraternity title, similar to the one he uses for an unspecified number of persons in I Cor. 9:5, where he states: "Have we no right to lead about a wife that is a believer, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?" Here Paul is obviously referencing the upper echelon of the Christianity of his day. It would be hard to suppose that Paul is referring to a group of biological siblings of Jesus here. Instead, he's speaking of an inner circle group, who were obviously held in high regard. The assumption that Paul is referring to a biological relationship is generated by reading the gospel details into Paul's letters, when in fact Paul's letters in no way confirm this reading.

David wrote:

Jesus initiated the Lord's supper and referred to the bread and the cup. (1 Cor. 11:23-25)

As I asked before, when does Paul say this happened? Where? Under what circumstances? Who attended this event? Paul doesn't give any details. Later writers came along and supplied them. Paul gave the primitive rudiments, indicating no time, place or historical setting. In fact, I don't even find any indication that Paul is associating "the Lord's supper" with the Passover. It would be temptingly easy for later writers to take what Paul writes here and redress it in a narrative situation that seemed historical, but is essentially just a piece of fiction.

David wrote:

Jesus was betrayed on the night of the Lord's Supper. (1 Cor. 11:23-25)

As above.

David wrote:

Jesus' death was related to the Passover Celebration. (1 Cor. 5:7)

Look at what the passage does say:

Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us

Is Paul saying that Jesus was crucified around the Passover holiday? I don't get that from this. This is Pauline symbolism, derived from his Jewish roots, and later writers took references like this and assembled them into their narrative. Again, it would be temptingly easy for them to do this.

David wrote:

The death of Jesus was at the hands of earthly rulers. (1 Cor. 2:8)

The passage says:

Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

It is not clear what Paul means here by "princes of this world" (the ESV translates this phrase as "rules of this age" and the ASV has it as "rulers of this world"). Doherty has some interesting thoughts on this:

Where, then, was Jesus crucified and by whom? Like the myths of the savior gods, this deed took place in the mythical world, the upper spirit realm of Platonic philosophy, where spiritual processes were seen to be located. It was the work of demon spirits. Paul says, in I Corinthians 2:8, that those who “crucified the Lord of glory” were “the rulers of this age.” That phrase is not a reference to human authorities on earth, but to the demon spirits, who were regarded as controlling the world in the present age of history and who would be overthrown with the arrival of the new apocalyptic age... This was the interpretation of 2:8 by ancient commentators like Marcion and Origen. Modern critical scholars have largely followed suit: Brandon, Barrett, Hering, Fredriksen. Paul Ellingworth, Translator’s Handbook for I Corinthians, p. 46, says: “A majority of scholars think that supernatural powers are intended here.” The Ascension of Isaiah, a Jewish-Christian document in the Pseudepigrapha, foretells the Son descending through the layers of heaven, hiding his identity from the angels and demons until he reaches the lower celestial sphere, where he is “crucified by the god of the world,” meaning Satan (chapter 9). The crucifixion of Paul’s Christ was a spiritual event. (Challenging the Verdict, pp. 250-251)

So “princes of this world” or “rulers of this age” may in fact not mean human agents, but supernatural agents of evil who have seized control of the world.

In any case, Paul seems to be excusing Jesus' executioners for their ignorance, and granting them a moral caliber that just needed better information. I've known a lot of Christians who accuse all human beings of being guilty of crucifying Jesus (even though those who are alive today weren't around 2000 years ago in the first place).

David wrote:

Jesus underwent abuse and humiliation. (Romans 15:3)

These are themes that are common throughout the Psalms and Isaiah, both of which very highly influenced Paul’s views. Romans 15:3, the very passage you cite here, quotes Psalms 69:9, which is attributed by the OT to David! Moreover, when Paul refers to Jesus’ abuse and humiliation, he refers to them only vaguely, and gives no historical setting, indicating no specifics of the occasion. Later writers (i.e., of the gospels) take this motif and elaborate on it in their passion scenes, which are variously embellished in the different versions.

David wrote:

Jewish authorities were involved with Jesus' death. (1 Thess. 2:14-16)

Doherty points out for us that many scholars are of the view that I Thess. 2:15-16 is an interpolation into an otherwise (for the most part) authentically Pauline letter. He writes:

What then are we to make of the passage in 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, about the Jews "who killed the Lord Jesus"? Well, many scholars (e.g., Mack, Koester, Pearson, Meeks, Perkins, Brandon: see the Bibliography at end) have tended to make short work of it, dismissing it as an interpolation by some later editor or copyist. (Who Crucified Jesus?)

Wells points out that RE Brown, in his The Death of the Messiah (p. 378-381), has summarized the reasons for this, and quotes Furnish (Jesus According to Paul, p. 70) as saying of this passage that “there are good reasons to think that it has come from a later hand” (in Wells’ The Jesus Legend, p. 24).

David wrote:

Jesus died by crucifixion. (2 Cor. 13:4 et al)

Yes, Paul does affirm that Jesus died by crucifixion. I don’t think anyone with any familiarity with Paul’s writing would venture so much as to call this facet of his Jesus into question. It is certainly not a point of contention for me. But what’s curious is that Paul does not allude to any of the accompanying details that we find in the gospel passion scenes. Paul nowhere gives any indications of the time or place of Jesus’ crucifixion; for all that Paul gives us, it could have happened 100 years (or more) before Paul was running about growing his churches. According to the gospels, Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem, but you would never learn this going by what Paul has to say. Yes, Paul tells us that Jesus was crucified, but leaves all the details open to a wide assortment of possible variables, and nothing in Paul necessitates the details we find in the gospel narratives, which were written well after Paul’s time.

The Suffering Servant motif was already central to the prophets and the Wisdom literature, both of which figure largely in Paul's worldview. As we saw, Paul's Jesus hailed from a lineage of a royal Jewish household, the house of David. Any connection between Paul's view of Jesus and actual historical events was probably vastly different than one familiar only with the gospels might suppose. Wells gives some pertinent clues in the following passage:

My view is that Paul knew next to nothing of the earthly life of Jesus, and did not have in mind any definite historical moment for his crucifixion. As we saw, holy Jews had been crucified alive in the first and second centuries BC, but traditions about these events, and about the persecuted Teacher of Righteousness, could well have reached Paul without reference to times and places, and he need not have regarded their occurrences as anything like as remote in time as they in fact were. Whenever it was that Jesus had lived obscurely and died, he had, for Paul, returned promptly after death to heaven; and the evidence for this exaltation, and indeed for his whole religious significance, was his recent appearances to Paul and to contemporaries of Paul which signaled that the final events which would end the world were imminent... Thus even if the death and resurrection were put at some indefinite time past, it remains quite intelligible that Christianity did not originate before the opening decades of the first century AD. Nor need any supposed relevance to Jesus of the Wisdom literature have been appreciated earlier. (Can We Trust the New Testament?, p. 34)

David wrote:

Jesus was physically buried. (1 Cor. 15:4)

Does Paul specify that Jesus’ dead body was put into a tomb? No, he nowhere does this. Does Paul indicate when Jesus was buried? No, he does not. Does he indicate where Jesus was buried? No, he does not. Does he indicate the circumstances under which he was buried? No, he does not, he only indicates that Jesus died by crucifixion, but indicates nothing of the details of this occasion. Later writers took what is for Paul more of a theological dogma and cast it into a historical context, inventing all kinds of details (e.g., the earthquake, the rising of the saints, the tear in the veil, Joseph of Arimathaea, the packing of the body in spices, the guards at the tomb, the visitation of the women to the tomb, the angels at the tomb, etc.). All these are elements of great story-telling, for sure, but they’re only stories, legends by any other name.

The conclusion here is unavoidable: none of the features and motifs which have been discussed here put Paul's Jesus in any specific time, location or situation. Each can be explained without appeal to the gospel narratives, and each could have easily been assimilated by later writers in concocting a narrative of Jesus' life. In fact, what David has isolated for us is some of the raw material that was central to the creation of Christian story-making, the stuff of legends which grew in scale and impressiveness as the yarn was reworked and refashioned to suit new theological needs and new social challenges.

by Dawson Bethrick


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Another Response to David, Part 4: Paul, Q and Groping Traditions

I wrote:

I'm not talking linguistic philosophy either. You had mentioned ‘the building blocks of thought’, and those are concepts, not words. This is basic epistemology, not linguistic philosophy. You can't have language without concepts. The ability to form concepts comes first, but language helps us retain and organize the concepts we've formed.”

David wrote:

This is a silly quibble, but just so you don’t think I’m being dishonest in what I stated: ‘Words are the unit of thought in most of our thinking and writing; they are the bricks of our conceptual formulation.’ (Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3 ed., page 128)

I didn’t think you were being dishonest, David. I just think you’re wrong. I think Ramm is wrong as well, but I’ve come to expect such espousals from Christians. Christianity has no theory of concepts, so it comes as no surprise to find Christians confused on this matter. In fact, it is no “silly quibble.” The absence of the objective theory of concepts is one of chief problems with any mystical worldview. As I mentioned, words are symbols – specifically, auditory/visual symbols – which represent concepts. I quote Rand:

A word is merely a visual-auditory symbol used to represent a concept; a word has no meaning other than that of the concept it symbolizes, and the meaning of a concept consists of its units. It is not words, but concepts that man defines—by specifying their referents. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 52)

Though he most likely does not realize it, Ramm is propounding a falsehood.

David wrote:

Regarding the word study fallacy you keep insisting is proper exegesis: Straight out of a hermeneutics textbook, under the heading of “word-count fallacy”: “We make this mistake when we insist that a word must have the same meaning every time it occurs. For example, if we are confident that a word carries a certain meaning in seven of its eight occurrences in Scripture, we might be tempted to conclude that it must have the same meaning in its eighth occurrence. Yet as Darrel Bock maintains, ‘word meanings are determined by context, not word counts’.” (Bock, “New Testament Word Analysis pg. 111, A Hands on Approach To Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, Duvall pg 130)

If this is the definition of the word study fallacy, then I have not committed it. For one, I have considered the context of the passage in question in determining the meaning of “brother of the Lord,” for as I (and many others) have pointed out, Paul says “brother of the Lord, not “brother of Jesus.” I buttressed my interpretation by citing a source which explicitly defines “Lord” as a title, when you called it a name. Furthermore, I nowhere maintained that, because other instances of the word “brother” in Paul’s letters denotes a spiritual rather than biological relationship, it must therefore mean a spiritual as opposed to a biological relationship in the passage in question. This is clear from my statement that it most likely rather than necessarily means a spiritual relationship in the passage in question.

David wrote:

You deem my inquiries about James as trifling, but even Wells himself says that his theory stands or falls on this. Indeed the reason I have pressed this point is because your original statement about a recent resurrection in Paul demand such evidence be discussed.

Let's keep in view what I had actually stated. I wrote:

Now David, I did pose some questions on how revelation is supposed to work, but I do not see that you’ve addressed them. Instead, you seem to prefer trifling over a passing reference to James as "the brother of the Lord," which seems to be a very small matter in comparison to the claim to have received a revelation from a deity.

Keep in mind that I am more of a philosopher than a historian (the former is more a passion where the latter is more a side hobby). A major branch of philosophy is epistemology - how do we discover and validate our knowledge, and how do we establish our knowledge claims? - and is probably the most important area of philosophical inquiry. Paul claims to have received his gospel directly from the risen Christ by means of revelation (Gal. 1:11-12). It seems that anyone can claim anything and say he knows it by means of revelation. How do I know that Paul really received a revelation from some divine source? How could I verify this? Apparently I'm supposed to just take his word for it, for nothing objective is offered to secure such a claim. And questioning such a claim is a big no no in Christianity: it is tantamount to questioning whether or not the divinely approved "Word" is true or not, and we're not supposed to do that. As Bahnsen says, the bible is supposed to be unquestionable. So rather than addressing such questions, it appears that we're not supposed to ask them. But I'm not afraid to ask, so I ask. But believers don't seem to be able to give much of an answer to this kind of question, even though it seems far more important to me than, say, what Paul meant by his passing reference to "James the brother of the Lord." Besides, as far as I'm concerned, this point has been settled: it's a church title, not intended to denote a sibling relationship. So it is for these reasons that I stated what I said above. I am aware that, insofar as Wells' case for legend is concerned, this is an important issue. But in the larger scheme of things, it's a minor quodlibet at best. In regard to Wells' views, it's a hurdle he clears with ease.

David quoted G.A. Wells:

If Paul means blood brother of a historical Jesus, then it would suffice to establish--against my view--that Jesus had really lived in the first half of the first century. Furthermore, I must admit that this interpretation of Paul's words does seem the immediate and obvious one. Here, then, is a case where what seems to be the plain sense of a text . . . would weigh very heavily indeed against my view of Christian origins. (HEJ, 167)

Regarding "the twelve," David quoted more of Wells:

If these words were really written by Paul, then it looks as though he was aware that Jesus chose twelve disciples; and if Paul in this respect corroborates what the gospels say, then it would be reasonable to infer that he also knows the principle facts of Jesus' life . . . . (DJE, 124)

David then commented:

In order to get himself out of the quagmire he’s created ;) , Wells must argue that the Corinthian passage is an interpolation (DJE, pg 124) even though every single shred of manuscript evidence includes the full passage. That means there is zero textual warrant for his claim. This constitutes special pleading. You said you were ok with the creed being authentic though right?

Comparing manuscripts is not the only way to know that something has been interpolated. Especially if there's a substantial interval between the time when the original is believed to have been penned and the date of our earliest extant copies. In the case of Paul's letters (including I Corinthians), the earliest copy we have Papyrus 46, which Griffin dates to AD 175-225, at the earliest AD 150, or at least if not more than 100 years after Paul originally wrote the letter. This interval provides more than ample opportunity for tampering with the text. Also, certain indicators within the text itself can give this away. For instance, in I Cor. 15 we find reference to "the twelve," which Paul never mentions elsewhere in his several letters.

David wrote:

In addition, Wells must reject both references to Jesus in Josephus to hold up his theory. Written around 93-94 AD, Josephus’ writings clearly link Jesus to his disciples and connect his crucifixion to Pilate. Now I grant that many register concern about the authenticity Antiquities 18:3, but who else is rejecting all references to Jesus? Wells of course.

Wells is not a lone ranger in rejecting the two passages in Josephus as interpolations. Not at all. I’m sure if you do a little digging, you’ll find others do to. Wells gives his reasons in The Jesus Myth, pp. 200-221.

David wrote:

Princeton Seminary's James Charlesworth: "We can now be as certain as historical research will presently allow that Josephus did refer to Jesus." (Jesus Within Judaism,pg. 96)

I would expect soundbites such as this from someone like Charlesworth. But notice how it uses a string of words to say nothing very definite. If historical research will not presently allow that Josephus really did refer to Jesus, then how certain can we be? And whose research? Of course, Charlesworth’s own. As a professor at a seminary, I’m sure he fills his title well.

David wrote:

In addition, Wells must also twist the reference in Josephus about James to be consistent. According to the passage "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James" met his death after the death of the procurator Porcius Festus, yet before Lucceius Albinus took office (Antiquities 20.9)…which is also where we derive the traditional date of 62 AD for his death.

This statement comes from the so-called ‘shorter passage’ in Josephus. As I pointed out in my previous blog, Wells provides reasons for supposing this passage to be a Christian interpolation (cf. The Jesus Myth, pp. 217-221). There Wells interacts with defenses of the passage’s authenticity provided by R.T. France and R.N. Tyler and shows why they are weak. So if this passage is a Christian interpolation, as Wells holds, then – contrary to what you say – Wells has no need to “twist” this reference in order to remain consistent with his broader thesis.

David wrote:

At any rate Wells has since changed his mind about the existence of Jesus, so now his earlier critiques of Paul need to be re-assessed and I seriously doubt they will maintain consistency.

Yes, Wells is now inclined to suppose that a real human being (not an incarnation of a divine being, mind you) was behind many of the stories and sayings which informed the primitive basis of the Christ cult. But if true, this is still totally damning to Christianity. Indeed, even if one does not accept Wells' overall conclusion, he still makes massive blows to the literalist interpretation of the New Testament, sufficiently so that I don't think it can recover. But confessionally invested believers will keep trying, I'm sure.

David stated:

Apparently Q has persuaded him that Jesus may have been a real person.

Wells credits J.D.G. Dunn for helping with this in Can We Trust the New Testament? (cf. p. 50).

David then quoted Van Voorst:

'A final argument against the nonexistence hypothesis comes from Wells himself. In his most recent book, The Jesus Myth (1999), Wells has moved away from this hypothesis. He now accepts that there is some historical basis for the existence of Jesus, derived from the lost early "gospel" "Q" (the hypothetical source used by Matthew and Luke). Wells believes that it is early and reliable enough to show that Jesus probably did exist, although this Jesus was not the Christ that the later canonical Gospels portray. It remains to be seen what impact Wells's about-face will have on debate over the nonexistence hypothesis in popular circles.', Van Voorst, Robert E, 'NonExistence Hypothesis', in Houlden, James Leslie (editor), 'Jesus in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia', page 660 (Santa Barbara: 2003)

This tells me a lot. Van Voorst refers to Wells’ modification of his theory as an ‘about-face’ – suggesting a 180-degree turn in his views. This is misleading. Wells’ allowance of some shadowy figure behind some of the earlier traditions which ultimately wound up in New Testament narratives about Jesus does not constitute a wholesale revision of his views of the data. The conclusion that the gospel accounts are legends is constant throughout all this. In fact, one could argue that Wells’ modified view actually strengthens his critique of Christian origins, for it better accounts for the several streams of traditions which we observe in the gospel narratives. Wells writes:

The essential point, as I see it, is that the Q material, whether or not it suffices as evidence of Jesus’s historicity, refers to a personage who is not to be identified with the dying and rising Christ of the early epistles. (Can We Trust the New Testament, p. 50)

Keep in mind the following point that Wells makes of Q:

Q does not mention Jesus’s death, and does no more than hint that the hostility extended to him may have been what led to it; he is represented as the last in a long line of Jewish prophets sent out by Wisdom whose messages met with apathy, rejection, even persecution. Q certainly does not regard his death as redemptive and does not explicitly mention his resurrection. It never calls him ‘Christ’ (Messiah) and has no allusion to eucharist, nor indeed to any social or cultic practices which would separate its group from mainstream Judaism. In all these respects the Jesus of Q differs from the Jesus of Paul, who was “delivered up for our trespasses”, “put forward” by God “as an expiation by his blood”, and “raised for our justification” (Rom. 3:25; 4:25) (The Jesus Myth, p. 103)

So Q represents a non-Pauline tradition which does not involve a dying and rising savior, but which has been grafted into the narrative of Jesus’ life in Matthew and Luke.

Elsewhere Wells notes:

[R.E.] Brown is surely right to say that “in all probability the first-century composition of the Gospels was not simple”, and that our chances of determining it “are so slim that it is better to adopt a simpler overall approach that solves most of the difficulties and leaves some minor difficulties unsolved.” On this basis, he accepts Marcan priority, but with the modification that Matthew and Luke were influenced to some extent also by oral tradition. He also defends the majority view that neither Matthew nor Luke knew the work of the other ([The Death of the Messiah], pp. 42-45). There are some 230 verses common (verbatim or nearly so) to the two that are not found in Mark; they place this shared non-Marcan material in entirely different contexts, and this is one reason why it is unlikely that the one took it from the other and so knew the other. Luke’s dependence on Matthew is urged by some scholars, but there are strong reasons against it (such as his failure to reproduce any of the material special to Matthew in his passion narrative). If, then, the common non-Marcan 230 verses were not taken from the one by the other, they must derive from a common non-Marcan Greek source not now extant and known as Q (German Quelle = source). They consist mainly of sayings of Jesus, and so Q is known alternatively as the ‘sayings source’. In sum, the majority view is that Matthew and Luke each independently used two sources, Mark and Q (each supplementing them with a certain amount of material that is not shared). (The Jesus Legend, p. 97)

So Wells has come to see that the sayings source derives from an actually existing personage, whose name is not known (that name could have been Jesus, or the sayings could easily been posthumously credited to the Jesus of the new Christ cult), but “who is not to be identified with the dying and rising Christ of the early epistles.” So if you want the person behind the history here, look to Q.

David wrote:

In a lecture given in 2003, he admits that Paul probably did believe that Jesus was an actual Jewish man who was crucified. (

Since you apparently did not see it before, I’ll quote Wells again on this point:

My view is that Paul knew next to nothing of the earthly life of Jesus, and did not have in mind any definite historical moment for his crucifixion. As we saw, holy Jews had been crucified alive in the first and second centuries BC, but traditions about these events, and about the persecuted Teacher of Righteousness, could well have reached Paul without reference to times and places, and he need not have regarded their occurrences as anything like as remote in time as they in fact were. Whenever it was that Jesus had lived obscurely and died, he had, for Paul, returned promptly after death to heaven; and the evidence for this exaltation, and indeed for his whole religious significance, was his recent appearances to Paul and to contemporaries of Paul which signaled that the final events which would end the world were imminent. Thus even if the death and resurrection were put at some indefinite time past, it remains quite intelligible that Christianity did not originate before the opening decades of the first century AD. Nor need any supposed relevance to Jesus of the Wisdom literature have been appreciated earlier. (Can We Trust the New Testament?, p. 34)

David asked:

How do you square this with your statement given your relied on Wells for nearly all citations made during our interection?

As I explained in a discussion I had regarding similar issues:

Where Doherty may be regarded as a "mythicist," I can be regarded as a "legendist" - I think it's clearly the case that the stories we read in the gospels and the book of Acts are the product of legendary developments, regardless of whether or not Mark came first, regardless of whether or not there was ultimately a human being named Jesus which initially inspired sacred stories messianic heroism.

The citations I've made from Wells' earlier books did not consist of arguments seeking to conclude that Jesus never existed. Rather, they help show how the story of Jesus grew as a legend.

by Dawson Bethrick


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Another Response to David, Part 3: The Usual Pagan Suspects

David attributed the following two quotes to G.A. Wells:

Before 90 AD, Jesus remained an undated, mysterious figure about whom virtually nothing was known or reported (Did Jesus Exist? pgs. 47, 65; HEJ, 217-220).

I did not find this quote on p. 47 of Wells’ Did Jesus exist? (I saw a full-page chart instead), nevertheless it reads like something he would write and describes his position. It may be that you have a different edition from mine? Or, you’re paraphrasing Wells?

You quoted Wells again:

Jesus is not linked with a recognizable historical situation in any document (Christian, Jewish or pagan) that can be proved to have originated before about AD 100" (Did Jesus Exist?, pg. 215)

Yes, Wells writes this, and does so at the point where you cite him. You then registered your thoughts in response to these quotes:

Now those are some big statements, and you would immediately wonder what he does about all the external attestation (Josephus, Tacitus, and later Papias, Thallus, Lucian, Pliny, etc…) Easy, he rejects them.

Wells’ assessments of these sources are completely tenable. He does not simply “reject” them, as if he didn’t have any interaction with opposing arguments. Wells’ treatment of Tacitus, for instance, is worth quoting at length since he has been accused of rushing to judgment before:

The one pagan reference to which appeal is still commonly made is the statement of Tacitus that Christians ‘derived their name and origin from Christ, who, in the reign of Tiberiius, had suffered death by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate’. Tacitus wrote this about AD 120, and by then Christians had themselves come to believe that Jesus had died in this way. I tried to show ([The Historical Evidence For Jesus], p 17) that there are good reasons for supposing that Tacitus was simply repeating what was then the Christian view, and that he is therefore not an independent witness. I did not (as I have been accused of doing) assume that Tacitus was repeating what contemporary Christians believed. I gave reasons for thinking this to be probable, which is quite a different thing. Trilling, even though an orthodox apologist, goes so far as to state that ‘what Tacitus actually says could have reached him from any educated contemporary’ and is ‘no more than what could be learned anywhere in Rome’ ([Fragen zur Geschichtlichkeit Jesu], pp 58-9). But in thus conceding the main point at issue Trilling has obscured the fact that Tacitus obviously considered it necessary to explain to his educated readers what manner of persons Christians are. He evidently did not expect the educated public of his own day to know, even though, in the same context, he implies that as early as Nero’s reign (fifty years earlier) the common people of Rome knew and hated them. This is valuable evidence that Chrisitanity had made little headway among the educated Romans of Tacitus’ day. How came it, then, that he himself knew something of them? As governor of Asia about AD 112 he may well have had the same kind of trouble with them that Pliny experienced as governor of Bithynia at the very time... The cities of Asia included some of the earliest Christian congregations (Rev. 1:4) and may well have been the foci for active disturbance between pagan and Christian: for some of these cites were ‘centres of a strong national Roman feeling... The emperor-cult was especially vigorous in that region, and the older deities also had not lost their hold on the enthusiastic devotion of the populace’ (Merrill, [Essays in Early Christian History], p 97). Merrill adds wryly that ‘it is altogether likely that Tacitus returned to Rome from his province with no favourable opinion indeed of Christianity, but with some knowledge of it that he might not have acquired without his period of official service in the particular province, and that his fellow-citizens of his own class at Rome would hardly be expected to possess’.(Did Jesus exist?, pp. 13-14)

While Wells puts Tacitus’ writing of his Annals at “about AD 120,” other sources put it to AD 115-117, while several which I have looked at put Tacitus’ death at AD 117. Nevertheless, all sources seem to agree that Tacitus was writing after AD 110, which is sufficiently later than the time when the Christian story of Jesus as we have it in the gospels would have gelled in the minds of adherents. Needless to say, this is after AD 90, and here Wells is not simply dismissing Tacitus as a source of independent testimony, but is in fact giving reasons why Tacitus need not be taken seriously as an independent source confirming the gospel depiction of Jesus.

In regard to Josephus, Wells devotes an entire section of his The Jesus Myth (pp. 200-221) to dealing with both the Testimonium as well as with the so-called ‘shorter passage’, both of which hard-line literalists insist that we accept as authentically Josephan testimonies verifying the existence of the Jesus of the gospels. Wells cannot be accused of merely “rejecting” Josephus as an independent source confirming the portrait of Jesus found in the gospels,

With regard to Josephus, Wells devotes an entire section of his The Jesus Myth (pp. 200-221) to his defense of the position that the two passages in Josephus’ The Antiquities of the Jews are Christian interpolations. Wells is not alone in this view; he cites numerous authorities on the matter who are inclined towards this same conclusion. That Wells is not simply parroting what others have written is clear with the fact that he also interacts with several sources which argue for their authenticity. It should be no surprise that I am persuaded that Wells (along with numerous other scholars) is right.

Wells addresses the issue of Thallus in his book The Jesus Legend (pp. 43-46), where he points to disagreements among scholars on when Thallus supposedly wrote, something that is quite difficult to determine since his writings do not survive (what we know of him comes to us from Sextus Julius Africanus, who wrote in the third century and quotes Thallus briefly).

Also, see Richard Carrier’s Thallus: An Analysis, which is a good overview of the matter.

In regard to Pliny, again Wells does not simply dismiss him as if he did not exist, but gives good reasons why his testimony does nothing to vouchsafe Christianity’s claims for the historicity of the gospel Jesus. Wells writes of Pliny:

It is clear from what he says that his only knowledge of these people [i.e., Christians in his province Bythinia-Pontus] was what he had extracted from them under interrogation, namely that their convictions amounted to “a perverse and extravagant superstition”, involving (among other things) reciting “a form of words to Christ as a god”. Whether this ‘Christ’ they worshipped had been on earth as a man will have been of no interest either to him or to [Emperor] Trajan. What worried them was that Christians were holding meetings which, because of Christian unwillingness to make due obeisance to the emperor, might have been seditious; they were not concerned about whether there was any historical basis to Christian doctrinal niceties. (The Jesus Legend, p. 41)

On p. 43 of the same book Wells quotes J.J. Walsh (“On Christian Atheism,” Vigiliae Christianae, 45 (1991, pp. 264-65) who points out that “Pliny evidently knew next to nothing not only about the sect but about his own government’s policy towards the sect,” since the purpose of his writing about the troublesome Christians in his province to Trajan was to ask for guidance on how he should deal with them.

David wrote:

What degree of specialization does he possess relevant to the subject area? None.

If by 'degree' you mean a certificate of completion from some college course, I don't know. Wells is a professor of German, and many have used this fact to dismiss him as unqualified to speak on these matters. In other words, because the source (Wells himself) is not decorated by some accredited institution in the very field of Christian origins, nothing he argues can be taken seriously. Never mind his arguments, the data he collects to support his conclusions, his observations based on a familiarity with the subject matter which goes back for decades (his first book on Christianity being published in 1971)

Wells’ expert command of German, however, does afford him access to a wealth of literature in the field of New Testament studies, because so much literature in the last 200 years in this field is native to this language. Freke and Gandy make the following pertinent point:

Eager to distance themselves from Rome, German Protestant scholars began to search the gospels for the real Jesus. Even up to the present day the majority of such scholars have themselves been Christians, since a theological career at a German university is closed to those who have not been baptized. Yet despite this, rather than giving Christianity a firm historical foundation, as they hoped, Protestant scholars’ three centuries of intense scholarship have undermined the literal figure of Jesus completely. (The Jesus Mysteries, p. 146)

Of course, we can dismiss Wells because he’s not a professor of New Testament Greek if you like.

David wrote:

Now given I don’t think you have to be a New Testament historian or textual critic to be critical, but when you’re going to swim upstream and insist on largely abandoned styles of form criticism you’re making a tall order.

Maybe it's time that someone makes this "tall order"? Then again, asking me to believe that a universe-creating, reality-ruling deity incarnated itself in the form of a human being born of a virgin in first century Palestine, was crucified, entombed and resurrected, and later ascended back to heaven, is not a tall order? Meanwhile, referring to Wells' case as "a tall order" simply because he does not have, say, a Ph.D in New Testament Studies, ignores his heavy reliance on scholars who do. Besides, would it really make any difference if Wells did have a Ph.D in New Testament Studies? Would this suddenly bestow his arguments with a gleam that would capture your attention and make you say, "Hey, this guy's onto something!"? My suspicion is that, even if Wells had 10 doctorates in fields ranging from ancient history, New Testament studies, theology, patristic literature, etc., believers would still find ways to dismiss his verdicts, in spite of the artificial requirement to possess such certifications.

I say artificial here because such a requirement is never an issue when it comes to believing the literalist Christian view of the New Testament. If an individual affirms that everything in the New Testament is historically true, why doesn't he need all these degrees in order to make such an assessment? It is, after all, an assessment, no? For Christians, you can be a high school drop-out ditch-digger who couldn’t the word ‘truth’ if asked to, and still "know" that the New Testament is authentic history, but you have to have degrees up the wazoo in order to challenge such affirmations. This may not reflect your view personally, David, but special pleading of this kind is not uncommon from Christians. It seems that apologists, out of desperation, will reach for anything in order to dismiss challenges to their faith. After all, it is a matter of faith, is it not?

David wrote:

Wells more recently questions the seriousness of the Jesus quests :

The theological world is now in the midst of what is known as "The Third Quest for the Historical Jesus". J. P. Meier allows that "all too often the first and second quests were theological projects masquerading as historical projects" (art. cit., p. 463). We shall see whether their successor fares any better.” (G. A. Wells Replies to Criticisms of his Books on Jesus, 2000)

I would like to interact with Wells personally someday, but I think he’s a bit old for such affairs and admittedly gets on the Internet infrequently.

I would love to be able to engage an ongoing discussion with Dr. Wells myself. But alas, I don’t know how I would even try to do this. The most I’ve been able to accomplish are brief exchanges with David Kelley (an Objectivist philosopher) and Peter Thomas (narrator of ‘Forensic Files’). I’m a big fan of both. To add G.A. Wells to this mix... well, that’d be like having sat down with the Holy Trinity for me.

David wrote:

J.P. Holding did have some interaction with him: Tektonics

Your link did not work, but regardless, I tend not to go to Tektonics unless I'm looking for a source of low entertainment. Turkel is in constant sneer mode and clearly resents anyone who does not share his views. I have come to expect from him only the most expedient of apologetic tactics.

I wrote:

Similarly with the events described in the gospels themselves: how can we know which year, according to the event sequences given in the gospels, when Jesus was crucified?

In response to this, David quoted Luke 3:1:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene

He David wrote:

Tiberius became emperor in August, AD 14 which places John’s ministry at October, AD 27. Given the 3 Passover feasts described in John, this would place the crucifixion at AD 30. External sources corroborate that Pilate was Roman governor of Judea, Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee, and Caiaphas was Jewish high priest. Specifically one of these sources would have no reason to acknowledge or accredit Christianity: the Jewish Mishnah and Talmuds. Five of Christ’s disciples are named therein (see Klausner, The Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 18) Ok, nice but big deal right? Well, if multiple methods of computation bring us to the same date this strengthens the conclusion (and also cast doubt on collaborative effort among the authors). As you know source criticism plays a large role in this, which is why the question of Q-source and Markan priority are important.

Luke 3:1 is about probably the closest (and only) reference in the gospels themselves which can be used to date any of the events they speak of. But even this is not as exacting and definite as David would have it. In his essay Jesus Variants, Peter Kirby points out the following:

From the data provided by Josephus, we estimate that Pilate was prefect of Judea from 26 to 36 CE. The canonical Gospels do tell us that the crucifixion of Jesus was under Pilate and that its day was in some relation to the Passover, which after much puzzling over calendrical systems has produced the dates of 30 and 33 as the most popular years for scholars to place the death of Jesus. (Meier's A Marginal Jew, vol. 1, is a good source for this scholarship, with a favored year of 30 CE.) But none of the canonical Gospels give us data that would allow us to fix the date at 33 CE precisely. The closest thing to an absolute reference for dating in the Gospels is in reference to the start of John the Baptist's ministry in "the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" (Luke 3:1) which may be 27 or 28 or 29 CE depending on the method of calculation of the regnal years. Even if there were no data that contradicted a date of the death of Jesus as being 33 CE, there is no ancient source that says this in the first place, so it shouldn't be on the list.

So while the date in mind here “may be 27 or 28 or 29 CE depending on the method of calculation of the regnal years,” Luke 3:1 does narrow the timeframe significantly. However, it hardly puts to rest any question on the possibility of legendary development. In the authentically Pauline letters, there is no reference to a crucifixion under Pilate (I Timothy, which offers the New Testament’s sole reference to Pilate outside of the gospels and Acts, is pseudonymous). Wells’ view is that Pilate came to be linked with Jesus’ crucifixion as a natural consequence of two distinct streams of tradition – the view of Jesus in Paul’s letters and the Galilean preacher of Q – being fused into one as we find in the latter part of the first century.

First recall the points Wells makes about the Jesus we read about in Paul’s letters:

My view is that Paul knew next to nothing of the earthly life of Jesus, and did not have in mind any definite historical moment for his crucifixion. As we saw, holy Jews had been crucified alive in the first and second centuries BC, but traditions about these events, and about the persecuted Teacher of Righteousness, could well have reached Paul without reference to times and places, and he need not have regarded their occurrences as anything like as remote in time as they in fact were. Whenever it was that Jesus had lived obscurely and died, he had, for Paul, returned promptly after death to heaven; and the evidence for this exaltation, and indeed for his whole religious significance, was his recent appearances to Paul and to contemporaries of Paul which signaled that the final events which would end the world were imminent,,, Thus even if the death and resurrection were put at some indefinite time past, it remains quite intelligible that Christianity did not originate before the opening decades of the first century AD. Nor need any supposed relevance to Jesus of the Wisdom literature have been appreciated earlier. (Can We Trust the New Testament?, p. 34)

The earliest known tradition of Jesus has him crucified at some unspecified time in the past, treated by Paul as if it were not at all recent, without any indication of the circumstances or place of his crucifixion. The earthly life of Paul’s Jesus is as hazy as a wispy vapor. But as interest in Jesus grew, it would be natural for enthusiasts to wonder about Jesus’ earthly life.

Movement towards dating the earthly life of the Pauline Jesus in a relatively recent past is intelligible even without the influence on later Christians of Q: For Paul’s Jesus came to Earth “when the time had fully come” (Gal. 4:4), and this soon developed in Pauline-type communities into the more specific statement that he had lived “at the end of the times” (Hebrews 9:26; 1 Peter 1:20). Even if this originally meant no more than that his first coming had inaugurated the final epoch (however long) of history (the epoch that would culminate in his return as judge), it would in time be taken to mean that he had lived in the recent past. And to post-Pauline and post-Q Christians of the late first century, familiar as they were with crucifixion as a Roman punishment, his death by crucifixion – already attested by Paul, but not given any historical context in his nor in other early epistles – would have suggested death at Roman hands, and hence during the Roman occupation of Judea from A.D. 6. From such a premises, coupled with the Q datum of Jesus as a contemporary of John the Baptist, Pilate would naturally come to mind as his murderer, for he was particularly detested by the Jews, and is indeed the only one of the prefects who governed Judea between A.D. 6 and 41 to be discussed in any detail by the two principal Jewish writers of the first century, Philo and Josephus. (The Jesus Myth, p. 104)

If you place yourself in the Corinthian church of the day, before the gospels were written and circulated, going by the content of Paul’s letters you would probably wonder who this Jesus was. Yes, there would be the post-resurrection appearances that were pointed to as vouchsafing salvation and eternal life. But there would also probably be this lingering sense of wonder about who Jesus was during his earthly life. What was known of this at the time? Paul’s letters indicate that Jesus was crucified, but they do not indicate a time or place or specify the circumstances of this event. Also, Paul treats the earthly Jesus as “emptied” of his supernatural powers and status, living in humility and obscurity. The door was thus opened to the imagination, if to nothing else, and as oral traditions were developed and various views were amalgamated (a fact to which Paul’s own letters testify), it’s hard to see how any traditions which would have eventually prevailed could not involve at least some groping and invention. The Wisdom literature and Old Testament prophets and poetry supplied many of the details which would later be incorporated into the portraits of Jesus. But at this point, we’re not dealing with historical accounts, but theological concoction.

David wrote:

Nevertheless, if multiple independent attestations can be sufficiently demonstrated, then the historicity of an event is very probable even to the most skeptical historians (Ehrman, Borg, etc…).

Even if we did have this in the case of the gospels, this would not seal the case for the historicity of the resurrection. Besides, what we have in the case of the gospels is a clear line of dependence, embellishment and development. Matthew and Luke were obviously using Mark's narrative as a model for their own (so they are not "independent sources"), and John's gospel is built on traditions which show at least some familiarity with the basic outline of that model (preaching ministry followed by passion narrative and post-resurrection appearances). Indeed, it is where the authors embellished their own versions of the narrative that variations in the story are most pronounced.

David points to Papias as “external attestation” of Mark, which he dates to 110 AD (some sources, such as this one, dates Papias’ writings to AD 130 or even later):

Mark indeed, since he was the interpreter of Peter, wrote accurately, but not in order, the things either said or done by the Lord as much as he remembered. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed Him, but afterwards, as I have said, [heard and followed] Peter, who fitted his discourses to the needs [of his hearers] but not as if making a narrative of the Lord's sayings'; consequently, Mark, writing down some things just as he remembered, erred in nothing; for he was careful of one thing - not to omit anything of the things he heard or to falsify anything in them.

Christian apologist Richard Bauckham, acknowledges that the prevailing view among scholars is that Papias’ statements here are “historically worthless” as evidence for the Christian view. Bauckham writes:

What Papias says here about the Gospel of mark is the earliest explicit occurrence of the claim that Peter's teaching lies behind this Gospel. It was therefore subjected to close scrutiny and discussion during the first hundred years or more of modern Gospels scholarship. Some scholars up to the present time have continued to treat it very seriously as important evidence about the origins of the Gospel of Mark, but during the twentieth century it came to be widely regarded as historically worthless. Although the attribution of the Gospel to a certain Mark may be accurate, there is no reason, according to this widespread view, to suppose that this was the John Mark of the New Testament (Acts and Epistles), since this Latin name (Marcus) was in very common use, in Greek (Markos) as well as Latin. We know from Eusebius that Papias cited 1 Peter (Hist. Eccl. 3.39.17), almost certainly as evidence of the close association of Peter with the Mark known from the New Testament. (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p. 203)

In spite of this widespread conclusion among the scholarly community, Bauckham proceeds to argue for the validity of Papias as a reliable witness. In his essay Was Papias a Reliable Witness? Paul Tobin interacts with Bauckham’s case and concludes that, “Contrary to Bauckham, the consensus position is firmly in place: Papias’ witness is ‘historically worthless’.”

David wrote:

As I have pointed out to Robert, if the early Christian community was pumping out lies left and right to build their case for Christ, why not put Peter at the pen on this document instead of Mark who was not an eyewitness? Especially at the time Papias was writing, when the apostolic pedestal found its high point.

It needs to be borne in mind that, certainly by the time of Papias (which is after the gospel narratives had in one form or another become part of Christianity), believers like Papias thought they were passing on tradition. I would not look to Papias as an inventor, but more of a popularizer. As for how the author of the gospel we call Mark came to be a person named Mark associated with Peter, Wells explains this as follows:

The ascription of titles, in so far as its basis can be inferred at all, seems to have been a haphazard business. Beare writes in this connection of ‘second-century guesses’ ([The Earliest Records of Jesus], p 13). Mk., for instance, acquired its title probably because ‘my son Mark’ is mentioned as a close associate of ‘Peter the apostle’ who poses as the author of I Peter (1:1 and 5:13). This epistle of the late first or early second century, influenced as it is by Pauline theology, introduces ‘Mark’ as a personage familiar from the Pauline letters (Coloss. 4:10) in order to create the authentic Pauline atmosphere. Nonetheless, it was probably this mention of Mark in a work ascribed to Peter that originated the tradition (preserved by Papias, AD 140) that Mk. was written by one Mark who took down the spoken recollections of Peter ([Haenchen, Der Weg Jesu], p 8). This traditions was not finally discredited until the rise of form-criticism. At the beginning of this century orthodox commentators on Mk. still insisted that the gospel is a unitary composition, owing its unity to the author’s dependence on the eye-witness Peter for all its information. The change in critical standpoint is at once obvious from comparison with Taylor’s – also orthodox – commentary (first published in 1952), where stress is laid upon the great diversity of the traditions which Mark collected after they had already been used in the teaching and preaching of the Church. (Did Jesus exist?, p. 77)

Bauckham (a Christian apologist) confirms Wells’ hypothesis when he writes:

Papias, it is suggested, wishing to give apostolic authority to a Gospel ascribed to an unknown author called Mark, used 1 Pet 5:13 to identify this Mark with Peter's close associate, thus creating the connection he asserts between the Gospel and Peter. (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p. 204)

So if Papias was simply preserving what had come to him as a tradition, there is no need to paint him as a brazen inventor of would-be history. As for I Peter, I’ve already raised pertinent questions on the authorship of this letter in my blog Did the Author of I Peter See the Risen Jesus of the Gospels?.

Surely more to come.

by Dawson Bethrick


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Another Response to David, Part 2: The Witness of Paul

In this blog I continue my interaction with David’s 16 August comments to my blog In Response to David on I Corinthians 15:3-8.

David wrote:

On several counts, you project your modern understanding back into ancient context:

quoting me:

They obviously do not have a physical person in mind when they make these kinds of declarations, so why suppose the early Christians were speaking about a physical Jesus when they claimed to have "witnessed" him?" If the word “witness” enjoys a very loose meaning for many of today’s Christians (and it very often does), why suppose it didn’t enjoy similar flexibility among the early Christians?

David continued:

A word’s current usage cannot be transferred anachronistically “backwords” (get it?).

Looking at it again, I actually think it’s the other way around: Christians today have adopted the bible’s own looseness of meaning of the word ‘witness’ into their conversation today (just as they have in the case of other words, like love, peace, rest, etc.). This actually makes even more sense, for what are they taking as their model for usage of the word ‘witness’ if not what the bible itself says? So I’m committing no fallacy here. Christians of all ages seem to think of themselves as “witnesses of the spirit.” Unger’s elucidates this as “the direct testimony of the Holy Spirit to true believers as to their acceptance with God and their adoption into the divine household” (The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p. 1370). Unger’s goes on to say that “the two classic passages upon which this doctrine is especially based are Rom. 8:16; Gal. 4:6,” and claims that “the witness of the Spirit is to be regarded as a sequence to or reward of saving faith” (Ibid.). If it is legitimate for believers to consider themselves “witnesses of the spirit” in this or some roughly similar sense, why would it be illegitimate for them to consider themselves witnesses of Jesus when they experience an appearance of Jesus before them, as in the case of the waking fantasies which many Christians I have known personally claimed to have experienced?

When Peter gives his sermon in Acts ch. 2, and says (v. 32) “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses,” what do you think he means? No gospel account puts anyone with Jesus in the tomb when his dead body was supposedly brought back to life.

In Acts 4:32-34 we find the following passage:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold

The word ‘witness’ here seems so out of place on my (21st century) understanding of the concept for which it stands. But I’ll try to be flexible. For the early Christians, the use of ‘witness’ here was not illegitimate. For them, the dramatic change in the people’s response provided “witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” What is perhaps anachronistic is my assessment of such usage as loose, for this is not how I would use the word. But clearly Christians of the 1st century using the word ‘witness’ to include in its scope of reference spiritual objects (which is all I had in mind in my statement above) is not at all anachronistic.

David wrote:

The error is counted doubly when you attempt the feat with two different languages. (Carson, Exegetical Fallacies pg 33)

Perhaps your complaint is better directed to the translators of our modern English bibles, for they are using the word ‘witness’ in a variety of ways (I count 93 instances of the word ‘witness’ in my King James Version, and the meaning seems to flex through a multitude of senses) and while definitions are rarely if ever explicit in the bible, the New Testament’s usage of ‘witness’ does not at all seem incompatible with my point above, which you have sought to challenge in this way. If Paul had a waking fantasy of Jesus, like today’s Christians have, why wouldn’t he think of himself as a witness to Jesus? Even the book of Acts does not have the physical post-resurrection Jesus of the gospels paying a visit to Paul as they have him do before his immediate apostles before his ascension. And Paul in no way distinguishes between the experience of Jesus that he claims others have had, and his own. Would you not consider Paul a witness? That would seem quite strange, but I know that apologetic defenses can lead believers into very strange (and undesirable) positions.

I wrote:

If I had seen a man who was actually resurrected from the grave, whom I thought was "the Son of God," I would waste no time in writing down exactly what I had seen, where I had seen it and when I had seen it. If I knew of others who had the same experience, I would not hesitate to get their testimony down in writing, or at least to have them endorse such statements of witness. But that's me.

David responded:

Do you live in the oral culture of first century Palestine? If you did chances are you’d be illiterate, and if you could read and write could you afford it? How could you assure the transmission of your document?

Yes, my point above does assume literate capacity, and no, we both know that neither of us lives in first century Palestine. My point here is one of character: I would not be sloth in broadcasting my witness, especially if I were personally charged by a great commission. I certainly would not wait 20, 30 or more years before getting my experience documented, during which time my memory of it could easily atrophy or distort my recollection of the event. As for whether or not I could “afford it,” well, again, I’m not there, so this question seems deliberately unanswerable. Similarly with your question about assuring the transmission of my document. How did the author of the gospel according to Matthew assure the transmission of his document? Or did he? Other individuals spread throughout the intervening centuries seem to be creditable for this task, not the author himself.

Now your objection is sensible on the basis of my worldview, for the concerns you raise would impact the situation. But how could it be sensible on the basis of the Christian worldview, where naturalistic constraints like the one you raise should ultimately be of no concern? Would a supernatural deity appear only before the illiterate? Christians are always trying to tell us that it’s a fallacy to assume everyone “back then” was illiterate, uneducated, unscientific, superstitious, etc. (and I don’t, by the way). But we can’t have it both ways here. If Jesus appeared only to the illiterate, I’d say that was a bad choice on his part. Also, if he did appear to only illiterate persons, why should this matter? Jesus is supernatural, and could easily empower an illiterate person with supreme fluency in a multitude of languages if he wanted to. In fact, the writer’s sudden ability to write could itself be evidence of Jesus’ supernaturalism, something the gospel writers were so eager to insert into their stories.

See how supernaturalism takes the apologetic backseat here? No, I do not live in the oral culture of first century Palestine, and you know it. I know this too. And the chances that had I lived in those days I’d most likely be illiterate is ultimately irrelevant. Would this stop a supernatural deity? Why think it would? Your response here assumes naturalistic constraints. Why would these apply if Christianity’s supernaturalism is true? Having to acquire literacy in order to write is understandable on my worldview, which recognizes the primacy of existence and therefore does not presume to fake the nature of the human mind. But Christianity denies the primacy of existence. What guided Matthew’s hand in penning his gospel, if not a divine hand, according to Christianity? What force assured the transmission of his gospel through the ages and into our hands, if not a divine force, according to Christianity?

It seems more and more that the authors of the New Testament texts were just as bound to the reality I know as I am. Their stories suggest otherwise, but the textual development speaks louder than this.

David wrote:

Even granting your position for the sake of internal critique, how many average people in our modern society have ever written a historical account of some life changing event they experienced?

I don’t have the statistics on this, nor would I see this as at all relevant. My point above was a testament to my own character, not to some ad populum law of averages. This should be clear from the leading statement: “If I had seen a man who was actually resurrected from the grave…” Then again, I’ve observed many people writing about things that have happened in their own lives. For many years I kept a diary, and often I would record things that happened, especially those that had a profound impact on my life. But then again, that’s me. I’ve known some others who claimed to have done this themselves, but diaries tend to be private (until they’re posthumously published, in some cases).

David wrote:

How about the Virginia Tech mass homicide? This was a major event to witness. Who decides – and why – whether or not it’s a major event? I was going to school at James Madison University at the time (2 hours down the road), and saw no written accounts circulating amongst my close friends who were only several feet away from the killer that day. Indeed not even blogging about their experiences?”

I wasn’t there, but I blogged about it shortly after it happened on two occasions. See my blog Virginia Tech and also Christian Reaction to Virginia Tech.

There were also news reports about the event for days and weeks afterwards, many of them including interviews with firsthand witnesses.

I am close friends with a man whose son was a student at Columbine when Klebold and Harris went on their rampage. My friend (also named David) wrote to me several times about his son’s experience shortly after the incident. I don’t know if his son ever wrote about it (I wouldn’t expect a 13-year-old to write much about anything), but that’s irrelevant.

But the incident at Virginia Tech is hardly analogous to a religious experience like a resurrected man-god walking and talking with you and commanding you to go tell the world. It seems that Peter and co. took their sweet time in fulfilling this commandment.

David wrote:

No, but they told me plenty about it. Even if they did write some of it down, would it still be around in a couple of millennia? Maybe so with today’s standards, but I don’t think that even close to a reasonable expectation for 30 AD.

What if their actions were guided by an irresistible supernatural force? I mean, let’s compare apples to apples here, shall we? Did any of your close friends report that they feel moved by a supernatural force to tell the world about this event, and yet fail to do so? The gospels are supposed to be divinely inspired, are they not? That is what I was always taught. Given this, I don’t know why Christians would care whether or not they were written by eyewitnesses. Eyewitnesses could be relying on so-called “autonomous thinking” in determining what they witnessed, or they could have difficulty distinguishing between “the wisdom of God” and “the wisdom of the world,” which Paul rejects, relying on their own judgment of what they observed instead of “letting go and letting God.” An eyewitness account might take one’s own interpretation of what one perceives as authoritative in understanding it. But if man’s mental faculties are contaminated by “the curse of sin” as so many Christians claim, then it seems that one would want something stronger than this. Indeed, for the Christian, what could be more reliable than divine inspiration? What could be authoritative than a testimony like, “I wasn’t there, but here’s what God told me to record”? When we get to Paul, what exactly do we have? He bases what he tells us in his letters on the claim that he received a revelation from God. The appeal to eyewitness accounts seems to be an unwitting reversion to a form of naturalism, for it does not rely on appeals to supernatural transmission of knowledge. Instead, it relies on the senses and one’s own cognitive faculties, but if “God be true, but every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4), why should we take testimony of this sort seriously?

David wrote:

Geisler (same book) points out it may very well be the case that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, and James were among the 500 as well as nine who are elsewhere named Apostles (Geisler/Turek, pg 248); if he’s right then there are written accounts.

Well, since Paul never names any of the 500 people he mentions in passing in I Cor. 15, we could say anyone living at the time was among them. In fact, on Christianity’s supernaturalism, we could go well beyond this, and say that some or all of the 500 people had been dead for decades or centuries prior, and rose out of their graves a la Mt. 27:52-53, and gathered to see the post-resurrection Jesus. Or, maybe these were people from later centuries transported back in time to see the post-resurrected Jesus. Or, maybe they came from other planets. Since we’re asked to conclude that Christianity’s supernaturalism is “the best explanation” of the data, on what basis could we discount these alternatives?

I wrote:

Paul nowhere suggests that Jesus had taught these things during his life on earth. But that’s what we find when we get to the gospels: Jesus marching a squad of disciples through the ancient countryside between various towns in Palestine performing miracles, healing the blind, the lame and the infirm, giving moral instruction and teaching in the form of parables. We never learn any of this from Paul.

David responded:

It’s as if you are surprised by the fact that Paul was writing letters on the road and not historical narrative.

No, that is not what surprises me. Paul may have been writing on the road (and writing on the road 2000 years ago would not be like writing on the road today – I know, I’ve done a lot of travel, both domestic and overseas, and today we move very quickly by comparison), but this did not prevent him from quoting OT sources and giving moral teachings of his own. Had he known that Jesus had taught the same things, I find it surprising that he did not appeal to Jesus’ authority. And if Paul were guided by a supernatural force (e.g., “the Holy Spirit”), and/or his hand was divinely inspired to write what he wrote, why should writing on the road be any kind of impediment? Then later we have stories which put Jesus into a historical setting where he does give the teachings that Paul gives as his own. If the gospels are true, I would find this quite surprising, perplexing even. But since it is the kind of thing we’d expect to see if the later narratives were literary developments rather than histories, it’s not at all surprising. What’s surprising at this point is how eager believers are to “soldier on” in spite of all the problems their position faces and cannot surmount.

David wrote:

Was Paul’s purpose in writing those letters to give exhaustive account of Jesus’ earthly ministry? No.

Paul need not have given an “exhaustive account of Jesus’ earthly ministry” in order to document knowledge of one. Indeed, we do not even learn from Paul that Jesus ever had an earthly ministry. Informative mentionings of it here and there would be quite adequate to establish his knowledge of it. And since he is said to have conferred with people who traveled with Jesus on that ministry, I would expect that he would have known about it.

David wrote:

Would these references have made his arguments more compelling? Perhaps to you, but where has it been argued that the original intended audience shares your worldview?

Why would they need to share my worldview in order for references to Jesus’ earthly ministry to be compelling? My worldview does not accept claims on the basis of supernatural authority in the first place, so your question here seems quite misdirected. Preachers today who are addressing people who share their own worldview are constantly drawing on the narratives of Jesus’ earthly life in order to buttress their points and make them more compelling. That Paul does not is quite curious. My evaluation here is not laden with anachronistic fallacy, either, since the earthly life that the gospel narratives give to Jesus is supposed to have taken place prior to Paul’s ministry, and Paul determined to “preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:23) and “not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2). And even with these declarations, Paul never indicates the time, the place or the situation of Jesus’ crucifixion.

David write:

So why blame Paul for not fulfilling your requirements when they are incompatible with Paul’s authorial intent?

Is it really “incompatible with Paul’s authorial intent” to cite Jesus for teachings which, according to the gospels, he gave? Is it really “incompatible with Paul’s authorial intent” to mention things like Jesus being born of a virgin, being baptized by John the Baptist, gathering a band of twelve disciples and journeying with them to places like Galilee, Capernaum, Jerusalem, performing miracles, curing diseases, teaching in parables, quarreling with the chief priests, etc.? Come now, David, in your zeal to exonerate Paul’s conspicuous silences, you’ve not only confirmed that Paul was silent on the points in question, you’ve also wandered into the preposterous in order to defend them.

David wrote:

1 Corinthians 9:10 ‘To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband’. Now why does Paul put this moral teaching in Jesus’ mouth, and then immediately afterwards clarify something that he is saying instead of Jesus? Indeed this teaching was nothing new (Gen 2:24; Mal 2:16).

As you point out, Paul most likely got this teaching from the OT and since the OT was held with veneration, it is a teaching that is attributable to “the Lord”. On many occasions Paul recasts OT teachings as if they were part of the rollout of a new covenant.

Still more to come!

by Dawson Bethrick


Monday, August 25, 2008

Another Response to David, Part 1: The Charge of Strawman

On 16 August David, who has been interacting with my views on early Christianity, submitted a lengthy and thoughtful comment. As I dove into considering the points he raised against me in his comment, my counter-response itself began to grow in length and substance. So I have decided to roll out my response to David in stages on my blog, since many of the points which have subsequently come up are worthy of discussion in their own right.

To begin, I want to quote GA Wells who summarizes some relevant points which should be borne in mind throughout the following exchange:

As the substance of the gospels is so much better known than that of the epistles, it is difficult for the reader of the latter to peruse them without – consciously or otherwise – interpreting them from his knowledge of the former. One must constantly remind oneself that, as the gospels did not exist when Paul wrote, one has no right to assume, prior to investigation, that the traditions which came to be embodied in them were known to him, even when appearances suggest this, as in a few cases they do. The most striking example is Paul’s reference to “the brethren of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:5) and to “James the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19), whom he here designates as one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church. We immediately think of those persons designated brothers of Jesus in the gospels, without pausing to ask whether Paul had in mind members of a fraternity, of a small group of Messianists not related to Jesus, but zealous in the service of the risen one. (The Jesus Legend, pp. 26-27)

In the present case, David expressed some confusion on my take on the legend theory. He wrote:

Dawson, in my first response to your blog article, I missed that you were trying to posit that Jesus' existence was legendary. I'm accustomed to people arguing that the resurrection was legendary and not the entire events in the Gospels. Perhaps I will back up a moment since I have gotten a hold of the book you were originally referring to, as well as some of Wells' work.

To clarify my view of Jesus, let me quote myself from a discussion which I had with another Christian on early non-Christian testimony, where I wrote:

Whether or not the gospel of Mark holds priority over the other synoptics is ultimately of little value to my overall view. Where Doherty may be regarded as a "mythicist," I can be regarded as a "legendist" - I think it's clearly the case that the stories we read in the gospels and the book of Acts are the product of legendary developments, regardless of whether or not Mark came first, regardless of whether or not there was ultimately a human being named Jesus which initially inspired sacred stories messianic heroism.

So what I consider legendary are the portraits we have of Jesus in the gospels and the stories of Peter, James and Paul in the book of Acts. This view is not a baseline starting point or root assumption, but the conclusion of an enormous some of consideration. As I state above, whether or not a man named Jesus was crucified at some time in the distant past is really neither here nor there, given this conclusion, of which I am convinced. The earliest Christians did believe that a crucified savior was resurrected, but what this means in terms of specifics is hazy given the way it is treated in the earliest epistolary strata of the New Testament. For instance, the gospels portray Jesus as being resurrected in a physical body, but Paul nowhere specifies that the appearances of Jesus which he mentions were of a physical body. The empty tomb and a physical resurrection seem to be later traditions of which Paul shows no familiarity. Granted that these are highly controversial remarks to Christians, it is important, again, to note that these are conclusions of much consideration of the matter, and I would hope that David and others can appreciate this fact.

David’s first point of business in his lengthy comment was to declare that certain statements that I have made on my blog in response to a passage from Norman Geisler and Frank Turek’s book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, strike him “as quite heavy and unsupported.” Essentially, he believes I have misconstrued their argument. From here forward I will address my comments to David, who wrote:

In your original blog article, you attempted to cast G/T's argument in opposition to your rendition of Wells' legend theory.

I reviewed what I wrote in my initial blog, and I don't see where I put as specific a cast on the section I quoted from Geisler and Turek’s book as you say here. Geisler and Turek are the ones who are saying that Paul's "testimony could describe a legend, because it goes right back to the time and place of the event itself." I'm simply pointing out that this begs the question against the view that Jesus' resurrection is legendary. It begs the question because it assumes the truth of the gospel accounts of the passion (for how else does one figure a date for the resurrection), but that's precisely what's in question vis. the legend theory. Below you mention that there are many different legend theories, which is fine, but which legend theory holds that the resurrection actually happened? For my point here to obtain, the legend theory in question does not need to be Wells’ own, or even my own “rendition” of Well’s theory. For one could, against Wells' earlier views (but in line with his mature view), hold that there was really a man, very possibly named Jesus, who was crucified, but still hold that the resurrection story itself is a legend.

David wrote:

I assumed that G/T was indeed arguing against the legend theory, because normally folks don't simply toss a position at an author and criticize them for not dealing with it when the author didn't aim to in the first place.

Geisler and Turek do not attempt a full-fledged refutation of the legend theory. Rather, they offer a very commonplace dismissals of it in the form of passing blows, in the present case claiming that the earliest testimony of the resurrection is essentially too early for a legend to have developed. This simply assumes that the resurrection actually happened, which – when it comes to considering the legend theory – is precisely what’s in question. I have quoted Geisler and Turek, so there should be no question that they said what I’ve quoted them saying.

David wrote:

I also assumed when you accused professional philosophers of question begging and lying, that perhaps I shouldn't judge until I could have a look at the source.

I certainly have no objection to consulting a source when it's been critiqued to confirm whether or not the critique in question distorts it. For the record, however, I do not consider either Geisler or Turek to be "professional philosophers." They're apologists for a religious view, which in my view is anti-philosophical. But I still have no objection to you checking the source for yourself. That's why I give the book's name and page numbers. It's a way of saying "See for yourself." Wouldn't it have been nice if Paul had done the same when he claims that Jesus appeared to some 500 or so people?

I wrote:

But if the Jesus story were a legend in the first place - the very premise which our authors are trying to defeat, then appealing to what might have happened or could have happened to Jesus' body simply begs the question, for it assumes precisely what they are called to prove: namely that the story we have of Jesus in the New Testament is not legend. If the story about Jesus is merely a legend, then there was no body to crucify and seal in a tomb or parade through the streets of Jerusalem.... Geisler and Turek's book is admittedly aimed more at a popular audience, but it's fair game so far as I see it, and it's typical in regard to how blatantly many Christians beg the question when it comes to how they argue against the legend theory.

David wrote:

Simply put, I think you've built a straw man and forced it to beg the question. Does G/T present Habermas' resurrection argument to conclude that the legend theory is false? No.

As I read it, Geisler and Turek's purpose in citing Habermas appears to be, at the very least, in the interest of establishing the position that I Cor. 15:3-8 contains a quotation from a creed which predates Paul, thus making what we read in Paul earlier than even Paul’s own letter. This fits the overall purpose of the chapter in which the offending passage appears, which they title “Do We Have Early Testimony About Jesus?”

Let’s look specifically at what they write when they invoke Habermas:

"as Gary Habermas points out, most scholars (even liberals) believe that this testimony was part of an early creed that dates right back to the Resurrection itself - eighteen months to eight years after, but some say even earlier." (I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p. 242)

Now it is unclear where Habermas leaves off and Geisler and Turek pick back up. It's clear from what Geisler and Turek give that Habermas has affirmed that "most scholars... believe that this testimony was part of an early creed." But does Habermas also think that "most scholars believe... that [this creed] dates right back to the Resurrection itself"? They do not quote Habermas (according to the book’s index, p. 242 is the first reference to Habermas), but the way they have it does imply that Habermas believes this to be the case. At any rate, Geisler and Turek cite Habermas in order to substantiate the view that the alleged creed contained in I Cor. 15 is so early that it "dates right back to the Resurrection itself," and it is from this that Geisler and Turek go on to assert that "There's no possible way that such testimony could describe a legend, because it goes right back to the time and place of the event itself," which is the statement to which I raised my objection, which you find controversial. In essence, they cite Habermas as an authority in order to support their dismissal of the view that Jesus' resurrection is legendary. I have not mischaracterized Geisler and Turek (or Habermas), nor have I forced their statement into a fallacy which it clearly commits on its own.

David wrote:

Besides the fact that there are all sorts of "legend theories" and Wells is the most extreme, you are missing out on what is actually being argued.

I don't think I've missed what Geisler and Turek were trying to argue. It's pretty clear what they were trying to establish. As for Wells' legend theory, he has modified it in recent years, and I don't think it was ever as radical as Doherty's view.

David wrote:

Generally when New Testament scholars speak of "embellishments" or "legend development" they are not necessarily asserting that the narratives are not without any historical seed at all;

Depending on what "historical seed" is considered to me, this may very well be the case. But I don't think it's relevant in establishing the charge that I have misconstrued Geisler and Turek's points. Wells' more mature line of thinking on the matter, for instance, does concede that there probably was a man, maybe even named Jesus, who died by crucifixion, thus satisfying this common expectation you mention of a "historical seed" element here, and that over time various legends developed about this man who was purportedly resurrected and "seen" in visions or waking fantasies, much like what many of today's Christians have experienced. Wells indicates his updated position in Can We Trust the New Testament? as follows:

The weakness of my earlier position was pressed upon me by J.D.G. Dunn, who objected that we really cannot plausibly assume that such a complex of traditions as we have in the gospels and their sources could have developed within such a short time from the early epistles without a historical basis (Dunn [The Evidence for Jesus], p. 29). My present standpoint is: this complex is not all post-Pauline (Q, or at any rate parts of it, may well be as early as ca. A.D. 50); and – if I am right, against Doherty and Price – it is not all mythical. The essential point, as I see it, is that the Q material, whether or not it suffices as evidence of Jesus’s historicity, refers to a personage who is not to be identified with the dying and rising Christ of the early epistles. (p. 50)

David wrote:

specifically, G/K are not defending against the supposition that Paul took some pagan mythology to wash down his hallucinations, and then regurgitated some no-less-than maniacal letters with which later writers found much accord and fabricated more complex Jesus tales.

Perhaps they aren't. Incidentally, if this comment is intended to reflect Wells' case, I'd recommend a closer study of it.

David wrote:

Indeed, if G/K is arguing for the historicity of the resurrection and not the historicity of the whole "Jesus story", this is a sound argument.

What exactly is the "sound argument" you refer to here?

David wrote:

On that note I contend that if the legend theory you suppose is true, then Paul is completely insane

I'm reminded of Festus in Acts 26 who calls Paul "mad" to his face. Regardless, it is hard to perform a psychological evaluation on someone who's been dead for over 1900 years. But judging by the content of his letters, supposedly he actually believed what he preaches in them, I would say he was at the very least hyper-delusional. His worldview was so steeped in the primacy of consciousness that such delusion is unavoidable if it is taken seriously. For that matter, I think Christians today are deluded, at least when it comes to their religious views. Fortunately for them, most believers are well rehearsed at compartmentalizing their beliefs, but there are some who do make the attempt to integrate their religious views with their life in the world. It's not a very pretty sight.

David wrote:

(after all his statements are incoherent without the Gospels being read back into them or assuming his audience had any idea of what he meant),

I wouldn't argue this at all. With regard to the resurrection, for instance, Paul's letters could make sense if the resurrection he had in mind were believed to have taken place two centuries prior to his own time just as well as (if not even better than) if it were believed to have taken place when the gospel narratives situate it. Paul's letters could make sense if his Jesus was not supposed to have been born of a virgin, raised by a carpenter, baptized by John the Baptist, betrayed by Judas Iscariot, tried by Jesus, crucified outside Jerusalem, entombed under the auspices of Joseph of Arimathaea, visited by a group of women, etc. The intelligibility of Paul's letters in no way necessitate any of these gospel elements. From what we learn from Paul's letters, Jesus' parents could have been named Bob and Cindy, they could have been shopkeepers selling textiles, living in Macedonia ca. 200 BCE. The twelve could have been an institution of enthusiasts, like die hard rockstar groupies, whose members are replaced after passing on, keeping the fire of their devotion alive for generations, as is common in religious cults. They need not have been named Matthew, Peter, John, etc. From what Paul gives us, they could have had names like Habeeb, Carl, Suki, or Bill. Paul nowhere specifies that "the twelve" were men; it could have been a coed group from all that he gives us. From Paul's letters, we never learn how old Jesus was when he was crucified. He could have lived to 70 years of age for all that he gives us. Paul never speaks of an empty tomb; he just says Jesus "was buried." Thus for Paul, his Jesus could have been buried in the ground, under a pile of rocks, in a mass grave, etc. Nothing in Paul's letters necessitate a sealed tomb, as he never mentions it. In fact, while I realize that the Greek word 'thapto' in I Cor. 15:4 means 'bury' or 'inter', and that interment can mean depositing the deceased in either a grave or a tomb, virtually all the English translations I've seen use the word 'bury' instead of 'inter' in I Cor. 15:4. And typically, when someone says a dead person has been "buried," I tend to think of a grave, not a tomb per se.

David wrote:

and the Gospel writers are some of the most outrageous fraudsters fiction has ever seen.

You're free to worry about such rankings, but fiction is fiction any way you slice it.

David wrote:

Now back to this corny book (actually I agree with your analysis there). G/T is specifically arguing for the historicity of the resurrection, which, as you've pointed out, rests on other premises (the historicity of specific statements made in the Gospels) to support it. It is perfectly valid argumentation to have a series of linked premises (with sub-arguments) that support a larger conclusion.

Premises offered in support of a conclusion would be a minimum requirement for validity. I don't think anyone is disputing this. But the way these authors attempt to counteract the charge that Paul’s testimony might be a product of legend is to claim that it is essentially too early to be such, and the only way they can argue this is by taking the portraits of Jesus which we find in the gospel narratives for granted, which – unlike Paul – puts Jesus’ life, crucifixion and resurrection in a historical context, indeed one which does not at all fit well with Paul’s overall conception of Jesus. In other words, if Paul is thought to be relating a legend, it won’t do to challenge this thought by pointing to later writings (namely the gospel narratives) which would surely be legends if that thought were true.

David wrote:

One need not reject or accept the entire New Testament as legend; indeed many critical scholars reject the miracle stories and resurrection as legendary yet find no good reason to reject the descriptions of political events, geography, etc.

Indeed, I acknowledge the actual existence of places like Jerusalem, Galilee, the Dead Sea, Damascus, Tyre, Ephesus, and Rome, all of which are mentioned in the New Testament. So do Wells, Doherty and other legend theorists. Similarly, I acknowledge the actual existence of the state of Kansas, which is where Dorothy lives according to The Wizard of Oz. However, because this story mentions an actually existing place, does not at all suggest to me that the story itself is true. Fiction can easily use actual places and genuinely historical events as backdrops for its characters and plot development.

David wrote:

Regardless, you are misrepresenting G/T and introducing a false dichotomy.

So now I'm guilty of a second fallacy. Well, let’s see.


Craig Blomberg discusses this dichotomy: "It certainly seems fair to say its no more appropriate to take the hardest and most fantastic part of a piece of literature and write all the rest of it off as a result, than it is to take the most sober, corroborated piece of literature and use that as a reason for believing everything else in the document." (Difficult Questions about the New Testament, mp3 online).

I think you may have read quite a bit more into my position than is warranted. As I mentioned above, I do not doubt the historicity of many of the geographical places mentioned in the New Testament. So I'm not throwing the baby out with the bathwater as it were. However, I would point out that I don't subscribe to the historicity of, say, Jerusalem or the Dead Sea because it's a setting backdrop in the New Testament. Besides, if it is acknowledged that portions of the gospel portraits of Jesus qualify as a “fantastic part of a piece of literature,” as Blomberg seems to be doing in the excised portion of his speech (I have not listed to it, so you can clarify this), then that seems to be quite a concession on his part. I see no problem with accepting as factual elements such as the existence of Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, the prefecture of Pilate, the existence of donkeys, pigs, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, etc., while viewing the stories of Jesus’ virgin birth, escape from the slaughter of the innocents, miracle performances, magical healings, parables, resurrection, etc., as legendary.

I wrote:

There's a persistent and annoying perhapsical nature to all this, and puts a great burden on the memories of those whom Paul personally missionized, persons who may or may not have been the recipients of Paul's letters, which - like I Corinthians - was addressed to the church as a whole, not to a specific individual.

David responded:

You complain that there is a "perhapsical" nature to this whole idea that Paul's letters were not written in a contextual vacuum.

I don't think - nor did I say - that Paul's letters were "written in a contextual vacuum." Recall that the statement you quote from me above was made in the context of the following point regarding Paul’s unexplained mentioning of “the twelve” and “the apostles” in I Cor. 15:3-8:

I would suspect that at least some of Paul’s readers would have wondered whom he meant by “the twelve” and who were “the apostles” he mentions. Apologists typically respond to these kinds of questions by alleging that Paul’s audiences would have known whom he had in mind with such expressions, because this would have been included in his on-site missionary work when he visited the churches he later addressed in letters.

The standard refrain that Paul’s intended audience would have just known what he was talking about, does not help us very much, because it does not supply the details which Paul fails to give, nor does it confirm that the individuals who made up “the twelve” were the disciples mentioned in the gospels. Indeed, by indicating that we are not Paul’s intended audience, believers suggest that what Paul is saying in his letters was not directed to us. But Christians performatively behave otherwise, expecting everyone to take what Paul says as if it applies to us today.

The point is that this kind of apology still does not establish who were members of the groups which Paul mentions. It is unknown what Paul taught the Corinthians when he was watering the church there. When he visited the church, did he name the members of “the twelve” and “the apostles”? How could we know? Does a passing mention of these groups indicate that he did? That seems rather tenuous, but tenuous inferences are pretty much all we have to go on given the scantiness of the details here, so it could go either way. But if it is not possible to establish that Paul did identify the members of either group when he was actually at the church in Corinth, how is it any more possible to know who those members were, especially since Paul himself never mentions “the twelve” again in any of his letters, or provides a list of who were “the apostles”?

Besides, regarding the members of “the twelve,” even going by the gospels, is no cut-and-dry affair. Wells describes the quagmire as follows:

The twelve disciples are often regarded as guarantors of Jesus’ historicity, although we are told nothing of most of them except their names, on which the documents do not even agree completely. In Mk. and Mt. the list of names is also very clumsily worked into the text. All this makes it obvious that the number is an older tradition than the persons; that the idea of the twelve derives not from twelve actual disciples, but from some other source – quite possibly from the expectation that Jesus, as Messiah, would command twelve men as leaders and judges of the new Israel. Thus the epistle of Barnabas (written some time between AD 70 and 145) says (ch. 8) that ‘those whom Jesus empowered to preach the gospel were twelve in number, to represent the tribes of Israel, which were twelve’. The fourth gospel (unlike the synoptics) does not even list the names. From 6:60 we learn that the disciples are ‘many’, and a few verses later Jesus is suddenly made to address ‘the twelve’. There has been no previous hint of choosing the number. Clearly, then, John knew of a tradition that there had been twelve disciples, but was unable or unwilling to elucidate it and is therefore not a valuable witness to its historical accuracy. In the synoptics, Peter, James and John are Jesus’ most intimate disciples, but in the fourth gospel Peter plays but a minor role, and James and John are not mentioned at all. (Jn. 21 – generally admitted to be an appendix added to the solum conclusion of the gospel recorded at the end of ch. 20 – does indeed mention ‘the sons of Zebedee’, but even here they are not named as James and John.) ON the other hand, the fourth gospel makes disciples of personages who are not mentioned in the synoptics (Nathanael, Nicodemus). All this is clear evidence that the traditions on which the fourth evangelist drew were aside from the synoptic stream. (Did Jesus exist?, p. 122)

So even when we get to the gospel narratives, where specifics are finally given to inform what is meant by “the twelve,” there is not only disagreement and confusion among the gospels, but also signs that the number itself had a theological significance in and of itself apart from any individuals thought to make up its membership.

Now my point above, to which you (David) were responding, has to do with how cavalierly apologists have routinely discounted the conspicuous silences we have in Paul on such matters. The view that what Paul mentions in passing in his letters would have made sense to his readers because they would have already known what he was talking about, which insofar as it goes may have been the case, tends to be used to secure a harmonization with the later gospel accounts that is not supported by what we actually find in Paul’s and other early letters. The common defense that Paul would not have needed to “repeat” what his intended audiences would have already possessed as common knowledge is asserted in order to explain these silences. It is into this unrecorded gap that apologists have inserted all the details of the gospel narratives which are absent in Paul’s letters. Geisler and Turek, for instance, intimate that when Paul mentions “the twelve” in I Cor. 15, that we have the names of those people, even though Paul never identifies who they may be. Where do they get these names? From the gospels, of course. Can we name them? Sure, if we insert what the gospels at this point. One of those twelve, of course, would be Judas the traitor, but we’ve already seen how this poses problems. And which list of disciples do we go with? The one in the synoptics? Or a list that John does not give, but would apparently need to include Nathanael and Nicodemus? The truth of the matter is that we don’t have the details of what Paul taught on his missionary journeys, other than what is indicated in his letters. Paul does not tell us that “the twelve” are people who traveled with Jesus on his missionary journeys throughout the Judean countryside during his earthly life. Indeed, nothing in Paul suggests this.

Wells points out how apologetic responses to the silences in Paul’s and other early NT letters often involve an appeal to silence of their own:

I remain critical of many of Dunn’s arguments against me. He acknowledges what he calls a well-known “relative silence of Paul regarding the historical Jesus.” But in this context of his criticism of me, he fails to note that it is not Paul alone who is thus silent, but all the earliest extant Christian writers; and he tries to account for Paul’s silence by the familiar hypotheses that Paul “had little need or occasion to refer back to Jesus’ earthly ministry,” and could in any case take for granted that his addressees already knew all about it. To show that these explanations will not do was an important part of my task in The Jesus Myth, where I also had to counter (pp. 245ff.) the standard argument (often regarded as decisive, even by those who deprecate arguments from silence!) that, since ancient opponents of Christianity did not deny that Jesus existed, his crucifixion under Pilate can be taken as historical. What outsiders in the first century thought of Christianity we do not know, there being “no evidence at all for any views they may have held” of it (Downing, [Making Sense in (and of) the First Christian Century], p. 142). Downing gives evidence that the first outsiders whose reactions are preserved for us in any detail regarded Christians as “followers of a Cynic philosophical lifestyle” (p. 145). It has been repeatedly noted that, by this time, men who were both teachers (Cynic or other) and miracle workers were familiar figures. Consequently, there was no reason why the historicity of anyone alleged to have been such a teacher should have been questioned. (Can We Trust the New Testament?, pp. 50-51)

Elsewhere Wells shows how the silence which Dunn cites on the part of opponents of Christianity can be easily explained:

Practically all commentators retain belief in Jesus’s crucifixion under Pilate and hence accept the historical framework given to his life in the gospels... Much is made of the fact that his existence – and by this is meant his ministry and his subsequent crucifixion in the opening decades of the first century – was not impugned even in antiquity. “No ancient opponent of early Christianity ever denied that Jesus existed. This is the Achiles’s heel of attempts by a few modern scholars such as G.A. Wells to deny that Jesus existed.” Thus writes Graham Stanton in a dismissive footnote. [“Jesus of Nazareth: A Magician and a False Prophet Who Deceived God’s People?”, in Green and Turner, Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ, p. 165n.] If such denials were made at all in the earliest days of Christianity, one would expect them from Jews rather than from pagans, as Jews encountered Christians and their ideas from Christianity’s inception. It is clear from 2 Cor. 11:24 (“Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one”) that both Paul and the Jews who punished him regarded the Christian movement as falling within Judaism. And some Jews may well have found the Jesus portrayed by early missionaries – the Jesus figured in the early epistles – not credible as a historical personage: for this Jesus, in his human aspect, is a shadowy figure, not said in these documents to have taught or worked miracles, nor to have lived and died recently in specified circumstances. But what non-Christian Jews of the mid-first century thought of him, if anything, is not extant. Rabbinic traditions make their first extant appearance only a good century later, and moreover have been censored in the course of their transmission – “by Christians out of hostility... and by Jews as a means of self-protection” (Wilson [Related Strangers: Jews and Christians 70-170], p. 170). Pagans, for their part, will have had little by way of open conflict with earliest Christianity, and surely not enough exposure to it for their writers to take note of it before the gospels had become available. Subsequent opponents, Jewish and pagan alike, will have gathered from these gospels that Jesus was a teacher and wonder-worker of a kind perfectly familiar in both the Jewish and pagan world. As he could thus be assigned to a familiar category, there was no reason to query his historicity. References to him as a teacher and ‘magician’ are prominent in the rabbinic notices (Details in Wilson... pp. 186ff). (Wells, The Jesus Myth, pp. 245-246)

David asked:

Yet haven't answered my question: is it really more probable that Paul was writing nonsense?

As opposed to what? Paul was a religious missionary. In his mind, it was not nonsense. But to a sober, rational individual, it is certainly nonsense. Similarly with Marshall Applewhite: is it really more probable that he was preaching nonsense rather than, say, truth, when he claimed that a spaceship was hiding in the tail of a comet preparing to pick up the souls of him and his suicidal clan? In his mind and in those of his followers, this fantasy was certainly not nonsense. They demonstrated their faith in Applewhite's premises by poisoning themselves in 1997. Many Christians have intimated that the apostle's alleged willingness to die is evidence of the truth of their beliefs. If willingness to die is demonstrative of the truth of one's beliefs, then Marshall Applewhite and his suicidal cult were demonstrating the truth of their claims. After all, who would die for the sake of nonsense or untruth? Certainly not someone who considered the beliefs he was willing to die for to be true and not nonsensical. Then again, the notion of dying for something has always struck me as odd. How is truth served if one dies for it? If it were true, it would have already been true, and one’s death does not make a truth truer than it already was.


I think the legend theory per Wells has much more perhapsing to account for then any theory of New Testament origins.

Perhaps, but maybe not. Wells has modified his position (which demonstrates that he is not simply pushing a theory as some kind of publicity stunt), but throughout he is very careful to document support for his points and does so by deferring to the scholarly literature on the topic. In the introduction to his The Jesus Legend, Wells draws express attention to this feature of his writing:

Readers will see that in this book as in previous ones I owe a great deal to the painstaking work of the scholarly and critical theologians, and have not ignored that of their more traditionally-minded and conservative colleagues. I have thought it mostly unnecessary to indicate the clerical or academic status of any of them, but readers will be aware that books issued by SCM (Student Christian Movement), SPCK (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge), and other well-known theological publishing houses were not written by partisan atheists. Indeed, nearly all my references are to scholars with theological commitments. Even the most skeptical of them manage somehow to soldier on. Adrian Hastings, whom I have already quoted, sees around him "almost infinite unanswered and seemingly unanswerable questions," but nevertheless abides by "that singular cornerstone of Christian belief: the mysterious universality and finality of meaning of Jesus the Christ" ([The Theology of a Protestant Catholic, 1990], pp. 2-3). Alan Sell, well aware of all the problems, seeks "a truly contemporary theology." It

will be fired by the Gospel, grounded in the Scriptures, nourished by the Catholic faith of the ages, fertilized by Reformation emphases, tempered by Enlightenment critiques, and applicable today.

This from his 1992 inaugural lecture to a Chair of Divinity in the University of Wales. One can envisage the thunderous applause. (p. xxxi)

In any case, given the scantiness of the record we have in the New Testament, some "perhapsing" is always going to be unavoidable as we seek to understand its origins. But this does not give one license to prefer the fantasy of supernaturalism. I've found nothing in Wells that stretches beyond a rational evaluation of the data. Even the hypothesis that hallucinations had some momentous impact on the origins of Christianity does not figure centrally in his case, a topic which seems to preoccupy many apologists.

Rest assured, there’s much more to come.

by Dawson Bethrick