A Response to Josh Ratliff on the "Creed" in I Corinthians 15
From the language used in the portion which Ratliff quoted from the e-mail he received, it should be obvious to anyone who is familiar with my writing that it was not I who composed or sent that e-mail. Sniping comments like “you love to hear yourself speak,” “you fancy yourself the scholar” and “you can defend your indoctrinated presuppositions to your heart's delight… if you're not scared” are certainly not the kinds of statements I make to others on the internet, even to detractors of my view. My lengthy exchanges with David Parker, for instance (see these blogs’ comments sections: here, here, here, et al.) should suffice to show that I do not seek to intimidate or provoke my opponents, especially on a first salvo. I simply see no reason for doing this, since I know my position is right (which is usually sufficient to irk my detractors in the first place). My concern is certainly not to “scare” my readers, Christian or otherwise, but to establish my verdicts.
I’m not going to dwell on the exchanges which Ratliff documented between himself and the individual apparently trying to pose as me, as this is unimportant to me. Instead, I’m going to jump right into Ratliff’s criticism of my blog.
Ratliff summarizes my position as follows:
So what if I Cor. 15:3-8 is an early Christian creed and so what if Paul writes in A.D. 55? How do you know Jesus Christ wasn't crucified on some astral plane?
Paul's treatment of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection is so open-ended and unspecific that for all we know he could be referring to an event that took place five centuries earlier or in some astral plane.
Now how does Ratliff deal with these points? Does he show us where Paul in fact does provide the kinds of details which I have observed are absent from his accounts? No, he does not. Instead, he simply assumes that Paul was speaking about a recently crucified Jesus and that various individuals mentioned as witnesses of the risen Christ in I Corinthians 15 were actually his companions while he was alive on earth, just as the gospel narratives would have us believe. These assumptions are certainly not justified by anything Paul states in I Corinthians 15.
In response to the summation of my argument which he has concocted, Ratliff states:
With comments like this, and the fact that he quoted G.A. Wells on the subject, it seemed I had happened on one of those strange birds that questions the existence of the historical Jesus altogether. So let us see if his minority views can hold up to the facts.
Ratliff quoted me:
As I pointed out, there's nothing in I Cor. or any of Paul's other letters (that is, in letters that are authentically Pauline) which puts a time or place to Jesus' resurrection. If the stories about Jesus' resurrection that we find in the gospels are legends built on sources like Paul's 'testimony,' that testimony cannot be validated ('too early to be legend') by appealing to a dating scheme suggested only by the gospels and later documents influenced by them (like Acts). That would be like using a later Harry Potter book to 'validate' one earlier in the series.
Now if you're not familiar with the debate surrounding I Cor. 15:3-8, then you may be a little lost, but the case is simple. This passage contains eyewitness testimony to Jesus' post-resurrection appearances.
The dating of I Cor. and the creed of the eyewitnesses that Paul includes is much too early to be the product of legendary embellishment.
In the two centuries prior to Paul, hundreds of Jewish priests were crucified alive, such as the 800 Pharisees that Josephus accounts to being crucified under Alexander Jannaeus in BC 88 (see Antiquities 13:14:2). Paul himself was a Pharisee (Phil. 3:5), and I would expect that he had heard stories about such horrific atrocities. Wells discusses the significance of such events to his own legend theory in the Introduction to his The Jesus Legend.
Ratliff helps make my case:
Myths of this proportion simply do not spring up in this short amount of time seeing that Jesus crucifixion is dated around A.D. 30.
But as you can see, Bethrick has figured out how to end the debate! His main argument is: "Prove that Jesus was really crucified in 30 A.D.!" I hope the other atheist scholars don't figure this out because then Christianity will be ruined! Hopefully, you can sense my sarcasm.
Ratliff then went on to state:
But in all seriousness, he makes one huge error that I'll deal with here first. And that is to say that since the Gospels were written after I Cor., they could have been based on Paul which would debunk Paul using an earlier gospel message as his source.
Well, first of all, I am aware of no theory that claims that the Gospel writers based their writing on Paul's testimony. I'm not saying it's not out there, I just haven't heard it within the realm of scholarship.
In response to the suggestion that the gospel writers based their writings on sources like Paul’s, Ratliff states:
But evidence from Paul's own writings contradict this. Now, clearly the Gospels had not been written before I Cor. 15, but we find testimony from Paul that he "received" this creed (v. 3). Where could he have received this creed? Looking to Paul's autobiographical writings in Gal. 1-2, we find that Paul actually laid out his Gospel he had been preaching to be examined by the apostles Peter, James, and John to see if he had been preaching in vain (Gal. 2:2). In v. 6, Paul says they "added nothing to me." This, of course, means that the Gospel he preached was the same one they had been preaching-- no more no less.
Ratliff does bring up a good point, however, when he reminds us of the fact that, in his conference with Peter, James and John, “Paul says they ‘added nothing to me’.” (The NIV translates Gal. 2:6 as follows: “As for those who seemed to be important—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance—those men added nothing to my message.”) But this in itself is problematic with Ratliff’s own suggestion that Paul got his “creed” from Peter, James and John. If it is the case, as Paul himself says, that these individuals “added nothing” to Paul’s gospel, then it seems amiss to turn around and say that the source of the “creed” in I Corinthians 15 is the Jerusalem church. Indeed, Paul nowhere indicates that he got this “creed” from them (he does not even identify it as a creed to begin with!), and here we have Ratliff pointing out that Paul himself tells us that Peter, James and John “added nothing” to what he had already been preaching!
At any rate, Paul does not give us a detailed list of the points he covered in his discussions with Peter, James and John during his visit with them in Jerusalem. That does not give us license to assume which points he may have discussed with them.
In developing my thesis, I put emphasis on the fact that Paul tells us that he claims to have gotten his understanding of Christianity directly from the risen Christ by way of divine revelation. I am referring specifically to the passage found in Galatians 1:11-12, where Paul writes:
I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
Bethrick goes on to claim that to say that he had received what he was passing on in I Cor. 15 from Peter and James is contradictory by Paul's own words. Nothing could be further removed from the truth.
First of all, allow me to point out that this a ploy to avoid the clear fact that there was a gospel being preached that predates Paul. This is evidenced by Paul's meetings in Gal. 1-2. Thus to say that the Gospel accounts were based on Paul's testimony is unfounded.
I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel:
For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.
Just for sake of argument, even if Paul did make up his own creed in I Cor. 15, we still have sufficient evidence that the message of Paul was consistent with a message that was being preached before he came on the scene.
Does this mean that Paul “made it up”? I see nothing in the record which could rule out this possibility, and I do in fact accept it as a possibility. Paul was a human being, and human beings are capable of making up things. It may very well be that Paul thought it was true, and perhaps believed it was divinely revealed to him. When Paul introduces what has been called a “creed” by today’s apologists, he refers to it as “what I received” (I Cor. 15:3), without explicitly identifying his source for it. For this, it seems that his statements in Galatians 1:11-12 (already quoted above) suitably fill this void in information. I don’t know why Christians would resist this inference, for this would mean that the content of what they call a “creed” came directly from the risen Christ, and is therefore more apt to be infallibly true, than if it were transmitted to Paul by word of mouth from fallible human sources.
So I concede, without reservation, that Paul received the contents of His message first as a revelation of Christ Himself. But to say that the creed in I Cor. 15 was invented by Paul as a result of this revelation is an entirely different issue.
Ratliff’s assessment of the view that Paul got this “creed” directly from the risen Christ by way of revelation is most curious, coming from a believer:
The implication here would be that we have a creed, not based on historical testimony, but rather on Paul's own revelation.
Even if this were true, it wouldn't change the argument because the contents of the creed would be exactly what the early church had been preaching before Paul's meeting with Peter, James, and John as proven above. However, I would argue that the creed itself did come from an early source outside of Paul.
Regardless, Ratliff takes these points as sufficient indication that Peter, James, John and the rest of the Jerusalem echelon were aware of this “creed” which Paul is allegedly reciting in I Cor. 15, and yet curiously we have nothing specifically attesting to this, either in Paul’s own account of his meeting with them in Galatians, or in any other New Testament document. A vague reference is apparently being used to shoehorn a lot of specific assumptions into the mix here.
But in spite of explicit statements by Paul to the contrary (namely that he claims that the gospel message he preached came directly to him from the risen Christ by way of revelation, not from other human agents, and also that the elders at the Jerusalem church “added nothing” to the message Paul had been preaching), Ratliff still thinks it is warranted to conclude that the “creed” Paul is supposedly reciting in I Cor. 15 not only predates Paul (even though it is not restated in any other NT document), but also that Paul got it from some human source (which directly conflicts with Paul’s own claim in Galatians 1:11-12). Ratliff writes:
We arrive at this conclusion because of the technicality with which the creed is delivered. David, the Christian Bethrick takes on in his blog, points this out quite well when he says:
"So what we have in 1 Cor 15:3 ‘For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received :’ After the colon we get the creedal statement…. , 4 ;that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…’ The language here is the exact same as the Pharisees used when passing on their traditions to one another…so we have even more reason to think Paul’s about to tell us something from oral tradition."
[Bethrick] finds plausible the idea that I mentioned, and that is to say that "...Paul, a former Pharisee himself, fashioned his own creedal formulation after a style with which he would have been intimately familiar." This completely misses the point. Paul uses very technical rabbinic terms when he says "received." He was passing on an oral tradition to them.
This is why Ratliff’s position seems rather odd to me, coming from a Christian, when he states:
Were Paul only passing along something he had formulated, he would have been destroying the validity of his message as the readers would have understood it.
Ratliff’s reasoning for this view is apparently as follows:
Here is Paul claiming that he had received information about eyewitness accounts to the resurrection. He is, in essence saying, “Here are the facts, and you can check them out.”
As for the claim that Paul “is, in essence, saying, ‘Here are the facts, and you can check them out’,” how would Paul’s readers be able to follow up on what he claims in I Corinthians 15? He gives no details that would enable one to follow up on them. For instance, how would any of Paul’s immediately intended readers be able to “check out” his claim about the 500 believers? Paul does not identify any of them, nor does he say where they were when the risen Christ allegedly appeared to them, when this happened, or exactly what they are thought to have seen. Christians today are likely to assume that what Paul had in mind here was a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus in the flesh, such as what we find in the gospels. But nothing in Paul’s treatment of the matter suggests that the post-resurrected Jesus made this kind of appearance. The testimony of Canon Michael Carr (as well as countless other believers today) makes it clear that Christians can believe that they are standing in the presence of Christ when in fact there is no physical Christ at all. Believers “feel” Christ’s presence, though no one actually sees Christ. As Cole himself put it:
I’m just aware of God being there in the person of Christ in all sorts of different situations, speaking to me by his spirit through the word of God. There was one particular experience when I was very, very conscious of the risen Christ, actually standing with me in the church I was serving, asking whether we would make him Lord of that church... I wouldn’t say anything about that for 24 hours, it was too personal, too close.
Ratliff continues, saying:
Now what if this was a Pauline fabrication, there goes his validity.
But Paul’s immediately intended readers were the congregants of one of his churches. They already granted validity to the notion of “the supernatural,” so epistemologically speaking it was “too late” for them to examine Paul’s claims rationally. Since they already assumed that there is truth to “the supernatural,” they most likely would not have suspected Paul of fabricating the content of his claims. And if they believed Paul’s claim that he had received the content of his message directly from the risen Christ via personal revelation, so much the more would they have been in a position to take his claims as unchallengeably true. So while Paul has no validity or credibility as far as the supposed truth of his message is concerned from a rational standpoint, from a standpoint which grants validity to the notion of supernaturalism and which is inclined to believe that the OT forecasted Jesus as the Jewish messiah, one’s critical faculties would be far too disabled to challenge Paul’s claims. Hence their “success” through the ages.
But Ratliff still thinks there are reasons to suppose that Paul is repeating testimony from human sources, contrary to his own statements. Ratliff argues:
Paul's background as a Pharisee only serves to prove that he would have been very careful about the accuracy of what he stated. This is exactly the idea in Gal. 1:18 when Paul says that he went to Jerusalem "to visit" Peter. The word here for "to visit" is "historesai" from "historeo" which means literally "to visit for information."
As for his visit with Peter mentioned in Galatians 1:18, Paul very well may have used the word “historesai,” but it should be borne in mind, as Ratliff himself has pointed out, that Paul was explicitly clear that Peter and other elders of the Jerusalem church “added nothing” to his message. So if Paul went to visit Peter for information, it seems the best we can claim is that he sought confirmation for things that he was already teaching as opposed to combining what he was already teaching with additional teachings presented by Peter.
Ratliff then opines:
To suggest that Paul would so wrecklessly throw out claims in creedal form that he had not received from a verifiable human source is to do so apart from the evidence.
It should be clear then, at this point, that the evidence Paul shares is not his own.
There is no room then for the theory that later Christian gospels were based on made-up legends by Paul.
But there’s more to the issue than simply the absence of details about the earthly life of Jesus which puts the early epistles in such curious relief against the later gospels. It’s also the fact that many of the moral teachings which Paul gives (but are not ascribed by Paul to have come from the earthly Jesus) are put into the earthly Jesus’ mouth in the gospels. G.A. Wells gives several examples of this:
Paul gives it as his own view (Rom. 13:8-10) that the law can be summed up in the one Old Testament injunction "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." According to Lk. 10:25-8, Jesus himself taught that love of neighbor (together with love of God) ensures salvation; but one could never gather from Paul that Jesus had expressed himself on the matter. In 1 Thess. 4:9 it is not Jesus but God who is said to have taught Christians to love one another. And in the injunction not to repay evil for evil but always to do good to all is given in the same epistle (5:15) without any suggestion that Jesus had taught it (as according to the gospels he did in the Sermon on the Mount). In his letter to Christians at Rome Paul says "bless those that persecute you" (12:14 and 17) and "judge not" (14:13). Surely in such instances he might reasonably be expected to have invoked the authority of Jesus, had he known that Jesus had taught the very same doctrines. (The former doctrine is ascribed to him at Mt. 5:44 and Lk. 6:28, and the latter at Mt. 7:1 and Lk. 6:37.) In the same epistle he urges Christians to "pay taxes" (13:6), but does not suggest that Jesus had given such a ruling (Mk. 12:17). It is much more likely that certain precepts concerning forgiveness and civil obedience were originally were originally urged independently of Jesus, and only later put into his mouth and thereby stamped with supreme authority, than that he gave such rulings and was not credited with having done so by Paul and… by other early Christian writers. (The Historical Evidence for Jesus, p. 33.)
Ratliff then quoted me:
Nothing in the letter itself suggests that the resurrection that Paul speaks of happened any time recently (for all that Paul gives us, his Jesus could have been crucified a century or more earlier, and not necessarily in Palestine for that matter), and only by interpreting Paul’s account by reading elements from the gospel stories into it can it be made into a reference to a recent event.
As far as I understand, this seems to his main line of reasoning. But the very objection itself is flawed. This point is basically being made in response to the Christian claim that the testimonies are too close to the evidence to have been legendary development. From the outset, then, we must understand that whatever is lacking in Paul's message (i.e. that Jesus was crucified around A.D. 30 and that the disciples actually knew Jesus during His lifetime) must also have been lacking in the message of the disciples based on Paul's conference with Peter, James, and John (Gal. 2:6). So, it would follow then, that maybe the disciples had only seen a vision of the resurrected Christ as well, but it doesn't mean that their vision is closely related to the actual life and death of Christ.
As for what Peter, James and John were teaching in their versions of Christianity, we have precious little to go on. I agree that there is some cogency to the supposition that, if Paul were ignorant of details about the earthly life of Jesus which are emphasized in the later gospel narratives, and Paul conferred with Peter and perhaps others of the Jerusalem church for the purpose of ensuring that his teaching was not “in vain,” and they “added nothing” to Paul’s understanding of the gospel, then it is quite possible that these other early believers were unaware of the same details about Jesus’ earthly life, details of which they could not have been unaware had they been true (since they are cast as participants in Jesus’ earthly life in the gospel narratives).
With respect to the question of what the early “witnesses” to whom the risen Christ is said to have “appeared” actually saw or experienced, again we have precious little to go on. The only early post-resurrection appearance stories are those found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and here Paul does not elaborate on the matter. If Cephas, “the twelve,” the five hundred brothers, James and Paul himself actually saw something, Paul does not indicate what exactly they saw, or how they identified it as the risen Christ (if in fact they did so). We saw above that believers can think they are in the presence of “the Lord” and not actually see anything, certainly not a freshly resurrected body with wounds and all, a la the story of Doubting Thomas. Paul does not even tell us who “the twelve” are or what their significance is. But this much can be said with incontestable certainty: Paul nowhere suggests that “the twelve” were companions of the earthly Jesus during itinerant missionary work, for Paul does not even suggest that Jesus conducted such a ministry in the first place. (On “the twelve” I will have more to say below.)
The question of how these individuals might have identified what they saw as the risen Jesus is of great importance, since we are expected to accept such identifications at face value. Many believers today often claim to see the image of Jesus in such mundane things as tree trunks and tortillas. But I’d really like to know how they came to think that what they see is an image of Jesus as opposed to, say, Osama Bin Laden, Alexander Solzhenitsin, or Confucius. After all, a burn mark on a tortilla does not speak, and thus does not verbally identify itself, and even if someone thought it did speak, all the more reason to suppose there’s something wrong with the “witness” to such things.
As for what Paul knew of the earthly Jesus, it is clear that we would be unjustified in simply assuming that he was familiar with stories such as we find in the New Testament gospel narratives, for, as I pointed out above, Paul indicates no knowledge of these things. In contrast to the ample detail of Jesus’ earthly life found in the gospel narratives, Paul knowledge of Jesus strikes me as conspicuously Spartan. He tells the Corinthians that he was “determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2). Things like a virgin birth, baptism by John the Baptist, missionary work in Jerusalem, Galilee and elsewhere, miracles, healings, parables, prayers, disputes with Jewish elders, betrayal by Judas, an empty tomb, etc., were clearly not important to Paul, and it would be puzzling, to say the least, to suppose that he was aware of these things but considered them of no importance.
On this matter, Wells indicates his more mature view regarding Paul’s knowledge of the earthly Jesus:
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)
Ratliff then stated:
Already, you can see that this seems to leave out a very important part of the creed: "...how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried..." (I Cor. 15:3-4). It seems that from the evidence Paul had gathered, Christ did actually live and that He did actually die.
While I would say it is safe to say that Paul believed that Christ had actually lived and died (and was resurrected), Paul gives no indication of when he lived, where he lived, when he was crucified or under what circumstances, etc. In fact, Ratliff’s statement “from the evidence Paul had gathered” gives the impression that Paul was some kind of roving fact-checker, going to and fro throughout Palestine interviewing eyewitnesses and following leads like a reporter for a newspaper. But nothing in Paul’s letters suggests that he did anything of the sort. He references these post-resurrection appearances in passing, failing to name even five percent of the individuals to whom the risen Christ is said to have “appeared,” giving no indication of time or place, and keeping conspicuously silent on what specifically any of these alleged eyewitnesses might have seen, or how any of them would have identified what they saw or experienced as the risen Christ.
Who could have confirmed this evidence to him? Paul addresses that by saying "...he was seen of Cephas then of the twelve" (v. 5) after his resurrection. What is Paul telling us? First of all, this portion of the creed lends itself to fact that it was, in actuality, very early.
To say in the face of these points that “this portion of the creed lends itself to the fact that it was, in actuality, very early,” is trying to say more than one really can. “Very early” in regard to what? It may represent early Christian thought, but since it is not given the earliest Christian writings when Jesus lived, died and was resurrected, it is unwarranted to simply assume, as Geisler and Turek and a plethora of other Christian apologists do, that we here have a “creed that dates right back to the Resurrection itself” (I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist, p. 242). The only thing that could justify such a claim is taking the gospel narratives as reliable histories, and that is precisely what my thesis puts into dispute. This is why Earl Doherty is right to point out that “reading the Gospels into 1 Corinthians is simply circular reasoning” (Challenging the Verdict, p. 214). Indeed, there seems to be no non-question-begging way to conclude that the so-called “creed” in I Corinthians 15 “dates right back to the Resurrection itself”
Ratliff then focused on Paul’s mention of “the twelve” as if this somehow secures close chronological proximity between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection on the one hand, and the “creed” which Paul is allegedly reciting in I Corinthians 15:
In the later epistles of the N.T., we don't see the emphasis on "the twelve" that we do in the early days of Christianity. The issue of twelve disciples seems to be of great importance shortly after the resurrection as Luke shows us in the first chapter of Acts.
The understanding is clearly that "the twelve" as well as the other eyewitnesses were not just witnesses who saw the resurrected Christ at some time, maybe 200 or 1,000 years, after His death. The understanding in the 1st century was that these men had actually followed Jesus, and that is why they would be considered reliable as testimony to His resurrection.
Ratliff then states:
Thus it is untrue that Paul does not suggest a timeframe for Jesus death. While he doesn't explicitly give us the year, there is little doubt that Paul was speaking of eyewitnesses who also witnessed the life and death of Christ. I challenge Bethrick to show me any evidence that would suggest the "twelve" to be understood any other way.
Ratliff then challenges me to “show… any evidence that would suggest the ‘twelve’ to be understood any other way.” For this we only need to consult pre-Christian Judaism, which idealized twelve tribes of Israel as numbering among “God’s chosen.” For the earliest Christians, who were in fact Jews, it seems that inclusion of a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel would be natural, since they were so emphatic on Jesus constituting a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
Earl Doherty makes a valuable point in this respect in the following statement:
One could ask why Paul does not use the term “the Twelve” anywhere else in his letters, despite often talking about the Jerusalem apostles. In fact, one would be hard pressed to understand what it refers to simply by this sole reference in 1 Corinthians 15:5. One might also be forgiven for thinking that, as Paul expresses it, “the Twelve” doesn’t even include Peter. And more than one commentator has fussed over the fact that this really ought to be an appearance to “the Eleven,” since the gap left by Judas’ departure had not yet been filled, according to Acts. So I might suggest that the reason why Paul does not “customarily use” the phrase “the Twelve” is because it doesn’t refer to the body of apostles we have in mind under the influence of the later Gospels. (Challenging the Verdict, p. 193.)
Again, since Paul does not elaborate on who “the twelve” were or what their significance might have been, it would seem plausible that this reference has something to do with the twelve tribes of Israel. In fact, that is precisely how I would interpret it if I did not know of the gospel stories, for there is nothing in Paul’s mention of these unnamed individuals which suggests they were traveling companions of the earthly Jesus.
The only reference to “the twelve” found in any of the other epistles is in James 1:1, which confirms my interpretation. The author addresses his letter “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1). Here the author of James refers explicitly to “the twelve tribes,” which he says “are scattered abroad.” Paul’s reference to “the twelve” could very plausibly have referred to an administrative body representing the twelve tribes. Nothing in Paul’s letters vies against this interpretation, and Ratliff seems unprepared to offer anything against it.
Ratliff makes the following acknowledgement:
I am aware of no one who sees "the twelve" as anything but the first followers of Jesus. This objection seems to be stemming from nowhere other than his deluded skepticism.
But Ratliff is still not satisfied. He contends that
we are still left with a creed that is much too close to the events to have been the product of legendary embellishment.
Also, the claim that Christ was anything less than an actual historical figure known by the eyewitnesses is ridiculous, which is clearly why it is the view of a small minority of scholars.
(1) The God of the universe,
(2) Who loves us all,
(3) And came to preach a message of Salvation to mankind,
(4) Appeared in his resurrected body
(5) In only one tiny place in the whole of the civilized world,
(6) At only one time in all of human history,
(7) To a small number of people
(8) Almost none of whom were hostile or neutral observers,
(9) And all of whom were superstitious people lacking in scientific understanding.
Bethrick's objections do not stop here, however. Not only does he not believe that the disciples actually knew Jesus, but he has problems with the corroboration of the creed.
There is also no corroboration for an appearance of the risen Christ to someone named James anywhere in the New Testament. If what we read in I Corinthians 15 actually included a creed, it is hard to see how this element would not have been corroborated. The epistle ascribed to James does not even mention it, but the apologetic excuses I’ve seen for this ring rather hollow (e.g., James didn’t want to call too much attention to himself, or exploit his sibling relationship to Jesus, etc.). Such excuses could be made even if the stories are in fact legendary in nature.
Ratliff then states:
He seems to get hung up on the mentioning of the 500 witnesses.
And the understanding I would get from Geisler and Turek – if I didn’t know any better – is that what Paul states in I Cor. 15:3-8 (the very passage they quoted) is sufficiently corroborated to secure its claims, which is simply not the case (where else, for instance, do we read of the resurrected Jesus appearing to 500 or so people at once?). Paul doesn’t even name 5% of the mass of persons he claims to have experienced an appearance of Jesus. Indeed, so far as authentication or corroboration, I Cor. 15:3-8 couldn’t be weaker.
Notice that, in my statement my concern focuses on Paul’s mention of Jesus appearing to 500 or so people at once. I pointed out that, not only does Paul nowhere name any of these individuals (he gives no details whatsoever – including time or place or even a description of what these unnamed persons allegedly saw, if they saw anything at all), but also that no other NT document mentions this alleged sighting of the risen Christ. In sum, there is no corroboration here, even though Geisler and Turek give the impression that this is a well attested fact of history. This is what I have called into question by raising the questions which Ratliff has quoted.
Couldn't be weaker? If you want strong corroborating evidence, you could start with the fact that he lists James the skeptic as well as Himself who was the bitter opponent of the church clearly shown elsewhere. Why would he have included James? He wasn't apart from the twelve, said to be a brother of Jesus, so why was he so important. The reason is that he was understood to have been a skeptic of the ministry of Jesus. At any rate, I do hold that the 500 eyewitnesses strengthens the argument. Obviously, it doesn't strengthen it in the sense that we have a legal document. But insofar as a creedal statement is concerned, it serves its purpose.
In response to my questions about the 500 anonymous witnesses and the failure of any other NT document to mention them, Ratliff drops the 500 and quickly shifts his focus onto James. Apparently Ratliff does not understand the questions I have raised. Paul’s mention of James does not serve as independent corroboration of his mention of the risen Christ appearing to 500 persons. Indeed, that Ratliff has to shift focus from the 500 to James is itself indicative of the enormity of this problem. But this shift of focus onto James is itself ironic, for several reasons. Ratliff identifies James as “the skeptic.” But Paul nowhere suggests that James was a skeptic. Where do we get this view of James? That’s right: from the post-Pauline gospel accounts. In attempting to interact with my point that Paul’s early writings fail to support the portrait of Jesus which we find in the gospel narratives, Ratliff demonstrates that he cannot find the earthly Jesus of the gospels in Paul’s writings without reading elements taken from the gospels into Paul’s writings. In other words, in trying to defend against my criticisms, he merely confirms their validity.
Ratliff asks why an appearance of the risen Christ specifically to James might have been important. Paul does not explain this, certainly not in I Cor. 15. However, in Galatians he does refer to a James as one of the “pillars” of the Jerusalem church, which I would interpret as indicative of a high station of leadership within that church. Christians typically assume this is the same James mentioned in I Corinthians 15. If it is the same James, then the very fact that this James was one of the “pillars” of the church is what would presumably, at least for Paul, make an appearance by the risen Christ to him important. But Ratliff thinks the mention of James in I Corinthians 15 is important because “he was understood to have been a skeptic of the ministry of Jesus.” But Paul never expresses this “understanding.” He does not even suggest it by way of hinted implication. Where do we get this understanding? From the gospels – i.e., from later material written after the legend of Jesus had already been undergoing vast development.
But notice the irony here. Ratliff apparently tries to corroborate Paul’s mention of the risen Christ’s appearance to the anonymous 500 or so “brethren” by highlighting Paul’s mention of the risen Christ’s appearance to James, but even this is not corroborated anywhere else in the NT. Not even the gospels mention an appearance of the risen Christ to James. Indeed, in the epistle attributed to James, there is no mention of this either. So what purportedly has come from James’ own hand does not attest to an appearance of the risen Christ to him. In order to strengthen the weakness of Paul’s mention of the 500, Ratliff points to another weakness. Two weak links do not a strong chain make.
In spite of these marked deficiencies, Ratliff feels that “the 500 eyewitnesses strengthens the argument.” Specifically what argument is it supposed to strengthen? He admits that “it doesn't strengthen it in the sense that we have a legal document,” which is quite an understatement. However, he hastens to add that “insofar as a creedal statement is concerned, it serves its purpose,” which is a much weaker claim. The criteria which a religious creedal formulation is expected to satisfy can be found anywhere on a wide continuum of ultimately arbitrary requirements. What’s interesting is that the passage in I Corinthians 15 is said to be an early creed, which suggests it would have been in wide use. But where else do we find this creed? Paul never even repeats it elsewhere in his writings. We find it in no other NT epistle, either early or late, either pre-gospel or post-gospel.
So not only does Ratliff fail to produce any independent confirmation of Paul’s mention of an appearance of the risen Christ to 500 believers, he also points to an additional source of problems, Paul’s mention of an appearance by the risen Christ to James. Far from the latter serving to substantiate the former, Ratliff simply shows how the problems grow as one attempts to untangle them.
But Ratliff considers my criticism of the mention of 500 believers in I Corinthians disingenuous. He writes:
Bethrick wants to know where else we find this claim. He wants to have his cake and eat it too! Clearly from his blog, Bethrick doesn't consider the Gospels reliable, so if they recorded the 500 eyewitnesses it wouldn't persuade him. He's throwing this objection out into the wind to bolster his argument. Further, as we have shown this to be an early creed, it appears that this would be the best source to consult on the issue anyway. It's perfectly fine to ask why this isn't recorded elsewhere, but it is not appropriate to dismiss the reliability of the source on those grounds.
I submit that Ratliff is far too hasty in deciding what would and what would not persuade me. If we had independent accounts which could be reliably attributed to the hand of any of these 500 believers mentioned in I Corinthians 15, I would be happy to take a look at them. So contrary to what Ratliff states, I do not “throw… this objection out into the wind” only “to bolster [my] argument” (as if bolstering one’s argument by citing facts were wrong), but to point out how irresponsible it is of apologists to claim that what we read in I Corinthians 15 is well “corroborated.” It simply is not. As I stated in the passage which Ratliff himself quoted from my hand, it couldn’t be weaker, and nothing Ratliff provides has succeeded to overcome this.
But this will not do for Ratliff. Drawing on the assumption that the passage in question from I Corinthians 15 is in fact an early creed, Ratliff states that “it appears that this would be the best source to consult on the issue anyway.” It’s only “the best source to consult on the issue” because it’s the only source which mentions, not only the appearance of the risen Christ to 500 unnamed believers, but also to someone named James. That it is allegedly part of a creed does not make this mention valuable. That would suggest that there are other sources which state the same, but since this one is part of a creed it’s somehow better. That’s not the case though. Had we an independent account of this event from the hand of one of the 500 believers said to have experienced an appearance of the risen Christ, I’m quite confident that it would be of at least the same if not far more apologetic value than the passage in I Corinthians 15. In such a case, the passage in I Corinthians 15 would serve as supplemental corroboration of a far more impressive set of claims.
Ratliff admits that “it's perfectly fine to ask why this isn't recorded elsewhere.” Indeed, if it were a fiction, it would be understandable that it is not mentioned by anyone else. “But,” Ratliff adds, “it is not appropriate to dismiss the reliability of the source on those grounds.” What reliability? If it has no reliability to begin with, one only needs to point this out. In such a case, there would be no reliability to dismiss in the first place. My objections, which have sustained the efforts of Christian apologists to undermine, show that the claims in I Corinthians are simply too frail to hold any reliability to begin with. And Ratliff has provided nothing to substantiate his assumption that it is historically reliable.
Bethrick points out that the 500 were not named, and this is not surprising when you consider that creeds are not exhaustive histories.
Ratliff goes on to say:
The one thing this does show is that if it were important enough to be included in the creed, Paul and the rest of the apostles were willing to defend its claims to those who inquired about it.
Ratliff says that the inclusion of this mention in an early creed indicates that “Paul and the rest of the apostles were willing to defend its claims to those who inquired about it.” Not only does this seem to stretch things more than a bit (especially by claiming that other apostles, who nowhere mention an appearance to 500 believers at one time, were willing to defend this claim), but it doesn’t help us today whatsoever. Such claims are highly speculative, and provide no value in corroborating what is claimed in this “creed.” Ratliff himself seems to understand this latter point when he laments,
It's a shame that we can't actually talk to Paul today, but we must remember that the people he wrote and preached to could have.
Now suppose perchance some of the congregants of the Corinthian church did have an opportunity to ask Paul about things mentioned in his letters to them, and actually took it upon themselves to speak to him. Paul wrote a lot of things in his two letters to this church, and it would be quite coincidental that his mention of 500 brothers would have been one of things they sought to inquire on. But suppose some did. Perhaps Ratliff envisions the conversation to have gone as follows:
CONGREGANT 1: Master, tell us about these 500 brothers you mentioned in your first letter to us.
CONGREGANT 2: Yes, master. You say that the risen Christ appeared to them. Who were these brothers, and where are they now?
PAUL: As I mentioned in my letter, some are now asleep. But some still live.
CONGREGANT 2: Do we know any of them?
PAUL: No, they weren’t from these parts.
CONGREGANT 1: Tell us what happened, master. Who were they, and how can we fellowship with these brothers?
PAUL: There was Bill of Antioch. He now lives at 165 Al Metholos Road in Damascus. It is a two week journey from here by mule. There was Fred of Tyre. He also lives in Damascus. Bill knows him well, you can ask him how to find Fred. There was Al of Galilee….
I suspect the following dialogue may be more accurately representative of what Paul’s congregants could expect if they inquired on the 500 believers:
CONGREGANT 1: Master, tell us about these 500 brothers you mentioned in your first letter to us.
CONGREGANT 2: Yes, master. You say that the risen Christ appeared to them. Who were these brothers, and where are they now?
PAUL: As I mentioned in my letter, some are asleep now. Did you not read?
CONGREGANT 2: What about those who still live? Do we know any of them?
PAUL: No, they weren’t from these parts.
CONGREGANT 1: Tell us what happened, master. Who were they, and how can we fellowship with these brothers?
PAUL: Look, you know all that you need to know about the gospel. I have already told you. Jesus came to save you from your sins. You do believe, don’t you? For if you do not confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that he was resurrected, you cannot be saved. If you don’t believe, what good will details about the 500 witnesses to the resurrected Jesus do you? If I were you, I would see to it that I believe even if I hadn’t heard about any such witnesses. The witnesses cannot save you, only Jesus can. So I suggest you get your priorities straight and get with the program. The Lord is not pleased by doubting, and has a place in hell for those who do not believe.
In sum, examining the “creed” in I Corinthians 15 against what is found in the gospel narratives opens up a huge can of worms, which is why I suspect the latter version of Paul’s dialogue with his inquiring readers might be more representative of what they could expect if they were to grill him on his claims.
This should help one to better understand the oversimplification of calling the eyewitnesses hearsay as is seen in Bethrick's quote above. The disciples that Paul received this creed from were convinced they had evidence to back it up.
Thus, the grounds upon which Bethrick has touted the legend theory are quite shaky. My argumentation above should show that not only was the creed early, but it also contained the testimony of men who were Christ's contemporaries taking away the possibility of a crucifixion that took place anywhere at anytime in the universe.
And even in the case of the current topic, Ratliff’s points fall well below the mark. With respect to showing that the so-called “creed” embedded in I Corinthians 15:3-8, Ratliff has not even established that this passage is in fact a pre-Pauline creed. His case for this seems to rely on the point raised by David Parker in my own discussions with him, namely that symmetrical language introducing its points suggests a formalized statement, that “the language here is the exact same as the Pharisees used when passing on their traditions to one another.” This of course does not establish that someone other than Paul composed the passage in question as a creedal formulation. Paul himself was a Pharisee prior to his conversion to Christianity, so if the passage in question does in fact conform to Pharisaic conventions, I see no reason why Paul himself could not have been its originator. Paul does say he “received” what he is passing along, but he nowhere indicates that he received it from a human source, let alone identify any human individual(s) as the source from which he received it. Elsewhere in his letters, as I have pointed out, Paul is explicit that he did not receive his gospel from other human beings, but directly from the risen Christ.
Anyway, I think I’ve made my point.
by Dawson Bethrick
Labels: Christian Legends