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)
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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;
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)
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.
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.
On that note I contend that if the legend theory you suppose is true, then Paul is completely insane
(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),
and the Gospel writers are some of the most outrageous fraudsters fiction has ever seen.
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.
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.
Regardless, you are misrepresenting G/T and introducing a false dichotomy.
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).
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.
You complain that there is a "perhapsical" nature to this whole idea that Paul's letters were not written in a contextual vacuum.
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 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)
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)
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)
Yet haven't answered my question: is it really more probable that Paul was writing nonsense?
I think the legend theory per Wells has much more perhapsing to account for then any theory of New Testament origins.
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)
Rest assured, there’s much more to come.
by Dawson Bethrick