Dec 052013

historical-jesusI have dusted off this old post to Usenet, with some parts whittled out, for republication.

“Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a very difficult one.” – Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not a Christian” (1927).

I once railed against the ‘mythicists’ as being irrational to the point of absurdity. I am now willing to grant that it is reasonable for someone not to believe the historicity of Jesus.

As there are sometimes ambiguities, I have attempted definition of the “historical Jesus” (as distinct from the “Gospel Jesus”) and what constitutes “the historicity of Jesus.” It does not mean that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, or rose from the dead.  A believer in the historicity of Jesus may affirm these things, but that is not necessary to be a historicist.  Rather, for me to say that Jesus existed means that a sizeable subset of the core mundane claims in the Gospels are authentic with a single historical individual.  These “core mundane claims” include that his name was Jesus, he was baptized by John the Baptist, he was an itinerant preacher in Galilee, his message centered on the Kingdom of God, he performed acts deemed miracles by his contemporaries, and he was crucified by Pilate c. A.D. 30 (non-exhaustive).  I say a “sizeable subset” because not every “core mundane claim” must be true, only enough that we are talking about a person with more substance than, say, Hercules or Robin Hood.

I repeat that this is my opinion only.  In fact, I made up this definition on my own, although it seems in line with most scholarly usage.  Others certainly disagree with me.  When many Christians say that “Jesus existed,” or when many skeptics say that “Jesus is a myth,” they are affirming or denying the supernatural aspects of the Gospel Jesus. Hopefully, the use of “the historical Jesus” reminds us that the the one nailed up by Pilate is not necessarily the conservative Christian one.  My definition is not mathematically or scientifically precise; for example, I do not specify exactly how much it takes for the subset to be “sizeable,” nor do I exhaust the list of “core mundane claims.”  This is because I feel it would be arbitrary to say something like “50% of the list above.”  It may be historically or legally adequate; as Aristotle says, the wise man only looks for precision so far as the subject matter permits.

Why in the world would anyone doubt the existence of a historical Jesus?

Well, for example, a common type of Jesus-mythicist that I’ve found is one who has a strong presumption that all hearsay accounts should be dismissed as evidence out of hand.  I do not consider this to be necessarily irrational, though it is not a view that I share.

Another mythicist position is that the gospel stories were almost entirely lifted from pagan mythology.  Although again I don’t completely agree with the thesis, I have seen some impressive arguments for this from very intelligent people.

Still another argument for mythicism is that, due to contradictions and other errors, the gospels are unreliable.  And because our only sources of information on Jesus are the gospels (so it goes), we cannot know who Jesus was or even whether he was.

Related to this is the argument that the historical Jesus is supposed to be a “public figure known throughout the land,” and thus the lack of independent confirmation provides grounds for disbelieving in his existence.

Perhaps the most common class of ‘mythicists’, many people just don’t care whether there was an itinerant preacher named Jesus nailed up by Pilate. Since they’ve never researched the issue, and thus have seen no evidence for it, it is not irrational for them to doubt the claim that there was a historical Jesus.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument for the mythicist hypothesis is the silence of the early epistle writers such as Paul to provide details of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  This, it is said, establishes that the earliest Christians did not believe in a ‘historical Jesus’ that lived in the time of Pilate and walked the sands of Palestine.  According to Wells, ‘Jesus’ was originally a shadowy figure around the second century BCE alluded to in the Talmud.  According to Doherty, ‘Jesus’ referred to a spiritual Christ whose sacrificial death at the hands of ‘the rulers of the age’ took place in a heavenly dimension.

To make the origins of Christianity appear unified, to put moral and theological insight into the mouth of an authoratative figure, to fulfill the scriptures in a process of ‘prophecy historicized’, to place the life of Jesus ‘in the last days’ – for whatever reason, there developed the idea of a human Jesus in the recent past, and the evangelists filled in the details with reference to midrashic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and/or borrowing from pagan mythology.

I will describe an alternative view of the Pauline epistles, the Gospels, and Christian origins.

Let me quote at length James Still’s understanding of Paul:

There is a disappointing irony in the Apostle Paul as a source for the historical Jesus. Even though Paul did not know Jesus (he was converted to the movement two years after Jesus’ crucifixion), his letters to various early Christian communities predate the gospels, making them the earliest testimony of Jesus. Yet Paul never speaks of Jesus’ life and very rarely mentions anything that Jesus said. This is because Paul’s letters to the various communities he founded are ecclesiastical policy designed to organize the young Church and were not intended to communicate the sayings of Jesus. Since Paul did not know the historical Jesus (and fought with those who did) he is not as helpful to us as we might at first imagine.

Jesus’ disciples were still alive of course and Paul tells us that three years after his conversion he visited Peter in Jerusalem (the headquarters for the Jesus movement) for fifteen days (Galatians 1:16-19). Paul tells us that he did not seek out any of the other disciples and seems to have had little interest in their perspective of Jesus. In fact, very quickly Paul feuds with other disciples and his theology is questioned by those who follow Peter (1 Corin. 1:12-13).

The “Cephas faction” (Peter) that Paul fought followed Mosaic law and insisted on circumcision even for the Gentile converts to the new faith. The fact that Peter is so insistent on this is good evidence that Jesus himself never abandoned the tenets of Judaism. Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians because a serious crisis had arisen in the community there over the conflict between the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (under James and Peter) and Paul’s earlier teaching. Paul tells us that he did not receive any instruction from the disciples in Jerusalem because his gospel from divine revelation was the only true gospel.

These various factions that Paul mentions are called “trajectories” by biblical scholars; out of these trajectories emerge different movements which emphasized or understood Jesus’ teachings in manners that caused friction between them. In his second letter to the community at Corinth, Paul complains of those “superlative apostles” who preach a different Jesus than the one that he preached to them (2 Corin. 11:4-6). Paul goes on to characterize them as “false apostles” working for Satan (11:12-15). These enemies of Paul were probably the Judaizers (of Philippians 3:2-15) who, if they were not Jesus’ disciples, certainly Jewish-Christians in close agreement to the theology of Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem. We must remember that Jesus was a Jew and advocated an adherence to the Law. Unlike Peter and the other disciples in Jerusalem, Paul considers Judaism a regression, a step in the wrong direction (cf. Acts 2:43ff).

We must conclude that Paul is of no help to us for understanding the teachings of the historical Jesus. Paul claims to have received his theology, not from Jesus via Jesus’ disciples whom he despised, but rather through a direct revelation with a Risen Christ. Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ teaching received from this revelation seems to be in sharp disagreement with the understanding and practices of Jesus’ own disciples in Jerusalem.

Doherty offers the following against this kind of view:

Like so many other commentators, by placing the Gospel picture behind the epistles and attaching Gospel preconceptions to the Jerusalem group of apostles, Wilson is led down the all-too-familiar path of analyzing an imagined “dichotomy” between Peter and Paul, between Jesus and Paul. Contrasts are drawn between the “religion of Jesus” as exemplified in the localized, Palestinian-oriented teachings of Jesus on the one hand, and on the other the ecstatic, universalised religion of Paul, with its cosmic “atoning sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, the glorious promise of the Resurrection and everlasting life” (p.239). The Petrines on the one hand have “clung to the memory of Jesus,” while Paul on the other has gone off to apply “the perceptions of heaven.”

Here we have the well-worked, inspiring tapestry with its clashing colors and divergent lines which scholarship has long spun for earliest Christianity, but neither Wilson nor New Testament scholarship in general will acknowledge the fact that the supporting pillars of this exhibit are incongruous. The second exists nowhere in the first century documentation of Paul’s time. From a Pauline cross which was a happy spiritual mystery, to the bleak Gospel Calvary where history’s greatest injustice was perpetrated, from spirit forces conquered in the higher realm of heaven, to earthly demons in the form of Jews, the pattern of the evidence is sequential rather than bipolar. The only dispute in evidence between Pauline and Petrine “branches” of the movement is the one concerning the application of the Jewish Law to gentiles. This is something which is never related to the views or presence in recent history of an historical teacher. The so-called contrasting gospels centered on Antioch and Jerusalem, the two strands of Jewish-Christian and Hellenistic views of Jesus, the clash of personality and vision between the faithful orthodox Peter and a radical Paul who has scandalously transformed the humble rabbi into part of the Godhead and severed the connection to his human person and teachings, all these are nowhere in evidence in the only contemporary record we possess, Paul’s own letters. It is indeed amazing how much can be spun out of preconception.

Behind the rhetoric, I could identify two objections:

1.  Paul’s letters evince little or no conflict with the Jerusalem apostles.
2.  There is no first century record from the alleged non-Pauline faction about a historical Jesus.

Still’s references provide good evidence of conflict between Paul and the “superlative apostles” who preach a different Jesus than the one that he preached to them (2 Corin. 11:4-6), whom Paul characterize as “false apostles” working for Satan (11:12-15).  These enemies of Paul were probably the Judaizers (of Philippians 3:2-15), who were led by the “pillars James, Cephas, and John” in Jerusalem (Gal 2:9), at whom Paul threw polemic (2:11-14).  The most obvious difference between them was that the Jewish-Christians required circumcision, but this conflict may easily have extended to the preaching of a different Jesus and a different gospel (2 Cor 11:4-6, Gal 1:6-9).

Naturally, if Paul did not share the Jewish-Christian faction’s view of a historical Jesus, we should not expect to find much about their christology and tradition in his letters (as Galatians 1:16-19 indicates, he had little interest in their perspective of Jesus).  But the few places where Paul quotes ‘tradition’ suggest that his predecessors had some inkling of what became the gospel stories.  For example, 1Cor 15:3-5 is probably based on a very old tradition.  The ‘Twelve’ is a non-Pauline concept, which is found nowhere else in his letters, but apparently had significance to the people he borrowed this phrase from.

Many scholars point to Q, the source behind Matthew and Luke, as a Jewish-Chrsitian document contemporary with Paul.  I will not argue for the existence or reconstruction of Q here.  Let it suffice to say that Doherty provides no evidence for his claim that Q originally had no historical Jesus.

Doherty does not even discuss the Gospel of Thomas, which (along with Q) has been argued to date as early as the 50s.  I am informed by the scholarship of Stevan Davies. Contrary to some opinion, Thomas does not contain the developed, fantastical elements characteristic of second century systematic gnosticism.  Among other things, Davies identifies a dialectic between 1Cor 1-4 and the ideas in the ‘logoi sophon’ document of the Gospel of Thomas.

But suppose that I am wrong about the dating or reconstruction of Q and Thomas.  Even if they didn’t write anything at the time, we have Paul’s own testimony that such opposition existed.  In any case, Doherty does not support the presumption that Paul spoke for all his Christian contemporaries (nor does Wells).  Although they are often brought up as supporting Paul’s view as prevalent throughout primitive Christianity, the letters written in Paul’s name were likely by his supporters and disciples (excepting the pastorals, which do contain elements of the historical Jesus).

One reason why the stories and sayings weren’t written down for decades is perhaps because they were transmitted by the living voice.  Still (above) maintains that “the oral tradition thrived from shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion to well into the second century” as evinced by Papias.

Why might anyone feel the need to write full-blown books of the words as well as the deeds of Jesus?  By the late first century, the apostles were dying off.  So some second or third generation Christians collected stories that were circulating about Jesus for posterity. Unlike Q or Thomas, these gospels were influenced by Paul and his heavy emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus.  So, although they are not entirely representative of the Jerusalem Church (written after its destruction), they may be analyzed for traditions that likely go back to the early Palestinian community.

  2 Responses to “Vintage 1998 Essay on the Historical Jesus”

  1. Hello Peter,

    “1. Paul’s letters evince little or no conflict with the Jerusalem apostles.”
    True, considering Gal 2:6, 9-10 & 1 Cor 3:21-22. But religions are evolving, more so during their beginning phase. Christianity is not different, so also was Paul’s Christianity.
    When the council of Jerusalem took place and the aforementioned passage from 1 Corinthians (actually from one letter among three combined into the canonical one) was written, Paul did not embrace yet Jesus as pre-existent, Son of God and sacrifice for atonement of sins.
    And the pillars had time to get used about Resurrection and imminent return of Christ, Gentile converts not requested to be circumcised, from Jewish Christians such as leaders of the Church of Antioch. Therefore, they had to tolerate that from Paul, even if they did not believe in these ideas.
    That would explain “Paul’s letters evince little or no conflict with the Jerusalem apostles”

    “2. There is no first century record from the alleged non-Pauline faction about a historical Jesus.”
    Do you think gMark is Pauline or not dated in the 1st century?
    I think gMark is about 30% Pauline.

    “For example, 1Cor 15:3-5 is probably based on a very old tradition. The ‘Twelve’ is a non-Pauline concept, which is found nowhere else in his letters, but apparently had significance to the people he borrowed this phrase from.”
    Did you consider 1 Cor 15:3-21 might be an interpolation:
    That would explain the “twelve” as a non-Pauline concept.

    “Thomas does not contain the developed, fantastical elements characteristic of second century systematic gnosticism.”
    True. I consider gThomas to be an ebionistic text written before the gnosticism of Basilides and Valentinus appeared.
    This Thomassan sect is alluded to in gJohn, through allusions to Thomas. I concluded that sect did not believe their good members would die and that Jesus resurrected & was divine.

    Overall you got a good essay here but your conclusions are not clear.

    Cordially, Bernard

    • This essay starts by outlining the problem of the historicity of Jesus but turns around to argue for a historical Jesus at the point it makes the two long quotes from James Still and Earl Doherty. I’d like to point out that those two statements “1.” and “2.” are quoted from the summary of Doherty. The second might have to be rephrased to say pre-70 instead of first century in order to represent the sense of the passage summarized. Also, no, the essay did not consider whether 1 Cor 15 may contain interpolations, but I agree that it’s important to consider. If my conclusions are not clear, that’s fine. I reposted this essay primarily for its statement of issues, not of conclusions.

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