I recently completed the third installment in a series of articles entitled The Bottom-Line Guide to Jesus. This series of articles addresses common questions regarding what can be known about Jesus historically. The purpose of the articles is to equip readers to see through common skeptical objections to the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection as well as to be discerning with regard to various religions’ claims about Jesus that are contrary to the New Testament. Here is a brief overview of the three articles done so far:
Part 1: Did Jesus Exist?
Part 2: What Are Good Sources about Jesus?
This article explains why the four Gospels in the New Testament are reliable historical sources about Jesus while other books, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Barnabas, or the Book of Mormon, are not. The article is fairly long; for a brief summary see “What Are the Most Reliable Sources about Jesus?”
This article discusses such theories as that Jesus studied Buddhism in India (e.g., Nicholas Notovitch’s Life of Saint Issa), spent years living in Britain with Joseph of Arimathea, escaped crucifixion and died years later in France or Kashmir, or started a separate church in the Americas after his resurrection (as in the Book of Mormon).
I anticipate that future installments in this series will address such questions as whether Jesus actually performed miracles, whether he was actually killed on the cross, and whether he rose from the dead.
There is one argument for a historical Jesus that I don’t think has been made before. Most mythicists concede that in about AD 30 a Jesus movement started. They then argue that the Gospels are fake accounts of the origin of this movement. Now for the objection.
Jesus is widely regarded as the greatest moral teacher in history. It is not surprising that an inspiring moral teacher would be able to start a movement which continued in his name. But what if a movement started for very different reasons and you wanted to rewrite history to make it look as if the movement was started by a great moral teacher? In that case any success you have in creating a convincing portrait of a moral teacher would be entirely a matter of luck. If people end up thinking that this fictional founder of the movement is the greatest moral teacher in history it would be an incredible fluke.
If there is a movement with an identifiable beginning and there are highly regarded moral teachings attributed to the man who is believed to have founded the movement, then by far the most obvious explanation of these facts is that there actually was an inspiring moral teacher.
The alternative – that the movement started for different reasons and history was rewritten – is utterly implausible.
Nice comment, David. Makes sense to me.
“Paul: The Earliest Writings about Jesus
Mythicists commonly allege that the apostle Paul knew nothing about an historical Jesus. Some have gone so far as to claim that Paul believed only in a heavenly Christ who defeated the devil in a supernatural realm.13 Their reasoning is primarily an argument from silence: Paul must not have known about the historical Jesus presented in the Gospels because Paul says nothing about Jesus’ virgin birth, baptism by John, miracles, the Sermon on the Mount, and the like. This argument is flawed: Paul need not mention something in his epistles for him to have known about it. The epistles are letters prompted by pastoral situations in the churches, such as doctrinal error or unethical behavior, and are not meant to provide biographical information about Jesus.”
First, an argument from silence is compelling to the extent the silence screams. And in Paul’s case, his silence on Jesus does indeed scream. The issue is not whether Paul can still know something despite being silent on it. Of course he can. But that’s a mere possibility….you don’t win debates about history by pointing out that your particular theory isn’t utterly impossible. The issue is whether Paul would “likely” have ignored the teachings of the earthly Jesus to the infamous extent he did, had he believed Jesus existed as a real historical person who actually mouthed the traditions laying behind the canonical gospels. No, he likely wouldn’t have. Can you imagine a church pastor today who is equally as silent on the earthly Jesus as Paul was?
Second, you claim the Pauline epistles were not intended to be biographies of Jesus. But a Pauline epistle doesn’t need to be a biography of Jesus, before we can reasonably expect it to quote Jesus to solve the specific church’s doctrinal or moral problems. The problem of incest in 1st Cor. 5:1 could have been addressed by what Jesus said about upholding the law in Matthew 5:17-21, since that means incest, forbidden by Moses, is thus also forbidden in the church.
Again, what would you think of a church pastor today who relies on the Jesus of the canonical gospels about 1% of the time, and relies on Paul’s epistles 99% of the time (perhaps that’s not exactly the most powerful rebuttal point, as most of today’s churches DO focus far more on Paul than on Jesus). What must I do to be saved? Acts 16:31. How do I do this? Romans 10:9. Do I have to earn my place in heaven? No, see Ephesians 2:8-10. How are we justified before God? Romans 4. Must Gentile men who follow Christ adopt Judaism and circumcision? No, see Acts 15 and Galatians. What is the theological significance of Jesus’ death? Hebrews ch. 7-9. How did Jesus rise from the dead? Bodily, 1st Cor. 15, etc, etc.)
If Paul thought Jesus taught justification by faith, isn’t it rather surprising that Paul relies exclusively on OT quotations for this doctrine? Wouldn’t a guy like Paul have viewed Jesus’ teachings about how we are justified before God, to be the most recent divine light on the subject?
If Paul thought the canonical gospel traditions clearly taught a bodily resurrected Jesus, isn’t it surprising that Paul opts instead to teach the doctrine with convoluted words that for centuries have confused Christians, divided commentators and were employed by “heretics” (1st Cor. 15)? Wouldn’t Thomas’s having touched the physical body of the resurrected Jesus (John 20:24-29) made Paul’s point somewhat less confusingly than Paul did in his own words?
Third, the allegedly resurrected Jesus already decreed in what the gospel would consist, it comes from the part of the Great Commission most apologists forget, namely, that future Gentile converts must obey all that Jesus had taught the original 11 disciples (Matthew 28:20). Since Paul expresses nearly zero interest in promoting the teachings of the earthly Jesus, it is neither incorrect nor unreasonable to characterize Paul’s eccentricity on the matter as being in conflict with Matthew 28:20. Assuming Matthew to be the author, Matthew clearly understood Jesus to be referring mostly to his pre-crucifixion teachings, that’s why 90% of Matthew is made up of Jesus’ pre-crucifixion teachings. Therefore, again, it is neither incorrect nor unreasonable to assert that Paul had nearly zero concern to conduct his specifically Gentile mission in harmony with the way Jesus said preaching to specifically Gentiles must be done. This problem becomes greater when we realize that Paul’s apathy toward the pre-crucifixion teachings of Jesus likely tells us what his churches were like. That is, Paul gave them a gospel that made only minimal use of the teachings of the earthly Jesus, and focused more on Paul’s ability to understand the OT, whereas Matthew 28:20 makes obedience to the pre-crucifixion teachings of Jesus to be the greatest priority in the Gentile mission field.
While it might be possible to refute some of what the more extreme skeptics say, the extreme Christian position that says Paul cared just as much about the earthly historical Jesus as modern day evangelical inerrantist Christians do, is perfectly absurd on its face.
In fact, Paul does cite Jesus’ teaching on divorce (1Cor. 7:19), so Paul obviously did consider Jesus to be an authority on moral issues. Is it the case that Paul doesn’t say enough about Jesus’ moral teaching? That is a very dubious line of speculation. The problem with arguments from silence is the asymmetry between the presence of evidence and its absence. Suppose there is a single footprint at a crime scene. That is decisive evidence that someone wearing the shoe which made the print was present. But what about the 99.9% of the crime scene which is free of footprints? Simple: it doesn’t count.
But even if we thought that Paul’s silence might be a problem, we would have to make sure that the “solution” to the problem doesn’t make things a whole lot worse. Can we solve the problem by supposing that Paul believed in a “heavenly Christ”? Was Jesus the Galilean preacher “invented” some time after Paul was writing his letters? Now we are in the realm of complete guesswork. We have no historical sources which tell us how or why Jesus the Galilean was invented. Nor do we have any historical sources which tell us what was “really” going on in AD 30.
Furthermore, Paul says a number of things which are completely incompatible with a heavenly Christ. He tells us that “I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11)
Now, that *could* refer to a revelation, but it could also refer to tradition received through intermediaries, since it was normal Jewish practice to mention the fountainhead of tradition. Be that as it may, Paul’s statement is completely at odds with the idea that Jesus descended to the lower heavens, where the demons were in charge. Is Jesus sharing a last meal with the demons and creating a ritual which they are supposed to practise? Presumably not.
Paul also tells us in Romans, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah.” (9:3-5)
Notice the two parallel uses of “according to the flesh”. Jesus is obviously a Jew by blood just as Paul himself is. Also in Romans Paul mentions that Jesus is of the seed of David (1:3). So the idea that Paul regarded Jesus as a purely celestial being can simply be ruled out. If the idea of a heavenly Jesus is the solution to Paul’s silence, it is a remarkably poor solution.