First-hand autobiographical anecdotes are witness evidence. The historian assesses Paul's competence and credibility to say what he says as a primary witness of events in the early church in the 30s of the first century. And assessing Paul as a secondary source for the life of Jesus involves our assessing Paul's use of information he gets from people whom he would take to be eyewitnesses of his contemporary Jesus, if Jesus existed. So, for example, when Paul indicates that Jesus died in Judea, is Paul competent and credible in saying that?
I need to be clear what my subject is here. As Paul writes about both a pre-resurrection Jesus on earth and a post-resurrection Jesus in heaven, I want to be clear that this blog is gathering data on the former: i.e. what Paul says about a pre-resurrection Jesus, a man on earth.
As usual for these blogs, I’m using only a few of Paul’s letters, from seven letters that to secular scholars are authentic, written about 20 years after Jesus by a man who knew some of Jesus' friends and family. It should be possible to establish things that are common ground. This is not about them being in the Bible: these personal letters were 'outside the Bible' when Paul wrote them. I am also not trying to use Paul’s letters to prove that the gospels are true – I am just gathering data from Paul’s letters alone which we can then assess. And these blogs are not about proving that Jesus was the ‘son of God’ or anything like that – they are just about seeing what data can be gathered about there being a Jewish man – Jesus – at the start of the Jesus movements. That’s the task: to assess whether this man Jesus existed.
Paul: a contemporary of Jesus?
A contemporary of Jesus, who wrote about Jesus, Paul gives away a lot in his letters. He was around at the same time that Jesus is supposed to have been around. That is, he was active in Jewish religion as an adult in the 30s of the first century (and he wrote about it in the 50s in his personal letters). We can calculate the dates from Paul's autobiographical statements about when he visited Jerusalem. So if Jesus existed - which is what this series of blogs is investigating - then we have information about him by one of his contemporaries. That they were contemporaries is confirmed because writing in the 50s of the first century - dated according to secular scholars - Paul refers to himself as an "old man" (Philemon v.9) which, going by the writings of his Jewish contemporaries, means that Paul was in his fifties at the time of his writing and therefore he was born around the start of that century: thus a contemporary of Jesus. This is a simple deduction.
And this is really significant. Paul reels off the names of a lot of his contemporaries, including Cephas and John, not to mention James, but also a host of fellow workers, He writes of all those people as within living memory. And as said, he treats Jesus as someone from within the same time span of living memory. And here's the thing: there is no evidence of Paul switching back and forth to talk about real contemporary people, then mythical contemporaries, then real ones, then mythical ones. The evidence is that as for Peter, James, John and the host of Paul's other contemporaries, they were all real people, and you can't magically exempt Jesus from that basic evidence about Paul's contemporaries. To historians, that would be malpractice, a laughable case of what's called special pleading, asking Jesus to have a special exemption just because mythicists need it to be so.
Not just a contemporary, Paul was one who was initially on the opposing side from Jesus' followers. Paul was the first to write as a (former) non-Christian who had heard of Jesus. Paul was not just going along with whatever he was told by followers of Jesus, because at first he was persecuting them, not lapping up their every word. He had an independent opinion of Jesus, the opinion of a non-follower: he regarded Jesus with the eyes of an outsider, not the eyes of faith at first. He was sceptical of the claims of followers of Jesus, if not downright hostile to them. He never forgot that; so he wrote, "At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now!" (2 Corinthians 5:16). The change in Paul's point of view came when he converted to following Jesus, but he never lost his own independent spirit, as can be seen in the letters he wrote, letters accepted as authentic by scholars on all sides, secular scholars, Jewish scholars, Christian scholars. (Read Galatians 1-2 for example.) Later, I will say something below about the 'hearsay' question that is sometimes raised about Paul's knowledge of Jesus.
Data about Jesus in Paul's letters
Paul tells us some things about Jesus’ life story. You can tell right away that Paul regarded Jesus as a fellow Jew for a start.
Genealogy and birth
• To be clear, this is a human Jesus ministering to fellow Israelites as a member of their race: "To them [the Jews] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Messiah" (Romans 9:5). So Jesus was of the Israelite race, the race of their most respected forefathers, and Jesus was the Israelite Messiah.
o I don't go with conjectural emendation that would delete this verse as a potential interpolation - we need to be wary of changing the text without any manuscript evidence of variance.
I’ll stop there for the moment. The sceptical historian already has plenty to interest him or her. Things about the post-resurrection Jesus in heaven are another story, albeit they are what some people are more interested in!
Let's look again at 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. It's interesting for how it places Jesus on earth before his death. Now some people would say Paul was told this by other Christians, and some people would say he was told this in a vision. Either way, this text proves that Paul believed Jesus was alive on earth in the past. The passage breaks down like this:
- "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.” 25 In the same way,
- after supper
- he took the cup,
- saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
- "The Lord Jesus, on the night - it was night, so it was on earth, the place where there is night and day
- he was handed over, - so it was on earth, that night, that someone(s) handed Jesus over
- took bread, - Jesus handled an ordinary physical object on earth that night
- and when he had given thanks,
- he broke it - Jesus broke an ordinary physical object on earth that night
- and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way,
- after supper - so the above events were before supper and now it is after supper, he was at a meal being eaten on earth that night
- he took the cup, - Jesus handled another ordinary physical object on earth that night
- saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” - Jesus told those he was speaking to that they were to eat and drink in mind of what he said to them when handling the bread and the cup at supper
So, however it is that Paul believed that he came by this information (and see Appendix below), he believed this information, and so he believed Jesus lived on earth. And he believed that Jesus was handed over and that he died in Judea, the homeland of the Jews (1 Thessalonians 2:15).
My point in going through the scenario of "the last supper" is not to prove that Jesus did these things, but to prove that Paul believed these things: as far as Paul was concerned, Jesus had a human history on earth prior to his death. So I'm not convinced by those who have said that Paul didn't believe Jesus had a history on earth.
(Paul calls this a tradition he received ‘from the Lord’ (see Appendix below), but it is hard to know what to make of him saying that, given that it is not a saying unique to Paul. Mark 14:22-24 has the same story, but could easily have been written down long before Paul wrote his letter. That is, Mark chapters 11-16 could have been written decades earlier even than the rest of Mark’s gospel. Strong arguments have been made that show chapters 11-16 as a distinct text that was written in the early 40s for reading in churches. See Paul Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ, pages 81-90.)
- a letter to the church in Rome (called Romans)
- another to the church in Galatia (Galatians)
- another to the church in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians) and
- others to the church in Corinth (Corinthians).
Don’t be thrown off course by the fact of these letters being found in the Bible: that is, that some Christians later, people whom Paul never met, decided to collect Paul’s letters and put them in the Bible. This fact bothers some people, who think someone sat down and wrote the Bible as a book of propaganda to give the church power: actually the Bible is a collection of letters and books.
When Paul wrote them, they were his personal letters, the letters of someone who was not very powerful at all. At the time he wrote them, these letters were 'outside the Bible'.
The historian reads them as historical letters from the 50s of the first century, and assesses the credibility of Paul as a first-hand witness about the Christians he met, and as a secondary source for his information on Jesus. That's the job of a historian.
How close was Paul to events?
So, Paul had all of the above information about the life story of Jesus. That seems pretty good at first sight. But hold on: how close was Paul to events? How could he know these things? For a start, how close in time was he to the Jesus he wrote about? I've already mentioned that information Paul gives about Jesus' brothers and their wives dates the life of Jesus to the first half of the first century. I've blogged on how Paul's autobiographical letters hand really useful dating evidence to us, and from these we can work out that these letters can only have been written between the 30s and the mid-60s of the first century at the latest. Conservatively, the evidence points to the later side. That is, he wrote down these things in the 50s. The same dating evidence (at the link above) tells us that Jesus would have died in the 30s at the latest. So, Paul was writing about 20 years after Jesus is said to have died in the 30s. That's not really such a long time. You might be able to remember what your favourite football team was doing 20 years ago, for example: not every detail but the things that are most important to you. And you wouldn't say that no-one who played in your favourite football team 20 years ago is qualified to recall it. Or you might be able to remember where you went on holiday twenty years ago, or who your friends at school and work were.
We can narrow down how close Paul was to events. This is because we have his autobiographical first-hand eyewitness information about events after Jesus is said to have died, events of the 30s and 40s that he witnessed. From this, we discover that Paul was getting information about Jesus in the 30s (See in the link above). And we assess what Paul says just the way we would any other ancient historical witness.
Getting closer to the Jesus people spoke of
So, one of the findings in Paul’s autobiographical account is that others had a church life related to Jesus before he himself did. This proves to be very important. He knew these people even before he was a believer himself. In fact, he had been harming them when he didn’t share their beliefs. He reveals that this was in the 30s (again, Paul's dating evidence is at the link above).
So a crucial question is what did those people believe? I mean Paul's victims in the 30s whose lives had something to do with Jesus, and had done before Paul ever showed up at their door.
Their information gets us closer to Jesus, if he existed, because they were interested in him before Paul was. Anything we can find out about their beliefs about Jesus is worth its weight in gold. Why? Because what they thought about Jesus gets us closer to the heart of the matter. That is the subject of the next blog in this series. (A link is at the bottom of this page.)
I’ve written more about what Paul and Peter discussed here. I’m keeping this short – blog length – and encourage readers to go to academic books to check these things out for yourselves. By the way, some people think Paul's only source of information was 'visions' and 'revelations' but Paul doesn't actually say so: see the appendix below for more on that.
'Hearsay' is repeating what someone else says. Paul here is repeating what someone else says about Jesus. A historian normally uses the term 'secondary source' or 'secondary witness', not 'hearsay', to talk about this kind of thing. The point is that it is a form of evidence that can be useful: you don't just throw it away in the historical method. Secondary sources are a historian's bread and butter, as well as primary sources. You test secondary evidence, decide which bits of it are usable. It is like in English civil courts, where 'hearsay' is actually admissible in evidence - it is used to help decide court cases. The civil courts have specially designed tests so that 'hearsay' can be used, so that the truth can be determined 'on the balance of probabilities'. The historical method is a bit like that. I'll say more about this in a blog about evidence and analysis and the historical method. In short, Paul's evidence about the historical Jesus is useful secondary evidence if it is carefully used. It can be compared with other sources, and Paul's credibility as a witness can be tested, as can the credibility of his sources.
Some say that Paul didn't believe that Jesus ever lived as a man, as a historical figure. These people are known as 'mythicists', because they believe that Paul really thought of Jesus as a myth: mythicists say that Paul's Jesus was only a god-figure who only ever had been thought of as being in a place in the sky, like in mythological tales. In the view of these people, what Paul really means is this: when Paul says that Jesus was an Israelite who was descended from the family of King David, Paul means that Jesus wasn't really. When Paul indicates that Jesus was born into a family of observant Jews, Paul means that he wasn't really. When Paul says Jesus was ‘born of a woman’, he means he wasn't really. When Paul says Jesus had a brother named James and other brothers who had wives in his family, Paul means that Jesus had a spiritual association but didn't have any real brothers of any kind. When he indicates that Jesus spent time in the land of the Judeans, the homeland of the Jews, and this is where he died, Paul means he didn't really. Etc.
I'll say more about mythicists' theories in a future blog, not least the fact that no such theatrical dramas existed of this kind at all in Paul's day!
Something that gets a lot of attention from mythicists is this: in Galatians, Paul said that he received his 'gospel' message by a revelation direct from God. But what did he mean by that, and did he have any other sources of information? The answer to that question is now at this link.
Appendix 2: Paul's existence
Did Jesus Really Exist? 1. A little introduction
Did Jesus Exist? 2a. Did any writers mention Jesus at the time he was alive?
Did Jesus Exist? 2b. Were ancient authors silent about Jesus' existence?
Did Jesus Exist? 2c. Outside the Bible, does anyone else say Jesus existed?
Did Jesus Exist? 2d. What about these authors then, Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny?
You are here - Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus?
What Paul says about the earthly pre-resurrection Jesus – a summary list
Did Jesus Exist? 3b. Why didn’t St Paul say more about Jesus?
Did Paul learn about Jesus only from 'revelations'?
Did Jesus Exist? 3c. Did Peter and Paul talk about Jesus?
So when did St Paul persecute the church? (And when did Jesus die?)
Did Jesus Exist? 4a. So then: what about the people who were interested in Jesus before Paul was?
Did Jesus Exist? 4b. What did people know about the life story of Jesus before Paul came on the scene?
Did Jesus Exist? 5. Did Paul invent Jesus?