Sunday, 14 June 2015

Did Jesus Exist? 4a. So then: what about the people who were interested in Jesus before Paul was?

It's a big deal to know what people in Judea in the 30s believed about Jesus - before even Paul was a believer. And it's a very big deal to have this information  about them first-hand from someone who was there with them. Paul is a primary source for this - a first-hand eyewitness who met them, and left us his own words about them. We can even workout the dates when he was persecuting them from his eyewitness letters.

Who were they?

Before looking at the beliefs of these people about Jesus, what do we learn about the people themselves? Who were they? It’s good to notice that Paul gives us crucial first-hand information about them in Galatians 1. One thing he doesn’t do is call them ‘Christians’. That’s a word – along with the word ‘Christianity’ – that never appears in Paul’s letters. It’s a word that may not even have been around in the 30s. But even without them being called by any such name, Paul knew how to pick them out.

What Paul knew about them

Let's go gathering data. This is Paul's eyewitness testimony about these people he met:

  • In the 30s, they were members of churches and living in Judea (Gal 1:22).
  • There was something about what these Jews said or did that marked them out as different, compared to Jews like Paul. Paul didn’t like it at first, being concerned for his Jewish ancestral traditions, as if this group were a threat to his traditions (Gal 1:13-14).
  • These people in Judea included some whom Paul calls ‘apostles’. That means some of them had some special status. Paul speaks of them as those who 'were apostles before I was'. (Gal 1:17)
  • In particular, it was in Jerusalem that he found Peter and James, men who were obviously an important part of this religious group (Gal 1:18 and 2:9). By the way, since Paul met Jesus’ brother James, then there is good evidence Jesus existed (as if it wasn’t becoming evident anyway from a lot of these details).

Actually, Paul writes Jakob which we translate as ‘James’. (To keep it simple, I’m referring to them as James and Peter, but writing in Greek Paul uses their names Jakob and Cephas. If we wanted to be really fussy: Paul writing in Greek calls himself Paulos.)

So we know whereabouts these people were to be found in the 30s – in Judea - and who some of them were. What else does Paul tell us about them? This is important since Paul says he followed their beliefs after he changed sides and stopped harming them (Gal 1:23).

  • Well, he tells us that the faith these people had was something to do with Christ (Gal 1:22).
  • And these people had been harmed by himself in the 30s (Gal 1:13 and 23).
  • But that what happened then was something extraordinary: the churches in Judea got news that Paul had converted to their faith! (Gal 1:23)
  • And that means the churches had not given up their religion, despite being persecuted by Paul – they were still around to hear about his conversion.
  • Peter allowed Paul to stay with him for fifteen days one time in the 30s because Paul wanted to get to know him (Gal 1:18).
    And after telling us about the 30s, Paul carries on by telling us about what was happening in the 40s.
  • Paul tells us that it was still in Jerusalem that he could find Peter and James (and John too - Gal 2:9).
  • He says that Peter was a Judean and that Peter and others loyal to the Jerusalem church followed Jewish customs – some more than others (Gal 2:12-14).
  • He tells us that Peter was preaching something called a ‘gospel’ – meaning ‘good news’ - to other Jewish people (Gal 2:7), and that James and John were also going to Jewish people (Gal 2:9).
  • And Paul gives us little details, such as that he had friends called Barnabas and Titus with him on one occasion when he met Peter, James and John (Gal 2:3 and 9).
  • He says that Peter, James and John were keen on some people being cared for who they called ‘the poor’ (Gal 2:10).
  • He says that the fact that Peter and others loyal to the Jerusalem church still followed Jewish customs meant they had some trouble knowing how to get along with non-Jews (Gal 2:14).

You can read the passage I'm explaining for yourself here.

It’s worth mentioning that Paul knew of events further afield in the 40s and 50s.

  • He tells us that Peter (and some people from James) travelled a bit and met him in Syria – in a town called Antioch – where they had their argument with each other (Gal 2:14).
  • The Jesus movement got to the city of Rome (Romans 1:7 and 15).

Is Paul a credible eyewitness about the people he met?

Historians in general consider Paul a credible witness on these matters. When he says he had victimised these people and why, there is no very good reason to doubt his word on that. I've heard naysayers saying they dismiss Paul's every word out of hand because he had a supernatural worldview. But here's the thing: in the ancient world, everyone - including every writer - had a supernatural worldview, and we would be unable to use a single word from the ancient world if that was such a problem! In fact, what the critical historian does is to take the usable evidence from the witnesses, without having to take every detail onboard on face value. You sift the evidence, and hold on to the more credible elements. What Paul says about the people he met in the 30s, 40s and 50s is credible. In fact, it is pretty amazing to have an eyewitness of church life in the 30s, and such a witness needs to be used as much as is reasonable to do so. Paul's data is underused by people talking about this era, and this blog aims to put that right.

Was Paul's source credible?

Did Paul have a credible source for his information? Obviously, since he targeted Christians for persecution for their beliefs, we can infer that they were willing to stand up for their beliefs. This means that when Paul wrote that he holds the same faith that was held by the Judean churches which he had persecuted, he was sure that they he had got accurate information about his victims and from his victims. A reasonable reader can conclude that Paul had a credible source for his information about Jesus and he was credibly conveying it.

A big part of the point here is that these people are very close in time to the days when Jesus was supposed to be a public figure and died - in the same decade, indeed within just a few years. This means they would know as a fact whether there had been a historical Jesus, and their information about Jesus would be more credible too. Forget anyone who tells you that there is no information about Jesus' life-story until decades or centuries later. Because here it is, details of his life and death, right there in the 30s. 

So thanks to Paul, we know quite a bit about these people who were interested in Jesus even before Paul victimised them. He is our eyewitness, giving us first hand information about them and their beliefs. We’ll think about the crucial thing - their beliefs about Jesus. Before that, the next part in this series of blogs: what Paul could have learned about Jesus and the church from his time spent with Peter in the 30s!

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?

Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus?

Did Jesus Exist? 3b. Why didn’t St Paul say more about Jesus?

Did Jesus Exist? 3c. Did Peter and Paul talk about Jesus?

So when did St Paul persecute the church? (And when did Jesus die?)

You are here - 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?

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