Sunday, 14 June 2015

Did Jesus Exist? 4b. What did people know about the life story of Jesus before Paul came on the scene?

As I’ve already said, a crucial question is what did these people in churches believe about Jesus, those people in the 30s whose religious lives have something to do with Jesus (and I mean even before Paul ever took an interest in Jesus)? Paul gives us a clear indication about the ones he met. He informs us that the faith he had now converted to was actually the same as the faith that they had held when he was persecuting them in the 30s. And as he had persecuted them for their beliefs, he surely was confident about the information he got from his victims about their beliefs. He was sure, after all, that after his conversion he held to the same beliefs as they did.

These are some of the components of that pre-Pauline faith, as we have seen:

  • Jesus was an Israelite who was descended from the family of King David (Rom 1:3).
  • Jesus was born into a family of observant Jews (Gal 4:4).
  • Jesus had brothers (Gal 1:19 etc).
  • Jesus spent time in Judea and was killed there (1 Thess 2:15).[1]
  • Jesus was killed effectively by Judeans (1 Thess 2:15).
  • It was death by crucifixion (1 Cor 2:8) and so his execution was in actuality carried out by the Romans.
  • Jesus’ body was buried (1 Cor 15:4).

This is mainly, as you can see, about Jesus’ family and his death. This makes sense. Paul met at least one member of Jesus’ family (James), and so had a source of information about them. And the subject of Jesus’ death seems to dominate early Christian thought anyway. Now to add some other things that Paul says happened before his conversion:

  • Jesus came back to life again and
  • Jesus was seen by Peter and others (1 Cor 15:1-7).

Paul says the churches in Judea held the same faith before his conversion (Gal 1:23). So we have established that there was belief in a historical Jesus, all of which pre-dates Paul’s conversion. Compared to all of this that the Judean churches knew, Paul was a Johnny-come-lately to the faith. None of this was original to him, if he is to be believed when he says his victims held the same faith before him.

Paul was dead by the 60s. But, on Paul’s say-so, we have got quite a lot of really revealing information about what was happening in the 30s and the 40s and even the 50s, and particularly about these people in Judea whose lives had something to do with Jesus. This is eyewitness information – Paul met them.

Let's fill this out a bit. Whereas Paul tells us he is an eyewitness about events among these people in the 30s and 40s, he doesn’t claim to have met Jesus. So from whom did he get all his information about the life story of Jesus? He doesn’t tell us much, but since he had met all those people in Judea and Jerusalem, the balance of probabilities has to be, as said, that he learned stuff from them. And he gives us one important piece of information. He tells us that in the 40s, to be on the safe side, he went to get his 'gospel' message vetted by the people in Jerusalem (Gal 2:2 and 6). Paul is revealing something remarkable between the lines: he has on the one hand his ‘gospel’ message - which he claims to have heard by 'revelation' - and on the other he has information about the earthly life of Jesus in Judea. These things are separate.

What was Paul's gospel message?

It was his ‘gospel’ message he got vetted in the 40s. And this message was that Jesus died (to save people from their sins), and came back to life again, and that this was a message that would unite non-Jews with Jews.

What was Paul's information?

Paul's information was the same as the Judean Christians had, according to him. These were the people who could say that Jesus existed and what his life story was, and Paul talked to them. It was they who thought that Jesus was an Israelite who was descended from the family of King David, that Jesus was born into a family of observant Jews (Gal 4:4), that Jesus spent time in Judea and was killed by Judeans, this being death by crucifixion carried out by the Romans, and that Jesus’ body was buried. (That they also said he had risen from the dead I will leave to another blog.)

It’s staggering nowadays to historians such as myself to hear some people say strange things such as that Paul had no information about Jesus’ life story, or stranger still that Jesus never existed at all. That is dreamland compared to this cascade of information that Paul gives us about the people of the 30s and 40s, and about their stand for their beliefs in the face of his victimisation, and about how this was to do with a Jewish Jesus who lived and died in Judea.

People who merely ask for 'proof' are missing the point about how history is mostly done. It is a painstaking business of collecting data and establishing the simplest explanation for it. It is evidence that calls for a judgment call on the balance of probabilities, for a reasonable person to say whether the man these people spoke of in the 30s was indeed a historical figure of their own decade. It takes quite an effort to find a simpler explanation.

We have other evidence, apart from the Bible, to back up Paul’s own eyewitness testimony about what was happening in those decades. I’m talking about evidence you may never have heard of before! That’s in the next blog.

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