Sunday, 14 June 2015

Did Jesus Exist? 5. Did Paul invent Jesus?

This is one of the easier things to deal with. Paul didn’t invent Jesus. Remember that back in the 30s of the first century, he had been harming people whose religious life had to do with Jesus – so Paul was lagging behind them in having any knowledge of Jesus. He writes about those who 'were apostles before I was' (Gal 1:17) and names some that he met - especially Peter.

What about what mythicists say?

Aside from mythicists believing that Jesus didn't exist, their idea here is more or less that no-one before Paul had any say in the Jesus of the Bible, and everything Paul says about him is his own invention, influenced by visions he had. So it's a curious idea that Paul’s visions and revelations account for everything he knew about Jesus, such as where Paul supposedly say that it was the Lord who told him that he was handed over to be killed. In other words, nothing Paul says about Jesus has anything to do with reality, so the argument goes, because Jesus didn't exist and it was Paul who invented just about everything he reports in his own letters. That theory doesn't stand up - Paul didn't invent Jesus. 

Paul gives the game away

Paul never claimed that he got all his information about Jesus from visions – and he gives the game away by mentioning his victims were Judean churches and that later he spent fifteen days with Peter too! It is avoiding reality to claim that he learned nothing from these encounters. What his victims believed tells us more.

In that time, Paul would have had to convince Peter than he was no longer going to persecute the church, that he was sorry for having done so, and that his change of heart was for real, due to changing sides so that he now shared Peter’s faith. This former persecutor would have had to give Peter a really good reason why he had taken the time and trouble to come to Jerusalem to get to know Peter, with Peter being a key member of the persecuted church community whose life had something to do with Jesus. (All of this can be gathered from the direct and indirect evidence of Galatians 1.) Doing so to Peter’s satisfaction, and making acquaintance with each other, means they have to have shared their stories with each other to a greater or lesser degree. That’s how people get to know each other.

Therefore, if Paul’s letters were really claiming that Paul only ever learned about Jesus through his own visions, then you wouldn’t expect him to concede the point that he spent so much time with Peter!

Rather more revealing are Paul’s confessions about having prior contact with believers in Jesus (when he was persecuting them, when he was with Peter, etc.).

Even if Paul got his ‘gospel’ message direct from Jesus in a revelation, he didn’t get all his information about the beliefs of the churches in Judea that way. He was harming the churches first – he got his gospel message later.

Come to that, when Paul was in Jerusalem with his friends Barnabas and Titus in the 40s, meeting apostles, would we really suppose that Barnabas and Titus would have learned nothing from the churches in that time? Wouldn’t Paul have noticed what they were talking about? 

In summary, if Paul really wanted anyone to think that he got every bit of his information from his own visions, then he ends up giving a very different impression! Paul didn’t live in a bubble, insulated from what other people knew. He had more than one source of information, and 'revelation' was no more than one of them.

A case to answer
Where does this leave us? It means that there is a case to answer. That is, the belief that Jesus existed can’t be tossed aside out of hand. There is a lot for sceptics to consider, given that there was such a lively belief in the 30s that Jesus had lived and died as a Jew in Judea.

We’ve got here without even looking at the gospels. We’ve got our evidence from people who were around in the 30s – the decade when Jesus died, and we have that direct in first hand eyewitness testimony from Paul. Historians of all types are agreed that these really are Paul’s words, and that they really were written so soon after Jesus. And we have it backed up by writers who would have been hostile to Paul.
But what about the gospels? For a deeper look into what we can know about Jesus, the next place to turn is the gospels. Only four extant gospels are known to have been written in that first century. We have them all: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I’ll be saying a bit about Mark and Luke in particular in a future blog or two.

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?)
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?
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