Thursday, 7 January 2016

Did Paul learn about Jesus only from 'revelations'?

This blog follows on from my earlier blog about what St Paul knew about Jesus. This is of interest for a few reasons:

  • because Paul was a contemporary of when Jesus was supposed to have lived, frequenting the same places in Jerusalem and a fellow Israelite;
  • because Paul started out from an independent position, initially opposed to the Jesus' movement, rather than part of it; and even when he changed sides, some tensions with the Jesus movement persisted, so he always had some independence;
  • because Paul left his personal letters, several letters recognised as authentic by secular scholars, and in them he makes autobiographical comments about meeting some of the earliest Christians in the 30s and 40s of the first century - naming some of them, Peter, James, John - and it is clear he had time to learn from them about the Jesus they were so interested in;
  • secular and Christian scholars agree that these letters were written in the 50s of the first century, about 20 years or so after Jesus is supposed to have gone public with his ministry, and as such are the earliest historical witness;
  • and with these things in mind, we have an important secondary witness to the Jesus who these people said they were following.

So Paul was a contemporary of Jesus, and to a degree had an independent perspective, initially opposed to the Jesus movement, not its pupil; and we have Paul's own words written within about two decades or so of Jesus' death.

So why are some people saying there are issues with his sources of information about Jesus? In an autobiographical passage in his personal letter known as Galatians (written in the 50s of the first century according to first-hand eyewitness data), Paul said that he received his 'gospel' message by a revelation direct from God (Galatians 1:11-12). But what did he mean by that, and did he have any other sources of information about Jesus?

It's not easy to break down what he knew, because in Paul's words, he first of all knew 'the Scriptures' as a good Jew would. Then he knew stuff about the 'faith' of 'the churches of Judea' and he tried to destroy that 'faith' (until he changed sides). Then a 'gospel' came to him. These three things, 'Scripture', the 'faith' and a 'gospel', run like threads through his letters, but it is not easy to break them down into 'which is which'.

A claim (sometimes made by 'mythicists') that Paul had information about Jesus from 'revelations' only and from no other source is unsubstantiated. He did have other sources, but it is overlooked by those who focus only on his claims about having 'revelations'. Claiming Paul's knowledge is only from revelations has to sustain the far-fetched idea that Paul had learned not a single thing about Jesus from his direct contact with followers of Jesus when he was persecuting them, and had learned not a single thing about Jesus when spending a fortnight with Peter and when meeting Jesus' brother James. Not a single thing. It is highly implausible and improbable that he learned nothing. 

Some common mistakes are made by people who are not paying attention to what Paul actually says. Mistakes such as:

  • failing to making the important distinction between Paul's 'gospel' and his 'faith' and his general information about Jesus, that which isn't in itself his 'gospel' message as such, or his 'faith';
  • ignoring that Paul had a view of Jesus prior to his 'revelations'. That Paul did have such a view can only mean that he did have some information about Jesus prior to his revelations (and therefore his information was obviously not from revelations alone).
  • imposing a few words in Galatians 1 on  how we read texts written years later (as if Paul met no-one who talked about Jesus in the meantime!). This, any academic can tell you, is very poor methodology for how to read a later text. What happened in-between times? Paul says he met other people who talked about Jesus, and this means he had other sources of information. 
  • ignoring that Paul could have been in possession of writings by others, with some stories or sayings of Jesus written down in them.
  • ignoring that in the time between his 'revelations' and his letter-writing, was a time of validation. This in itself debunks the 'revelation' only theory.

Here is more on each of those things:

  • There is a difference between Paul's 'gospel' message (which he says came by revelation) and his 'faith' and his general knowledge about Jesus. It is particularly his 'gospel' message which he says came by revelation - he does not say the same of every bit of information he has about Jesus. It is important to define which things constitute his 'gospel'. Everything else falls into a different category, which I am calling other information.
  • Paul had an independent opinion of Jesus before his conversion, before he had any 'revelations' or 'gospel' message from God (2 Corinthians 5:16). He had information first; revelations came later. As Paul puts it himself, prior to conversion he was giving unwanted attention to the "churches of Judea", because "I persecuted the church", when his attention was on "the faith he once tried to destroy.” (Gal 1:13, 22) That's an example of where he talks about his 'faith' as something distinct from (but not disconnected from) his 'gospel'. It's obvious that Paul knew stuff about the 'faith' before his conversion, and knew the Scriptures before his conversion, but something about his 'gospel' came to him after his conversion. (This 'gospel' is typically taken to be the novelty that he saw how the message could be made appealing to non-Jews, by putting them on an equal footing with Jews but not requiring the men to get circumcised. But that's another story.)
  • Another mistake is to presume that Paul learnt nothing from anyone after he wrote that to the Galatians. His life story didn't end when he wrote Galatians. Bear in mind that by the time he wrote years later to the Romans and Corinthians and others, a lot could and would have happened in the meantime. We know from what Paul says that he met other Christians a number of times after he wrote to the Galatians. So for example, he could have received from them things he later mentions about Jesus.
  • Another mistake is to overlook the possibility that Paul might have acquired written information about Jesus. That is, as well as meeting people, what about written information about Jesus circulating - could Paul have had access to some of this? Since Paul is giving his own writings into circulation in the early church, it is unlikely that these were the only things in circulation. However much or little time Paul spent with Jesus' disciples, he could spend as much time as he liked with what anyone else may have written. That's speculating a little, but it makes more sense than thinking that all of Paul's knowledge dropped out of the sky.
  • Another mistake is to assume that his 'revelations' were never checked out for accuracy - as if Paul says that no-one else had any say!  In fact, he says that they were checked out  by people whose knowledge of Jesus goes further back than his own (Galatians 1:17-19; 2:1-2), and it was only after such checking was done that he actually wrote his letters, where we get his information from.

This is crucial. We can't speak only of Paul believing that he received 'revelations' direct from God, as if that's all there is to be said on the matter, when really it's only half the story.

Apart from his gospel, Paul had general knowledge about Jesus, and in other blogs I sum up his knowledge of Jesus' life and his knowledge of some other things about Jesus.

As for the validity of his 'revelations', I've seen some sceptics nowadays speaking about Paul as if he walked about in a bubble keeping his revelations untouched by the world around him, when Paul says the opposite. For example:

  • or how did Paul come to think that James was Jesus' brother? Was that a private revelation from God to Paul? Whether we think so or not, Paul met James at the same time that he met Peter. This gives it away: Paul's knowledge about James has been 'sense-checked' by virtue of meeting James for himself.

This sense-checking of Paul's knowledge is made firmer still because after fourteen years he goes to meet Peter and James in Jerusalem again, to get his preaching vetted by them.

And afterwards, Paul is confident enough to indicate in writing that he preaches the same gospel message as they did. That indicates that Paul has 'compared notes' with Peter and James (and John too, he mentions) and that is how he can say that his gospel matches theirs.

So, however Paul acquired his knowledge about Jesus - before and after his revelations - he's been in situations where that knowledge has been through a process of validation by people whose knowledge of Jesus goes further back than his own. And it is after this process of validation that Paul wrote his letters.

In summary, Paul did not keep his 'revelations' untouched by the world around him. His letter to the Galatians actually says that he exposed his knowledge to the 'experts', and was reassured about his message by this process of validation. And he had plenty of opportunity to learn more from them in the process too. 

Some people ask 'Did Paul invent Jesus?' and - in addition to what is above - a more specific answer on that is here.

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