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', or to apportion Paul's knowledge about Jesus to each stage, especially when we realise how much contact with believers should be taken account of.
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 of this is to do with the Greek words used by Paul about how knowledge reached him, and as this is technical, I'm explaining about it in a footnote at the bottom of this post.
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. The scientific thing to do is to ask, what (and how) did Paul know by the time he wrote Galatians? Then, what by the time he wrote 1 Corinthians? Then, what by the time he wrote Romans? To know what Paul was learning up to the time he wrote, say, Romans, then it would be wrong to have a cut-off too early. What happened in his life both before and after he wrote Galatians is fundamental to any investigation of Paul's knowledge. What happened in-between letters? Paul says he met various people over time who talked about Jesus, and this means he had other sources of information from time to time.
- 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, were moments of information verification. This in itself debunks the 'revelation' only theory.
- There is a difference between Paul's 'gospel' message (which he says came by revelation) and his 'faith' and his general knowledge about Jesus. This compels us to enquire what his gospel message was, and it was to do with God reaching out to Gentiles (non-Jews). It is particularly his 'gospel' message which he says came by revelation - but he never says the same about every bit of information he has about Jesus. It is important to define which content constitutes his 'gospel'. All other information falls into a different 'non-gospel' category, which I am calling other information. Paul's 'gospel' is typically taken to be the novelty of how the message could be made appealing to non-Jews, by putting them on an equal footing with Jews but not requiring Gentile men to get circumcised. That's basically it. So there is a difference in categories of message that we need to understand so that we categorise Paul's information scientifically.
- 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, either from the Christians he confronted as their persecutor, or from what Paul's informants told him. Paul knew things that way, and he knew the Scriptures before his conversion, but in addition something unique about his 'gospel' came to him after his conversion, as covered above.
- Another mistake is to presume that Paul learnt nothing from anyone after he wrote that to the Galatians (a letter that looms large in these discussions). 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. Our parameters of investigation should not be limited by what he says in an earlier letter (Galatians) about revelations prior to that time.
- 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 overlook that Paul consulted human sources to verify what had been revealed to him. In fact, Paul qualifies his claims about revelation by saying that his message was 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 consultation with human sources was done that he actually wrote his letters, the texts from which we get our information about him. So prior to writing Galatians, Paul's information is like a coin with two sides - revelation from God and verification from apostles., the end product being what he tells the Galatians.
To say a little more about him consulting human sources, 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:
- how did Paul come to think that Jesus had appeared to Peter? Setting aside whether we think such unusual events happen, did that story about Peter come as a private 'revelation' from God to Paul? Whether we think so or not, Paul after three years went to meet Peter and spent fifteen days with him. This gives it away: Paul's knowledge about Peter has been checked - if not altogether informed - by virtue of meeting Peter for himself.
- 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.
Some people ask 'Did Paul invent Jesus?' and - in addition to what is above - a more specific answer on that is here.
Footnote: the technical language
1. παραδίδωμι and παραλαμβάνω
Sometimes Paul uses technical language about teaching being passed down to himself, and himself passing it down to others. Confusion about this language leads some people to think that Paul is attributing knowledge to private divine revelations even when Paul isn't.
In fact, Paul was putting his original readers on notice precisely when he was talking about tradition that was being passed on person to person where he was a link in the chain. He did this by using together two specific Greek words. No English translation makes that obvious because the smoke signal is two Greek words that had a technical meaning when Greek-speaking Jewish rabbis used either of them - and especially when using them both together - about teaching their religion. These two words used are paradidomi - παραδίδωμι - and paralambano - παραλαμβάνω. Where he was using these words about teaching - and especially where using these two words together about teaching - Paul wasn't laying claim to direct messages from heaven. He was claiming to be a legitimate teacher of what the church was passing on from person to person. It's embedded in his choosing to use these words.
The first word, paradidomi (παραδίδωμι), had an everyday meaning and a specialist technical meaning. It's everyday meaning would be expressed in something like this: "the policeman handed over the criminal to the jailor". The meaning of "handing over" someone or something physically is the common meaning, and you see it used that way in, for example, Acts 12:4, 21:11, and 27:1. You see it used that way in all four gospels too. That's not the sense that Paul uses it in when talking about church teaching. Here he uses it the same way that Jewish rabbis did about their teaching. It's used here in the sense that a tradition or teaching was passed down, passed along, handed on.
The second word, paralambano (παραλαμβάνω), also had an everyday meaning and a specialist technical meaning. It's everyday meaning would be expressed in something like this: "the mother took along her daughter". The meaning "took along" is the common meaning, and you see it used that way in, for example, Acts 15:39, 16:33, 21:24, 21:26, 21:32, and 23:18. You see it used that way in all four gospels too. That's not the sense Paul uses it in. He uses it in his letters the same way that Jewish rabbis did about their teaching. It's used here in the sense that a tradition or teaching was passed down, passed along, handed on, very similar to how paradidomi was used. Although English translations get it right by saying "handed on", that's not enough to tell us that this is a technical word in the right context.
2. Prepositions: παρα and ἀπὸ
Translations of Paul's letters tend to obscure this by translating it simply as "received". The meaning gets obscured further by the fact that Paul uses the word with different prepositions which don't have a simple one-to-one direct correspondence in English. When he says he received something by revelation from God, he uses the preposition παρα. But we have to note where he varies from this and why he does so.
So, Paul uses παρα with παραλαμβάνω when talking about direct communication from one to another in Gal 1:12, 1 Thess 2:13, 1 Thess 4:1, 2 Thess 3:6. That goes whether it is teaching from an apostle or revelation from God.
You see a difference in 1 Cor 11:23 when the preposition isn't παρα but rather ἀπὸ. Now it has the sense of a teaching that was passed down from the Lord, rather than passed down by the Lord. That is, it's a church tradition, which is attributed to Jesus as the original source, but was passed down to Paul second or third hand.
You see another difference in 1 Cor 15: 1-3, where it is used without either παρα or ἀπὸ, and the sense is of a teaching that is passed on, without bothering to say who it's from previously. The sense that scholars get here is that 1 Cor 15:3-7 is a very early Christian creed from days before Paul's conversion to Christianity, possibly from the apostolic circle, and passed from church to church. Paul was just one of the teachers passing it on.
This sort of technical language is the kind of thing lurking under the surface of translations that is hard to convey effectively without some knowledge of what is going on in the Greek. Where paradidomi - παραδίδωμι - and paralambano - παραλαμβάνω - are used together, it gives the sense that the teacher is passing down a teaching, and the pupils are receiving it as passed down to them. That's what Paul does in 1 Cor 15:3 as παρέδωκα γὰρ ὑμῖν ἐν πρώτοις, ὃ καὶ παρέλαβον, ὅτι...
Paul also uses these two words together this way in 1 Corinthians 11:23 thus: ἐγὼ γὰρ παρέλαβον ἀπὸ τοῦ Κυρίου, ὃ καὶ παρέδωκα ὑμῖν, ὅτι...
So where he is doing this, just like a rabbi he is flagging up to his churches that he is acting in effect as their rabbi duly passing on established church teaching to them, not claiming personal divine revelation from heaven for it. His pupils wouldn't take it any other way.
In the few places where Paul does claim personal direct revelation from heaven, he clearly departs from using those words to describe the transmission from heaven to himself, avoiding confusion in Greek, but not avoiding confusion in English translation.
I'm indebted for some of these points to A. M. Hunter's book, Paul and his Predecessors, (London: SCM Press, 1961) pages 19-20.
For a brief, broader overview of evidence, Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006):
Misconceptions can arise from translators choice of words. In some English translations, you find 1 Corinthians 15:3 confusingly saying that Jesus died for sins "according to" the Scriptures. Problem. This is simply translating one Greek word, κατὰ, and translators prefer this very formal sounding language for it. What they mean is "in keeping with". Christ died for sins in keeping with the Scriptures. That is, the event was in line with expectations from religious writings, in keeping with them. So, what's the misconception? Not knowing the Greek, some people have taken "according to" as meaning, "Christ died, so the Scriptures say". That misconception comes only from the slightly misleading English phrase "according to". It has prompted some people to think that this is evidence to support a fringe theory that Paul's knowledge of Jesus dying was only on the say so of Old Testament writings that he had read, and from revelations. Whereas the key to understanding this correctly is to know that κατὰ here does not mean "on the say so" but rather means "in keeping with".