Sunday, 1 May 2016

What Paul says about the earthly pre-resurrection Jesus – a summary list

I have often heard, from non-historians, a claim that St Paul knew nothing about a human Jesus, only a heavenly Jesus. This time around, instead of setting out background information as I’ve done elsewhere, this blog is just a summary list for easy reference (since the claim often comes up). (This blog collects into one place – in shorter form – material from across some of my other blogs. For in depth analysis of what I mean in relation to the details below, please see them.)
So: of the things Paul was taught about the earthly human Jesus, which does he mention in his letters?
In answering that question, I’m relying here only on letters which are generally undisputed as authentic by secular scholars, letters written by Paul around the 50s of the first century within about two decades of when Jesus is said to have died.
Some selected things Paul gives us in Galatians, Thessalonians, Corinthians and Romans (expanded detail further below with examples and references):
  • Jesus’ birth ("out of a woman", he says, with no mention of a human father - Paul does not give names of parents – neither his own nor, unsurprisingly therefore, Jesus’ parents)
  • Jesus’ location (Judea)
  • Jesus’ childhood included having brothers and being in a family of observant Jews
  • era in which Jesus lived (first half of first century - see timeline)
  • Paul also references moral teachings in a way consistent with someone who knew they were Jesus’ teachings
  • he also references Jesus’ apocalyptic views in a similar way
  • he mentions Jesus being handed over (although he does not care to name who handed him over to whom, just as he mentions ‘the twelve’ without bothering to name most of them)
Some of those things are unpacked more below.
Timeline – life story of Jesus
Following the timeline of Jesus’ life, I pick out the following from those letters by Paul:

Jesus’ genealogy and birth

          Jesus was an Israelite and he was descended from the family of King David, and that is 'according to the flesh'. Since it is 'according to the flesh' (rather than, say, 'according to the spiritual nature') then it is of human descent, of the flesh (Romans 1:3).
  • Indeed: "To them [the Jews] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Messiah" (Romans 9:5)
          Jesus arrived into the world ‘out of a woman’ (Gal 4:4). Where a woman gives birth to a son, this makes her a mother, and her offspring human, obviously. So logically, Jesus was undoubtedly a human with a mother as far as Paul was concerned!

In summary, Paul says Jesus is of the Jewish race, of their flesh, of David's flesh, born "out of a woman", making them a Jewish mother and son, obviously.

Family and upbringing
         This is not only a racial background (of the Jewish race, of their flesh, of David's flesh), but also a religious family background, as Jesus was born into a family of observant Jews. That is clear because he was born "under the law", that is, under the Jewish law, which Jews call the Torah(Galatians 4:4).
          In his family, Jesus had a brother named James (Gal 1:19), and he had other brothers, who had wives (1 Cor 9:5).
  • By way of contrast, note how in Galatians Paul addresses the church as "brothers", unlike how he speaks in passing of James categorically as "the Lord's brother" whom he met (1:19), perhaps so that this James not be confused with another James. (Not crucial to mention here, but elsewhere we are told that the John whom Paul met in Jerusalem had a sibling who was also called James, was one of the twelve, and was killed in Jerusalem, but that's another story. What Paul says here makes it clear which James he met.) 
  • And again for contrast, note how in 1 Corinthians Paul speaks of the church as "my brothers" (1 Cor 1:11; 11:33; 14:39; 15:58), unlike how he categorically speaks of "the Lord's brothers" who could travel with a believing wife (1 Cor 9:5).
  • In a broader contrast, Paul speaks of "my brother Titus" (2 Cor 2:13), "my brother Epaphroditus" (Phil 2:25),  and "our brother Timothy" (1 Thess 3:2), whereas James is not called Paul's brother but "the Lord's brother".
  • It's quite clear that there is a difference in the way that Paul speaks of the Lord's brother James and the Lord's brothers who had wives, for which the simplest explanation is the natural reading that these were members of Jesus' family.
  • In referring to James, Paul actually speaks of himself and Peter and James, but only James gets called "the Lord's brother", an honour which Paul couldn't claim for himself or Peter. It becomes all the more clear with each piece of evidence that the simplest explanation is the natural reading that James was a member of Jesus' family.
          Jesus’ life was in the first half of the first century:
  • That is, Paul was writing in the 50s of the first century (the date is calculated from dating information in Paul's letters), and Jesus' brothers were adults with wives and clearly still alive in the 50s: this means Jesus' life can be dated to the first half of the first century.
Reference to Jesus' brothers makes it reasonable to conclude that these brothers were part and parcel of his childhood and upbringing.

Jesus’ ministry
          Jesus had a ministry specifically to Israelites: "Christ became a servant of the Jews" (Romans 15:8-9). Again, to be clear, this is a human Jesus ministering to fellow Israelites as a member of their race: "To them [the Jews] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Messiah" (Romans 9:5)
Jesus’ Passion Week (the last week of his life)
          Location-wise, Jesus spent time in the land of the Judeans, homeland of Israelites, and this is where he died (1 Thess 2:15 - see footnote on this text).
          Jesus was handed over at night-time, on the night of a gathering which extended from before supper till after supper, at which Jesus handled some of the food and a cup (1 Cor 11:23) - I go into this scene in much more detail in another post.

          Jesus' death was associated with Passover, which is a specific time in the Jewish calendar each year when  lamb was killed (1 Cor 5:7).
          Some people of Judea caused Jesus’ death (1 Thess 2:15): “You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches [in Judea] suffered from the Judeans, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.” –
o          That’s a bit of a scrapbook of incidents – the sufferings in Judea of churches and Jesus and Paul and his friends, as well as ancient prophets who Paul drags into the subject!
          Jesus’ death was by crucifixion (ἐσταύρωσαν - 1 Cor 2:8), and therefore logically by the Romans. The Romans because Paul would have known that it was the Romans who practised crucifixion in Judea and elsewhere, but he simply refers to the killers cagily as  ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος, "the rulers of this age". He uses that ἀρχόντων (plural) in 1 Cor 2:6-8, and otherwise only in Romans 13:3, where it refers to the human governments under whom people live. The simplest identifier for who they were, is that they were relying on a Roman method of execution. Interestingly, by the way, it is the very same word used by Luke for some rulers in Judea who were instrumental in the execution of Jesus (Luke 23:13, 35).
          His death was no later than the 30s of the first century. (The date is calculated from dating information in Paul's letters.)
          Jesus’ body was buried (1 Cor 15:4).

You may have noticed that 1 Corinthians is the most informative of Paul's letters about Jesus' death - so, to pick these out from it:

          Jesus' death was associated with a time in the Jewish calendar when a lamb was killed - Passover

          Jesus was handed over at night-time, the night of a gathering which extended from before supper till after supper, at which Jesus handled some of the food and a cup

          Jesus’ death was by crucifixion

          Jesus died and was buried

Of course, all of those details are also found in the gospels, but that's a subject for other posts. You'll notice elsewhere in this post that it is also in 1 Corinthians that quite a bit of the other material here is found too. 

And there’s more…
In addition, Paul says other things about Jesus that you would expect him to say if he were talking about a human Jesus. (Whether you choose to believe Paul here is describing the pre-resurrection Christ, or the post-resurrection Christ (or both!), we can't say that the sort of comments that should be made about the personality of a real person are totally missing - they're not.) So Paul speaks of:
Jesus’ personality
    • servant – and this was towards circumcised people (that is to say, Jews) (Romans 15:3, 8)
    • Jesus chose a life of poverty, and Paul describes Jesus as meek and gentle (2 Corinthians 8:9; 10:1

Jesus having disciples
  • 'the twelve' (1 Cor 15:5). Paul just assumes that the reader knows what he means by 'the twelve'.

Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings
          In 1 Thessalonians 4:15, Paul starts off declaring stuff "in the word of the Lord". Whatever "in the word of the Lord" means, what Paul says next does actually align with the apocalyptic teaching of the gospels' Jesus. Thus:
    • 1 Thess 4:15-16 = Matthew 24:31 (note the mention of the trumpet)
    • 1 Thess 4:17 = Matthew 25:5-7 (note the mention of meeting Jesus)
    • 1 Thess 5:3-7 = Matthew 24:42-43 (note the mention of the thief in the night) 

Jesus’ moral teachings 
          In 1 Corinthians, repeatedly when Paul says he has a teaching from the Lord, it does actually align with the gospels' Jesus. So:
  • 1 Cor 7:10-11 = Mark 10:9-12 (on marriage and divorce)
  • 1 Cor 9:14 = Luke 10:7 (on labourers for the Lord being paid)
  • There is a general alignment too with a good deal of Jesus' ethical teaching, and it is striking that out of all the alternatives in Paul's world, this finds its way into his letters. So in Romans:
    • Romans 12:14 = Matthew 5:44
    • Romans 12:17 = Matthew 5:38-48
    • Romans 13:7 = Mark 12:17
    • Romans 13:8 = Mark 12:31
    • Romans 14:13 = Mark 9:42
    • Romans 14:14 = Mark 7:15
    • Romans 14:20 = Mark 7:19
One thing you may have noticed is that these are not haphazard scatterings of teachings in Paul’s letters. They come in packages such as 1 Thess 4-5 and Romans 12-14. They are known to Paul as chunks of teaching.

The important thing shown by this is that, whether you think this is a connection between Paul and the words of the pre-resurrection Jesus or post-resurrection Jesus, you can't say that teachings associated with the pre-resurrection Jesus are completely missing, as they are not.

Glen Miller provides more example here

Some would ask whether Paul's sources included anything other than supernatural revelation and reading scripture, and I discuss that in another post.

Taking all the above together, to claim as if it were a fact that Paul knew nothing about the earthly Jesus would be sheer ignorance. Paul is an important secondary source on the historical Jesus, and our earliest. He was a contemporary of Jesus who was writing within about two decades of Jesus’ death, which is nothing really. And his sources weren’t bad: he knew Jesus’ brother James, and also Peter and John – people reputed to be eyewitnesses of the historical Jesus. Which is why Paul is an important secondary witness to Jesus. Historians of ancient history deal with secondary sources all the time – they are bread and butter of a historians’ work, along with primary sources.

Footnote: 1 Thessalonians 2:15
The authenticity of 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 is challenged by some on surprising grounds – simply because some scholars have a preconceived idea of what Paul can say and they can’t fit this into their view, and what he says seems premature. There are fundamental flaws in that. But what are those sceptical of the passage surprised by? Simply that Paul is condemning towards the Jews he is talking about, whereas he writes elsewhere more optimistically about Jews in general, and it seems premature for Paul in the 50s of the first century to talk about God's wrath having happened, if we presupposed that the only wrath that happened to the Jews in the first century is the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. That’s the sceptics' argument, the “it doesn’t sound like Paul to us, and it’s premature” argument. Here’s why it falls apart. First look at the passage:
For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.
The first problem sceptics have to admit is that the disputed passage is actually always there, found in every ancient manuscript where it should be found. There are no manuscripts where it goes missing in action. When there are zero manuscript variations to that effect, the objection is immediately relegated to being speculative. It therefore needs stronger evidence on other counts.
The second problem, a clear weakness for a speculative argument, is that sceptics have nothing else written by Paul in the same place at the same time  on the same theme to compare it to. Scholars often tend to fall into the error of conflating several works by Paul written several years apart at different stages of his life into one theological lump, harmonising it, turning it a single body of harmonised systematic theology. That is a heinous error in handling historical material. Paul’s definitive classic optimistic argument about the Jews being saved was written to the Roman Christians perhaps as much as a decade after his letter to the Thessalonian Christians. To prop up such poor historical method, you have to assume that Paul had no development in his thinking and no life experiences to affect his view at any moment over that long period. This is not true to human nature. It’s highly improbable. Every scholar in history or theology develops their views over time, and what one writes ten years apart can be substantially different in its development. In fact it almost certainly will be unless one has become a fossil. Speculation built on poor method is not sound speculation.
The third problem for sceptics of this passage is that it doesn’t quite do what they tend to claim. It does not condemn Jews generally. It condemns the ones in Judea who have hounded Christians such as Paul.
The fourth problem for sceptics is that to assume that this refers to 70AD, they also have to assume that there is no other kind of wrath that Paul could be talking about. That’s a big hurdle to overcome for any speculation. To pursue that, you have to determine what divine wrath look like theologically to Paul. (The author is as vague as you can be here. He refers to nothing concrete, so a scholar will widen the net for clues.) So, for a start, you have to look at what Paul means by ‘wrath’ elsewhere, and again you are making the hazardous leap into assuming that what Paul means by ‘wrath’ at different times of his life doesn’t much change. So speculation has chasms to cross. But if we were to take one example, it doesn’t help the sceptics’ case at all. For a start, the only undisputed Pauline letter (sceptics only go with undisputed ones) that uses the same Greek word for ‘wrath’ is, lo and behold, Romans, written several years later. But what does this evidence base suggest? There are three uses of the word in Romans, Two of these are vague warnings of future doom, so they are little help (Romans 2:8; 12:19). That leaves only Romans 1:18, and read in context it is clear what divine wrath is in Paul’s Jewish-Christian perspective: it looks like alienation from God and moral collapse – scholars have long known that this is how Paul thinks about wrath. God gives people over to their own rebellion against him and gives up on them.  Theologically, that is divine wrath as Paul sees it in Romans. Is there anything like that in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16. There certainly is: it’s that they have become rebels against Jesus, against Paul, against God. Paul is telling the Thessalonians that some Judeans (note, Judeans, not all Jews) who had hounded him out of Judea have fallen over a moral cliff-edge. That for Paul is precisely what divine wrath looks like in present times – it’s your own rebellion, your own moral collapse. Speculation that the passage refers to 70AD is understandable speculation, but it ignores what wrath actually looks like to Paul: “They displease God.” To Paul, to displease God would be the ultimate in self-destruction, as he believed that to please God is life itself.
The fifth and related problem for sceptics is that to understand a passage, you can’t just look at it theologically, you have it look at it narratively. Could Paul really think such judgmental things of these Jews in Judea and not be more optimistic for them, like he is for Jews in general in his reflections several years later? The narrative explanation is simple: “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.” It is difficult to deny Paul the right to be negative towards such people, and easy to understand why he would think that their condemnation, their alienation from God, is complete. In fact, even in Romans, there is a hint of condemnation for some of the Jews: “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.”
In conclusion, if you are going to speculate that 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 is not authentic, but is an interpolation, then you have to overcome problems that collectively seem insurmountable.
The final nail in the coffin for this speculation is the undesigned coincidence between those verses and Acts 17:5-8. (See Hidden in Plain View by Lydia McGrew, Ohio: DeWard, 2017. pg 148, 152-154.)

1 comment:

  1. A reader who chooses to be anonymous posted around 4,500 words of comment below my post. That's getting on towards twice the length of my post! That's not what the comments section is for. I'm sure the anonymous reader will have an appropriate platform to post a work of such length. I have saved a copy of the comments posted in case I am asked for it.