Tuesday, 17 January 2017
Did Paul see written Christian materials before his conversion?
Could Paul have had access to written 'Christian' materials before his conversion, in the 30s of the first century? This is rarely suggested. So where angels fear to tread…
One thing we can say: since Paul put his own writings into circulation in the early church in the 50s of the first century, it is unlikely that these were the only things in circulation. However much or however little time Paul had spent with followers of Jesus, he could spend as much time as he liked with what may have been written. Is it possible that he did? That's speculating a little, but it makes more sense than thinking that all of Paul's knowledge dropped out of the sky by ‘revelation’ (as some sceptics like to mischievously suggest).
So this is about sources of Paul’s knowledge of Jesus.
Sceptics who say that Paul learned nothing but by ‘revelation’ are like someone making five by adding two and two (as I’ve explained in another post here). But suppose we were to extend the meaning of Paul’s words to say that a lot of his knowledge came without being taught it by any man (“the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” – Galatians 1:12). So, what would Paul mean?
Well, typically when Christians today say they have had a revelation from the Lord, they mean that they were reading the Bible and its meaning opened up in a new way to them, in some way they found especially relevant to their lives. This is a fairly obvious route to explore. Indeed, rather than some spiel downloaded into his head from heaven, when Paul preaches the only available evidence is that he does so biblically (e.g. Acts 28:23 claims that Paul preached from the content of the law and the prophets, not from revelations). So Jewish writings will have played some part in the development of his thinking.
In fact, in any other kind of context, we would naturally infer from ‘nor was I taught it’ that the person was self-taught. To illustrate: if I were to say that no-one taught me the list of television’s 1960s Doctor Who stories, that would be true. I taught myself the list from books. Another example: people who claim to be self-taught in foreign languages invariably mean they learned from books. Books are a teacher. Now if I start to speak of exceptions, it becomes clearer what I mean, and makes more sense: i.e. “no-one taught me about 1960s stories except when I met some Doctor Who fans for a few hours, and read a few books about Doctor Who, and was inspired to memorise them.” This is more or less how Paul talks. He makes exceptions which he flags in his own way. He says no-one taught his gospel to him, except that he met members of the Jesus movement before his conversion, and spent a couple of weeks with two of them after his conversion, and he met other members of the movement, and he had books – especially the Old Testament which he quotes copiously. And he says he had a flash of inspiration which he attributes to God. So the idea that no-one taught him is hedged in by all the exceptions that Paul made. But what I am particularly interested in now is what Paul could have learned from written materials about Jesus – even as early as the 30s of the first century.
Could Paul have had material to read from the Jesus movement itself? No Christian texts survive from the 30s of the first century – the decade of Paul’s conversion. But that is the possibility I am opening up now. There is context to this: before Paul was a Christian, he was – as he himself admits to his embarrassment – responsible for persecuting the Jesus movement violently. In that light, any texts he had seen could include material he confiscated from believers when arresting them, and which he read and from which he taught himself more about the movement. Paul could have got written material from other believers (the ones he met straight after his conversion or Christians dispersed from Jerusalem – even potentially in Arabia where he went after that, although we have no evidence to confirm this). But the most obvious way he would have got any written material that existed is by confiscating it when he was arresting believers.
Could there really have been written materials so early in the movement? This is possible – we know Paul was getting material from somewhere – in his letters he quotes sayings of Jesus not found in the biblical gospels, as well as material that we know in the gospel of Luke. Not least, written materials are possible because the Jesus movement had a vested interest in recruiting people who could write. Not gospels though, not as early as the 30s. This would be materials earlier than gospels. For example: perhaps lists of Jewish scriptures that the Jesus movement was using, or scriptures annotated with Christian notes, or a few sayings of Jesus. One thing this could include is the creed which begins chapter 15 of Paul’s letter 1 Corinthians, a creed which surely goes back to a very early phase of the movement and is one of the very earliest Christian creeds.
What makes this proposal of early written materials so attractive is that there are a number of problems that are satisfactorily resolved by this simple proposal:
1) It explains why Paul went ‘from house to house’ when persecuting the church. There has to be a purpose to it. Why not just arrest them at an incriminating meeting? You didn’t need to go to people’s own houses to arrest them – which could easily become a messy business - but you did if you wanted to search for and confiscate materials. If you want to stop a movement and its ideas spreading, you don’t just arrest people. What you do is confiscate its materials. It’s ever been thus, and confiscation was characteristic of later persecutions of Christians (especially under Diocletian).
2) The presence of written materials in homes also explains how Paul knew whom to arrest. After all, what Christians he might meet were Jews and would have looked no different from other Jews, and would have taken part in the same Jewish rituals, so how did he know whom to arrest? This is more of a problem than might at first be obvious. He couldn't ask them if they were 'Christians' because that word had not yet been invented. What would he do to ascertain who was who? Ask them what they think about the name of Jesus? Ask them if they believe that Jesus is Lord? Ask them is they believe in the resurrection? How did he know he had sufficient evidence to make arrests? How did he know that he was not just arresting a few Jewish mums? And supposedly there were many believers by this point – too many to arrest them all – so how did he set out to achieve his ends of stopping a movement with arrests that would make an impact? The simplest explanation is that the ones you arrest are the ones with incriminating evidence in their houses, such as written material – however basic - distinctive to the Jesus movement in Jerusalem at that point in time. Finding and confiscating written material fits with knowing who to pick out to arrest.
3) It explains why Paul is coy about saying from what materials he learnt more about Jesus. He’s hardly going to say his learning is from documents he stole. So he says coyly that no man taught it to him.
4) And if one were to push the ‘no-one taught’ Paul line very hard, then what fits this best is his possession of some written materials of the Jesus movement.
Now Paul does not need to have carried such materials around with him – he only needs to have read it at the time he was confiscating it. But if he was on a mission of finding members of one and the same movement who were spreading ideas he thought subversive, then taking evidence along with him as reference points would be logical behaviour.
And these problems are solved by one simple explanation: the early Jesus movement had some written materials in the 30s of the first century. Nothing such survives, so a proposal like this can only be judged on the balance of probabilities. But it does explain rather a lot: where Paul was getting information and why he says little about how he came by it; why he was going from house to house and what he was doing there; how he was achieving the aims of the persecution he was conducting.