Sunday, 6 August 2017

Did St Paul really exist?

Here’s the thing. Some hyper-sceptics claim that the first century Jewish-Christian missionary St Paul probably did not exist. Have you ever heard of that before? No-one to my knowledge teaching in a relevant field at a university would claim that Paul didn’t exist. It’s surprising to see the claim made. And it’s not something you would hear claimed about other historical persons in general.

I hope that saying this is not being unfair, but one feels that this claim is being made only out of a special hyper-scepticism about Christian texts. Does the question merit being taken seriously? Of course, it should be for the one making the claim to prove it, and I haven’t seen that done convincingly by hyper-sceptics. And it’s not really my responsibility to test someone else’s claim for them. But let’s have a go anyway, because it might be interesting as an exercise to think this through.  

How often in your life have you heard about a human being who is supposed to have existed only to find that he didn’t? Rarely or never, is your likely answer. If I review the history of players of my favourite football club, I know I am not going to find any fictional ones listed, and likewise if I review an academic list of Roman Emperors – no fictional ones there either. The same goes for doing your family tree, and any number of similar exercises. You generally don’t find that historical persons who are meant to have existed actually are fictional.

Appreciating this does matter, as we move from the general to the specific. Unless there is good evidence to the contrary, the reasonable thing to expect is that the existence of Paul conforms to the general trend – historical persons generally existed - and we cannot dispense with that pattern without warrant: if this Jewish man Paul is said to have existed, he probably did. That’s a starting point to think from. This in itself doesn’t mean that Paul did exist. But if one were to suggest that ‘Paul’ bucks the overwhelming trend, that his existence as a human being is faked, one has to have a good reason why – and the burden of proof is on the person who denies what is normally so very probable. (Hyper-scepticism isn’t an argument. We can’t change anything by making out Christian texts to be a special case for scepticism. That would be special pleading, not evidence analysis.) I am unaware of any special reason for bucking the trend here.

I am aware of what’s in favour of Paul’s existence. This is not a bias towards Christianity. It’s a bias towards the strong general trend and evidence. The question in effect is this: is the trail of evidence that points back to Paul better explained by his existence or his non-existence? The answer, I will argue is that Occam’s razor favour’s Paul’s existence as the simpler better explanation. Indeed various factors taken together are as compelling as proof, establishing what is already very probable from the start – i.e. that Paul did exist as history tells us.

Paul the man

The evidence base

  • We have several letters attributed to Paul as author, with his name appearing in the text of this personal correspondence, full of telling autobiographical data, evidence of a life lived. In the case of other historical persons, historians would normally treat such letters as very good evidence of the existence of the named author of the letters, unless there is strong evidence of someone else being the author instead. A few points on this evidence base.
    • I’m not writing as a believer here – I’m doing this primarily for those who are not believers, writing on a basis of naturalism. And, with Paul’s letters, I’m erring on the safe side for you, readers. So, I’m ignoring letters which bear his name but which some historians suspect as not being by Paul at all. I’m relying only on seven letters that were without doubt written by Paul – ones which historians of all sides can agree really were written by Paul. That’s fair, isn’t it?
    • These agreed letters go by the names of Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon. They are named after the peoples they were sent to.
    • Paul’s name did not find its way accidentally into so many letters. It’s embedded in the text in all the right places.
    • This is valuable evidence. It is like finding a diary. If these letters were undiscovered, unknown, till today, dug up in a hole somewhere for the first time in 2000 years, there would be huge excitement among scholars, for what they reveal about first century life. It would be front page news. Worth a closer look, then.

The trail Paul left.

  • The letters attributed to Paul are our primary source, central to the trail dating from nearly 2000 years ago. Here are some telling features in the letters, features that form part of the evidence that Paul existed:
    • These letters don’t just claim to be written by one and the same person, they look like they were too, in a way that is authentically personal. The scraps of narrative of his life scattered around his letters fit together: what Paul says about his life and times is consistent and coherent. By way of illustration, in his letters we find scattered fragmentary mentions about a collection of money he is undertaking from church to church; also, evidence of which people have been a thorn in his side and why; where he has been and where he is going and with whom; how he tries to solve his problems; his mission, his goals, his plan for what church should be like; his theology; his perspective on Jesus and the apostles and his fellow Jews; his ‘tone of voice’, etc., etc. He is a unique and fascinating individual. There’s no obvious reason I know of for a later faker to invent this complicated feisty character, with the tense personal relationships he experiences over particular issues, who fits his time and place, and then to scatter the ‘evidence’ in a messy way in bits across the various letters like pieces of a scrapbook in a jumble on the floor. This is what putting the pieces of Paul’s life together is like, assembling the evidence in his letters. Paul’s letters aren’t written like fiction. The autobiographical bits are littered messily in his letters, scraps of a life lived, and yet are coherent in their content. This evidence is better explained by Paul’s existence than non-existence.
    • It would be extremely difficult for a faker, either contemporary with Paul or later than Paul, to pull off such a literary fraud successfully, formed of scattered scraps that convincingly represent one man’s personality and his life and times, with no tell-tale sign that this is artificial. In any case, there are no real candidates for who such a genius master fraudster could have been. The idea of such a devious mastermind is more of a fiction than anything else here. (See also my notes below, under ‘Paul’s Letters’, about fakery.)
  • Paul presents himself to be a Jew, a convert to Christianity, pastoring churches. Other people at the same time were doing the same. The life presented in the letters is consistent in that regard with many lives, and so is not implausible, which should be borne in mind.
  • Corroboration 1 – mention by other relevant early writers: In extant texts where we have a reasonable expectation of Paul featuring, there he is. There is no reasonable case why the following writers should be fabricating this man’s existence, to the best of my knowledge.
    • In terms of examples in early Christian texts outside the Bible:
      • 1 Clement writes about Paul’s missionary travels and trials and his death, and reminds the church in Corinth of when Paul wrote a letter to them (1 Clement 5:3-6, 47:1-3). This was written sometime between 62-100AD – a period during which there would still be living members of the church who had known Paul by the way. Being written during the timeframe of the living voice of oral history doesn’t prove anything here, but it counts for something.
      • Ignatius (about 110AD) speaks of Paul in admiring tones (Ign. Ephesians 12:2).
      • A letter by Polycarp (also about 110AD) reminds the church in Philippi that Paul wrote a letter to them (Polycarp 3:2, 9:1, 11:2-3).
    • By the way, in terms of historical method, a reasonable expectation of a mention applies only to extant texts in which there is a fitting place in the text where a mention of Paul should naturally occur. Where Clement, writing in the first century, cites the death of the apostle Peter, as an example to aspiring Christians, he cites Paul’s death too. Although not obligatory for Paul to be mentioned here, this is a natural place for this mention to occur (if we make the assumption that these are two deaths that Clement would probably know about). So, this is a natural place for Paul to feature, and duly featured he is. The mentions by Ignatius and Polycarp are similarly natural (see at the links above). This evidence is better explained by Paul’s existence than non-existence.
    • That’s not enough for some sceptics apparently. Sometimes they tell me that any significant Christian ought to have been mentioned by a host of ancient authors who are actually silent on the matter, which they claim is a smoking gun of the person’s non-existence. This claim is baseless. Needless to say that not every writer – then or now – in possession of a Bible, or something analogous, with Paul’s letters in it has had occasion to mention him, so we can’t be absolute about expecting Paul to be named by every ancient text in our possession. We shouldn’t press the case of our own expectations too firmly. But he is mentioned in the ones above. Needless also to say that any lost texts cannot be included in this test because we can’t actually inspect them to see what is and isn’t in them. We can’t draw any conclusions from lost texts, as that would be sheer imagination and nothing else. I explain this kind of methodological problem in more depth in a post about a supposed silence of ancient authors about the life of Jesus.
  • Corroboration 2: we also have an important book that claims to be a first person eyewitness report of someone travelling with Paul. This work is Acts, attributed to Luke. I have set out elsewhere a strong case for why this text was written during Paul’s lifetime, by about 62AD. Whether one accepts that or not, half of the book is about Paul, and there would be no incentive at all for a faker to invent that unless there was some historical basis worth messing about with in the first place. Whether one thinks that Acts’ value to historians is greater or lesser, either way it would be pretty pointless to invent Paul, especially the rather lengthy prosaic narrative where Paul is ushered from one legal hearing to the next and the next. There is nothing miraculous or mould-shattering about these legal scenes. It’s just the story of a man going through due legal process while in custody, saying his piece as he goes along, for page after page. It would not be worth inventing the whole thing. This is significant evidence of a life lived.

Paul’s Letters

Is it a problem that we find Paul’s letters in the Bible today? Should that make us more sceptical about them? Here's the thing. To be a real investigator here, we have to mentally divorce Paul's letters from the Bible. When he wrote them in the 50s of the first century, they weren’t part of the Bible. He had no idea that someone else would later put them in the Bible. And as such, a reasonable sceptic can't irrationally dismiss a document just because someone later put it in a collection! The only reasonable starting place for an investigator is to work out how the letters were intended in the days when they were written. Crucially, in those days, the only Bible for Christians was what we call the Old Testament. And Paul's letters weren't part of it. So they can and should be treated and evaluated as something distinct from the Bible itself. At least, that is how historians use them.

Qualified scholars teaching in relevant fields at accredited secular universities normally accept at least seven of the letters as authentic, as personal correspondence written by Paul. If we asked whether scholars are wrong, could all the letters be fakes, we have to test that. An idle question is of no more than potential value until we find a way to put it to the test. How do we put a question like that to the test? Signals of authenticity in the letters include circumstantial evidence. This is a particularly valuable test.

This is about the scene that the letters fit in, details that the letters do get consistently right, which would not be as easy for a later writer of fiction to fake as you might think. These factors might not seem much to some, but they are just the sort of things you need to test in cases like this. A lot of this has to do with the fact that a later faker has a lot to get right, to make a text match up with a certain time and place in history. Just a single detail wrong would demand an explanation. It could be a slip-up by Paul himself about his own times (people make mistakes about their own times all the time); but if it is an anachronism, that would be a dead giveaway of fakery. So, there are things the writer shouldn’t get wrong, and things the writer should get right. Here we can carry out some tests, a bit of evidence analysis, albeit in the form of short summaries:

  • Historical context –
    • the importance of what is there: the scraps of narrative of Paul’s operations and problems that he writes so feistily about fit comfortably in the 50s of the first century, which fits the timeline revealed in the said letters. Nothing Paul says about his time and place doesn’t fit it. It all fits comfortably in the world of Jews and Romans and other Gentiles before 70AD. That year is a waterline: it is the tragic year when the Romans wrecked the homeland of the Jews in a brutal war. The content of Paul’s letters betrays nothing like the fraught world of fractious Jewish-Roman affairs post-70AD. So, the letters comfortably fit the earlier period, the right period, the very period that they purport to have been written in. This is consistent with them not being fakes.

    • the importance of what is not there: historical anachronisms abound in later fictions. As said, none are to be found in Paul’s letters. The author of the letters seems to know nothing about the post-70AD wrecked world – he belongs to the earlier period. Apart from fraught matters of Roman-Jewish relations, the simple sort of error a faker might fall into could be to refer to ‘Palestine’ instead of ‘Judea’, for example. (The Romans renamed it Palestine only after 70AD.) There are no anachronisms to be found.

      •Religious context –

      the importance of what is there: Paul’s Torah-lite approach to Christian ethics is comparable with other Jewish movements of Paul’s era reported by Josephus, an era when Jewish religious groups were vying to win ideological battles about how true religion should be practiced. This fits with the letters being written as early as they claim – which fits with the author being a mid-first century author, exactly what the character of Paul is. This is consistent with them not being fakes.

      the importance of what is not there: also consistent with them not being fakes, the letters seem to know nothing of the church’s ideological battles of later eras, such as its second century intellectual battles with gnostics and other heretics, and know nothing of any debates about Paul’s letters being part of scripture, and nor are there extensive detailed mentions of the biblical gospels. You just don’t find that in Paul’s letters. They are fighting different battles of a different era. Theological fakers would likely make the classic mistake of reflecting church issues of their own milieu – they can’t normally resist spilling ink over the issues of their own place and time, instead of those of the period they are faking stuff about – and, after all, what other driving motivation would they have to fake it but to win arguments of their own era by putting them in the mouth of a great figure of the past? (Of course, even that scam would be best explained by Paul existing, as a past great.) Such intellectual anachronisms would be a tell-take sign of fakery. Such tell-tale signs are absent here. The letters do not fit a later time of the church where a faker might be lurking. Signals of authenticity abound.

      Literary qualities:
      • A last piece of evidence that is circumstantial: the kind of argumentation that Paul personally writes fits with how one doing his task – influencing other people or groups – would write in his time and place.

    This circumstantial evidence dovetails with the details of Paul's life. This phenomena is more easily explained by his existence than non-existence. Sometimes, an accumulation of documentary and circumstantial evidence like this is more compelling than a single item of 'proof' because it is harder to fake in toto.

    Impressive circumstantial evidence does not mean that Paul did write the letters, but it makes it pretty impossible to conceive that anyone else did, especially when it harmonises with the details of his life. Who else would the letters be written by but Paul?


    We’ve set out the question that needed answering, and gathered the relevant evidence needed to answer it. We’ve subjected it to analysis of the kind done for any ancient historical documentary evidence. The answer?

    Well, Occam’s razor comes to our aid: it is self-evident that the existence of Paul is sufficient to explain the phenomena of Paul’s letters and the mention of him by others. Paul’s non-existence would not provide a simpler or better explanation of all that. Why would any of us today prefer an inferior and frankly implausible explanation involving an imagined genius master forger and a frankly implausible and unmotivated huge conspiracy of many ancients to invent Paul?

    In short, taken together, these three things – the general truth that any historical person claimed to exist probably did actually exist, plus the trail left by Paul, plus the circumstantial evidence - the weight of this is as good as proof of Paul’s existence (and of the authenticity of these letters too). Indeed, as the above list of factors piles up, it just gets increasingly implausible that the whole thing is fakery. To fake everything above would be pointless, probably not of interest to any faker to try, and almost certainly too difficult to accomplish so successfully. Why even bother to doubt that Paul existed and wrote these letters? As I indicated at the start, only a sort of hyper-scepticism does doubt it.

    This is a non-question in academia, but hopefully this post will have been of interest to some. If any sceptic is unconvinced from reading this post, I can only suggest doing what historians do, reading the letters over and over again, in your own language and/or in the original Greek, comparing them, along with other literature of the period – Christian and non-Christian – absorbing as much as possible, and practising standard evidence analysis techniques consistent with the historical method. And I am sure that after much time absorbing all the implications, it will be self-evident that these letters represent a life lived, the life of no-one but Paul.

    I am indebted to various writers whose ideas have ended up in some form or other in this post, however much changed. Probably more than others, I am indebted to Dr Carrier's blog On The Historicity of Paul.

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