A Look at James Tabor on Christianity Before Paul

Introduction

Given that historians look to those who are contemporaries of the events, Paul is an important resource for what historians can know about Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, the earliest documents we have for the life of Jesus are Paul’s letters. Most recently James Tabor published an article on Huff Post called Christianity Before Paul.

I want to respond to couple of points. Feel free to click on the link and see Tabor’s full article.

#1 : Tabor alleges: “The fundamental doctrinal tenets of Christianity, namely that Christ is God “born in the flesh,” that his sacrificial death atones for the sins of humankind, and that his resurrection from the dead guarantees eternal life to all who believe, can be traced back to Paul — not to Jesus.”

Here we see Tabor is mistaken. Actually, all of these fundamental doctrines predate Paul.  We know that from about AD 48 until his death (60 to 65 AD) Paul wrote at least 13 of the New Testament’s books. Paul was a very competent rabbi who was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin. Of his 13 books, critical scholars even accept six of them as being authentic in that we can be certain of the author and date of these writings. Of course, there are other scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson and Raymond Brown that think more than six of them are authored by Paul. But of the 13 books, the six are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians and 1 Thessalonians. And it is fairly well known that Bart Ehrman has written a book called Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why The Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.

In this book, he discusses the other Pauline books that are in question to authorship. I will provide a response to this here by Mike Licona. I think Mike shows there can be a plausible case for the traditional authorship of the disputed New Testament letters that are attributed to Paul.

A little time line may be helpful: Remember Paul’s Letters are dated 48 A.D to 60 A.D.

30 A.D.—–33A.D (The death of Jesus)

Paul comes to faith between 33 and 35 A.D.

60-65 A.D. Paul’s Death

70 A.D. (Temple Destroyed)

Paul’s usage of the rabbinic terminology “passed on” and “received” is seen in the creed of 1 Cor. 15:3-8:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

One of the key words in this text is “receive.” While the word “received” (a rabbinical term) can also be used in the New Testament of receiving a message or body of instruction or doctrine (1 Cor.11:23; 15:1, 3; Gal. 1:9, 12 [2x], Col 2:6; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6), it also means means “to receive from another.” This entails that Paul received this information from someone else at an even earlier date. 1 Corinthians is dated 50-55 A.D. Since Jesus was crucified in 30-33 A.D. the letter is only 20-25 years after the death of Jesus. But the actual creed here in 1 Cor. 15 was received by Paul much earlier than 55 A.D.

As Gary Habermas notes, “Even critical scholars usually agree that it has an exceptionally early origin.” Ulrich Wilckens declares that this creed “indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity.” (1) Joachim Jeremias calls it “the earliest tradition of all.” (2) Even the non-Christian scholar Gerd Ludemann says that “I do insist that the discovery of pre-Pauline confessional foundations is one of the great achievements in the New Testament scholarship.” (3) Ludemann dates the creed in 1 Cor, 15: 3-8 only two to three years after the death of Jesus.

The majority of scholars who comment think that Paul probably received this information about three years after his conversion, which probably occurred from one to four years after the crucifixion. At that time, Paul visited Jerusalem to speak with Peter and James, each of whom are included in the list of Jesus’ appearances (1 Cor. 15:5, 7; Gal. 1:18–19).This places it at roughly A.D. 32–38.

Even the co-founder Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan, writes:

Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.” The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” (4).

This comment by Crossan makes sense because within the creed Paul calls Peter by his Aramic name, Cephas. Hence, if this tradition originated in the Aramaic language, the two locations that people spoke Aramaic were Galilee and Judea. The Greek term “historeo” is translated as “to visit” or “to interview.” (5) Hence, Paul’s purpose of the trip was probably designed to affirm the resurrection story with Peter who had been an actual eyewitness to the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15:5).

There are more non Christians that agree the resurrection story started very shortly after 33 A.D.:

Michael Goulder (Atheist NT Prof. at Birmingham) “…it (the creed of 1 Cor. 15:3-8) goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.” (5)

Gerd Lüdemann (Atheist Prof of NT at Göttingen): “…the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years… the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor.15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE.” (6)

Robert Funk (Non-Christian scholar, founder of the Jesus Seminar): “…The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.” (7)

The point is that Paul received this information long before he even wrote his letter. Also, we see in 1 Corinthians 11:23-24:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Here we see again that  Paul  “received”  a teaching. But in this case it is from the Lord what he hands on to the Corinthian Christians, specifically, a tradition about the Last Supper.  This tradition “from the Lord” probably is a teaching from Jesus himself, once again, as formulated by the Twelve in Jerusalem.

#2 : What’s the point?

1 Cor. 15:3-8 and 1 Cor. 11:23 along with other, short Christian creeds include II Timothy 2:8, and Romans 1:3-4 show that the core  teachings of the Gospel (Jesus died for our sins and rose again) pre-date Paul. Hence, the core of the Gospel was being circulated very early and even before Paul was a believer.  Hence, the resurection was not invented at  a later date.

By the way, it is within Paul’s Letters that we see he leaves several historical points about the life of Jesus such as the following:

1 .Jesus’ Jewish ancestry (Gal 3:16)
2. Jesus’ Davidic descent (Rom 1:3)
3. Jesus being born of a woman (Gal 4:4)
4. Jesus’ life under the Jewish law (Gal 4:4)
5. Jesus’ Brothers (1 Cor 9:5)
6. Jesus’ 12 Disciples (1 Cor 15: 7)
7. One of whom was named James (1 Cor 15: 7)
8. That some had wives (1 Cor 9: 5)
9. Paul knew Peter and James (Gal 1:18-2:16)
10. Jesus’ poverty ( 2 Cor 8:9)
11. Jesus’ humility ( Phil. 1:5-7)
12. Jesus Meekness and Gentleness (2 Cor. 10:1)
13. Abuse by Others (Rom 15:3)
14. Jesus’ teachings on divorce and remarriage (1 Cor. 7:10-11)
15. On paying wages of ministers (1 Cor 9:14)
16. On paying taxes ( Rom 13: 6-7)
17. On the duty to love one’s neighbors (Rom 13: 9)
18. On Jewish ceremonial uncleanliness ( Rom 14: 14)
19. Jesus’ titles to deity ( Rom 1: 3-4; 10:9)
20. On vigilance in view of Jesus’ second coming ( 1 Thess: 4: 15)
21. On the Lord’s Supper ( 1 Cor. 11: 23-25)
22. Jesus’ Sinless Life ( 2 Cor. 5:21)
23. Jesus’ death on a cross ( Rom 4:24; 5:8; Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor 15: 3)
24. Specifically by crucifixion ( Rom 6: 6; Gal 2:20)
25. By Jewish instigation ( 1Thess. 2:14-15)
26. Jesus’ burial (1 Cor. 15: 4)
27. Jesus’ resurrection on the “third day” (1 Cor.15:4)
28. Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the apostles ( 1 Cor.15:5-8)
29. And to other eyewitnesses (1 Cor 15:6); and
30. Jesus’ position at God’s right hand ( Rom 8:34)

#3:  “Paul Never Met Jesus”

Tabor also makes a point that Paul never met Jesus. He doesn’t elaborate much on this. But sadly, this past year I was out doing some evangelism on a major college campus. An atheist approached me and started to talk with me about what we can and can’t know about Jesus. He wanted to make it clear that Christians shouldn’t be so quick to rely on Paul’s letters as sources for the life of Jesus. And sure enough he said, “But  Paul never met Jesus.”  Right? I found this to be silly and offered a response. I will share it here as well. First, do you just pitch every writing you have written about someone else if the author never met the person they are writing about? I doubt it. Secondly,

As Louis Gottschalk says:

“Written and oral sources are divided into two kinds: primary and secondary. A primary source is the testimony of an eyewitness….A secondary source is the testimony source is the testimony of anyone who is not an eyewitness-that is, of one who was not present at the events of which he tells. A primary source must thus have been produced by a contemporary of the events it narrates. It does not, however, need to be original in the legal sense of the word original-that is, the very document (usually in a written draft) [autographa] whose contents are the subject of discussion-for quite often a later copy or a printed edition will do just as well; and in the case of the Greek and Roman classic seldom are any but later copies available.” (Understanding History, 53-54).

As we see, since Paul was a contemporary of Jesus, he can be considered as a primary source. He also claimed to have a personal encounter with Jesus (Acts 9:5-9).

 Conclusion

Most of Tabor’s points have been addressed in Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? by David Wenham who is an Oxford New Testament lecturer. A summary of some  his points can be found here:

Otherwise, N.T. Wright critiqued the types of arguments that Tabor goes over here back in 1997 in his monograph What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real.  Hope they help!

Sources:

1. Wilckens, U., Resurrection, trans. A. M. Stewart. Edinburgh: St. Andrew, 1977, 2

2. Jeremias,J. New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus, trans. John Bowden. New York: Scribner’s, 1971, 306.

3. Ludemann, G, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A Historical Inquiry (Amherst, NY: Promethus, 2004), 37.

4. Crossan, J.D. & Jonathan L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, 2001, 254.

5. Goulder, Michael, “The Baseless Fabric of a Vision,” in Gavin D’Costa, editor, Resurrection Reconsidered (Oxford, 1996), 48.

6. Lüdemann, Gerd, The Resurrection of Jesus, trans. by Bowden (Fortress, 1994), 171-72.

7. Hoover, Roy, and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus, 466

8. Jones, T.P., Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2007, 89-94

 

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