Evidence We Want and Evidence We Should Expect: A Look at Paul’s Letters

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. 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.  Both Christian and non-Christian scholars have come to have great respect Paul. Allow me to mention a few comments here:

“Without knowing about first century Judaism, modern readers—even those committed to faith by reading him—are bound to misconstrue Paul’s writing…Paul is a trained Pharisee who became the apostle to the Gentiles.” –Alan Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), xi-xii

 

“Paul has left us an extremely precious document for Jewish students, the spiritual autobiography of a first-century Jew…Moreover, if we take Paul at his word—and I see no a priori reason not to—he was a member of the Pharisaic wing of first century Judaism.”–Daniel Boyarian, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 2.

 

“Paul was a scholar, an attendant of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, well-versed in the laws of Torah.”-Rabbi Jacob Emeden (1679-1776)–cited by Harvey Falk, Jesus the Pharisee (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 18.

From about AD 48 until his death,  Paul wrote at least 13 of the New Testament’s books. 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. So let’s take a look at the common objections to using Paul as a source for what we can and can’t know about Jesus:

The Evidence We Want:

`#1 “Paul needs to have met Jesus and hung out with him for a while before he became a follower. After all, since Paul never met the historical Jesus,  we can’t use him as a source for knowing anything about Jesus.”

 

#2: “I want Paul to give us some biographical details about Jesus.”

 

#3  “We can’t have any different writing styles or different theological emphasis in letters that were written to churches. If we do, then this means Paul didn’t write it.”

 

#4 “I can’t accept Paul because he is no different than Muhammad or Joseph Smith. He claimed to have some sort of revelation of Jesus.”

I will respond to this with what is called “Evidence We Should Expect”

#1: This has to be one of the silliest objections of all.  As we have said elsewhere, there is what is called primary or secondary sources.

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).

A little time line may be helpful: Remember Paul’s Letters are dated 48 A.D to 60 A.D. However, the information he receives about the death and resurrection of Jesus predate his writings.

The death of Jesus: 30 A.D.—–33A.D

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

Paul’s Death: 60-65 A.D.

Temple Destroyed: 70 A.D.

I will let the reader decide whether Paul is a primary or secondary source. .

Also,  just because someone didn’t directly meet the person they are writing about doesn’t automatically mean the writer can’t record accurate history about them. If we were to dismiss all writings because the author never met the person directly, we might not know much of anything in history. Once again, this is an unrealistic expectation and a gross oversimplification. Furthermore, Paul makes it clear that he knew all about the early Jesus movement.

#2: Given Paul’s Letters are not biographies and they are predominately dealing with the needs of the community (e.g., doctrinal issues), we shouldn’t expect Paul to provide an abundance of biographical details about Jesus. In other words, since he is writing the believing communities and addressing the doctrinal issues of each community  there is no need to establish historical evidence for the life of Jesus. However, we can note that Paul does list some details about the life of Jesus such as:

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:  According to Bart Ehrman,

“There are seven letters that virtually all scholars agree were written by Paul himself: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians and 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. The “undispusted” letters are similar in terms of writing style, vocabulary, and theology. In addition, the issues that they address can plausibly be situated in the early Christian movement of the 40’s and 50’s of the Common Era, when Paul was active as an apostle and missionary”- Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 288.

I will defer to Darrell Bock’s treatment on those that question Pauline authorship on the rest of Paul’s Letters.  See the list of articles here.

#4: The argument here is that the claim that Paul’s revelatory or visionary encounter with Jesus is no different that Mohammed and Joseph Smith. In other words, a frequent claim among world religions is that truth has been grounded in revelation.

In response, each revelatory claim needs to be studied in its own context. We need to ask:

1. What is the claim? 2. What is the evidence for the claim? 3. What is the religious and historical context for the claim.

Let’s look at Paul’s revelatory encounter. When we come to Galatians 1:11-12, Paul defends his ministry by discussing the manner of how he received the Gospel:

“ For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man.  For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12).

Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 15: 3-5:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”

So what is the truth? Paul says in Galatians that he received it by divine revelation. But  what about the creed in 1 Corinthians 15? How do we respond to this?  First, while we always need to look at the context of where the word “recieved” is used, in both 1 Cor. 15:3 and Galatians 1:12, the word “received” (“παραλαμβάνω”) means to receive something transmitted from someone else, which could be by an oral transmission or from others from whom the tradition proceeds. In other words, according to Paul, he did not create the Gospel story. It was something he received from another source.

So in this case, what is helpful here is to differentiate between essence and form.  The essence of the gospel, that Jesus of Nazareth was truly the Son of God, was revealed to Paul (he received it) on the life changing moment on the Damascus road. Paul realized that the Christians that he had been persecuting had been right all along about Jesus being the Messiah.

As far as the form the gospel, this includes the historical undergirding of certain events, certain phraseology used to express the new truth and doubtless many other things that were passed onto Paul by those other than him (see Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction To The New Testament Survey, pg 220).

Biblical apostles had to be eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 9:1; cf. 1 Cor. 15:7–8). Also, the revelation given by Mormon prophets and apostles clearly contradicts the revelation decisively (“once for all”) handed down by the first-century apostles (Jude 3). The point is that while Paul did claim to have received the Gospel by revelation, he was one of several witnesses who had seen the risen Messiah. His experience was publicly corroborated  by the other apostles.  Also, regarding whether Paul had an actual vision, see our post called “What did the Disciples See?”

Furthermore, eight of the eleven witnesses left  the Mormon church or were excommunicated.

And while there is a wealth of archaeological confirmation to the Biblical record, this can’t be said for the Book of Mormon. For example, there is a story of about a Nephite civilization in the New World. But unfortunately there is no archaeological evidence to support the onetime existence of such a civilization in North America or a huge battle in New York. The National Geographic Society, in a 1998 letter to the Institute for Religious Research, stated “Archaeologists and other scholars have long probed the hemisphere’s past and the society does not know of anything found so far that has substantiated the Book of Mormon.“ (see http://irr.org/mit/national-geographic.html ). If you want to go deeper and learn more about Mormonism, this is a good place to start.

Likewise,at age 40, Muhammad began claiming to receive dreams and  revelations, but was unsure of their source. But given the fact that this is one man’s private revelation, the proof is in the pudding. For example, as my friend Wintery Knight points out here:

Consider this argument:

  1. To be a  Muslim, you must believe that the Koran is without error.
  2. The Koran  claims that Jesus did not die on a cross. (Qur’an, 4: 157-158)
  3. The crucifixion of Jesus is undisputed among non-Muslim historians,  including atheist historians.
  4. Therefore, it is not rational for me to become a Muslim.

I’m going to support the premise that Jesus was crucified by citing historians from all backgrounds (including atheists and agnostics, Jews, and non evangelical scholars)

 “Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.” Gert Lüdemann

 

“That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”  J.D. Crossan

 

“The passion of Jesus is part of history.”–Geza Vermes

 

Jesus’ death by crucifixion is “historically certain”–Pinchas Lapide

 

“The single most solid fact about Jesus’ life is his death: he was executed by the Roman prefect Pilate, on or around Passover, in the manner Rome reserved particularly for political insurrectionists, namely, crucifixion.” —Paula Fredriksen

 

“The support for the mode of his death, its agents, and perhaps its co-agents, is overwhelming: Jesus faced a trial before his death, was condemned, and was executed by crucifixion.” L.T. Johnson

 

“One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Ponitus Pilate.”— Bart Ehrman

Furthemore, the Qur’an was written some six hundred years after the life of Jesus  which makes it a much later source of information than the New Testament. It seems the evidence that has just been discussed tells us that the historical content of the Gospel (Jesus’ death and resurrection) was circulating very early among the Christian community. As I just said, historians look for the records that are closest to the date of event. Given the early date of 1 Cor. 15: 3-8, it is quite evident that this document is a more reliable resource than the Qur’an.

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