2011-12-05

Critically evaluating Paul’s claims about Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

From the moment his followers believed that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by the Prophets, the transformation of his life into myth began, and proceeded apace. (p. 108 of Jesus by Charles Guignebert, trans by S.H. Hooke)

It is refreshing to read some sound logical sense by a historical Jesus scholar in the swelling tide of apologetic publications. I like the way Guignebert (through his translator) worded the following:

The belief in this illustrious descent [of Jesus] is unquestionably very old, since Paul already knew and accepted it (Rom. i. 3, “of the seed of David according to the flesh”), but that is no reason for believing, without further investigation, that it was correct. There are still critics, even open-minded ones, who accept the possibility of its being so, but we cannot share their opinion. (p. 111, my emphasis)

No doubt more recent scholars have expressed the same critical nous, but there are many other historical Jesus scholars who since have attacked the very values of the Enlightenment, sneered at what they label a “hermeneutic of suspicion” (some even arguing that “charity” is a Christian duty owed to certain subsets of texts) (Bauckham et beaucoup al), and glided on the wind of postmodernism to substitute “even fabricated material . . . however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned” for genuine historical evidence (Allison).

So how does Guignebert investigate the correctness of this claim by Paul that Jesus was “of the seed of David”?

The Davidic descent of Jesus is impugned, to begin with, by the mere fact that it was necessary, and inevitable corollary of the announcement of the Messianic status of the Nazarene. (p. 111)

Just so. This is the same healthy scepticism I have discussed in relation to Burton Mack’s and Paula Fredriksens’ reasons for doubting the historicity of the “cleansing of the temple” episode in the Synoptic gospels:

Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention. (Paula Fredriksen)

The act itself is contrived. . . . It is a fictional theme derived from the scriptural citations.

The temple act cannot be historical. If one deletes from the story those themes essential to the Markan plots, there is nothing left over for historical reminiscence. The anti-temple theme is clearly Markan and the reasons for it can be clearly explained. . . .  The conclusion must be that the temple act is a Markan fabrication. (Burton Mack)

If a detail can be adequately explained on narrative or intertextual or theological grounds then there is no need — there is no justification — for additionally declaring it to be derived from historical memory. Of course it does not follow that it might also have been historical, but we need some evidence beyond the narrative or theological motivations to justify this belief.

So, if Jesus were believed to be the Messiah, goes Guignebert’s reasoning, it necessarily follows, it is a theological necessity, that he was “of the seed of David”.

So if what Paul says was a theological necessity then we have no grounds for believing the historical factness of his claim. We need something more.

But Guignebert finds that there is more — but it is against the historical truth of Paul’s claim:

But there is a more serious argument against it. The Ebionim, the descendants of the ancient Judaeo-Christians, apparently rejected the genealogies [in the Synoptic Gospels], and their opinion appears to be justified by the oldest tradition.

That oldest tradition Guignebert finds referenced in the Gospels:

In the Synoptic narrative Jesus never boasts of his ancestor David, nor do his disciples appear to have regarded him as a descendant of the great king.

But don’t we read of blind Bartimaeus calling Jesus the Son of David and the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem proclaiming him likewise?

Neither the appeal of the blind man of Jericho: “Son of David, Jesus, have mercy upon me” (Mark x. 47), nor the Messianic acclamation on the entry into Jerusalem: “Blessed by he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Blessed by the kingdom that cometh, of our father David.” (Mark xi. 9-10), can have the least weight against this double silence of Jesus and his companions. The blind man is supposed to divine that the prophet passing by is the Messiah, and it is his name he bestows upon Jesus in calling him “Son of David.” To bless the “kingdom of David,” on the other hand, is simply to hail the dawn of the Messianic day. (pp. 111-112)

The fourth Gospel seals the demise of Paul’s claim according to Guignebert:

Another, even more important objection, is that the author of the fourth Gospel, who could not have been ignorant of the belief in the Davidic descent, does not accept it. In the seventh chapter of John, after one of the Master’s sermons, the listeners exchange admiring exclamations: “This is a prophet,” say some; “This is the Christ,” say others, going further to which the objection is made:

“But can the Christ come out of Galilee ? Hath not the Scripture said that Christ cometh of the race of David, and out of the village of Bethlehem whence David came ?” (vii. 40-2)

The fact that the writer does not refute the objection by declaring that Jesus was born at Bethlehem and descended from David, proves that he did not think either of these things to be true; they were not believed in his circle. In his opinion Christ was much more than the son of David, he was his Lord. The same impression is conveyed by John viii. 12-14 ;

” Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying: ‘I am the light of the world . . . ‘The Pharisees therefore said unto him: ‘Thou bearest witness unto thyself ; thy witness is not true.’ Jesus answered and said unto them:’ Though I bear witness to myself, my witness is true, for I know whence I come and whither I go. But ye do not know whence I come nor whither I go.’ “

This shows that Jesus, or rather, the writer of the Gospel, scorned the answer, which the Pharisees would not have accepted, certainly, without proof, but which would have impressed them at once : “I am the son of David.”

Double trouble?

But what would happen if we mix two critical thoughts?

What of other claims by Paul about Jesus that are clearly theological and that are likewise just as much theological necessities in the Gospels, too?

Double Trouble (1967 film)

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  • 2011-12-05 09:21:09 UTC - 09:21 | Permalink

    I’m not sure what all of that was intended to prove. Notwithstanding his skepticism about Paul’s claims, Guignebert still concluded Jesus was a historical figure:

    ‘Charles Guignebert (1867–1939), Professor of the History of Christianity at the Sorbonne, maintained that the “conclusions which are justified by the documentary evidence may be summed up as follows: Jesus was born somewhere in Galilee in the time of the Emperor Augustus, of a humble family, which included half a dozen or more children besides himself.”. He adds elsewhere “there is no reason to suppose he was not executed”.’

    (Source: http://bit.ly/v74UVY).

    >>
    If a detail can be adequately explained on narrative or intertextual or theological grounds then there is no need — there is no justification — for additionally declaring it to be derived from historical memory.
    >>

    Now that’s a very interesting idea. It would neatly debunk the historicity of Socrates’ trial and execution, neither of which enjoy independent historical confirmation, and both of which can be explained on narrative and/or ideological grounds.

    • Tom Verenna
      2011-12-07 06:15:38 UTC - 06:15 | Permalink

      I’m fairly certain we have Xenophon for Socrates’ trial and execution.

    • 2011-12-07 10:14:25 UTC - 10:14 | Permalink

      My initial response (below — #2) was largely a reaction to DB’s related responses that he has made to this question on another venue. To start at the beginning I should try to reiterate the key point I have attempted to stress from the outset: Just because X can be explained on narrative plot or intertextual or ideological grounds etc does NOT mean that it “debunks” the historicity of X. It “debunks” nothing. What it does do is put us in a position where we have a sufficient explanation for X without adding the additional hypothesis of historicity.

      It puts us an an agnostic position re historicity. (There have indeed been a few scholars who have raised the possibility that Socrates may not have been historical.)

      The question of historicity vs mythicism can never hang on a single or even a small cluster of narrative elements. I believe the argument against the historicity of Jesus is very strong and even simple. But it is not a simplistic one. And a positive argument for an alternative is also necessary.

  • 2011-12-05 09:51:57 UTC - 09:51 | Permalink

    Of course Guignebert believes in the historical Jesus. Did I ever suggest otherwise? Notice that I even described him as a “historical Jesus scholar”! Perhaps you are so hung up about mythicism that you expect to see it in everything I write despite my many, many attempts to make as clear as day exactly what it is that interests me.

    As for your last thought, that is fallacious on two grounds. Firstly you are letting fear of the results guide you in deciding the validity of a method. Secondly, as I have made clear in this post and in every other one I have only half-way touched on this topic, but to which so many remain stone deaf:

    Of course it does not follow that it might also have been historical, but we need some evidence beyond the narrative or theological motivations to justify this belief.

  • 2011-12-05 11:00:21 UTC - 11:00 | Permalink

    I assume we are talking about Romans 1:3.

    The Son of God, was an immortal deity in Heaven, but He descended to the Firmament and assumed another identity, Jesus Christ, which was not an immortal deity. After all, this immortal deity was supposed to die as part of His mission, and so He had to become mortal for that while. So, Jesus Christ was not an immortal deity and He was not a mortal human being — rather, he was something in between, a combination of, those two natures.

    So, what would Paul believe about the part of Jesus Christ’s nature that was like a mortal human being? Jesus Christ would have the appearance of a human being. Jesus Christ would consume food and wine like a human being (the food and wind did not drop right through his body). Jesus Christ would die like a human being.

    What else? Well, it seems that Paul believed that Jesus Christ somehow had a nationality — Jesus Christ was Jewish, was developed from “the seed of David”.

    How did Jesus Christ acquire this Jewish nationality? When the immortal deity descended from Heaven to the Firmament, the deity passed through a Jewish woman who was on the Firmament and thus acquired the human characteristics, including the Jewish nationality, during the process of passing through this woman.

    It seems to me that Paul believed something along those lines. Paul did not think that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem or in Nazareth or anywhere else on the Earth, but Paul nevertheless believed that Jesus Christ was similar enough to a human being to have a nationality, which was Jewish.

    The belief that Jesus Christ was born on the Earth and walked around on the Earth was a belief that originated several decades after Paul died.

  • 2011-12-05 12:13:10 UTC - 12:13 | Permalink

    If we set aside Galatians 4:4’s “born of woman” as an interpolation, which I have increasingly come to judge as likely, we do not have to think that Romans 1:3 requires Paul to have seen his heavenly Christ as ‘passing through a (mythical/spiritual/firmament) woman.’ In fact, he doesn’t have to understand anything about how his heavenly Christ was “of the seed of David.” He simply has to accept that somehow it is, because scripture says so. Verse 2 has said that Paul (or the early Christ cult generally) has found “God’s gospel of the Son in the prophets,” and with the new cult having already deduced the existence of the spiritual Son and Christ (Messiah), with scripture revealing him, then all those prophecies that the Messiah will be descended from David have to be accepted as applicable to him, whether understandable or not.

    A few years ago I asked a question of a Catholic priest about the nature of God which, if considered rationally, had to seriously undermine the orthodox view of Jesus. Instead of allowing the latter, he said, “We are faced with mysteries.” He couldn’t understand it, but he accepted it anyway because his already established beliefs could not be dislodged with new facts or arguments.

    One of Lee Strobel’s interviewees in The Case For Christ allowed that he accepted that in some way demon spirits were the cause of illness because that is how Jesus presented it in the Gospels. Faith trumps reason every time.

    Earl

    • 2011-12-06 09:18:04 UTC - 09:18 | Permalink

      He [Paul] simply has to accept that somehow it is [Jesus was born of a Jewish woman], because scripture says so.

      I assume the logic here is 1) Paul thought Jesus was the Messiah and 2) the Messiah was supposed to be born of a Jewish woman.

      Did Paul ever write that Jesus was the Messiah? Maybe he did, so please remind me where he wrote it (I am not interested in what Acts says on this point).

      If Paul did not write that Jesus was the Messiah, then I see no reason to assume that Paul believed so.

      The early Christians, including Paul, did have to explain how an immortal god could die, and so they had to suppose that the immortal god was changed somehow into a mortal being. Since Paul wrote that this mortal being was “of the seed of David” and was “born of a woman”, then apparently he understood that the change of the immortal god into a mortal being was accomplished by means of birth through a Jewish woman. Somehow, that became the doctrine, but the details could have remained mysterious.

      The Jewish woman could have been on the Firmament. Why not? There were a few human beings on the Firmament, which was like Oz.

      After all, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that this same Jewish woman, Mary the mother of Jesus, did not die, but rather was assumed up into sky, where the Firmament is.

  • 2011-12-05 19:00:31 UTC - 19:00 | Permalink

    “In fact, he doesn’t have to understand anything about how . . . . .” He simply has to accept that somehow it is, because scripture says so.

    Guignebert concurs with the same principle as it applies to his own argument:

    There was no question of finding out if such a relationship [Christ being a descendant of David] could be proved, or even made to appear plausible. Hagiography does not trouble itself with such details and scruples.The point was to show that the announcement of . . . the Prophets had not been false. A hagiographer had no need of any other evidence than that of the Prophets themselves to be convinced that Jesus was a member of the house of David . . . (p. 109)

  • Jason Goertzen
    2011-12-06 06:15:50 UTC - 06:15 | Permalink

    “Now that’s a very interesting idea. It would neatly debunk the historicity of Socrates’ trial and execution, neither of which enjoy independent historical confirmation, and both of which can be explained on narrative and/or ideological grounds.”

    No, it wouldn’t debunk it: it would merely render it (possibly irrevocably) uncertain. It would mean we would no longer have grounds to claim that it definitely, or even probably, happened. Indeed, historians are nearly unanimous in their recognition of just that: we can’t be sure it really happened.

    In any case, Neil is right: this is an argument from final consequences. You can’t reject a logically valid method because the results of its application are unappealing.

  • 2011-12-06 13:08:36 UTC - 13:08 | Permalink

    Mike: He [Paul] simply has to accept that somehow it is [Jesus was born of a Jewish woman], because scripture says so.

    This is not what I said. Romans 1:3 does not say that Jesus was born of any woman, mortal or spiritual. It says that he was “of the seed of David according to the flesh” (whatever that last phrase means). I said that Paul did not have to understand what that entailed or how it was possible–within a spiritual/heavenly context, which is the context in which he placed his Christ.

    If Galatians 4:4’s “born of woman” is an interpolation, then there is no indication that Paul thought any woman was involved in Jesus being “of the seed of David”. When he said that the gentiles are now “the seed of Abraham” he did not mean through any kind of woman. It was a mystical relationship (for want of a better word) in both cases. He did not have to understand the mechanism. Scripture said so.

    Mike: I assume the logic here is 1) Paul thought Jesus was the Messiah and 2) the Messiah was supposed to be born of a Jewish woman.

    Your logic is faulty, since you are begging the question. If Paul’s Jesus was not human, then Paul didn’t think that anyone “was” the Messiah. That kind of equation is exactly what is missing in the epistles. No historical man is ever identified as the Messiah. Paul believes IN the Son of God, not that anyone WAS the Son of God.

    Mike: The early Christians, including Paul, did have to explain how an immortal god could die, and so they had to suppose that the immortal god was changed somehow into a mortal being.

    Where in the epistles do “early Christians” have to explain how an immortal god could die? And if that *were* a question, he didn’t necessarily have to come to earth to do it.

    • 2011-12-06 13:47:19 UTC - 13:47 | Permalink

      I agree with you that Paul “did not have to understand what was entailed or how it was possible”.

      I do not agree that Galations 4:4 is an interpolation.

      I assumed that “the logic here” was your logic. I thought you were saying that Jesus’s birth details were foretold by some prophets. I am sorry if I misunderstood you.

      It is my understanding that Paul and his fellow early Christians believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God (was an immortal divine being) who descended from Heaven in order to die as a sacrifice to save mankind. Therefore, there had to be some explanation of how an immortal being could die.

      I don’t think Jesus descended to Earth. I think he descended to the Firmament.

    • Evan
      2011-12-06 14:21:24 UTC - 14:21 | Permalink

      Earl I agree that Gal 4:4 may not be original to the text, but even if it is, I don’t see why this text has to refer to the gospel birth and not the birth in Revelation. The one in Revelation is clearly mythical. Is there any reason to suppose the author of Galatians or its interpolator didn’t have the Revelation birth story in mind?

  • 2011-12-06 13:19:29 UTC - 13:19 | Permalink

    There is no evidence that Paul ever met Jesus or was seriously interested in what Jesus message was. He was never a member of the Jesus Movement. Paul was all about the Christ myth which he picked up on from a pre-Easter Jewish Hellenist group. Paul’s letters are not a source for understanding the HJ. Hence what Paul thought, for me, is irrelevant

    • 2011-12-06 17:00:33 UTC - 17:00 | Permalink

      Paul may be irrelevant for most on the question of understanding who or what the historical Jesus was, but quite a few New Testament scholars do nonetheless cite Paul as evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Guignebert himself in the same book I reference in the initial post discusses mythicism of his own day and says of the evidence of Paul as a rebuttal of mythicist arguments:

      The Epistles of Paul are not so easily disposed of [he has just discussed the mythicist criticisms of the Gospels], and the liberals are perhaps justified in regarding them as the fundamental evidence for the existence of Jesus. They contain several passages which appear to be based upon, and to necessitate, the belief that the Lord lived in the flesh and died upon the cross. (p. 67)

      So what is significant about Paul’s statement in Romans 1:3 is that Paul is evidence of a very early Christian belief that Jesus was of the “seed of David”. It is also evidence of mythmaking (and not historical truth about a historical Jesus).

      And all that is very significant for the historical question of Christian origins and at least one direction into which Christianity was evolving in its earliest days.

  • 2011-12-07 03:03:39 UTC - 03:03 | Permalink

    Mike: It is my understanding that Paul and his fellow early Christians believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God (was an immortal divine being) who descended from Heaven in order to die as a sacrifice to save mankind. Therefore, there had to be some explanation of how an immortal being could die.

    Paul says that “Christ died for our sins,” but unless my memory has gotten worse than I thought, neither he nor any other epistle writer feels a need to explain how this heavenly Christ could undergo death, as though opposition has been voiced to the acceptance of such an idea. Considering that the mystery cult myths have gods that undergo death all over the place, it does not seem to have been a difficult doctrine.

    Besides, the very act of descending to the realm of the corruptible means that the god has set aside his immortality temporarily and can indeed undergo the death that humans too can suffer, and be resurrected back to his immortal state, as a paradigm for what the humans joined to him are thereby guaranteed to enjoy when *they* die.

    It’s quite an elegant system, actually.

    Now, there is a thread of objection to the death of gods in a couple of the second century apologists, notably Minucius Felix, whose Christian debater ridicules the Greek myths about the death of gods, saying “Men who have died cannot become gods, because a god cannot die,” But he makes no qualification for the supposed Christian Jesus of Nazareth and ridicules the idea of worshiping a crucified man, which makes this particular document a smoking gun..Most of the other apologists of the period similarly lack a Son who dies, as they are not in the same ‘Christ-belief’ stream as that of the earlier Paul with his heavenly sacrificed Christ, or those presently creating an orthodoxy based on the Gospels’ and their Christ dying on Calvary.

  • 2011-12-07 03:15:20 UTC - 03:15 | Permalink

    Evan: Earl I agree that Gal 4:4 may not be original to the text, but even if it is, I don’t see why this text has to refer to the gospel birth and not the birth in Revelation. The one in Revelation is clearly mythical. Is there any reason to suppose the author of Galatians or its interpolator didn’t have the Revelation birth story in mind?

    Yes, Revelation does have the birth of a child to a heavenly woman in a heavenly setting, although it is the vision of a future birth. And a gnostic document, the Apocalypse of Adam, speaks of its Illuminator savior figure as born from a virgin womb in a heavenly, though earth-like, dimension. But a more Christian mythology about a descending heavenly figure doesn’t entail the idea of birth, rather descent through the layers of heaven to a level where the sacrifice can take place, such as in the Ascension of Isaiah.

    Also, if “born of woman, born under the Law” was an interpolation, it was almost certainly not intended to represent a mythical birth, but rather a human one, as a way of countering 2nd century docetic views of Jesus.

  • Stevan Davies
    2011-12-07 07:28:04 UTC - 07:28 | Permalink

    Does anyone know of another person who claimed to be a “Son of David” during this period or, in fact, in any period after Zedekiah? If not, then presumably the lineage of David was no longer thought relevant for the demonstration that anyone was Christ and so it would be sensible simply to assume “if Christ therefore Son of David” without further ado.

    My grandmother prided herself on being a descendant of the Kings of Scotland, putting me too, I presume, in that august category. In fact I suspect that there are thousands of us out there. Assuming let’s say a 25 year generation, and two surviving children per couple, how many Sons of David would there be in 30 AD assuming for mathematical simplicity that we start with two offspring of Zedekiah?

    I heard Charlesworth once suggest that the blind man saying “Son of David, Jesus” might have reference to the greatest of magicians Solomon, the miracle working Son of David, and that if Jesus were a renowned exorcist a comparison between him and Solomon Son of David would be expected.

    I have never understood how, from Earl’s perspective, Jesus ever gets involved in the Christian religion. If you have a mythical Christ system how is it that we wind up with the humble Galilean? I do more or less understand how we can get from the humble Galilean to a Christ cult but not the contrary.

    Stevan Davies

  • 2011-12-07 18:46:24 UTC - 18:46 | Permalink

    I can’t speak for Earl but my own suspicions about how the Galilean appeared relate to the events around that year 70. With the traumatic end of the Mosaic system I can imagine a strong demand for replacement to help salvage the many struggling social, religious and personal identities. Rabbinic Judaism was one response. Another was a new and better covenant with Moses’ spiritual successor. A metaphoric tale in which a personification of the “true Israel of God”, I imagine, or one in which a personfication of the spirit of God that dwelt in or with the “true Israel”, could well become the gateway to meet that demand among many.

    We know people do emerge from gods (e.g. William Tell) or simply from the telling (e.g. Ned Ludd) to meet social and cultural identity cravings.

    • Stevan Davies
      2011-12-08 01:00:23 UTC - 01:00 | Permalink

      I’m not sure we are writing of the same problem. The problem I refer to is that from Earl’s paradigm we have an invention of a divine Son who comes into the firmament and is killed by dark angels as a sacrifice. This is the foundation of a movement that includes Paul and that has no interest whatsoever in a guy named Jesus from Galilee… and there’s no reason I know of that it should. Yea Behold, we have the invention of a character with a mom and a pseudo-pop and a home town and a life story and a whole bunch of incoherent sayings. So we have gone from a mythic Christ figure (understood as such by those in the cult, they are under no misapprehensions) to the invention of a Galilean construction worker who discovers a talent for exorcisms who holds some opinions about the end of Roman reign in Palestine that gets him, no surprise, killed. So, the Christ cult is A and the pseudohistorical Jesus is B. I do not see how Earl’s theory works so that we get from A to B. Why B At All?/

      • 2011-12-08 17:30:09 UTC - 17:30 | Permalink

        I was thinking of the producer/s of the first gospel parable/allegory as part of Paul’s religion. HIs Christ was the locus of a new community that superseded the old. The gospel was not bringing that Christ down to earth. It was a metaphor that crystalized the gospel as an answer to a new need. Matthew and Luke, quite disapproving of much that Mark expressed, and as I have attempted to argue a few times, seek to re-cast Mark’s more clearly symbolic tales into something more “down to earth/realistic”.

        But those are just my own musings. Perhaps Earl would like to give his own views.

  • 2011-12-08 04:05:37 UTC - 04:05 | Permalink

    Surely there is some suspicion about the beginning of Romans. Romans has the longest introduction out of the entire Pauline corpus, even the spurious ones. Not only that, but neither Paul nor pseudo-Paul ever go over doxological statements in an introduction to any of their epistles. The language, also, is not Pauline: the authentic Paul never uses the phrase “holy scriptures” (opting mostly for “as it is written” or “scriptures” without the adjective “holy”) and he overwhelmingly talks about “prophets” in the context of contemporary prophets (who are second to apostles). It seems to me that the entire introduction of Romans is anti-Marcionite, especially “seed of David”. If Romans 1.2-6 were excised from the letter it would fit the pattern of every other epistle written by or in Paul’s name.

    I also don’t think the writer of Mark thought of Jesus as a Davidic messiah either. The only person in the narrative to call him “son of David” is a blind man. Is this Mark making a commentary on all those who think the messiah is a son of David? Corroborating this, when Mark has Jesus asks whose son the messiah is, Mark has Jesus reject Davidic sonship for the messiah. So in Mark’s narrative, it’s only the blind and the teachers of the law who think that the messiah is a son of David. Are the teachers of the law blind? That fits Mark’s overall theme.

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