Robert Price includes a packed selection of arguments commonly raised to affirm Paul’s awareness of the teachings of Jesus along with the counterarguments. Little of this is new to many readers, but it seems appropriate to list the details as a sequel to my previous post that covered the main thrust of his argument in his chapter in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’
But first, I’ll cover the evidence he piles up in response to two reasons often given to explain why we don’t find explicit references to Jesus’ life and teaching in the letters. Price is collating these from G. A. Wells’ The Jesus of the Early Christians. (As Earl Doherty has further noted, the argument becomes even stronger when it is realized it applies not only to Paul’s writings but to the entire corpus of New Testament epistles.)
Jesus’ biographical details were irrelevant to the matters that happened to arise in occasional letters
Although I have encountered this assertion many times I have never seen it demonstrated. Without demonstration the statement becomes a mere brushing-aside of a serious question.
On the other hand, one readily finds cases raised that do support the counter-claim. Price several the following from Wells’ early book. It’s easy to make a list of these here as I do below, but that is only for the sake of information. What really counts is some way to test the alternative hypotheses. Before reading the list it is a good idea to do two things.
- One, think through what one would expect to find in the data IF there were oral traditions making the rounds that relayed what Jesus was supposed to have said and done.
- Two, think through what we would expect IF sayings were imputed to Jesus by various churches to add authority to their customs or teachings. (This was the conclusion of form critics like Rudolf Bultmann.)
In other words, ask what each hypothesis predicts we will find. It’s a while since I’ve posted on Richard Carrier’s Bayesian theory and when I resume (I still hope to resume posting on his book) the next post will discuss the importance of testing the hypotheses that oppose your own. The best way to strengthen your own argument, Carrier points out, is to demonstrate the inadequacies of those of your opponents. (This, by the way, is one reason I am slow on the uptake with theories of Christian origins that are heavy on proofs or arguments for their own point of view but almost totally ignore alternative explanations. Think of the caricature of the boy who looks only for hints that a girl likes him but ignores all evidence that points to a different state of affairs.)
So it always pays to be slightly more generous to the arguments for the side you are against if you want to demonstrate their comparative inadequacy to your own. Of course, there is always a risk that you’ll end up not being quite so dogmatic for one point of view as when you started, but life is full of risks.
The following points are from Price’s/Wells’ list. Presentation and commentary are my own.
Paul often wrote about the question of the Law’s relevance. The gospels’ speak of Jesus having controversial and outspoken positions on the Law.
Recall the sabbath controversies that Jesus provoked. The gospels leave us with the impression that sabbath observance was a critically divisive controversy in the time of Jesus. Was it all water under the bridge by the time Paul wrote? If so, why do we find sabbath controversies still on the agenda in the time of Justin of the mid second century?
Matthew’s antitheses? If Jesus was really famous for having preached a higher ethic than the letter of the law (Don’t kill? I say Don’t even hate! Don’t commit adultery? Don’t even have illicit sexual desire!) what would we expect in Paul’s letters? If we find nothing more remarkable than Stoic ethics . . . . . ?
Did Jesus really say that no food that enters a person defiles them (Mark 7:15)? So how might we explain the problems facing Paul and his “reasoned” responses to these? Rom 14:1-4; 1 Cor. 8; Col. 2:20-21 — okay, if you don’t accept Colossians as being written by Paul, the point of the question remains.
Rom 3:1 and Gal 5:1-2 — circumcision. Where is the example, if not the teaching, of Jesus? He could speak of the sabbath and dietary laws, yes? Ah, of course — here it is, in Thomas 53. So why was there ever a fuss over the matter if Jesus explained it all from the outset?
Be generous givers. Paul strove for the rhetoric that would persuade his readers of their need to give generously to the poor. He found it when he wrote: 2 Cor. 8:9 — “Look, Jesus came down from heaven! Just so you could have a heavenly reward!” –How many charities would use that line?
Luke 18:22 — Was this teaching of Jesus (to give up everything!) so embarrassing no-one ever used it? Did the gospel authors only discover Jesus’ words through an underground counter-Christianity Christianity movement?
Paul recommended celibacy in 1 Cor. 7:7
Was it just a coincidence, unknown to Paul, that Jesus had recommended the same? Matt. 19:10-12
How was Paul to justify his insistence that the faithful pay taxes to Rome? He appears to have taught that those who were Christ’s were “citizens of heaven”, after all. Romans 13:1-6
However he did this, anything Jesus said on the matter was unknown to him: Mark 12:15-17.
Robert M. Price lists the above sayings of Jesus (taken from Wells) that should have bolstered Paul’s arguments with his flock. But what if Paul knew of no sayings of Jesus to come to his aid?
But suppose there were originally no dominical sayings to settle these questions; it is not hard to imagine that soon people would be coining them — or attaching Jesus’ name to a saying they already liked, to make it authoritative. (p. 97)
We come, now, to Price’s response to the following point often raised by those who insist that Paul knew of historical Jesus traditions:
Paul would not repeat details with which readers were already familiar
It is not hard for anyone who has an ounce of energy to raise problems for this assertion. So much for Maurice Casey’s flippant allusion to E. T. Hall’s concept of high and low cultures having any relevance to this discussion:
Paul was always repeating the fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus/Christ;
He reminded them of his instruction to avoid sexually promiscuous brethren: 5:9-11
And found it necessary to remind them in writing that the saints would judge angels: 6:3
If Paul had spelled out his travel plans to a church he clearly understood they were not interested enough to remember after the first telling: 2 Cor. 2:1-4
If Paul told them once, did he need to tell them twice? Consider his reminder of his earlier disciplinary warnings in 13:2
Was Paul’s pre-Christian life something with which his converts were not familiar? If so, how to explain Paul writing Gal 1:13-14
Did Paul even need to raise again what his Galatian converts knew about their own initial encounter with the Christian mystery? 3:1
Curiously Paul’s converts apparently kept forgetting what Paul had told them was “sin”: 5:21
Paul or his followers had to remind the Ephesians of their very first catechism: Eph 4:20
Paul even said it was not bothersome to repeat what he had told them earlier, and with the understanding that his converts would not tire of hearing it, either: Phil 3:1
Paul had already told the Philippians who his enemies were, but that did not stop him from wanting to tell them again: 3:18
Paul knew his readers knew very well of the spread of his gospel, so why did he keep telling them what he knew they knew? Col 1:5-6
Paul knew they knew their roots in Christ but still he repeated the message: 2:7
Paul even had to repeat for them what they knew full well of his reputation: 1 Thess 1:5; 2:5-12
Paul needed to remind his converts how to live a Christian life: 4:1
When it came to the end-times Paul knew they did not need reminding but he also knew they did! 5:1-11; 2:5
Then we come to one of those curliest arguments of all.
Appeal to (whose?) authority!
Price recapitulates it thus:
Some say the epistles display extensive awareness of the Gospel teachings of Jesus but paraphrase them without indicating that Jesus first said them. Romans 12 and the Epistle of James are full of such logia. James D. Dunn maintains that Paul and James intended the reader to sniff out the dominical origin (and authority!) in these cases, leaving them as allusions for those who had ears to hear (‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge’). But this is one of those arguments no one would offer if they were not trying to wriggle out of a tight spot.
Think about it: if you want to settle a question by appealing to the words of Jesus, you are going to make sure the reader understands that they are indeed the words of Jesus, and you are going to do that by the simple expedient of saying so.
Given the whole point of appealing to the dominical words, who would neglect to attribute them explicitly to the name of Jesus? If one trusted simply the to the self-evident force of an argument or a principle, why seek to undergird it by an appeal to authoritative words in the first place? It seems quite reasonable to suggest that in the epistles we find early Christian sayings, just before they were ascribed to Jesus. (p. 98, my formatting)
Many of us are familiar with Paul’s instructions concerning the Last Supper. But notice that Paul explicitly informs us all that he did not receive his information about this from any tradition. No. He learned of it directly from the Lord himself! It was a revelation.
Similarly Paul’s ruling on divorce: 1 Cor 7:10-12 (So Jesus said nothing memorable?)
And how was a preacher to support himself. Jesus made some memorable statements about that so why do they not appear in 1 Cor. 9:14.
It becomes obvious that [some of the above commands] originated in prophetic bulletins, ‘words of knowledge’ or ‘words of wisdom’ vouchsafed to Christian prophets, oracles of the Risen Christ, probably to the writer himself. This becomes especially clear in light of [those passages] which define the ‘commands of the Lord’ by contrast.
It is not that the commands have some origin elsewhere than Paul; it is only that his ‘opinion’ and ‘judgment’ have not emerged from a prophetic state as the ‘commands’ did. It seems gross overinterpretation even to hold open the possibility that in his ‘commands of the Lord’ the writer should be referring to sayings of the historical Jesus.
What we are seeing is a Christian rebirth of the Old Testament practice of the priests ‘giving Torah’ via oracular judgments on matters brought to them. (p. 99, my formatting)
I have little to argue with over any of this. But if I have prematurely judged that the author of these epistles at no point drew upon a single “Jesus tradition” then I am open to being corrected — but it will take evidence to persuade me, or a clear logical demonstration that what we read in the epistles is exactly what we would expect according to our hypothesis, and contrary to what we would expect on the opposition’s argument.