2007-07-30

Spong on Jesus’ historicity: Paul’s contacts

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve responded to the first 3 of Spong’s stated reasons for believing Jesus was a historical character despite many of his analyses of the gospels leaving readers good cause to doubt this. They are listed in his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human (2007).

  1. No “person setting out to create a mythical character would [ever] suggest that he hailed from the village of Nazareth . . . in Galilee”
  2. Jesus “clearly began his life as a disciple of John the Baptist”
  3. He was executed
  4. “Paul was in touch with those who knew the Jesus of history”

4. “Paul was in touch with those who knew the Jesus of history” (Spong, p. 210)

Response 1: To give this as a reason for believing in the historicity of Jesus is fallacious. It is another circular argument. The argument rests on the assumption that there was a Jesus of history — it does not give a reason for believing he was.

If one asks who these people were who supposedly knew Jesus we have to conclude that they are among those spoken of in the gospels. And we have to assume that the gospels have some historicity underlying the narrative. In other words, we must assume what Spong claims to prove.

Response 2: Paul nowhere says he was in touch with anyone who knew the Jesus of history. Spong’s claim is an interpretation, a belief. It is not a verifiable fact.

The letter to Galatians tells us that Paul knew James, Cephas and John, and that these three were pillars in the Jerusalem church, but he nowhere says they knew the Jesus of history.

In 1 Corinthians Paul claims that the risen Christ appeared to him (presumably in a vision or dream or some other inner state of consciousness) and that he appeared likewise to others such as Cephas, the Twelve, 500 brethren and James, but nowhere does he say he himself knew anyone who knew the Jesus of history — that is, the Jesus before the resurrection. In that same 1 Corinthians chapter (15) he also explains that his catalogue of Christ’s resurrection appearances was something taught to him as part of a sort of tradition or catechism (what he “received” — a technical term for this).

And Paul nowhere gives any indication that he knew any details of Jesus’ earthly life and teaching in any of his epistles, unless one accepts/interprets some passages to say he knew of the historical crucifixion and Jesus being born into the Davidic royal family. But even if we do accept these, they can scarcely be said to amount to evidence of having known anyone who could fill him in on Jesus’ works and words. Many times one wonders why Paul could not simply have appealed to some of the best known teachings and examples of Jesus to make his own case in attempting to make authoritative statements about divorce, baptism, food laws and sabbath observance, the end of the age, and more.

So if these 4 reasons for the historicity of Jesus forwarded by Spong are invalid . . . . ???

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Spong on Jesus’ historicity: Paul’s contacts”

  1. No no … I have little reason to doubt Cephas was Peter. I was just using Cephas when referring to the texts that used Cephas. Name variations possibly point to variant traditions about who was who in the early days — but I don’t know if we have enough info to allow us to bet our mortgages on it. But till we do get more info one day in another cave I’m happy to let Cephas be Peter.

  2. but on second thoughts maybe in the back of my mind i was citing the texts literally (using Cephas where they said Cephas) to further press home the problematic nature of the data we have to work with

  3. ‘No “person setting out to create a mythical character would [ever] suggest that he hailed from the village of Nazareth . . . in Galilee”’

    That explains why Paul never suggested that Jesus hailed from the village of Nazareth in Galilee.

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