How easily do historical Jesus scholars drop in that “interpolation card” when it suits

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by Neil Godfrey

Catching up with Géza Vermes’ The Changing Faces of Jesus I was surprised to find Vermes suggesting that the entire Philippian Hymn (2:6-11) is an interpolation inserted probably around the early second century!

I guess anti-mythicist crusaders have been on my back so much that I had begun to lose sight of what is acceptable and respectable fare in the works of mainstream biblical scholars.

For those not in the know Géza Vermes, according to the Wikipedia article (and I don’t apologize for using Wikipedia since, for all its many faults, it has been recognized by a study published in Nature as no less authoritative than the Encyclopedia Britannica in science articles, so we may reasonably feel entitled to some confidence in the rest) is described as:

a noted authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient works in Aramaic, and on the life and religion of Jesus. He is one of the most important voices in contemporary Jesus research,[1] and he has been described as the greatest Jesus scholar of his time.[2] (I retain the linked footnotes)

In the prologue Vermes reinforces his well-groundedness within the scholarly mainstream:

I have read a great deal over the years and learned much, positively and negatively, from other scholars. I have assimilated their learning and understanding and stored everything up in my heart. (p. 4)

Two or three posts ago I addressed the way not a few biblical scholars find ways to interpret the “Philippian Hymn” through Gospel presuppositions in order to make it conform to what they should expect from it if Christianity did begin with a historical Jesus (Turning the Philippian Hymn into a Precambrian Rabbit).

Géza Vermes, however, approaches it from another perspective and focusses on the way it promotes Jesus Christ “to quasi-divine status”. Could Paul have really thought of Jesus in such terms? Vermes is sceptical. (This is clearly a troubling passage for the historical Jesus hypothesis: many other scholars, as noted in my earlier post, attempt to resolve it with their historical model by interpreting in the opposite direction from where Vermes takes it — as an indicator of Jesus’ earthly humanity!)

Have this mind among yourselves,
which you have in Christ Jesus, who,
though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,
being born in the likeness of men. [cf other translations]
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient unto death, even the death of a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth, and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Vermes comments:

The expressions ‘in the form of God’, ‘grasping equality from God’, and ’emptying himself’ echo mythological concepts familiar from the Gospel of John* and from later heretical Gnostic speculation. If so, chronologically they point to the early second century AD rather than the age of Paul. The hymn makes much better sense if it is taken as an existing liturgical composition inserted into the letter of the Philippians not by Paul himself but by a later editor. The fact that this poem can be removed without spoiling the general meaning of the chapter strongly favour the theory of its post-Pauline origin. (pp. 78-9)

*As for the date of John Vermes likewise places this in the second century:

. . . the so-called Gospel of John . . . reflects . . . the highly evolved theology of a Christian writer who . . . completed his Gospel in the opening years of the second century AD. (p. 6)

Géza Vermes, after all, is arguing that the most grandiose views of Jesus only appeared late. This clearly makes “sense” given a model of Christian origins that began with a despised law-breaker, blasphemer and crucified criminal. (At least if you find it plausible that a despised crucified criminal could evolve in people’s imaginations to become essentially equal with God over a relatively few years — though Vermes speaks of three generations — I suppose it makes “sense”.)

So there you have it. The next time a mainstream biblical scholar tries to tell you it is a spurious cop-out to propose interpolation in order to support your views of the way Christian thought developed and what Paul really meant or thought, then ask him or her if Géza Vermes is not being kosher when he does the just that. Maybe they will agree that in this Vermes is going too far. That’s fine, but remind them that this sort of “going too far” seems to be one of those flaws that even the aristocrats of historical Jesus scholarship are from time to time permitted.

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46 thoughts on “How easily do historical Jesus scholars drop in that “interpolation card” when it suits”

  1. This is what happens when theological preconceptions are permitted to override objective evidence. Vermes would have no need to postulate an interpolation if his interpretation of the kenosis passage did not presuppose Nicene Christology.

  2. You effectively accuse Vermes of special pleading, then accuse me of underestimating his scholarly nous when I *agree* with you? How does that work?

    and finds no support in the argument contained in his book

    What are you referring to here?

  3. I understand and accept that there can be interpolations in the NT, Josephus, etc., and I’m not defending the idea that the “Philipians Hymn” is an interpolation, but honestly, how often is the “interpolation card” played by “mythicists”? Just off the top of my head I can think of:

    1 Thes. 2:14-16, concerning who killed Jesus; Gal. 1:19, concerning James as “the brother of the Lord”; 1 Tim. 6:13, concerning Jesus’ trial before Pilate; Rom. 1:3, concerning Jesus’ decent from David; the entire John the Baptist passage in Josephus; “the brother of Jesus , who is called Christ” in the James passage in Josephus. That’s just what I can think of at the moment, while I’m in a rush to go somewhere.

    1. If “mythicists” “play the interpolation card” with those above passages then it is valid to say that “historicists” (not just Vermes) play the “interpolation card” with the Philippian Hymn. I would never say that, however.

      It is very substantial mainstream scholarship that underpins the interpolation argument for 1Thes. 2:14-16 and 1 Tim 6:13 (and even more so that the entirety of 1 Timothy is an “interpolation” into the Pauline corpus under a false name).

      It is tendentious in the extreme to say that “mythicists” argue Gal 1:19 and Rom 1:3 and the two passages in Josephus you speak of are interpolations. Doherty, for one, is often under fire as he argues his case on the acceptance of the genuineness of these passages. “Mythicists” also argue that because those Josephan passages are legitimate to Josephus that they argue against historicity.

      Irony of ironies, it is one who is arguing AGAINST mythicism that pulls the interpolation card on Galatians 1:19 and the brother of the Lord: http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/james-brother-of-the-lord-another-case-for-interpolation/

      1. I acknowledge that others may think that 1 Thes. 2:14-16 and 1 Tim. 6:13 are interpolations, but Doherty also plays these “cards” to support mythicism. And while he has a “mythicist” explanation for Gal. 1:19, he also says it could be a marginal gloss.

        I realize that Doherty also thinks “the brother of Jesus” in Josephus could be genuine, but not the “who is called Christ” part.

        I mentioned the John the Baptist passage because you had a recent post discussing the possibilty that this passage is an interpolation. You may or may not be a “mythicist,” which is why I put it in quotation marks.

        I acknowledge that Doherty does not think Rom. 1:3 is an interpolation. Though I did not say he did, I was thinking of him when I was in a rush earlier, and did not have time to double check that.

        I understand that there are likely to be interpolations in the NT, and that scholars with different views may think so, too.

        I agree that the entirety of 1 Timothy is an “interpolation,” but that’s a separate question from whether 6:13 is an additional one or not. If it is not, it would be evidence in the NT epistles of a human Jesus, hence Doherty’s “need” to play the interpolation card here (even if other scholars agree). Colossians and Ephesians are similarly “interpolations,” and Doherty sees value in them for understanding a mythical Jesus.

        1. I have probably skewed any conversation from the outset by using the phrase “interpolation card”. My target was not those who argue for interpolations but those who inconsistently fault mythicists for even breathing the word interpolation while overlooking that their own reputable peers are as likely as not — even more so quite in many cases — to be arguing for interpolations. See my response (comment #8) to Dave Burke’s similar misunderstanding.

          There is nothing invalid about arguing for interpolations or basing an argument upon an argued interpolation. To say that a thesis “needs” something to be an interpolation when it is widely recognized in the scholarly literature as a real interpolation is, I suggest, taking fault-finding too far. If a passage is acknowledged as a likely interpolation by widely recognized scholarly opinion — with strong arguments etc that are considered respectable by peers — then it is surely overly severe and inconsistent and unfair to fault a “mythicist” for appealing to this judgment and the reasons for it.

          It is simply not true that “mythicists” (generically) base their arguments on interpolations in the sense that “they” merely sweep aside contrary passages by some ad hoc declaration of interpolation. This frequent assertion about “mythicist” arguments is simply false. Listing all the references to interpolations across any and everything written by anyone sympathetic to mythicism does not give a true picture. To be fair, such a list ought to be set alongside a list of all the references to interpolations across any and everything written by anyone sympathetic to the historicist view of Jesus — including the Philippian Hymn and Galatians 1:19. And to be even more fair we need to colour code those passages argued as interpolations on BOTH sides.

          1. I do feel like I may have misunderstood the nuance of your post, and I think a list like you are proposing would be cool.

            My only quibble would be that I’m not sure if 1 Timothy 6:13 and “who is called Christ” in Josephus are considered to be widely recognized as interpolations.

            While he says on his website that the question regarding the former “is not critical,” and “some have pointed out certain problems in seeing it as a good fit within its context,” Doherty does say that “few scholars have openly declared this passage … to be an interpolation,” and, “It is admittedly in my own interest to regard the reference to Pontius Pilate in 1 Timothy 6:13 as a possible interpolation, but there are clearly good reasons for doing so.”

            But Doherty also says that he claims that this is one of only two (though others are possible) interpolations in the NT epistles.

  4. Mark Goodacre recently proposed that the talking cross in the Gospel of Peter may actually be the result of the textual corruption of the Greek word meaning “crucified one” such that the original may actually have had the Jesus saying the words that are now attributed to the talking cross. This theory seems to have been received favorably.

    I am in no way qualified to assess Goodacre’s theory, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if a similarly speculative theory was proposed to resolve some anomaly in a canonical work. I suspect that there would be outrage that anyone would have the temerity to argue for an emendation without textual evidence.

    It seems to me that there is a non-trivial probability that any word or passage in the New Testament might be the result of interpolation or corruption regardless of the manuscript evidence. It also seems to me that it is perfectly legitimate to consider with respect to every single word or passage, how our overall understanding of the New Testament might change if it were not original.

    However, even if the probability of any individual word or passage being an interpolation is non-trivial, a theory that depends on multiple cherry picked passages being interpolations will quickly become infinitesimal unlikely as the number of passages increases.

  5. I find it odd that a text (John) is assigned a date because of a subjective evaluation of its “spiritual maturation”.
    One could equally argue that John is spiritually less evolved that the Synoptics, with a cogent well thought out equally subjective argument It is more superstitious and less ethically evolved. than the other texts.
    Evan Powell (The Lost Gospel) has effectively done this using the way content of the gospels seems to change in a consistent trend, to make his point.
    However his arguments are not accepted because they fly in the face of not reason, but consensus dogma.
    I also suspect that any un-tenured academic who did propose John priority could not expect career longevity, and that by the time he did get tenure the fight would have been beaten out of him. Most senior theology faculty at English speaking institutions, even secular ones, are graduates of christian or missionary training colleges (Wheaton, Princeton, iClaremont, in the US), and they are not going to vote contrary to their interests or indoctrination or community.
    A lot of interpretation problems could be eliminated if the Gospel attributed to John, was accepted as a heavily edited late version (early 2nd c.) that evolved out of an earlier (middling 1st c.) version.

    1. Maybe they would find tenure at Sheffield or Nottingham. I know of scholars there who are allowed to publish that the Gospel of Mark was written as early as the late 30’s!

      (Actually there are a few — or one — who have/has argued for the priority of John but I don’t recall who off hand now.)

      1. Esteemed Tenured Professor: “Mark’s first draft was written the week after Easter.”

        Internet Crackpot: “We don’t know when Mark was written. Many people point to 70 CE, but the events seem to fit better with the Bar Kochba Revolt.”

        It’s easy to build consensus when you limit who can join the club.

  6. ‘Géza Vermes, however, approaches it from another perspective and focusses on the way it promotes Jesus Christ “to quasi-divine status”. Could Paul have really thought of Jesus in such terms?’

    There is also 1 Corinthians 8:6. Presumably that must be an interpolation as well.

    Vermes says on page 87 about the believers Paul was writing to ‘For them, the crucifixion is a mythical event which needs no explanatory detail’

  7. Dave Burke wrote:

    You effectively accuse Vermes of special pleading, then accuse me of underestimating his scholarly nous when I *agree* with you? How does that work?

    I was “accusing” Vermes of nothing. I am in fact personally far more disposed to the idea of Paul’s letters being riddled with interpolations than many other readers are. Vermes’ argument for interpolation conforms to criteria normally used in favour of interpolation: flow of the text and anachronism. So he cannot be said to be resorting to special pleading.

    If I am “accusing” anyone of anything it is those who hypocritically fault mythicists for even breathing the word interpolation while highly distinguished mainstream scholars are far more liberal with their approach to interpolations.

    But having said that I do not argue that this passage is an interpolation because I am persuaded by other mainstream biblical scholars that it is unwise to treat a passage as an interpolation without very strong reasons or multiple (more than two, as Vermes relies upon) criteria.

    and finds no support in the argument contained in his book

    What are you referring to here?

    What he writes in his book.

      1. Okay, you got me curious. I found this information about the eclipse of March 20, 0071:


        (Just scroll all the way down to Plate 248.)

        “A hybrid eclipse (also called annular/total eclipse) shifts between a total and annular eclipse. At some points on the surface of the Earth it appears as a total eclipse, whereas at others it appears as annular. Hybrid eclipses are comparatively rare.”

  8. “If so, chronologically they point to the early second century AD rather than the age of Paul.”

    Or maybe Paul’s age is the early to mid second century. He does, after all, say “the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost” clearly referencing at least 70AD if not 140AD. And he is strangely unknown as an apostle to Justin Martyr about 140-150, whereas if Paul were a first century character, you would think everyone would have accepted him as an apostle by 140. But if he was a character living in 140, it would take until 180 (which it does) for him to be universally accepted as an apostle.

    1. “… the age of Paul…”

      I’m reminded of Clement of Alexandria’s insistence on establishing “The Tradition of the Church Prior to that of the Heresies” in Book VII, Chapter XVII of The Stromata
      In part:

      For the teaching of our Lord at His advent, beginning with Augustus and Tiberius, was completed in the middle of the times of Tiberius.[3]

      And that of the apostles, embracing the ministry of Paul, ends with Nero. It was later, in the times of Adrian the king, that those who invented the heresies arose; and they extended to the age of Antoninus the elder, as, for instance, Basilides, though he claims (as they boast) for his master, Glaucias, the interpreter of Peter.

      Likewise they allege that Valentinus was a hearer of Theudas.[4] And he was the pupil of Paul. For Marcion, who arose in the same age with them, lived as an old man with the younger[5] [heretics]. And after him Simon heard for a little the preaching of Peter.

      Such being the case, it is evident, from the high antiquity and perfect truth of the Church, that these later heresies, and those yet subsequent to them in time, were new inventions falsified [from the truth].

      Chronology is important, even if false.

      For instance, in Footnote 5 to the translation:

      Much learning and ingenuity have been expended on this sentence, which, read as it stands in the text, appears to state that Marcion was an old man while Basilides and Valentinus were young men; and that Simon (Magus) was posterior to them in time. Marcion was certainly not an old man when Valentinus and Basilides were young men, as they flourished in the first half of the second century, and he was born about the beginning of it. The difficulty in regard to Simon is really best got over by supposing that Clement, speaking of these heresiarchs in ascending order, describes Marcion as further back in time; which sense μεθ᾽ ὄν of course will bear, although it does seem somewhat harsh, as “after” thus means “before.”

      “Heretics” had to come much later. Their “invented” “heresies” had to come after ministry of Paul and the apostles, but still with a first century association by way of a series of first century connections or by just being old enough. Except that Marcion was not that old man. Fact is, he and Basilides and Valentinus all operated in the first half of the second century.

      So, for example, tracing Valentinus’s connection,… who was this “Theudas”, special follower of Paul, conveyor of esoteric knowledge to Valentinus? Did he even exist? In any case, he might have provided some clout if apostolic connection was of interest. For Clement’s purpose, it enabled Valentinus’s distancing from Paul.

      If we look at a traditional timeline, Theudas would have been an “aging disciple” by the time he possibly met Valentinus. Yet we really know next to nothing about this Theudas (if I’m wrong, please correct me). If he did exist, we don’t know his age. What if he really was a disciple of Paul, but younger? If Theudas didn’t exist, in what way was second century Valentinus connected to Paul?

    2. At the moment the wind is pointing my thoughts on Paul in the direction the letter-writer being around mid first century, but that he was overlooked by the likes of Justin because he represented a mystical form of Christianity that had no place in their thoughts. But since he was a source of Marcionism and Valentinianism etc that dominated the Christian scene there was no escaping the need to co-opt his writings or at least his name as a source of more “proto-catholic” epistles.

  9. When mythicists use arguments that support their hypotheses, they are “kooks” who don’t address current scholarship correctly and only argue that way because of their underlying misguided agenda. When NT scholars use those same kinds of arguments, they’re solid thinkers who approach the problem with sober judgment, penetrating insight, and “clean hands.”

    We really should make a list of these things. One of my favorites is the argument from silence. How many times do mainstream scholars argue from silence, and nobody says a peep? Why is Hebrews dated to pre-70 CE? Because it’s silent about the destruction of the Temple. Why is the Gospel of John independent of the Synoptics? Because it’s silent on such topics as the Sermon on the Mount and the Transfiguration.

    However, if a mythicist says anything about Paul’s silence regarding the terrestrial Jesus, he gets smacked down. They’re just letters! Why would anyone write about Jesus in a letter to churches when they’re all “topical”? It’s just like today. If the Pope needs to write an encyclical to clarify Christian doctrine, does he quote Jesus? God forbid. Surely, he follows Paul’s example and interprets passages from Genesis and the Psalms. Why quote Christ when you can quote Abraham, David, or Balaam’s Ass.?

    The presumption must be that Paul knew everything about Jesus, but simply decided for his own personal reasons not to talk about it. He is not independent, but the author of John’s Gospel is. Silence is golden, but only if it proves what we already know to be true.

    I just love how scholars wildly speculate about what Paul and Peter talked about when the Apostle to the Gentiles visited Jerusalem. They imagine P&P walking down the street, holding hands, sharing an ice cream cone, and talking about Jesus. Imaginative speculation is OK, if you’re furthering the cause.

    When it’s convenient for them, interpolation, argument from silence, and unrestrained speculation are just fine. But that’s because they’re doing it for the right reasons.

    1. Tim wrote:

      “However, if a mythicist says anything about Paul’s silence regarding the terrestrial Jesus, he gets smacked down.”

      I think in Paul’s case it is a matter of there being “mythicist” explanations for verses that “seem” to refer to an historical Jesus, rather than there being “silence.” Even if mythicist explanations are correct, it must be granted that, rightly or wrongly, a lot of people since antiquity have understood most of these verses to mean that there was an HJ.

      I don’t think “mythicist” arguments are worthy of vitriol or lack of respect. Even though I don’t find them persuasive, I think they are thought provoking and interesting. I’d never heard of mythicism until I started reading Neil’s blog a couple of years ago, and I’ve learned a lot since then and continue to. I would have never read anything by Doherty, Wells or Thompson if it wasn’t for Neil.

      I admit that I had previously assumed that a “Jesus” of some sort existed (not the gospel Jesus, just some guy like anyone else), but now at least I have to wonder, and can see things in a different light, and that’s cool, even if I don’t agree with it.

      1. John,

        At least for me, it is Paul’s silence as to almost every detail of Jesus’ life that historicists claim can be known with reasonable certainty that raises the questions. Historicists have a number of verses that can be read as indicating Paul’s belief in a human Jesus who walked the earth (although Paul seems to have no interest in that person), but none to show that Paul knew when or where that person lived or died, that he was a teacher or a miracle worker, that he had disciples, that he was baptized by John the Baptist, that he argued with the Pharisees, that he visited Jerusalem, that he was involved in a dispute in the temple, or that he was tried before Pilate. As far as I can tell, the historicists only have one single verse that can arguably be read as indicating that Paul thought that Jesus might have been a contemporary of anyone that Paul knew. Since it is entirely possible that any passage may have been corrupted in transmission, I don’t think that uncorroborated verse can bear all the weight that historicists need it to bear.

        1. I don’t expect Paul to know much about an “HJ” (if one existed), since he was an outsider and arguably not well regarded by James’ group. I accpet the idea that the Dead Sea Scrolls sect, in its final stage, was James’ group, and there is evidence in the Scrolls that doctrines were to be kept secret from outsiders. This is said of the Essenes in Josephus, and also in the Clementine literature, which, however late, are arguably based on Jewish Christian sources. This is how I look at the “silence” you mention: I expect it. I would expect it anyway considering that Paul says he did not get his gospel from any one else, and his hostile attitudes towards anyone else’s gospel, but even more so when I think that the DSS sect/Essenes were James’ group. That’s just the way I look at it.

          To me, this explains the “silence” in all of the NT epistles, in that they were all written either by or to outsiders. However, even still, I see convincing enough glimpses of a human Jesus in Paul, though it appears to be not what he is interested in.

          I think James 5:6-7 deserves more attention. I gather it is awkwardly expressed in Greek, but it says that at least one member of James group, called the Righteous One, was condemned and killed by humans, after which it immediately says, “Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord.” The Righteous One is a name for the Messiah in 1 Enoch 38:2, “[T]he Righteous One shall appear before the eyes of the righteous …” The epistle of Jude is famous for citing Enoch, and portions of Enoch were found among the DSS, so it is reasonable to suppose that it was known to James’ group, especially given my outlook expressed above.

          The Righteous One in Enoch may be heavenly, but the death of the Righteous One in James is by humans, followed by the reference to “the coming of the Lord.” Jesus is also referred to as the Righteous One in Acts, for what it’s worth. There may have been some dude who seen as “fulfilling” certain ideas in “scripture,” the same way that James is said by Hegesippus to have fulfilled what “the prophets declared” about him. I think it’s safe to say that these kinds of verses, whatever they may say, really had nothing to do with James, or a Jesus, if he existed. It’s just “way out” literature that people like Paul (with respect to his gospel), the DSS sect and Jewish Christians like Hegesippus believed had something to do with real people.

          I also do not think that 1 Thes. 2:14-16 is an interpolation. I understand that this goes against scholarly consensus, but it is my honest opinion, and not because I need an HJ to have existed, because I don’t really care one way or the other.

          Anyway, this is only to give you an idea of where I’m “coming from.”

          1. John: ‘To me, this explains the “silence” in all of the NT epistles, in that they were all written either by or to outsiders. However, even still, I see convincing enough glimpses of a human Jesus in Paul, though it appears to be not what he is interested in.’

            I would suppose one of those “convincing enough glimpses” is the “brother of the Lord” reference in Galatians. Lost in the arguments over whether it really referred to the human Jesus (i.e., that James was Jesus’ biological brother) and whether it’s a marginal gloss that got added to the text in the distant past is, if the historicists are correct, what the reference implies about Paul.

            What went on in Paul’s mind that allowed him to acknowledge James’ flesh-and-blood relationship with Jesus, while denying that it gave him any advantage? If the mainstream story is correct, Peter and James knew Jesus, were taught by Jesus, prayed with Jesus (at least Peter did), ate with Jesus, etc., in the flesh. If the canonical gospels are telling the truth, Jesus personally chose Peter first. And yet to Paul those close, personal relationships meant nothing. Paul boasted that he received the Gospel from no man. Was he some kind of egomaniac?

            I’m reasonably convinced that Paul believed Jesus became the κυρίοις after his resurrection. So if Paul said “brother of the Lord” and intended it literally, I think he must have meant that James’ sibling relationship was current, indicating an active and enduring kinship with the exalted Christ in Heaven. If that’s true, then how do we square that with Paul’s belief that he himself was an apostle of the same degree, simply because he had witnessed the risen Jesus?

            I think Paul saw himself as an insider, in the sense that he was in the inner circle of messengers chosen by God to proclaim the Gospel. If the “hyper-apostles” didn’t recognize that fact, he didn’t care. That means Paul must have had an unbelievably (perhaps pathologically) massive ego — unless he really did have the same credentials. If Peter and James had only seen the risen Jesus, just like Paul, then Paul’s attitude starts to make more sense.

            After his conversion, does he run to Jerusalem to find out more from the disciples who were taught by Jesus? No. “Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus.” (Gal 1:17, KJV). Again, this sort of behavior would seem pathological and bizarre if there really were living followers of the Great Teacher.

            Let’s state the problem clearly. Paul is generally silent about Jesus, except as a dying and rising savior. From tantalizing snippets in the epistles, it has generally been understood that he knew some people who had known Jesus. Somehow, we have to construct an historical model in which a man adopts a new, perhaps revolutionary, way of interpreting human salvation, a complete reworking of Judaism. He “converts” (not the best term, I know) and feels compelled to convert others to this new plan of salvation. Yet, with respect to the living disciples and relatives of the most important person who ever lived, he remains hostile and aloof.

            So the issue really isn’t an “argument from silence.” That’s just a way of framing the debate to redirect attention from the real issues. Any working hypothesis must explain Paul’s behavior. Why was he silent? Why was he hostile? Did he know of the same Jesus who appears in the written Gospels? Was he aware of the supposed rich oral tradition? If so, we must explain why Paul did not care that Jesus was a great teacher, miracle-worker, healer, and exorcist. Did Paul, who apparently believed in the imminent parousia, think of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet? If so, where is the evidence for it? Prophets teach. Prophets prophesy. Where is the evidence?

            1. I am enjoying reading and responding to everyone’s comments here. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and I didn’t mean to get so far off-topic from the subject of Neil’s post, but I’d love to continue this discussion.

              In the meantime, though I do lean towards Gal. 1:19 as being genuine, Tim, I can honestly take it or or leave it, and wasn’t thinking of that one when I was thinking of glimpses of a human Jesus in Paul’s letters, but I suppose you could count it. I don’t have time at the moment to discuss them as I would like, but I’m thinking of things like Rom. 5:15, 18-19, 9:5 and 1 Cor. 15 (and I did discuss the last one in a comment below).

            2. If the canonical gospels are telling the truth, Jesus personally chose Peter first. And yet to Paul those close, personal relationships meant nothing. Paul boasted that he received the Gospel from no man. Was he some kind of egomaniac?

              I can believe that Paul was an egomaniac and I can even believe that he might have thought those close personal relationships were nothing compared to his personal revelation. What I find it hard to believe is that the issue wouldn’t have come up. I think Paul’s opponents would have cited those close personal relationships and the things they learned at the master’s feet and I think Paul would have had to grapple with those claims.

  10. John,

    I think that the question of what Paul does know about a historical should precede the question of what he might be expected to know. If we assume a historical Jesus that is in some way recognizable in the Jesus of the gospels, I think that it is possible to posit scenarios in which Paul doesn’t know anything about that person. However, if we start with what I think is the logical question that should be answered first, i.e., does Paul have any concept of a historical Jesus who is in some way recognizable as the Jesus of the Gospels, I don’t see that he does.

    The earliest Christian writings seem to me to be mostly made up of disputes over who the insiders and outsiders really were. If part of the early tradition had been a historical Jesus who had been an authoritative teacher, those who knew him during his lifetime as well as those who claimed to know him would have claimed to be insiders on that basis. Others would have claimed that their correct understanding of the things the historical Jesus said and did made them the true insiders. Still others would have invented things about the historical Jesus to support their own claims to being insiders. I would expect that the meaning and authenticity of stories about the historical Jesus would have been an important issue in most every dispute in the the early Church and that this would be reflected in the early writings of both outsiders and insiders. The fact that I don’t see that anywhere is what leaves me uncertain.

    1. I think the Jesus of the gospels doesn’t look much like the Jesus in Paul because Paul is not very concerned about the earthly Jesus: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh; even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer” (2 Cor. 5:16).

      What is important to Paul is the resurrected (spiritual) Jesus and a future spiritual life in heaven: “The first Adam became a living being; the last Adam a life-giving spirit … Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable … the dead will be raised and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:45-52).

      “Our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Php. 3:2-21).

      “The dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thes. 4:16-17).

      There are still apparent glimpses of a human Jesus: “For if many died through one man’s trespasses, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ …” (Rom. 5:15ff.).

      “They are Israelites … to them belong the patriarchs, and from whom is the Christ, according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:4-5).

      I don’t find Doherty’s arguments concerning the meaning of “according to the flesh” persuasive, because this refers to human beings elsewhere, even in the same epistle: “… my kinsmen [the Israelites], according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:3).

      “What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?” (Rom. 4:1).

      “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5).

      “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live” (Rom. 8:13).

      The deutero-Pauline Ephesians also uses “according to the flesh” to refer to humans: “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh” (6:5).

      Paul is also clear about how he thinks resurrection works in 1 Cor. 15: “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.” “How are the dead raised?” “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

      And before mentioning the “coming of the Lord,” James 5:6 mentions someone called the Righteous One who was condemned and killed by humans. This is a name for the Messiah in 1 Enoch 38:2: “The Righteous One shall appear before the eyes of the Righteous,” as well as Jesus in Acts when referring to his death (as well as, interestingly, “seeing” the him, like in 1 Enoch): “You denied the Holy and Righteous One … and killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (3:14-15); “Your fathers … killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdrered” (7:52); “The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One” (22:14).

      The gospels do not focus on the resurrection as much as Paul. They “fill in the gaps” of what Paul’s Jesus may have been like before his resurrection. Contrary to Paul, there is an implication (in Mark) or outright presentation (in certain others and Acts) of a physical resurrection. Perhaps this is an indication of one kind of development in Christian thought. To me it looks like Paul stradddles the line between a spiritual Jesus (post-resurrection) and a human Jesus (pre-resurrection). Those who came after him were free to expand on things and have different ideas.

      Vinny, I want to respond to your comment concerning insiders vs. outsiders, but I can’t get to it now.

      1. John,

        I can certainly see how Paul might have thought that the pre-resurrection Jesus was a human being who once walked the earth, however, I think he believed that Adam was also a human being who once walked the earth. I think it possible that Paul’s Jesus was as human as Adam, but no more historical.

      2. John, I don’t know if you have read Doherty’s latest book, or the following explanation by Doherty from his website @ http://jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/rfset28.htm#Doug

        As we know, it is usually translated as “according to the flesh,” but what does that mean? The phrase is used in a variety of contexts, as Doug suggests, and the natural reading is that it refers to flesh of the fleshly realm, that is, the realm that humans are a part of. Sometimes the word “sarx” can be a reference to actual humanity, as in Romans 9:3, or more loosely to aspects of being human, as in 2 Corinthians 5:16, where the phrase does not refer to Christ’s ‘flesh’ but to the “human standards” by which people like Paul have previously judged Christ.

        This is not to say that the term sarx does not at times refer to Christ’s own—spiritual—flesh (more on this shortly). In regard to the phrase “kata sarka” itself, in The Jesus Puzzle (p.122) I allowed that it could in certain places, like other phrases using sarx, signify Christ taking on “the spiritual counterpart of flesh.” (Scholars do acknowledge such a concept and use of the word: see The Jesus Puzzle, p.103 and the latest edition of Bauer’s Lexicon.) But I have since moved away from that option for “kata sarka” itself (and I trust I am allowed to change or refine my position on some things over eight years) to focus on the other interpretation I offered. “According to the flesh,” while woolly, primarily suggests the meaning that would be conveyed by the translation “in relation to the flesh,” “in regard to the flesh,” “as affecting the flesh,” etc. One can see that here the word itself is not a reference to Christ’s own (spiritual) flesh, but rather to humanity, to the fleshly material realm. It is Christ’s relationship with that realm which is at issue.

        Thus we need to analyze Romans 1:3 from the point of view of a meaning not of ‘Christ in his own flesh was of David’s seed,’ but rather ‘Christ in relation to David and the realm of flesh was of his seed.’ The difference is significant because the concept no longer hangs on literal or standard meanings of the word “flesh.” The word itself can be allowed to assume its usual meaning, as a reference to humanity and the fleshly sphere. In relation to humanity and its sphere (“kata sarka”) Christ possesses or has assumed a certain character having to do with David.

  11. I think in Paul’s case it is a matter of there being “mythicist” explanations for verses that “seem” to refer to an historical Jesus, rather than there being “silence.” Even if mythicist explanations are correct, it must be granted that, rightly or wrongly, a lot of people since antiquity have understood most of these verses to mean that there was an HJ.

    There is no denying this, but the question to be asked is why Paul has been interpreted this way when even the scrutiny of “historical Jesus” scholars themselves leads them to acknowledge that Paul’s Christ was “mythical” or “mystical”. One explanation given is the structure of the New Testament: beginning with the Gospels readers are conditioned to read the rest of the collection through the perspective of “the historical Jesus”. The other, of course, is the fundamental “historical Jesus” doctrine of the institution and culture that are the joint repositories of Paul’s letters.

    Any arguments that Paul’s Christ was “historical” need to be assessed against this background. I don’t say that they must be dismissed because of that background. But when we notice the sorts of inconsistencies in arguments as I address in my post and as Tim here and others have pointed to, then we have good grounds for thinking that cultural bias is at the root of such inconsistent arguments.

    1. I think your question should include, Why did the gospel writers see Jesus in an historical way. Perhaps everyone was under the spell of Mark, so the question then becomes, Was Mark intended to be understood as history (even if distorted or agenda-driven). This has not been resolved to my satisfaction. However it may be, it was understood as history from the beginning.

      So for the gospel writers (or at least Mark), it was arguably the other way around: they read Paul first, then created a Jesus who is presented, symbollically or not, as living and dying on earth.

      I think Paul’s “mystical” Christ is an inevitable result of his focus on a resurrected Jesus. Paul is clear about what resurrection means in ch. 15 of 1 Corinthians: (16) “IF THE DEAD ARE NOT RAISED, THEN CHRIST HAS NOT BEEN RAISED … (20-21) But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits OF THOSE WHO HAVE FALLEN ASLEEP. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead … (35) HOW ARE THE DEAD RAISED? With what kind of body do they come? … (37) [W]hat you sow is NOT THE BODY WHICH IS TO BE … (42) So it is with the resurrection of the dead. WHAT IS SOWN IS PERISHABLE, WHAT IS RAISED IS IMPERISHABLE … (44) IT IS SOWN A PHYSICAL BODY, IT IS RAISED A SPIRITUAL BODY.”

      I don’t know how to bold, so please pardon my capitalizations.

      Paul anwers all my questions about his Jesus here. There is a resurrection of the dead; Jesus is the first “of those who have fallen asleep” to be resurrected; the dead are sown with a physical body and raised with a spiritual body. I don’t see a need for any explanation here. “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.” “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” “How are the dead raised?” “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

      So what I think Paul means by (47) “The first man was from earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven” and (49) “[A]s we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven,” is that humans had formally been like Adam, doomed to perish in a physical body, but when resurrected they will be in a spiritual body, like the heavenly Jesus.

      This understanding is supported by v. 21, where Paul contrasts the death that began with Adam with the resurrection that began with Jesus, and also 2 Corinthians, where Paul says, “From now on, we regard no one according to the flesh; even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (5:16-17).

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