Non-Pauline Epistles – Part One
- Apostles with no connection to an historical Jesus
- Pilate in the 2nd century epistle 1 Timothy
- 1 Peter knows a suffering Christ through Isaiah 53
- Christ “hung on a tree”
- The “flesh” and “body” of Christ and his “likeness” to men
- The epiphany of Jesus in 2 Peter
- Reading an historical Jesus into the epistles of John
- No historical Jesus in Revelation
* * * * *
Evidence for Jesus from Outside the Gospels
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 113-117)
Is Ehrman being naïve or deliberately misleading?
There is an astonishing naivete to much of Bart Ehrman’s case for historicism. Perhaps it is aimed at a naïve readership, but it must leave such readers wondering if mythicists do indeed suffer from mental retardation or a simple inability to read texts. After all, the way Ehrman presents things, there can be no question that each and every writer in the early record clearly refers to an historical Jesus. Consider this statement:
But even in a letter as short as Jude, we find the apostles of Jesus mentioned (verse 17), which presupposes, of course, that Jesus lived and had followers. (p. 106, DJE?)
Well, it presupposes no such thing. The epistles contain many references to “apostles” who are not in any way represented as followers of a Jesus on earth. The epistle of Jude is only one of several referring to “apostles” that makes no such identification.
Paul himself, even in the orthodox view, was such an apostle. His apostleship was the result of a ‘call’ from God (e.g., Romans 1:1) and from ‘seeing’ the Lord Jesus in a vision (1 Cor. 9:1 and 15:8). In 2 Corinthians 11:4-5, in the midst of a diatribe against rival “apostles” who preach a ‘different Jesus’ from his own, he refers to both himself and his rivals as having received their respective kerygmas through the “spirit” (only his own, of course, was the valid one).
No connection here to an historical Jesus.
When he goes on in 11:12-15 to condemn those rivals for “masquerading as apostles of Christ” and being virtually agents of Satan, many scholars (such as C. K. Barrett) recognize that this kind of absolute condemnation is not being directed at the Jerusalem group, but other unspecified “ministers of Christ” (12:23) who proselytize independently, and certainly were not followers of a Jesus on earth.
Ehrman also conveniently ignores that in the entire body of epistles, not a single statement is made indicating that any apostles of the Christ were followers of a Jesus on earth, or traced any authority or correct preaching back to him.
It is impossible to believe that Ehrman could be ignorant of this wider application of the term “apostles” in the epistles, and only a little less difficult to believe that he is ignorant of mythicism’s arguments in this regard. He is either deliberately misleading his readers, taking advantage of their ignorance, or his own naïve reading of the texts is nothing short of an embarrassment.
The epistles are “chock-full of references to a human Jesus” [p. 113, DJE?]
The first one quoted by Ehrman is 1 Timothy 6:13, which makes a passing reference to Jesus giving witness before Pontius Pilate (the only mention of Pilate in the entire body of epistles). Ehrman admits that this epistle is not by Paul, but by an unknown author writing in Paul’s name. Regrettably, what he neglects to mention is that all three Pastoral epistles are widely regarded by critical scholars as written some time in the early 2nd century. Ehrman’s readership is thus deprived of a possible understanding of this reference to Pilate as based on a knowledge of the Gospel story now beginning to circulate, as in the Ignatian letters around the same time.
There is, besides, some reason to be suspicious of this reference, since mainstream commentators have pointed out that it does not fit its context very well. And there is also reason to suspect a nearby phrase (in 6:3) of interpolation, probably through a marginal gloss. See Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, Appendix 1 for a discussion of the question of authenticity. Nowhere else do any of the Pastorals show a knowledge of the Gospel story, and there are some passages indicating continuing faith in the mythical Christ of Paul (as in 2 Timothy 1:9-10: See JNGNM, p.261-3).
The epistles of “Peter”
The next “clear” witness to Jesus as “a living, human being” are the epistles of Peter, which Ehrman admits are pseudonymous. 1 Peter “shows no familiarity with our Gospels.” But the author says:
For you were called to this end, because Christ suffered for you, leaving an example for you that you might follow in his steps, who did not commit sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth, who when reviled did not revile in return, while suffering uttered no threat, but trusted the one who judges righteously, who bore our sins in his body on the tree, in order that dying to sin we might live to righteousness, for by his wounds we were healed. (2:21-24)
Can the author of 1 Peter, to portray Jesus as a living human being, give us nothing other than a paraphrase of Isaiah 53? Does he possess not a single oral tradition about the crucifixion which might point to history remembered?
Like the great majority of writers outside of Paul, he never uses the word “cross” but rather “tree.” The phrase “(hung) on a tree” is of scriptural derivation, referring to the biblical method of execution, as in Deuteronomy 21:22. 1 Peter, like many others (cf. Ascension of Isaiah 9:14) is viewing the ‘event’ of the heavenly Son’s crucifixion in terms of the biblical image, because scripture is their source of perceived revelation about the Son, not history.
The language of “flesh” and “body”
Considering that almost everything about Christ in the documents examined so far points to an unknown venue for the sacrificial event, revealed only in scripture, Ehrman needs to step outside the box and consider applying a different interpretation to some of the epistolary language.
- We have already noted that such language includes the exclusive use of revelation verbs to describe Christ’s ‘arrival’ in the present time of faith;
- we have noted the absence of any language implying that at the Parousia Christ will be ‘returning’ to earth;
- and we have noted the absence of historical equivalents to supposed scriptural prophecy.
The other language feature which needs reinterpretation are words like “flesh,” “body,” and “blood.” It will no longer do to simply take such words and assume a human application, with no questions asked.
Chapter 13 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man surveys a whole range of usages of the words “flesh” and “body” in the epistles, some of them unmistakeably applied in mystical, non-human ways. For example, Paul’s concept of the “body of Christ,” in which believers constitute the limbs and Christ the head, is clearly a reference to a mystical-spiritual entity. 1 Corinthians 15:44-49 directly refers to Christ’s “spiritual body,” made of “heavenly stuff.” Ephesians 2:14 speaks of Christ abolishing the Law “in his flesh” and reconciling Jew and gentile “in this one body.” The curtain of the heavenly sanctuary in Hebrews 10:20 is called “his flesh.” None of this is literal human flesh or body.
Thus, in 1 Peter,
For Christ died for sins once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God, having been put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. (3:18)
Since Christ suffered in the flesh, you also be armed with the same thought. (4:1)
the concept of “flesh” needs to be interpreted in terms of a spiritual equivalent which the Son takes on when he descends to the lower heavens to undergo his sacrifice. Gods in their pure spirit form could not suffer, let alone die.
To perform such acts, Christ had to assume something of a nature akin to humans and descend to a realm of corruptibility. Since it is the demons—they also possess a form of “flesh”—who perform the execution, one may assume it took place in their region of the firmament below the moon, part of the “realm of flesh” (as the Ascension of Isaiah 9:13 specifies, and as 1 Corinthians 2:8 implies).
A “likeness” to humans, not an actual one
Thus we have the constant motif (e.g., Romans 8:3, Hebrews 2:14, Philippians 2:6-11), including outside the canon (such as the Apocalypse of Elijah 1:6 and Ascension of Isaiah 9:14), that the Son took on only a “likeness” to human form, a “likeness to men”—a characterization which denies an actual incarnation as a human being. (And a characterization which never appears in the Gospels, or any other literature once an historical Jesus has been established.)
This heavenly venue and the taking on of a spiritual form akin to humans, so that Christ can serve as a “paradigm” and parallel between the spiritual and material, a guarantor for salvation between Deity and humanity, is the central essence of the mythicist case as laid out in my books. Ehrman assures us that he read all 800 pages of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, but so far he has failed to even acknowledge that central case, let alone address it.
Who is “Peter”?
1 Peter, incidentally, nowhere betrays any knowledge of the Gospel story, let alone makes any earthly connection between its alleged author and an historical Jesus. Once again, Ehrman’s superficial reading of the text is in evidence:
And so I admonish the elders among you, I who am a fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ. . . . (5:1)
Here the author makes no distinction of status between his “Peter” and the “elders” he is writing to, let alone identifies him as Jesus’ chief disciple. The author is revealing himself as a prominent figure in some Christian community writing to similar figures in some other community. Or perhaps he is forging a letter for the benefit of the elders of his own community, ostensibly by a famous elder of the past. Clearly, he has no concept of “Peter” as an earthly follower of an earthly Jesus.
(Alternatively, the ascription to Peter may have been something added only later, by an orthodox editor who failed to realize that the letter showed no knowledge of an historical Jesus.)
As for being a “witness of the sufferings of Christ,” the word for “witness” is “martus.” A meaning of ‘eyewitness’ is far less likely than of one who testifies to belief in a matter of faith, even in the face of persecution (thus, martyr and martyrdom). No tradition has it that Peter witnessed any of Christ’s sufferings (according to the Gospels, he had fled the scene). The writer simply has his Peter, a legendary apostle and leader in the initial cultic movement decades earlier (probably not yet inducted into Mark’s Gospel) proclaiming a suffering Christ as an article of faith—something he has derived from scripture, as 2:22-24 illustrates.
Transfigured on the Holy Mountain
Moving on to 2 Peter, Ehrman once again admits that this author, too, “does not show clear evidence of any familiarity with the Gospels.” (Considering that this epistle is commonly dated at least a couple of decades into the second century, we once again look in vain for any early dissemination of written Gospels.) But he “clearly knows the tradition recorded in them of the experience of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.”
For not by following sophistic myths have we made known to you the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of the majesty of that one. For when we received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was brought to him by the magnificent glory, ‘this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,’ we heard this voice that was brought from heaven to him, for we were on the holy mountain. (1:16-18)
Once again, Ehrman is indulging in a superficial reading, interpreting this passage without question in Gospel terms.
But there are significant missing details. No mention is made of the presence of Elijah and Moses, no reference to the brightening of Jesus’ clothes or face. It does not record Peter’s suggestion that a tabernacle be set up. Nor does it supply any setting for this incident, neither in Galilee nor indeed within an earthly ministry of Jesus. All these things have to be read into the passage—and often are.
An Epiphany of the heavenly Son
Taken by itself, with no preconceptions brought to it, this account in 2 Peter sounds like an epiphany, a visionary experience attributed to the apostle Peter and unnamed others. There is no implication they had been with him before, no change in Jesus’ state or appearance. Rather, they have received a vision of the Lord whom they believe in and worship, one whose arrival in glory they are awaiting. The writer offers this vision as ‘proof’ to his readers (who have expressed skepticism) that the divine Son is powerful and blessed by God, that he is present among them and is indeed coming.
Scholars have noticed anomalies.
- Why refer to the Gospel Transfiguration and not to the experience of his resurrection as a demonstration of Jesus’ power and glory?
- The word for “eyewitnesses” is epoptai, which has nothing to do with companions, but is used of the higher grade initiates in the Greek mystery cults who have experienced the perceived presence of the god.
- There is a high scriptural content in this passage as well. The overall atmosphere is of a typical Old Testament theophany of God; the voice from heaven is the well-known verse from Psalm 2; “honor and glory” echo Psalm 8:5; and “on the holy mountain” suggests Psalm 2:6’s “on Zion his holy mountain.”
Not only is the writer describing a revelatory experience attributed to Peter, he must construct it out of scriptural pieces, since he has no history remembered from oral tradition, and presumably because no detailed memory about such a Petrine vision was available.
A continuing dependence on scriptural promise
But the biggest anomaly comes in the succeeding verse (19), and this, too, has perplexed scholars (though not Ehrman, apparently). 2 Peter’s visionary experience of Christ “confirms for us the message of the prophets,” i.e., the biblical prophecies and guarantees about the coming of the Messiah and the kingdom.
Why would the Gospel Transfiguration be styled this way? In fact, why wouldn’t the experience of Christ’s own person and life on earth, and especially his rising from the tomb, be appealed to as greater than scripture for inspiring Christian hopes?
The only way this passage makes sense is if this was indeed an epiphany of the Son, confirming his very existence and his power under God, pointing to the promise of his (first) arrival on earth at the Parousia. Scripture would hardly be styled as “a lamp shining in a murky place until the day breaks” if that very Son had already been with them in an earthly life and ministry, bringing his own daybreak, foretelling the kingdom, working miracles which heralded its coming, conquering death itself. (Compare this to Paul’s similar ‘murky’ way of speaking about the coming Parousia in Romans 8:22-3 and elsewhere, with no sense that Christ had already been on earth.)
The Johannine epistles
Ehrman moves on to the epistle 1 John, which he dates to the end of the first century, but allegedly following the Gospel of John. This common view has to be one of the most wrong-headed pieces of exegesis in traditional New Testament scholarship (see Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, Appendix 5), but one which is becoming more and more outdated. For Ehrman, the so-called “Prologue” to 1 John shows that
this author too is quite emphatic that when Jesus appeared on earth he was a real human who could be felt, handled, heard, and seen, (p. 115)
and he proceeds to quote its opening verses:
What [the neuter pronoun “ho”] was from the beginning, what [ho] we have heard, what [ho] we have seen with our eyes, what [ho] we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the word of life. And the life was made manifest [the revelation verb “phaneroō”], and we saw and we bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and has been manifest [phaneroō, revealed] to us . . .
Ehrman and others have taken a neuter pronoun, repeated three times, and turned it into a reference to the human Jesus on earth, something for which there is no justification except wishful thinking. This Prologue (which can hardly be a ‘reduction’ of the famous Prologue to the Gospel of John, as scholars who favor the primacy of the Gospel are forced to maintain) describes a revelatory experience—to which the neuter pronouns refer in a decidedly poetic passage—at the sect’s beginning concerning the promise of eternal life. That life resided with the Father and was “revealed.”
There is nothing here about a Jesus on earth as the bringer of eternal life, let alone preaching it. Instead, the Son “dwells with the Father” (1:2) in the sense of being his intermediary emanation in heaven; belief in him guarantees that eternal life. Note also 5:9-11 which has God giving witness to (i.e., revealing) the Son, not Jesus on earth giving witness to himself.
In fact, the writer declares that everything his fellow believers know and have received has been given to them by God, at their “initiation” (2:27).
No Gospel story in the epistles
There is nothing of the Gospel story in the Johannine epistles:
- no teaching Jesus (commandments come from God),
- no miracles (“signs source” or otherwise),
- not even the “cross,” though in some way the Son is said to have “laid down his life” (3:16) for humanity as a “propitiation” (2:1).
- Nor is there any reference to a resurrection.
- There are none of the Gospel teachings of John,
- no guiding Paraclete promised by Jesus in the Gospel—even though one of the divisive conflicts behind the epistle is the question of which group has the right revelatory ‘spirit’ from heaven.
- And as noted before, there is no sign of apostolic tradition.
These epistles continue to reflect a spiritual Son whose activities have taken place in the spiritual realm, known by revelation. The Gospel of John coming some time after is the translation of that cultic phase into an historical Jesus phase, though even here it is hard to be sure that John’s Jesus figure, so different from that of the Synoptics and so two-dimensional a mouthpiece, is still anything but a symbolic one.
That 1 John’s Jesus is portrayed as “a real human on earth” is utterly without support in the text. Once again, we have a set of non-Gospel documents in the early record which fit with all the others, giving us a picture which supports the mythicist view that a heavenly figure is in the process of evolving toward an historical one. (A clear hint of this surfaces in 1 John 4:1-4, which probably reflects a later development within an evolving document which some scholarship, including my own, regards as containing more than one stratum. See my website Supplementary Article No. 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John.)
The Jesus of the Book of Revelation
Ehrman claims that Revelation shows that Jesus “was one who ‘lived’ and who ‘died’ (1:18).” It “portrayed Jesus as ‘the lamb who was slain’ for salvation (5:6).” This, of course, is based on the unjustified assumption that any reference to ‘living’ and ‘dying’ can and must only relate to a person on earth in history; gods living and dying in a mythical setting or in the spiritual world is an idea that is simply dismissible, despite all evidence to the contrary in pagan and Jewish sectarian writings of the time, such as Plutarch’s Isis and Osiris and the Ascension of Isaiah. (See JNGNM, chapter 12.)
Besides, Ehrman’s translation of 1:18 is typically misleading.
Literally, the verse says:
(I am) the Living One and I became dead, and behold I am (alive) for the ages.
“I am the Living One” (in the present tense) hardly refers to a life on earth. It is a statement declaring the reality of the Son (like “Jesus lives!” or “Osiris lives!”), applying to all time as affirming his existence; it is not a reference to a temporary incarnation in the past on earth, the way Ehrman would have it imply. At one point—never specified as on earth or at a moment in history—this Living One underwent a death, slain as the Lamb (a traditional Jewish motif related to the Passover myth) from which he then returned to his “Living” state.
As for 11:18’s “the city where our Lord was crucified,” even mainstream scholars regard this as not a literal reference to Jerusalem, but as having a symbolic meaning (see Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.273-4), an expression of the godless world and its forces of evil responsible for Christ’s sacrifice.
A “real Jesus” born in the heavens?
It’s a wonder Ehrman didn’t appeal to chapter 12, to the birth of the Messiah in the heavens by the “woman robed with the sun.” Perhaps even he didn’t feel he could get away with labelling this as a poetic or metaphorical reference to Jesus’ birth from Mary at Bethlehem, as conservative scholars have traditionally been wont to do. There isn’t the slightest nod in this scene toward a life on earth for this Messiah, who as a newborn is merely snatched up to heaven to await the final apocalypse.
That he can even be identified with the Lamb who was slain is debatable, but this hodge-podge of mythical and apocalyptic motifs presented by the author (along with a “son of man” taken directly from Daniel 7 with no association to a Jesus on earth) is something that would be unthinkable in the context of a known Gospel story, whether factual or not. Revelation, datable at the end of the first century, still moves entirely in a mythological world.
When one can simply ride roughshod over the texts and make them say anything one wants them to say, it is no wonder that Ehrman can come up with an inexhaustible supply of documents which provide “independent tradition[s] to the existence of a real Jesus.”
. . . to be continued
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