The Pauline Epistles – Part Two
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- “Words of the Lord”: from earth or heaven?
- Why doesn’t Paul quote Jesus more extensively?
- The epistles exclude an historical Jesus
- Paul’s conversion chronology
- Paul’s crash course on Jesus from Cephas and James
- How much interpolation in Paul?
- Surveying the counterarguments
- Ehrman answering G. A. Wells
- Why did Paul not use Jesus’ miracles to prove the imminence of the kingdom?
* * * * *
The Witness of Paul
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 125-140)
The Teachings of Jesus in Paul
In this category, Bart Ehrman has precious little to work with. (He has actually referred to the two parts of Jesus’ Eucharistic pronouncement at The Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 as “two sayings,” an attempt at ‘padding’ I’ve never seen before!) Now his focus is on the two little “words of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 7:10 and 9:14. Not only are these precious little, they are of paltry substance compared to the great ethical teachings of the Gospels, on which Paul and every other epistle writer has not a word to say.
The first is given by Ehrman as:
But to those who are married I give this charge—not I, but the Lord—a woman is not to be separated from her husband (but if she is separated, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and a man should not divorce his wife.
Ehrman refers to this as a paraphrase of
. . . a saying of Jesus [as in Mark 10:11-12] in urging believers to remain married; that this is a saying tradition going back to Jesus is shown by the fact that at this point Paul stresses that it is not he who is giving this instruction but that it was already given by the Lord himself. (DJE? p. 125)
Ehrman would do well on the staffs of New Testament publications like the NEB who regularly wear Gospel-colored glasses when doing their translations. His “it was already given by the Lord himself” nicely conveys a saying delivered by Jesus in the past, which Paul knows through oral tradition. But if those glasses are set aside, one gets a very different impression. And one that fits what the text actually says:
To the married, I enjoin—not I, but the Lord . . .
The words are saying that the Lord enjoins you now: ‘It is not I who enjoins you this way, but the Lord who enjoins you this way.’ In the present, not the past. How is the Lord doing this in the present? Through Paul as his spokesperson.
From earth or from heaven?
Ehrman makes only a cursory reference to a prominent thread in mainstream scholarship over the last several decades which sees Paul and other Christian apostles/prophets proclaiming words which they believe they have received directly from the Lord in heaven. Werner Kelber (The Oral and the Written Gospel, p.206) says:
These sayings could have come from Jesus, but they could just as well have been prophetically functioning sayings of the Risen Lord.
Rudolf Bultmann (History of the Synoptic Tradition, p.127) refers to certain prophetic sayings in the Gospels:
The Church drew no distinction between such utterances by Christian prophets and the sayings of Jesus in the tradition, for the reason that even the dominical sayings in the tradition were not the pronouncements of past authority, but sayings of the risen Lord, who is always a contemporary for the Church.
There was no distinction because no sayings of Jesus in the epistles are identified as sayings of an earthly Jesus, while the few coming from the mouths of prophets like Paul are consistently recognizable as “sayings of the risen Lord.” No one actually appeals to “past authority” in regard to Jesus’ sayings on earth, and even sayings supposedly “in the tradition” are regarded as contemporary words of an ever-present Christ.
That this scholarly opinion is justified here can be further seen from what Paul says following these “words of the Lord.” Immediately after, in verse 12, Paul gives a further ruling which “I say, not the Lord.” Again, the present tense: ‘I tell you, not the Lord tells you.’ Then in 7:25, Paul says:
Now concerning virgins [i.e., celibacy among men] I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.
“I have no command of the Lord” conveys a category of things Paul is accustomed to having for himself, through personal reception. There is no suggestion of any such “words of the Lord” being part of a wider community knowledge or inheritance from tradition.
Ehrman goes on to quote the second of the 1 Corinthian directives from Jesus (9:14):
For thus the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the Gospel should get their living from the gospel.
He points to a similar saying in Matthew and Luke, the latter being (10:7) “The worker is worthy of his wages.” Here the language has more ambiguity, but since it is similar to that of 7:10, it is natural to allow the conclusion about the first to be applicable to the second. And a few chapters later, Paul discusses prophetic practice and concludes (14:37):
If anyone claims to be inspired or a prophet, let him recognize that what I write has the Lord’s authority.
This is the milieu of Paul’s pronouncements: a context of revelation, ecstatic utterance, inspiration from God and the Lord Jesus. Here the “authority” he has received from the latter is through his role as an inspired prophet. No statement is ever made in any epistle that Jesus was a teacher or prophet on earth. And since it is clearly the case that Paul says he received the “words of the Lord” in 11:23f through direct revelation from the Lord himself, the principle should be seen to apply in those two directives he gives from the Lord in 7:10 and 9:14.
Ehrman goes as far as to acknowledge that the other passage in the category of “words of the Lord,” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 about what will happen to believers when the Lord comes—not returns—from heaven (the principal source of today’s lunatic evangelical belief in the Rapture) could very well be something Paul thought he received directly from Jesus in heaven. So he has opened the door to allowing all the “words of the Lord” to be of the same nature.
And yet Ehrman’s naivete is still in view in his summary remark:
When Paul claims that the Lord said something, and we have a record of Jesus saying almost exactly that, it is surely most reasonable to conclude that Paul is referring to something that he believed Jesus actually said.
But what more natural source for many of the sayings put into Jesus’ mouth in the Gospels than communications which early Christian prophets like Paul imagined they had received from the spiritual Christ in heaven? We certainly know that many sayings were indeed put into his mouth, from sources extending from the Hebrew bible and words formerly attributed to God (such as 1 Thessalonians 4:9: “We are taught by God to love one another”), to general moral maxims such as we find in documents like the epistle of James or the “Two Ways” collections in the Didache and the epistle of Barnabas (which the latter refers to as the oracles of God).
Instead of Paul quoting Jesus, we may well have Jesus quoting Paul.
Why doesn’t Paul quote Jesus more extensively?
Ehrman calls this “a thorny issue.” Helmut Koester (Ancient Christian Gospels, p.68) says:
It is surprising that there is no appeal [in 1 Timothy] to the authority of Jesus,
and he makes a similar observation in regard to Paul’s arguments over his Corinthians rivals.
Graham Stanton (Gospel Truth, p.130-1) admits:
Paul’s failure to refer more frequently and at greater length to the actions and teaching of Jesus is baffling. . . In a number of places in his writings Paul fails to refer to a saying of Jesus at the very point where he might well have clinched his argument by doing so.
How does Ehrman deal with this “baffling” state of affairs? He fails to distinguish between two questions:
- Why didn’t Paul tell us more about the historical Jesus if he knew of him? And,
- Why does Paul not mention the historical Jesus, his words and deeds, at points when such reference would be invited, indeed almost compelled, to support his discussions and debates?
In answer to the first question, Ehrman draws on the old tired excuse that the epistles are ‘occasional’ writings, and Paul’s purpose in them was not to tell the story of Jesus’ life; rather, he is dealing with problems that have arisen in his congregations. True, but the objection to this answer lies in the second question above. Those occasional writings do indeed deal with problems: ones to which Jesus’ words and deeds would have been directly pertinent, indeed a veritable solution.
And we should also keep in mind that such words and deeds need not have been authentic. We see from the Gospels that all sorts of words and actions were subsequently attributed to Jesus which critical scholars today do not regard as authentic. Thus, given those discussions and debates which were creating discord in various Christian communities, the natural tendency would have been to create sayings and deeds of Jesus which would resolve them—just as the evangelists attempted to do.
We see nothing of the sort: on the issue of circumcision and other requirements for gentiles, or even of preaching to them; on the cleanness of foods, on the continued relevance of the Law, and so on. We see no drawing on the example of Jesus’ life to resolve disputes. If Paul urges that people either marry or do not marry, why is no mention made of whether Jesus was married or not? On the issue of circumcision, should no one have brought up the fact that Jesus himself was circumcised? If all things to do with the “flesh” are evil, or at least wholly negative in Paul’s view, why was no qualification made for the case of Jesus’ human flesh and the example he provided? And so on.
Ehrman compares himself to Paul
Ehrman gives himself as an example of Paul’s silence. He has written, he says, many letters over the years dealing with religious issues and could probably collect seven of those and find not a single reference to Jesus’ words or deeds. Well, this selected “seven” indicates that in other letters he did refer to such things. We have no such ‘control’ group giving us knowledge of what Paul knew. And one can hardly pretend that the atmosphere surrounding the quoting of Jesus today, even in scholarly circles, is the same as it was on the missionary trail that Paul was travelling, with the life of the recent historical man he and many others were supposedly preaching alive and vivid.
A threadbare collection
As his second indicator that we need not worry about Paul’s relative silence on the life of Jesus, Ehrman simply enumerates the elements of Jesus’ life which he does tell us about. Of course, this is the same hoary list of reputed ‘life of Jesus’ mentions in Paul that mythicism has long neutralized: descendant of David, brother of James, the twelve, that he said those “words of the Lord,” that the Jews instigated to have him killed (the 1 Thessalonians interpolation), that he died by crucifixion.
Ehrman’s list, of course, does nothing to explain the bafflement over the mountain of remaining silences. It does nothing to explain a third question that should be added to the two listed earlier:
- Why do Paul and other epistle writers not only not mention words and deeds of an historical Jesus, but on occasion even present a picture which amounts to an exclusion of an historical Jesus?
Excluding an historical Jesus
1. Why does 2 Corinthians 5:5 say: God has shaped us for life immortal, and as a guarantee of this he has sent the Spirit. How could Paul not have said that to give us life everlasting, God had sent Jesus?
2. Why does Romans 1:2 say that God had “pre-announced” [NEB] (proepēggeilato) Paul’s gospel about Jesus in scripture, and not that those prophets had foretold the life of Jesus himself?
3. Why is it Paul who has received from God “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-19), he whom God has qualified “to dispense the new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:5)? Why is it the splendor of his own ministry that is offered as the parallel to Moses’ splendor in administering the old covenant (2 Cor. 3:7-11), with no mention of Jesus’ own life and ministry anywhere in sight?
4. Why throughout the epistles is it said that God’s secret for salvation, the mystery of Christ, lying unknown through the long ages of history, has now been revealed for the first time through Paul’s gospel, the source of which lies in scripture (as in Romans 16:25-27)?
5. Where can an historical Jesus be fitted into the statement in Titus 1:2-3, that It is eternal life that God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago, and now in his own good time he has openly declared himself in the proclamation which was entrusted to me by ordinance of God our Savior. God makes promises long ages ago . . . [then] . . . God now declares himself (for the first time) in the gospel he has entrusted to Paul. Is there something—or someone—missing here?
If all of these passages, and more, do not amount to an exclusion of an historical Jesus, I don’t know what does. If there is one picture the epistles get across, from Paul to Hebrews, it is that what has happened in the present time is the revelation through scripture of the Son and his redeeming actions—which every indication places in the spiritual world—to apostles like Paul. It is never the actions of Jesus himself. This picture is laid out in great detail in both The Jesus Puzzle and Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. Ehrman does nothing to address it.
Ehrman revisits the question of where Paul got his “Jesus traditions” and points to a chronology of his conversion which is calculable from his letters. When scholars “crunch” the numbers, he says, they arrive at a date of around 32 or 33, “two or three years after the death of Jesus.” Three years after that, judging by Galatians 1, he visited Cephas and James in Jerusalem for fifteen days. Ehrman suggests that this is the ideal time to surmise when Paul learned the details about Jesus’ life from those who had been his followers.
Apart from the fact that Paul never says that he learned anything about Jesus from the pillars in Jerusalem, whether on this occasion or any other, such a view would contradict what he has said only a few verses earlier, in 1:11-12, that he got his gospel about Jesus from no man, but from revelation. In fact, as I pointed out in the last instalment, Paul seems to be defending that claim by presenting his visit to Cephas and James as something so short and involving only two people (and only after three years had passed) as a way of demonstrating that he couldn’t possibly have learned his gospel through that avenue, and thus he “is not lying!”
Moreover, had these men been the source of his knowledge about Jesus’ life and teachings, could he have dissed those pillars scarcely half a dozen sentences later as undeserving of their “high reputation” (/sarcasm), whose distinctiveness is not recognized by God? And when he goes on to condemn James for insisting that Jews take meals apart from gentiles, saying it was not compatible “with the truth of the gospel,” where is the appeal to what Jesus’ might have said or done in regard to this crucial issue?
Could Paul have learned anything about Jesus traditions when in Jerusalem if he did not learn of Jesus’ opinion and example concerning the issue of Jewish-gentile relations? (Paul very much shows an interest in the reconciling of the two in a mystical way through Jesus’ death, so learning of Jesus’ views on the matter during his life should have been near the top of his priorities.) Could any debate over “the truth of the gospel” be conducted without concern for Jesus traditions?
Ehrman calls it “as clear as day” that Jesus was known to have lived, with traditions about him arising shortly after his death. This, he says, is ‘witnessed’ by the traditions Paul learned from the pillars (which he never mentions and shows no actual sign of receiving) and corroborated by what is found in the Gospels, “whose oral sources almost certainly also go all the way back into the 30s to Roman Palestine” (a corroboration which Ehrman, as we have seen, has simply concocted). Ehrman calls this “a powerful confluence of evidence.”
Surveying the arguments and counter-arguments
Ehrman concludes his chapter on the Pauline epistles by focusing on G. A. Wells’ basic argument that the silence on so many things in Paul demonstrates he knew of no recent historical Jesus. The elements of that argument have been mentioned in my own discussions above. By looking at Ehrman’s counter to Wells’ points, such details will be evident without having to quote Wells himself.
After appealing yet again to the fact that no one in the wide range of scholars Ehrman knows, and knows of, thinks Paul was not aware of an historical Jesus (the old appeal to authority), Ehrman raises once more the specter of ‘interpolation fixation’ by mythicists.
I personally believe too much emphasis is placed on interpolation in some mythicist circles (which doesn’t make it necessarily wrong), but I am not one to rely on it save for less than a handful of passages where the evidence is clearly supportive, and even where occasionally mainstream scholars might agree. (Ehrman once again accuses us of having “a vested interest” in interpolation, which is a handy way of dismissing any need to even address the possibility in certain cases.)
Why no Gospel interpolations into Paul?
Ehrman does make a valid point in connection with this: if scribes did interpolate into Paul, why did they not insert more passages which clearly referred to the Gospel figure and events: the virgin birth, the miracles, more teachings, the trial, the Calvary scene? In my view, this point probably discourages the very idea of wholesale interpolation, especially by post-Gospel orthodoxy. But it does not affect my own very limited list:
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 is generally recognized by liberal scholarship for good reasons, so no problem there.
- 1 Timothy’s reference to Pilate does constitute the possible insertion of a Gospel event, early in the second century.
- And my preference for seeing Galatians 4:4’s “born of woman, born under the Law” as an interpolation would make sense as occurring at an early time when historicism and docetism were both in a nascent stage and in competition, before the Gospel story gained wide dissemination (as in Ignatius).
- As for “brother of the Lord” (see next instalment), there is no need to claim interpolation here, but its genesis as a marginal gloss by a scribe intent on clarification would make sense and should not be ruled out.
But just as some Christian probably in the latter half of the 2nd century got his hands on the original Ignatian letters and filled them with blatant Gospel references, if the orthodox Church in the same period undertook to insert dozens of interpolations into Paul, as is sometimes claimed, it is highly unlikely that we would not see a good number of clearly Gospel-inspired additions and clarifications. The fact that no such additions were undertaken at that later time suggests that already the Pauline literature was established and respected (as well as misinterpreted), which would argue against the entire invention of it in the second century, a view I do not subscribe to.
G. A. Wells is of the opinion that the teachings of Jesus, his miracles, the places of Jesus’ life and death, details of the trial and crucifixion (including its where and when), should have been very important to Paul. Ehrman tries to deal with these contentions in various ways. As we’ve seen, it is valid to ask why Paul would not appeal to Jesus’ teachings to settle issues and bolster his own arguments.
- In Romans 8:26, he says that we do not know how to pray. Was he not aware that Jesus had taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer?
- When he praised those who did not marry, would it not have been useful to appeal to Jesus’ praise of those who renounced marriage for the sake of the Kingdom (Mt. 19:12), let alone to a biographical fact that Jesus had not himself married?
- When Paul urged believers to “bless those who persecute you,” surely this was an important teaching by Jesus which Paul ought to have known and mentioned to strengthen his case.
Ehrman’s counter is to suggest that where Paul does not appeal to a pertinent saying of Jesus it may be because he didn’t know of it. Such an excuse might apply in some cases, particularly if there were instances of a clear appeal elsewhere to sayings of the earthly Jesus, but it is hardly acceptable as a blanket explanation for a total silence. And especially across the entire range of the epistolary literature, not just Paul.
Ehrman points out that Mark does not include either of the above sayings about the Lord’s Prayer or blessing one’s persecutors. But the difference is that we see no occasion in his Gospel for bringing them up, whereas this is not the case in Paul. Nor did Mark have the Q document from which Matthew and Luke derived these sayings.
One consideration here is that their presence in Q does not necessarily mean that they went back to a Jesus, which could be one reason why Paul did not know of such sayings. In fact, the Didache refers to the Prayer (8:2) as part of the gospel of the Lord, meaning God. (See Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, Appendix 8.)
Where are the miracles?
Wells’ objects that Paul should have mentioned Jesus’ miracles, since they were supposed to be justification for believing that the messianic age was imminent. Jesus’ miracles could have been used to support Paul’s own gospel message. Ehrman counters that Paul was writing to the already converted; they did not need reminding of such support.
But Ehrman overlooks a few things:
Paul in Romans 15:19 speaks of preaching his “gospel about Christ” to the gentiles “to bring them into his (Christ’s) allegiance.” To accomplish this, the subject of Christ’s own miracles would surely been far more persuasive than the “signs and wonders” Paul mentions that he had performed to win over those gentiles—and which were hardly on the scale of raising the dead or making the lame walk and the blind see.
Hebrews, in recounting the revelation experience at the genesis of the sect (2:1-4), refers to God’s “signs and miracles” in support of that revelation, not to any miracles of Jesus which supposedly accompanied his preaching, the latter being scholarship’s traditional interpretation of what is being recounted in 2:1-4.
The epistle of James (5:14-15) urges its readers to pray to God: “The prayers offered in faith will save the sick man, the Lord will raise him from his bed, and any sins he may have committed will be forgiven.” All things which Jesus is reputed to have done but which the author of James cannot bring himself even to allude to.
Even 2 Peter, in trying to convince that Christ will really appear at the Parousia, cannot appeal to Jesus’ miracles, let alone his resurrection, but only, as noted earlier, to a legendary vision of the Son given to Peter on a holy mountain.
Ehrman also overlooks 1 Corinthians 1:22. Paul scoffs at the “Jews (who) call for miracles,” without playing the trump card that Jesus gave them miracles in spades to prove God’s wisdom.
Ehrman is reduced to objecting that mythicists are presumptuous enough to think that we know what Paul ought to have said, that we can get inside his mind. Well, most of our objections are based on a reasonable evaluation of human nature, which we have no reason to think has changed that much in two millennia.
And from even lower in the barrel, he brings up the observation that there are very many things which Paul does not tell us on other subjects, such as his own background and experiences. But Paul is not preaching himself as a god incarnated to earth, dying for mankind and rising from his tomb, part of a new movement being carried across the empire with Paul as its object of worship. And no one would be expecting–or demanding–to hear about Paul’s biography, whereas that would hardly be the same about Jesus.
Besides, Paul in fact does tell us a lot more about his own character and experiences than ever he does about the man he is supposedly preaching.
. . . to be continued
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