Was Paul an Apocalyptic Jew Before His Conversion?

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by Tim Widowfield

Earlier this summer while listening to a course from The Teaching Company, Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, something struck me that I’d missed earlier. He alluded to the notion that the Apostle Paul, as a Pharisee, had an apocalyptic worldview even before he came to believe that Jesus was the Christ. That notion, I confess, came as a bit of a surprise to me.

He repeats this belief in his most recent book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, this time even more clearly and confidently. As proof, he reminds us that Paul called himself a Pharisee. Ehrman writes:

Like many other Jews of the time—including such figures as John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth—Pharisees held to a kind of apocalyptic worldview that had developed toward the very end of the biblical period and down into the first century.

Ehrman, Bart D.. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (p. 44). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

As I indicated above, this notion struck me as a bit odd. First, if you’ve read anything at all about the Pharisees, you know that we have limited information about who they were and what they actually believed. The three main sources for first-century Pharisaism — the later records of Rabbis reflecting on earlier times, the writings of Josephus, and the gospels of the New Testament — all have a particular point of view and an axe to grind. In the end, we are certain of very little.

The small amount we do know requires a great deal of careful analysis and sober judgment. Too often what we thought we knew was simply the result of overconfidence and an uncritical approach to the meagre (and contradictory) sources at hand. Jacob Neusner, author From Politics to Piety: The Emergence of Pharisaic Judaism, put it this way:

While every history of ancient Judaism and Christianity gives a detailed picture of the Pharisees, none systematically and critically analyzes the traits and tendencies of the discrete sources combined to form such an account. Consequently, we have many theories but few facts, sophisticated theologies but uncritical, naive histories of Pharisaism which yield heated arguments unillumined by disciplined, reasoned understanding. Progress in the study of the growth of Pharisaic Judaism before 70 A.D. will depend upon accumulation of detailed knowledge and a determined effort to cease theorizing about the age. We must honestly attempt to understand not only what was going on in the first century, but also — and most crucially — how and whether we know anything at all about what was going on. “Theories and arguments should follow in the wake of laborious study, not guide it in their determining ways, however alluring these may look among the thickets and brush that cover the ground.” (Neusner 1972, p. xix)

The quotation at the end comes from G.R. Elton’s review of Fussner’s Tudor History and the Historians from the journal History and Theory.

Scholars who specialize in the history of the Pharisees have been arguing for decades over who they were, when they first appeared, what they believed, and even what their name means. Did it really mean “separatist”? If so, what were they separating from?

In Steve Mason’s 2001 tome, Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees: A Composition-Critical Study, he provides a useful list of scholars for and against various issues in Pharisaic history (see p. 2). For anyone interested, I will reprint it here with expanded details. Where possible, the links below will take you to the actual online text of the publication.

First, on the overall question of core, common beliefs, Mason lists one as “the repudiation of apocalyptic,” an element found in Kurt Schubert’s “Jewish Religious Parties and Sects”, in The Crucible of Christianity, ed. Arnold Toynbee [London: Thames and Hudson, 1969], 89). Continue reading “Was Paul an Apocalyptic Jew Before His Conversion?”

On the “No Contemporary References to Jesus” Controversy

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by Neil Godfrey

A few weeks ago I was asked to comment on Tim O’Neill’s post, Jesus Mythicism 3: “No Contemporary References to Jesus”. I think that was the one. So I caught up with it on my return from Thailand last night so I can respond at last. (If there is another one I was asked to respond to then feel free to advise me.)

My first point is that I don’t think I have ever taken a lot of time to look into who of the authors of the first century c.e. said nothing about Jesus and why this should be surprising if Jesus existed. As I understand it, such lists of names of “who at the time should have mentioned Jesus but didn’t” are presented as part of an argument to prove that Jesus did not exist. I have no problem with people wanting to take that line of argument and try to make their case but it is not where I am at and it is not a line of argument I have tried to follow.

My interest has been to try to explain the evidence for Christian origins according to the standard and best methods followed by historians of ancient history and so far it appears to me that that evidence is best explained by hypotheses that have no place for a historical Jesus. In other words, I do not see any evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus. That is not the same as saying I believe we can prove that Jesus did not exist. I don’t recall ever trying to “prove” that Jesus did not exist. I have often attempted to set out arguments, generally based on either or both serious biblical scholarship and the sound methodologies of ancient history, that demonstrate how the gospels and letters of Paul can well be explained without any need for reaching back to a historical Jesus.

So back to the lists of “who’s who among those who did not mention Jesus”. Here is how I see the best way to approach such lists. I have not done this exercise myself so present it here as what I think I would do if I had the time and interest to take it up.

I would take the arguments of both sides, of those who set out all the reasons such authors should have mentioned Jesus and of those who set out all the reasons we should not expect to see references to Jesus in them. And then I’d try to do my own homework on each of the authors to learn what I can about his background, interests, and what some of the scholars have to say about his work, etc.

Maybe some of you are twigging to where I am leading. In other words I am setting up the two hypotheses and then getting background information. If that reminds you of a Bayesian approach you are right with me.

I’d take each author in turn and ask how expected is the absence of a reference to Jesus in our manuscripts given all that we know about each author and 1) the non-existence of Jesus; and then 2) Jesus failing to attract the attention and interest of the author; and then compare the results.

In other words, I would not take up each argument, the one for and against, and tackle it on its own, either looking to poke holes in it or finding ways to buttress it. Forget the argument and trying to pick winners. Do serious historical research and thinking about the evidence in the light of both hypotheses and background information. Be prepared for the final balance to be tilted either way.

At the end of the day I do not see what difference the result would make to my historical interests in Christian origins. It might make a difference to those attempting to either prove or disprove the existence of Jesus. But as I have said several times now, that’s not a question I want to venture into. To me, the historical question is how to explain the evidence for Christian origins. If we need a historical Jesus to explain it then so be it; if a simpler hypothesis does not require such a figure then so be it.

The key point for me is the absence of known contemporary references to “the historical Jesus”. That brings us back to the methods set out by various ancient historians themselves, such as Moses Finley, which are in sync with the methodological principles set out by the so-called “minimalists” such as Philip R. Davies. I would love to set up an annotated archive page of all the posts I have done on that topic for easy reference.

Oh, and one more detail —

I explicitly mentioned background information in relation to each of the authors. But implicit in what I said is another spectrum of background information, too, and that’s what we mean by a “historical Jesus” figure. Do not rely on what anyone else says a source says, but do your own checking. For example, Tim O’Neill says that according to the Gospel of Mark Jesus there is no indication that Jesus was known beyond Galilee and refers to Mk 1:27-28 and 6:14. But more careful investigators will not overlook Mk 3:8 that also has his reputation extending as far as Jerusalem, beyond Jordan and up into Tyre and Sidon. And then one will have to ask the extent to which such a description is based on a need to emulate and transcend the following of Moses given the larger “midrashic” suggestions in that section of Mark. And do we take as historical the triumphal entry into Jerusalem that implies people knew about him before he came on the scene, etc etc etc.

But if Jesus was a nobody who did not even have a widespread reputation for healing (and despite Tim O’Neill’s attempt to suggest the contrary, even sceptical or critical scholars who accept the historicity of Jesus as a relative “nobody” generally acknowledge he had a significant reputation as a healer) then we need to have a good hypothesis to explain how the early converts were made to “Christianity” from the basis of such a figure in the first place.

In other words, it is going to be difficult to come up with a way to assess the rightful expectations of mention of such a figure in our extant writings. Perhaps we need to work with several hypotheses: no Jesus; minimal Jesus; a medium Jesus (as per a critical scholar’s construct); a max Jesus (as per an apologist view).


Gullotta’s Misleading Portrayal of Carrier’s claims…. Part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

For an annotated list of previous posts in this series see the archived page:

Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

For other Archives by Topic, Annotated see the right margin.

In the previous post we began to look at Daniel Gullotta’s treatment of Richard Carrier’s argument that the gospels are more like myth than remembered history and concluded with a look at a quotation taken from page 396 of Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus. In the next sentence Gullotta refers to another sentence of Carrier that is taken from a full 40/41 pages after the first one.

Carrier’s claims that ‘Mark updated Homer by recasting the time and place and all the characters to suit Jewish and (newly minted) Christian mythology’ is principally based on the work of Dennis R. MacDonald.93 After heavily citing the work of MacDonald, Carrier claims, ‘[i]n constructing his Gospel, the first we know to have been written, Mark merged Homeric with biblical mythology to create something new, a mythical syncretism, centered around his cult’s savior god, the Lord Jesus Christ, and his revelatory message, the ‘gospel’ of Peter and (more specifically) Paul.’94

93  Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 436.
94  Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 437.

Gullotta, p. 337

That is a misrepresentation of Carrier’s argument. Carrier’s “claim” did not follow on “after heavily citing the work of MacDonald”. The words Gullotta quotes in fact followed a single citation of MacDonald.

In those 40 pages separating the quotes Gullotta has fished out Carrier set out details of his case for reading the gospels as myth rather than history and peppered his discussion with supporting (sometimes contradicting) views of other scholars. There are 83 footnotes in those 40 pages and Dennis MacDonald appears in no more than 5 of them. Others cited in those 40 pages of establishing his case for the Gospel of Mark being constructed as a mythical narrative are: Continue reading “Gullotta’s Misleading Portrayal of Carrier’s claims…. Part 2”