Gathercole Dabbles with Counterfactual History

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by Tim Widowfield

Let me state at the outset here that I fully understand the actual merits of Simon Gathercole’s recent article in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus do not matter. Its mere existence suffices for the task at hand. In other words, it is not necessary for mainstream scholarship to demonstrate that Paul’s writings prove the existence of the historical Jesus; it is only necessary to assert it.

We saw the same sort of effect back in 2017 after Gullotta’s swing-and-a-miss treatment of Carrier’s magnum opus. For example, Gathercole writes, with no hint of irony:

One of the best recent critiques is that of Daniel Gullotta, who notes some crucial weaknesses in Richard Carrier’s volume. (Gathercole 2018, p. 185)

Do you believe?!

Tinkerbell tries to open a cabinet.

Despite the laughably bad anti-mythicist works offered by Casey and Ehrman, both scholars got a pass from their friends, colleagues, and sycophants. More than a pass, really, since both enjoyed backslaps and cheers for participating. They showed up and wrote down some words, by golly. It’s the Tinkerbell Effect in full bloom. Biblical scholars can claim they have refuted mythicism in all its forms as long as enough of them clap their hands and shout, “I believe! Oh, I do believe in the historical Jesus!

So what I have to say here will make no difference in the big picture, but I suppose somebody, somewhere, should say something, before Gathercole’s article inevitably takes its rightful place among “solid refutations” future scholars will point to.

If we had only Paul’s letters and nothing else, how much would we think we knew about the historical Jesus?

At the start of the new year, I started reading a book by Judea Pearl called The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect. In it, he devotes an entire chapter to counterfactuals (see Chapter 8 — Counterfactuals: Mining Worlds That Could Have Been). I had already read Gathercole’s article before that, and it rang a bell. Hadn’t he said something about counterfactuals? Yes, he did.

This article aims to adopt a kind of counterfactual approach to history, in which all of early Christian literature is set aside except the undisputed letters of Paul, in order to try to glean what can be learned from them alone. . . . The only exception is that the New Testament is occasionally used as evidence for Greek idiom. Otherwise, the letters of Paul are not interpreted in the light of, or even in tandem with, the Gospels, but are taken as far as is possible only against the backdrop of non-Christian sources. (Gathercole 2018, p. 187, bold emphasis mine throughout)

I confess I’d forgotten this tidbit, possibly because in the paragraphs that followed he appeared to be taking up arms against docetism rather than mythicism. Or perhaps Gathercole’s supposed commitment to the counterfactual approach had slipped my mind, just as it had clearly slipped his.

I have from time to time tried to imagine what our conception of early Christianity would look like if we had, say, only the Gospel of Mark or only the Gospel of John. Gathercole’s basic idea makes sense — if we had only Paul’s letters and nothing else, how much would we think we knew about the historical Jesus? What are some things we wouldn’t know for certain or, perhaps, at all? Let’s take a look.

Did Jesus have disciples?

In the gospels, Jesus has followers referred to by the Greek word for a person who learns from a teacher. This word, μαθητής (mathétés), appears 263 times in the NT, but only in the gospels and in Acts. Paul never uses the term. Not once.

How does Gathercole deal with the issue of disciples?

Most strikingly in the list of the resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15 is that Paul refers, immediately after Cephas, to “the twelve” (τοῖς δώδεκα). The implication of this may have been that Jesus before the resurrection had a special, select body of twelve disciples. (Gathercole 2018, p. 197)

Fourthly, according to 1 Cor. 11.23–26, Jesus quite clearly taught disciples to eat and drink in symbolic remembrance of what he had done . . . (Gathercole 2018, p. 198)

On one night (ἐν τῇ νυκτί) in his final days, Jesus had a meal with an inner circle, presumably of disciples (1 Cor. 11.23–24: ‘he took the bread, gave thanks, and broke it’). Jesus instructed these disciples about his presumably imminent death (11.23–26): the breakage of the bread signified the breakage of his body (11.24), and drinking symbolised his disciples ‘ingesting’ the new covenant (11.25) (Gathercole 2018, p. 202)

Let us imagine we didn’t have the New Testament’s 263 references to disciples, and instead only the word for apostle. Why would we presume Paul was talking about an inner circle of disciples? Why would we think Paul believed Jesus “clearly taught disciples?” Where would the term come from?

Yes, Paul could have meant twelve disciples when he wrote “the twelve.” But the fact remains that isn’t what he wrote.

I want to be as clear as possible. These are not identical terms. Paul talks about apostles sent out to preach the good news about Christ. He does not refer to anyone as a person who received instruction. If you would like to argue that Paul hides the fact that Jesus had disciples or is inexplicably indifferent to the term, go ahead. But if we’re truly performing a counterfactual experiment, then we have to ask: If we had only Paul’s writings, where would the concept of “disciple” come from?

Did Jesus give instruction/teaching?

The apostle says he’s passing on what Christ revealed to him. Without gospel-colored glasses, why would anyone insist that “Jesus quite clearly taught disciples”?

Let’s compare Gathercole to Paul on the question of divorce.

G: First, Jesus appears to have had a zero-tolerance attitude to divorce, commanding those who were married to stay married (1 Cor. 7.10): ‘not I, but the Lord’ issues this instruction, as distinct from teaching which Paul himself has formulated (‘I, not the Lord’, 7.12; cf. also 7.25: ‘I have no command from the Lord’). (Gathercole 2018, p. 198)

P: To the married I give this command [Παραγγέλλω (Parangellō)] –not I, but the Lord–a wife should not divorce a husband. (NET Bible, 1 Cor. 7:10)

And now on the question of Jesus’ workers receiving pay:

G: Secondly, Jesus is specifically cited as teaching that his workers should be paid (1 Cor. 9.14). (Gathercole 2018, p. 198)

P: In the same way the Lord commanded those who proclaim the gospel to receive their living by the gospel. (NET Bible, 1 Cor. 9:14)

On the parousia and general resurrection to come:

G: Third, eschatological instruction about the parousia and the resurrection may be attributed to him in 1 Thess. 4.15–16 (or 15–17), which would be significant as it would mean Jesus teaching about his own return after death. On the other hand, Paul’s formulation here is clearly a paraphrase rather than a quotation, referring as it does to the Lord in the third person and to believers as “we”. (Gathercole 2018, p. 198)

P: For we tell you this by the word of the Lord [literally, “in the word of the Lord“], that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. (NET Bible, 1 Thess. 4:15 — Note: Many if not most commentaries take Paul’s language here to indicate a revelation directly received from the Lord, not a “teaching” of Jesus passed on from “disciples.”)

On the eucharist:

Fourthly, according to 1 Cor. 11.23–26, Jesus quite clearly taught disciples to eat and drink in symbolic remembrance of what he had done . . . .  (Gathercole 2018, p. 198)

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed [literally, “handed over”] took bread . . . (NET Bible, 1 Cor. 11:23)

In all these cases, Gathercole is absolutely certain that Paul has received tradition in the form of instructions from disciples of Christ who learned at the foot of the historical Jesus. Yet, when we examine the evidence, we see Paul talking about commands from the Lord and revelations from the risen Christ or perhaps from God.

The fourth example above is particularly egregious. If we had no gospels to influence our understanding of early Christianity, why would we assume, as Gathercole apparently must, that Paul is lying to us? The apostle says he’s passing on what Christ revealed to him. Without gospel-colored glasses, why would anyone insist that “Jesus quite clearly taught disciples”?

Jesus’ teaching in the gospels is generally characterized by references to scripture, lessons from nature, parables, and persuasion. He explains why divorce is wrong. He appeals to the law and to the basic nature of gender. He expands on the notion of what adultery means. By contrast, Paul’s Lord commands wives not to divorce their husbands.

“No particular reason”

To be fair, Gathercole admits:

[I]t is not necessarily straightforward to distinguish in the epistles between what is the teaching of the earthly Jesus and what is revelation from the exalted Christ. This caveat will need to be borne in mind as we proceed. (Gathercole 2018, p. 197)

Yet, after flagging this very real problem, he fails to bear it in mind. Instead, he jumps to the assumption that any command cited by Paul probably has its source in a teaching of the historical Jesus.

Despite the caveat issued above, it should be noted that there is no particular reason to associate any of this material with heavenly revelation (which is not to conclude that it automatically stems from the historical Jesus). None of it is addressed to Paul, in contrast to the ‘my grace is sufficient for you’ oracle, which clearly is a heavenly revelation from Christ to Paul (2 Cor. 12.9: ‘he said to me…’). The first and second examples above, about divorce and wages, would to my mind be remarkably quotidian and casuistical as candidates for revelatory material (even without knowledge of the Synoptic parallels). (Gathercole 2018, p. 198) 

What Gathercole means to say in that unfortunately obscure last sentence is that subjects such as divorce and wages are ordinary, day-to-day, ethical questions that don’t require divine revelation. But to that argument I would offer two contradicting facts.

First, the law of the Hebrew Bible is chock-full of “quotidian” material. Recall these items from the list of ten commandments that nobody reads:

“You shall redeem with a lamb the first offspring from a donkey; and if you do not redeem it, then you shall break its neck. You shall redeem all the firstborn of your sons. None shall appear before Me empty-handed.” (Exodus 34:20)

“You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” (Exodus 34:26b, NASB)

In the preceding chapters God is supposed to have said directly to Moses:

“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him.” (Exodus 23:4, NASB)

“If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him.” (Exodus 23:5, NASB)

These are remarkably ordinary, quotidian — and awfully specific — rules. Are they worthy candidates for revelatory material? Well, maybe not to me or to Gathercole, but we aren’t the intended audience.

Secondly, let’s recall the status and roles of people in Jewish religion and society in Paul’s time. A teacher, a rabbi, interprets the law. He explains how one should understand the revealed law — written and oral — and apply it to specific real-world examples. On the other hand, a prophet relays the revealed law and God’s judgment to the people. Like Paul, a prophet is a messenger sent forth from the divine realm.

However, Paul consistently uses the terms command and commandment and refers to Jesus as Lord. Again, if we hadn’t read and absorbed the image of Jesus presented in the gospels, where would we find the justification to demote Paul’s image of Christ as Lord to a prophet (with devoted followers) or a teacher (with chosen disciples)?


Gathercole and most other modern NT scholars cannot separate Paul’s Christ from the gospels’ Jesus, even when they consciously try to do so. Notice as well that one of the section headings in his article refers to Jesus’ “arrest.” What arrest? Paul says he was handed over. Without the canonical gospels, would we have assumed a betrayal and an arrest?

Gathercole writes about Jesus’ “earthly life and ministry.” Without the gospels, where would we come up with the term “ministry” to refer to Jesus’ life and works? What ministry?

We haven’t even mentioned the brothers of the Lord. Remember from Drews that other than Paul’s offhanded remark, we have absolutely no record of these brothers — no traditions, not even a hint of their activities. In a 2015 post I wrote:

I had not heard that last argument [“Missionary travels of Brothers of Jesus are unknown to us from any other quarter, and are also in themselves improbable.” (Drews 1910, p. 172)] before reading Drews. NT scholars focus so tightly on the idea that Jesus had brothers that they often fail to consider the consequences of what that means. That is, if Paul is claiming that the brothers of Jesus were traveling around as itinerant preachers, either alone or in a group, with the aid of “sister-wives,” then where is the external evidence for it?

Why does no patristic writer ever bring it up? What happened to the “rich oral tradition” that would have sprung up as a result? It is highly improbable that James, Jude, Joses, and Simon would have become preachers for Christ, sent out like the other apostles with their sister-wives in tow, and the only place we ever hear about it is in one of Paul’s obscure side comments. Naturally, this oddity never occurs to today’s historicists, who take their particular interpretation of Paul’s statement as historical fact.

I’m done. Now that I’ve said my piece, let us stand aside and watch as Gathercole gathers his plaudits for his decisive take-down of mythicism. Congratulations.


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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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9 thoughts on “Gathercole Dabbles with Counterfactual History”

  1. “Missionary travels of Brothers of Jesus are unknown to us from any other quarter, and are also in themselves improbable.”

    It’s even worse.

    Why didn’t Porphyry quote the ”Lord’s brothers”, while quoting 1 Cor 9:5 ?

    Moreover, the same is true of his taking about a wife, for this is what Paul says : ” Have we not power to take about a sister, a wife, as also the rest of the apostles, and Peter?” (1 Cor. ix. 5). And then he adds (2 Cor. xi. 13), “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers.” If then Peter is related to have been involved in so many base things, is it not enough to make one shudder to imagine that he holds the keys of heaven, and looses and binds, although he is fast bound, so to speak, in countless inconsistencies.

  2. You point out that when Paul writes that Jesus was “betrayed”, the word actually only means “handed over”. I think I read somewhere that the Greek word can have a much more general meaning, just some kind of transition from one state to another — “converted”, something like that. Also, a perfectly good meaning of “betray” is “to disclose something meant to be kept secret” — so perhaps even the King James translators thought Paul meant “on the night in which he was revealed“.

    Interpreting it as some kind of treachery is just one more example of reading notions we got from the gospels back into Paul.

    1. Read the gospels again; treachary? Judas has Jesus’ consent and is told to get on with it. If you have no choice but “Historical Jesus” it is no wonder scholars such as Hugh Schonfield can write The Passover Plot. If real; the whole thing was an elaborate suicide-by-cop!

  3. Yes, this is all spot on, what Peter N said too.

    You’re exactly right. Even when they try they can’t do it, which just proves the point. These guys are so biased that it is impossible for them to render any kind of credible judgement.

    I think it’s quite clear that no one today would be defending the real existence of Jesus if Paul’s letters were all that was ever written, even if Paul had somehow manged to bring about the Roman adoption of a Pauline form of Christianity.

    Anyone claiming that we would is deluded.

    But a key aspect of all this is how the actual counterfactual evidence is ignored. It’s one thing to search out the nuggets and offer them as support, but what about all the statements in Paul’s letters that run counter to this view? I present several here: http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/beyond.html

    Also note from there, one of my favorite quotes from the Jesus Seminar:

    “Accordingly, the gospels may be understood as corrections of this creedal imbalance, which was undoubtedly derived from the view espoused by the apostle Paul, who did not know the historical Jesus. For Paul, the Christ was to be understood as a dying/rising lord, symbolized in baptism (buried with him, raised with him), of the type he knew from the hellenistic mystery religions. In Paul’s theological scheme, Jesus the man played no essential role.”
    – The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus really Say; Funk, Hoover, The Jesus Seminar (pp 7)

    Even many Jesus historicists recognize that Jesus the man is not in evidence in Paul’s writings.

    1. It’s bizarre to watch as Gathercole harmonizes Paul with the gospels he says he has put aside. We needn’t even be talking about mythicism here — the fact that he cannot stop himself from harmonizing does not bode well for his ability to act as an unbiased analyst.

  4. “P: In the same way the Lord commanded those who proclaim the gospel to receive their living by the gospel. (NET Bible, 1 Cor. 9:14)”

    I read into the line above, as Congress does, that’s it’s OK to receive a living proclaiming the gospel and even grant yourselves raises. The old “wolf guarding the hen house” routine.

  5. When I used to teach NT texts in college and seminary I often told my students to become very aware of the immediate knee jerk reaction to read Paul and the rest of the epistles in the NT via the “tryranny” of the Gospels.

    The voice of each Gospel writer gets pushed through the filter of another gospel itself. All the voices of each gets ram-rodded through another and, in my view the authentic voice of each is not heard or lost for apologetic canonical concerns. Sure the Bible is filled with all kinds of intertextual echoes of various kinds.

    Textual ventriloquism, however, is rampant.

    I do understand that all of these texts “haunt” each other in many ways…back and forth as one literary critic has wonderfully observed…

    “When I think of rereading, I often turn to a metaphor of haunting. First, there are texts that haunt us, that cannot and will not be forgotten, texts that seem to have strong if often mysterious claims over our memory, attention, and imagination that urge us to reread them, to make them present to our mind again and again. Second, there are texts that haunt other texts, in the sense that they appear in them as expected or unexpected visitors and even, one might say phantoms or spectres, if such notions could be freed of their sinister connotations. Since this meaning of haunting is indeed broadly metaphorical, one has little difficulty accepting the possibility not only of historically earlier texts haunting later ones, but also of later texts haunting earlier ones.” (Matei Calinescu,, ReReading p. xi)

    A good example I am presently working on is Psalm 109 and its impact upon the NT is not just concerning Judas… there is much more in that Psalm . I encourage you all to read the psalm in Hebrew and the LXX . Wow! I am also working on it in connection with the fact that the text uses “satan” 4x..and there are other elements of Mark’s and John’s Passion “plays” which are drawing on it without actual quotations!!!!

    I Cor. 15 is another… Hosea is used no doubt but not just in the so-called “creed” . Many apologists think it is not being referred to but read the rest of I Cor. 15 and he uses it in various places throughout…but not with direct quotes. One simply has to be familiar with the OT or you cannot see this. My first years college..I had Dr. Daniel Block–a highly trained OT scholar whom I learned piles from and he said this to all first year OT lit. students..”If you do not understand the OT there is simply no way you are going to make sense out of the NT.”

    Indeed, we must not flatten out these texts into one voice or principalize their contents in silly, unthinking ways. We must also be careful of “canon” anxiety or what I call canonical hegemony. It turns out being a case of what I also call “Ouija Board Bible Hermeneutics”. Apologists turning to this text and that text and mushing them all together or trying to answer a specific voice by putting someone else’s voice into a different mouth.

    I am very sad to see so many NT scholars becoming apologists and very few of them (eg. Licona etc.) ever make any significant contribution to move NT studies forward — to change the landscape in such a way that new configurations can be allowed, including the Jesus-Myth Theory. The Christ myth theory is not a new thing drummed up by 21st century atheists or agnostics, etc. It is present in the NT itself…. just read I John!!!!!!!!

    And I get a big kick out of apologists quoting 2 pet. 1:16 ff at me about the apostles not following cleverly devised “myths” (the word is not “fables”) from prior texts,etc. ,,yet in the next chapter the liar Peter (I think as a character he is still a liar! ) and 2 forged books to his name 🙂 He even uses pagan myths to build his second chapter…check it out re Tartarus , etc. and he also uses the myth of the flood, etc. What a joke and what a bad apologist since he can’t even catch his own errors of logic, history, etc!!!

    Take care all. Hope these comments stimulate better thinking,research and writing.

    1. Even the idea that Paul can with rabbinic accuracy use that solitary verse in Hosea to proclaim “…on the third day…according to the scriptures….” as a creedal obiter dictum is altogether dubious!

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