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?!
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.
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?
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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