Mythicism and Paul’s Claims to Supernatural Revelation (Engaging with McGrath — 2)

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by Neil Godfrey

In Australian private hospitals we are likely to see pictures of a crucifix or Mother Mary. In Thailand we see Buddhist paraphernalia. View of one taken by me from a hospital bed where I arrived as result of accident. Life is always full of unexpected surprises.

Again waylaid by life experiences so surfacing here another post begun way back. The first post in this series is  Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1

This time we are addressing

McGrath begins:

Mythicists regularly claim (as one commenter on this blog recently did) regarding Paul that “Our earliest Christian source claimed to have learned nothing from the Christians who came before him.  He claimed to know what he knew by divine revelation.”

Since the subject has come up once again, in the same form in which it always seems to, let me devote a blog post solely to this topic, in the hope that any mythicists who desire not to be like creationists (who are notorious for repeating the exact same arguments even though they have been addressed adequately on countless other occasions) may at least show a willingness to consider the evidence and respond.

Here are the main relevant points that need to be considered.

First, in Galatians 1:15-17, Paul claims not to have consulted with anyone before starting to proclaim the Gospel.

That “first main relevant point” that McGrath informs readers needs to be addressed simply avoids the problematic verse that the commenter was addressing. McGrath begins with Galatians 1:15 but fails to acknowledge that the commenter, Vinny, was referring to Galatians 1:11-12. Vinny’s comment that McGrath claims to be addressing is:

Our earliest Christian source claimed to have learned nothing from the Christians who came before him. He claimed to know what he knew by divine revelation. He didn’t tell us why he persecuted the Christians who preceded him. Most of the communities he addressed were communities that he founded. The only evidence we have for what those communities knew and understood about Jesus is what we find in Paul’s letters. It is not unreasonable suppose that they knew other things but any declarations concerning what those things actually were are little more than conjecture and speculation. How much of his message came from those who preceded him and how much was the product of his own imagination and creativity is also a matter of conjecture and speculation. Those are pieces of the puzzle that we don’t possess.

The passage to which Vinny was referring was Galatians 1:11-12 (I am using the same NIV translation as McGrath is using):

11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

But let’s see how McGrath addresses the comment. As we just noted, he glosses over the above verses and begins at verse 15:

Here is how the New International Version renders it:

But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.  I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

Important things to note are

(1) that Paul had previously persecuted the church (Neil: The persecution reference is two verses earlier), and so was not entirely unaware of what Christians had to say,

(2) his aim here is to emphasize that his authority is not dependent on the apostles in Jerusalem,

(3) he does not in fact say that he received everything he knew about Jesus or the Gospel by supernatural revelation, and finally

(4) if he did mean to claim that everything that he knew was by supernatural revelation, no historian would believe him, since there is obviously a more mundane explanation available for how Paul knew the things that he did.

I think we can all agree with the first three of McGrath’s four things to note. Concerning #4, historians have no problem “believing” that mystics and visionaries claim to have visions and revelations from spirit realms. Historians acknowledge that Joan of Arc heard voices without believing that a heavenly saint really was speaking to her, that Saint Francis had visions without believing God was really communicating with him, and that people speak in tongues without believing that a real “holy spirit” is doing the work. I learned through an article by Stephen Young that “the now classic analysis” explaining the difference was set out by Wayne Proudfoot in 1987 in Religious Experience:

Descriptive and Explanatory Reduction

We are now in a position to distinguish two different kinds of reduction. Descriptive reduction is the failure to identify an emotion, practice, or experience under the description by which the subject identifies it. This is indeed unacceptable. To describe an experience in nonreligious terms when the subject himself describes it in religious terms is to misidentify the experience, or to attend to another experience altogether. To describe Bradley’s experience as simply a vision of a human shape, and that of Mrs. Edwards as a lively warm sense that seemed to glow like a pencil of light, is to lose the identifying characteristics of those experiences. To describe the experience of a mystic by reference only to alpha waves, altered heart rate, and changes in bodily temperature is to misdescribe it. To characterize the experience of a Hindu mystic in terms drawn from the Christian tradition is to misidentify it. In each of these instances, the subject’s identifying experience has been reduced to something other than that experienced by the subject. This might properly be called reductionism. In any case, it precludes an accurate identification of the subject’s experience.

Explanatory reduction consists in offering an explanation of an experience in terms that are not those of the subject and that might not meet with his approval. This is perfectly justifiable and is, in fact, normal procedure. The explanandum is set in a new context, whether that be one of covering laws and initial conditions, narrative structure, or some other explanatory model. The terms of the explanation need not be familiar or acceptable to the subject. Historians offer explanations of past events by employing such concepts as socialization, ideology, means of production, and feudal economy. Seldom can these concepts properly be ascribed to the people whose behavior is the object of the historian’s study. But that poses no problem. The explanation stands or falls according to how well it can account for all the available evidence.

(Proudfoot, 196f. bolded emphasis mine)

Thus McGrath’s suggestion that Paul’s claim to have received by revelation his gospel of Jesus is implausible confuses acceptance of Paul’s claim with belief in Paul’s own beliefs about his claim. Historians can and should explain Paul’s words without themselves personally believing Paul’s interpretations. It is absurd to suggest that they should reject Paul’s words because they themselves don’t believe his account.

So we can correct #4 to say that “if Paul did mean to claim that everything that he knew was by supernatural revelation, no historian would believe his visions were genuinely from another realm; historians would be quite content to accept that he claimed to have had a direct revelation by whatever means.”

McGrath Does Make a Serious Point

It is too easy to dismiss everything McGrath writes after we read the above lapses where he fails to address the verse Vinny was discussing and confuses the historian’s choices of descriptive and explanatory interpretations. McGrath does, in fact, make a serious point in the next section of his post.

Continuing McGrath’s post, with my own bolded highlighting except for the bolding in last line which is McGrath’s:

Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul emphatically claims that the basic message he proclaims is the same one other apostles also preach. He says this to a group consisting not only of people who say “I am of Paul” but also others who say “I am of Cephas/Peter” and thus would be well poised to call Paul out on this if he were lying. Paul disagreed with other Christians about whether circumcision was to be required of Gentile converts, but does not seem to have disagreed about the basic core Gospel message. Here is how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

Before I address McGrath’s substantial point we should also step back a moment to consider another section of that passage that McGrath glosses over.

The commentaries appear to be unanimous in interpreting verse 3, “what I received I passed on to you”, as a reference to Paul learning a “tradition” or formal teaching from other believers. Reading the passage alone that is indeed how one might interpret it, but if we do, of course, we run into a contradiction with Galatians 1:11-12, the verses that Vinny was addressing and that McGrath has glossed over.

But several commentaries on 1 Cor. 15:3 also point back to the same word for “received” (parelabon/παρέλαβον) being found in 1 Corinthians 11:23. And there one reads that Paul explicitly states that what he received he received from “the Lord” himself.

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, . . . .

If we interpret “received” in 1 Cor 15:3 through its meaning a few chapters earlier and through Paul’s statement in Galatians, then we have no contradiction. Rather, as Earl Doherty suggests, in 1 Cor 15:3-4 we learn the source of Paul’s revelation. It was the scriptures: “kata tas graphas/κατὰ τὰς γραφάς”. Though scholars generally interpret the phrase to mean “in fulfillment of the scriptures” Paul nowhere discusses such an idea. The phrase can equally as well express the meaning “as we learn from the scriptures”. (Doherty, 46)

Compare Robert M. Price on 1 Corinthians 11:23

Paul seems to know of a Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, at which he instituted the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23- 26), but this is a weak reed. On the one hand, for reasons having nothing to do with Christ-Myth theory, some have pegged this piece of text as an interpolation.20 On the other, suppose Paul did write it; Hyam Maccoby argued that in 1 Corinthians 11:23 we see Paul comparing himself with Moses, the one who receives material (in this case, cult law) directly from Adonai and passes it on to his fellow mortals. In other words, Paul does not mean he has received this tradition from other mortals who were present on the occasion, or even from their successors, but that, in human terms, the Last Supper pericope originated with him. He would have first apprehended it in a vision,21 much as the nineteenth-century mystic Anna Katherina Emmerich22 beheld in a series of visions the “dolorous passion of our Lord Jesus Christ,” including “lost episodes” that made it into Mel Gibson‟s The Passion of the Christ. On Maccoby’s entirely plausible reading, we would actually be seeing the beginnings of the historicization of the Christ figure here.

(Price, 32f)

Okay, so much for Paul’s choice of words when he claims to have received such and such.

But McGrath is on more stable ground when he draws our attention to the last line of 1 Cor. 15:1-11,

Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

That is, Paul’s gospel is no different from the gospel preached by other apostles. Given the previous discussion of Paul’s “reception” of the gospel it is fair to say that the weight McGrath gives to this one line is not necessarily decisive. Only if the previous discussion has been misguided and everything else in Paul supports McGrath’s interpretation then is this passage decisive.

Maybe I am having a lapse in memory but I do not know if or where mythicists have addressed this line, or at least not in the context of the question before us now. (No doubt some readers will fill in that gap if I am mistaken.)

Yet we should not forget that Paul also said in 1 Corinthians 9:1 (a passage whose genuineness is not subject to debate in any of Wiliam O. Walker Jr’s list in Interpolations in the Pauline Letters)

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?

and again in Galatians 2:6-7

As for those who were held in high esteem–whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism–they added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel . . .

(Quoting only that portion of the passage that are not debated. Ernst Barkinol argued against the authenticity of the specific Paul-Peter parallelism in the following section.)

McGrath appears to be unaware that mythicist arguments of Wells, Price, Doherty, and others do not claim that Paul was the only one to receive visions or revelations about Christ, but that, along with most mainstream scholars, Paul insisted on his independent knowledge of the gospel, evidently with different emphases and significances for some of its details.

McGrath’s point is a valid one and should be addressed. But McGrath is mistaken for insisting that it serves as a “proof text” (removed from context) alone. What would he think of anyone using Galatians 1:11-12 as a proof text (again, removed from context and engagements with any other passages) to “prove” the opposite? It must be understood and discussed in the broader context of Paul’s and other purported apostolic writings. If McGrath’s interpretation of that passage is correct then so be it. Mythicists would need to think through some of their arguments with fresh insight. In the interests of serious discussion McGrath owes it to everyone to seriously engage with the mythicist arguments against the conclusion he draws from it.

McGrath continues by returning to his confusion over explanatory analysis historians always apply to the historical records. He says that unless we all believe that Paul really did miraculously receive the same information that other Christians had then we cannot even accept that Paul himself believed and wanted others to believe that.

In addition, we also have evidence from the Gospel of Matthew, which takes a different stance than Paul with regard to the Torah, of agreements between Paul and other Christians who disagreed with him, such as regarding the practice of the Lord’s Supper.

The only real options are (1) that Paul did in fact miraculously receive the same information that other Christians had, or (2) Paul received information about the Christian Gospel from other human beings, whatever he might or might not say to the contrary.

Since I know of no mythicist or mainstream historian who accepts option #1, can mythicists please stop using this unpersuasive bunk as part of their case for mythicism? I realize that, when it comes to the major tenets of mythicism, unpersuasive bunk may be all you have to work with. But this particular claim seems so particularly bad (not to mention unpersuasive) that I would expect anyone who thinks about the matter even a little to wish to distance themselves from it – even as some creationists have drawn up lists of arguments which are so badly discredited and unpersuasive that creationists ought not to use them.

The Gospel of Matthew tells us that the apostles all together witnessed the resurrected Jesus and many of them believed — each because of his direct experience and not because of hearsay from any other apostle. The Acts of the Apostles relates how Paul likewise received his independent vision. “Luke” does not doubt that Paul’s conversion was the result of a direct revelation from God and not from sitting at the feet of James and Peter to learn from them. This early “tradition” about the independence of Paul’s conversion must also be thought through.


Barnikol, Ernst. 1989. “The Non-Pauline Origin of the Parallelism of the Apostles Peter and Paul. Galatians 2:7-8.” Translated by Darrell J. Doughty and B. Keith Brewer. Journal of Higher Criticism 5 (2): 285–300.

Doherty, Earl. 2009. Jesus: Neither God nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus. Ottawa: Age of Reason Publications.

McGrath, James F. 2011. “Mythicism and Paul’s Claims to Supernatural Revelation.” Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath (blog). October 18, 2011. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2011/10/mythicism-and-pauls-claims-to-supernatural-revelation.html.

Price, Robert M. 2011. The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems. American Atheist Press.

Proudfoot, Wayne. 1987. Religious Experience. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Young, Stephen L. 2015. “Protective Strategies and the Prestige of the ‘Academic’: A Religious Studies and Practice Theory Redescription of Evangelical Inerrantist Scholarship.” Biblical Interpretation 23 (1): 1–35. https://doi.org/10.1163/15685152-00231p01.



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15 thoughts on “Mythicism and Paul’s Claims to Supernatural Revelation (Engaging with McGrath — 2)”

  1. First, I hope you are well.

    I think one thing we have to keep in mind, or rather a few things, which are that #1) it’s not certain that all of this really comes from the same person and #2) we don’t know the laps in time between these writings.

    Some things may have been true at one point in time and other things true at other points in time. They may be contradictory simultaneously, but not temporally.

    So if Gal was written, for example, in 40 CE and Cor 1 was written in 50 CE, it could be that when Paul said his knowledge of Jesus came from no one it was true and by the time he wrote Cor 1 he may have learned some things and come into agreement on a common set of ideas.

    But yeah, the idea that this can all be interpreted in some definitive way is just nonsense. I mean when you get into trying ti lay all this out you see that much of it is really subject to interpretation. If he thought he was going to lay out an definitive case he was wrong and scholar should be able to acknowledge that.

    1. #1) it’s not certain that all of this really comes from the same person

      Yes, and that’s why I think I tried to be careful and point out where passages are not under debate as arguable interpolations. (1 Cor 15:1-11 is another likely interpolation according to Bob Price and one that was included by William O. Walker Jr’s Interpolations in the Pauline Letters as a disputed passage on the basis of Price’s arguments.

      Every argument of a historian is always provisional on the understanding that we are working with a set of assumptions that can be justified but are also open to revision about the data at hand.

    2. First, I hope you are well.

      Thanks. Fractured rib and “subcapsular hematoma of the liver”. It’s a bummer. If I’ve still got a pulse in the morning they’ll release me and want me to return to Australia asap. C’est la vie.

  2. It is possible, hypothetically, to believe – as a mythicist – that Paul received his news about Jesus from a god. But so what? Gods are, according to Buddhism, very foolish and are often mistaken.

    1. We need to work within the understanding of what God meant to Paul and his supporters and rivals. A historian can’t just accept the role of a particular God into the narrative since there is no independent corroborating evidence of such a God in the record at all.

    2. Reminds me of a great line from R.A. Lafferty’s Fourth Mansions (haven’t re-read it in years, don’t have it handy, so my memory of it is likely not worded as cleverly as the actual version from the book itself):

      “You think people are silly for believing in ghosts? You should see some of the things ghosts believe in.”

    1. Ferguson, Matthew (4 July 2013) [NOW BOLDED AND FORMATTED]. “1 Corinthians 15 and the “500 Witnesses””. Κέλσος.

      [Per 1 Cor. 15:3 etc.] scholars generally agree, based on the wording of this creed, that the creed predates Paul. This conclusion is reached only through source analysis, however, and it cannot be fully certain. Paul claims to have • παρέλαβον (“received,” 1 Cor. 15:3) this creed, which leads scholars to date it as pre-Pauline.

      Nevertheless, in Galatians 1:12 Paul uses the same verb to say that he • παρέλαβον (“received”) the Gospel that he preached, not from any man nor human origin, but from a revelation of Jesus Christ. As such, it cannot be completely certain that Paul is not referring to the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 in the same way.

      Furthermore, there have also been textual challenges to this passage, as Robert Price has written an article arguing that 1 Cor. 15:3-11 may be a post-Pauline interpolation.

    2. • Using 1 Cor. 15:3 etc. to trash mythicism

      Carter, Neil (5 May 2019). “Was Jesus a Real Person?”. Patheos. Godless in Dixie.

      The earliest writings which attest to the existence of Jesus come from the apostle Paul . . . We also can determine through form and source criticism that the oral traditions which later came to inform the writing of the gospels almost certainly originated independently of Paul’s influence and predates his ministry by several years.

      At least in its most basic form, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus had matured into a credal form [1 Cor. 15:3-8] by the time Paul sat down to write (or else dictate) his first letter to the Corinthians some time in the mid-50s C.E.

      […] professionals in this field have concluded the most likely scenario is that Jesus probably did live and die in ancient Roman Palestine, and that the movement which later grew up around him developed the many competing layers of tradition which make up the family of religious traditions we now call the Christian faith.

      That’s not really so difficult to accept, is it?

      Shem the Penman (17 June 2019). “No, Conspiracism Has More In Common With Atheism Than Religion”. Patheos. Driven to Abstraction.

      Jesus Mythicism has become a popular subject in the atheist blogosphere: it’s a standard-issue conspiracy theory, but is lionized by people who pride themselves on being able debunkers.

      […] the whole basis of the Mythicism phenomenon is the assertion that “there’s no evidence” that regular-Jesus existed. When anyone (even one of our own atheist bloggers [Carter 2019]) tries to educate us on what professional historians think and why, we handwave away the attempt at correction, and characterize the entire field of specialists as biased and/or brainwashed.

      1. That “the movement which…grew up around [stories about] him develop[ing]…many competing layers of tradition which make up the family of religious traditions we now call the Christian faith” is ‘not really so difficult to accept’ …

        … but whether “Jesus (of Nazareth) [probably] did live and die in ancient Roman Palestine”, and whether the story of his death and resurrection had matured in a credal form [1 Cor 15:3-8], are debatable (as is whether Paul sat down to write (or dictate) his first letter to the Corinthians in the mid-50s C.E.).

  3. OP: “McGrath is on more stable ground when he draws our attention to the last line of 1 Cor. 15:1-11 . . . McGrath’s point is a valid one and should be addressed.”

    Comment by James F. McGrath—18 October 2011—per “Mythicism and Paul’s Claims to Supernatural Revelation”. Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath. 18 October 2011.

    • James F. McGrath:

    Paul acknowledges to an audience that includes supporters of other apostles that he and they agree on the basics of the Gospel. And so unless one wishes to posit that Paul and these other apostles actually received divine revelation, these other options do not fit the evidence – which was a key point of this post, as anyone who actually read it attentively would already know.

    • beallen0417:

    ” Paul acknowledges to an audience that includes supporters of other apostles that he and they agree on the basics of the Gospel.”

    This appears to be eisegesis. What epistle establishes this? He says that they added nothing to him. This does not mean they believed the same things. The Pauline author(s) also clearly dispute their position on circumcision, which would mean they do not preach the same gospel, and they specifically address the existence of other gospels, other Jesuses and other Christs in the time of the writing of the epistles. So I fail to see how a plain reading of the epistles establishes unity between the other apostles and the Pauline author(s).

    • Grog225:

    There are also admissions that other apostles are not preaching the same gospel. I wonder why you overlook passages like this:

    Gal 1:6

    I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.

    1. “Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.” (1 Corinthians 15:11)

      Per the previously noted debate: “Carrier v. Horn”. Carrier argues that 1 Cor. 15:11 is explicable as shared hallucinations.

  4. Thanks for that blast from the past Neil. It is sobering to realize how little the discussion has changed in eight years. No doubt McGrath believes that he has fully addressed every point that I raised, but it sure doesn’t feel that way to me.

    I still wonder why anyone takes at face value Paul’s claim of consensus concerning the gospel. I wish I had a nickel for every time I looked up some authority that someone cited as supporting his or her position, only to find that the authority was really saying something very different. I think we have to allow for the possibility that Paul would have been perfectly willing to claim that others agreed with him when it suited his purposes, only to turn around and claim that everybody else had it wrong.

    What I found particularly silly was McGrath’s claim that Paul wouldn’t have risked claiming consensus falsely because some of his readers would have known whether Peter or Apollos was preaching a different gospel. People post lies on the internet every day with impunity, knowing that their claims can be refuted with the click of a button. Why should I think that Paul would have been afraid that someone might try to refute his claims? Despite McGrath’s abandonment of his fundamentalist roots, he still embraces the reasoning of apologetics.

    1. Fehling in “Herodotus and His Sources” shows that Herodotus claimed to have personally seen an inscription in Asia Minor and told his readers exactly what it said. Archaeologists have found the inscription and learned the Herodotus was lying. He surely never even saw the inscription. There are other examples cited.

      Since when has the mere possibility of being found out ever stopped anyone from lying! Someone turns up to refute you? Just double down and call them a liar, too — or even worse.

      (Does McGrath think Paul must have been telling the truth about 500 witnesses to the resurrected Jesus? Yes, he’s an apologist. He still talks about his conversion and the wonder of Jesus in his life.)

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