I had hoped to cover Raphael Lataster’s sixth chapter, The Problems of Paul, in a single post but real life circumstances have obliged me to spend smaller amounts of time per day here so I’ll break it up into several posts.
I found Lataster’s chapter on Paul to be one of the best sections of his book so far. Lataster avoids common traps too many mythicists fall into when addressing Paul while at the same time he makes sound use of serious critical evaluations and broader questions pertaining to our sources to make what I consider to be very solid arguments without letting their potential controversy deflect him from course.
Some radical scholars have questioned the existence of Paul but Lataster rightly sidesteps that question as a red-herring in the context of asking if Jesus was a historical figure. Whatever we do with “Paul” himself the epistles in his name still need to be addressed.
Physical or Spiritual?
The most fundamental question that is asked of Paul’s letters in historicist-mythicist debates is whether the letters present Jesus as a physical or exclusively spiritual being. Obviously, if our (possibly) earliest sources for Jesus consider him a spiritual entity then the historicity of a Jesus figure has to be questioned. On the other hand, even if we can establish that Paul definitely thought of Jesus as a flesh and blood human being on earth in a recent past then I don’t believe we can conclude that that of itself establishes Jesus as a historical figure. History is replete with stories and legends of people who are believed to have existed yet whom we know to be mythical. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that an earthly Jesus in Paul’s letters will open up the possibility of Jesus being historical more than the alternative.
What is most significant about the evidence in Paul’s writings, Lataster stresses, is its ambiguity, or at least its potential to be subject to alternative interpretations. That is all that is needed to legitimize the question of whether Jesus was historical or not.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians we read that Jesus was “born of a woman” and that would seem to end the discussion as to whether Paul thought of Jesus as a literal human being — except that Lataster points readers to Bart Ehrman’s discussion of this passage in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture which notes
a) there is compelling evidence in the writings of the earliest church fathers that while surrounding passages in Galatians were well known the particular passage with “born of woman” is not in evidence at all, even though it would have served decisive blows in the theological arguments those fathers were attempting to make;
b) that the word translated “born” is not the usual word for “born” but another word that carries ambiguities about the actual process being described and which has significance for various theological debates in the second century.
Lataster further raises the possibility that the passage was originally meant to be understood allegorically but I find the arguments raised for that possibility seem to be slightly strained against the natural reading of the text. (I have the same difficulties with Richard Carrier’s case along the same lines in On the Historicity of Jesus.) The allegorical portion of the text is made explicit and it appears to me to be introduced to inject a certain meaning into “real events” in the preceding verses. But that’s all a minor detour.
On the same question as to whether Paul’s writings speak of a human or exclusively spiritual Jesus Lataster further addresses a more general point that I find to be otherwise largely overlooked in this debate:
I personally find it unthinkable that there could be such radically different views of Jesus, so soon after his literal and Earthly death. (p. 269)
Lataster has couched his discussion in the context of other early Christian views of Jesus, some that are labelled as “docetic” or “proto-docetic”, or “Marcionite”. He wants readers to take into consideration that Paul’s works were not isolated from the world of Jewish mysticism and were not far removed from views that early church fathers branded heretical. Such a context is relevant when we are addressing plausibilities and possibilities.
Lataster draws attention to New Testament scholarship — Gerd Lüdemann, Mogens Müller, Margaret Barker — acknowledging that Paul cannot be considered a reliable source for the historical Jesus, not even his sayings. He draws upon his studies in religion to discuss at some length the real possibility of Paul’s sources being “visions” and presents scholarly support for the reality that “even group hallucinations are quite possible” (compare the claim in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that 500 persons witnessed the resurrected Jesus).
Other arguments commonly found in serious mythicist publications (Rober M. Price, Richard Carrier, George A. Wells, Earl Doherty) are surfaced along with the standard counter-arguments from such scholars as Bart Ehrman and demonstrates that even if we prefer the counter-arguments we cannot deny that they are anything but decisive. Ehrman’s argument that Paul had no need to mention Jesus’s words or miracles is shown to be bereft of all credibility by simply comparing what Paul does and does not say in contexts that clearly put Ehrman’s explanation to the test.
Lataster’s arguments demonstrate that scholars have generally brought their gospel assumptions into their readings of Paul, and habitually explained away passages that indicate Paul’s denial of any human source for his gospel by appeal to other passages that can be interpreted with a contrary meaning. The case for dogmatism — either way — is not warranted.
A Cosmic Christ?
Lataster proceeds to argue a case for Paul’s epistles depicting a Jesus who is entirely a “cosmic” or heavenly being without an earthly history. Yet he introduces his case with a caveat:
Please note that if all of the following [an argument for Paul believing in a Jesus who had no place on earth] is wrong, it does not mean that there was a Historical Jesus. My comments thus far justify an agnostic position. This section is only important in advancing the very real possibility that Jesus did not exist. Note also the possibility that Paul is advancing a ‘middle position’, developed from an earlier belief in a ‘purely Celestial Jesus’, on the way towards the belief in the (literally) more fleshed out ‘Gospel Jesus’. (p. 284)
That’s good. Perhaps I can address the many facets of Lataster’s argument in future posts but it is not necessary to do so here. The main quibbles I have about Lataster’s argument (which does indeed raise many thought-provoking details) is his regular use of the term “sky demons” and his following of Carrier’s term “outer space”. The first obscures the fact that demons were believed to be active on earth and not only “in the sky” (or more exactly, in the realm between earth and the moon). The second is an ugly anachronism that does not do justice to the thought of the era. Yes, it is meaningful for modern readers but a scholar ought to be introducing readers to the thought world of the persons he is writing about. I am also sceptical of Lataster’s appeal to Philo as evidence of a Logos figure named Jesus but do at least agree with his suggestion that the possibility needs “further research”. All of that might sound quite damning but in fact Lataster’s wider discussion, involving a wealth of scholarly references (Orlov, Brandon, Ellingworth, Fredriksen, Thiselton, Moses, Fee, Lyons, Fuller, Tabor, Wilken, Jackson-McCabe, Barnhart, Kraeger, White, Brakke, Davies, Hall, Knight . . .) that anchor his arguments in the relevant scholarship, does indeed make many pertinent observations, both from the canonical texts as well as the Ascension of Isaiah and other passages in Philo. The reservation that I have with these arguments is that I wonder if they sometimes attempt to go just a little too far in reading spiritual locations into certain gaps or ambiguities in some of the passages when it might be equally reasonable to think of a heavenly Jesus entering the earthly realm if only for a few hours or days in order to be crucified, descend to Hades and be resurrected before ascending back to heaven. Or maybe my reservation is adding an unnecessary hypothetical to the mix. Or is it consistent with other evidence not discussed in this chapter? No matter, Lataster makes his point: agnosticism is justified by the gaps and ambiguities and problematic manuscript traditions in the evidence.
Next post we’ll continue with Lataster’s discussion of Problems of Paul.
Lataster, Raphael. 2019. Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse. Leiden: Brill. https://brill.com/abstract/title/54738.
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