2019-10-13

Review part 6: Questioning the Historicity of Jesus / Lataster (The Problems of Paul – 1)

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by Neil Godfrey

https://brill.com/abstract/title/54738

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.

Vridar posts addressing the “born of a woman” passage in Galatians: The “Born of a Woman” / Galatians 4:4 INDEX

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.

Paul’s Sources

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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Neil Godfrey

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14 Comments

  • James Barlow
    2019-10-13 13:40:22 GMT+0000 - 13:40 | Permalink

    “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.”

    EXACTLY!!!

  • James Barlow
    2019-10-13 13:51:46 GMT+0000 - 13:51 | Permalink

    “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.”
    On the points of alignment for the Ascension of Isaiah (vi. – xi.) and Pauline christological thought the locale of the ‘death’ that sprang the Beloved into sheol for the sake of his rescue mission isn’t as important as the spiritual realty of its having happened. It’s only later, after the disaster of 66-70 that questions regarding the when and how of the death us asked of the kerygmatists.

  • Giuseppe
    2019-10-13 15:19:29 GMT+0000 - 15:19 | Permalink

    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)

    Especially, docetic views so soon after the his presumed existence.

    Ignatius, Ephesians 9:

    Now the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world, as was also her offspring, and the death of the Lord.

    The point of Ignatius is that if you judaize insofar you deny the historicity of Jesus just as these Jews were doing there out, then you fall prey of «the snares of the prince of this world», who in turn didn’t know that Jesus was born and was killed under Pilate.

    But if any one preach the Jewish law unto you, listen not to him. For it is better to hearken to Christian doctrine from a man who has been circumcised, than to Judaism from one uncircumcised. But if either of such persons do not speak concerning Jesus Christ, they are in my judgment but as monuments and sepulchres of the dead, upon which are written only the names of men. Flee therefore the wicked devices and snares of the prince of this world, lest at any time being conquered by his artifices,

    http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm

    According to Ignatius, the Docetists judaized when they gave up to believe in the Jesus of flesh; they christianized insofar they claimed the spiritual Christ with even more strength.

    “ I have heard certain men say : If I do not find (a certain thing) in the archives, I do not believe in the Gospel. And as I replied to them : It is written (in the Old Testament) they answered : ‘ That is the very question.’ But for me the archives are Jesus Christ, His cross, His death. His resurrection, and the faith which comes from Him.”
    (Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians)

  • David Oliver Smith
    2019-10-13 16:09:34 GMT+0000 - 16:09 | Permalink

    Neil,

    I am a confirmed mythicist; however, I have discovered evidence that “born of a woman” in Gal 4:4 is original to Paul. I have been studying Paul’s “authentic” epistles and I find numerous chiastic structures. I have a current project documenting detected interpolations by discovering where they interrupt a particular chiastic structure. Also this method can confirm original passages by showing that they fit into the structure. This, of course, assumes the chiastic structures are original to Paul and the interpolators were unaware of the structure. In any case, it turns out that Gal 4 has a chiastic structure e.g., “child” and “bond servant” in 4:1 match “children” and “handmaid” in 4:31. Without going through the entire structure, “born of a woman” “born under the law” in 4:4 match “born after the flesh” “born after the spirit” in 4:29″. My conclusion is that “born of a woman” is original to whomever wrote Galatians.

    • 2019-10-14 15:44:33 GMT+0000 - 15:44 | Permalink

      Hi David,

      #1) I agree with you.
      #2) I’ve been looking for a way to contact you for some time but haven’t been able to. Would you mind contacting me? You can find my e-mail on my website here: http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/

    • db
      2019-10-14 18:44:46 GMT+0000 - 18:44 | Permalink

      David Oliver Smith what is your position on the following:
      Per Paul, the old covenant with Israel is no longer extant and that the “restoration” (previously for Israel only) is now applicable to any devotee of the Christ lord—being the novel innovation of Paul/Mark.

      • David Oliver Smith
        2019-10-14 19:45:36 GMT+0000 - 19:45 | Permalink

        db,

        I think that’s basically correct. I think Paul broke with the Jerusalem apostles over the question of whether Christ had been crucified (in the celestial realm). See my article “Another Jesus, the Christology of Paul’s Opponents,” Journal of Higher Criticism Vol 13, No 2, pp 45-64 (2018). The JA believed that Daniel’s “one like a son of man” would be sent by God to establish the kingdom of God governed by Mosaic law (a Jewish kingdom). Paul interpreted Isaiah to say that a crucified messiah would be sent to redeem all mankind. But the redeemed had to have faith in the crucifixion and resurrection.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2019-10-17 02:09:14 GMT+0000 - 02:09 | Permalink

      Your argument would lend support to Richard Carrier’s view that 4:4 is allegorical in the same way that verses 29-31 address allegory.

      But does the chiasm work so well with the original Greek?

  • 2019-10-14 00:36:12 GMT+0000 - 00:36 | Permalink

    Mr. D.O. Smith

    Thanks for this comment. Interesting. I myself am still looking at this issue as well. If you are right about its authenticity where do you think Paul came up with this info? And if tradition is involved, why is he unaware of “Mary” as the woman in view? Would he have mentioned her if it was true historical tradition? I am aware Paul knows little of Jesus’ life and mission as the gospels portray. And why the juxtaposition with the “women” Hagar and Sarah so close in the context?

    • David Oliver Smith
      2019-10-14 05:09:26 GMT+0000 - 05:09 | Permalink

      Martin,

      I don’t think Paul really thought that Jesus was born of a woman on earth. I go along with Carrier’s metaphorical mother.

      • MrHorse
        2019-10-14 09:24:52 GMT+0000 - 09:24 | Permalink

        And Neil has noted that “Bart Ehrman’s discussion of this passage in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture which notes …

        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.”

        (The other point Neil noted that Bart noted is interesting too “a) “there is compelling evidence in the writings of the earliest church fathers that, while surrounding passages…were well known, the particular passage with “born of woman” [Gal 4:4] is not in evidence at all, even though it would have served decisive blows in the theological arguments those fathers were attempting to make”

      • 2019-10-15 06:14:38 GMT+0000 - 06:14 | Permalink

        No problem Mr. Smith

        …I wasn’t assuming too much in your comments. It sounded like that at first reading…. but I understand you are working on some sort of criteria for detecting “interpolations” .. Is that correct?

        Interestingly, in the same chapter Paul calls or thinks or talks like Jesus was an “angel”. Born under a woman sounds funny too, given every human being has been born from a woman !!!..just weird…and sounds quite polemic in some ways to me as well…

        I tend to agree with Carrier and others as well about the metaphorical nature of the term in that context regarding Hagar, etc. Hagar gives birth to Torah oriented children, who are under the curse and Sarah gives birth to “spirit” oriented children who receive the promise of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was born as a spirit-oriented man according to Paul– note his oft “pneumatic man” stuff in Corinthians and Galatians .. Jesus was born a life-giving spirit…Anyway

        Cheers

        Marty

  • 2019-10-14 00:38:04 GMT+0000 - 00:38 | Permalink

    Sorry for the sentence “Would he have (not)..” I meant to insert that but I forgot.

  • 2019-10-14 15:58:02 GMT+0000 - 15:58 | Permalink

    From the sounds of it I like what Lataster has to say. I’m trying to get a review copy of his book now but am having some trouble with Brill’s website.

    It sounds like Lataster may be touching on a point that I’m going to be making as well, which is that the later pseudo-Pauline works actually present a more clearly spiritual version of Jesus, certainly Ephesians. The way we really need to think about the pseudo-Pauline works is as early interpretations of Paul. Pseudonymous writers typically tried to mimic the style and ideas of those they were impersonating. By seeing that many of the pseudo-Pauline letters present a very spiritual Jesus, this tells us that the earliest interpretations of Paul were along the lines of a spiritual Jesus. The same goes with Marcion. That Marcion viewed Paul’s letters as support for his view tells us that people in the 2nd century believed that the message of Paul was of a spiritual Jesus.

    And what we know, actually, is that the case AGAINST this view, the case against the spiritual Jesus in favor of a flesh and blood Jesus, was made on the basis of the Gospels, not on Paul’s letters. The arguments of Nicene apologists in favor of the view that Jesus was a real person always rested squarely on the Gospels. Without the Gospels there is no way that the view that Jesus was flesh and blood, as opposed to spiritual, would ever have won out. It was only the Gospels that made the argument that Jesus was a real person possible.

    That was true in the 2nd-4th centuries, and it remains true today. You can’t defend the historicity of Jesus with any epistles. It never was possible and it remains impossible today. There are no early apologists that rested their case on epistles, and for good reason.

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