Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #4

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by Neil Godfrey

The point of this post is to demonstrate how easy it is to read documents from the perspective of commonly accepted knowledge and mistakenly misread them, thinking they say what we have always assumed they say, and to fail to register that the original texts are not quite as clear in their meaning — nor even as assuredly “authentic” — as we have always assumed.

A historian needs to work with facts to have any chance of proposing a narrative or hypothesis that is going to stand up to scrutiny. The facts lie in the sources we use. But sources must be interpreted and it is easy to read into a source what we think it must be saying.

We are taking as our starting point in these posts the youtube presentation of Tim O’Neill, Did Jesus Exist? Yes (Probably).


From 8 min 20 sec:

The key point here is that … Paul’s letters … do contain references that indicate Paul understood Jesus to have been a recent, historical, and earthly human being who was elevated to higher status after his death

Re “recent”

Fact Interpretation External facts / context related to interpretation
In Romans we read it said that the revelation about Jesus is recent; it is the revelation of Jesus that happened in Paul’s time.

Romans 16:25-26

the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God 

The things revealed in that revelation happened “now”, “very recently”. 1 Peter 1:18-20

… you were redeemed … with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.

Belief in the recency of an event does not support its historical truth: Examples…

Ancient writings inform us that the ancients also believed gods and goddesses (sometimes in human form) were periodically seen by sundry eyewitnesses and not only in a mythical time.

The second-century author Lucian wrote a biography of his teacher, Demonax, whom many readers have subsequently assumedwrongly — to have been a historical figure.

Ned Ludd was understood to have been a recent figure, if not a contemporary, of protestors in eighteenth-century England.

Re “historical”

Fact Interpretation External facts / context related to interpretation
No historical context is found for Jesus in Paul’s letters except for:

1 Thessalonians 2:14-15

in Judea … those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. 

but scholars are not agreed that this passage is genuinely from Paul so it is not a secure base from which to make a point about Paul’s thought. See https://vridar.org/tag/1-thessalonians-213-16/ for the scholars’ reasons for interpolation.

1 Timothy 6:13

Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession 

Overwhelmingly critical scholars agree that 1 Timothy was not written by Paul.

When the 1 Thessalonians 2 passage is cited, since not all scholars agree it is an interpolation, it is thought sufficient to casually dismiss the interpolation thesis as unlikely.

More generally, the simple fact that Paul wrote of the Christ event as reality is taken as proof that there was a historical person behind it.

Ancient historians, like modern historians, sometimes wrote about persons and events they believed to be historical but in fact weren’t.

Re “earthly”

Fact Interpretation External facts / context related to interpretation
As above; additionally…

1 Corinthians 2:8

… the rulers of this age … crucified the Lord of glory.

Also “born of woman” — see below

Events imagined to have happened on earth are presumably historical.

“Rulers of this age” are assumed to have been the rulers of Judea and Rome we read about in the gospels who were responsible for the crucifixion.

Until Earl Doherty in the 1990s advanced his thesis that Paul believed “the Christ event” occurred entirely in a “heavenly realm”, albeit a sublunar one, the Christ myth idea generally understood Paul’s letters to speak of birth, life and death of Jesus on earth. Apart from a very early view that the entire gospel story was fleshed out from astrological beliefs, the only exception that I am aware of is the view of Paul-Louis Couchoud who anticipated Doherty’s views, though Doherty’s thesis was his own. Richard Carrier has further elaborated and popularized Doherty’s entirely “celestial Christ”. Such has been the success of the Doherty-Carrier Christ myth view that among some quarters it has become equated with the Christ Myth theory itself and it appears that some critics are unaware that there is an alternative. However, most Christ myth views over the decades have accepted Paul’s view of Jesus as an earthly human. The Christ myth thesis certainly does not stand or fall upon the thoroughly “celestial Christ” view of Doherty-Carrier. The “celestial Christ” hypothesis is not the foundation or reason Doherty became sceptical of the historicity of Jesus. Carrier raises many problems with the historicity thesis that stand apart from the “celestial Christ” idea.

*My own view of the question is different from above. I point out opposing arguments when I think they are unfairly ignored.

Re “human being”

Fact Interpretation External facts / context related to interpretation
Philippians 2:8

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death– even death on a cross!

Also “born of woman” — see below

Jesus was a man who could die. Historical figures are human but so are mythical, literary, fictitious figures. Witness Domonax and Ned Ludd above.

Many Greek and Roman gods were known to be born to human mothers or fathered by humans and subsequently appeared as normal humans with all the human appetites and feelings and subject to death. Does that make any of them historical? Of course not.

Re “elevated to a higher status after his death”

Fact Interpretation External facts / context related to interpretation
Philippians 2:2-11

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 

Like other human heroes Jesus came to be viewed as reaching a very high status in the heavens after his death. The preceding verses point out that Jesus was “in the form of” or in the “nature of” God and equal with God before he took on the appearance of man to die on the cross. He returned to his former glory with enhanced recognition.


Continuing from the video:

He clearly believed Jesus had had a heavenly pre-existence which was a common Jewish idea about the messiah at the time

Re: “a heavenly pre-existence”

Fact Interpretation External facts / context related to interpretation
Galatians 4:4

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son 

Philippians 2:6-7

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing 

The statements about heavenly pre-existence are theological beliefs but not historical. Only the appearance of a man who was later thought to be God’s Son is historical. Paul implies that Jesus is not an ordinary man but a man who began existence as equal with God and after a short hiatus “in appearance as a man” and dying on a cross his real nature was restored and universally revealed and acknowledged.

Re “which was a common Jewish idea about the messiah at the time”

No, it wasn’t “a common Jewish idea about the messiah at the time” at all. That assertion is just made up. In the Dead Sea Scrolls we find a reference to God “begetting” the Messiah so presumably he becomes God’s son from that moment. But I am not aware that there is any claim for the Messiah’s pre-existence in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Indeed, there are two Messiahs in the DSS, a kingly and a priestly one. The views expressed in the DSS literature are inconsistent and sparse. Of the period in history we are talking about, James Charlesworth writes:

We simply do not know which of the earlier traditions [about the messiah] were most dear to the Essenes living at Qumran in the first century C.E. (Charlesworth, 233)

The other source for messianic beliefs in the first century is the collection of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. This corpus of sixty-five documents contains some Christian interpolations so care must be taken in any attempt to use them for first-century Jewish beliefs. In 1 Enoch we read that the Messiah will come to earth at some time so he presumably has a pre-earthly existence. In the same text the Messiah is even identified with the Son of Man (cf Daniel) and given a name before the creation of the sun, moon and stars. Because such testimony is so rare, Charlesworth concludes that before Christianity and before the year 70 there was only one group, one,

in Early Judaism [that] held messianic beliefs in which the Messiah was identified with the Servant and one like a Son of Man. (Charlesworth, 241)

A wide range of views on where the Messiah comes from and what he will do populate the Pseudepigrapha. I must post the list of these. For now, though, it is enough to note that beliefs about the Messiah were wide-ranging and far from uniform or universal. A good number of Jews appear to have had no view about a Messiah and understood God himself would intervene in the last days. But that the messiah had a heavenly pre-existence is evidently not “a common Jewish idea at the time”!


From 9 min 13 sec:

Saint (sic) Paul says Jesus was born as a human . . .  — he refers to his teachings that Jesus made during in his earthly ministry, on divorce, on preachers and on the coming apocalypse.

Re “born as a human”

Fact Interpretation External facts / context related to interpretation
Galatians 4:4

God sent his Son, born of a woman

Paul may or may not have known of Jesus’ mother Mary.

The verse continues by saying that Jesus was “born under the law” — that is, as a Jew.

Biographical details do not normally begin with the heavenly existence of a person with the explanation that the person was “born of a woman” following.

Paul’s discussion is theological: explaining how the heavenly and spiritual supersede the earthly and fleshly.

The Greek word translated “born” is not the usual word for “born”. See the explanation below.

As for being “born under the law”, Paul is discussing a theological event in the context of allegories. I don’t think Galatians 4:4 is allegorical, however. Paul did understand Jesus to have been “made” from a woman and lived as a Jew “under the law” in Judea.

Paul uses unusual language to describe this “birth”. I cite no less an authority than Bart Ehrman to explain:

In Galatians 4:4, Paul says that God “sent forth his Son, come from a woman, come under the law” (γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός, γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον). The verse was used by the orthodox to oppose the Gnostic claim that Christ came through Mary “as water through a pipe,” taking nothing of its conduit into itself; for here the apostle states that Christ was “made from a woman” (so Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. III 22, 1, and Tertullian, de came Christi, 20). Irenaeus also uses the text against docetists to show that Christ was actually a man, in that he came from a woman (Adv. Haer. V, 21, 1). It should strike us as odd that Tertullian never quotes the verse against Marcion, despite his lengthy demonstration that Christ was actually “born.” This can scarcely be attributed to oversight, and so is more likely due to the circumstance that the generally received Latin text of the verse does not speak of Christ’s birth per se, but of his “having been made” (factum ex muliere).

Given its relevance to just such controversies, it is no surprise to see that the verse was changed on occasion, and in precisely the direction one might expect: in several Old Latin manuscripts the text reads: misit deus filium suum, natum ex muliere (“God sent his Son, born of a woman”), a reading
that would have proved useful to Tertullian had he known it. (Ehrman, 239)

We know from extra-canonical writings of the early church that Jesus’ “birth” from Mary was unnatural. In one version Jesus is one moment in Mary’s womb and the next, lo and behold, he miraculously appears beside her. Like a magic trick. In another version, Mary’s hymen is unbroken so Jesus appears to have slipped through the way he would later move through closed doors and walls. Who knows what Paul visualized. He was making a theological point in Galatians, not a historical or biographical one.

Re: “teachings that Jesus made during his earthly ministry, on divorce, on preachers and on the coming apocalypse

Continuing in the next post.


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4 thoughts on “Getting History for Atheists Wrong (Again) — #4”

  1. I tend to favor the “Jesus was/is a celestial being” interpretation of Paul. Paul claims he acquited his teachings from Hebrew Bible prophecy, and direct revelation. He claims he got none of his teachings from “men.” If this is so, and I have no reason to doubt this, where did Paul get his knowledge of Jesus’s activities on Earth? They must have come from Jesus himself, so why would Jesus be so paltry regarding the facts of his earthly mission if everything Jesus went through was supposed to serve his earthly mission? So Jesus sics Paul on the gentiles and tells him, don’t worry about my earthly mission, there isn’t much “there” there?

    Is great puzzlement! I tend to favor approaches that take scripture at face value and then step back and look at the picture/narrative as a whole and see what it says. Of course, context is important, so Paul must be considered in a context in which the Book of Daniel was widespread, no “historically focused” gospels were in circulation (probably), etc.

    1. I think the mystery being said to have existed for a long time, but is only “now revealed and made known through [reinterpreting] the prophetic writings”, what some scholars have called ‘proof from prophecy’ but, as is implied by inserting ‘reinterpreting’, is just that: aka eisegesis / pesher & new midrashim.

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