The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Apostle Paul And The Existence Of Jesus

By: Sean Rice

"The Apostle Paul," writes the agnostic and best-selling Bible scholar Bart Ehrman in his newest book, Did Jesus Exist?, "is our earliest surviving Christian author of any kind... Paul was writing some years beforethe Gospels. His first letter (1 Thessalonians) is usually dated to 49 AD [which is just sixteen short years after Jesus' death on the cross in 33 AD]... Paul understood Jesus to be a historical figure, a Jew who lived, taught, and was crucified at the instigation of Jewish opposition."[1] What Bart Ehrman is saying, then, is that Paul is one of our earliest witnesses to the life of Jesus Christ - one who should be taken seriously.

How do we know that Paul actually wrote letters about Jesus shortly after Christ's death on the cross? (We'll leave the resurrection part out just for now.) Maybe some later Christian made up the persona of Paul, pretended to be him, and wrote untrue things about Jesus. Maybe there never was a man named Paul. There are no recognized scholars -agnostic, atheist, or Christian- who actually believe that Paul wasn't a historical person, but the question deserves to be asked. If "Paul" was a later Christian author hiding behind an elaborate persona, he sure didn't have much time to make things up. By 96 AD Paul was already widely known by Christians all over the Roman Empire as the man who "taught... the whole world" about Jesus (1 Clement 5:5), and his first letter to the Corinthians was already considered Scripture written "under the inspiration of the Spirit" (1 Clement 47:3). Think about how early Paul and his letters would have needed to be around in order to achieve that kind of renown and name recognition!

In Paul's letters, he sometimes mentions that he "received" most of his information about Jesus from someone else [2]. He does this, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15.3-7. The question then is, well, who were Paul's sources? By his own admission he never knew Jesus before he was crucified. The apostle tells us what his sources are in Galatians 1.18-19. Three years after his conversion in the mid-30's AD [3], he went to visit Peter (Cephas) and Jesus' younger brother James in Jerusalem. As far as sources go, Jesus' right-hand man (Peter) and his kid brother (James) are good people to know. If Jesus didn't exist, wasn't crucified, didn't die on the cross, and didn't rise again, you would think that Jesus' little brother and his closest friend would know something about it. So when Paul writes about Jesus, these are the sources that he is using. He also mentions, in connection with the resurrection, another "five hundred" people who saw Jesus after he rose from death (1 Corinthians 15.6). Add all of those things up, and Paul gives us a pretty solid basis for our beliefs about who Jesus was, what Jesus did, and what Jesus taught.

If Paul had good sources for what he wrote about Jesus, we might want to stop and take some time to look at what Paul actually said about him, and what Paul knew about his life. Hover over Scripture references with your mouse to see the verses.

God: Jesus is "Lord of glory" (1 Cor 2.8), creator of all (Col 1.16-18), and God (Rom 9.5)
Birth: Jesus was born of a woman (Gal 4.4)   
Lineage: a descendant of King David (Rom 1.3) and of Abraham, therefore Jewish (Gal 3.16)  
Siblings: mentions brothers in 1 Cor 9.5, specifically James in Gal 1.19 
Economic Status: mentions that Jesus "became poor" in 2 Cor 8.9 
Disciples: "twelve" disciples, including Peter/Cephas (1 Cor 15.5) and John (Gal 2.9
Teaching: calls him "the Lord", alludes to teaching (1 Cor 7.101 Cor 9.141 Cor 11.23-26
Betrayal by Judas: mentions "the night [Jesus] was betrayed" in 1 Cor 11.23-24
Crucifixion: died on a cross (Phil 2.8)
Burial: Jesus was buried, (Rom 6.41Cor 15.4Col 2.12)
Resurrection: mentioned, for example, in 1 Corinthians, especially 1 Cor 15.12-13 
Ascension: ascended into heaven (Eph 4.8-10

Taken together, this shows a pretty well-defined picture of who Jesus was!

As Bart Ehrman (an atheist, mind you, not a Christian with a vested interest) puts it, those who don't think that Jesus really lived claim "that these references to Jesus were not originally in Paul's writings but were inserted by later Christian scribes".[4] But this is no way to do history! This is a cheap way of ignoring the evidence about who Jesus really was, or is. Ehrman mockingly dismisses this argument against Jesus' existence by saying "If historical evidence proves inconvenient to one's views, then simply claim that the evidence does not exist, and suddenly you're right"![5] To disprove the claim, though, Bart Ehrman writes "there is no textual evidence that these passages were not original... they appear in every single manuscript of Paul that we have".[6] He also writes,

"if scribes were so concerned to insert aspects of Jesus's life into Paul's writings, it is passing strange that they were not more thorough in doing so, for example, by inserting comments about Jesus' virgin birth in Bethlehem, his parables, his miracles, his trial before Pilate, and so forth...whatever else one thinks about Paul's view of Jesus -and however one explains why Paul himself does not say more- it is safe to say that he knew that Jesus existed and that he knew some fundamentally important things about Jesus's life and death."[7]

Drawing mainly from the non-Christian author Bart Ehrman, we've learned (1) that Paul was an extremely early source about Jesus, converted within a very short time of Jesus' death, and writing his first letter within sixteen years from the death of Jesus, (2) that Paul's own sources were the Apostle Peter and Jesus' brother James, (3) that there are very good reasons to believe Paul was also a historical figure who wrote when he appears to have written, (4) that Paul mentions a wide number of facts and beliefs about Jesus that he would have definitely gotten from Peter and James, and (5) that arguments against the evidence for Jesus in Paul are not very good and wouldn't be allowed to win in any respectable debating forum.

That said, with all of this evidence for Jesus' existence, Bart Ehrman still does not believe that Jesus is God, that he was resurrected from the dead, or that he really was born of a virgin, did miracles, or cast out demons. I think that Ehrman's unbelief is the result of huge personal bias on his part. Bart Ehrman thinks that Peter and James' information (especially that of James) makes for an almost airtight case when it comes to details about Jesus' life. But somehow, when it comes to details with bigger implications like the resurrection, this evidence is not good enough - at least not in this one case. In an upcoming post I will explain how I can so heavily lean on the arguments of a man with whom I so thoroughly disagree. But for now, I think that a good case for the existence of Jesus in Paul's letters has been made. Let's leave it at that.

Signing off,
-Sean Rice


[1] Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, pg. 117-118
[2] Ehrman writes "Even where Paul does not state that he is handing on received tradition, there are places where it is clear he is doing so. I have mentioned, for example, Romans 1:3-4... This creed was not written by Paul: it uses words and phrases not otherwise found in Paul (for example, spirit of holiness) and contains concepts otherwise alien to Paul... He is using, then, an earlier creed that was in circulation before his writing." -Did Jesus Exist?, pg. 130
[3] Paul converted sometime in the 30's AD. This is shown based on the fact that in 2 Cor 11:32 Paul mentions that King Aretas of the Nabateans tried to "seize" him. But, King Aretas died around year 40 AD. So Paul must have converted some time before that, in the 30's.
[4] Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, pg. 118
[5] Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, ibid.
[6] Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, pg. 133
[7] Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, ibid.

1 comment:

  1. Sean,

    Good job. A couple of things though.

    Can you show me where Ehrman claims to be an atheist? I know he is agnostic (maybe skeptic would be a better word), but I'm not sure about being an Atheist. I've only read 'Misquoting Jesus' from which I had no impression that he was an atheist.

    With regard to Paul's sources, it seems to me that he takes great effort to show that he did not receive his gospel from men especially any of the other apostles (his apostolic authority was under attack), though he confirms that he did meet with Peter and James for a couple of weeks, Gal 1:18, 19. He is clear that he did not receive the Gospel from men but by revelation from Jesus Christ himself, Gal 1:11, 12.

    With regard to this revelation from Christ, it is extremely unlikely that Paul is referring to the appearance of Christ on the Damascus road becasue (a) there is no record in Acts that Jesus gave any exposition of the Gospel to Paul, at least not the fullness of it that we find in Paul's letters, (b) that appearance was too brief for any exposition, (c) Paul himself never alludes to that time explicitly as the time he received the gospel by revelation from Christ.

    It seems more likely the time he spent in Arabia was when he received this revelation, Gal 1:15-17.

    Whenever it was, it included things that were hitherto unrevealed to the people of God, Eph 1:9,10; 3:2-6.

    This does not mean he didn't have any discussions with any of the apostles regarding Christ's earthly ministry (not the gospel per se), or had no information by non-revelatory means. His awareness of the post-resurrection appearances indicates he had consulted with others about the life of Christ and the early days after his resurrection, 1 Cor 15:5-8.