The Pauline Epistles – Part One
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Born of woman, born under the Law: authentic to Paul?
- Jesus ministering to the Jews
- a “missing equation”: Paul’s Christ = the Gospel Jesus
- Romans 1:3 – “of David’s seed kata sarka“
- “brother(s) of the Lord”: a preliminary look
- “the twelve”
- Paul’s “Lord’s Supper” a revelation
- “betrayed” or “handed over” by God?
- “at night”
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16: “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus”
* * * * *
The Witness of Paul
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 117-125)
I would like to think that Bart Ehrman could at least have provided a few new insights, some new arguments to explain the silence in Paul on an historical Jesus (and by extension in all the other epistle writers). But once again he disappoints the hungry historicist. This is the same old stale table fare, and it provides no nourishment for those starved of healthy evidence that Paul knew an historical Jesus.
By way of introduction to his ‘evidence,’ Ehrman appeals to the old bugaboo that mythicists are nothing more than interpolation experts, throwing out inconvenient passages right and left. Not only is this a vast exaggeration (certainly where I myself am concerned), he fails to grapple with mythicist arguments in favor of interpolation when they do occur.
Born of Woman?
The first Pauline passage Ehrman spotlights is one of those cases. Galatians 4:4 allegedly contained the phrase “born of woman, born under the Law.” While it is possible to interpret this in a mythicist context (see below and Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, chapter 15, which discusses both the authentic and inauthentic options), I now believe interpolation to be the preferable choice. Ironically, Ehrman himself has given us some grounds to consider this.
In his (far superior) book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, he points out that in the manuscript record this phrase was a favorite for doctoring by later scribes, who changed the operative participle to supposedly better reflect a fully human Jesus in opposition to Gnostics who were claiming that Christ was docetic.
Taken with the fact that Tertullian seems to indicate that the phrase was lacking in Marcion’s version of Galatians, we are justified in suggesting that the phrase could earlier have been inserted in its entirety for the same purpose. It can also be demonstrated that the idea in the phrase itself serves no practical purpose in the passage. And it has been asked why Paul would have needed to make the obvious statement that an historical Jesus had been “born of woman.”
“Ginomai” vs. “Gennaō”
On the authenticity side of the coin, for the word translated as “born” in regard to Jesus (including in Romans 1:3) Paul uses a different verb (ginomai) than that used for every other reference to anyone being born in the New Testament, including by Paul himself only a few paragraphs later, and for Jesus’ birth in the Gospels (gennaō and occasionally tiktō). What distinction requiring a different verb (one generally meaning “come/become” or “arise”) would Paul have had in mind for Jesus? Possibly a mythical ‘birth’ such as we see in Revelation 12, where the Messiah is born in the heavens to a woman “clothed with the sun”?
It is certainly true that he never tells us the name of this “woman.” Was he simply giving voice to the ‘prophecy’ in Isaiah 7:14 about a young woman about to bear a son, just as he seems to have done in calling Jesus “of David’s seed” on the basis of predictions in the prophets (Romans 1:2-3)? Did he have to understand any of it on a rational basis as long as it was to be found in scripture?
Either way, there is much reason to doubt the reliability of this phrase in Galatians 4:4 as a reference to an historical Jesus, and it hardly deserves to be characterized as simple mythicist interpolation mania.
Ministering to the Jews
Ehrman makes the further point that “born under the Law” indicates that “Jesus’ mission was to Jews.” And this is borne out where? Would this be from an apostle whose focus audience is entirely the gentiles and their freedom from the Law; from an apostle who nowhere appeals to Jesus’ preaching to make any point about who his mission was aimed at, or how he might have felt about the requirements for gentiles? Nor does Paul deal with the contrast between Jesus’ supposed ministry to the Jews and his own ministry to the gentiles.
Ehrman has here added another indicator that the phrase in dispute would have had no relevance to Paul’s own mission, much less his argument in Galatians 4. It might even have complicated his message, requiring at least some clarification.
Ehrman calls on Romans 15:8 for support:
For I say that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show the truthfulness of God, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs.
Again Ehrman is being atomistic, ignoring the context. First of all, if we back up as far as 15:3, we find Paul saying:
For Christ did not please himself, but, as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. [RSV]
Here Paul quotes scripture (Psalm 69:9), implying that these words are the voice of Jesus and a reference to himself, something we have encountered all through the epistles. Such words in scripture are given for our instruction, he says, and for our encouragement. No reference is made to any words of Jesus on earth for the purpose of instruction and encouragement. And no specification of an earthly ministry is present; Christ could become a “servant” entirely through spiritual channels.
In fact, the verb usually translated as “became” in 15:8 is actually in the perfect tense, “has become,” suggesting an ongoing condition through such channels, not something relegated to a past on earth. (A few manuscripts show the aorist tense of the verb, which could still refer to service through the spirit, beginning in the recent past, but translators find this variant convenient for rendering the verb in the past and understanding an earthly ministry.)
Was 15:8, quoted by Ehrman (above), offered by Paul in order to make, for its own sake, the statement that Christ ministered to the Jews? No, the thought serves a different purpose. Note that the focus right after this statement is upon how God through scripture has made promises to the gentiles (15:9-12). Paul’s interest here is on anything but Jews and Jesus’ earthly ministry to them, which would have had nothing to do with that focus on the gentiles.
Rather, Jesus’ service to the Jews shows that God kept his promises to the patriarchs, promises which related to the Jewish nation. Christ ‘serving’ the Jews was called upon simply to illustrate the truthfulness of God’s promises. (And to show where his interests really lie, Paul adds: “and at the same time to give the gentiles cause to glorify God for his mercy.”) Paul has brought up the fulfillment of promises to the Jews to lend credence to God’s other alleged promises: those to the gentiles, as embodied in the scriptural passages he quotes.
A missing equation
Ehrman sums up his claim about 15:8 with this statement:
This claim that Jesus’s ministry was to and for Jews, to fulfill what was promised in the scriptures, hints at one of the most important points Paul makes about Jesus, that he was in fact the Jewish messiah. (DJE? p. 119)
Here Ehrman has put his finger on precisely the opposite: on a missing equation throughout the entire body of epistles. Paul makes no such “point” anywhere. He never tells us that the man Jesus, the figure of Jesus of Nazareth later to be so identified in the Gospels, “was in fact the Jewish messiah.” Paul refers to his Jesus figure as “Messiah/Christ” but this does not constitute the missing equation, because the other half is lacking. No man on earth is ever identified with Paul’s Christ.
Paul has much to say about “faith” in his letters, faith in Jesus as the path to eternal life, faith that God has raised him from the dead, and so on, but never does he state the primary faith required before all of these, that the man Jesus of Nazareth — or however Paul might have identified him — had been the incarnation of the divine, redeeming Son he is preaching. Important or otherwise, Paul never makes this point about his Jesus. Ehrman is simply reading it into Paul.
Romans 1: Descended from David?
He also says that
Paul insisted that Jesus was a physical descendant of David. (DJE? p. 119)
Well, one (and only one) alleged reference to such a thing is hardly insistence. And in Romans 1:3, Paul clearly identifies the source for this statement: it is to be found in the gospel about God’s son in the prophets. In other words, whatever he means by the phrase, he is basing it on a perceived announcement about the Son in scripture: the source of everything else he says about his Christ. Historical tradition is not in sight, here or anywhere else.
Ehrman and others regularly translate 1:3 as
descended from David according to the flesh.
But the Greek is not “descended from David.” It is “of David’s seed.”
In other contexts Paul presents figures as being of someone’s “seed” in a non-literal sense, as in Romans 9:6-8 where the gentiles are “seed of Abraham,” which hardly means physical descent. He says that Christ himself is “seed” of Abraham in Galatians 3:16 on the basis of a contorted reading of scripture, with no appeal to actual physical descent (which would have made his job much simpler). Thus, there is no good reason to pontifically deny the possibility of a mystical and scripture-based meaning to 1:3. (See Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, p.167-172.)
As for “according to the flesh” (kata sarka), it should hardly have been necessary to say this in the context of describing a human man’s descent from another human man. On the other hand, if the phrase refers to Christ’s relationship to the realm of flesh and human beings (when he took on the “likeness” of a man to undergo sacrifice in the sphere of the demons), it complements verse 4’s “kata pneuma” detailing what happened, based on Psalm 2:8, when he was resurrected to God in the realm of pure spirit. The two verses also complement one another in that both are derived from scripture, for that is the way verse 2 has introduced them.
Brother(s) of the Lord: a preliminary look
Ehrman makes some preliminary remarks about the phrase “brother(s) of the Lord” while leaving a full discussion of it until a later chapter. But I note an amusing aspect of it here. He points to Paul’s reference to “brothers of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 9:5 in the context of discussing the right of an apostle to bring along a wife on his journeys. Ehrman contends that any claim that this phrase could be a reference to ‘spiritual brothers’ in the sense that “in Christ all men are brothers” (though this is not how I would style it) would make no sense, because Paul next enumerates “the apostles and Cephas,” and this separate enumeration would exclude the latter men from being among such “spiritual brothers.” Thus, “brothers of the Lord” must mean Jesus’ siblings.
What is amusing is that a couple of paragraphs later, when discussing the appearances of Jesus to various believers in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7, Ehrman contends that just because Paul separately enumerates “Cephas” (Peter) and then “the twelve,” this does not mean that Cephas was not included in the twelve. Diametrically opposite conclusions based on the identical occurrence of separate enumeration!
Be that as it may, in the earlier passage Cephas may belong to the “brothers of the Lord” but is being highlighted for emphasis. Or it may be, as I would suggest, that the phrase refers to an original core group within the Jerusalem sect, which has since expanded to include apostles responsible for outside missionary work, and they do not fall under the heading of “brothers of the Lord.” Speculative perhaps, but when feasible alternative interpretations are available, it is unwise to declare that only one understanding is possible.
Ehrman has also declared only one understanding of “the twelve” in 15:5. But since Paul does separately enumerate them from Cephas and later from “all the apostles,” it is feasible that the “twelve” refers not to the Gospel disciples of Jesus but to something else, perhaps an administrative body in the sect, such as is suggested in Acts 6:2. Certainly, Paul nowhere else refers to the ‘twelve apostles.’ Nor does any other epistle writer. And Ehrman is forced to wriggle his way out of a “twelve” which was really only eleven after the exit of Judas.
In regard to Galatians 1:18-20 in which Paul is recounting his first visit to Jerusalem when he met two of the old guard, Ehrman makes an interesting claim that Paul is differentiating the two, Cephas and James, by describing the latter as the brother of Jesus. If the phrase were meant as a ‘spiritual brother,’ or simply one of the ‘brethren’ of the sect, this would be no differentiation, since Cephas, too, should have been such a brother.
But again, Ehrman is seeing only his own preferred understanding. We don’t know if Cephas fell within a core group that might have been known as “brothers/brethren of the Lord.” If he did not, perhaps there is a differentiation involved, in that Cephas was an “apostle” along with the other apostles whom Paul says he did not meet, but James was not, because he didn’t undertake outside missionary work and was in fact part of the original group of resident ‘brethren’. Or, Paul could simply be identifying James as one of the brethren — perhaps because he was less known to his readers than Cephas, and Paul felt he needed such a designation. There are a host of possibilities, including that the phrase began as a marginal gloss by a later scribe, to specify that this James was the sibling of Jesus to differentiate him from the Gospel apostle James.
“I am not lying!”
But there is one curiosity Ehrman touches on. After informing his readers of his visit to Jerusalem and seeing Cephas and James, we hear Paul declaring:
What I write is plain truth! Before God, I am not lying!
Now why would Paul have to be adamant about the fact that he met only Cephas and James? Would anyone be accusing him of lying about that? Is Ehrman trying to convey that Paul thinks his readers would not believe that James was the sibling of Jesus, and thus Paul is emphasizing what Ehrman and historicists wish to see in Galatians 1:19?
Such questions are probably moot. What Paul looks to be claiming as not being a lie is his statement several verses earlier: that he got the gospel he preached from no man (1:11-12). Everything after that seems designed to make this clear. Following his conversion, during which he received a personal revelation from God about the Son, he consulted no one, much less the apostles in Jerusalem, went off to Arabia and then back to Damascus. He admits that after three years he went up to Jerusalem, but all he did there was get to know Cephas, and bumped only into James — he’s one of the brethren of the Lord, you know — and thus . . . well, all this supports his contention that the gospel he preaches is his own, and not derived from any other men. He is not lying about this!
The Lord’s Supper
Ehrman declares that Paul knows that Jesus was a teacher because he quotes several of his sayings. He begins with the most contentious of such claims: Paul’s recounting of Jesus’ words at what he calls “The Lord’s Supper” in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. The passage is introduced this way:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was handed over took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it and said . . .
What to do with that opening clause? Ehrman tries some sleight of hand:
When Paul says that he ‘received’ this tradition ‘from the Lord,’ he appears to mean that somehow — in a revelation? — the truthfulness of the account was confirmed to him by God, or Jesus, himself. (DJE? p. 122)
So Paul needed confirmation from God or Jesus that the circulating tradition about the Gospel Last Supper was indeed accurate? Talk about contorting a text! Ehrman is right about one thing: those opening words speak of a “revelation.” But a plain reading renders it a revelation from Jesus directly to Paul, revealing to him the words that were spoken on that occasion. There is no ‘confirmation’ of a pre-existing tradition in sight here.
If such a pronouncement were indeed well known through circulating tradition, what impression would Paul be conveying to say that he had been blessed with a confirmation of its accuracy? Talk about him wanting to horn in personally on everything that was known in the Christian world! Talk about being fixated on having everything go through himself! (Compare Galatians 1:16: “God revealed his Son to me!” Hadn’t the Son on earth already revealed himself to thousands? Weren’t there other “ministers of the Christ” prowling the same missionary routes as Paul?)
Ehrman points out,
But the terminology of ‘received’ and ‘delivered,’ as often noted by scholars, is the kind of language commonly used in Jewish circles to refer to traditions that are handed on from one teacher to the next. In this case, we have a tradition about Jesus’s Last Supper, which Paul obviously knows about. (DJE? p. 122)
But Paul isn’t saying that he knows of the tradition through such processes of transmission. In fact, Ehrman himself, because Paul’s words are so plain, has just floated the idea of “receiving from the Lord” as referring to a confirming revelation. Galatians 1:11-12 has used “received” in both senses of something passed-on from others and personal revelation.
1 Corinthians 15:3 has Paul introducing his “received” gospel in a way which suggests he got it from scripture (kata tas graphas), which is the only way it would be compatible with his claim in the Galatians 1 passage.
It is anything but supportable from the texts, let alone certain, that this Lord’s Supper scene has to be something known from tradition. And thus it could be an origin myth on the same level as the sacred meal myths of other savior gods, such as Mithras. Whether Paul invented it or someone before him, we don’t know.
Ehrman then makes this outrageous statement:
The scene that he describes is very close to the description of the event in the Gospel of Luke (with some key differences); it is less similar to Matthew and Mark. (DJE? p. 122)
And what are those key differences? For one, the fact that some manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke (something which this textual expert must know) contain almost none of what Paul quotes.
All they have in common is “This is my body.” No idea of remembrance, no cup.
In fact, there is a general consensus among scholars that the additional parts in Luke are secondary, added later to bring the spare account in Luke into line with fuller accounts, cribbing from other Gospels and perhaps even from Paul.
Ehrman says that the “on the night he was betrayed” (or “arrested”) found in many translations may suggest Judas’ duplicity, but he admits this needs to be rejected, since the word is really “handed over” and is used of God ‘handing over’ Jesus in Romans 8:32.
But he does appeal to the “at night” which he claims points to a genuine historical event, not “some vague mythological reference.” Well, Ehrman has read very little mythology if he thinks none of it ever contains colorful non-historical elements such as a setting at night. Besides, if the Corinthian communal meal were observed after dark, the origin myth would likely be set similarly; and if Christ’s sacrifice is associated with Passover (1 Cor. 5:7), whose meal is celebrated after sunset, this too could lead Paul to styling the Eucharistic myth “at night.”
The Jews who killed the Lord Jesus
It is difficult to decide how much space to spend on Ehrman’s handling of 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16. This is probably the passage in all the epistles enjoying the most support among critical scholars for being judged an interpolation. It denigrates the Jews as killers of Christ, dismisses them as enemies of mankind, and rejoices at the utter destruction (the wrath of God) that has since been visited upon them.
The reasons why scholars suspect interpolation are not difficult to see. Such vitriolic sentiments toward the Jews are hardly characteristic of Paul’s attitudes toward them as expressed elsewhere in his letters, and nowhere else in the first century do Christian letter writers assign to them any responsibility for killing Christ. The final line about retribution having overtaken them to the utmost is undoubtedly to be seen as a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the sufferings of the Jewish people.
In evaluating this passage, Ehrman is guilty of tactics less than honest. He makes it sound as though I and other mythicists have no other reason to consider interpolation except that authenticity would be “inconvenient” for our theory. And not only does he fail to discuss my arguments for interpolation, he fudges and largely conceals from his readers the fact that a great number of his own scholarly peers hold the same view, based on the same arguments.
(Neil Godfrey on Vridar has written a two-part blog post on Ehrman’s treatment of this passage
- Ehrman hides the facts about Doherty’s argument: Part 1
- Ehrman suppresses the facts while falsely accusing Doherty: Part 2
which thoroughly investigates scholarly opinion on it and holds Ehrman to account for those less than honest tactics. I recommend it to the reader and will not repeat the details here.)
I will, however, note that Ehrman himself is drawn to defending the authenticity of the passage for quite dubious reasons — which might suggest that he is the one making judgments based on “convenience.” One reason he gives is the lack of any surviving manuscript without the passage. But as a textual expert he should know that scholars generally do not consider this to be a compelling reason to rule out interpolation. Internal text considerations are more important.
He should also know that a considerable amount of time, even a century, could have passed between interpolation and our earliest extant copy (well into the third century), and that scribes often tended to insert words or passages they were familiar with into places where they were found lacking (as well as to correct ‘erroneous’ or unhappy wording). No scribe familiar with this passage — and it would have been notorious enough to any later second century Christian copyist — would ever have reproduced a copy of 1 Thessalonians lacking it and deliberately neglected to insert it.
Ehrman also attempts to argue that the final verse of the passage, in which God’s wrath has come upon the Jews, is not a reference to a past event but to an ongoing process in the present, and he appeals to Romans 1:18-32 in which God’s wrath is spoken of as manifesting itself in the present day. But such a forced association of the two passages cannot override the clear use of an aorist tense in 1 Thessalonians 2:16, which speaks to an entirely past event.
Ehrman contorts not just Paul
Finally, Ehrman is required to fudge his own words. Having declared that Paul wrote the unequivocal “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus,” he then has recourse to phrasing things this way:
What this means, then, is that Paul believes that it was the Jews (or the Judeans) who were ultimately responsible for killing Jesus, a view shared by the writers of the Gospels as well. (DJE? p. 124)
So now the Jews are only “ultimately” responsible, as in the Gospels, where they only spur the Romans to kill him, not do the deed themselves. Too bad Paul wasn’t equally capable of such nuance in his own description of things. Ehrman says further:
Paul is quite emphatic throughout his writings that Jesus was crucified. He never mentions Pontius Pilate or the Romans, but he may have had no need to do so. His readers knew full well what he was talking about. Crucifixion was the form of punishment used by Romans and could be used on criminals sentenced by Roman authorities. (DJE? pp. 124-125)
One wonders why Paul “had no need” to mention Pontius Pilate or the Romans in 1 Corinthians 2:8, but preferred instead to identify the crucifiers of Christ as “the rulers of this age,” which ancient commentators, presumably familiar with current terminology, consistently took as referring to the demon spirits.
One also wonders what, in light of the unjust execution of an innocent Jesus by the ruler Pilate, they thought Paul was talking about when in Romans 13:3-4 he declared:
For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong….(The ruler) is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
. . . to be continued