Thursday, April 26, 2012

How to Explain Paul's Silence on Jesus?

One of the most central points generally raised by Jesus mythicists concerns the alleged silence surrounding the existence of Jesus in the Epistles of Paul. If Paul was genuinely familiar with Jesus as a historical being, how might one account for the lack of biographical information he provides about Jesus in his letters? Why are there no details concerning, for instance, Jesus' origins, his teachings or the circumstances surrounding his death? Surely these are not insignificant details, so why were they omitted?

Scholars might reply in one of two ways:1

  • In actual fact, Paul does on many occasions relate - albeit fleetingly - biographical details concerning the life of Jesus. He mentions, to give just a few examples, that Jesus was born of a woman (Gal 4:4), "was descended from David according to the flesh" (Rom 1:3-4), that he left instructions concerning divorce (1 Cor 7:10), that he had brothers (1 Cor 9:5) and that he "died" and "was buried" (1 Cor 15:3-4). Scarcely enlightening stuff, but enough to suggest that Paul understood Jesus as a human being rather than a purely heavenly one.

  • As an occasional writer (meaning one who wrote only when the occasion required it), writing only to churches he had played some part in founding, there may have been no need or opportunity to go into great details concerning what he knew about the historical Jesus. Presumably the recipients of his letters already knew what he knew concerning this topic, so there was no cause for Paul to provide these details gratuitously. 

Such arguments have merit, I think, and may even be sufficient to address the argument from silence by themselves. But there might be another reason for Paul's silence on the life of Jesus (and the lack of overlap with the Gospel material in his writings) that I don't often see addressed in relation to this problem. It concerns Paul's self-perception as an apostle.

Paul is frank in his writings that Jesus appeared to him "last of all, as to someone untimely born" (1 Cor 15:8) and that (for this reason?) he is "the least of the apostles" (v. 9). Although one might be struck by his humility in these verses, in other places he is rather more prickly and defensive concerning this subject. He, for instance, berates the Corinthians for being seduced by those who "proclaim another Jesus... or a different gospel" from the one he delivered to them, before going on to assert that he believes himself to be "not in the least inferior to these super-apostles" and is, in fact, a "better" minister of Christ than they (2 Cor 11:4-5; 12:11; 11:23). Quite who these "super-apostles" might be is not clear, but given the fact that they were apparently Jewish (2 Cor 11:22), is there not the possibility that they were allied with the Jerusalem Church2 and therefore heirs to a tradition that might have begun with the historical Jesus? Could these close ties be the source of Paul's jealousy and sarcastic derision?

Speculation aside, it does seem clear from other passages that Paul was tetchy concerning the teachings of those who actually knew Jesus and what they might have to say about him. In the first place, Paul emphatically asserts that he "did not receive [the gospel] from a human source" but rather "received it through a revelation" (Gal 1:12) and that after his conversion he "did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me" (vv. 16-17). Even when he did make it to Jerusalem, he refused to "see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother" and Peter (vv 18-19) and on his second trip claimed that "those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders... contributed nothing to me" (Gal 2:6). His position here is rather unambiguous: what he knew about Jesus he knew only through divine revelation, and he had little interest in what the men who actually knew Jesus had to say about him (or what anybody else had to say, for that matter)3. Even if he had inherited material about the life of Jesus along the way, would it not be fair to presume that he might have been reluctant to include it in his letters for fear of privileging someone else's gospel over his own?

Could the reason that Paul didn't mention anything about the life of Jesus in his letters really be so petty? Did he really ignore the biographical material that eventually made its way into the Gospels for no reason more serious than the potential authority he felt it may have leant to James, Peter and the rest of the Jerusalem Church? It's difficult to muster conclusive evidence for this conclusion, but I certainly don't think it's a particularly outrageous thesis given the querulous tone he frequently adopts throughout his letters. In any case, along with the two other explanations I've give above, I think we seem to have a fairly convincing case for Paul's silence on Jesus.

(1) - See for examples Bart Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?"

(2) - We can see elsewhere what an acrimonious relationship Paul had with this Jerusalem Church, especially in his account of the debates within the early church concerning the role of Gentiles and the applicability of the Jewish law. In this matter, Paul saw himself plainly as an "an Apostle to the Gentiles" (Rom 11:13) and it seems that he was "entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised" (Gal 2:7) by common assent. As such, Paul was keen to assert that it should not be necessary for Gentiles newly inducted into the faith to observe Jewish requirements such as circumcision and dietary laws, contrary to the opinion of other Apostles in the early church. He saw his work with the gentiles being undermined by those "sent from James" (Gal 2:12), encouraging the practice of Jewish rites. He then opposed Peter "to his face" when Peter went from dining with gentiles to apparently only dining with Jews again (Gal 2:11)(Paul himself apparently was happy to "become as one outside the law" where the occasion called for it - 1 Cor 9:21).Such intrusions by James and his followers onto what Paul perceived as his own territory sufficiently angered him to wish for those advocating circumcision to "castrate themselves" (Gal 5:12) - this was apparently not seen as a minor matter!

(3) - "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified." (1 Cor 2:2)

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