Who was Paul’s Jesus (take two)

I have a huge affection for G. A. Wells’s book Cutting Jesus Down to Size. It was the book I read that finally caused me to engage with the palpable inconsistencies of the Bible. I suppose that it was the end of a long journey, in which I eventually allowed myself to explore the questions that I had been trained to quash. But I no longer agree with his central thesis.


Image: Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As I look back, I see that there are two components to it: The central questions about the evidence of the story of Jesus; and Wells’s conclusion, which is essentially that Paul and the early Christians had a distant, mythical Jesus in mind and that this Christ merged with Jesus of Nazareth. As such Wells takes even the crucifixion as mythical. I no longer accept this as plausible.

This does not change very much. We are in a position where we have two separate issues. Firstly, can we accept (the central tenets of (most versions of)) Christianity on the basis of the evidence? The answer is that we cannot. It is so amazing how big the apologetics industry, and indeed Christianity itself, is given how rapidly the edifice collapses if looked at honestly. But I believed all this stuff for so long, based on the assurance that apologists had all this great evidence.

The second issue, only of wider interest because of the success of Christianity, is how did the Bible come to be? What actually happened to give rise to this collection of writings and traditions? This question is the kind of question that historians ask about all kinds of things. For example, a good friend, Adam Clulow wrote a very fascinating book on the Dutch East India Company’s antics in Japan, called The Company and The Shogun, in which he builds a narrative of what actually happened around the evidence available. But when it comes to the Bible this kind of historical research is drowned out by the clamour, a victim of the success of the religion and the strong emotions it creates in people on both sides. History is blurred by people who already know what had to have happened.

The research has very much been done, though. Bart Ehrman’s books explore the historical view in a very effective manner and are well worth a read, if this is of interest to you (Many Christians cannot understand how the topic is not top of mind for non-Christians, while at the same time not showing any interest in the history or teachings of other religions). Anyway, Ehrman wrote a book called Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth in which he responds directly to various mythicist’s views including Wells (Ehrman clearly has a lot of respect for Well’s research though). He also wrote How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, which covers this topic very effectively.

I was reading another book called The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, and considering the evidence it presented. It made the comment that the crucifixion of Jesus is accepted by the vast majority of historians. I was a little surprised at this given the Wells book, and so read the Wikipedia page, which agreed and cited Ehrman. So I read the two books mentioned in the previous paragraph, and I find the argument convincing. The most obvious point is that no-one would have invented a crucifixion. This is an argument from incredulity, so not necessarily very convincing, but there are also various historical criteria that can be used to assess that the Bible is likely accurate on this point. I apologize if my previous writing misled you on this point.

Wells’s writing is compelling. I wrote a post about this here which sums up the argument. The other thing that is interesting to me is how quickly Paul was converted, within a year or two of Jesus’s death. To me this seemed rushed. The Christian Church would have to grow to the point where Saul decided to persecute it and then get converted in such a short time. Add to this the paucity of references by Paul to any biographical details and Wells seems to have a point.

For the record, here’s my understanding of the consensus of historians with reference to Jesus, which sets the backdrop to understand some of Paul’s beliefs. Or at least what I have been persuaded of to different levels of certainty, based on what I have read (I won’t try to defend these here just yet – that will be a longer series of posts I expect):

  • Jesus of Nazareth was a real person.
  • Jesus was probably born in Nazareth. The Bethlehem birth narratives cannot be taken as historical.
  • Jesus and his followers did not think he was God during his life (for example there is no reference to his divinity in the book of Mark, the earliest of the gospel accounts).
  • Jesus probably did not call himself the son of man, though (as is often stated in the Bible) he probably was telling people that the son of man was coming soon. Later he came to be seen that way, which is where the references come from.
  • He was likely an apocalypticist, who thought he’d be something special when the son of man descended from the clouds. King of the Jews? Messiah? Hard to say.
  • He was probably baptised by John the Baptist (part of the reason for believing that Jesus was an apocalypticist).
  • He traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover.
  • He probably did not arrive riding two donkeys (Hebrew poetry back then often mentions the same thing twice, but Matthew took it to mean two separate animals)! The image of Jesus riding two donkeys is somewhat comical.
  • Pilate was in Jerusalem to keep the peace. He normally resided in Caesarea. However, the passover, in which the Jews celebrated freedom from a previous oppressor (the Egyptians (there’s no evidence for the Exodus, by the way)), was a hotbed of nationalistic fervor, with Jews crowding into Jerusalem and an expectation of a Messiah to re-establish the throne of David (his descendents were meant to have been on the throne forever, but were defeated by the Babylonians).
  • Into this mix came Jesus, preaching that dramatic and powerful change was coming within the lifetime of some of his followers.
  • Jesus probably also created some kind of fracas in the temple and predicted its imminent destruction (quite a common prediction for apocalypticists in those days; the story is a bit confused, in that he says that no stone will be left on another (he probably said this, though it did not happen that way); he also is reported as saying that it will be built again in three days, but he probably did not say this and obviously it is not true in reference to the temple).
  • The high priests did not take this well, and reported him to Pilate.
  • Ehrman theorizes that Judas’s betrayal was to tell the high priests that Jesus was teaching to his followers that he (Jesus) was going to be established as the King of the Jews. It makes some sense, since Jesus told his disciples (including Judas) that they would be the kings of the twelve tribes, and so perhaps Jesus would be the king of them?
  • In any event, Pilate hears the charge and regards it as insurrection – only Rome can appoint a king in Judea. Perhaps Jesus affirmed the accusation. Perhaps he was quiet. But it was likely not a long trial, and Jesus was dead within hours. Pilate would not be inclined to tolerate a rabble-rouser who expected to be the King of the Jews, and would not delve into theological distinctions about the meaning of this in Jesus’s mind.
  • Part of the crucifixion punishment generally included being left to the animals, and that is likely what happened with Jesus’s body. The story of Joseph of Arimathea is very unlikely – Pilate would not have handed over the body as it was there as an example of what happens when you challenge the authority of Rome. The story explicitly came about in fulfillment of a vague prophecy (“with the rich in his death”), so it is hard to give it much credence. Paul never mentions a tomb, of course.
  • And that, you would expect, was the end of it…

Of course, it turned out not, and the reason is that Paul and perhaps two or three others (likely candidates include James the brother of Jesus, Peter and Mary Magdalene) had visions of Jesus alive.

Paul’s Damascus road experience is clearly indistinguishable from what we would call an hallucination or vision – not a physical experience as we would normally understand it, and even as Christians today understand the risen Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul mentions some other people who had a similar experience, and from there the religion grew. You will note that all the stories in Matthew, Luke, John and Acts of the resurrection appearances (Mark does not have any, at least in the earliest manuscripts) have a constant theme of doubt, which Ehrman believes is significant. For example Acts 1:3 states that Jesus “presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days…” One has to ask how you would need 40 days of convincing proof to accept that someone was alive?

There are a number of interesting other things that can be seen in respect to Paul. It needs to be understood that the current understanding of theology evolved over the centuries that followed. From Paul’s perspective, Jesus was an angel who became a man (similar to the angel referred to in the burning bush, who is also referred to as God); Jesus was exalted to God’s right hand at the resurrection.

Mark believed that he became God at the baptism. Matthew and Luke believed that he became God at his birth. Each start their story at that point, and this perhaps explains Paul’s lack of references to the biographical details of Jesus’s life. Part of this was perhaps driven by the evolution of the miracles of Jesus. Paul mentions none, but he wouldn’t necessarily expect to see any. But as the miracle stories come about, Jesus’s divinity needs to be pushed earlier and earlier.

By the time John is writing, Jesus was with God in the beginning and all things were made through him. Colossians 1 refers to Jesus as the firstborn of all creation, an idea that if taken at face value would now be regarded as a heresy. Early theologists dealt with this in a number of ways. Jesus was created by God before creation was made. Jesus was subordinate to God the father (as seems to be implied by the idea that he was begotten of the father).

Similarly, was Jesus fully man? Fully God? Part of each? Two beings? Different factions grew. When we read the Nicene creed, each sentence in it is a response to a specific theology that had come to be seen as heresy, but this only happened under Constantine, who wanted a unified church, possibly for political reasons. It seems doubtful that he cared whether Jesus had been with God forever, or was created before creation. Modern theology would likely be unrecognizable to Paul.

This post is very summarized, obviously. I will write more about many of these points later. Or you can read Ehrman’s books. Most of this is widely accepted among the academics and historians who have studied this closely, though it often comes as a surprise to the wider public.