Who was Paul’s Jesus?

I’ve already touched on why I find the Bible lacking in credibility (particularly here and here). The question may arise then as to why the Bible got written. The obvious answer is that no one really knows. But now that speculation is no longer met with ostracism and torture it’s possible to find explanations that, at the least, fit the data better than the canon does.

I don’t claim this as original. This is just my take on the explanations given by various others, but drawn heavily from this book. Nor do I claim this is ‘truth’. This is just, to me, plausible. To my mind, a plausible, non-miraculous explanation means that one should then treat miraculous explanations with deep skepticism. In fact the latter should be rejected pending evidence of a truly extraordinary nature.

[Edit – March 2017: I no longer accept the conclusion of all these data. Read this book for a response – I will write more about this later (here). The evidence below is still accurate and the essay remains relevant but I think the idea that Jesus of Nazareth did not start the religion is unlikely.]

In this post I’m going to focus on the biblical story of Jesus.  I’m also going to avoid the teachings and theology (such as the “deep mystery” of why God decided to kill Jesus to save people), though I plan to go into these more later.

It is well-known to New Testament scholars that the letters written by Paul pre-date the gospels. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, I suppose because the gospels deal with Jesus’ life, while the letters seem to deal with later events in the early church (and of course the way they are organised in the Bible). I supposed that Paul knew all about Jesus of Nazareth’s life, and was expounding upon his teachings theologically.

But then it is truly remarkable than the early epistles make no reference to:

  • Jesus’ parables
  • Jesus’ miracles (healings, casting out of demons, raising of the dead etc)
  • Any of his Galilean ministry
  • The passion in Jerusalem (the mocking, flogging etc)
  • Calvary
  • Bethlehem
  • Nazareth
  • Galilee
  • His transfiguration
  • His triumphal entry
  • The cleansing of the temple
  • The interrogation by the Sanhedrin
  • The conflict with the authorities
  • The garden of Gethsemane
  • The thieves crucified with Jesus
  • The weeping women
  • The place or time of the Crucifixion (see Rom 5:6-9, noting how unspecific Paul is about the time and place)
  • Judas (not even mentioned, let alone the specifics of the betrayal)
  • Pilate (not even mentioned, let alone the trial)
  • His rejection in favour of Barabbas

1 Cor 11:23 refers to “the night he was betrayed”, but not to Judas – to my understanding, the passive voice here implies betrayal by God rather than a person. Rom 4:25 is similar in the implication that God delivers him.

1 Cor 7:10 appears to quote “the Lord”, but I never took this as an historical quote from Jesus of Nazareth, and it wouldn’t need to be contextually. In fact, it’s clear that Paul receives quotes from the risen Lord in something like a vision (for example, see 2 Cor 12:9) – he didn’t know Jesus before the resurrection anyway. Such things were somewhat common back then, both for “prophets” in the community and for Paul himself (e.g. see 1 Cor 14:28-31, 1 Cor 2:13).

In fact, Paul explicitly claims that he gets his revelation directly from Jesus Christ, rather than from the human witnesses who were with Jesus of Nazareth (Gal 1:12), which he asserts gives him more authority.

Colossians 1 states that the Lord Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,… all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” These are very much more metaphysical than the gospels, which talk about Jesus of Nazareth as a person.

The name “Jesus” means Yahweh saves, and even Matthew admits that he shall be called Jesus “because he will save his people” (Mat 1:21). But Paul never mentions Nazareth. The name of a god has long been a source of power, especially in Jewish mythology, and certainly that is the case in the New Testament description of the power of the name of Jesus. Phil 2:9-10 says: “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”.

Perhaps the strongest link between the Jesus of Paul and the Jesus of the gospels is the list of people Paul knows personally who were witnesses to the risen Lord, which are then assumed to be people who knew Jesus of Nazareth during his ministry. Given the above discussion, it is notable then that Paul did not learn much about Jesus of Nazareth’s life and teachings from them.

Note that Paul equates being an apostle with seeing Jesus (1 Cor 9:1). When I first came across the notion of this (as a Christian) I remember finding it a bit weak that he should claim equal footing with those who saw Jesus of Nazareth, based on the Damascus road vision, but of course I let it slide. But clearly for Paul “apostle” was not the same thing as the twelve disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.

Paul discusses the importance of the resurrection, and the testimony of the witnesses in 1 Cor 15: “(4) that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, (5) and that he appeared to Cephas (that is, Peter), and then to the Twelve. (6) After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. (7) Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, (8) and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” In fact, this is the earliest extant evidence for the resurrection.

It does not specify time, nor mention the scriptures to which he is referring. He is obviously referring to the Jewish scriptures, since the gospels did not then exist, and no specific scripture has ever been produced. The “buried” (v4) does not refer to a specific tomb, though the burial is important to Paul because of the analogies with baptism. 1 Corinthians was being written to Christians who were denying that there was a resurrection of believers, so if Paul has a specific tomb in mind to support his position, he might have thought to mention it.

Paul uses the name “Cephas” several times, and the name “Peter” only in Galatians 2:7-8.  He uses the name “Cephas” in the very next verse (Gal 2:9), which would seem unusual. There is evidence that the reference to Peter is added later (though it appears in our extant manuscripts). “Cephas” is very rare in the gospels, appearing only in John 1:42. In other words, it’s not at all clear that Cephas really is the same person as Peter. There is much exegesis that could be done on this point, but it seems as though Paul is referring to Cephas as one of the three church leaders who had a vision of Jesus, not a disciple of the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

Paul refers to “James the brother of the Lord” (Gal 1:19), and to the “brothers of the Lord” (1 Cor 9:5). Taken with Mark 6:3, which lists the brothers of Jesus, we assume that Paul is referring to an actual brother of Jesus of Nazareth. But it should be noted that Christians are to this day free with the term “brother”. In Acts a James is referred to twice (15:13, 21:18). Neither is referred to as a brother of Jesus (or even of the Lord), though at least one is the same one that Paul refers to in Gal 1. But the Christians there are referred to as “brothers” (Acts 15:7, 15:13, 21:7, 21:17) , so it’s at least plausible that the Christian church in Jerusalem was known as the “Brothers of the Lord” and James was their head, not the same James who was the brother of Jesus.

Paul mentions an appearance to “the twelve”, which is often taken as the twelve companions of Jesus of Nazareth. However, Jesus only appeared to eleven (Matt 28:16), since Judas was already gone, and Matthias only joined after the ascension. Note that Paul is also probably not being casual, but rather identifying a specific set of people. The “twelve” (as opposed to the disciples) are not even particularly central in the gospels, and the number seems to be chosen because of its significance to Jewish tradition.

Finally, there is the list of five hundred witnesses. Some scholars take this as a later addition. This makes some sense, since the flow is changed from a list of named individuals who were authorities in the church because they had witnessed the risen Lord, to a list of evidence for the resurrection. If this is meant to be taken as witnesses to a vision, then it too must be treated with the same skepticism as more modern visions that are seen by large crowds. If it is taken as witnesses of a public appearance by Jesus, then we would have to ask whether they knew enough to recognise him reliably? 

In short, it seems that the Jesus of the early new testament letters is not the Jesus of Nazareth described in the gospels. To me it suggests an evolution of a story in which:

  1. Paul describes characteristics of a saviour who was resurrected at some point, but who is primarily described metaphysically and seen in risen form in visions. He simply asserts that Christ died and rose again in a formulaic kind of way.
  2. Next Paul needs some evidence, so he provides a list of people who saw it – it is no more than a list, and it is clear that Paul blurs the distinction between visions and reality, so exactly what they saw is not described.
  3. This being unsatisfactory, people started to ask biographical and historical details, so Mark (writing soon after Paul) puts some in, essentially linking him to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Note that Mark says nothing about his birth nor explicitly mentions witnesses to the resurrection (Mark 16:9-20 is added later to paper over this latter weakness, though detailed reading of it does little to enhance the credibility).
  4. The obvious gap of Jesus needing to come from Bethlehem rather than Nazareth, and the need for witnesses to the resurrection are then filled in by Matthew and Luke.  They are working independently, and come up with such different stories as to drastically reduce their credibility.
  5. The apocryphal Gospel of Peter continues this trend with a description of the resurrection itself. 

In other words, you have a story which is described with increasing historical detail as time goes on, rather than the reverse. This is very strongly suggestive of a myth rather than a history. You would probably expect the first writings to be strong on history and later writings to be more about the theological implications, if it really were based on an historical figure. 

Again, I’m not asserting the truth of these claims (though they seem plausible enough). But the lack of internal consistency means that they do not constitute extraordinary evidence for some kind of a literal, miraculous narrative.