Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Apostle Paul: Did Jesus Exist?

"The Apostle Paul," writes atheist Bible scholar Bart Ehrman in his book, Did Jesus Exist?, "is our earliest surviving Christian author of any kind... Paul was writing some years before the 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] So Bart Ehrman is saying 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. So why should we trust the writings attributed to him? To begin with, there are no recognized scholars -agnostic, atheist, or Christian- who actually believe that Paul wasn't a historical person. 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 remembered 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). The communities that Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna wrote to early on in the church's history all remembered Paul, and he is often appealed to as an authority on various matters in their existing letters. For these reasons among others, we can be confident about using Paul as a trustworthy source of early traditions about Jesus.

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] Paul went to Jerusalem to visit the leader of the apostles, Peter (Cephas), as well as James the Brother of Jesus. Those are pretty good sources! If Jesus didn't exist, wasn't crucified, didn't die on the cross, and didn't rise again, they would have known about it. Paul 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 there's more), and Paul gives us a pretty solid basis for our beliefs about Jesus.

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. 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), God (Rom 9.5).
Birth: Jesus was "born of a woman" -- possibly implying the virgin birth (Gal 4.4).
Lineage: Jesus was believed to be a descendant of King David (Rom 1.3).
Family: Paul mentions Jesus's brothers (plural) in 1 Cor 9.5, and James in Gal 1.19.
Economic Status: Paul writes that Jesus "became poor" in 2 Cor 8.9.
Disciples: "The Twelve" mentioned along with Peter (1 Cor 15.5) and John (Gal 2.9).
Teaching: Refers to "the Lord's" teaching (1 Cor 7.10, 1 Cor 9.14, 1 Cor 11.23-26).
Betrayal: An early tradition includes "the night [Jesus] was betrayed" in 1 Cor 11.23-24.
Crucifixion: Jesus was known to have been executed on a cross (1 Cor 1:23).
Burial: Jesus was buried (Rom 6.4, 1Cor 15.4, Col 2.12).
Resurrection: There is a detailed defense of Jesus's resurrection in 1 Cor 15.12-13.
Ascension: Jesus was known to have ascended into heaven (Eph 4.8-10).
Taken together, written within a short time of Jesus's earthly life, this shows a pretty well-defined picture of who he was! This was all written during the lifetimes of those who personally saw Jesus and knew Him.

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, 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 from the non-Christian author Bart Ehrman, we've learned (1) that Paul is an extremely early source of traditions about Jesus, was converted within a very short time of Jesus' death, and wrote the first of his Biblical letters within sixteen years of Jesus's death on the cross; (2) that there are very good reasons to trust that Paul was a real historical figure who wrote the letters that are attributed to him; (3) that Paul mentions a wide number of facts and beliefs about Jesus that can be traced back to those who originally knew Him; (4) that Paul's own sources included the apostle Peter, also known as Cephas, and Jesus' brother James, and (5) that counter-arguments against the evidence for Jesus in Paul are not very good. Because of Paul's testimony, we can have even greater confidence in Jesus!

Jesus bless,
-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.

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