Friday, September 23, 2005

Jesus recently deceased

Recently in a debate at the Internet Infidels discussion board, I was challenged to find anything in St. Paul's letters which referred to Jesus Christ as a recently deceased figure. The most prominent of the living Jesus mythicists, G.A. Wells, has argued that Paul's letters refer many times to Christ, but always without historical markers -- and that from this we could deduce that Paul regarded Christ as someone who died as far back as the early first century B.C. The more recent and radical case by Earl Doherty argues that Paul regarded Christ to be a supernatural figure living in the heavens, and that Paul's text does not show any true indication of a recent human life. But I did find a clear reference to a recent life, and it was not hard to find.

In my debate I was actually arguing that to date Paul's letters, we could begin by dating the death of Paul's Christ, via Josephus; I suggested that we could refine Paul's date further by searching the letters closely for signs that Paul regarded Christ as a recent figure. I did not plan to do such a close search for a result as small as refining the date of Paul's letters, especially when better dating techniques existed; and I knew that Paul's letters were not going to provide much along the suggested lines anyway. I offered it as a possible route, though. This is the challenge I got from a mythicist who embraces Doherty's theory:

I can assure you that scholars have combed Paul's letters for any indication that his vision was of a recently deceased figure, and have not found anything.

I reassured my challenger that I'd just been suggesting a route, not making positive claims that such indications existed in Paul's text. So the challenge was repeated:

Paul doesn't give us a clue about how long ago Jesus died. (That is why Ellegard can argue that Jesus might have lived 100 BC, and the sightings were a long time after his death.) If you find anything in Paul's letters that indicates Jesus died only a few years or decades ago, you will have found something that has eluded a lot of people.

Doherty -- and probably my challenger as well -- is more nuanced on the separate question of whether signs can be found in Paul's letters of a human Jesus. Doherty says that the signs which do exist have a traditional reading, and a mythicist reading. That is, in letters regarded by both historicists and mythicists to have been written originally by Paul, when we read of a Christ who came from the line of King David, broke bread with his disciples, was crucified, was born of a woman, had a brother, shed his blood, was buried, and was proclaimed to rise from the dead in such a way that Paul's own audience denies the idea of the dead rising, we can take these passages to express Paul's conception of a human man, or we can take them to express Paul's conception of a supernatural being who "experienced" or "did" these things in a heavenly realm.

Doherty thinks, however, that none of these passages in Paul's authentic letters, or anything else in them, can be read to indicate a recent life. This is excerpted from Doherty's website, from Item #1 in his own summary of his theory:

The one clear placement of Christ in recent times, the accusation in 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 that Jews in Judea had killed the Lord Jesus, has been rejected as an interpolation by most of today’s liberal scholars, while the one Gospel episode Paul seems to allude to, Jesus’ words over the bread and wine at what he calls "the Lord’s Supper" in 1 Corinthians 11:23f, can be interpreted as a mythical scene Paul has himself developed through perceived revelation (see Piece No. 5). Otherwise, no non-Gospel writer of the first century makes any statement which would link the divine spiritual Son and Christ they all worship and look to for salvation, with a man who had recently walked the sands of Palestine, taught and prophecied and performed miracles, a man executed by Pontius Pilate on Good Friday outside Jerusalem, to rise from a nearby tomb on Easter Sunday morning. This "conspiracy of silence" is as pervasive as it is astonishing.

Thessalonians does not actually place Christ in recent times, though Doherty ironically thinks it does. And as I noted, he misses the one passage that does refer to Christ as a recent figure -- a passage with which he is well acquainted, since it's in the above list of things that Paul says about Christ.

First let's deal with Thessalonians. I don't challenge Doherty's claim that the passage is interpolated, since he may mean that parts or all of the letter were written by someone other than Paul; this view probably carries some truth. But what does the passage say? It speaks of "the Jews" killing both the Lord Jesus and the prophets of the past. The problem is that the killing of Jesus could have taken place at any time in the past, for all we can say from the passage and its surrounding context. The passage does say that Christians have suffered at the hands of Jews in "Judaea," a territory named as such by the Romans not long before Paul lived. But the text speaks of "the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all men." In sum, the passage is referring to Jews throughout history: recent ones, who drove Paul out; and others who killed nameless prophets in the presumably distant past. Christ could have met his end at any time, per this passage. Inexplicably, Doherty has missed a chance to see a mythological Christ here; he even goes so far as to say that this placement of Christ in recent times is the clearest in Paul's writings, indeed the only clear one.

And Doherty misses the one passage that can genuinely be used as a "proof text" for Christ as a recent figure: Paul's meeting with the "brother of the Lord," as reported in Paul's letter to the Galatians. If Paul was referring to a biological brother, of course Jesus could not have lived in the distant past; for all that we know from the passage, Jesus might even still be alive in Paul's time. "But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother" (Galatians 1:19).

Of course, Doherty knows that this passage can be read as referring to a biological brother. Elsewhere in his writings, he acknowledges that the Greek word for brother, adelphos, can indicate either a biological or a spiritual relationship. He works hard to disprove the former meaning, and thus to overthrow this particular passage as a proof text for Christ's existence as a human. But he forgets this passage entirely, and misses its full implications, when discussing Christ's placement in time. He says that apart from the passages in Thessalonians and Corinthians, the first-century letters offer an astonishing silence on all the things recorded in Mark, Matthew, Luke and John: that no other links can be made to a Christ who recently walked the earth, performed miracles, died by order of Pontius Pilate, etc. But the James passage is such a link -- James appears in the Gospels, as just one member of Jesus' family (see Mark 3.21, 3.31 and 6.3). More pointedly, this link comes from one of the earliest of the first-century letters, Galatians.

That letter also happens to tell of Jesus being born of a woman (Gal 4.4); another letter conceded to be authentic tells us that he is biologically from the line of David (Romans 1.3). But Doherty does not mention these famous elements of the Gospel story, so that he can say that nothing in Paul links to anything in the Gospels. And one more passage intrudes on his argument: 1 Timothy 6:13 refers to Pontius Pilate. No one knows when this passage was written, but Doherty dogmatically excludes it from the category he has defined, first-century correspondence; so again he can assert, "No link."

Doherty's language is effective in other ways. The reference to the Lord's brother can have two meanings, as everyone acknowledges, so it is not an undisputed, clear reference to biological kinship. Thus Doherty can get away with saying that Thessalonians is the only clear reference to recent years (except, of course, that a recent prophet is not clearly referred to in Thessalonians, if you read the passage). And though we can say that Paul's passage about James offers a human Christ who walked the earth recently, Doherty is on rhetorically strong ground when he claims that no other Pauline passage can link to a Christ who wandered, taught, healed, died and rose in recent Judaea. No single passage anywhere in the Bible attests to all these things, so we can safely assume that this is not Doherty's claim -- but then what does he mean by "link"? Does he mean linking the figures in Paul and the Gospels, or does he mean linking the events reported in these texts? He might have explored whether Paul's Jesus did one of the listed things, for instance walking on earth, or dying. But he doesn't use the word "or", for that would leave an opening against his case. Nor does he use the word "and," which would leave him more clearly making a silly statement that no single passage speaks of all these things. What he does say is that Jesus as we find him in Paul's letters does not do the things he does in the Gospels. To put this in technical terms, the Jesus of Paul's letters does not amount to the Gospel Jesus. That's an obvious description of the data that no one disagrees with. The bone of contention, and the true question, is whether Paul's data can be linked to the Gospel data. Can these two figures, both called Jesus, be linked?

As noted, Doherty uses the word "link," but he avoids the obvious principle that to link figures attested by different authors, you don't have to produce correspondences on all the claims; you only have to link some of the claims, plausibly; then you can say that you're looking at two accounts with different information about the same man. Doherty creates instead a specious set of all possible references to recent years; and he scores rhetorical points by noting how small Paul's data about a historical Christ looks when compared to historical data in the Gospels, rather than asking whether Paul's data as a whole can refer to the same subject treated in the Gospel data as a whole. One would think that letters and gospels are vastly different genres, and therefore likely to speak of the same things in radically different ways; but Doherty seems extremely uninterested in this question. His silence on this question, you could say, is deafening.

I'm going to guess that when Doherty conceived of Paul as preaching a supernatural Jesus, he dealt with the "brother of the Lord" passage early on, by insisting that Paul must have been referring to spiritual brotherhood; and thus Doherty overthrew the passage to his satisfaction as a proof text for Christ's humanity. So when he came around to the question of whether recent years could be referred to in Paul's passages about Christ, the James passage just slipped his mind. (As it probably did to my challenger, who did not concede that scholars have read the James passage for 2,000 years as an indication that Paul was thinking of a recent life). More accurately, it had already been decided in his mind; and he did not revisit the question, or concede it for the sake of argument, when discussing the question of time. He makes the question of time one of his opening arguments, and attempts to answer it with a full analysis covering all possibilities, but he does not even refer to this possibility, because the question has been decided beforehand. Casually he picks at Thessalonians and Corinthians -- extremely weak indicators of recent years -- as if nothing more challenging could be found.

This was a small point to make, but I do regard such blind spots in a theory to be revealing -- especially when they're found in the opening arguments. I'm working on other posts about larger questions than this particular one about recent years in Paul.


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