Saturday, October 29, 2005

The source of Paul's gospel

One of Earl Doherty's main tactics for challenging the historicity of Christ is to argue that when Paul offers what seems to be historical information, he offers it as something he received in a vision. The two Pauline passages which give the most historical information and bear the greatest resemblance to the Gospels are in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. In both passages he uses a word, paralambano ("received") that can mean either human or divine transmission. He says in 1 Cor 11: 23-37 that he "received" what today we would call the basic outlines of the Last Supper; and in 15: 1-8 he says he "received" the basic outlines of what today we would call the Christian creed concerning Christ's death, burial, resurrection, and appearances to certain disciples.

In Galatians 1:12 he also says, of his own gospel or message, that he "did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ." Six verses later he says that he went to "visit" Peter (Cephas) and James, the Lord's brother, in Jerusalem at least three years after his own conversion. He adds in Gal 2:6 that the second time he met with the apostles, at least 14 years after his conversion, they "added nothing to me" -- that is, to his gospel. Galatians is the letter in which Paul, at his most polemical, describes his fights with the original apostles; but his statements in this letter are very important for Doherty, in order to present Paul as a man who got everything he knew from visions and from his own reading of scripture.

Yet Doherty has made a plain logical error in treating this subject, the second basic error I have found in his book, The Jesus Puzzle. On p. 44, Doherty states that when Paul uses the word “received” in 1 Cor 15, he "must mean" visionary transmission as he meant in Galatians, where Paul says that he did not receive his "central message" (Doherty's phrase) from any man. Yet barring divine intervention, which Doherty does not accept, Paul cannot have stumbled upon the basic Christian message and rituals without human contact. Moreover, when he discounts Paul's gospel, Doherty treats the idea of revelation as if it were a solitary experience that never happened in communion or in consultation with others, which is not true of either visions or scriptural readings.

In Corinthians, when Paul uses the word "received" he speaks of visions, scriptural insights, and rituals that he says he had in common with the prior apostles; they distrusted him for his former persecution of them, but came to accept him; he practiced and preached the same things that they did. Some of them, Paul says, preached to the Corinthians with success (1 Cor 1:12). And when he delivers what later became the basic creed of Christianity, he adds, “whether it be I or they, so we preach” (1 Cor 15:11). When he delivers the details of the Lord's Supper, he is emphasizing the central cultic meal of the movement -- something that he could scarcely have provided the prior apostles with, or disagreed with them about. No sign of basic disagreements exists in Paul's letters, though Paul is not shy about airing what they do disagree about (namely circumcision and Jewish dietary law). Besides affirming that his gospel was so complete that the prior apostles did not add anything to it, Paul says that he received what he must have hoped to receive, namely their blessings upon his mission to bring the message of Christ to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:9).

In short, Paul cannot have received the creed and rituals entirely, or first, through his own vision or scriptural insights. He did have visions which taught or confirmed for him the truth of some of these things; or he learned from his own visions and insights some of the details of Christ's story, details which do not seem to have caused a disagreement worth mentioning.

Let me leave aside the Last Supper for now and lay out Paul's delivery of the creed, so we can see what he can and what he cannot be saying that he discovered through a personal vision or scriptural insight.

The Creed

1 Corinthians 15:

3 For I delivered to you, as of prime importance, what also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures,

4 and that he was buried, and that he has been raised on the third day according to the scriptures,

5 and that he was seen (ophthe) by Cephas, then by the twelve;

6 afterward he was seen by over 500 brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep;

7 afterward he was seen by James, then by all the apostles;

8 last of all, as to one abnormally born, he was seen by me as well.

[translation provided by Doherty; the parenthetical comment is his own]

Doherty says that "according to the scriptures" should not be read as "in fulfillment of the scriptures." He says instead that it can be translated, "as we learn from the scriptures." By this logic, Paul is saying at the top of the passage,


It's hard to know why he would say this. But let's go with Doherty's interpretation for the sake of argument: Paul is invoking God's authority; he has it from God that Christ died for our sins. We still do not see Paul saying that Christ actually died and that we know it from God's authority or from scripture. That is strange in the mythicist case, because the crucifixion in the heavens was not reported to be seen by anyone: it was one of the central points of the faith, but it was unseen. If Paul taught that Christ died, and it was one of the things he first told the Corinthians, he should repeat now the authority behind this tenet of the faith. He should say,


In fact he does not say this. He makes one point, and refers only that point to the scriptures. Indeed this makes sense if he is making a theological point about what Christ's death was for: it was for ours sins, a fact that only God or scripture could reveal. Then for the first time Paul uses the phrase, AND THAT (kai oti), to introduce the second tenet of the faith: the burial. This event is not attributed to the scriptures but presumed on other grounds (an overlooked argument in all these debates). Paul then moves on, with another AND THAT, to a resurrection after three days, and attributes it to the scriptures. This too makes sense, because no one, in either the historicist or the mythicist case, claims to have seen both the crucifixion and the actual resurrection, so no one could know on their own authority that the resurrection had occurred at a particular time and not on some other day; but the fact of resurrection is itself presumed because Christ was later seen. So with one more AND THAT, Paul introduces the appearances to Peter and the Twelve. These events are logically included in the creed, as witness of Christ's resurrection, and probably as a statement that the old covenant with the Twelve tribes of Israel had become the new convenant.

Then for the first time Paul uses a different word, AFTERWARD (epeita wfqh), to introduce the other appearances and the appearance to himself. Here Paul has started to speak in his own voice, adding commentary. We know this from the construction of his sentences and from the fact that AFTERWARD introduces appearances which are recorded nowhere outside of Paul's letters.

The phrases in bold font are no different in the original Greek, and Doherty uses them in an online essay, The Source of Paul's Gospel. But it's a testament to the strength of this whole passage that Doherty mentions only the last instance of AND THAT, in verse 5, and ignores the previous instances, to separate what Paul got in a vision and what is Paul's own commentary. He insists on a separation at that verse, instead of using the AFTERWARD in verse 6, and speculates that the epistle contains sloppily expressed thoughts because Paul probably dictated it in haste -- perhaps while bathing. Doherty concedes that this is "idle speculation", but nevertheless repeats the charge of sloppiness.

Yet if Doherty's treatment of the passage is both cavalier and weak, we still don't know when Paul received the central claims and believed them to be true. As noted above, Paul could only learn through human transmission of a claim that Peter had seen the Lord. But when would Paul be convinced that Peter's vision was of something authentic? Would he have begun to suspect the possibility of some genuine vision by Peter when he was persecuting the early Christian movement and its claims to have received visions? When Paul first saw Christ for himself, would he have been instantly convinced that Peter had seen the same Christ? Would that certainty have come only when he went, in his own words, to "confer with" Peter (Galatians 1:16)? None of this is easy to say. I would guess that when Paul saw Christ for the first time, he was converted to all the Christian claims that he knew about; but I don't think we can be sure of that. Paul takes three years before he even visits a prior apostle in Jerusalem, and we just don't know the reasons for either the interlude or the visit.

In sum, Paul certainly heard of Christian visions and scriptural claims through his environment, almost surely at the time he was persecuting Christians, unless he was actually uninterested in what he says he persecuted zealously. He would have been convinced of the truth of the claims in increments that we cannot know exactly, short of getting into his head. It is unlikely that he would have been entirely unconvinced of them one moment and entirely convinced of them and all their meanings after a sudden conversion experience; that experience may have been brief, but perhaps not as brief as the New Testament paints; it also certainly did not teach him everything that he was to learn about Christ or Christianity. Whatever the case, he cannot have first learned of others' visions and scriptural claims through his own visions and insights, and when meeting with others he certainly learned more about their visions and scriptural readings.

The whole Corinthians creed is permeated with human transmission. It was a collective pronouncement that Paul shared and was converted to through a combination of visions, scriptural reading, and personal relationships. Whatever Paul saw or felt in a personal vision such as the first one referrred to in Galatians – namely that Christ was alive, and that God had sent him for humanity's salvation– merely corresponded to what Paul had heard from human contact.

The Lord's Supper

The same principles apply. Paul did not invent the cultic meal and give it to the prior apostles. But here we have possible confusion, because Paul speaks of receiving something from the Lord. I think he is simply specifying a further authority for the teaching that he is about to go over with the Corinthians again, since human authority, as Doherty acknowledges in his online essay, was usually understood in the word paralambano. But let's look at the passage.

1 Corinthians 11:

23: For I received (paralambano) from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread,

24: and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

25: In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."

26: For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

27: Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.

(Revised Standard Version)

Paul says that he received something from the Lord which he "also delivered" (o kai paredτka), to the Corinthians. If he had said simply that he received from the Lord what he "delivered" (paredτka), Doherty's case would be stronger, for Paul would then seem to be saying that the source for what he told the Corinthians was none other than the Lord. But that would still make no sense, because we then need to imagine Paul invoking human authority originally (against the mythicist argument) and later changing his statements without explanation. And if from the beginning Paul invoked only the Lord's authority, we come back to the question of why Paul needs to specify the Lord's authority now, especially if all Christian knowledge came in visions.

Yet in English it may not seem obvious that Paul is including two authorities, divine and human. It may still seem like Paul is referring to a literal passing on of tradition, in the way that knowledge gets passed on once to somebody and once more, by that person, to someone else. It is the literal sense which Doherty is forcing, perhaps to great confusion. The English word "receive" does not easily carry the connotation of something which one person can learn first in one way and then in another way, while another set of minds is perhaps going through a similar process. If we think that when Paul speaks of receiving something from the Lord, he is referring only to the things themselves and not at all to the experience of transmission, we have not understood the world of prayer and visions. In his online essay, Doherty lays out the meanings of paralambano: to receive, take over, learn or acknowledge. Paul is not saying, as seems non-sensical to us, "I discovered information from the Lord which I discovered from human beings." He's saying, "I experienced with the Lord what I originally learned from human beings."

Let's ask now what Paul is laying on dual authority.

In the last verse when Paul speaks of eating in an unworthy manner, he is referring to the habit among the Corinthians, in their common meal, of eating in separate cliques, not waiting for one another, and getting drunk (verse 21). He goes on in verse 33 to tell them to wait for one another when eating as a church.

So it seems to me most likely that Paul is reminding the Corinthians particularly of Christ's words, "Do this in remembrance of me." He is saying,


This is all one point. If the events referred to were seen only by Paul, he should affirm each of them to the Corinthians, for them to understand that their own meals recall one in which there was a solemn mood and in which Christ identified bread and wine as his own body and blood. Again Paul has failed to say the following, or any variation thereof:


Such is his style with the creedal beliefs four chapters later. But in the passage about the Lord's Supper, the original Greek does not contain the phrase, AND THAT, only several instances of the word AND (kai). Paul, in short, states that Christ sat down to eat AND said something critical. He wants to say to the Corinthians that Christ's command to emulate him was explicit. So he reminds them that Christ said, "Do this in remembrance of me," after blessing and sharing the bread. Paul gets pointed about this when discussing the wine, probably to disabuse the notion that drunkenness could ever be honorable: "Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." Then his own voice in v. 26 seems to stamp home the point that every meal is sacred: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." In short, every meal till the Second Coming, without exception, must honor the Lord.

The words, "do this in remembrance of me," are absent from very similar accounts of the Last Supper in Mark 14: 22-26 and Matthew 26: 26-30, and in some ancient manuscripts of Luke 22: 14-20. (John has a very different account of the meal, in which the eating is not described). Some manuscripts of Luke do contain the command, which suggests that either the author or a later interpolater wanted this gospel to include Paul's words. Whatever the case, "Do this in remembrance of me" does seem to be attested by Paul alone.

Is it probable that Paul taught this phrasing, while the other apostles did not, or that the latter did so after accepting it from Paul? In the historicist model, if Jesus had a last supper with his disciples, they would not accept from a latecomer who had never met Christ something important like a command.

What seems most plausible to me is that "do this in remembrance of me" is like the block of events that follows "Afterward" in the creed: it is attested by Paul because he wants to speak about it, but it is not attested as strongly elsewhere. Only Christ's appearance to Paul, but not his appearances to the 500 and James and "all the apostles", is attested outside of Paul's letters: by the author of Luke-Acts. The same pattern appears with the command to remembrance: it appears only in Paul and in some manuscripts of Luke. In short, we have no reason to doubt the common tradition of the command just because Mark and Matthew choose not to include it, anymore than we need to doubt a pre-Pauline tradition about appearances to 500 brothers and to James. The reliability of the tradition of a command rests simply on the fact that Paul knew that the Corinthians, resistant to changing their habits, could have consulted other apostles who would tell them if Christ had never given a command.

Doherty argues on p. 45 of The Jesus Puzzle that Paul "received" the Lord's Supper in a vision, and he says correctly that such a conclusion is "crucial to the argument of the myth theory." But how can Paul have anticipated or handed over to prior apostles the contents of Christianity's meal of remembrance? Paul and Peter fell out over whom to eat with (Gal 2:11), not over Paul's claim that everyone should eat in a way that honored what the Lord did and commanded. Instead, Paul says that Christ is not divided, and that one cannot belong to Peter while not belonging to Paul (1 Cor 1:13). Certainly a significant difference in the cultic meal would constitute a break in brotherhood.

Does it not seem overwhelmingly likely that those who called themselves brothers in Christ shared the same meals (as Paul says was the case until Peter stopped eating with Gentiles), and were united in the central rituals of remembrance, because some disciples established the cultic meal first and Paul accepted it later? If Paul had a vision of the Lord's Supper, it matched what he had already learned and was already honoring himself at table.

I think it's inevitable that Paul learned something of the cultic meal when he was persecuting Christians. The eating of Christ's body was probably one of the claims which was found to be most blasphemous. Certainly pagans who knew little about Christianity were likely nevertheless to hear rumours of Christians eating flesh at their cultic meal.

Paul must have heard of the Lord's Supper again in the three years between his conversion and his first meeting with Peter. I'm sure that in those three years he did much meditation -- including meditation on the Lord's Supper -- but it cannot be that he spent 3 years in absolute seclusion without hearing of Christian claims. It's nearly certain that he met other Christians (as Acts is explicit about). He says he went to "Arabia" and then back to Damascus. That he would not have wanted to meet any other Christians, or to learn anything more about Christianity, for three entire years seems implausible to me. Possibly he heard things which were at variance with each other and went to consult with Peter.

So the other apostles were not the first people from whom he heard of Christianity's central cultic meal. He would not appeal to the unnamed persons, or anonymous information, that he received while in Arabia, because that would not constitute any kind of authority with the Corinthians. He would not appeal to major apostles when admonishing his audience, either, because the Corinthians would already know what the other apostles were saying.

And the latter appeal, Paul thinks, would compromise his authority. Nowhere in his letters does Paul admit to receiving anything from Peter, even though he surely did receive things from him, such as Peter's opinions and experiences concerning Christ, when the two men met and got to know each other.

But he does need to appeal directly to Christ, if he's going to quote Christ's words to any real effect. The Corinthians have flouted these words already, so he needs to interpret the words explicitly and lay them on more than human authority. He could do that because he must have meditated on the Lord's Supper, and had visions of it, from the time of his own conversion.

In closing it's worth noting Doherty's argument that Paul was not referring to a vision of a historical scene but rather to a revelation about a heavenly event. The objection here also applies to the crucifixion and the burial: how does Paul envision a meal in the lower heavens? Who was Christ speaking to when he said, "Do this in remembrance of me"? It was not a human being -- but then why does Paul not explain the reason that such a command should apply to the Corinthians?

At the discussion board for the Internet Infidels I have opened a debate concerning the Lord's Supper, though it has not received any replies; and I've opened another one concerning the creed.


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