Is Jesus Christ a Myth? Part 3
Editor's Note: The first installment in this series introduced the question of whether Jesus Christ was an actual historical person or a mythological fabrication, and the second part discussed the allegation that the Jesus story is assembled from bits and pieces of pagan mythology. The present installment considers what the letters of the apostle Paul attest about the life of Jesus.
The Non-Silence of Paul
The theory that Jesus never existed started life in pseudo-scholarly circles with the fact that Paul does not say very much about Jesus' life or ministry. The earliest Pauline letters are generally believed to have been written within twenty years of Jesus' death. So, it is instructive to find out what Paul actually did say. With that in mind, here is a list of what Paul had to say about Jesus in his letters, together with the scriptural reference.
- Jesus was born in human fashion, as a Jew, and had a ministry to the Jews. (Galatians 4:4)
- Jesus was referred to as "Son of God." (1 Corinthians 1:9)
- Jesus was a direct descendant of King David. (Romans 1:3)
- Jesus prayed to God using the term "Abba." (Galatians 4:6)
- Jesus expressly forbade divorce. (1 Corinthians 7:10)
- Jesus taught that "preachers" should be paid for their preaching. (1 Corinthians 9:14)
- Jesus taught about the end-time. (1 Thessalonians 4:15)
- Paul refers to Peter by the name Cephas (rock), which was the name Jesus gave to him. (1 Corinthians 3:22)
- Jesus had a brother named James. (Galatians 1:19)
- Jesus initiated the Lord's Supper and referred to the bread and the cup. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
- Jesus was betrayed on the night of the Lord's Supper. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
- Jesus' death was related to the Passover Celebration. (1 Corinthians 5:7)
- The death of Jesus was at the hands of earthly rulers. (1 Corinthians 2:8)
- Jesus underwent abuse and humiliation. (Romans 15:3)
- Jewish authorities were involved with Jesus' death. (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16)
- Jesus died by crucifixion. (2 Corinthians 13:4, et. al.)
- Jesus was physically buried. (1 Corinthians 15:4)
It turns out that careful analysis of his letters shows that Paul was not actually all that silent about the historical Jesus at all. The first reaction to all this from the Christ Mythologist is to dispute that Paul wrote very many of these letters. But seven of the Pauline letters are completely undisputed, and all of the facts about Jesus' life listed above come from these seven. It is ironic that the pastoral epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, which many scholars insist are late (and date from after the synoptic Gospels), contain practically no details about the life of Jesus at all.
As there are still rather a lot of details about the historical Jesus in the undisputed letters, the Christ Mythologist will use special pleading to try and explain them away, as though Paul himself were constructing the Jesus myth. But as we can see, Paul is not attempting to tell Jesus' life story, he is just using the odd snippet about Jesus where it is helpful to illustrate his point. He knows that his readers are aware of what happened because all of his letters are addressed to people who are already Christians. He is not trying to convert them and he is not engaged in apologetics.
If we look at the letters of the early Christian fathers, they rarely have details about the life of Jesus except in passing because they know their readers are familiar with the Gospels. What we today call the Gospels had not, of course, been written down at the time that Paul was preaching. However, oral communication was considered to be more reliable than the written word at the time. The people to whom Paul wrote had heard about Jesus already. They did not need a revision primer but specific advice about problems and controversies. Of course, none of this will convince the Christ Mythologist who just cannot understand why Paul does not just repeat verbatim to his correspondents what he has already told them in person.
In short, the silence of Paul about Jesus is something of a myth in itself.
The fourth part in this series, which uses the methods of the Jesus Mythologists to ‘prove' that Hannibal never existed, will be published tomorrow.
James Hannam earned degrees in physics and history from Oxford and London universities, and his doctorate in the history of science from Cambridge University. He blogs at bedejournal.blogspot.com and recently published God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London, 2009), the first history of medieval science written for the layperson.