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How Decades of Oral Tradition Produced the Gospels

(See the first in this series of posts traveling the tortuous journey from 21st-century Western culture back to the original story of Jesus here.)

Imagine that the year is 50 CE and you are a merchant in Judea or Galilee. A traveler stops at your house and asks for lodging, and you comply. After dinner, you chat with your new acquaintance and mention that you have recently become a follower of the Jewish messiah, Jesus. He is unaware of Jesus and asks to hear more, and you tell the complete gospel story, from the birth of Jesus through his ministry, miracles, death, and resurrection. Your guest is excited by the story and eager to pass it on. He asks that you tell it again.

Instead, you ask him to tell the story so that you can correct any errors. He goes through the story twice, with you making corrections and adding bits to the story that you’d forgotten in the first telling.

You’ve now spent the entire night telling the powerful story, but you and your new friend agree that it was time well spent. He is on his way, and a week later the events are repeated, but this time your friend plays host to a traveler and the Good News is passed on to a new convert.

Imagine how long you would need to summarize the gospel story and how many times you’d need to correct yourself with, “Oh wait a minute—there was one more thing that came before” or “No, not Capernaum … I think it was Caesarea.” That confusing tale would be a lot for an initiate to remember, and yet this imaginary encounter was about as good as it got for passing on so complex a story. Consider other less perfect scenarios—getting fragments of the story from different people over months or years, or having two believers arguing over details as they try to tell the story.

“And then Jesus healed the centurion’s slave—”

“Hold on—that’s when he healed the daughter of Jairus! Or Gyrus, or something. And it wasn’t the centurion’s slave, it was his son. Or maybe his servant, I forget.”

(And so on.)

Apologists acknowledge the problem of oral history when they argue that the earliest gospel(s) were written just 20 to 30 years after the resurrection instead historians’ typical estimate of 40 years, but this does little to resolve the problem.

Let’s then assume just twenty years of oral history in a pre-scientific culture produced a story about the Creator of the Universe coming to earth. What certainty can we have that such a whopper is correct?

Christians and atheists can agree that the period of oral history is a concern, but what is rarely acknowledged is the translation that happened at the same time.

To see this, first consider a different example. In response to the 1858 sightings of Mary at Lourdes, France by a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette, the local bishop investigated and concluded a year and a half later that the sightings were genuine. Bernadette and the bishop were from the same culture and spoke the same language.

The gospel story had a much more harrowing journey. Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic and came from a Jewish culture, but this isn’t where the gospel came from. Every book in the New Testament was written in Greek and came from a Greek culture. The story would have been heard in and (to some extent) adapted to a Greek context.

For example, imagine a gospel without the water-into-wine story. “Wait a minute,” the Greek listener might say. “The Oenotropae could change water into wine. If Jesus was god, couldn’t he do that as well?”

Or imagine a gospel without the healing miracles. “Asclepius was generous with his healing gifts and even raised the dead. Didn’t Jesus do anything like that?”

Or a gospel without the resurrection. “Dionysus was killed and then was reborn. You mean Jesus just died, and that was it?”

Humans have a long history of adapting gods to their own culture—for example, the Greek god Heracles became Hercules when he was adopted by the Romans. Athena became Minerva, Poseidon became Neptune, Aphrodite became Venus, and Zeus became Jupiter. Or, a culture might adopt a story or idea from a neighboring community, as Jewish history adopted the Mesopotamian flood story Gilgamesh and the Sumerian water model of the cosmos.

We know how stories evolve in our own time.  As Richard Carrier notes (video @ 26:00), the evolution of the Jesus story is like the evolution of the Roswell UFO Incident.  A guy finds some sticks and Mylar in the desert, and this was interpreted as debris from a crashed spaceship.  But within 30 years, the story had morphed into: a spaceship crashed in the desert, and the military autopsied the dead aliens and is reverse-engineering the advanced technology.

Let’s return to your telling the story to the new convert. How close was your version of the story to that in the New Testament? And how similar would the new guy’s telling of the story be to the one that you told him?

How much variation is added with each retelling?

The gospel story was an oral tradition for four decades or more before finally being written down. That’s a lot of time for the story to evolve.

Christians may respond that by relying on writing, our memory skills have atrophied. In an oral culture like that in first-century Palestine, people became very good at memorization.

Yes, it’s possible that people memorized the Jesus story so that they could retell it the same as it was taught to them, but there is no reason to imagine that this was how it was passed along. Indeed, it’s wrong to assume that storytellers in an oral culture always wanted to repeat a story with perfect accuracy. We care about perfect accuracy because we come from a literate culture. Only because we have the standard of the written word do we assume that other cultures would want to approximate this unvarying message.

The theory of oral-formulaic composition argues instead that tales are often changed with the retelling to adapt to the audience or to imperfect memory. Any transcription of such a tale (like a single version of the Iliad) would simply be a snapshot of a single telling, and you would deceive yourself if you imagined that this gives an accurate record of the story. This is seen in modern-day oral epic poetry in the Balkans and is guessed to be the structure of Homeric epic storytelling as well.

But this is a tangent. The gospel story wasn’t an epic poem, but rather a story passed from person to person. It changed with time, just like any story does.

The gossip fence is a better analog than Homer.

Read the first post in this series: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

When a person is determined to believe something,
the very absurdity of the doctrine confirms them in their faith.
— Letters of Junius 12/19/1769

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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About Bob Seidensticker
  • Rick Townsend

    Your wishful thinking version starts with a key word—”Imagine.” That is what you are doing. Where is the scientific evidence you so strongly demand of anyone else?

    Let me ask you to consider (not imagine) this instead. Think back to a traumatic event in your life. One that happened at least 20 years ago. As you tell your children about where you were when one of these happened… JFK assassination, Shuttle Challenger explosion, 9/11 (less than 20 years ago but think forward on that 10 years)… do you think that you, as the eyewitness, are incapable of recalling where you were and what you were doing, as well as recalling the basic details—accurately?

    We are not talking about centuries or even decades of oral tradition. We are talking about adult eyewitnesses to the most momentous events of their lives recalling them and writing them down within 20-30 years of the events themselves. Your wistful narrative above does nothing to diminish that. And your own ability to clearly recall events in your own life—things that happened decades ago—corroborates that such ability and accurate recall is more likely than the completely made-up-out-of-whole-cloth version you hope happened 2,000 years ago.

    The burden of proof is on you to demonstrate what evidence supports your view, as opposed to the prevailing view that eyewitnesses recorded the facts. We have a long history of documentary evidence and oral tradition alike stating this is the case. Why should that be overturned simply because you supposedly enlightened ones of the atheist movement demand that it be done?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Where is the scientific evidence you so strongly demand of anyone else?

      I’m sketching out a hypothetical situation. If that’s somehow out of bounds or offensive or whatever, show me. I don’t get it.

      do you think that you, as the eyewitness, are incapable of recalling where you were and what you were doing, as well as recalling the basic details—accurately?

      I think that I have no warrant for declaring my recollections accurate. Of course, I think they’re accurate, but this is obviously something else. Accuracy of memory and intensity of memory are two very different things.

      I have an upcoming post that will discuss this in detail, so let’s hold off on this one.

      We are talking about adult eyewitnesses to the most momentous events of their lives recalling them and writing them down within 20-30 years of the events themselves.

      That’s one explanation. But let’s not view the story with the presupposition that it’s actual history.

      Another explanation is that oral transmission modified the story dramatically, and then the (non-eyewitness) authors of the gospels wrote it down. They might well have believed every word (or perhaps not), but in this scenario they didn’t personally recall anything but simply documented their local church tradition.

      The natural explanation is far more plausible than the supernatural one.

      And here you’ve played up the conventional argument (the gospel story is history) without showing why my alternate natural explanation is insufficient.

      And your own ability to clearly recall events in your own life…

      Maybe I can and maybe I can’t. Human memory is quite fallible and deceptive.

      … corroborates that such ability and accurate recall is more likely than the completely made-up-out-of-whole-cloth version you hope happened 2,000 years ago.

      No one is talking about a made-up story.

      The burden of proof is on you to demonstrate what evidence supports your view…

      I’m not sure what you’re asking. I think it’s this: the gospels themselves are evidence of the resurrection. You may not like it, but you gotta admit that it’s something. That’s on one side of the balance. What do you have to put in the other side? That is, what first-century evidence do you have (letters, say) that argues against the resurrection??

      My answer: I have no first-century writings directly rebutting the resurrection story. (But I think we’ve been over this before.)

      Is this your question? If not, please clarify.

      … as opposed to the prevailing view that eyewitnesses recorded the facts.

      My previous post discussed the eyewitness issue in detail.

      Why should that be overturned simply because you supposedly enlightened ones of the atheist movement demand that it be done?

      If “I demand that you reject the historical claims of the Bible!” is as deep as you think my argument goes, either you haven’t read it or I’ve done a terrible job in explaining it.

  • Karl Udy

    Bob,
    Rick T is right to point out the difference between “decades of oral tradition” and “decades-old recollections by adult witnesses”

    Your previous post cast doubts on the authorial attribution of the gospels. To move away from that, how about you take the 1 Corinthians 15 creed and apply that. 1 Corinthians is generally accepted as a genuine writing of Paul, even by those who dispute the authorship of most other NT writings. The dating of the letter is also well established as being in the 50s which places it about 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.

    The use of the Aramaic Cephas as opposed to the Greek Peter in this passage is a strong indicator that this phrasing is one that already existed before the expansion of the church into Greek areas, which would make it very early indeed.

    One other thing that is true of a creed is that it is made for easy memorization and recitation. Nursery rhymes haven’t changed a lot over hundreds of years, and there is evidence of this in the phrasing that they use (eg “four and twenty blackbirds”), and this is despite their being almost exclusively passed on orally.

    There is also good reason to believe that people of those days had much more reliable oral memories than we do. As an example – can you remember the phone numbers of your five best friends? Probably not. But I bet you could in high school. The fact is that being able to program phone numbers into our phones has rendered remembering stacks of phone numbers pointless. A similar thing happened with the growth of literacy (or more specifically the reduction of cost of writing materials) – as people could afford to write down to remember, they came to need to exercise their powers of memory less. It is an error to assume that those in the first century had memories as sloppy as ours. When you add in that much teaching was designed to be orally memorable, the idea that a story could mutate by as much as you say in just twenty years becomes fanciful, if not untenable.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Rick T is right to point out the difference between “decades of oral tradition” and “decades-old recollections by adult witnesses”

      I see the difference. I hope you also see the difference that I pointed out between accurate memory and intense memory.

      I grant you that the gospels could be recollections of witnesses. But (1) there are many reasons to imagine that they’re not and (2) the ball is in your court to show that this is the only option. Your saying, “Well, the gospel stories could be accurate recollections” does very little to shore up the immense supernatural claims in the NT.

      1 Corinthians is generally accepted as a genuine writing of Paul

      Yes.

      One other thing that is true of a creed is that it is made for easy memorization and recitation

      Here again you’re providing evidence that the creed could be early, not that this interpretation is the only one possible.

      Here’s another interpretation: since the creed looks a little odd, like there’s a break in the flow, it could’ve been added by a redactor decades later than Paul’s autograph.

      Nursery rhymes haven’t changed a lot over hundreds of years, and there is evidence of this in the phrasing that they use (eg “four and twenty blackbirds”), and this is despite their being almost exclusively passed on orally.

      An interesting point. But this claim has to come from a period after they were written down (otherwise, how would we have an early form to go back to?). Perhaps this written form helped avoid drift.

      And, like Rick, you haven’t directly confronted the arguments I made in the post. Do you accept them?

      There is also good reason to believe that people of those days had much more reliable oral memories than we do.

      And I directly confronted this claim in the post.

      When you add in that much teaching was designed to be orally memorable, the idea that a story could mutate by as much as you say in just twenty years becomes fanciful, if not untenable.

      (1) Why imagine that the gospel story was “taught” in this way? Show me why the example that I imagine in the opening part of the post wouldn’t happen (or would be a negligible kind of way to spreading the gospel).

      (2) Stories mutate in a day! Have you never read an article in the paper about something that happened the day before and concluded (because of extra information that you possessed) that it was wrong? Again, the burden is on you to not show that our gospel story could be an accurate summary of the facts (which I’ll grant you!) but that it couldn’t be anything else.

      And it’s 40 years, not 20.

      • Karl Udy

        And it’s 40 years, not 20.

        From c AD30 to c AD50 is closer to 20 years than 40 in my book.

        I suggest you read Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham. It goes into this and other arguments in much more detail.

        It is acknowledged as some of the best research and analysis on this topic. You are really selling yourself short arguing on these topics without at least a familiarity with the claims of this book.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          From c AD30 to c AD50 is closer to 20 years than 40 in my book.

          Mine too. And 30 to 70 CE (which I think is the consensus date for Mark) is closer to 40 years.

          Thanks for the book suggestion. No, I haven’t read it. Can you give a quick summary of those arguments that respond to what I’ve written? Or anything else relevant? (If convenient …)

  • avalon

    “how about you take the 1 Corinthians 15 creed and apply that. 1 Corinthians is generally accepted as a genuine writing of Paul,”

    1. Paul’s list of appearances at 1 Corinthians 15 doesn’t match any of the gospel accounts.
    2. To Paul, the so-called “Pillars of the Church”, Peter, John and James, are
    nobodies, his personal enemies, and they have nothing to add to Paul’s understanding of the Gospel (Gal. 2:2-6). Why treat the eye-witnesses like that?
    3. Paul doesn’t give any details about these Jesus sightings, including
    his own – he never tells us he was divinely waylaid by Jesus on the road to Damascus; only that through scripture and revelation he “saw” the Lord. And since he describes all these other appearances the same way, perhaps “appearance” is too strong a word for any of these cases.
    Did Cephas, James and the rest simply see the Lord exactly the way Paul did, with the eyes of faith?

    Source: http://www.nazarethmyth.info/Fitzgerald2010HM.pdf

    avalon

    • Bob Seidensticker

      !

  • Greg G.

    The Epistles talk about Jesus’ crucifxion and resurrection alot without saying that it happened in the first century. But not once do they mention anything he did, taught, or said. Not even one anecdote. Many of those were written before Mark and supposedly by Jesus’ companions. This is what we would expect to see if Jesus did not exist.

    Mark seems to have been aware of Paul’s theology and probably heard the Q document but didn’t have the text. In The Christ Myth and Its Problems, R. M. Price shows how several scholars have traced nearly every passage in Mark to Old Testament passages and to Homer’s Odyssey. There isn’t much there that could have come from oral tradition. Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark and more Old Testament, while Luke filled in some ideas from Josephus. John seems to have heard Mark and added some Greek ideas.

    1 Thessalonians 2:15 mentions that the Jews killed Jesus but the next verse says that God’s wrath came upon them at last. Nothing major happened to the Jews that would have been considered God’s wrath until Jerusalem was sacked and that was long after Paul wrote, so the passage is an anachronism. 1 Timothey 6:13 mentions Jesus and Pilate in the same breath but that letter is thought to be pseudepigraphal. Nevertheless, it was written by an early Christian. 1 Timothy 3:16 tells us that Jesus was preached (rather than he preached) and believed on, but the “was seen by angels” implies that he was not seen by men, including Pilate. so 6:13 is probably an interpolation, too.

    So, the Epistles have no support for even a teacher that got crucified and the gospels are based on stories that happened to someone else, fictional stories and poetry.

    Ehrman, I believe, describes how the Hebrews blamed themselves for not following the Law and receiving punishment in the form of the Babylonians and other nations. Then some of them noticed that they were following the Law but God hadn’t rewarded them. They began to believe that God would make things right any day now. They began to read prophecies of God’s coming into their Scriptures, which are reflected in Daniel. When generations had died, a group began to read into the Scriptures that God had already come and did the salvation thing before there were people. Thus we have the Epistles. A generation or two later, a group got it into their heads that Jesus had come rather recently and since there was nobody left to dispute it after Jerusalem was sacked, the idea spread.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Bob Price thinks that the gospels were written in the second century. He thinks that the Bar Kokhba revolt fits in better than the destruction of the temple in 70, for example.

      Yes, when you order the books chronologically, they get more fantastical as they go.

      I haven’t read Price’s Christ Myth book. Thanks for the brief summary; it’s on my list.

  • Pingback: Jesus a Legend: A Dozen Reasons (Part 2)

  • Bobby Garringer

    The number of errors in your analysis of the epistles, Mark and the other Gospels is substantial.

    You should try researching from various perspectives.

    • Greg G.

      Hi Bobby

      I have looked at different perspectives. This makes more sense. Please point out an error? I would be grateful.

      • Bobby Garringer

        1. You say, “Not once do the New Testament epistles mention anything Jesus did, taught, or said.” But…

        See 1 Corinthians 11:23-25; 1 Corinthians 7:10-12; 2 Peter 1:16-17…

        Alfred Edersheim in History and Prophecy in Relation to the Messiah writes: “…the bases of [Paul's] doctrinal system…rest on the teaching of Jesus, as we gather its spirit from the reports in the Gospels. We remind ourselves here of such teaching as concerning the valuelessness of mere outward observances; concerning the Law as presented by the Leaders of Israel; concerning the opening of the Kingdom of God to the Gentile world; concerning the insufficiency and inefficacy of outward distinctions and advantages; concerning the rule of the Spirit within the heart, and His transformation of our nature; concerning the need of absolute self-surrender to God, like that of Christ; concerning the character and purpose of Christ’s Death; His institution of the Last Supper; His Resurrection, and His coming again.” (pp. 68-69).

        Edersheim goes on to give other examples from Paul and the authors of other New Testament letters that reflect direct connections between certain Gospels and specific statements made in those letters.

        However, taking only the first three of my references, your statement that the Epistles “not once” refer to the words and works of Jesus must be judged an overstatement at best.

        2. “R. M. Price shows how several scholars have traced nearly every passage in Mark to Old Testament passages and to Homer’s Odyssey.” But…

        The widespread influence of Homer’s Odyssey in the Mediterranean world is not controversial. However, the assertions of researchers that theorize — why — Mark used Homer — how — he used him and — how — Mark’s theoretical re-working of Homer would have been understood and received are highly controversial and haven’t made a great impression in the field of Gospel origins and historical Jesus studies.

        The several scholars who see the Odyssey all through Mark have not convinced the vast majority of scholars that they are on to something worth pursuing.

        And I, as a non-scholar, am stunned that, for example, MacDonald seriously believes that Jesus’ journey to the temple in Jerusalem (which was not a family home in any recognizable sense) is an adapted version of Odysseus’ wanderings toward his family home; and that Odysseus’ encounters, victories and losses along the way have anything to do with the miracles and debates that are characteristic of Mark’s story of Jesus.

        3, “Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark and more Old Testament, while Luke filled in some ideas from Josephus. John seems to have heard Mark and added some Greek ideas.” But…

        Your assertions in this statement are naive.

        It can be said with accuracy that — according to the standard theory — Matthew and Luke “borrowed” from Mark, but it is inaccurate and even misleading to say that they “borrowed” from the Old Testament in the same way. Such a way of putting it does not reflect the Gospel writers’ conscious, often overtly stated, use of the Old Testament. (The fact that the shape of their narrative may also include intentional reflections on Old Testament stories does not in itself undermine the essential reality of what they have written. Such literary influence does not mean the statements and works attributed to Jesus were simply copied from the Hebrew Bible with a few name changes.)

        And then to add, as you do, “Luke filled in…from Josephus” is an assertion that most scholars would not endorse. An analysis of his sources, which may have been extensive (Luke 1:1-4), does not include anything substantial from writers like Josephus, by objective scholarly estimates.

        And the Jewishness of John is now widely recognized among commentators, especially since the recovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s out of date to say that he “added” his own Greek ideas.

        Besides, what does any of this have to do with establishing or undermining the thesis that substantial oral tradition stands back of the Gospels? Each of the Gospels indicates a shared understanding of who Jesus is and the kinds of things he said and did. Some of them indicate borrowing of some kind between them. And all of them have some material unique to each. This tells us nothing, however, about their ultimate sources — which may have been written or oral — but which seem to be regarded, by each writer, as sound information about Jesus.

        4. You say, “1 Thessalonians 2:15…says that the Jews killed Jesus, but the next verse says that God’s wrath came upon them at last. Nothing major happened to the Jews that would have been considered God’s wrath until Jerusalem was sacked and that was long after Paul wrote.” But…

        The term “wrath” is used in the letters in what scholars call an “eschatological” sense as it applies to exclusion from the covenanted people of God. This use is included in 1 Thessalonians (See 1:10 and 1 Thes. 5:9-10.).

        To say that God’s wrath has already come upon a body of people need mean no more than:

        The patience of God has run out, and they have been rejected in terms of ultimate salvation and their current participation in God’s covenant blessing. This is a — major — development.

        To insist that this reference must apply to Jerusalem’s fall in AD 70 is to go far beyond the necessary implications of the terms and phrases used.

        Besides, it is rare for an informed historian or scholar to reject 1 Thessalonians as a genuine letter of Paul.

        5. You say, “1 Timothy 3:16 tells us that Jesus was preached (rather than he preached) and believed on, but he “was seen by angels” implies that he was not seen by men, including Pilate. So 1 Timothy 6:13′s reference to Pilate is probably an interpolation.”

        You have left out important details of what is written in 1 Timothy 3:16. The full declaration begins with “He was manifested in the flesh” and “vindicated in the Spirit.”

        The verse is apparently either a hymn or a rhythmic confession used in worship, as is indicated in its poetic depiction in some recent translations.

        The declaration of 1 Timothy 3:16 is made in three couplets, highlighted by the closing phrase of each part:(1) “in the flesh” and “in the Spirit” (2) “by angels” and “among the nations” and (3) “in the world” and “in glory.”

        The first couplet concerns Christ’s human life as “the mystery of God” revealed (“manifested”) — openly — and then confirmed (“vindicated”) — openly — by the power of the Spirit of God.

        In an interesting contrast, the next couplet indicates that the angels witnessed who he is; and the nations heard about who he is — through proclamation.

        The last couplet indicates that the proclamation resulted in faith among those who heard the message; and that the same one who was initially “manifested in the flesh” was ultimately “taken up in glory.”

        It is inappropriate — and really preposterous — to single out the reference to Christ being seen by angels and declare that this means that he was not seen by men, including Pilate. It doesn’t fit either the tone or the specific assertions of the passage.

        You’ve acknowledged that your interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:16 involves the bold rejection of a simple assertion made in 6:13 of the same letter, namely, that Jesus “gave a good confession before Pilate.” You say this must be an “interpolation.”

        By making this assertion, you have involved yourself in a matter of textual criticism. And the fact is, there is no basis in the manuscripts to indicate that 6:13 was not part of the original document. (It is not legitimate to alter an ancient text for the mere fact that it doesn’t suit your theory — especially when the theory about an earlier statement is so tenuous.)

        6. You say, “A generation or two after the epistles were written, a group got it into their heads that Jesus had come rather recently and since there was nobody left to dispute it after Jerusalem was sacked, the idea spread.” But…

        Within 30 years after Jesus, the gospel had spread around the Mediterranean all the way to Rome. Churches were established in city after city. They had been visited by such men as Peter and Paul, who were in repeated contact with each other and with the churches. In his letters, Paul makes consistent references to the apostles, including Peter, and mentions Peter’s travels as far away from Jerusalem as Antioch and Corinth.

        All of this is made clear in what Paul wrote, and would make no sense to the recipients of his letters in such places as Corinth and Galatia if his references did not correspond to reality. After all, he was referring to persons and events that his recipients and believers in various places were familiar with.

        So the destruction of Jerusalem did — not — involve the destruction of those who knew Jesus and who enthusiastically proclaimed what they knew. Their testimony had been well established in many places, long before, in an ever-expanding circle of people and nations.

        7. You say, “So, the Epistles have no support for even a teacher that got crucified, and the gospels are based on stories that happened to someone else, fictional stories and poetry.”

        Frankly most scholars, including historians who study that period of Roman history, would regard these assertions as absurd — and with good reason.

        I go beyond what secular scholars believe about Jesus, but I agree with them that is intellectually impossible to account for the existence and expansion of the early church apart from the real existence of Jesus as a teacher (a traveling rabbi) who, not only was crucified, but who presented himself as a miracle-worker before that event — and who was believed, early on, to be the risen Messiah.

        • Greg G.

          Hi Bobby

          Thanks for your reply. I’ll start with the last point.

          7. You say, “So, the Epistles have no support for even a teacher that got crucified, and the gospels are based on stories that happened to someone else, fictional stories and poetry.”

          Frankly most scholars, including historians who study that period of Roman history, would regard these assertions as absurd — and with good reason.

          I go beyond what secular scholars believe about Jesus, but I agree with them that is intellectually impossible to account for the existence and expansion of the early church apart from the real existence of Jesus as a teacher (a traveling rabbi) who, not only was crucified, but who presented himself as a miracle-worker before that event — and who was believed, early on, to be the risen Messiah.

          The apostles did go around starting churches in the early first century but their message was not the one presented in the Gospels. The Old Testament has clear prophecies of a coming Messiah and that is what most of them believed. One sect also began to pick out verses on suffering and interpreted them as a hidden ancient history (Romans 16:25-26). They believed Jesus had come at some time in the undefined past. That scenario accounts for the existence and expansion of the early church, with the disputes, even better than the usual account.

          1. You say, “Not once do the New Testament epistles mention anything Jesus did, taught, or said.” But…

          See 1 Corinthians 11:23-25; 1 Corinthians 7:10-12; 2 Peter 1:16-17…

          Alfred Edersheim in History and Prophecy in Relation to the Messiah writes: “…the bases of [Paul's] doctrinal system…rest on the teaching of Jesus, as we gather its spirit from the reports in the Gospels. We remind ourselves here of such teaching as concerning the valuelessness of mere outward observances; concerning the Law as presented by the Leaders of Israel; concerning the opening of the Kingdom of God to the Gentile world; concerning the insufficiency and inefficacy of outward distinctions and advantages; concerning the rule of the Spirit within the heart, and His transformation of our nature; concerning the need of absolute self-surrender to God, like that of Christ; concerning the character and purpose of Christ’s Death; His institution of the Last Supper; His Resu rrection, and His coming again. (pp. 68-69).

          Edersheim goes on to give other examples from Paul and the authors of other New Testament letters that reflect direct connections between certain Gospels and specific statements made in those letters.

          However, taking only the first three of my references, your statement that the Epistles “not once” refer to the words and works of Jesus must be judged an overstatement at best.

          1 Corinthians 11:23-25 draws on Psalm 41:9. Where does the rest come from? Justin Martyr tells us in his First Apology, chapter 66 , “Of the Eucharist” that the Mithras cult had a similar rite:

          Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.

          Plutarch, in his biography of Pompey, chapter 25, tells us that Mithras practices from the middle of the first century BC were still in practice in the late first century:

          The power of the pirates had its seat in Cilicia at first, and at the outset it was venturesome and elusive; but it took on confidence and boldness during the Mithridatic war, because it lent itself to the king’s service. [...] [The pirates] also offered strange sacrifices of their own at Olympus, and celebrated there certain secret rites, among which those of Mithras continue to the present time, having been first instituted by them.

          Cilicia was a major city in Tarsus, as in Paul of Tarsus. In Galatians 1:21, Paul tells us he went to Cilicia after spending two weeks with Peter and meeting James.

          The Psalm reference in the 1 Corinthians passage makes it sound like all of Paul’s other references to Jesus, like they are taken out of the OT as in Romans 16:25-26. That makes the circumstantial case more plausible than the standard interpretation.

          1 Corinthians 7:10-12 starts out with Paul’s own opinion as you can see in verse 8 and he again sets it apart in verse 12. Verse 10 appears to be a reference to the OT, such as Deuteronomy 24:1-4. It’s not a Jesus reference.

          2 Peter 1:16-17 is one I had forgotten about. It does make a ministry reference but I doubt it is an authentic eyewitness account. It quotes Matthew 17 which is using Mark 9:2-13. Mark is based on Exodus 24:15-18, Exodus 34:29 and Malachi 3:2 which accounts for Elijah in the story and the notes on Jesus’ laundry.

          I don’t doubt that Edersheim finds direct connections between Paul’s letters and the Gospels. I think the gospel authors were well aware of Paul’s letters. For example, look at Paul’s argument with Peter in Galatians 2:11-14 versus Mark 7:1-19. Mark puts Paul’s side of the argument into Jesus’ mouth. If Mark’s account was authentic, Peter and James would have agreed with Paul.

          I’ll concede my statement was a bit over the top but it stands if we limit it to authentic references to Jesus.

          2. “R. M. Price shows how several scholars have traced nearly every passage in Mark to Old Testament passages and to Homer’s Odyssey.” But…

          The widespread influence of Homer’s Odyssey in the Mediterranean world is not controversial. However, the assertions of researchers that theorize — why — Mark used Homer — how — he used him and — how — Mark’s theoretical re-working of Homer would have been understood and received are highly controversial and haven’t made a great impression in the field of Gospel origins and historical Jesus studies.

          The several scholars who see the Odyssey all through Mark have not convinced the vast majority of scholars that they are on to something worth pursuing.

          And I, as a non-scholar, am stunned that, for example, MacDonald seriously believes that Jesus’ journey to the temple in Jerusalem (which was not a family home in any recognizable sense) is an adapted version of Odysseus’ wanderings toward his family home. And that Odysseus’ encounters, victories and losses along the way have anything to do with the miracles and debates that characteristic of Mark.

          The art of mimesis, which anybody trained in writing Greek would have practiced on Homer, takes a story’s elements and flips them around. Mark’s Jesus considered the Temple his father’s home. Why does Jesus sail so many places around a small lake? Because The Odyssey involves sailing. Why are there two mass feedings, a la 2 Kings 4:42-44, where the disciples are astounded both times? Because Telemauchus, Odysseus’ son, goes to two feasts, where both Telemauchus and Jesus sail to one and walk to one, both attend one with 5000 people and one with 4000 people (actually the Telemauchus one had 9 groups of 500), and the disciples take on the incredulity of the servants while Jesus takes on the role of the king in each story.

          MacDonald points out the similarity between Legion in Mark 5:1-20 and the Cyclops in The Odyssey. One thing I caught that I don’t think MacDonald mentioned was the cannection between the names “Legion” and “Polyphemus”. “Polyphemus” means “many talk about”. “Legio” is a Latin word meaning “many soldiers” with the number varying over time. The Greek word “lego” means talk or speak and is used in Mark 5:9 side by side with Legio. The word “many” is translated from the Greek “polys”. It seems to me that Mark was bending over backwards to point out that he was making an Odyssey reference.

          Scholars hypothesize lost documents as sources but when you point out that the most common and well-known literature available in the first century has the same information they propose for the lost documents, they do a Jedi mind trick and say, “We don’t need to consider those documents. Those aren’t the documents we are looking for.”

          3, “Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark and more Old Testament, while Luke filled in some ideas from Josephus. John seems to have heard Mark and added some Greek ideas.” But…

          Your assertions in this statement are naive.

          It can be said with accuracy that — according to the standard theory — Matthew and Luke “borrowed” from Mark, but it is inaccurate and even misleading to say that they “borrowed” from the Old Testament in the same way. Such a way of putting it does not reflect the Gospel writers’ conscious, often overtly stated, use of the Old Testament. (The fact that the shape of their narrative may also reflect intentional reflections on Old Testament stories does not in itself undermine the essential reality of what they have written. Such literary influences does not mean the statements and works attributed to Jesus were simply copied from the Hebrew Bible with a few name changes.)

          And then to add, as you do, “Luke filled in…from Josephus” is an assertion that most scholars would not endorse. An analysis of his sources, which may have been extensive (Luke 1:1-4), does not include Josephus, by objective scholarly estimates.

          And the Jewishness of John is now widely recognized among commentators, especially since the recovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s out of date to say that he “added” his own Greek ideas.

          Besides, what does any of this have to do with establishing or undermining the thesis that substantial oral tradition stands back of the Gospels? Each of the Gospels indicates a shared understanding of who Jesus is and the kinds of things he said and did. Some of them indicate borrowing of some kind between them. And all of them have some material unique to each. This tells us nothing, however, about their ultimate sources — which may have been written or oral — but which seem to be regarded, by each writer, as sound information about Jesus.

          Matthew and Luke copied from Mark one way but they all copied from the OT a different way. They turned stories about Moses, Elijah, and Elisha into stories about Jesus. They crafted stories from verses in Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah and other prophets.

          Mark 11:7-11 uses Zechariah 9:9 for the donkey ride and adds Psalm 118:25-26 for the crowd. Matthew 21:7 interprets Zechariah as two donkeys. Both authors are using the Old Testament for the story and not oral tradition.

          I’ll refer you to The Reliance of Luke-Acts on the Writings of Flavius Josephus for an incomplete list of evidence of Luke using Josephus. Acts 21:38 seems like a smoking gun. Both Luke and Josephus give the wrong distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus but they give the same wrong distance. I have seen apologists tackle the question but they only look at a few examples and scoff that they are just coincidences. They can’t do that with a couple of dozen “Coincidences” because it shows a pattern. Also, all the Josephus coincidences are in the parts of Luke not shared with Mark and Matthew. They only occur in the parts that scholars can’t identify a source for. Shared sources don’t account for the similarities between Paul’s shipwreck in Acts and Josephus’ shipwreck in his outobiography nor that Josephus mentions that he used to talk with scholars at age 14 and Luke has Jesus doing something similar at age 12, for three days, which just screams mythification.

          Something I have seen from two sources is a claim that where Mark is in Omnipotent Narrator mode, John usually omits those stories except when he inserts the “Disciple that Jesus loved”. I haven’t verified this with personal research and one source may have used the other, but it would show interdependence if true.

          In John 3:1-21, Jesus talks with Nicodemus, who is confused by a Greek pun. The Greek word used with “born” put in Jesus’ mouth can mean “again” or “from above”. The whole John 3:16 scenario is a Greek invention and not Jewish or Aramaic. John 21:1-14 combines two stories about Pythagoras, who saw some men pulling in a net of fish. He bet them if he could tell how many fish they had, that they would release them. He got it right and they did. The Greeks didn’t understand irrational numbers so they approximated them with fractions. The fish symbol associated with Jesus is the overlap of two circles crossing through the other’s center. The ratio of the length and width of that figure is the square root of three which they represented as 265 over 153, and that is the best approximation they had for any irrational number, so 153 was a special number. Those are Greek influences.

          I also see some things from Philo in John.

          4. You say, “1 Thessalonians 2:15…says that the Jews killed Jesus, but the next verse says that God’s wrath came upon them at last. Nothing major happened to the Jews that would have been considered God’s wrath until Jerusalem was sacked and that was long after Paul wrote,.” But…

          The term “wrath” is used in the letters in what scholars call an “eschatological” sense as it applies to exclusion from the covenanted people of God. This use is included in 1 Thessalonians (See 1:10 and 1 Thes. 5:9-10.).

          To say that God’s wrath has already come upon a body of people need mean no more than:

          The patience of God has run out, and they have been rejected in terms of ultimate salvation and their current participation in God’s covenant blessing. This is a — major — development.

          To insist that this reference must apply to Jerusalem’s fall in AD 70 is to go far beyond the necessary implications of the terms and phrases used.

          Besides, it is rare for an informed historian or scholar to reject 1 Thessalonians as a genuine letter of Paul.

          First, I don’t say that 1 Thessalonians is not a genuine Pauline letter. Many consider 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 to be an interpolation. The Wikipedia page has a paragraph on it.

          Verse 1:10 is in the eschatological sense. Verse 2:15 is in the past tense.

          5. You say, “1 Timothy 3:16 tells us that Jesus was preached (rather than he preached) and believed on, but he “was seen by angels” implies that he was not seen by men, including Pilate. So 1 Timothy 6:13′s reference to Pilate is probably an interpolation.”

          You have left out important details of what is written in 1 Timothy 3:16. The full declaration begins with “He was manifested in the flesh” and “vindicated in the Spirit.”

          The verse is apparently either a hymn or a rhythmic confession used in worship, as is indicated in its poetic depiction in some recent translations.

          The declaration of 1 Timothy 3:16 is stated in three couplets, highlighted by the closing phrase of each part:(1) “in the flesh” and “in the Spirit” (2) “by angels” and “among the nations” and (3) “in the world” and “in glory.”

          The first couplet concerns Christ’s human life as “the mystery of God” revealed (“manifested”) — openly — and then confirmed (“vindicated”) — openly — by the power of the Spirit of God.

          In an interesting contrast, the next couplet indicates that the angels witnessed who he is; and the nations heard about who he is — through proclamation.

          The last couplet indicates that the proclamation resulted in faith among those who heard the message; and that the same one who was initially “manifested in the flesh” was ultimately “taken up in glory.”

          It is inappropriate — and really preposterous — to single out the reference to Christ being seen by angels and declare that this means that he was not seen by men, including Pilate. It doesn’t fit either the tone or the specific assertions of the passage.

          You’ve acknowledged that your interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:16 involves the bold rejection of a simple assertion made in 6:13 of the same letter, namely, that Jesus “gave a good confession before Pilate.” You say this must be an “interpolation.”

          By making this assertion, you have involved yourself in a matter of textual criticism. And the fact is, there is no basis in the manuscripts to indicate that 6:13 was not part of the original document. (It is not legitimate to alter an ancient text for the mere fact that it doesn’t suit your theory — especially when the theory about an earlier statement is so tenuous.)

          1 Timothy 3:16 is in accord with Hebrews 2:9 that says Jesus was made lower than the angels for a little while. It says he was made like humans. It doesn’t say he was on Earth. Hebrews goes on to talk about the difference between the order of Melchizedek and the Levitical priesthood. It quotes Psalm 110:4
          about being a priest forever. Hebrews 8:4 says “If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law.”

          So even if Jesus was made flesh, it doesn’t mean he was on Earth and visible to men, but he would be visible to the angels. 2 Peter recalls Balaam and the talking donkey where the spiritual beings were not visible to Balaam but were to the donkey. The people in the first century had a different understanding of the heaven and earth.

          The early Christians and even the gospel authors still thought the Messiah was coming at any minute. 1 Timothy and 2 Peter had given up that hope and conceded that God would do it whenever.

          6. You say, “A generation or two after the epistles were written, a group got it into their heads that Jesus had come rather recently and since there was nobody left to dispute it after Jerusalem was sacked, the idea spread.” But…

          Within 30 years after Jesus, the gospel had spread around the Mediterranean all the way to Rome. Churches were established in city after city. They had been visited by such men as Peter and Paul, who were in repeated contact with each other and with the churches. In his letters, Paul makes consistent references to the apostles, including Peter, and mentions Peter’s travels as far away from Jerusalem as Antioch and Corinth.

          All of this is made clear in what Paul wrote, and would make no sense to the recipients of his letters in such places as Corinth and Galatia if his references did not correspond to reality. After all, he was referring to persons and events that his recipients and believers in various places were familiar with.

          So the destruction of Jerusalem did involve the destruction of those who knew Jesus and who enthusiastically proclaimed what they knew. Their testimony had been well established long before this in an ever-expanding circle of people and nations.

          Yes, I agree that Paul, Peter, and others were preaching a message, just not the one from the gospels. When Jerusalem was destroyed, it would have been big news and stirred interest in all things from Jerusalem. The religion could have had a revival based on Paul’s letters and a few sects would have been able to expand their influence unchecked by the Jerusalem Christians.

          Mark seems to have been written as a midrash to explain the fall of Jerusalem. Mark 11:12-21, Jesus curses the fig tree, then disrupts the Temple. Later they see the withered fig tree. Right after the destruction of Jerusalem, the rest of the syllogism would be obvious to anyone in the Roman Empire.

          In Mark 12:1-12, Jesus tells a parable that combines the Gospel of Thomas 65 with Isaiah 5 and Thomas 66 with Psalm 118:22-23 to say, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

          Mark portrays the disciples as inept, but the only three that play major roles are the three mentioned in Galatians and each act as they do in Galatians. James and John are reputed to be pillars and in Mark 10:35-45 they ask to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in glory, very much like Elisha asking Elijah in 2 Kings 2:9, or Castor and Polydeuces. Peter promises to never deny Jesus but does, similar to the way he ate with the Gentiles but folded when men sent by James arrived.

          So, we see nothing about Jesus in the epistles written before the gospels that could not have been found in the OT. We see evidence of disputes between Paul and Peter and James but none of them cite Jesus to resolve their differences. They always quote OT scripture even when their arguments would have been much stronger with a Jesus quote. They just didn’t know about the invention of the first century Jesus they were supposed to have followed.

        • Bobby Garringer

          I’ll respond to a couple of your explanations and end my correspondence with this comment.

          1. All the Gospel writers and Paul agree that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. There is a clear connection of both context and content between I Corinthians 11:23-25 and the Gospel accounts. (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-25 and Luke 22:18-20). The verbal and conceptual correspondence is clear.

          But you opt for the idea that Paul came up with the story that is told in 1 Corinthians 11 by combining: (1) Psalm 41: 9 that reads, “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, Who ate my bread, Has lifted up his heel against me” and (2) some ideas from Mithraism that you have no textual evidence for at all. Here the verbal and conceptual correspondence is weak as regards Psalm 41:9 and is non-existent for the Mithras mysteries.

          You note that Justin mentions an initiatory rite that involved eating and drinking – not an ongoing memorial meal – associated with Mithras. And you state that Plutarch states that Mithraistic “secret rites” were practiced in the first century. But there is nothing here to measure or compare.

          I had to study about Mithraism when in Bible college and can tell you – with certainty – that we know very little about the various forms of the cult that existed in the Mediterranean world of those times or about their secret rites.

          We know that a one-time meal for initiates was practiced – as Justin mentions – apparently as a symbol of fellowship.

          But we know of nothing like the Lord’s Supper that was a repeated practice as part of that religion. The blessing, the bread (standing for the body) and the cup (standing for the blood) in anticipation of the eschatological meal of restored Israel – none of this can be traced to Mithraism in the Roman world of the first and second centuries.

          Your assertions about this have no foundation in a direct study and objective consideration of the texts of 1 Corinthians, the Gospels and the Mithras mysteries – the latter because we have no relevant texts to study.

          The kind of description of the situation that I’ve just given can be applied to much that you have written, including the confident declaration that – without qualification – you know the gospel of the earliest Christians was some sort of mythical construct – foreign to what is written in any of the Gospels. (And yet, inexplicably, the Gospels were somehow accepted by the churches founded by the apostles, and the original gospel message got lost in the process.)

          I’ll not write to you about any more of this in the future, because you have no objective methodology that binds itself to a careful reading of texts. Instead you seem to be guided by your goal, and that goal is to make any assertion that is useful to nest your mind in the comfortable belief that Jesus is a myth. Any theory or naked declaration that seems to reinforce that belief is acceptable, and any that puts that belief to the test is due to some bias on the part of the person who raises an issue.

          _______________________________

          2. Paul speaks about “the Lord” instructing the wife not to “leave her husband,” and “if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband.” And, he adds that the Lord gave the same instruction to the husband – in slightly different words – that he should not “divorce his wife.”

          Now you say that “the Lord” here refers to what is written in the Old Testament (specifically Deuteronomy 24:1-4) and not to anything Jesus said.

          But your explanation has the major problem that this is not the way Paul or any other New Testament writer quoted the Old Testament. Nowhere else do they ever say anything like “the Lord gives instructions” and then cite Old Testament content.

          A second major problem is that, in the context of Paul’s letters as a whole and especially in the context of 1 Corinthians that carefully distinguishes between the Father and – the Lord – Jesus Christ, the reference to “Lord” concerning the issue of faithfulness in marriage is a clear reference to Jesus.

          In 1 Corinthians, Paul states boldly, “to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ” (8:6; see also 12:3 c) and “The second man is the Lord from heaven” (15:47 b). Paul also refers to the Lord’s death, the Lord’s cup, and the Lord’s body (11:26-29).

          So when Paul says that the Lord gives instructions, we can be sure that he is talking about something Jesus said. And what Paul attributes to the Lord corresponds well to the content of Mark 10:11-12 – or some similar sayings of Jesus that were known at that time – where Jesus addresses both the wife and the husband about – not – drawing up divorce papers and, instead, staying faithful to each other.

          At the same time, Deuteronomy 24 consists of instructions about what is and is not acceptable when divorce papers are written under two very different circumstances. And there is nothing in the latter about the woman leaving her husband under any of the two circumstances discussed. The content of Paul’s reference to the Lord’s instruction and the content of the passage in Deuteronomy are very different. So there is no objective reason to think that Paul is referring to this passage.

          3. I don’t have time to respond to the flood of errors in your last comment. Each would take at least the amount of words I’ve used above.

          You have basically stuck your head in the sand of the Jesus myth and are determined to keep it there. So you are willing to make the broadest assumptions and follow the most meandering explanations, showing little respect for the words that are right in front of you in the ancient texts.

  • Bobby Garringer

    You should expand your reading list to get acquainted with other points of view.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Bobby: If you’re saying that there’s lots more to learn, I agree heartily. But if you’re concerned that my interest is in reading only from the atheist viewpoint, put your fears to rest. As a detailed reading of this blog will tell you, I’m quite interested in the Christian viewpoint.

      There are only so many hours in the day …

      • Bobby Garringer

        If you’re interested in the Christian viewpoint, and your reading list reflects it; then you should represent the viewpoint fairly, and your recommendations for reading should include it.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Bobby: You’re saying that I’m misrepresenting the Christian viewpoint? That’s certainly not my intention. Show me where I’m doing this.

  • Bobby Garringer

    Reserving your last assertion till last:

    1. You say, “To Paul, the so-called ‘Pillars of the Church’ (Peter, John and James) are nobodies, his personal enemies, and they have nothing to add to Paul’s understanding of the Gospel.” Then you cite as support of these ideas, Galatians 2:2-6. But…

    In Galatians, Paul says:

    “Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to get to know Cephas, and I stayed with him 15 days” (1:18)

    “Then after 14 years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. I went up because of a revelation and presented to them the gospel I preach among the Gentiles — but privately to those recognized — so that I might not be running, or have run, in vain.” (2:1-2)

    And Paul speaks of “false brothers” who attempted to disrupt his meeting with the apostles. He says they “came in secretly to spy on our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus.” And he indicates that the leaders in Jerusalem and by Paul were fully united in opposing these men (2:4).

    Concerning these false brothers, Paul states, “But we did not yield in submission to these people for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain for you. But from those recognized as important (what they really were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism) — those recognized as important added nothing to me. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter was for the circumcised. For He who was at work with Peter in the apostleship to the circumcised was also at work with me among the Gentiles. When James, Cephas, and John, recognized as pillars, acknowledged the grace that had been given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to me and Barnabas, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” (2:5-9)

    In declaring that the leaders of Jerusalem get no favorite treatment from God — though they were important to people — he was not declaring his separation from the other apostles or his superiority over them. He said similar things about himself, such as, “and again, The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are futile. So no one should boast in men…whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas…” (1 Corinthians 3:20 , 21, 22 a). Later in 1 Corinthians he describes himself as “the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle” (15:9).

    There is nothing in Paul’s reporting of the incident of his trip to Jerusalem that indicates Peter, John and James were Paul’s “personal enemies.” Instead, it is just the opposite.

    I think you should consider that your source must be either blind and unable to read or must be deliberately distorting what he reads, because the simplest straightforward reading of Galatians yields only one possible, legitimate understanding of Paul’s meaning.

    Even the incident at Antioch that Paul discusses in Galatians 2 was not the result of a sharp division between himself and the other apostles. Instead — based again on the wording of Paul’s Galatian letter — he rebuked Peter for behaving inconsistently with the gospel both of them preached (as indicated in the verses immediately preceding this incident, quoted above). The gospel grants no special treatment to the Jews, but that is the way Peter was behaving (2:11-14). Paul observed that Peter and his newly arrived Jewish companions “were deviating from the truth of the gospel,” when they began separating from the Gentiles out of fear of the very kind of false teachers that had caused trouble in Jerusalem earlier (2:12, 14).

    2. You say, “Paul…tells us…only that through scripture and revelation he ‘saw’ the Lord. And ‘appearance’ is too strong a word for any of these ‘sightings’ by any of the apostles that were a matter of seeing ‘with the eyes of faith’…” But…

    Paul does not declare only that he “saw” the Lord. He says that he “received” “the gospel” by “a revelation from the Lord” (Galatians 1:11-12). This must have been a revelation with clear verbal content, not a “sighting.” And the content of his revelation — in which he received the gospel — was similar to the “revelation” — with instruction — that came later to go to Jerusalem in order to confirm the truth of what he was preaching (Galatians 2:2). The phrase “eyes of faith” is not used in conjunction with the appearances of Jesus Christ after his resurrection.

    And you are concerned that Paul gives no description of his call to be an apostle that is detailed like the story in Acts. But notice that while there is no detailed description — because Paul was only saying enough to prove his point to the Galatians — we do find a direct connection he makes between his persecuting the church (a similar connection is made in 1 Corinthians 15:9) and a tantalizing reference to going “back to Damascus” after an apparent short trip to Arabia (2:13, 17). The accounts in Acts and the incidental statements in Galatians can be read as referring to the same event.

    3. You say, “Paul’s list of appearances at 1 Corinthians 15 doesn’t match any of the gospel accounts.” But…

    In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, Paul seems to be citing what is either a creedal formula or a hymn or a liturgical citation to which he adds his own personal experience at the end — with a great sense of regret and humility (15:8, 9). (A number of recent translations indicates the line-by-line rhythm of this short section, written in a poem-like fashion.)

    It is not a Gospel narrative. It is not necessarily complete in any way.

    And the Gospel narratives are not written in order to give a complete rundown of everything Jesus said or did — in detail — either before of after the resurrection.

    Gospels are literary works — with a beginning, end and middle — that have what theologians call a “kerygmatic, didactic and apologetic” purpose. They are something like biographies of that time that amount to selective presentations in order to honor someone and present that person as an ideal to be looked up to in some way.

    So it is a methodological mistake to set up a standard that — before you will consider one of those kind of ancient documents to be a significant source — you demand that a certain amount of material concerning this or that aspect of his/her life must be included in the biography.

    The strong assertion that Jesus rose from the dead — at a specific time and that he was encountered at specific times and places — is characteristic of all the Gospels and most of the letters of the New Testament. They are in good agreement on that.

    You may think they are not accurate, and you may try to present a case for why you think so.

    But what you wrote in your comment falls far short of success.

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