Ehrman Errors #4: Paul’s “Neglect” of the Life of Jesus

Ehrman Errors #4: Paul’s “Neglect” of the Life of Jesus March 22, 2022

Bart Ehrman is one of the most well-known and influential critics of traditional Christianity and the inspired Bible (“anti-theists”) writing today. Formerly, in his own words, he was “a fundamentalist for maybe 6 years; a conservative evangelical but not extreme right wing for maybe 5 years more; and a fairly mainstream liberal Christian for about 25.” The primary reason he gives for having lost his faith is the problem of evil (a very serious topic I have dealt with many times). He stated on 3-18-22 in a comment on his blog: “I could no longer explain how there could be a God active in this world given all the pain and misery in it.” I don’t question his sincerity, good intentions, intellectual honesty, or his past status as a Christian; only various opinions which Christians must (in consistency) regard as erroneous.

Dr. Ehrman “received his PhD and MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he studied textual criticism of the Bible, development of the New Testament canon and New Testament apocrypha under Bruce Metzger.” He has written 30 books, which have sold over two million copies and have been translated into 27 languages.

Ehrman explains that the purpose of his blog is “to disseminate scholarly knowledge of the New Testament and the earliest periods of the Christian church to a non-scholarly audience, . . . Every post is rooted in scholarship – not just my own but that of thousands of scholars who have worked for centuries on understanding the historical Jesus, the New Testament, and the origins of Christianity.” Well, the conclusions of scholars are only as good as the solidity and truthfulness of the premises by which they are operating.

This is one of a series of reply-papers, in which I will address many of his materials from the perspective of archaeology, history, and exegesis.

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I am responding to his articles, But Why Doesn’t Paul Say More About the Historical Jesus? (12/9/2021) and Why Doesn’t Paul Say More about the Historical Jesus? Other Options. (12-11-21). His words will be in blue.

To this point I have enumerated everything that Paul explicitly says about what Jesus said, did, and experienced during his earthly life.  The driving question is the one that I turn to now and in the next post.  Why didn’t Paul tell us more?

The short (and I think, obvious) answer is that we have the four Gospels that already do so. How many times are necessary? Now, I could see that if there were no Gospels, and Paul was all we had, that it would become altogether necessary, to present the whole picture. But with them present, the equation changes. Paul is basically writing systematic theology: how the atoning death of Christ brings salvation.

He is dealing with the theological implications; doing theology; whereas the Gospels (much more in the style of the Old Testament), are “doing” the life of Christ; telling the story of His ministry and mission. The Old Testament had very little systematic theology per se. Paul was offering something new and exciting: in effect being more “Greek” than “Jewish” in his approach and intention.

I suppose Ehrman could come back with “the Gospels weren’t written yet when Paul wrote his letters.” Whether they were or not, there were certainly very strong oral traditions out and about, by this time, some twenty or more years after the crucifixion. All are agreed on that. Paul assumes that his readers already have this knowledge:

Ephesians 4:20-21 (RSV) You did not so learn Christ! — [21] assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus.

Colossians 1:4-5 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love which you have for all the saints, [5] because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel

1 Thessalonians 5:2 For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. [Lk 12:39]

He demonstrates almost exact familiarity with either a Gospel or a tradition that was behind the story of the Gospels:

Acts 13:24-25 Before his coming John had preached a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. [Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3] [25] And as John was finishing his course, he said, `What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. [Jn 1:21] No, but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’ [Mt 3:11; Mk 1:7; Jn 1:15, 30] (cf. Acts 19:4)

Romans 2:1 . . . when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. [Mt 7:1-2; Lk 6:37]

Romans 12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. [Mt 5:44]

Romans 13:7 Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. [Mt 22:21; Mk 12:17; Lk 20:25]

1 Corinthians 11:23-25 For I received 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.” [Lk 22:19-20]

1 Corinthians 15:36 . . . What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. [Jn 12:24]

Ephesians 5:8 for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light [Jn 12:35-36] (cf. Lk 16:8; 1 Thess 5:4-5)

1 Thessalonians 1:7 and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, [Mt 25:31] (cf. 1 Thess 4:16-17)

He cites a tradition about Jesus that is not in the Gospels (but arguably is, by logical extension, in thought):

Acts 20:35 In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”

He cites something else that isn’t found in the Bible:

1 Corinthians 9:10 Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop.

Moreover, Luke (who many think wrote the Gospel bearing his name) was Paul’s companion and doctor (Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11; Phlm 1:24). And he was writing an account of many major events in Paul’s own life, in the book of Acts (see 1:1-5; cf. Lk 1:1-4). One can imagine Paul and Luke talking about how Luke had written or was to write the Gospel of Luke, and Paul saying, “you do the life of Jesus, and I’ll do the theology of Jesus.  The Spirit apportions to each one individually as he wills [1 Cor 12:11].”

Moreover, Mark (if he is regarded as the author of the Gospel of Mark) also traveled with Paul (Acts 12:25; 15:37; Col 4:10; 2 Tim 4:11; Phlm 1:24). One can easily imagine Paul having the same sorts of discussions with him, about who was writing what, as he may very well have had with Luke. In other words, he knew they had written or were to write the Gospels, and/or that they were well familiar with the oral traditions concerning Jesus; therefore, he need not do the same thing. Division of labor . . .

Paul was determined to do exactly what God had called him to do, such as, for example, his specific mission to the Gentiles, not the Jews (Acts 13:46; 18:6; Rom 11:13; 15:15-16; Gal 1:16). I contend, then, that (following the idea of his very specific, particular mission) Paul deliberately sought to write about Christology and the theology of Jesus, rather than specifically about His life (biography, or the story of salvation).

Paul of course has a lot to say about the importance of Jesus, especially the importance of his death and resurrection and his imminent return from heaven.

Exactly! And that’s because he was writing “the theology of Jesus” and not “the life of Jesus.”

We hear nothing here of the details of Jesus’ birth or parents or early life, nothing of his baptism or temptation in the wilderness, nothing of his teaching about the coming Kingdom of God; we have no indication that he ever told a parable, that he ever healed anyone, cast out a demon, or raised the dead; we learn nothing of his transfiguration or triumphal entry, nothing of his cleansing of the Temple, nothing of his interrogation by the Sanhedrin or trial before Pilate, nothing of his being rejected in favor of Barabbas, of his being mocked, of his being flogged, etc. etc. etc.

This perfectly illustrates my argument. All of those things mentioned just happen to be (by the merest of coincidences!) in the four Gospels. That’s why Ehrman knew about them in the first place. Yet Ehrman finds it odd that Paul deliberately chooses not to do the same thing a fifth time (!). I’ve always thought this was a very odd skeptical / atheist objection.

But he does at least stumble into the most feasible explanation in his sentence before the above paragraph: “Imagine what we wouldn’t know about Jesus if these letters were our only sources of information.” That’s right. I agree! But since that’s not the case, it’s rather a moot point, isn’t it? Why bother with this at all? Why does the question even come up?

The historian who wants to know about the traditions concerning Jesus — or indeed, about the historical Jesus himself — will not be much helped by the surviving letters of Paul.

That’s correct, but it’s not a problem. The Christian and the theologian or historian interested in the history of theology and/or ideas or the sociologist of religion will find Paul’s letters crucial and immensely helpful; indispensable, because this was Paul’s purpose.

But what are we to make of this?

Nothing. It’s a non sequitur.

Why does Paul not remind his congregations of what Jesus said and did?

Because there was no need to.

Does he think that these things are unimportant?

No.

Does he think that they are irrelevant?

No.

Does he assume that his readers already know them?

Yes. Or if they didn’t already, they would soon, once the Gospels were all in their final forms, in writing, for posterity.

Does he know them?

Yes, just like all the other Christians.

How could he not know? 

Exactly!

Ehrman mulls over an “option one” in trying to understand this state of affairs: “we might conclude that Paul never mentioned these traditions in his letters because he knew that his converts already knew them.”

Yep. This is the answer, but Ehrman (who knows why?) finds it unsatisfactory.

[O]n occasion — relatively rare occasions, to be sure — Paul does use one of the traditions about Jesus in order to convince his converts of a necessary course of action. . . . If Paul was demonstrably inclined to use the traditions about Jesus in this way, why does he not do so more often? 

Because it was an exception to the “rule” of his methodology and purpose. Arguing by the “what ifs” and “why didn’t x say / do y?” is not a compelling or persuasive method at all. It carries very little force. We can do this all day, about anyone (including God), but what would it accomplish? Exactly nothing.

It might be a fun, stimulating exercise in imagination, thought experiment, and hypothetical speculation, but it has nothing to do with Paul’s purpose at hand. And this is habitually the problem with the analyses of skeptics like Ehrman. They are mostly subjective mush and have about as much force as an argument that vanilla ice cream is superior to chocolate (to which I reply, “well, it is on pie . . .”).

The problem with this first option is that Paul had lots of occasions to mention traditions about Jesus to buttress his views, but scarcely ever took the opportunity.

If you don’t need to do something that’s already been done, you don’t need to. A=a. The question to ask first is, “was it necessary or required?”, not, “why didn’t he do it, when he had every chance to do so?!”

Option Two: Paul knew more of the traditions of Jesus, but considered them irrelevant to his mission.

They weren’t irrelevant to his overall mission (he assumes them as a package of understood premises or presuppositions that he is now building upon); only to what he chose to write about.

Why would he choose not to?

Because it was already done and known.

If this in fact was Paul’s view, then he didn’t cite the words and deeds of Jesus simply because he didn’t think that they were important.

That doesn’t follow. One need not repeat things ad infinitum. There is a point where it simply isn’t necessary. Ehrman’s agonized, bewildered ponderings as to why this is would only make sense, I respectfully submit, if there were no Gospels or no oral “Gospel tradition” at the time Paul wrote his letters.

Option Three: Paul didn’t mention more about Jesus’ words and deeds because he didn’t know very much more.

This is where atheists and skeptics typically engage in wild flights of fancy and fantasy and fairy tales. We need not concern ourselves with this at all because it is completely subjective reasoning, that can’t even be rationally, objectively discussed.

He never inquired further into the things Jesus said and did, and possibly never even thought about inquiring further, because he simply wasn’t interested.

Right. Simply ludicrous . . .

I’m afraid that I must leave this dilemma for you to resolve.

I gave it my best shot! As always, I have great trust and confidence in my readers, to be able to critically discern which of the stated views make the most rational sense and which is the most plausible.

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Photo credit: The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus (1649), by Eustache Le Sueur (1616-1655) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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Summary: Agnostic anti-theist writer Bart Ehrman wonders aloud about Paul’s “neglect” of the life of Jesus. I make the obvious point that the Gospels (and the oral tradition prior to their writing) already did this four times.


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