Paul’s Human Jesus

Paul’s Human Jesus December 4, 2014

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul makes a contrast between two human beings, Adam and Jesus. One is mythical. Is the other? And did Paul think that one or both of them were mythical?

Interestingly, on this point, if none other, concerns of young-earth creationists and mythicists intersect.

Is “human” ever applied without qualification to beings that are thought to exist purely in the celestial realm? Certainly we have instances of people seeing “men” but the interpretation is that they were “angels.” But those are instances of appearances of angels in the world. We know that there were docetists who claimed that Jesus merely appeared to be human in the world. But mythicism says that Jesus never walked the Earth at all, and that Paul never thought of Jesus as one who was seen on Earth except in visions.

So does 1 Corinthians 15:21 fit with that? Is  ἄνθρωπος ever used for a purely celestial being, without some qualification specifying that the term is not being used in its usual sense?

While it might be said in response that Paul at one point refers to Jesus as the “heavenly” man, that is something that Paul says about the risen Jesus. The image of the heavenly man is the nature of the risen Jesus which Paul says that awaits others.

The resurrection emphasis in Paul’s letters is probably one of the strongest arguments against mythicism there is. In Judaism, resurrection was expected to happen to human beings. We have no references to purely celestial beings being raised from the dead. Indeed, it is doubtful that the concept would have made any sense to first century Jews. Paul states time and again that Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection, the first of humankind. And so here too, mythicism’s understanding of what Paul meant, if not impossible, is a meaning of the texts that is at odds with what a variety of words and technical terms normally meant in Paul’s context, and so, because Paul does not clarify that he is using those words in unconventional ways, he ought to be understood as saying something consonant with their usual meaning in his context. And that is the meaning that mainstream scholars ascribe to him.

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  • Paul E.

    This is much of what I was getting at in my comment yesterday (directed to Vinny’s comment) that, im(very)ho, Paul’s material on the risen Christ is not irrelevant to the issue of Jesus’ historicity, and actually argues in favor of historicity. I will be interested to see what the mythicist/mythicist-sympathizer response to this is.

    • By what criteria do alleged supernatural events become relevant to an investigation of history?

      • Bethany

        It’s not the resurrection itself, it’s Paul’s beliefs about the resurrection. That’s taken from Paul’s letters and writing a letter isn’t a supernatural event.

        Paul’s letters indicate that he believed that Jesus’ resurrection is the first example of a general resurrection of the dead: that just as he was raised, so will everyone else. Moreover, he seems to have thought that Jesus’ resurrection was the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead — the firstfruits — meaning that it was evidence that the general resurrection was going to happen soon. This implies that whatever else Paul thought Jesus was, he thought Jesus was an actual human being who actually died like an actual human.

        • Nobody, not even a mythicist, denies the historicity of letter writing. Again, by what criteria do supernatural beliefs in a letter become relevant to an investigation of history?

          • Bethany

            When the question is whether Paul believed that Jesus existed and was human, the fact that Paul held a supernatural belief which was predicated on Jesus’ existing and being human certainly is relevant to the question of whether Paul believed that Jesus existed and was human because… well, it demonstrates that Paul believed Jesus existed and was human, which was the issue at question.

      • Paul E.

        I’m not sure I understand the question, but I’ll try to respond as best I can. The belief in a particular kind of supernatural event will have a specific context. If Paul’s belief in a “resurrection” suggests certain things about the person “resurrected” (e.g., was an actual human being or not) then that is relevant. Does that make sense, or am I misunderstanding you.

        EDIT: I see Bethany has responded below, and I think I would generally agree with what she says.

        • So if I write a letter in which I truly believe a fellow flies through the sky delivering presents to children, is that relevant to historical investigation that Santa Claus is an actual human being or not?

          • Paul E.

            It would certainly be relevant to your belief that Santa Claus is an actual person, as I think Paul’s belief in the resurrection is relevant to his belief (or not) that Jesus was a historical person. Then, one could look at other evidence on which you base that belief, as well other relevant evidence at our disposal, and on what Paul based his belief (e.g., meeting Jesus’ brother and others who knew Jesus), place those beliefs in time/place context, and assess the probabilities.

          • I think a good example would be if someone talked about God raising General Patton from the dead to confirm that God was on the side of the Allies in World War II. You might well believe the person is insane and deluded, or merely that they hold unpersuasive theological views. But, if you were a future historian dealing with unfortunately limited historical evidence, the way the person talked about what they believed God had done to Patton after death might well persuade you that the author in question believed they were talking about a real historical individual.

          • Paul E.

            I was trying to think of an example along the lines of transubstantiation as well. If someone came along in a thousand years and found a tract saying that a priest consecrated bread and wine and then ate/drank the body and blood of Christ, the supernatural belief in transubstantiation would be relevant to the actual substances in the ritual. So the bread and wine (as opposed to, say oranges and milk) existed historically (as opposed to a priest simply making believe they were there) and we know that partially because of the supernatural belief. Something like that – I don’t know, it’s not well thought-out.

          • Jim

            Yeah, that could indicate that you at least thought of old St Nick as a human. For example, if you thought that Santa was a Tyrannosaurus rex, your fable would have him eating the children and leaving large amounts of excrement in your living room, not to mention your trashed chimney.

    • I have no problem with the idea that Paul thought Jesus was a man who walked the earth. I just don’t think that makes Paul’s Jesus historical as Paul also thought Adam was a man who walked the earth. It may still mean that Jesus is mythical in the sense of John Frum or Ned Ludd.

      I understand the argument based on the resurrection emphasis in Paul’s letters, but if that truly is “one of the strongest arguments against mythicism there is,” it seems to me that very little certainty about the question is warranted. I’m simply leery of pegging historical inferences on an understanding of what ancient people thought about theological doctrines. As a child, I went to Immaculate Conception grammar school and my impression is that most Catholics don’t even realize that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary rather than the conception of Jesus. What any particular Catholic understands or believes about any particular doctrine can vary widely from how the Baltimore Catechism defines it.

      • Avenger

        Doesn’t Carrier consider the celestial myth theory to be the only viable one? It is certainly the one for which he makes a case. It seems reasonable to concentrate on this theory at the moment.

        I don’t know if you agree, but I regard a crucifixion as an earthly event unless proved otherwise. Now, not only is it not proved otherwise, but there is good reason to think that it could not have been otherwise. James’s argument is not so much a desperate attempt to counter the myth theory as the final nail in its coffin.

        • I also regard crucifixion as an earthly event, but I don’t think that how I regard it determines how Paul regarded it. Paul believed in all sorts of things that I regard as mythical such as resurrection, divine revelation, and a historical Adam. While I understand Dr. MrGrath’s argument, it seems to be premised on the idea that there would necessarily have been a high degree of logical consistency among all of Paul’s mythical ideas, i.e., Paul would never have combined the common Jewish understanding of resurrection with cosmological ideas that were outside the mainstream. So while I might concede that McGrath’s argument adds weight to the the scale, I think it falls short of a coffin nail.

      • Paul E.

        I see what you’re saying, and if the theological belief were all we had then that would be one thing, but in conjunction with the other evidence that’s out there, I think the theological belief is a relevant (not sure how important, I guess) piece of the puzzle. Always would be nice to have more pieces…

        • The argument seems to be that Paul couldn’t have believed in a mythical Jesus because that would be logically inconsistent with other mythical beliefs that he held, which doesn’t seem like the kind of argument that is going to carry more than a little weight.

          • Rarely does any one argument carry more than a little weight on its own. But it does carry some weight – much as a future historian with frustratingly piecemeal evidence might find that mythological statements about president Barack Obama being the antichrist seem to imply that a real historical individual was being referred to.

          • It might imply that if the writer was a fan of the Left Behind series, but if the historian couldn’t eliminate the possibility that writer held to the idea that the Antichrist was a spiritual being, as has been thought by different groups from time to time, he might still acknowledge that other possibilities warranted consideration.

          • I would say that, if someone refuses to accept as evidence that a person thinks another person is historical any of the following:
            – they have a human name as opposed to the different sorts of names given to celestial beings in their tradition
            – they mention that they were born in the way all human beings are
            – they mention that they are allegedly descended from an illustrious ancestor who was not a celestial figure
            – they mention that they had a brother whom the individual had met
            – they mention their death and burial and other such details
            In that case, I would say that we aren’t dealing with a case of multiple seriously competing possibilities, but a denialist insistence on claiming that matters are unclear, for reasons that have nothing to do with what the evidence indicates.

          • I accept all of those as evidence of whether Paul thought that Jesus was a historical person, but that doesn’t change the fact that Paul’s writings are still highly problematic when it comes to establishing that Jesus was in fact a historical person. This is because, in essence, Paul claims only to have seen Jesus’s ghost, and it is far from clear to me that he thinks that anyone he knew ever encountered Jesus in any other way.

            To the best of my knowledge, there is no other historical person whose existence can only be established by relying on such a problematic source. I think that the historicity of Jesus raises unique issues and poses unique challenges. When I combine this with historians’ dependence on the principle of analogy, I am hard pressed to see how anything more than tentative certainty will ever be warranted due to the lack of analogous cases.

            The focus of Paul’s letters is not a common historical person. His focus is the supernatural risen Christ and the role he plays is God’s eschatological plans. As a result, I think that we always have to seriously consider the possibility that he is using words or concepts in uncommon ways.

          • Neko

            Do you think Apollonius of Tyana was historical?

          • I don’t know enough about Apollonius of Tyra to have a strong opinion. I gather that our earliest extant source claims to rely on sources written by contemporaries of Apollonius and that there are plausible reasons to think that some of the writings attributed to Apollonius are authentic. That sounds like enough to tip the balance provisionally in favor of historicity, but with room for reasonable minds to differ.

          • Neko

            I could be wrong about this, but it seems there’s a lot more evidence to support the historicity of Jesus than there is for Apollonius of Tyana. They have uncannily similar mytho-biographies (though Apollonius avoids execution, IIRC). So I was curious if perhaps you hold Jesus to an unusually high bar for a figure in antiquity.

          • Our earliest extant source for Jesus cites scripture and revelation as his sources and shows little interest in or knowledge of Jesus’ life. Our earliest extant source for Apollonius cite writings by Apollonius’ contemporaries, although it doesn’t seem like there is much reason to be confident about those sources. They are both problematic, but in such different ways that it is hard for me to compare them.

          • Neko

            OK, fair enough. I’m familiar with your skepticism so will not venture down that road again.

          • I know I am considered a radical skeptic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some arguments for historicity that I would find very persuasive. One might be based on the fact that the character of Jesus becomes less human and more fantastic with each gospel that is written. If we extrapolate that backwards, maybe we get an actual human who simply didn’t do all that much during his life that was worthy of notice. Maybe that is why Paul has so little interest in him.

            I don’t see much potential in arguing that Jesus must have been historical because a mythical Jesus would have been inconsistent with other mythical ideas that Paul had. Paul strikes me as being too creative theologically, to be constrained that way.

          • Avenger

            I prefer a different metaphor from that of adding weight to a pair of scales. I see the celestial crucifixion theory as teetering on the edge of a precipice and all it takes is one little push to send it into the abyss.

          • Given the problematic nature of our sources and the nature of historical inquiry in general, I can’t see how that metaphor sheds any light at all on things.

          • Avenger

            If you have two equally plausible theories then you might think of them as a pair of scales on which evidence can be placed. Does that apply to the two theories in question: Paul thought Jesus was crucified on Earth and Paul thought Jesus was crucified in the heavens? I don’t think it does. I think the latter theory starts off as being barely plausible and any further reason for doubt would push it over the edge. I accept that others may disagree, but that is my personal view.

          • I’m sorry, but I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about historical hypotheses falling off a cliff. If the probability of a celestial Jesus is small, then an argument that favors an earthly Jesus slightly makes a celestial Jesus slightly less probable. On the other hand, stronger evidence that Paul thought that people he knew had followed an itinerant rabbi and healer from Galilee to Jerusalem and had seen him crucified would do a lot to reduce the probability of a celestial Jesus from small to trivially insignificant.

      • Bethany

        “I just don’t think that makes Paul’s Jesus historical as Paul also thought Adam was a man who walked the earth.”

        Wait, what?

        So, I have a friend who has a brother. I’ve never met his brother, but I’ve heard him talk about his brother and I believe his brother exists.

        Up until maybe the last 10 years or so, I also believed that Abraham existed, something I now gather is at the very least questionable.

        If I believe that one person who would have lived 4000 years ago existed when he probably didn’t, does that mean that the existence of everyone whom I believe exists on the grounds of talking to their friends and siblings is questionable?

        • I’m not aware of Paul ever saying that he heard stories from James about growing up in Galilee with Jesus. Nor am I aware of Paul ever saying that anyone he knew had ever told him any stories about the time they spent with Jesus during his earthly ministry. Indeed, I am not aware of Paul indicating anywhere that he even thought that Jesus had an earthly ministry. Had he done so, I might assess things differently.

          Now let’s suppose that you wrote many long letters about a ghost named Caspar that appeared to you and your friends without showing any interest in what the ghost was supposed to have said or done during his life. If that were all the information I had, I think I might have my doubts about whether Caspar was ever a real person, and those doubts might not be fully resolved just because you identified someone that you once met as Caspar’s brother.

  • Avenger

    Well said. The resurrection of Jesus is the basis for the hope that we will also be resurrected. The humanity of Jesus is crucial to this. It is implausible enough that the death and resurrection of a purely celestial being could be the basis of our hope, but even more implausible is that this issue would not be addressed in Paul’s letters. Paul never had occasion to address any doubts on this issue. Here is a real argument from silence.

    • Questions:

      1) Why would anybody hope to be resurrected from the dead?

      5 Reasons Immortality Would be Worse than Death
      By CRACKED Staff, Elias Don Tonte August 18, 2010 3,034,479 Views

      2) At what point in natural selection did supernatural immortality select naturally? How far upstream the taxonomical hierarchy does immortality extend?

      • Kingdom: Animalia
      • Phylum: Chordata
      • Class: Mammalia
      • Order: Primates
      • Superfamily: Hominoidea (APES)
      • Family: Hominidae (GREAT APES)
      • Tribe: Hominini
      • Genus: Homo
      • Species: H. sapiens

      • Avenger

        The immortals are a paraphyletic group. They include humans and cats.

  • John MacDonald

    One would think that if Jesus was a purely celestial being and the “first fruits” of the general resurrection, then the rest of the fruits would be dead celestial beings like him being resurrected; which makes no sense.

  • If 1 Cor 15:21 is referring to the phyical Jesus then how can he mean that that Jesus of clay gives us resurrected bodies? I would have thought Paul is referring to the heavenly man as the one with that power. If the Jesus in 1 Cor 15:21 is as earthly and corruptible as the first Adam than 1 Cor 15:21 makes little sense. Better to read 1 Cor 15:21 in the context of the remainder of the same chapter.

    Having said that, however, I only know of two mythicists who actually argue that Jesus never appeared in flesh on earth. Our author continues to equate the view of these two with “all mythicists” for some reason. Many mythicists do indeed argue that Christ slipped down to earth to appear as a man (or as a real man) and be crucified by the Jews.

    But that aside, even if the assumptions and proposition in the post were all accepted, and even if we gave 0.999 odds to the passage arguing for historicism, what difference would that make to the final odds after all the other evidence is duly weighed and evaluated?

    I should add that in the latter second Temple period it was not uncommon among Jews to think of Adam as an angelic being, by the way. So if “men” in heaven are qualified as angels and men on earth are also qualified as angels — angelomorphism applied not only to Adam, by the way, but also to Abel, Enoch, Noah, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, and others.

    • Jim

      I am not clear on your point re 1 Cor 15.21. Isn’t anthropos used throughout this verse?

      • Yes, and throughout the chapter, too. Context, context, context.

      • Perhaps even more significant is what we must conclude Paul originally taught the Corinthians (1) for the question he addresses here to have arisen in the first place, and (2) for it to be handled in the way Paul does. It appears to me that Paul did not originally teach the general resurrection of the dead as it is being explicated here. Whoever wrote this section is asking readers to reason from the fact of Christ’s death and resurrection what they should conclude about their own. Something appears to be missing.

    • What is the “plain meaning” of “man” in this passage?

      For God said, ‘I do not judge you, but every man is judged by man.’

      That is evidently saying that earthly flesh and blood humans will be judged by earthly flesh and blood humans. Yes?

      No. It comes from the first century CE Testament of Abraham. The “man” who is to judge is Abel, but not the mortal human Abel. Rather, it is Abel resurrected in heaven sitting on the judgment throne and with a “terrifying” and “wondrous” appearance, as “bright as the sun” and “like a son of God”. He is clearly no longer an earthly flesh and blood man but this is the “man” who will judge mankind according to this document from around the same time as Paul and the Gospels.

      • Jim

        Your ToA example provides a late 1st century (or more likely 2nd century) instance of the loose application of the term (human) man in some writings. However the ToA author is unknown, and so contrary to Paul’s writings (and his usage of terms like anthropos), it seems more difficult to get a sense of the level of meaning and metaphor intended by the author of ToA in his imaginary apocalyptic piece.

        Added to this, there is more than one version of ToA (long and short recension), and this writing may also have been a story intended to (at least in part) entertain. To me, all of this could imply loose usage of some terms by the ToA author(s ?) without much concern for precise meanings.

        On the other hand, Paul’s use of various terms are generally more clearly discernible due to the availability of several of his letters.

        Just my opinion though as I have little expertise in this area.

        • The ToA is not a strength of mine, either, so I am very willing to learn as much as I can. I just happened at the time to be reading a chapter in Boccaccini’s “Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man” and my references (including date) were derived from that chapter (“The Son of Man: The Evolution of an Expression” by Sabino Chiala)

  • mcbalz

    I think this is a nice point. If mythicists cared about examining their views of Paul’s beliefs honestly, they might find it persuasive evidence against their ideas. And change. Right? hahaha