Was Paul a Contemporary of Jesus?

Was Paul a Contemporary of Jesus? February 4, 2017

In everyday parlance, a contemporary means someone who lived at the same time as another person.

In conversations with mythicists, Paul is dismissed as not a contemporary of Jesus, because he did not (as far as we know) see him while he was alive.

But this brings into focus one of mythicism’s many problematic aspects. Mythicists often insist that Jesus was a significant figure in his time, so that we ought to expect historians to have mentioned him and satirists to have poked fun at him.

But when someone is that well known in a person’s time, they are well poised to know of their existence even if they have never met them personally.

And so if Jesus was a widely-known figure, then Paul’s testimony is adequate. And if Jesus was not so well-known, then the lack of testimony from other contemporary sources would be unsurprising, even if we had an abundance of sources from Jesus’ time and location, which of course we do not.

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  • There is also Stanley Porter’s book “When Paul met Jesus” that argues he did meet him. I found the argument plausible, but nothing that the mythicists wont be able to just bat away out of hand.

  • jekylldoc

    John the Baptist was well-enough known that historians generally accept Josephus’ mention of him as authentic, if my understanding is correct. The New Testament records a certain tension between him and Herod as well as between him and Herodias, written about in such a way that it appears the average reader would be expected to have at least a minimal acquaintance with the story. It also records a certain fear of the religious authorities that deters them from denouncing John.

    The historicist perspective on the career of Jesus is, it seems to me, exactly what one would expect about a figure who is: a) less confrontational than John during his ministry; and b) more confrontational in his final engagement with the Romans. The Jesus movement was about discipleship until, suddenly, it wasn’t. Discipleship is under the radar. The passion and transformation of Jesus’ mission was not the sort of rising likely to lead to legions being called out.

    But this dramatic transformation, apparently envisioned by Jesus for some time before he initiated it, was not seen as being prepared for within the movement. It is startling (and makes a retrospective euhemerization seem to me unlikely) that instead what is portrayed is a sudden crisis in the Jesus movement, a crisis whose outcome in resurrection was unexpected, unprophesied, and not given any interpretation in advance.

    Furthermore this crisis brought about a set of practices of sharing, commemorating and worshipping ecstatically whose origins do not predate the passion week in any of the Gospels. This movement of practices seems to be the social setting in which the mythicists believe that the early stories of a mythical crucifixion and resurrection were circulated, notably ostensibly including those Paul preached. It strikes me as beyond remarkable that Paul and his friend, the author of Luke/Acts, portray these practices as recognizable hallmarks of the community but without pre-Passion roots in the Jesus movement. If a single individual retrospectively fictionalized a Jesus on earth, why put in teachings, healings, disputes and declarations of forgiveness, all this Kingdom talk and new interpretation of scripture talk, but not make up any roots for the community’s chief practices?

    Paul’s contemporaneity has deeper implications than simply “known”/”unknown” evidence.

  • Jim

    It’s an unfortunate historical outcome of Paul’s surviving writings (the seven accepted as authentically Pauline), that six of these letters are written in response to situations occurring in the addressed churches. So in these six letters, Paul primarily focuses on the issues brought to his attention for advice, and he devotes only little towards addressing what he actually knew about the human life/teachings of Jesus. The seventh of these letters is addressed to Jesus followers in Rome (a church he didn’t found, and who presumably already knew something about Jesus), and Paul’s main intention was to describe his theological perspectives with the hope of getting support from this group in Rome to fund his planned missionary work west of there. Still Paul does include enough bits of information to infer that he regarded Jesus as having lived an earthly human life that was terminated prematurely by execution.

    So it’s unfortunate that Paul’s seven surviving letters deal primarily with housekeeping issues sprinkled with some bits of his theology. From these letters (written by a contemporary), we unfortunately won’t ever know all of the details of Paul’s knowledge regarding the historical Jesus. So the mythicist’s concern regarding Paul not mentioning much about the historical Jesus or his teachings are essentially not practical based on Paul’s surviving works, in part based on the rationale behind these writings. It would have been nice if he would have written a “gospel account”, if only to throw a cog into the mythicist wheel …. ahhh hindsight.

    • arcseconds

      It would have been nice if he would have written a “gospel account”, if only to throw a cog into the mythicist wheel …. ahhh hindsight.

      Well, if what we care about is fundamentally people believing true things, (and in particular this true thing) that is the case.

      But what if what we care about is people considering things rationally and reflecting on their own attitude and approach?

      Then we might actually see the lack of totally irrefutable evidence, a few slight gaps and ambiguities and minor puzzlements that can be exploited by the motivated, as a good thing, as it exposes the fact that ostensibly being committed to rationality and evidence and calling oneself a ‘sceptic’ does not in fact mean one is.

      Believing in true things because they happen to be espoused by the authorities one accepts and fits into a certain world-view rather than because one actually understands the matter is still dogmatism.

      • Jim

        That’s certainly at a deeper level than what I was considering. I was only thinking in terms of increasing the historical probability of the HJ from Paul writing as a contemporary.

  • Paul E.

    In the How Carrier Responds to Critics thread, I pointed out that Paul was a contemporary of Jesus, and the mythicist response was that Paul’s writings were not contemporary with Jesus. So I am not sure what the exact evidentiary point is. Is it that Paul not an eyewitness? That he wrote “too late”? The argument to discount Paul as evidence vis-à-vis whether he was a contemporary of Jesus seems to be a moving target.

    One other note – in that same discussion, the mythicist argued that in addition to Paul’s writings not being contemporaneous with Jesus, Paul’s language is “ambiguous” as to whether Jesus was a human being who lived on earth. Among many other things, Paul describes Jesus as being born, being a Jew, having teachings, being crucified, dying, being buried, etc., etc. This language seems unambiguously to be discussing a human being who lived on earth. Any argument that such language is, at best, ambiguous, would appear to require a substantial and heavily-sourced/supported linguistic and contextual argument. How is it that the mere assertion that “well, this stuff could have happened on the moon” is considered as adequate in that regard?

    • Realist1234

      Mythicists regard such an argument as adequate because they pick and choose those parts of writings which they believe supports their position, and dismiss the rest. The idea that Paul did not believe Jesus to be a real human being, who was born, lived and died (and was buried) – his words – is laughable, but shows their desperation. Quite sad really. And sadder that some actually believe their nonsense.