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Here is the latest Christian counterpoint piece from John Nelson (a Christian) in an ongoing conversation between an atheist (ex-evangelical, I believe) and a Christian theologian in training. The first and second guest posts (find them here and here) from Ed Atkinson of Wycombe Skeptics in the Pub, and occasional atheist appearer on Unbelievable on Premier Christian Radio in the UK (hosted by Justin Brierley), set the scene. Next, John Nelson, our Christian interlocutor, responded. Ed’s next piece returned the salvo. This is John Nelson’s response.

Please be warm in welcoming John and Ed here; even though you may vehemently disagree with their claims, as may be, please extend courtesy and politeness. Let’s aim for cordial discourse, as ever. It’s not about encamping in ideology but challenging ourselves and what we believe so that our end conclusions are as robust as they possibly can be. Big thanks to John and Ed for this conversation.

In this post, I aim to rebut some of Ed’s responses, and to clarify some of my own arguments. I apologise for the stream-of-consciousness feel this has, and I’m sorry for not engaging in closer detail with your last response Ed. I have wanted to reply for some time, but have been extremely busy at university. With some fortune, these five points might further our conversion, which has been greatly enjoyable so far.

1. The Historical Jesus vs. The Easter Jesus. Ed faults me for failing to recognise a distinction between the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus in my reply blog. I am, however, keenly aware of this distinction, hence why I framed the entire debate with respect to it (or at least with respect to the admittedly more archaic ‘Jesus of History’ ‘Christ of Faith’ dichotomy.) The question is whether instances of what Ed believes to be the ‘Easter Jesus’ are in fact so. He points to Paul’s tradition of the Last Supper, and regards it only as evidence of an “Easter Jesus,” since it deals with the meaning of the crucifixion and is set on the night of Jesus’ death. Presumably, Ed thinks that this is an instance of where the Church has projected their own theological musings regarding Jesus’ death upon a putatively historical event. This argument arises from an assumption that Jesus could not, and therefore did not, imbue his own death with any soteriological significance, which the Church could further develop. But, as you might expect, I have a number of issues with this assumption: (a) Jesus was not the first Second-Temple Jew to attach some atoning significance to his death; the Maccabean martyrs provide earlier examples which Jesus must have known; (b) It is difficult to think that Jesus, a close associate of John the Baptist, did not countenance also sharing his fate; indeed, I imagine that he actively expected it; (c) In view of the broad contours which give us a glimpse of the sort of person Jesus was, I find it difficult to imagine that Jesus would have seen his death as meaningless; (d) if Jesus did interpret his death as having some soteriological significance, we have a good explanation for why the early Church considered it so. To push back even farther against Ed, I am baffled as to why Paul should present Jesus at table, if this an instance of Paul receiving a divine revelation directly from the Lord. Since Paul is ostensibly very comfortable in receiving revelations from the Lord, why not present this another instance of such revelation? There is a simple reason: because this is not a recollection of the “post-Easter Jesus;” it is one of the pre-Easter, earthly Jesus, who had a meal on the night he was betrayed.

2. Quoting Stories and Text. To show that he is not arguing from silence when he says that Paul would have quoted stories and text had he had them, Ed must generalise that “Paul loves to quote stories and text.” However, this is simply not true. The fact that Paul is travelling around the Mediterranean, speaking to Gentiles, and can only muster a single ‘secular’ quotation (which is, in fact, an allusion) of a Greek writer, and not a single story from that context is
indicative. But indicative of what? Does it suggest that Paul was not aware of other material – which would proved rhetorically useful? Does it mean that Paul in fact never travelled around the Mediterranean? Of course not. He does not quote it because it was not on his mind; and a brief letter is not the place to go about quoting tradition, left right and centre. Paul quotes the Torah because it was very much on his mind; it was the authoritative revelation of God, which helped him (and other early Christian writers, in their letters!) make sense of Christ. I can already hear Ed’s sensible rejoinder: does this mean that Jesus’ words, Jesus’ deeds, were not considered authoritative by Paul? I am grateful to him for forcing me to clarify my thinking on this matter: I do not think that the purported words and deeds of Jesus (some or many of which Paul must have known) were yet authoritative in the same sense as the Torah was authoritative. We know that Paul believed Jesus’ teachings on divorce were authoritative and binding. (And yes, I believe that these were teachings of the earthly Jesus: they are plausible in a Jewish context; it was a central ethical issue; Paul knew Jesus’ associates; and therefore there is no reason to doubt that the gospels get this right.) At the same time, Jesus’ words and deeds were not codified in a quasi-scriptural form. It would take the composition of the gospels and their circulation for this to occur, and even then it is startling how the second-century apologists are much more interested in the Hebrew scriptures than their own Greek quasi-scriptural writings. For the meantime, there is an obvious measure of authority to which Paul must appeal and channel his reflections (which frequently went beyond what the historical Jesus addressed), and that was the Torah. Ed asks why Paul would not quote Jesus in his epistles, as any rabbi would quote another rabbi. But he provides no evidence of rabbis quoting one another in the early first century (the Mishnah – which seems to be the kind of thing Ed is thinking of), is late 2nd century, and is not epistolary in form.

3. Non-Existent Letters. As I have made clear before, I think a large part of Ed’s case depends on an argument from silence. However, Ed must produce some evidence that the silence is a suggestive one (not all silences are poor, although they are always risky), and I am thankful that he does. Clement is referred to as evidence that Paul would have quoted Jesus’ material if he had it and found it authoritative. The problem is that Clement proves my point. Even here, at a stage when several gospels had been written, Clement appeals to the words of Jesus, but gives us astonishingly few of them. We know that Clement found the words of Jesus authoritative, and we know that he had them – because he tells us! – but he wants to spend the most part of his letter riffing off the Old Testament scriptures. Clement is a friendly warning for building grand theories about what is known in the early Christian communities from epistolary literature.

4. Paul’s Gospel. That Paul knew of and was persecuting ‘Christians,’ but was then received by them (continually), is a thorn in the side of Ed’s argument. (This may be why Ed has not addressed it thus far.) And I think it is worth re-iterating: before Paul had any revelatory experiences, he knew enough about its message to deem it an abomination, but later came to believe that he was mistaken. When Paul says, then, that the ‘gospel’ he received was not from any man, we can be sure that it did not concern the most basic claims of the early Christian message, but that it was a particular aspect of revelation which Paul felt that he had uniquely received. There is striking confirmation of this fact in Galatians itself, namely, that Paul is deeply concerned with those who would make Judaism (‘the works of the law’) a condition for righteousness. This is the ‘false gospel’ which has bewitched the Galatians, at least for the purposes of this letter. What Paul is emphatically not saying, is that the broad content of the Christian proclamation was received by him through personal encounter, as this would make nonsense of the biographical information he provides later in the epistle, as well as the nuanced way in which he is speaking of ‘gospel’ here.

5. A Snippet of Ehrman. It is a rare occurrence to find myself in hearty agreement with Bart Ehrman. But on this matter, I think I am. To finish this brain-dump, here is his take on the matter:

“Paul is often faulted for not saying more Jesus than he says. He doesn’t talk about Jesus’ baptism, his temptation, his sermon on the mount, his exorcisms, his triumphal entry, and lots of other things. He is faulted for not saying more on the grounds that if he knew more, he would have said more. That’s possible, but it’s not really probative. If you take seven of my mother’s letters – my mother is a very very devout Christian – if you take seven of her letters about her religion, her Christianity, about her faith, about her beliefs, you will not find any references to Jesus’ baptism, temptation, sermon on the mount, exorcisms, or triumphal entry. She just doesn’t talk about those things in her letters, and neither did Paul. Does it show that my mother didn’t believe those things about Jesus’ life? No, it doesn’t show that! It’s not what she’s talking about. These letters that we have of Paul are letters that Paul wrote to his congregations to deal with problems that they were having. If they weren’t having problems, then he didn’t write about them in his letters.” (Bart Ehrman & Robert Price, Did Jesus Exist? Debate, Oct 2016)

Why does Paul not quote Jesus’ other events and teachings? Is it because he did not know them? Or that he did know them and did not consider them authoritative? Well, possibly. But, with Ehrman, I have to confess that “it’s not really probative.”

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...