Part 1: Searching for Jesus in the earliest
Scriptures. Source of Paul's info. on
Jesus. Oral accounts about Jesus? Paul's trip
to outer space. Was James the brother of Jesus?
Hidden messages in scriptures. Paul's conception
of Jesus. Jesus' heavenly career.
Was Jesus for real? Was Jesus a real person in history or just a mythical figure? Was he a god-man who was born about 4 BCE, acclaimed as the Christ (Messiah) and died about 30 CE in Roman Palestine? Or was Jesus Christ, as some mythicists claim, a supernatural being with human attributes dwelling solely in the heavenly sphere who never came to earth, but was revealed to the earliest believers by means of visions and interpretations of the Scriptures?
Where is the historical Jesus in the first New Testament records?
The earliest written records in the Bible’s New Testament are found in the seven authentic Epistles (letters) of Paul dating from about 50 to 60 CE (20-30 years after Jesus’ death). Letters by other writers date from about the 60’s to the first few decades of the second century. The four Gospels date from the earliest, Mark (c. 70 CE), to the latest, John (c. 110 CE). We do not have any of the original manuscripts of these documents, only copies of handwritten copies, and the earliest copy of the full New Testament only dates from 4th century.
Jesus left no written records of himself. The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles (c. 120 CE) are the chief biographical sources for the life of Jesus, written by anonymous authors who like Paul, never met the earthly Jesus. (See my essay about the Bible’s formation and problems.
During Jesus’ thirty odd year life and for at least forty years after his death, there were no written accounts like the Gospels detailing the events of Jesus’ career that Paul and others could reference.
Where then did Paul get his details about Christ?
If one searches the earliest Christian records, especially the writings of Paul, there are no details of Jesus in an historical setting. How can this be? Moreover, any of the few sayings attributed to Jesus comes from the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. the Old Testament). Note that there was no New Testament while Paul was alive. Paul was Christianity’s greatest missionary, who from about 32 to 62 CE travelled the Middle East and south-eastern Europe preaching the faith and converting hundreds of non-believers to the new religion. If Paul was preaching about a god-man, would not his listeners want to know about Jesus’ life on earth? Why would Paul not quote Jesus’ teachings and describe his miracles and life in some detail to bolster his arguments for belief in the new religion?
Were there oral accounts about Jesus?
If there were no written records available, one would surmise that there must have been some oral traditions circulating about Jesus’ career from his early disciples that Paul could repeat. In addition, would not Paul have known some historical details about Jesus prior to his conversion when Paul (Saul the Pharisee) persecuted Jesus’ Jewish-Christian followers for being heretics?
However, in the 66 chapters of Paul’s Epistles, incredibly he does not use biographical/historical details about Jesus, nor does Paul refer to the sayings of Jesus found in the Gospel accounts (e.g. not even the Lord’s Prayer!). Reading Paul’s letters at face value (i.e. putting out of mind the Gospel details that came decades later) we would be hard pressed to conclude that Jesus ministered in Galilee and Judea. We have no detailed teachings, deeds or events of the life of Jesus from Paul’s authentic letters (i.e. 1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, Galatians, and Romans); or those not written by Paul, but of his school of thought (i.e. Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians). One can also look in vain for the Jesus of the Gospels in the letters ascribed to Peter, James, and John written during the same period that the Gospels were written. Were the oral stories limited to only Christ’s salvific crucifixion and resurrection as enunciated by Paul and other early epistle authors?
Paul’s trip to outer space:
The reality is that Paul did not receive his gospel from any person. Paul claims that he was transported out of this world, “caught up as far as the third heaven” (in contemporary Jewish thought there were seven heavens, each higher than the preceding) and was taught everything about Christ Jesus from the Lord (2 Corinthians 12: 1-4). He reiterates»
"I must make it clear to you my friends, that the gospel you heard me preach is no human invention. I did not take it over from any man; no man taught it to me; I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12, New English Bible).
How remarkable is this? Paul is saying that his gospel was received entirely through a revelation from God when Paul (whether in or out of his body) travelled to heaven. Modern psychoanalysis would classify this experience as an hallucination.
Paul then goes on to say that after his remarkable vision, he proceeded at once to begin preaching the gospel in Arabia without consulting any of the church leaders in Jerusalem. He only returned to Jerusalem three years later and got to know Cephas (Peter) staying with him for a fortnight, but not meeting any other apostles except James, “the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18-20).
Was James a brother of Jesus?
James was a leader of the Jewish/Christian church in Jerusalem until his death c. 62 CE. Believers in an historical Jesus claim that he must have lived on earth because Paul identifies James as his brother. However, Paul uses the title “Lord” and does not say “Jesus’ brother” as in the sense of a sibling. Missionaries such as Timothy, Titus, and Tychicus were addressed as brothers (Ephesians 6:21). Indeed, all believers were brothers of the Lord - “the Son does not shrink from calling men his brothers” (Hebrews 2:11-12 and Romans 8:29). Further evidence that early Christians did not believe that Jesus and James were siblings can be seen in the introduction to the Epistles of James and Jude who are modestly identified as servants to Jesus Christ, not as his sibling brothers as the later Gospels claim. Could Paul ever believe that a human was a sibling brother of the cosmic, supernatural Christ portrayed in his Epistles?
Finding hidden messages in the Scriptures
Besides heavenly visions about Jesus Christ, Paul’s other source of inspiration was the Scriptures, that is the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and the Apocrypha (see Romans 1:1-4). Paul, once a strict orthodox Jew, uses the Old Testament (‘the Scriptures”) to justify his preaching. For example, when he writes in Galatians (5:14) about the essence of the Law, Paul does not quote Jesus about loving God and your neighbour (as found in Matthew 22:36-40), but quotes instead “love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The author of Hebrews also uses Scripture as a source for the saying of Jesus that he will not shrink from calling men his brothers - “I will proclaim your name to my brothers” (Hebrews 2:12), quoting Psalm 22:22.
Paul’s conception of Jesus Christ:
For Paul and other epistle authors, just as God is an eternal, spiritual, creator Being dwelling in heaven, so too is the divine Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 1:1-4). Christ is the Lord, the son of God, but not God’s equal (Paul has no concept of the Trinity). By virtue of Christ’s revelation in human shape, by humbling himself and obediently accepting death, he was subsequently raised to eternal glory (there is no need for historicity here – see Philippians 2:5-11). His supernatural existence had been hidden from the beginning of time, but was there to be discovered by searching the Scriptures and by the Lord’s revelation to the Apostles.
Jesus’ heavenly career:
Paul never refers to an earthly incarnation for Jesus, nor refers to him recently living on earth, but rather that he, Paul, is revealing a “divine secret kept in silence for long ages” (Romans 16:25-26). Colossians refers to Christ as “the image of the invisible God; born before all created things.” (1:13-20). It would appear that Paul’s Jesus was a redemptive, sacrificial, divine cosmic figure who was the Christ by virtue of his crucifixion and resurrection, not in an earthly setting, but in an other-worldly realm. Paul and other Epistle authors, who were imbued with the cosmology of many of their Jewish and Hellenic contemporaries, believed that Jesus the Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected in the lowest layer of the heavens, namely the firmament (i.e. the dark realm above the clouds between the earth and the moon) that was inhabited by demonic beings ruled by Satan, the cause of evil - “For our fight is not against human foes, but against cosmic powers, against the authorities and potentates of this dark world, against superhuman forces of evil in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12). Heavens were imagined as either allegorical or real places, and contained therein were demons or angels and more perfect copies of select people or places on earth. The highest heaven is the dwelling place of God (in my Father’s house are many rooms) to where at the last day, saved Christians believe they will rise bodily (John 14:2; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
Originally posted: 2014-NOV-12
Last updated 2014-NOV-12
Author: R.C. Symes