Tag Archives: Paul

What do skeptical ancient historians think of the earliest Christian creed?

 

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson solving a mystery

Here is a post from my friend Eric Chabot. He writes about the earliest historical source for the minimal facts about the resurrection, which is the early creed recorded by Paul in 1 Corinthians: 3-7.

1 Cor 15:3-7:

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.

6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.

7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,

8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Just in case you didn’t know, Cephas is Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers.

The general consensus among scholars is the that creed goes back to within 1-3 years after the death if Jesus, when almost all the eyewitnesses were still around.

The creed

In Eric’s post, he quotes very well-known skeptical historians who affirm each part of the creed.

First, the creed as a whole is respected, even by atheist scholars like John Dominic Crossan:

Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.” The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” (3).

And atheist scholar Robert Funk:

The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.” — Robert Funk co-founder of the Jesus Seminar.(5)

Let’s take a look at one of the parts of the creed that is respected by skeptical historians… namely, the early belief that Jesus was resurrected shortly after his death.

The early belief in the resurrection

Skeptical scholar E.P. Sanders:

That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. “I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause. Moreover, a calculated deception should have produced great unanimity. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: ‘I saw him first!’ ‘No! I did.’ Paul’s tradition that 500 people saw Jesus at the same time has led some people to suggest that Jesus’ followers suffered mass hysteria. But mass hysteria does not explain the other traditions.” “Finally we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it. (14)

Skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman:

Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. (17)

Why, then, did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this. We don’t have any of their written testimony, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years later, indicates that this is what they claimed, and I don’t think he is making it up. And he knew are least a couple of them, whom he met just three years after the event (Galatians 1:18-19). (18)

You know, if all you did was give someone his post, I think that would be enough to show people that a more complete investigation of the historical Jesus was certainly a reasonable thing to do. It’s amazing to me that people who grow up at this time when access to the data is so easy do not take the opportunity to look into Christianity.

List of virtually undeniable facts

Finally, below is a list of facts about the historical Jesus that are accepted by ancient historians – Christian, non-Christian, atheist.

These are compiled by non-Christian scholar E.P. Sanders:

From his book “Jesus and Judaism” (1985):

  • Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
  • Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
  • Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
  • Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
  • Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
  • Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
  • After his death, his followers continued as an identifiable movement.
  • At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement.

From his book “The Historical Figure of Jesus” (1993):

  • Jesus was born c.4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great;
  • He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village;
  • He was baptized by John the Baptist;
  • He called disciples;
  • He taught in the towns, villages, and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities);
  • He preached “the kingdom of God”;
  • Around the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover;
  • He created a disturbance in the temple area;
  • He had a final meal with the disciples;
  • He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;
  • He was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate;
  • His disciples at first fled;
  • They saw him (in what sense is uncertain) after his death;
  • As a consequence they believed he would return to found the kingdom;
  • They formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah.

The way the resurrection of Jesus is presented on TV, you would think that mythical stories about Jesus emerged decades and even centuries after the fact in other parts of the world from where the events happened. But the trouble is that no ancient historian thinks that. Only Hollywood TV producers and movie makers think that. Now, if you are getting your view of the historical accuracy of basic Christian beliefs from television and movies, then don’t be surprised if you are wrong. No one is saying that you have to go to Christian pastors and preachers for the facts, but you should go to the historians. They at least know the minimal facts.

The best way for a skeptic to tackle these issues is, I think, to watch a decent debate on the resurrection of Jesus between two respected scholars. My favorite debate on the resurrection is William Lane Craig versus atheist historian James Crossley. I have a video and a summary already ready made just waiting for you to check it out. Don’t worry, no one will be looking over your shoulder making you change everything your life should you be convinced. Just watch the debate and decide what you are going to do with it on your own. You don’t have to change your whole life overnight. Becoming a Christian is instantaneous and easy to do. Living like a Christian is a process, and it’s between you and God how fast you go. So just see what the facts are to start with and then take it from there.

Mike Licona explains the As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Es of New Testament reliability

Mike Licona is one of my favorite Christian apologists, and here is an excellent lecture to show you why.

In the lecture, he explains why the four biographies in the New Testament should be accepted as historically accurate: (55 minutes)

Summary:

  • What a Baltimore Ravens helmet teaches us about the importance of truth
  • What happens to Christians when they go off to university?
  • The 2007 study on attitudes of American professors to evangelical Christians
  • Authors: Who wrote the gospels?
  • Bias: Did the bias of the authors cause them to distort history?
  • Contradictions: What about the different descriptions of events in the gospels?
  • Dating: When were the gospels written?
  • Eyewitnesses: Do the gospel accounts go back to eyewitness testimony?

This is basic training for Christians. It would be nice if every Christian was equipped in church to be able to make a case like this.

Neil Shenvi lectures on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus

The lecture was given to the Intervarsity group at Duke University.

Speaker bio:

As it says on the main page, my name is Neil Shenvi; I am currently a research scientist with Prof. Weitao Yang at Duke University in the Department of Chemistry. I was born in Santa Cruz, California, but grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. I attended Princeton University as an undergraduate where I worked on high-dimensional function approximation with Professor Herschel Rabitz. I became a Christian in Berkeley, CA where I did my PhD in Theoretical Chemistry at UC – Berkeley with Professor Birgitta Whaley. The subject of my PhD dissertation was quantum computation, including topics in quantum random walks, cavity quantum electrodynamics, spin physics, and the N-representability problem. From 2005-2010, I worked as a postdoctoral associate with Prof. John Tully at Yale where I did research into nonadiabatic dynamics, electron transfer, and surface science.

Here’s the lecture:

The MP3 file of the lecture is here for those who prefer audio.

For those who don’t have the bandwidth to watch or listen to the lecture, here’s a paper that has similar information that Neil wrote.

Excerpt:

The earliest followers of Jesus were emphatic about the centrality of the Resurrection to the gospel, the core message of Christianity.  To those in the city of Corinth who were questioning the necessity and perhaps even the factuality of the Resurrection, the apostle Paul wrote: ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins’ (1. Cor. 15:17).  The reason for this connection is clear if we understand the gospel itself.  The gospel of Jesus does not say: “Here are the rules; if you obey them, God will bless you.  Otherwise, God will curse you.”  Rather the gospel says: “You have broken God’s rules and deserve God’s curse.  But Jesus was crucified for your sins and raised to life as a declaration that payment was made in full.  You can now be accepted by God not on the basis of what you have done but on the basis of what Jesus has done for you.”  Without the Resurrection, says Paul, Christians would have no assurance that they are accepted by God or that Jesus has truly paid their debt in full.  Consequently, the factuality of the Resurrection is of utmost importance to Christians.

[…]Before we can examine the evidence, we must first assess the reliability of the New Testament documents since these provide us with the most accurate information we have about the life and ministry of Jesus.  One of the easiest ways to discount the historicity of the Resurrection and of Christianity in general is to claim that the records we have of Jesus’ life are legendary rather than historical.  The main problem with such claims is that they run counter to a massive amount of evidence that we have for the general historical reliability of the New Testament.

[…]Modern critical scholars –such as the participants of the widely known Jesus Seminar- assume that only a small fraction of the New Testament is historical and that the majority of the material is either fictional or only loosely based on historical facts.  To determine what material is historical, they use three major criteria 1) the criterion of multiple attestation 2) the criterion of embarrassment 3) the criterion of dissimilarity.  If a saying or action recorded in the New Testament gospels meets one or more of these criteria, it is considered more likely –though by no means certain- that this material is historical.  Obviously, as an evangelical Christian, I believe that there are serious flaws in the assumptions made by these scholars.  But as we will see below, the Resurrection accounts meet all three of these major criteria of historicity.

[…]Lastly, I think it is very important to consider what alternative, naturalistic explanations have been put forward to explain the Resurrection.  As I mentioned before, many skeptics assume that there must be some plausible, naturalistic explanation for the Resurrection without ever considering the evidence.

Previously, I’ve featured Neil’s defense of objective morality, his lecture on science and religion and his introduction to quantum mechanics, all of which were really popular. These are easy to understand, but substantive, too.

Mike Licona explains the As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Es of New Testament reliability

Mike Licona is one of my favorite Christian apologists, and here is an excellent lecture to show you why.

In the lecture, he explains why the four biographies in the New Testament should be accepted as historically accurate: (55 minutes)

Summary:

  • What a Baltimore Ravens helmet teaches us about the importance of truth
  • What happens to Christians when they go off to university?
  • The 2007 study on attitudes of American professors to evangelical Christians
  • Authors: Who wrote the gospels?
  • Bias: Did the bias of the authors cause them to distort history?
  • Contradictions: What about the different descriptions of events in the gospels?
  • Dating: When were the gospels written?
  • Eyewitnesses: Do the gospel accounts go back to eyewitness testimony?

This is basic training for Christians. They ought to show this lecture whenever new people show up, because pastors should not quote the Bible until everyone listening has this information straight.

Seven things that Christians should know about Paul

This is a great post by Eric Chabot over at Think Apologetics.

His list:

  1. Paul was educated
  2. Paul as an active persecutor
  3. Paul’s Antagonism Towards the Early Messianic Movement
  4. Paul’s Encounter with the Risen Messiah
  5. Paul’s Letters: Primary and Secondary Sources
  6. Paul’s use of oral tradition terminology
  7. Why do Paul’s Letters Matter?

I think everyone is going to look at 4 and 6 and immediately think of the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. So I’m going to pick out #2, which mentioned in Galatians, since I was just reading that and making notes.

Here’s what Eric says:

 2. Paul as an active persecutor

The language Paul uses in his pre-revelatory encounter with the risen Lord shows how antagonistic he was towards the messianic movement. In Gal. 1:13-15, Paul uses terms such as “persecute” and “destroy” to describe his efforts to put and end to the spread of the early faith.  We see here:

Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him (Stephen) to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. (Acts 8: 1-3).

Furthermore, Luke summarizes Paul’s persecution of the early Messianic community.

I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them.  And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities. (Acts 26:10-11).

This makes his conversion inexplicable – unless he really got the personal appearance from Jesus that he claimed to have received. His status as persecutor of the church and then leader of the church is not denied – even by skeptical historians. The practical application of this for us is to never count out someone on the other side. The person who is the most antagonistic can make the biggest contribution.

Paul is awesome. If you doubt me, just read Ephesians 5. God used this man mightily to tell us amazing things about himself. Don’t miss out!