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Some More Biblical Observations

— John the Baptist was most likely an apocalyptic prophet. Jesus was closely associated with him. Some think that Jesus was actually one of John’s followers (John did baptize Jesus after all, a sign of superiority) and later began his own ministry after John was executed. This is an especially attractive hypothesis if Jesus himself is seen as an apocalyptic prophet–one of the leading views among biblical historians concerning the historical Jesus–because then Jesus’ ministry can be seen as an extension of John’s.

After John’s death, there was probably an expectation for his resurrection. There were, after all, some people (John’s followers no doubt) who went so far as to claim that Jesus was none other than a resurrected John the Baptist (Mark 6:14; Mark 8:28). This would explain the view of some scholars who reject the view that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. On their view, some of Jesus’ followers were former followers of John (perhaps because they thought that he was John) and were the one’s who eventually attributed to Jesus the many apocalyptic teachings. There is an even more interesting question however: did the expectation of John’s followers that he would resurrect influence the expectations of Jesus’ followers that he would resurrect? Their deaths were only separated by a few years. It’s not only possible that John’s followers had a direct influence on Jesus’ followers. It is also possible, as I stated before, because some of Jesus’ followers may have in fact been former followers of John (and thus would have had similar expectations). It’s impossible to know but it’s fun to speculate.

— I find it interesting how Christian apologists love using the passage in 1 Corinthians where Paul talks about all of the resurrection appearances (to Cephas, to James, to the five hundred and finally to Paul) as evidence that Jesus’ resurrection appearances were well attested very early on. But Paul never differentiates between types of appearances. And we know that Paul himself had a mystical experience of Jesus, one that was not of a literal body. So all that Paul may be saying here is that everyone else who Christ appeared to also had a similar experience. Paul nonetheless thought these experiences were real. But nowhere is it implied here that such experiences were of a literal body.

— Early Christians (like Paul) and Jesus himself did not think of themselves as starting or joining a new religion. They thought of themselves very much within the Jewish tradition and very much dedicated to the God of Israel. This is probably why the Jesus movement was referred to as The Way and not Christianity early on (Acts 9:2). Even the original designation “Christianity” was probably not understood as a distinct religion until the later part of the first century.

— Although many people over the last two thousand years have attempted to justify the oppression of women based on Paul’s supposed admonitions that women ought to be silent and submissive in church, we can conclude that it is very unlikely that Paul held such views. There are two passages that are commonly used to argue that Paul did hold such views. The first and notorious one is found in 1 Timothy. The problem here is that Paul did not write 1 Timothy. It was a pseudograph constructed later in Paul’s name. The other passage is found in an authentic letter, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. The problem here however is that all the evidence points to these two verses being a later addition by scribes. Not only does it interrupt the flow of the immediate context, Paul actually contradicts it three chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians 11. As we see there, he does think women can speak in church, although they should have their heads covered. To top it all off, some manuscripts have these two verses placed in a later spot in the chapter. This suggests that these verses may have originally been scribal/marginal notes and later scribes were unsure of where to place them in the text (or even if they should be).

This should be a lesson to those who think manuscript changes are insignificant just because none of them affect any core doctrines. As some scholars have noted, you could remove entire books from the NT without affecting core doctrines. That’s not the only thing we should be concerned about. As we can see here, there is no basis for these oppressive views of women from Paul’s writings. I think that’s significant.

  1. Benjamin Steele
    11/12/2009 at 3:45 pm

    Have you heard of the Mandaeans? They are a religious group which still survives mostly in Iraq and some consider them to be the last remnants of the Gnostic movement of the first century. They are the descendents of the followers of John the Baptist and they believe Jesus is a false prophet.

    As for Paul, you said that “nowhere is it implied here that such experiences were of a literal body.” I would go further by pointing out that it implies the opposite. Paul was alive during thel life of Jesus. Both when he persecuted the Christians and when he was a Christian, he never sought out Jesus the founder and leader of Christianity. If he believed Jesus was a real person with a physical body, then wouldn’t he have sought out Jesus? Also, he gives neither physical descriptions nor biographical accounts of Jesus. Considering Paul is the most influential of the early Christians, this is all very strange.

    But it can be understood in another context. Initially, there was no absolute separation between the various groups. The earliest church included members who would only be deemed heretics later on near the end of the second century. The so-called Gnostics were prominent members of the early church and later formed their own churches. The Gnostics were the first to write commentaries of New Testament scriptures and were the first to create a New Testament canon which formed the basis for what we have today. Also, some Gnostics claimed direct lineage from Paul which makes sense as many Gnostics also didn’t refer to Jesus as having a physical body.

    There is only one thing you wrote that I disagree with. From my studies, I haven’t seen any clear evidence that there was singular original Christianity. I agree that some of the earliest Christians simply considered themselves Jewish followers of Jesus and weren’t seeking to create a new religion. In this sense, there were no early Christians at all during Jesus’ life because no such religion yet existed. Christianity didn’t just form out of the traditions of these Jews because the first members of the Christian church were drawn from many traditions. Even thhe Jews who followed Jesus probably were Hellenized Jews going by the influence of the Alexandrian Jews on early doctrine. Also, the Stoics had a great influence on early Christianity and the whole solar salvation mythology that was given to Jesus is straight out of the Hellenistic religions and Greco-Roman culture. And, of course, the Gnostics were some of the biggest players in early Christianity and, although they were definitely influenced by Judaism, there isn’t scholarly concensus about their origins.

    I was glad to see you point out the issue about Paul’s opinion of women. That is a very good example of how minor alterations can have major long-lasting results.

    • 11/13/2009 at 3:29 am

      I have not heard of the Mandaeans. And that’s very interesting. It would be especially interesting if the claim that they go back to the first century is not just their claim but the claim of some historians.

      So your claim is that Paul didn’t think Jesus was an historical figure at all?

      I haven’t studied Paul enough to really comment on the merits of that claim. Although I would mention that there are passages that, at least on the surface, would seem to suggest otherwise. For instance, Paul states in his letter to the Romans, “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh” (1-3).

      With that said, I do think it is indeed strange that Paul almost never quotes Jesus. He does seem to once or twice in 1 Corinthians but otherwise he’s completely silent about the teachings of Jesus. And, as many scholars have noted before, he also doesn’t mention other key issues like the empty tomb or the virgin birth. This is definitely a striking silence. Not that this means that Paul didn’t think Jesus was an historical figure, but it certainly raises many other questions. For instance, did the earliest Christians believe in an empty tomb or virgin birth? I tend to think not. The empty tomb was probably a logical connection made by later Christians. And the virgin birth was quite possibly created by Matthew (or his sources) and his use of the Septuagint’s mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14.

      As regards Gnosticism, I find it remarkable how well an adoptionist theology and a docetic interpretation of the crucifixion fits with the Gospel of Mark. It’s interesting to note that some early Christians rejected the Gospel of Peter just because it could be interpreted docetically. And yet they accepted Mark. Go figure.

      I do think Christianity was very diverse very early on, but yeah, I would argue that it nonetheless had a singular origin in the life of Jesus and the later teachings of his disciples, most importantly Peter, James the brother of Jesus, and then eventually Paul. If I were to make an educated guess as to what later Christan sect most represented the original belief of Jesus’ followers, I would probably say the Ebionites.

  2. Benjamin Steele
    11/13/2009 at 7:47 am

    Yes, the Mandaeans existed at least as early as the first century. I don’t recall offhand when or where they originated. They considered John the Baptist to be a revered teacher but they didn’t consider him to be the founder of their religion instead tracing their origins back through Jewish history to Adam. Beyond those details, I don’t know much about this group. One other interesting detail that I recall is that they have scriptures with complex theologies involving many divine beings that some interpret as being similar to that of Gnostic theology.

    As for Paul, there are many theories about what Paul believed and many opinions about which statements were originally written by Paul. The earliest commenters on Paul claimed to be in direct lineage of Paul’s teachings. They interpreted Paul as preaching a spiritual Christ or else some form of Jesus that was only apparently real. There is plenty of debate about Romans 1:3 and the intended meaning of kata sarka.

    I don’t have a strong opinion on the matter. I’m mostly just curious.

    However, I do think there are many strong reasons to question historical claims of Jesus. Despite the fact that there were many historians in the area including Jews such as Philo, there are no historical witness accounts of Jesus’ supposed preaching, travels, trial or death. Also, there are no references in the detailed records that the Romans kept. Furthermore, the earliest fragments of Christian scriptures are dated at around the beginning of the 2nd century and some argue a later dating. The earliest known Christian writings are that of Paul and the Pauline epistles don’t provide much evidence if any at all.

    All of this doesn’t disprove the possibility of a real person named Jesus, but it demonstrates there is little reason to believe in him. Besides, I find other interpretations more interesting.

    I don’t know how much you know about the scholarship on ahistoricism and mythicism, but the following is the kind of scholarship I enjoy.














  3. 11/14/2009 at 11:40 am

    Yeah, I don’t know anything about the debates surrounding Romans 1:3. I actually just came across it the other day and found it interesting.

    And I agree that the absence of any secular contemporary references to the life of Jesus to be somewhat curious. And that could certainly be explained by the fact that Jesus was never an historical person. Or it could just mean that he wasn’t a very prominent individual during his lifetime. The NT gospels tell us he had thousands of followers. But I’m guessing that’s probably a vast over-exaggeration.

    And I haven’t really studied extensively the Christ-myth theory. I remember looking into it a bit a few years ago, but never got to reading much about it. Thanks for the references. There were so many of them that you post was labeled spam, haha.

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