Was Paul Silent About the Historical Jesus?

Over 99% of historical scholarship acknowledges that Jesus was a real person. It doesn’t matter if that scholar is liberal or conservative, or Christian, atheist, agnostic or Jewish. The <1% of historians that believe Jesus is a myth are mostly atheists or agnostics. And it’s only the ‘internet infidel’ crowd that takes their arguments seriously. 

One of the arguments that Jesus mythicists will often push is that Paul was mostly silent about the historical Jesus. Here’s GA Wells, one of the minority voices, who writes: 

“Paul’s letters have no allusion to the parents of Jesus, let alone to the virgin birth. They never refer to a place of birth…. They give no indication of the time or place of his earthly existence. They do not refer to his trial before a Roman official, nor to Jerusalem as the place of execution. They mention neither John the Baptist, nor Judas, nor Peter’s denial of his master…. These letters also fail to mention any miracles Jesus is supposed to have worked, a particularly striking omission, since, according to the gospels he worked so many.”

(The Historical Evidence for Jesus, 22)

And why didn’t Paul quote Jesus’ praise of celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7? Or why not quote the Sermon on the Mount when Paul was teaching the Romans to bless their persecutors to give his message more authority? (Romans 12:14) Or why did Paul say, “we don’t know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26-27) when Jesus taught his followers how to pray in Matthew 6:8-13?

One of those famous internet atheists, Dan Barker, sides with the Wells, writing: “The earliest Christian writings, the letters of Paul, are silent about the man Jesus: Paul, who never met Jesus, fails to mention a single deed or saying of Jesus…and sometimes contradicts what Jesus supposedly said. To Paul, Jesus was a heavenly disembodied Christ figure, not a man of flesh and blood.”

At first glance, the mythicists seem like they have a point. But there are a few problems here. 

ARGUING FROM SILENCE IS USUALLY A POOR WAY TO PROVE YOUR POINT

For starters, arguing from silence is usually a terrible way to argue. For example, Union General Ulysses S Grant says nothing about the Emancipation Proclamation. The famous explorer Marco Polo traveled to China but never mentions the Great Wall. The archives of Portugal do not allude to the travels of Amerigo Vespucci.

An estimated 16,000-60,000 people died in 79 AD due to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. But we only hear about this event in a personal letter of Pliny’s. The relative silence of historians we’d expect to mention these events doesn’t cause scholars to doubt their occurrence. 

Regarding arguments from silence, philosopher Tim McGrew writes: “Such arguments from silence are pervasive in New Testament scholarship, but they are tenuous at best….it is a risky business to speculate upon the motives of authors for including or omitting various facts. To create an appearance of inconsistency by this device…is methodologically unsound.” (Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology)

PAUL’S LETTERS WERE OCCASIONAL

There’s also the fact that most of Paul’s letters were occasional. Paul often wrote to combat error, or to provide specific guidance to churches. So, for example, Paul writes his entire letter to the Galatians to fight the doctrine of the Judaizers. Or there are the specific answers Paul gives about marriage, meat sacrificed to idols, spiritual gifts, and public worship in 1 Corinthians. 

And think about it for a minute. If there weren’t some false teachers in Corinth saying there’s no resurrection, the great resurrection teaching in 1 Corinthians 15 would be missing from our Bibles! Jesus’ miracles, parables, virgin birth, arguments with the Pharisees, and so forth weren’t relevant to Paul’s purposes in writing those particular letters. 

THE SILENCE OF PAUL…ABOUT PAUL

In his book Did Jesus Exist?, agnostic Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman points out that Paul wasn’t just silent about some historical facts about Jesus, he also didn’t tell us a lot about himself. Like for instance: Who taught Paul? Where did he grow up? What did he do for a living? What did he do during his three years in Arabia or Damascus before meeting with Peter and James in Jerusalem? Or in the following fourteen years? Where did he go? Paul doesn’t tell us in his letters. We only learn about a few of these things from reading Acts. 

Wells mentions that we don’t learn about Jesus’ miracles from Paul. But Paul said he had miracles in his ministry, and that was proof he was an apostle. (Romans 15:19, 2 Corinthians 12:12) Does Wells expect us to believe that Paul believed he and the other apostles had miracles, but Jesus didn’t? 

THE SILENCE OF OTHER EARLY CHRISTIANS

But we can take it a step further. We have three letters from John, or at least attributed to him. Scholars believe he was writing to combat the proto-gnostics who were saying that sin wasn’t really a thing, and Jesus wasn’t a physical being. (1 John 1:1-3, 8) But the writer of these epistles, who wrote just like the writer of John’s Gospel, (I think they are both written by John, but scholars debate that) doesn’t mention Jesus turning water into wine, healing a man born blind, feeding the 5,000, walking on water or raising Lazarus from the dead. He doesn’t even quote the words of Jesus from that gospel. Why was the writer of 1-3 John silent about these things? Because they didn’t suit his purposes, not because he didn’t think that they happened. 

Furthermore, most scholars believe that the author of Luke’s Gospel is the same author of Acts. Acts is Luke’s sequel. But in Acts, Lukes makes little use of the Jesus tradition he’s obviously familiar with. Clearly the lack of references to Jesus’ teachings in Acts doesn’t show that Luke was ignorant about what Jesus taught!

And what about the writings of some of the early church fathers? 1 Clement, Barnabas, and Polycarp’s letters to the Philippians. These letters fail to mention: 

  • Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. 
  • His parables. 
  • That he healed the sick and cast out demons. 
  • That he was transfigured on the mountain. 
  • That he got into arguments with the Pharisees. 
  • That he cleansed the temple. 
  • That Judas betrayed him. 
  • That Pilate had him crucified. 

Do we conclude that these writers didn’t think Jesus existed? No, we don’t. In the case of Polycarp, he quotes Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but these other traditions were not relevant to why he was writing so he fails to mention them.

PAUL’S “SILENCE” DOESN’T PROVE WHAT THE MYTHICISTS CLAIM

Finally, Paul wasn’t silent about the historical Jesus. As I’ve written elsewhere, Paul knows a lot about Jesus. He knows that Jesus was a descendant of David, that he had a mother, a brother named James and other siblings, a disciple named Peter, 12 disciples, that he shared a last supper with his followers, was betrayed, abused, crucified, and he alludes to several of Jesus’ teachings. (Rom 1:3-4, Gal 1:18-19, 1 Cor 9:5, 1 Cor 15:5, 1 Cor 11:22-24, Rom 15:3, 1 Cor 1:23, 1 Cor 7:10-12, 1 Cor 9:14, 11:22-24, 1 Thess 4:15)

But Paul’s main focus was Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2) It is what the cross and resurrection accomplish for the believer is what Paul is obsessed with. He’s interested in unpacking that teaching to the young churches. But his alleged silence isn’t a good argument to think that Jesus didn’t really exist. Bart Ehrman, no friend of traditional Christianity concludes that the so-called silence of Paul is a really bad way to argue, writing:

“What do these silences show? They do not show that these authors did not know about the historical Jesus, because they clearly did. If anything, the silences simply show that these traditions about Jesus were not relevant to their purposes…What we can know is that Paul certainly thought that Jesus existed. He had a clear knowledge of important aspects of Jesus’s life—a completely human life, in which he was born as a Jew to a Jewish woman and became a minister to the Jews before they rejected him, leading to his death. He knew some of Jesus’s teachings. And he knew how Jesus died, by crucifixion. For whatever reason, that was the most important aspect of Jesus’s life: his death. And Paul could scarcely have thought that Jesus died if he hadn’t lived”.

(Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, p. 145)

While I’ve disagreed with Dr. Ehrman many, many times, I have to offer a hearty amen here. 

Bonus:

If you’re a podcast person, here’s the podcast version of me going through the same material. It’s not a word-for-word match of the content.

This article was originally published on CrossExamined.org on June 6, 2020.

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