Defining Mythicism: Galatians, the Historical Figure of Jesus, and the Mythical Jesus

I grow tired of hearing people repeatedly use Gal. 1.1 and 1.11-12 to suggest that this disproves the historicity of the figure of Jesus.  It doesn’t.  Why?  Because someone can receive revelatory information (be it delusional or hypnotic or otherwise) from formerly historical individuals.  Just because Paul felt he received information from revelation does not ipso facto imply that Jesus never existed historically. When people use this as an argument against the historicity of Jesus by itself they only make themselves look bad.  Paul does appear to make claims for historicity which must be dealt with before one can claim something like this; but even then one could not make this particular claim in regards to Gal. 1.1 or 1.11-12.  Neither of these claims by Paul deal with the function historicity.  Paul is dealing with a theological message here; where did he receive his ‘truth’.  Now, one might argue that Paul cared little about the function of historicity, but you cannot just cite Galatians and announce ‘QED’ and presume you’ve defeated historical Jesus scholarship.

16 Responses

  1. I agree and I always try to be clear about how I think these passages are relevant to the question of historicity: I think Paul’s refusal to credit his predecessors for any part of his message and the lack of independent evidence of what they believed leaves me without much basis other than speculation and conjecture to determine how much of Paul’s preaching and what parts of it conformed to what came before him and what part of it was added to the mix by Paul’s own theological creativity. Paul might be preaching the exact same message as a historical Jesus preached and the exact same message as all the other apostles preached. On the other hand, it is also possible that Paul originated most of his message and it is also possible that it included all sorts of elements that never would have occurred to his predecessor or to any historical first century itinerant preacher who might have been been behind some part the gospel stories.

  2. I believe that one could write a convincing case against historicity with these sorts of points supporting others, but that is completely different than resting ones whole position on the strength of a faulty interpretation. But you’re quite right, Vinny.

  3. […] Tom Verenna, two posts on “Defining Mythicism,” one of which addresses the appeal to Galatians 1 as though Paul’s words there give a clear ind…, while the other post emphasizes that an all-or-nothing approach to the figure of Jesus as depicted […]

  4. Tom it strikes me that in Gal 1 Paul repeatedly claims Jesus is not a man. “παυλος αποστολος ουκ απ ανθρωπων ουδε δι ανθρωπου αλλα δια ιησου χριστου και θεου πατρος του εγειραντος αυτον εκ νεκρων” and again “ουδε γαρ εγω παρα ανθρωπου παρελαβον αυτο ουτε εδιδαχθην αλλα δι αποκαλυψεως ιησου χριστου”. Is there some meaning of ανθρωπου that I am not understanding?

  5. Evan, thanks for responding. The problem is that Paul also calls Jesus a man elsewhere. This would need to be addressed in order for someone to just claim Paul said Jesus wasn’t a man in Galatians.

  6. Tom, it seems then that both sides have anomalous data to explain. In which citations does Paul call Jesus a man?

  7. ‘Just because Paul felt he received information from revelation does not ipso facto imply that Jesus never existed historically.’

    Benjamin Creme receives information from the Maitreya, and publishes it on the internet.

    Does that mean that the Maitreya does not exist?

    Or is it immediately obvious that if someone has a message from somebody he calls a man living in London, then that man is real, exists, is historical and to deny it is just plain crazy?

    Especially if said man has pictures of him on the Internet and has given 43 interviews…..

    But the Maitreya just does not exist. Benjamin Creme has been talking about him for over 30 years.

    Why do we have to assume Jesus exists simply because Paul talks about getting messages from the Lord, when anybody can see for themselves that if somebody claims to get messages of a religious nature they are always lying – Creme, Joseph Smith, Muhammad etc?

  8. ”Because someone can receive revelatory information (be it delusional or hypnotic or otherwise) from formerly historical individuals. ‘

    To help educate me, could we have some examples of somebody claiming to receive revelatory information from somebody who lived a few decades before, please?

  9. “To help educate me, could we have some examples of somebody claiming to receive revelatory information from somebody who lived a few decades before, please?”

    Every Medium?

  10. Every medium?

    Which mediums claim to receive divine revelatatory information from somebody who lived a few decades before?

  11. Really Steven? This happens all the time. You’ve never heard of Sylvia Browne?

  12. I’ve never heard of Sylvia Browne.

    Which recently deceased person does she claim to get divine revelations from?

  13. understanding the events of yester year often requires a bit of knowledge about the present. It may surprise you to know there are a lot of people today that claim to talk to spirits of all kinds. If you want to understand people that claim to talk to spirits in the past, a good starting point is people who do it now.

  14. Michael, yes and no. We have a very different mindset today than they did in the past. Any good sociological study on antiquity will prove that (I recommend Emanuel Pfoh’s excellent collection of essays ‘Anthropology and the Bible’ to start). The mythic mindset back then was such that the Gospel authors, for example, could talk about the earth shaking, the dead rising from the graves, and someone walking on water, and nobody felt the urge to question it; even if they didn’t believe it. They accepted some things as had happened even without the historical background to prove it. Things could be accepted and dismissed in the same sentence, and that was okay, because the mindset was such that allowed this sort of thinking. Today we are more scientifically driven to rationalize and so we need ever and ever more complex reasons for things. In the past, going to war for the sake of one man’s obsession over a woman was perfectly reasonable and justifiable for the Greeks who read Homer. There was no need to rationalize it like the Hollywood producers did for the movie Troy (where Agamemnon just wants to take over the world for power and political gain); we needed that additional justification because going to war over one man’s stolen wife is petty and self-centered for us. For the Greeks, it might not have been completely justified, but they accepted that it happened for that very reason.

    We can only learn a lot about modern culture by analyzing modern culture. It is dangerous to anachronistically look at modern day sociological situations and presume they would explain or help explain ancient sociological ones. It is , unfortunately, a trap that many modern Biblical Studies scholars fall into precisely because many Biblical Studies scholars are not well versed on matters of anthropology. The criterion of embarrassment, for example, is precisely a modern sociological construct developed by anachronistically applying our mindset to that of the ancients. From a socio-historical standpoint, the criterion of embarrassment fails even the rudimentary trials since we know that embarrassment in the past is not identical to ours in our own time, and embarrassment never stopped conversion as it might in our modern day (such as with the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church has stunted their conversion rates and led to more empty pews).

  15. Caution is neccesary when comparing situations from different times and places, because you do have to account for the particulars of the time.

    On you comment on embarassment, it is true that what is embarasing today was not embarrasing in the past, but people were still embarrased. Remeber the reason people aren’t going Roman Catholic isn’t because the there is sexual abuse but because people beleive there is sexual abuse. I doubt many ancients that beleived that Christianity was a supersttion and that its adherents were incestuous cannibals converted to it. As an exaple of early Christian embarasment, I would direct your attention the the changing role of P. Pilate in the crucifixtion. For a modern example, consider how often J. Smith’s teachings on polygamy and racism are mentioned in contemporary Mormon media.

  16. How often are J Smith’s teachings on polygamy and racism mentioned in ,modern media?

    Was Smith embarrassed by his own teachings?

    If later people are embarrassed by event X, and the original person who told about event X was not embarrassed by it, that does not prove that event X happened.

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