Monday, July 23, 2007

Was Paul a Heretic?

In the debate between Christians and skeptics over the truth or falsehood of Christianity, one fact that is entirely uncontroversial is that Christians exist, and have existed in some form or another since the first century. However, a wide variety of beliefs have been held under the umbrella of Christianity, including diverse heresies (at least, so called by the supposedly orthodox). Part of the challenge facing both Christian apologists as well as skeptics is to trace those beliefs back to their origins — accurately. Christian apologists are generally attempting to show that the surviving orthodoxy is an accurate reflection of the truth. Skeptics are generally trying to show that the development of Christianity can be explained (and in fact, can be best explained) without recourse to supernatural involvement.

These tasks are complicated by several confounding factors. We have no contemporaneous records of the life of Jesus, at all, certainly nothing written by him. The sources we do have are almost entirely from Christian writers, and many of the writings that were judged heretical were destroyed, so in fact we have only a subset of the Christian writings. Further, among the surviving Christian writings, we know of many that were pseudonymous, that is, not written by whomever was claimed as the author. And not only were entire books and letters forged, but scribal alterations both intentional and unintentional were common as well, raising questions even about works whose authorship is generally considered authentic. In most cases, the earliest copies we have of most of the New Testament (other than tiny scraps) are from several hundred years after they were written. Finally, it can be difficult to dissociate ourselves from the views that have become generally accepted over the past 1600-1900 years to see how earlier interpretations may have differed.

Careful work can overcome some of the difficulties. For instance, by analyzing the commonalities and differences between various manuscripts, some variant readings can be rejected as (very probably) inauthentic. In other cases the choice between variations is more difficult. Rather than exploring that kind of difficulty, though, I would like to describe something more along the lines of overcoming interpretations that have held sway for most of church history. The particular event I have in mind is the resurrection.

The bodily resurrection of Jesus is arguably the linch pin of modern conservative Christian belief, an importance than I would guess extends a good way into moderate Christianity as well. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15:14 that if Christ was not resurrected, the Christian faith is in vain. And there has been a correspondingly substantial amount of verbiage generated by people on both sides of the question, presenting arguments about whether this event occurred. Certainly this was an issue that I felt important to look into both during and after my decision to give up my Christian beliefs.

Now, I mentioned the difficulty that can be associated with overcoming a settled picture of what really happened. I definitely had the idea (an idea commonly repeated in church) that the Bible was a harmonious collection of writings that revealed the truth about God, Jesus and ourselves. We may not always understand the meaning, but we knew it was true. (Think about the implications of that for a moment.) That mental stance works against raising certain kind of questions.

One of the questions that I never thought to ask was, why does Paul, who wrote so much of the New Testament and especially the earliest parts of it, say so very little about the life of Jesus or even anything that Jesus was reported to have said? And, specific to the question of the resurrection, does he say anything that supports the events as portrayed in the Gospels?

The most important passage from Paul's writings in answering this question is 1 Corinthians 15, especially verses 3-11, in which Paul says Christ died, was buried, was raised and then appeared to a number of people, including Peter, the twelve, then to 500 people, then James, then the apostles and finally to Paul himself. (I will say, parenthetically, that some scholars suspect that some parts of this list, or perhaps all of it, may have been due to later non-Pauline additions, the reasons for which are a bit convoluted and not at all conclusive. That is not important to the approach I am describing.) While brief, this seems to provide support for the later reports in the gospels. There are, however, two important points to be made about this description.

First, Paul says that Christ appeared to all of these people, and the word used for all of these appearances is the same; that is, Christ appeared to everyone just as he appeared to Paul, which we know from both Paul and the author of Acts to have been a vision, not a physical, embodied interaction. Second, while Paul mentions death and burial followed by a resurrection, there is no mention of any empty tomb. This might seem like a minor omission, but in fact it is significant. Among the various Jewish sects, for instance, some believed in a bodily resurrection, while others believed in a purely spiritual resurrection (and still others did not believe in any resurrection), so it is an entirely legitimate question to ask if Paul might have been envisioning a spiritual rather than bodily resurrection, a resurrection in which there may not have been physical evidence. The fact that Paul describes Christ's appearance to all of the witnesses listed in this passage in the same terms as his appearance to Paul (which was clearly a vision) already provides some support for this possibility.

In fact, the end of I Corithians 15, starting with verse 35, provides additional evidence for this position, as Paul describes the difference between our earthly natural bodies and the spiritual bodies we will be given by God. This was the subject of a chapter written by Richard Carrier in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (a collection edited by Robert Price and Jeffery Jay Lowder). Since Carrier's treatment of this issue covers fifty pages, I will not pretend to provide anything like a fair summary in one or two paragraphs. I will, however, mention that parts of his argument involve words he believes have been poorly translated from the Greek, so that English translations are misleading on some points. As an example, in verse 51, English translations typically read something like "we will all be changed" which might appear to support the idea that our one body is changed at the resurrection. Carrier writes that a more proper translation would be "exchanged", an important difference in this context. If this were the basis of his entire argument, that might appear pretty thin, but (as you might expect from a fifty page explanation) he brings in quite a bit more support than that. I mention that because someone going and reading the passage in English might conclude that some of those verses provide clear evidence against Carrier's position, when in fact he does address those objections.

An important part of his argument, though, is to look at what kinds of concerns the Corinthian church must have had to lead Paul to answer as he does. There does not appear to be a question on the part of the Corinthians that Jesus was resurrected. Rather, their question appears to be how they can be assured that they will also be resurrected. Carrier attempts to demonstrate that if Paul was describing a bodily resurrection, he would have provided a different sort of answer than he does, an answer more similar to the answers offered by (for instance) the Pharisees who did believe in a bodily resurrection (a belief presumably shared by Paul before his conversion). Because Paul does not answer in this way, but instead develops an entirely different line of argument centered around the differences between two kinds of bodies, Carrier concludes that Paul did not believe that our earthly bodies would be resurrected, but that we would be given new spiritual (heavenly) bodies. Further, Jesus' resurrection was of the same kind as ours will be (Paul says), so his resurrection was also a spiritual one. However, in this view, there would have been no physical evidence of resurrection, since the empty shell of a physical body would have been left to rot, thus explaining the lack of substantial description of any post-resurrection events.

Carrier then looks at the gospel accounts of the resurrection, and notes that by the time of the latest gospels, Luke and John, there is an increasing emphasis on a bodily resurrection. In these later accounts, Jesus displays his wounds and allows them to be carefully examined, strongly implying that his resurrection body is the same body that was killed. This appears to be a departure from the view Paul held. When Origen later wrote in support of the idea of a resurrection into a new, spiritual body, these views were considered heretical. Yet Origen's views appear to be essentially similar to the views Paul himself propounded.

In fact, it is difficult to explain how Paul could hold to a two-body resurrection scheme if he were aware of the stories of bodily resurrection that were later recorded in the gospels. On the other hand, if those stories are later legendary developments, Paul's position is much less problematic. Of course, then we were left with explaining how those stories might have developed, which, as it happens, is what Carrier spends the second part of his chapter doing. (That takes a further forty pages, by the way. There are also thirty-five pages of end notes for that single chapter.)

Nor is this the only discrepancy between Paul's theology and that described by the later gospels and by other apostles. These kinds of difficulties make a great deal of sense when we view the development of Christianity as a human effort lacking divine guidance or, in some cases, evidential basis.

By the way, Richard Carrier has an FAQ for his chapter, available online here. One of the more interesting things he describes there is how Origen's position was purposefully and admittedly misrepresented by another early church figure (Rufinus) to give it a more orthodox flavor.

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