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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Paul did not read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John

In a recent article Lydia McGrew argued that Paul's references to the teachings of the earthly Jesus and events in his earthly life present evidence that Paul had access to one or more of the canonical Gospels.  Therefore, the Gospels as a whole can be reasonably dated much earlier than scholars generally allow.  Dr. McGrew's claim is bogus, as this post will demonstrate.  Instead, the evidence she provides is best interpreted as follows:  Paul had knowledge of at least some of Jesus's teachings and some of the events recorded in the Gospels but we don't know from whom he learned it and it almost certainly did not come from one of the canonical Gospels.

As a subtext Dr. McGrew challenges the integrity of the New Testament scholarly guild.  In her view scholars should never have come to consensus that the Gospels were mostly written in the last quarter of the 1st century.  There is clear evidence of extensive written sources about Jesus's life and teachings well before that.  The present consensus was arrived at by way of an unwarranted (read "prejudicial") scepticism. 

No scholarly community likes it when outsiders challenge a settled consensus and sociology tells us that in the face of such a challenge most members of the guild will tend to rally around the consensus regardless of the degree to which it can withstand sustained scrutiny.  For those of us who have reflected on how wrong scholarly guilds have been about some of their settled conclusions, a challenge like Dr. McGrew's has some built-in credibility.  And some of us pull for the underdog anyway.   

On the other hand, the history of science is also riddled with cranks and crackpots who challenged a settled consensus and turned out to be flat wrong.  I do not mean to suggest that Dr. McGrew is a crackpot, but as it turns out her challenge to the consensus fails.  In the process of arguing for it, she appears to have neglected a basic requirement for any successful consensus challenger:  understand the grounds for the consensus better than the members of the guild.   As I will now demonstrate, she overlooks key features of the texts she cites that establish the grounds for the current consensus.
In her post Dr. McGrew discusses to varying degrees the following texts as evidence of Paul's reliance on a written Gospel:  1 Cor 6:2; 9:14; 11:23-26; 13:2,  much more briefly 2 Cor 8:9 and 1 Tim 6:13, and some other texts that make brief notes about Jesus's earthly life.  She doesn't comment on the prevalence of texts from 1 Corinthians.  This is a matter of great interest for its own sake, but we must pass it by here.  She failed to mention 1 Cor 7:10 and 15:3-4; I assume this was an oversight. We can also add to her list 1 Thes 4:15. 

She claims that the basis for Paul's statement in 1 Cor 6:2 is Jesus's saying in Mt 19:28 or Lk 22:30.  But in fact Paul could just as easily derived it from Dan 7:13-14,28.   Furthermore, she overlooks 1 Cor 6:3.  In the written Gospels Jesus never says anything about the saints judging angels.  It is therefore highly unlikely that Paul is reflecting on a text from Matthew or Luke.

1 Cor 7:10 and 9:14 make general statements about a teaching of "the Lord" that are consistent with texts found in the synoptic Gospels, but the allusions are too vague and Paul makes no reference to a written text as the basis for his statements.

1 Cor 11:23-26 and 15:3-4 share some important characteristics in common:
  1. Paul says that he passed on to the Corinthians something he received.
  2. He refers in some detail to events relating to the center of Christ's saving work.
  3. The only mention of written texts in reference to these events is the Hebrew Scriptures.    
It is true that 1 Cor 11:23-26 bears a close resemblance to Lk 22:19-21 but this in no way means that Paul was recollecting a text from the Gospel of Luke.  If in fact Paul learned of the events of Jesus's life and his teachings from a written text, it is rather odd that he never mentions that any of them came to him that way.  Paul is not at all vague about his dependence on the written text of the Hebrew Bible.  What, was he unwilling to vouch for the inspiration of Luke or Matthew's work?  Was he so jealous of his apostolic credentials that he didn't want to give another human being explicit credit for educating him about Jesus?  Paul's language of receiving and passing on stories about Jesus sounds awfully odd if the reality behind it is that Paul read to them from a written Gospel or put his apostolic imprimatur on a Gospel that was already being read to them in their meetings.

1 Cor 13:2 appears to resemble Jesus's saying about faith being able to move mountains, but the rhetorical force of Paul's statement appears to run in the opposite direction from Jesus's sayings in the written Gospel texts we have.  Paul's statement emphasizes the the apparent strength of this "faith."  It is not just any ordinary faith, it is the kind that can move mountains; even faith that powerful is of no value apart from love.  But in the written Gospels Jesus's point is that you don't need some special kind of faith to move mountains; even a tiny bit is enough.  The most we can say is that Paul's language has a surface resemblance to a saying of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.

Finally, 1 Thes 4:15 refers to a saying of Jesus that is not found in any of our written Gospels.   There is no Gospel text that says or implies that "the dead in Christ shall rise" before living saints are lifted up to "meet the Lord in the air" at his coming.   

I am bypassing 1 Tim 6:13 for the simple reason that Paul most likely did not write that book. 

In conclusion, the evidence we have surveyed above supports the hypothesis that wherever Paul got his information about the earthly life and teachings of Jesus, it is least likely that it came from one or more of our written Gospels. 

1 comment:

Analyst said...

IMO, the four canonical gospels were all written after the end of the Bar Kochba revolt (135 CE).

Can't prove it, but I see no reason it can't be true either.