The Apostle is a threat to the Jesus mythicist’s case as suggested by their attempts to undermine him as a reliable witness to Jesus Christ. Paul is the earliest Christian author, writing perhaps at the earliest just twenty years after Christ had succumbed to asphyxiation on the cross. Although Paul certainly never attempts to compose a biographical account of Christ’s ministry, as do the gospels, he does mention enough about the historical Jesus and early Christian perceptions of him as a human-historical person to be taken as a severe threat to the mythicist’s case.
One need only remember that it is the mythicist’s extraordinary hypothesis that Jesus Christ did not exist as a historical person. For that hypothesis to hold water, the mythicist needs to not only explain away a mountain of other literary evidence, but he is also required to eliminate Paul from the equation. This explains the fuss: Paul threatens to topple the mythicist’s castle that already rests tentatively in midair.
Mythicist proponent, blogger, and atheist activist Richard Carrier argues that Jesus is presented as a non-human and celestial figure within the Pauline writings (1). A major thrust to this argument is that Jesus was indeed crucified, yet not by the Romans as per the accepted historical account but by demons in another realm. Carrier contends that when Paul does refer to Jesus, he never mentions him ever having a father and he never names his mother. Why did Paul omit such information? Simply because, Carrier reasons, he did not believe that Jesus was a historical human being. Is this a compelling argument able to overturn scholarly consensus that Jesus not only existed historically but also had parents?
No, it does not. As an argument, this commits a fallacy for it amounts to an argument from silence. Just because Paul did not mention Jesus’s parents in his writings, it does not follow that Jesus did not have parents. If, for example, Sam writes ten letters to his girlfriend and never mentions his siblings or parents in those letters, does it follow that he has no siblings or parents? Indeed Jesus may, for the sake of this argument, have been a myth conjured in the fertile imagination of some obscure Jewish sect who did not believe Jesus to have had parents. But this is not sufficiently demonstrated through Carrier’s appeal to Paul’s omission of this information. We need much more than what he has offered.
In order to sustain his hypothesis, Carrier has to twist one of Paul’s letters, Galatians (3:29-4:7), to have him affirm that was Jesus was born to an allegorical woman. According to Carrier, Paul meant that Jesus was born, in an allegorical sense, to Hagar who is a figure from the Old Testament (2). Carrier links Paul’s mentioning of the story of Abraham and the birth of his sons by different women to Jesus: “Jesus was momentarily born to the allegorical Hagar, the slave woman, which is the Torah law (the old testament), which holds sway in the earthly Jerusalem, so that he could kill off that law with his own death, making it possible for us to be born of the free woman at last” (3).
Not only is this an unnatural reading of Paul but the historian Daniel Gullotta also maintains that Carrier misrepresents what Paul is saying,
“Paul clearly focuses on his audience: ‘Now you, my brothers, are the children of the promise, like Isaac’ (Gal 4.28-31). Given the appeal to his audience, the use of Hagar and Sarah here is undoubtedly about the relationship between Jews, Gentiles, and the God of Israel, not about the birth of Jesus. Paul’s main purpose by his allegory is not to provide genealogical information but rather is to discourage Gentile Galatians from adopting Jewish customs and the Torah. There is no direct connection between the woman in Gal 4.4 and the women who bear the sons of Abraham in Gal 4.22-24. Paul’s statement that ‘this is an allegory’ appears in Gal 4.24, well after his earlier proclamation that ‘when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children’ (Gal 4.4.-5)” (4).
Furthermore, Carrier also fails to acknowledge what Paul says elsewhere. In Romans 1:3, Paul clearly states that Jesus “descended from David according to the flesh.” This obviously implies a historical birth and, in contradiction to Carrier, suggests that Jesus, for Paul, was a descendant of Sarah, and not Hagar (Rom. 9:4-5, 15:12).
Carrier then wonders why Paul would mention such an obvious thing as Jesus having been born to a woman (5). Carrier’s assumption here is that for Paul to mention such an obvious detail suggests he must be communicating some deeper meaning rather than merely an obvious biological fact, which he thinks supports his fantastical allegorical interpretation. Why, Carrier asks, would Paul state the obvious when everyone knows this anyway? But this is an unconvincing argument for Paul quite capably states the obvious elsewhere (6). It is certainly obvious to Paul’s readers that Jewish infants are “circumcised on the eighth day” (Phil 3:5), as this was the near-universal experience of boys, so why does Paul then mention this? Does this somehow mean that Paul is trying to say something mysterious or something other than what he is actually saying? No, it does not, and neither does it when he mentions Jesus being born to a woman.
One does not wish to beat a downed horse, but the final nail to this coffin concerns the phrase “born of a woman” as it appears within many other Jewish and Christian writings of the first-century, as well as prior and subsequent to the first-century. These texts use this phrase to refer to a human birth (Book of Job, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospel of Matthew, and the Gospel of Thomas, as well as in other early Christian texts).
It is uncontroversial to claim that Paul sees Jesus to have been a historical person. This not only makes sense of the more than two dozen historical and Earthy facts Paul mentions concerning Jesus, such as Jesus sharing a final meal with his disciples (Cor. 11:23-26), his crucifixion (1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 6:14), implying the empty tomb (1 Cor. 15), the resurrection (Gal. 1:1), etc., but Paul also states in Romans that “just as sin came into the world through one man… much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many’ (5:12, 15). Here Paul claims Jesus was a man like Adam was, a theme evident throughout his writings where he links the human figure of Adam to humans, as well as to human nature in general (Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Cor. 15:47-9; 2 Cor. 4:16; Rom. 6:6) (7). Furthermore, explains Gullotta, “While Paul uses biblical figures for the purpose of allegories and similes, it must be clarified that every person he names (Adam, Abraham, Hagar, Jesse, David, etc.) was understood as and believed to be a historical figure who lived upon the earth. Though it is certainly disappointing that Paul did not record more about the life of the historical Jesus, Paul reports and assumes that Jesus was a human being” (8).
Carrier is not the only mythicist who has attempted to eliminate Paul as a historical witness to a flesh and blood Jesus, so this requires that we take time to evaluate further mythicist attempts to dismiss him. It will suffice for the time being to conclude that Carrier’s attempt to this effect is not compelling in the face of the above considerations.
A major reason I think Paul is such a threat to the mythicist hypothesis is that he writes so early. One need only compare Jesus in this regard to many other historical religious figures, as we have done. If Mencius, for example, writing about his master, Confucius, over a whole century later is good enough for sinologists and scholars of Chinese religion to contain some historical information on Confucius, then surely all the more so with regards to Paul writing twenty years after Christ. All the more so for the gospels and the entire New Testament, all of which fall within 65 years of Jesus’ death.
1. Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press. p. 578.
2. Carrier, Richard. 2014. Ibid. p. 578.
3. Carrier, Richard. 2014. Ibid. p. 578.
4. Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts: A Response to Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15(2-3):310-346
5. Carrier, Richard. 2014. Ibid. p. 580.
6. Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. Ibid.
7. Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. Ibid.
8. Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. Ibid.