Paul and Jesus are said to be contemporary figures. Nevertheless, Paul’s surviving writings never say whether he ever met the natural Jesus. In a usual “argument from silence,” scholars generally conclude that Paul probably didn’t meet Jesus, assuming that Paul would have said so if he had. Furthermore, Paul strongly suggests that his first-ever meeting with any associate of Jesus (although Paul doesn’t identify them as such) occurred years after his conversion (Galatians 1:17-18). The absence of Paul as a character in any of the canonical Gospels reinforces the impression that he never met Jesus.
Mark wrote his Gospel approximately one or two decades after Paul’s letters. A major theme of Mark is the breathtaking variety of human reactions to Jesus’ earthly ministry of wisdom, signs and wonders.
A literary problem arises from the gap between when Mark was writing and when his story is set. Both Paul’s churches and the disciples’ disciples are presumably contending for prominence within the second-generation movement, but Paul has no role in the story Mark is writing. Peter, James, John and the other “inner circle” disciples who traveled with Jesus dominate Mark by default. Mark has no simple way to include both “sides” of the subsequent drama playing out around him.
The principal finding of this post is that Mark found a solution to maintain the timeliness of his story. He represented a hypothetical “Paul’s” reaction to the natural Jesus using the character of an unnamed scribe at verses 12:28-34. This character more readily understands and appreciates Jesus’ message than the probably mostly younger and less educated disciples. However, the scribe declines to join Jesus. If he did join the movement later on, he may well have required some additional sign first, just as Paul himself did.
Preaching of the Antichrist by Luca Signorelli ca 1500 (detail, click to enlarge)
An earlier post discussed ancient critics of Christianity who vigorously expressed their doubts about the factual reliability of the Gospels, the character of the Apostles, and the discernment of their Christian audience. We couldn’t find an example, however, of an argument based on the possibility that Jesus never existed.
Some modern apologists would explain that this is because there never was any example. “The argument that Jesus never existed, …was not one that the enemies of Christianity in the ancient world ever used,” James Carleton Paget, a Cambridge academic flatly assured his readers (link).
It turns out, however, that an ancient patristic author wrote that there was a Christian group who taught that the proto-orthodox Jesus was an enchantment devised by a First Century magician. According to this magican’s followers, he was the real historical figure whose words and deeds inspired Christianity, not Jesus. Jesus was a thing of smoke and mirrors, or maybe not even that.
Detail of a Third Century mystery cult mosaic from Antioch, click to enlarge
Last year, about one in five English adults surveyed thought the better description of their beliefs about Jesus was a “fictional or mythological character” instead of a “real person who actually lived.” Nearly as many answered that they “don’t know.” Christian groups commissioned this poll, which had 2,545 demographically representative participants.
Reacting to the survey result, James Carleton Paget, a senior lecturer in New Testament Studies at Cambridge University, commented “The argument that Jesus never existed, …was not one that the enemies of Christianity in the ancient world ever used.” Some non-academic apologists agree.
In the earliest surviving scholarly confrontations with Christianity, critics complained vigorously against the unreliability of even natural facts alleged about Jesus. The depth and breadth of ancients’ complaints warranted doubts about Jesus’ existence. However, personal doubt is not an argument. Arguments premised on definite non-existence would be ineffective without proof. It is unsurprising that aimless self-observations and doomed arguments aren’t found in early counterapologies.