Tag Archives: Paul of Tarsus

The Aretas puzzle

Paul escapes DamascusThe Aretas puzzle seems hardly a puzzle at all, not at first. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul mentions that during the reign of a king named Aretas, the apostle fled Damascus dramatically, by being lowered in a basket over the city wall.

Who was Paul’s King Aretas?

If we accept the “standard model” of Christian origins, particularly its timeline that Christianity began during the fourth decade of the Common Era, then there’s only one plausible candidate: Aretas IV, king of the Nabateans. After ruling for approximately 50 years, he died in 40 CE. That’s within a decade after Paul’s conversion according to the consensus view.

The reign of Aretas III had ended about a century before the death of Aretas IV, and there was no Aretas V, so far as we know. Therefore, Aretas IV is the king Paul mentioned, done and dusted.

The puzzle is to suppose that someone didn’t already accept the standard model of Christian origins, and was trying to estimate a date for this incident from Paul’s letters, non-Christian sources like Josephus, and physical evidence alone. Why not Aretas III? He actually ruled Damascus for a time (we have coins to prove it), while Aretas IV never did, so far as we know. Why couldn’t Paul have been fleeing from that earlier Aretas?

Well, maybe he could have been …

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Brothers III: Like Paul

Paul sends a letter

The previous installment (link) concluded that Paul would plausibly have referred to some distinguished fellow apostles as the brothers of the Lord, whether or not there were any kin or former disciples of Jesus for Paul to describe that way. Paul habitually used fraternal language. He often called attention to distinctions among the early apostles. He may have meant that these brothers were former intimates of a historical Jesus, but he may instead have meant they were “like Jesus” in other ways.

Perhaps they were models of good behavior for their followers, or willing victims of persecution, or senior apostles who’d been personally chosen by the risen Jesus. The diverse potential meanings for a phrase typical of Paul’s prose style set a low ceiling on our justifiable confidence that Paul reported meeting an intimate of Jesus (Galatians 1:19) and that he knew of others (1 Corinthians 9:5).

The brothers of the Lord sounds harmonious with “Jesus’ brothers,” but it’s not discordant with other meanings, either. “Bayesian thinking” reminds us to consider how the phrase would sound under other assumptions than what first pops into our heads.

This installment looks at the context of the specific occasions when Paul used the phrase. Both times, he was making an argument, trying to persuade his readers. In Galatians, Paul defends the independence of his preaching from that of the Jerusalem church. In 1 Corinthians, Paul seeks a church-paid stipend comparable with other apostles’ spousal allowance.

Context helps refine our estimate of Paul’s intentions for the brothers of the Lord. In the stipend argument, for Paul to invite comparison with Jesus’ intimates would clash with his rhetorical goals. In contrast, if he meant and was understood to mean non-intimates of Jesus, then positioning himself among prestigious churchmen could harmonize sweetly with those goals.

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Brothers II: Like Jesus

George Polya

The previous installment (link) concluded that Paul’s accepted use of the phrase the brother(s) of the Lord ought not to dispel all uncertainty about the historical existence of Jesus. However, so long as it is possible that the phrase was genuinely Paul’s and that it referred to a relationship among two or more living people, then what scholarship receives as Paul’s writing, if it bears at all, counts in support of a historical Jesus and against hypotheses where he is entirely fictional or mythological.

How strong should that bearing reasonably be? This second post about these brothers is informed by “Bayesian reasoning,” but here fielded without numbers, in a style which incorporates the ideas of George Polya about qualitative plausible thinking and assessment of evidence.

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Brothers, Paul’s and James’

Papyrus 46 page

P46’s page with Galatians 1:19

Paul refers twice to “the brothers of the Lord.” At Galatians 1:18-19 (link), Paul meets James,

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter, and stayed with him fifteen days. But of the other apostles I saw no one except James, the Lord’s brother.

and at 1 Corinthians 9:5-6 (link) Paul designates a group using the same Greek phrase in the plural,

Have we no right to take along a wife who is a believer, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or have only Barnabas and I no right to not work?

Religion professor James McGrath, whose ideas on historical reasoning the Uncertaintist discussed last year (link), thinks Galatians 1:19 “ought to settle the matter” that Jesus was a real historical person (link).

It makes sense that if Paul met one of Jesus’ brothers and knew of others, then Paul’s Jesus was an earthly human being. Moreover, these brothers participate in church affairs. Their activity would help explain what Paul thought a living Jesus had contributed to Christian origins, a topic otherwise missing from Paul’s writings.

But no so fast. As with Josephus’ supposed mention of James (link), authenticating two brief excerpts from Paul’s letters isn’t trivial. However, although uncertain, authenticity is a less urgent concern for Paul’s the brother of the Lord than for Josephus’ the brother of Jesus called Christ.

Looking past authenticity, to lay the two phrases side by side reveals different levels of discourse. Far from a plain matter-of-fact phrasing, Paul identifies Jesus solely by a purely religious construction. That being so, how confident can anyone be that Paul isn’t also designating James and the others by another figurative religious construction?

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Historians and probability: Is Bayes a blunder?

Greek mosaic of a Christian fish symbolProfessor James F. McGrath (Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana) blogs as Religion Prof at Patheos. In a recent post (link), McGrath reviews another blogger’s review of Richard Carrier’s work concerning Saint Paul’s mention of James as “the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19). McGrath alleges

In essence, Carrier’s approach commits the same blunder that undergraduate students sometimes do before coming to grips with how historians work.

Your obedient servant holds no brief from Dr. Carrier, but the essence of Carrier’s approach is that Bayesian methods can and should be applied to historical questions. I agree with that essence (link).

This post considers whether Professor McGrath has identified some hidden incompatibility between “common sense reduced to calculation,” as Laplace described Bayesian techniques, and normative post-graduate history.

Let’s hope not.

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Mark dramatized “If Paul had met Jesus”

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 reputed disciples 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.

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