What If We Didn’t Have the Gospels?
We have a variety of means by which we can determine the truth of Christianity or any other religious or faith claim. These include whether (1) the person making the claim is sincere; (2) the person has no material incentives for fabrication; (3) the claim has been corroborated by witnesses or eyewitnesses; and (4) the claim includes contrasting or embarrassing information. Next I will elaborate on these four means of assessing the truth, which have also been used by other Christian apologists, such as Lee Strobel.
Stephen was the first Christian martyr. Acts 7:7 details his final words to the Pharisees, which explained some of the prophecies in the Old Testament. His words were so disturbing to the Pharisees that they “were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.” “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they rushed at him, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul”…“And Saul approved of their killing him” (Acts 8).
Acts 9 states, “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go to the city and you will be told what you must do.’”
Saul (now Paul) became one of Christianity’s most ardent and determined followers, braving multiple imprisonments, beatings, stoning, snake bites, and shipwrecks before finally being beheaded by Nero in 62 A.D. Prior to his martyrdom, Paul wrote letters to churches all over the ancient near east in which he explained (1) the fulfillment prophecies in the Scriptures; (2) expectations of early Christian churches; and (3) reasons for his own example, conversion and beliefs. In 1 Corinthians 11, he says “Follow me, for I follow the example of Christ.” In his letter to the Philippians (2:11), Paul says, “And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
In 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8, he says, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
Mainstream scholars have concluded that the above passage is a creed, preached in the early churches and written within five years of Jesus’ crucifixion. Even atheist and Jesus mythicist Richard Carrier has drawn this conclusion: “But the essential elements of the creed (especially verses 3 to 5), even if we have to account for some transmission error (in verses 6 and 7), still dates to the sect’s origin. It’s what distinguishes Christianity from any other sect of Judaism. So it’s the only thing Peter (Cephas) and the other pillars (James and John) could have been preaching before Paul joined the religion. And Paul joined it within years of its founding (internal evidence in Paul’s letters places his conversion before 37 A.D., and he attests in Galatians 1 that he was preaching the Corinthian creed immediately thereupon: OHJ, pp. 139, 516, 536, 558).” (Source: https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/11069)
Atheists such as Tim O’Neill, who maintains a popular blog site called “History for Atheists” have noted the historicity of Jesus, pointing to Jesus’ existence as the only way to explain (1) the origins of Christianity and (2) the appearance of “embarrassing” stories in the New Testament. Specifically, Tim pointed out that Jesus came from Nazareth – and that the apostle Nathaniel questioned whether anything good comes from Nazareth (John 1:46). Tim claimed that this inclusion was embarrassing since Jesus was prophesied by Micah (5:2) to come from Bethlehem. Tim claimed the Gospel writers of Luke and Matthew added Bethlehem into the birth narratives to fit the prophecy from Micah. Yet this is an obvious contradiction. One on hand, Tim is claiming the Gospel writers including embarrassing truths – and on the other hand, he’s claiming they’re lying by inventing a passage about Bethlehem in the birth narratives. If they were lying, why would they have not simply replaced “Nazareth” with “Bethlehem” and state that Jesus was born and raised in Bethlehem? The truth is the Gospel writers strove for the truth. And interestingly, the birth narratives fit together like pieces in a puzzle as I have demonstrated in a previous blog.
Was Paul a lone ranger who ignited Christianity without the support of others? This is the conclusion drawn from some skeptics, yet when we read Paul’s and Luke’s writings, we see that Paul was far from alone.
John Mark, for whom the book of Mark is attributed, was the son of a woman named Mary (Acts 12:12), the cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), and like a son to Peter (1 Peter 5:13). He was also a companion of Barnabas and Paul (Acts 12:25; 13:5) who initially became discouraged, as his time in Cyprus was difficult (c.f., Acts 13:4-12). Later on, Barnabas and Paul disagreed on having a deserter with them and in Acts 15:38-41, John Mark returned and traveled with only Barnabas. His renewed energy led Paul to refer to Mark as a “fellow worker” years later in Philemon 1:24.
Luke claimed authorship of the books of Luke and Acts. In Acts 1: 1-3 he states, “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instruction through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.” He further noted that his writings followed the writings of others. “With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-5).
Luke was a physician whom relatively recent scholarly historians such as Sir William Ramsay (1851-1939) have hailed as a notable and meticulous historian. Sir William Ramsay was born an atheist. He set out to disprove the New Testament, yet after spending years in the ancient near east, he came to appreciate the New Testament’s historicity and validity, so he converted to Christianity.
In Acts 16, Luke switched into the first person (“we”) as he detailed his travels with Paul around Macedonia (16:10-16:18); Philippi, Troas, Miletus, Ephesus (20:4-21:19); and along the coast of Asia to Rome (27:1-28:30).
Paul stayed with Peter for fifteen days and saw James during that time (Galatians 1:18). He later notes in his letter to the Galatians that James, Peter and John, who were esteemed as “pillars,” gave him and Barnabas the “right hand of fellowship” when they recognized the grace given to Paul (Galatians 2:9). Since Peter, James, and John were alive during the time of Paul’s writings (c.f., Guarducci, 1960; McDowell, 2016) and he served as an example of Jesus (Philippians 3:15-21) to early Christian leaders such as Euodia, Syntyche and Clement (Philippians 4:3) and the many churches to whom he wrote his epistles, the likelihood he fabricated such relationships is miniscule.
Did Paul receive material benefits in his ministry? Theories of human motivation point to intrinsic and extrinsic factors of motivation. Intrinsic factors include the human desires for purpose, mastery, and autonomy, while extrinsic motivators include the human desires for money, sex, and power.
While extrinsic motivators such as additional compensation inspire better work in low-level, unskilled routine types of tasks, intrinsic motivators inspire higher-level achievement in more meaningful tasks (c.f., https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation). Given the fact that Christianity was not a legitimate pursuit while illegal in the first few centuries, Paul’s motivation based on extrinsic factors is highly unlikely. The tasks were not routine or low-level and the extrinsic rewards were not present. Instead, and as Paul points out, he was intrinsically inspired.
“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being” (Galatians 1: 13-16).
“I have worked much harder, have been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea. I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers” (2 Corinthians 23-26).
“I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
“Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
Contrasting or embarrassing information
Were Paul’s writings those from a person trying to “sell” his message to accumulate believers? If Paul had merely crafted such passages and created a fabrication, including information with which skeptics could manipulate would be highly irrational. Salespeople don’t sell the drawbacks of their products; they sell the benefits. Aside from offering no extrinsic benefits and even the risk of death, Christianity in its first few hundred years was already a hard sell.
Paul made it even harder by including the good, the bad, and the ugly experiences in his travels. He included his opposition to Jesus’ rock, Peter (Galatians 2:11-21), likely one of the “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5). He mentioned teachers who “have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (1 Timothy 6-8). He identified specific people who rejected Christianity whom he “handed over to Satan,” such as Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Timothy 19-20). He even stated that the teachings of the godless (Hymenaeus and Philetus) who departed from the truth “spread as gangrene,” (2 Timothy 2: 17-18). “They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected” (2 Timothy 3:8). Based on these and numerous related passages, it becomes clear that Paul did not set out to be politically correct. He stood steadfastly behind his beliefs, which were backed by the power of the Lord.
Given the evidence about and from Paul, the best explanation we can draw is that (1) Paul believed he witnessed the risen Jesus; (2) Paul acted on his beliefs through truthfulness, risks, and his passion for the Lord; (3) we should follow the example Paul set as believers in Jesus; and (4) Jesus is not merely a liar, a lunatic, or a legend. Jesus is Lord.
A few atheists have indicated to me that Paul never considered Jesus to be a “person.” Below I have added pasted portions of letters Paul and others wrote to refute such an assertion.
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” Philippians 2:5-8.
“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle—I am speaking the truth in Christ and not lying—a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” 1 Timothy 2:5-7.
“Who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.” Hebrews 5:7-9
“For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: ‘Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth’; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.” 1 Peter 2:21-24.
Guarducci, M. (1960). The Tomb of St. Peter. Accessed 8/22/18 at http://stpetersbasilica.info/Necropolis/MG/TheTombofStPeter-1.htm#authors
McDowell, S. (2016). Did James, the Brother of Jesus, Die as a Martyr? Accessed 8/22/18 at http://seanmcdowell.org/blog/did-james-the-brother-of-jesus-die-as-a-martyr