My Responses to a Christian Scholar

Someone emailed me what an unnamed Christian scholar had written him so I responded as follows. I'll blockquote his comments:
I am giving you evidence that counts for me. I doubt that you will consider it extraordinary, or that it will persuade you very far. I am not giving you evidence to change your mind. I am giving you four pieces of evidence that encourage my mind.
He has more to say than this but notice his admission. He's arguing from a position rather than to a position. Faith based reasoning is like this. It’s a belief in search of data.
ONE, In Acts 18:2, Luke records that a Jewish couple named Aquilla and Pricilla had recently come from Italy to Corinth (where Paul was) because Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome. The Roman historian Suetonius records this in his Life of Claudius 25:4, and adds that this order from Claudius came because of a commotion caused by a certain "Chrestus." This edict of Claudius is universally dated to 49 CE, plus or minus one year. Most NT historians consider it probable that "Chrestus" is "Christ," and that Suetonius who writes some time later (i.e. 112 C.E.) is slightly misinformed about the exact name.
It was a common name meaning “good.”
It would certainly fit with what we know, that Jews who thought Jesus was Christ and those who thought otherwise would be at each other throats. Even Haenchen, who for other reasons thinks Luke made this story up, and thinks Luke made up most of Acts, assumes that the preaching of Jesus in Rome is what got Jews expelled from Rome in 49.
Why did the preaching of Christ in Rome cause just the Jews to be expelled? If we take Acts seriously then the preaching of Christ in Ephesus and Athens caused quite a commotion among pagans too. And so it strikes me as really odd that just the Jews were expelled from the huge city of Rome because of the commotion over Christ. All of them? This assumes a large number of Christians in Rome at the time before Paul ever got there. Who were these Christians? And who founded the Roman church? Conservatives D.A. Carson, Douglas Moo and Leon Morris in their Introduction to the NT claim it wasn’t Peter nor any other apostle. They “speculate” (their word) that it was a Jewish Christianity coming from the people who were in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. What did they believe? And if they were all expelled from Rome who was Paul writing to in his Roman epistle in the “early-mid 50s” (a point I’ll make later)?
I get two things from this. One is that Jesus of Nazareth was probably being preached in Rome in 49, less than 20 years after being crucified in Jerusalem.
We cannot assume what exactly was being preached in Rome if correct, and that’s an important point. Paul had to correct the Corinthian church even after preaching there, so what gives us any assurance that the followers of Chrestus were preaching anything like what Paul was doing before he visited? And since Suetonius never mentioned Jesus of Nazareth why must we assume that Chrestus was Christ and that Christ was Jesus? The Roman world was a huge one. Even Paul tells us there were many people preaching different savior messiah type Christs. Since his letter to the Romans contains the gospel message of Paul in its most detailed form, he was obviously teaching them true Christian doctrine. It was his systematic theology so to speak, and the reason he felt the need to write it was most probably because he wanted to make sure the Roman church was in line with what he preached.
That in itself would witness to the remarkable courage and conviction of the first generation of believers. Where did they get the courage and conviction to preach so aggressively?
Not so at all. Many people have been willing to die for a delusion.
This is about those who would have seen and known Jesus himself.
What? How does he know this? If anything the people causing a stir had not seen Jesus at all. This is a huge unreasonable leap of faith. There are simply too many unevidenced assumptions here. This is not what history can show us. It’s belief in search of data.
The other thing is that Luke seems in touch with the history of the time of Paul. TWO, in Acts 18:12 Luke reports that while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia (capital city: Corinth), the Jews of Corinth took Paul before Gallio on some charge. At one time Gallio in Corinth at all was considered nonesense, but an inscription found in Delphi indicates that Claudius made Gallio proconsul of Achaia in 50-51 CE. ONE and TWO are almost the only places where events in Acts touch things in the outside world that can be confirmed by other sources. These two match up nicely with date and place, and these are used universally (by conservatives and flaming liberals alike) to date the life of Paul. It takes a certain kind of faith to assume that Luke was careful in these matters where we can check on him, and fraudulent everywhere else.
Wait just a minute. One cannot conclude that if Luke is right in these things he must be right in all other things. Again, this is not what historians do. This is what believers do. Historians must check out the other claims being made in an ancient document even if a few of them turn out to be correct. In fact, historians actually reverse this whole process. To the degree an author gets his facts wrong is to the same degree they question what he says when they can’t examine his claims.
THREE, the letter of Romans. In our Bibles 13 letters are attributed to Paul….four letters are held to be the essential Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians. I have never heard of any NT scholar, no matter how negative and sceptical, who put any shadow on these at all.

Romans was written in the early-mid 50s. All these people agree with that. Paul has never been to Rome, and says so clearly in that letter, but we also realize by the end of the letter that there is large and well established church in Rome, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. (Claudius' edict was relaxed after a couple years, and Jews came back.)
I would like to know how he knows the edict was “relaxed.” I would think that if there is evidence for his assertion he would have given it. Maybe there is. If so, I want to see it. My guess is that he is special pleading. He takes it as a given the Jews were expelled from Rome in 49 C.E. and then he takes it as a given that if Paul wrote a letter to the Christian church in Rome in the early 50s that's all the evidence he needs to believe the edict was relaxed after just a couple of years. Again, belief in search of data I presume (until shown otherwise). Special pleading takes place when in order to establish the historicity of a claim made in the Bible a person makes reference to the Bible in order to do so.
By the mid 50s a large church exists in Rome.
A large church? What is that? We have mega churches in today’s world but back then? Hardly. All we have is Paul’s letter. As I skim read it just now it’s really hard to determine how large that church was. In chapter 16 Paul writes directly to different people and their households in the Roman church. But how could he know them if he had not yet visited there (1:10, 13; 15:22)? The doxology (16:25-26) is omitted in some manuscripts and appears in different places in others, particularly after chapter 14 or after chapter 15. Some manuscripts omit chapters 15 and 16 entirely. Some scholars conclude this was added later by someone else.
This makes clear what I suggested in ONE, that the first 20 years of Christian preachers were remarkably confident and agressive. Travelling and preaching in those days was not an easy life. What moved them? Why do they risk all to speak everywhere about Jesus of Nazareth, the hope of the whole world?
Many believers have been aggressive, remarkably confident and willing to sacrifice a huge amount for spreading a delusion. And again, we cannot say exactly what they preached about Chrestus.
FOUR, 1 Corinthians. In 1 Cor 15:1-3 Paul recites a few lines about Jesus' resurrection. He makes clear that he was taught this, he received it as important teaching from someone else.
Funny thing is that Paul emphatically denies having learned his gospel from anyone else in Galatians 1:11-12. He uses the exact same Greek words too (“having received”). So on the one hand he says he “received” what he preached from the apostles and on the other hand he claims not to have “received” his gospel from them but through a revelation instead. In fact after recounting Paul’s conversion story three times in Acts Paul tells King Agrippa what he saw was a “vision.” Yep, just see Acts 26:9: “So then, King Agrippa, I (Paul) was not disobedient to the vision (i.e. ὀπτασίᾳ) from heaven.” And then in I Corinthians 15 Paul equates his vision with what the other apostles experienced saying Jesus appeared to them as he did to him. The word “vision” plays prominently in Luke-Acts. Paul was led by them. Peter and Cornelius had one, as did Joseph, Mary and Zechariah (the Baptist’s father). The Apostle Peter’s vision took place while he was in a trance in Acts 10:10 and 11:15. Likewise Paul was in a trance when he had one in Acts 22:17!
1 Corinthians is written in the early 50s. He was in Corinth in 50. When he was in Corinth, he says in his later letter, he gave them these few important lines about Jesus' resurrection and witnesses who saw him alive after his crucifixion.
Paul says there were 500 eyewitnesses. Why is it the gospels failed to mention this tidbit of information? And who among the believers in Corinth could travel to Jerusalem and interview them? Paul fails to say that some of these so-called eyewitnesses doubted (Matthew 28:17). How is that possible? And we know that the overwhelming numbers of Jews who were there did not believe who also believed in Yahweh and that he does miracles. If it didn't convince them why should it convince us?
So Paul preached it in 50, and got it at some time before that. We don't know how long before that. According to Acts it could have been 10 years earlier, but let's just say 5 years earlier. The resurrection of Jesus is central teaching, the core of the gospel according to 1 Cor 15, by 15 years after Christ.
In I Corinthians 15 Paul equates his vision with what the other apostles experienced saying Jesus “appeared” (same word) to them just as he did to him.
This does not prove that what Paul was taught was correct; of course not.
There is a lot of doubt about this, yes.
But we ARE finding out what moved those early missionaries, why they were so confident and aggressive, why they risked their lives.
Again, this shows nothing.
They thought Jesus had risen from the dead.
Again without special pleading we don’t know from Suetonius what they believed. And we have really good reasons to think they did not agree with Paul who continually had to write letters telling other church groups what they should believe.
Of course this does not prove that Jesus rose.
As I have stated before, in my world miracles do not happen. What world is he living in? If they do not happen in today’s world then they did not happen in first-century Palestine. That’s a historian’s perspective. Historians must re-examine the claims made in history from their present perspective. They cannot do otherwise.
There are two other options at hand: one is that there was some great fraud in which a few liars at the very beginning fooled everyone else, and the other is that the first followers were fooled in some way, into thinking Jesus had risen when he had not.
The third option is that religions evolve. They have always evolved as they come into contact with other cultures. The apocalyptic Jesus cult in first century Palestine had to come to grips with this failed prophecy of the coming of the “Son of Man,” while interacting with and trying to convert the Greco-Roman world.
I'm not going to deal with either of those here. Something happened early on, something huge in the minds of those around it.
This conclusion rings hollow. Failed apocalyptic doomsday cults who subsequently reinterpret their failed prophecies are a dime a dozen.
My point in all this is that there is good evidence that Christianity spread rapidly in the first 20-25 years, an early enough time that the memory of Jesus himself is a key factor.
Again, we have no idea what spread rapidly. Christianity was evolving. There is substantial evidence in the NT itself that there were alternative Christianities and Christs. They just blended in time.
SOMETHING remarkable happened at the start, there in Jerusalem. I don't see how that can be avoided. People do avoid it, but no one in scholarly circles. There are many NT scholars out there more or less in Bultmann's camp. He believed that Jesus was born, and that he died, and Bultmann did not think we had any more solid information than that. Lot's still like that.
This is one historical conclusion when looking at the evidence as a historian must do. The alternative he proposes is special pleading from a faith based reasoning.
But none of them doubt that the first 20 years of believers preached fearlessly and relentlessly that Jesus was the hope of the world, and that there was an established church in Rome and many other Mediterranean cities by 25 years after Christ.
Perhaps so, but we're interested in knowing what they preached and if they had reasons to believe.
If it was not the remarkable person of Jesus of Nazareth himself, culminating in his death and resurrection, what was it? They shrug and say they don't know. Something happened.
This is a gross mischaracterization. Plenty of views have been suggested, as I do. The visionary basis for the view Jesus arose from the dead beginning with either Peter or Mary Magdalene works just fine. But non-believers emphatically do not have to propose an alternative scenario at all. A historian can look at an argument purporting to show what happened at Custer’s Last Stand and say that scenario is improbable without having to suggest a better one. It could well be that there isn’t enough evidence to say one way or another after showing one such scenario is improbable.