Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 12

A genuine Houston-we-have-a-problem moment

Christopher Hitchens read a verse from Paul’s letter to the Philippians at his father’s funeral:


“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)


This prominent atheist explained why he quoted from the Bible:


“I chose this because of its haunting and elusive character, which will be with me at the last hour, and for its essentially secular injunction, and because it shown out from the wasteland of rant and complaint and nonsense and bullying which surrounds it.”  (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, p. 12)


That word, bullying, comes up again in classical scholar Michael Grant’s assessment of the famous apostle:


“Paul’s Letters display a startling mixture of conciliatory friendliness and harsh, bitter, inexorable bullying…Always pursuing, always pursued, he is the victim of violent, manic-depressive alternations of moods.” (Michael Grant, Saint Paul, pp. 22-23)


Paul’s letters are not the easiest reading, hence it’s likely that most of the folks in the pews have a positive view of Paul, based on a few of his most famous verses, heard from the pulpit, e.g.,


“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:4-7)


If only Paul had taken his own advice. In the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans—supposedly the first towering statement of Christian theology—we find a shocking display of mean-spirited vindictiveness. We could argue that it was a major blunder for this guy to be writing what turned out to be scripture. But Paul’s capacity for nastiness—his certainty that God’s default emotion is wrath—is a minor problem, compared to a much bigger issue.


The devout folks who do manage to read Paul’s letters are usually familiar with the gospels—having read them much earlier in life. Hence they know the Jesus story pretty well, as it is presented in the gospels. Thus it’s hard to grasp that Paul didn’t know these stories. The gospels were written well after his time. Paul had a lot to say about Jesus Christ, about Jesus as Lord, but Jesus of Nazareth is missing from his extensive writings. The Galilean preacher—master of parables, miracle worker, exorcist—never makes an appearance in Paul’s letters. The details from the gospels just aren’t there.  


In fact, this is a major problem for New Testament scholars—well, actually for Christianity itself. In my article, Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, 4, I discussed the big mistake of publishing the four gospels together. This makes it so much easier to spot the flaws and contradictions—and we can see how they share superstitions and magical thinking. But it turns out that publishing the gospels along with the letters of Paul—with his conspicuous omission of Jesus of Nazareth—is also a blunder. The theologians, who, so long ago and far away, assembled the New Testament, hadn’t yet perfected the art of fact checking. Nor were due diligence and critical thinking in their toolboxes. 


Who was Paul, after all? He and Jesus had never crossed paths, and he persecuted the early Jesus sect. But then he snapped—somehow, for reasons unknown. His dramatic Damascus Road Conversion is related three times in the Book of Acts, an event that he himself does not mention in his letters. But what he does say has alarming implications for Christian theology. 


These verses, for example, Galatians 1:11-12, are devastating for “Christian truth”: 

“For I want you to know, brothers that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

This text should set off alarms. It’s a genuine Houston-we-have-a-problem moment, for those who assume that their beliefs about Jesus are anchored to what happened in history. It would seem that Paul couldn’t have cared less. He brags here in Galatians that he didn’t rely—at all—on what he might have learned from people who had known Jesus: his own hotline to God was far better than that: “…I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

The devout folks who have been taught since they were toddlers that Jesus rose from the dead have no trouble believing that Paul had visions of the resurrected Jesus. In fact, what a wonderful thing, right? But those of us outside this faith tradition can suspect otherwise, based, first of all, on the overwhelming improbability that resurrection is a thing—especially since other ancient cults were based on resurrected gods. But secondly, how can we possibly tell whose visions are authentic? Protestants deny that the many Catholic visions of Mary are the real thing, and most Christians laugh off the visions claimed by Mormons. Across the world, religious leaders who follow a wide variety of gods know their sacred truths through visions. We suspect that there’s a high quotient of delusional thinking. Anyone—even quite sincerely—can claim to have visions.

Of course we can grant that Paul had hallucinations of a dead Jesus speaking to him, and researchers have explored what might have been going on inside Paul’s head. Dr. David E. Comings (MD), in his book, Did Man Create God? Is Your Spiritual Brain at Peace with Your Thinking Brain?, discusses the role of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy [TLE] in religious experience, pp. 355-366. He notes Paul’s intensity, his fanatical labor for Jesus Christ: 

“If it was not for these efforts and for the prolific writings of Paul, it is likely that Christianity would never have progressed beyond a tiny Roman religious sect. If the role of TLE in Paul’s conversion is correct, it could be argued that without TLE Christianity would never have become the dominant religion of the Western world.” (p. 364)

But even without this diagnosis—which itself is guesswork since the “patient” can’t be examined—Christians should see that Galatians 1:11-12 is an incriminating admission. It puts so much of their theology in jeopardy: a man who shunned information about Jesus of Nazareth ended up writing a big chunk of the New Testament. Without resorting to the TLE diagnosis—and if it will make Christians feel any better, we can drop the word hallucination—we could just admit that Paul got carried away by his overactive imagination. He had great talent was for theological fantasy. 

However, since Paul was the first author to write extensively about Jesus Christ, what does Paul’s ignorance of Jesus of Nazareth suggest about Christian origins? What does it suggest, moreover, about gospel origins? Devout scholars have argued that the Jesus scripts and stories that ended up in the gospels were based on oral traditions, i.e., accurately remembered accounts that were handed down by word-of-mouth for decades. Likewise many scholars are confident that the hypothetical Q document of Jesus sayings was used by Matthew and Luke. In other words, they have speculated a lot to boost confidence that the gospels preserve memories of Jesus. 

But Paul undermines this speculation. He was so well travelled in the network of early Christian communities, yet none of this supposed Jesus lore is reflected in his letters. Did it really exist, after all? And if robust oral tradition about Jesus of Nazareth was real, did Paul just ignore it—bored with it? or just uninterested?—because his personal visions of the resurrected Jesus were all he needed? 

It might be argued that Paul’s description of the Eucharist in I Corinthians 11 is evidence that he was familiar with at least some oral tradition, in this case, the words Jesus said at the Last Supper:

“…the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” 


But no, Paul introduces this “quote” with this assurance, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…” That is, he heard these words in a vision. And we’re so used to associating this script with the gospel scenes of the Last Supper that it’s easy to overlook that Paul doesn’t mention this setting at all: there is no mention of twelve disciples sitting around a table in an upper room. So again, crucial details about an event in the life of Jesus are missing. 


There is an especially stunning example, moreover, of Paul being out of the loop—with his certainty that all he needed to know came from his visions of Jesus. Apparently he didn’t know that Jesus had been crucified by Roman authorities—as the gospels report. In his Letter to the Romans, chapter 13, he cautioned his readers to be super respectful of their rulers:


“…rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:3-4)


So the Roman ruler who signed off on the killing of Jesus was a “servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer”?    


Christian apologists have scrambled to find evidence in Paul’s letters that he indeed knew details about Jesus of Nazareth. This has become especially urgent since the scholars who argue that Jesus was, in fact, a mythical character find evidence for Jesus’ absence from history in Paul failure to mention a real Jesus—the preacher from Nazareth. What does it tell us, that the first person to write so extensively about the hero of his visions—a celestial deity—was seemingly unaware of the figure conjured decades later by the gospel writers? 


For those who want to explore this issue at greater depth, a good place to start is David Fitzgerald’s 40-page chapter, “Paul’s Jesus,” in Jesus: Mything in Action, Volume II, pp. 133-172. Christian apologists have tried oh so hard to find traces of Jesus of Nazareth in the Pauline epistles. Pay special attention to the resources and footnotes that Fitzgerald cites at the end of the chapter. 

It would have been cool—for anchoring the credibility of Christian theology—if, instead of letters written by the rogue apostle Paul, there had been gigantic letters in the New Testament written by the disciple Peter, who supposedly knew Jesus well. Indeed, Jesus had designated Peter as the rock upon whom his church would be built—so the story goes. Who better to have passed on to us—in his own voice—so many of the gospel episodes? But that’s not what we have, even in the two small epistles called 1st and 2nd Peter, which are widely considered forgeries.

Paul boasted about his visions, which no doubt played a major role in securing his place in the canon. But his full embrace of magical thinking had wide appeal as well, e.g., the magic spell that he recommended in Romans 10:9: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” 


But for folks who are looking to relate religion—at least to some degree—to a rational view of the world, Galatians 1:11-12, an example of theological fantasy, and Romans 10:9, an example of bad theology, are grievous blunders. 



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


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