One has to wonder how it is that, after literally centuries of research, the field of ‘biblical studies’ (encompassing the Jewish scriptures as well as the New Testament) still presents an opaque mass of mutually contradictory conclusions—and, indeed, no universally held conclusions at all! Whenever a promising breakthrough appears—or merely threatens to appear—a chorus of denials predictably rises from the entrenched institutions among us (church, synagogue, and academy) to return to the status quo ante. The correct inference to be drawn is not that (1) people are stupid, (2) researchers are blind, or (3) information is hidden (though a little of all three is probably true), but that in the field of religious studies change is intolerable. Inertia is the order of the day. Indeed, one has to admit that the religions of both Judaism and Christianity have much to lose through change. Which is probably another way of saying that they have much to lose through truth.Even in the best of circumstances—that is, if we had many trustworthy and communicative eyewitnesses—to discover ‘what happened’ two thousand years ago in Palestine would be difficult. But the researcher into Christian origins also encounters stiff resistance to the free investigation of the past. Yes, we live in the Internet age of virtually unfettered communication, but it may surprise readers to learn that many seminal texts are still not available—though they have been known for decades! I personally have uploaded to this website the remarkable Acts of Mark—still untranslated though discovered at Mt. Athos in the 1960s. Why the obvious resistance to introducing such an important text into the discussion? Many other examples could be given.
So, one need not naively suppose that information as well as texts inimical to the tradition are somehow freely available. They are not—just as university teaching positions are currently not available to Jesus mythicists. It’s true that rabidly heretical texts are no longer burned. However, other, more subtle ways now exist to effectively make them disappear. Such texts are often squirreled away in ‘private’ collections, and also in ‘public’ collections accessible only via a single, all-powerful (and inveterately conservative) scholar. No Freedom of Information Act applies to such material. If an institution—be it the Vatican Library, or Notre Dame, or a private or public college—refuses to make a document available, that document can be hidden from sight virtually forever.In the past the situation was even worse. Documents were burned or perversely changed. It is now obvious that prelates once saw to it, as best they could, that the available data would support their version of history, and none other. Indeed, in the early Christian centuries they had a difficult time deciding what version of history they wanted, that is, which version would best serve their interests. Hence, the surviving records are untrustworthy, contradictory, and confused.
The researcher into Christian origins today must deal with a rich fund of false ancient witnesses. We have inherited texts that have survived a protracted effort (lasting many centuries) to destroy and alter evidence. And today we deal with (the continuing) powerful opposition against views that are not consistent with orthodoxy. These are all very substantial headwinds, and they largely explain why—in the words above—after literally centuries of research, the field of ‘biblical studies’ still presents an opaque mass of mutually contradictory conclusions.
There really is, however, no alternative to thinking, wondering, and asking questions… Man wants to understand. That is human nature. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how strong are the headwinds. Progress may be slow, but it is inevitable.
‘Paul’ must move to the second century CE
In my recent book NazarethGate (Chapter 14), I argue the thesis that a founding prophet lived in the early first century BCE, a prophet who was in fact at the origins of Christianity. Readers may be familiar with this general thesis from the writing of Alvar Ellegard (Jesus One Hundred Years Before Christ) and G.R.S. Mead. The prophet was very different from ‘Jesus of Nazareth’—whom I argue never existed.
To the foregoing redating of the founding prophet from the first century CE to the first century BCE, I believe we must also add a second critical redating: the removal of ‘Paul’ from the first century CE to the second century CE. Together with Robert M. Price, Hermann Detering, and a few others, I also believe that ‘Paul’ (at least, as we conceive him) never existed. These notions—the redating of ‘Jesus,’ the redating of ‘Paul,’ and the view that neither existed—are not new. They have all been around for about a century. But because of the entrenched scholarly and religious opposition noted above, they have never gained traction.
However, the situation now seems to be changing. The work of certain specialists within academe is proving what before was scrupulously shunned. We are reaching a tipping point—after which almost everything written before the turn of the millennium will be obsolete.
Inexorably, doubts regarding the authenticity of the Pauline epistles (and even regarding the existence of Paul) lead to a much-ignored and little known figure: Marcion of Sinope. According to the Church Fathers, this towering second-century “heretic” first collected Paul’s letters and first assembled a canon of works—the “New Testament.” Some scholars consider that Marcion (or his students) may not merely have “found” the Pauline epistles—they may have actually authored several of them. The Dutch scholar Van Manen thought that Marcion himself wrote the first draft of the Epistle to the Galatians. Robert Price agrees:
I take Marcion as the author, partly because of the striking comment of Tertullian (Against Marcion, 5:chp.3) that “Marcion, discovering the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians… labors very hard to destroy the character of these Gospels which are published as genuine and under the names of the apostles.” If we take “discover” in its strongest sense, the comment implies no one had seen the epistle before. Like Hilkiah, the priest who “discovered” Deuteronomy, or Joseph Smith, who “discovered” the Book of Mormon, Marcion actually wrote the Epistle to the Galatians.” [R. Price, The Pre-Nicene New Testament (2006), pp. 315–316]
A few researchers have wondered if the Marcionites were responsible for authoring all ten Pauline epistles that they “collected.” One stunning consequence of this view, of course, is chronological: “Paul” suddenly becomes a second century figure—the Pauline epistles no longer date to the 50s CE, but one century later! Textual (internal) considerations, in fact, lead to the same result. Price concludes: “Everything [about the Pauline epistles] points to later days—at least the close of the first or the beginning of the second century” (The Amazing Colossal Apostle, 2012, p. 36).
All in antiquity agree that Marcion lionized Paul. But so does the Christian Church… So where is the problem here? One would think that Marcion and the Church would be patting each other on the back instead of vilifying one another. The problem, however, is that Marcion and the Church had radically different ideas regarding what ‘Paul’ thought and wrote. Though both venerated him, the differences were fundamental: Who was the real Paul? What did he teach? Did the Apostle teach the approved doctrines of the Church or what some rich heretic (Marcion was allegedly a wealthy ship-owner) thought, namely, that there were multiple gods and that the god of the Jews was essentially a villain?
At issue was nothing less than the entire creation. The gnostic Marcion and his ascetic followers taught that materiality is a sad prison of the “light,” that the only escape is gnosis and renunciation. (Nota bene: this is very Buddhist.) They claimed that Jesus showed this ‘Way’ and that Paul taught it. The pragmatic Church Fathers quickly realized that this self-mortifying theology had absolutely no chance of success with the masses. The Church (as, before it, Judaism) resolved that the creation is good. Procreation is divinely-ordained. Life in both the fleshly and spiritual dimensions is cause for celebration. Great! We can enjoy ourselves. We can marry, have lots of children, get rich… (Cue James Brown.)
Marcion had nothing to do with the preceding. On the contrary—he taught that even married couples needed to live chastely. In fact, some signs of his ascetic/encratite view are found in the New Testament (in both the canonical gospels and in the Pauline epistles). This may not be entirely coincidental, for scholars are noting (not for the first time, incidentally) that both the Pauline epistles and the canonical gospels were historically birthed not in the first century CE but in the mid-second century—that is, precisely in the time of Marcion. No reference exists in the Church Fathers to either the epistles or gospels before c. 150 CE. That is a rather stunning fact. It contributes to the view that all datings of the New Testament texts to the first century CE are unsubstantiated. For hundreds of years, scholarship has simply assumed that the New Testament texts date to the first century—with no external evidence at all!
Indeed, it is now becoming clear that the “Little Apocalypse” in Mk 13 refers to the Bar Kokhba War, not to the First Jewish Revolt. The 4G also contain striking anachronisms that betray composition well into the second century—including the presence of Pharisees in the Galilee, synagogues there, and (per my work) the second century emergence of Nazareth. If Marcion was the author of the earliest Pauline epistles, the second century beginning of “Christianity” as we know it is virtually assured.
Some scholars (not all of them mythicists, by any means) think that Marcion may also have written the first gospel. I will have much more to say about this possibility in a separate series on this website. But the damage has already been done. It the Pauline epistles are second century, then surely so are the gospels—for the universal view (I know of no scholar who challenges it) is that the epistles preceded the canonical gospels. The consequences, then, of a later dating for the Pauline epistles are mind-boggling—the entire New Testament (with the possible exceptions of the Apocalypse of John [also see the comments below] and the Letter of James) had its genesis well into the second century CE!
A new chronology
It now appears that the genesis of Christianity was far more complex (and interesting!) than heretofore suspected. Several ‘stages’ are emerging (according to my schema):
(1) A founding gnostic prophet who lived early in the first century BCE.
(2) A successor (‘caliph’ per R. Price) who lived in the first century CE. He may be known variously under the names Simon Magus, James bar Cleophas, and James ‘the Just.’ This gnostic may have written some short segments of the Pauline epistles.
(3) The ‘gospel’ phase dating to mid-II CE, perhaps following the work of Marcion. Simultaneously is also the invention of Jesus ‘the Nazarene’ (Gospel of Mark), and soon thereafter ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John). This was also the time of the collection and expansion of epistles, now de-gnosticized (Catholicized) and credited to the recent Apostle to the Gentiles, ‘Paul.’
As we dig deeper into history, we encounter layers previously unsuspected, including the above. Others may await. For example, the role of Marcion—though now recognized as of the first importance (both to theology and to the Synoptic Problem)—is still vague. Did Marcion actually write the first gospel—as is sometimes provocatively claimed? Did he invent the fabulous story of Jesus the Nazarene? Or was there perhaps an ‘UrMark’ before him? Is there, in fact, any connection between the names Mark and Marcion (“little Mark”)?
We must all stay tuned, for coming soon are major changes in our understanding of early Christianity.—R.S.