The Case Against Paul of Tarsus—Pt. 1a [DRAFT]

By Hermann Detering †

With comments by Robert M. Price and René Salm
Retranslated from the German by René Salm

A Student’s Awakening

(1995:14–18; 2003:7–10)

For the longest time I had little interest in Paul. During my undergraduate student days he stood entirely in the shadow of that other man from Galilee. For me, as well as for classmates, our interest in Paul resembled one’s interest in the friend of a friend. We didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the man from Tarsus and were not sure how to deal with him, but as a matter of courtesy Paul could not simply be ignored.

As I struggled with the historical sources in graduate school, the iconic figure from Nazareth became increasingly unclear, even shadowy. I learned in seminars that very little of what has been transmitted about Jesus really reaches back to a person of history. The teachings and pronouncements of Jesus, as well as some of the narrative material, represent later church constructions.  The Gospels as a whole are not to be taken as reliable eyewitness accounts, but as affirmations of faith—as kerygma (Gk. “proclamation”). From a purely objective point of view, it occurred to me that one might even characterize such affirmations as pious fantasy.

I dared not voice such skepticism openly. That would serve no purpose. Privately, however, an interesting thing happened. As the spotlight on the great fiction at center stage dimmed, the backlights illumined, and my interest in Paul grew exponentially. Instead of being mesmerized by Jesus of Nazareth, I began to focus on the complex stage apparatus that rendered the entire show possible. And so, as the God-man from Nazareth shrank more and more to the status of puppet, the later “church constructions” emerged as the real show—the only show actually worth attention.

That the historicity of Jesus was quite beyond empirical verification was an emotional shock to many students—and a bridge too far for some. To me, however, this basic revelation was only mildly disconcerting, perhaps because my personal relationship with the “Lord Jesus” has always been characterized by friendly reservation and a healthy dose of north German coolness. On the other hand, the cerebral impact on me was decisive. Our professors brought forward one argument after another—arguments why certain teachings and stories of Jesus simply could not be authentic. They demonstrated that later Church tradition had so obliterated the historical contours of the man from Nazareth that he was all but unknowable. They also pointed out that such a realization has enormous implications for Christians today. After all, what seem on the surface to be authentic acts and pronouncements of Jesus in fact derive not from Jesus at all but from the pens of later Church Fathers.

I could deal with the resulting dissonance between history and faith by supposing—as I did at first—that personal faith is quite independent of what took place (or did not take place) 2000 years ago in Palestine. At the university, however, I learned that faith possesses an emphatically historical dimension. In the case of Christianity, faith and history are not separate but bound up in the most intimate way. For example, the so-called second article of the Apostles’ Creed recites not only faith but also history (or, rather, facts posited by the Church as history): “I believe in Jesus Christ… born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried…”

And yet, those very particulars of history were assailed by my professors and shown to be the work of the Church—work that is subject to later historiographical research. A faith that is based on particular historical findings, which from one day to the next can be depicted in an entirely different way by historians, struck me as a highly questionable affair. I still wanted a faith that was more fundamental than history, one that somehow contained the deep certainty of existential truth.

The Church has itself placed history at the core of the faith. There is the problem. For one thing, the nature of faith is irreparably cheapened when degraded into defending the likelihood of mere historical data. Secondly, the Church’s rigid adherence by fiat to particular historical facts, to so-called facts of salvation, has struck me not only as suspicious but also as intellectual sleight-of-hand—akin to the movements of the magician who knows more than the audience, and who uses that knowledge to deceive. Finally, since my student ‘awakening’ I considered that such privy knowledge betrays a certain impudence, recognizing (as did the Church long ago) that no one is or will ever be in a situation to totally investigate the historical truth-content of its claimed ‘facts.’

The portrait of Jesus taught by my professors was thus in fundamental tension with the Church’s claims. The loss of historical certainty with regard to Jesus of Nazareth had at least one positive result—I was no longer hypnotized by Christianity’s central figure.  I discovered a new freedom, the freedom to focus on the beginnings of the Christian religion—whatever they were. This freedom led me away from Jesus—and to Paul.

I naively assumed that Paul, at least, stood in the full light of history. As mentioned above, my hope was that he would illumine the Nazarene, a now thoroughly enigmatic figure who was the creation of dubious faith and dubious history in equal parts.

It did not take me long to confirm an astonishing conclusion, one already familiar to generations of scholars: though Paul was supposedly a contemporary of the historical Jesus, he wrote virtually nothing about the Nazarene. Paul’s letters contain almost no references to a Jesus of history! This formidable and striking fact is perhaps best brought home by Günther Bornkamm in his well-known book on Paul:

[Paul’s] letters do confront us very sharply with this astonishing shift… Nowhere does he speak of the rabbi from Nazareth, the prophet and miracle-worker who ate with tax collectors and sinners, or of his Sermon on the Mount, his parables of the kingdom of God, and his encounters with Pharisees and scribes. His letters do not even mention the Lord’s Prayer. When he quotes the Lord’s words (1 Cor. 7:10 f.; 9:14; 11:23; 1 Thess. 4:15), they are taken from very diverse areas and are not really representative.
               —G. Bornkamm, Paul. [New York: Harper & Row, 1971:110.]

In fact, the little Paul teaches us about Jesus is curiously nebulous and vague: Jesus is “born of a woman, born under the law”; he is of Abraham’s seed; a descendent of David; he belongs to the people of Israel, suffers, dies on the cross, is buried, and resurrects. 

The Pauline epistles present a yawning gap between the birth and the death of Jesus. The Nazarene’s life is of little account. Paul makes no mention of even the most important people and places in the canonical gospels (e.g., John the Baptizer, Joseph, Galilee, Gethsemane, Golgotha). At least the Apostles’ Creed mentions Mary and Pontius Pilate! Paul knows only the leaders of the earliest Christian community—Cephas (or Peter), James, and John (Gal 1:19; 2:9, 12; 1 Cor 15:17).

If we were dependent on Paul alone for our knowledge of the Savior of the World, we would know little more than that there was a man named Jesus, he died, and—according to the belief of the writer of these letters—he rose from the dead. We would not even know when or where Jesus lived!

How is it possible that Paul betrays no interest at all in the earthly past of the single figure who stood at the center of his faith?

Also strange is that, immediately after receiving the revelation calling him to be an apostle, Paul goes into “Arabia” for three years (Gal 1:17 f ). After experiencing a decisive break in his life through a life-changing revelation, one would expect Paul to manifest some curiosity regarding the life of him who had so forcefully appeared to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3 f ). One would also expect Paul to have lost no time in visiting the Jerusalem community and making contact with the Church’s leaders.

Christian theologians have confronted this problem in various ways. Some argue that Paul was exclusively interested in the exalted Christ. Others suggest (more radically) that Paul employed Jesus only as a pattern for his own theological conceptions. Given the immense historical dimension at issue, however, such arguments were for me altogether too abstract, even if they were rationally illuminating. Such arguments would not suffice if Paul were a man of flesh and blood, a man whose conduct must be humanly and psychologically congruent. In short, I could find no convincing explanation for the tenacious ignorance with which Paul deals with the Jesus of history.

Most scholars have ignored these important considerations, or have offered trite explanations, eager to return without further ado to the day’s agenda. After my student years, however, I refused such facile paths and went down a little-traveled road, a road that begins with a revolutionary question: Could it be that the Paul of Galatians was not a flesh-and-blood human being?

Thus, my interest was primarily directed towards the puzzling inconsistencies of Paul’s biography, rather than towards the Apostle’s theology—which seemed cloudy and inconsistent. Only later did I realize that a direct connection exists between the biographical and the theological inconsistencies, and that the theology of the writer of the epistles is much easier to understand if the historical problems associated with the person of Paul are first resolved.

Though the most important questions guiding my scholarly life were already well formed when I was still a student, my conclusions and way of thinking were thoroughly uncongenial to the ‘tradition.’ My historical curiosity in these matters was itself viewed in some circles as mildly criminal.

Not only was I a misfit in my chosen profession, but I also could offer no explanations.