Some mythicists claim that Christianity began as an astrotheological religion. According to this theory, the first Christians worshipped Jesus in a way similar to the Egyptians and other ancient cultures who worshipped the sun and stars, knowing full well that he was never a man. Later, they placed him in time, interacting with historical figures, to boost the credibility of their movement and to set themselves apart from competing pagan religions.
To support this claim, some mythicists point to the apostle Paul, who they say knew nothing of a historical Jesus.
Skeptical New Testament scholar Robert Price argues that Paul’s epistles, written before the canonical Gospels, provide no evidence of a historical Jesus. Others claim this supposed lack of evidence has to be “explained away” by Christian apologists. Former Anglican priest turned mythicist, Tom Harpur, writes:
What is absolutely striking about [the writings of Paul] is their virtual silence on the whole subject of a historical Jesus of Nazareth. There is no question that this is the datum that ultimately stares down the proponents of historicity. (Pagan Christ, pp. 166-67)
Paul’s letters are the earliest surviving Christian documents. 1 Thessalonians (the earliest letter we have from him) was written around A.D. 49, about twenty years after the death of Jesus. His authorship of the major epistles is not disputed by the majority of reputable scholars.
Contrary to Harpur’s assertion that proponents of historicity have very little evidence to base their claims on, Paul references the same main points about the life of Jesus that the Gospels and the writings of the early Church Fathers do: He was born of a woman, was crucified, and rose from the dead. Though Paul was not an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, he does describe meeting with the apostles Peter and James:
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas (Peter) and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother (Gal. 1:18-19).
We can reasonably assert that Paul’s knowledge of the life, ministry, and death of Jesus was given to him by two important eyewitnesses. Certainly, if the Jesus of the early Christians was a solar deity and they were aware of this, then Paul should have been as well. Instead we find him writing about Jesus as if he had indeed existed as a human.
In Galatians 4:4, Paul writes, “But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law…” This passage indicates that Paul clearly understood Jesus to be a real man born of a Jewish woman. His intention was to stress the fact that Jesus shared in our human condition, and the reference to “the law” links him to Judaism. This alone is sufficient to establish the historicity of Christ, but the evidence doesn’t stop there.
Paul tells us that Christ was brought before Pontius Pilate (1 Tim. 6:13). If Pilate was also a mythological character, it is surprising that he is mentioned by non-Christian writers like Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus. Of course, no one believes he was a mythological character. This mention places Jesus in a historical context.
Paul also makes reference to the Crucifixion throughout his epistles, and in 1 Corinthians he writes, “None of the rulers of this age understood [the wisdom of God]; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (2:8). This is a reference to the Jewish and Roman authorities who collaborated to execute Jesus.
Furthermore, Paul tells us that Jesus was indeed resurrected from the dead (Rom 1:4, 6:5, Phil 3:10, 1 Thess. 4:14-16). Some mythicists will respond by pointing to other supposed dying-and-rising pagan gods. They claim that Jesus, like these other gods, never existed in the material realm, and so a death and resurrection story is not evidence of historicity. But the consensus of recent scholars in this area argues against the categorization (see Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection: Dying and Rising Gods in the Ancient Near East). The reason for this is that the other gods almost never return in a permanent sense, and rarely as the same deity. Jesus does both, and in a real historical context according to Paul.
It’s true that Paul does not give us many specific details about the life of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean he was unaware of them, or that he thought Jesus was some kind of space ghost. His letters were written to specific churches as praise for right conduct and adherence to sound doctrine, or as correction to those who had strayed from the Faith. Since he was writing to people who were already Christian, he probably assumed they were aware of the details about Jesus and so he saw no reason to elaborate.
This is also the case with modern Church documents. For example, when the pope writes an encyclical to the Church, it’s not likely he would feel the need to explain the life of Jesus in every detail to an audience already familiar with the story. He may reference specific details to make a point (as Paul did), but encyclicals are not going to contain a complete retelling of the Gospel narrative. And it would be absurd to expect them to.
Paul does refer to enough details that we can say with certainty that he believed Jesus was a real man, born of a virgin, and crucified under Pontius Pilate.
If this topic interests you, check out Trent Horn’s latest DVD, Why Believe in Jesus?, available now from Catholic Answers Press.