Did the Apostle Paul invent Christianity? No. A Refutation of Dr. Skrbina's Argument
by Scott Cherry—
Part 1: Introducing Prof. David Skrbina, his Argument, and the Counter-arguments.
Summary: This article intends to refute Prof. Skrbina's claim that the four gospels of the Bible are fictionalized accounts of Jesus perpetrated by the Apostle Paul, based on the apparent sparsity of extra-biblical references to Jesus and other claims that paint Paul as the 'mastermind' of what Skrbina calls the "Jesus Hoax". You may wish to view this video first: Jesus Myth, Self-Refuted.
How did Christianity emerge? Many believe it is owing to the information in the four gospels in the Bible’s New Testament, that there could be no Christianity without them. But how did we get them? This has been an ongoing question over the past two millennia, especially in the last 200 years with the rise of skepticism and the literary science of textual criticism. The Christian answer to this question is the claim offered by the New Testament writers themselves—that the four gospels are the true accounts of a most extraordinary man named Jesus who actually said and did the things that are reported of him by their writers. The result was the birth of the ancient Christian community fueled by Jesus Christ himself with the well-known teachings and miracles that the gospel writers attributed to him. But there are other theories that challenge this traditional Christian narrative. These theories question the credibility of the four gospels and their writers based on various literary and historical criteria. Add to these the similar-if-not-identical Muslim view that the ‘gospel’ (Injeel) was originally true but became corrupted over time. But this conviction is based more on the fact that, on some very significant points, the gospels’ portrait of Jesus is contrary to the Qur’an’s, so the Muslim person is rather ‘locked in' to this belief.1 The two groups reject the gospels for different if overlapping reasons.
One of these theories is being promulgated in some of his classes by David Skrbina, a philosophy professor at UM Dearborn. Why he feels that a required philosophy course is a fitting venue to expound his one-sided beliefs on this literary-historical matter to what can be considered a captive audience is of much curiosity. In short, his theory is that Christianity was invented by one of the prominent Christian Apostles to whom much of the New Testament is attributed. Again, Prof. Skrbina calls his argument the “Jesus Hoax”. The goal of this initial post is to begin to examine and refute this argument.
Enter the Apostle Paul. One of the aforementioned anti-Christian theories is that Paul’s role in the formation of early Christianity was both monumental and insidious. His ‘genius’ and influence were strong enough to have engineered and fomented the false Christian belief system based on a largely mythical Jesus. The Jesus-figure portrayed in the four gospels is mere fiction, or myth. This is the belief of Prof. Skrbina, a view that he presented in a debate in early 2014 at UM Dearborn. It is not a new view but it is a formidable one which Christians must redress (over and again).
The week before last I was approached by a fellow student in the University Center building of UM Dearborn. We’ll call him Sam. I had only talked to this student once before, so it was kind of unusual. Actually, I didn’t even recognize him this time. After he reminded me of how we first met, he immediately began to relay the discussion in the philosophy class he had just come from with Prof. David Skrbina. (I myself have never had a course with Prof. Skrbina but I was already acquainted with him for various other reasons.) With mild bewilderment Sam said, “You won’t believe what our philosophy professor was just telling us in class.” From that one previous discussion I’d had with Sam I knew that he'd had a religious upbringing and that he had a mostly traditional understanding of Christianity based on the writings of the New Testament.
Already I had heard enough to know the rest and replied, “Let me guess, you have Prof. Skrbina for this class, don’t you?” He looked at me with wide eyes and replied, “How did you know?” I said, “Well, it happens that I've been exchanging emails with him about a debate that he’s planning with a professor from a nearby Catholic seminary on this very subject. Plus I’ve had a short volley of emails with Prof. Skrbina in which he reminded me of the main propositions of his argument. Do you have time to sit with me while I eat lunch?” He did. As our conversation progressed he told me more about what he had just heard in class, which was entirely consistent with what I had learned from Prof. Skrbina directly. He and I had exchanged about a half-dozen emails in which he cordially defined for me the nature of his argument. “Sam”, I said, “Based on our emails, Skrbina believes that the Apostle Paul ‘invented’ Christianity as a grand scheme to overthrow Roman control of Israel in the first century. Is that the gist of what he was teaching?” “Yes, exactly”, Sam confirmed with a troubled expression. What do you think?
I then began to explain for Sam my contentions with Prof. Skrbina’s argument, as I will also lay out below. As I said, it is not new or unique to Prof. Skrbina; it is previously attributable to the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (and as far back as to a Jeremy Bentham in the 1820s) whom Sam said was the main subject of his subsequent class lecture the following week. The works in which Nietzsche pontificates on this subject include Daybreak (sec. 68+), The AntiChrist (sec. 42+), and Will to Power, (sec. 178+) if not others. Here are several quotes from Nietzsche revealing his disdain for the Apostle Paul:
"The Bible...tells the story of one of the most ambitious and obtrusive of souls, of a head as superstitious as it was crafty, the story of the apostle Paul--who knows this, except a few scholars? Without this strange story, however, without the confusions and storms of such a head, such a soul, there would be no Christianity... who alone succeeded in creating a holy god together with the idea of sin as a transgression against this holiness. Paul became the fanatical defender of this god and his law and guardian of his honor. ...This is the first Christian, the inventor of Christianity."
Daybreak, s.68. Taken from http://www.theperspectivesofnietzschze.com/nietzsche/nchrist.html
“In Paul was embodied the opposite type to that of [Christ]: the genius in hatred, in the vision of hatred, in the inexorable logic of hatred. … The life, the example, the doctrine, the death… — nothing remained once this hate-inspired counterfeiter realized what alone he could use. Not the reality, not the historical truth! And once more the priestly instinct of the Jew committed the same great crime against history — he invented his own history of earliest Christianity.”
*More extensive commentary from Dalton on Nietzsche can be found in the endnotes.2
In this article we will consider the argument on Skrbina’s terms as though it were his own. I confess that I have not read his book on this subject yet, but I believe I understand his argument reasonably well based on the 2014 debate in which he publicly ‘unveiled’ it and our aforementioned email volley of mid-September. If I am right, the argument can be basically outlined as follows.
1. According to the four gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), there was a first-century Jewish teacher named Jesus who, because of his exemplary life, claims to divinity and public miracles, became very prominent in the last three years of his life. He was ultimately executed and claimed by the gospels to have physically risen from the dead, and later ascended into heaven. His surviving apostles became the first leaders of the Christian movement and its primary evangelists, including the original 11 plus Paul and his cohorts.
2. The four gospels, the letters of Paul, and other New Testament writings are the primary and only 1st-century sources for the above Christian portrait of Jesus.
3. In particular, if the gospel of accounts of Jesus were really true there should also be a lot of other 1st-century reports that confirm those of the four gospels.
4. But there aren’t any other such reports from the 1st century; the earliest ones do not begin to emerge until the 2nd century and later.
5. Therefore, the four gospels are mostly not true. They are the largely fictionalized stories by unvalidated authors about a rebel Jew who was crucified but otherwise ordinary.
6. Actually, it was Paul who inspired the writing of the four gospels by the message he proclaimed and his own writings that predated the gospels. He created the myth of the miracle-working Jesus upon which Christianity was engineered.
7. Conclusion: Jesus existed, but the miracle-working Jesus of the gospels is a myth, therefore Christianity is a myth.
To be fair, this syllogism is only my reconstruction of what I understand to be Prof. Skrbina's argument. He may construct it differently, or he may not agree the precise wording of my premises, but I am sure it's very close. In any case, premises 3 and 4 constitute the crux of the argument, so it is these I will redress here. The basic thrust of my refutation is that these premises are false. Premise 3 is false because it sets up an unreasonable expectation. It is unreasonable to expect that there should be more written reports adding to, matching or approximating the caliber of the four gospels' accounts which have survived to modern times attesting to the events of Jesus's life, his teachings, and his miracles. Here is what I mean: If Jesus we're here today to do and say all the things the gospels say he did in the first century, there can be no doubt that there would be a torrent of posts, tweets, articles, podcasts and videos about him. These would amount to almost limitless documentation. But that should not be our expectation from the conditions at the time of Jesus. Here's why:
In the first-century Roman/Jewish milieu there was/were…
• An Oral Culture
Like others ancient cultures, first century Jewish society was oral and largely pre-literate. That means that means that all news was first spread orally, not in writing. Plus, the common person who witnessed the majority of Jesus's teachings and miracles could not write them down even if he/she wanted to.
• No Social Media
There was no social media. Our social-media-culture has trained us to expect that most new will turn up in Facebook and Twitter for all to see, and for the benefit of posterity. Consequently we are liable to project this kind of expectation on ancient societies subconsciously. But this is unreasonable if ridiculous.
• No News Outlets
The same can be said of news reporting institutions--there were none. No newspapers or electronic media at all. No doubt members of the higher classes were literate, who today would be the reporters and journalists for our thousands of news networks of modern times. But again, there were no media machines, so no newshounds. Jesus's social context was a time before all that. The gospels tell us that "his fame spread everywhere", but it spread orally.
• Scarce Writing Implements
Paper and pens as such had not been invented yet (nor the printing press for another 1500 years). They were not household items nor readily available to just anybody. Parchment (sheep or goatskin) was the writing material of the day. It was difficult and expensive to produce and quite sparingly used by the literate few for important documents only, not news. (Later, Paul was one of them, as were other Christian writers.)
• Standards for Documentation
By some of the standards of his day Jesus was neither 'newsworthy' nor worthy of official documentation (well, until his crucifixion). That is, in the eyes of those few who could and might have have written about him contemporaneously, Jesus was not important enough to write about. As a Jewish, 'cult-like' religious figure who gained a small following, he was not the first or last to become prominent. And he was of little interest to the Romans in authority since he did not foment violence or unrest. (The others who did were the only types they cared about enough to document.) To the Romans and Jewish civil authorities, oral reports circulating about Jesus were dubious and largely benign and probably not significant enough for contemporary documentation (though not that there was none).
The great nineteenth century historian Ernst Renan—a skeptic who disbelieves in all the miracle stories of the Gospels—puts it very well:
"As to the Greek and Latin writers, it is not surprising that they paid little attention to a movement which they could not comprehend, and which was going on within a narrow space foreign to them. Christianity was lost to their vision upon the dark background of Judaism. It was only a family quarrel amongst the subjects of a degraded nation; why trouble themselves about it? The two or three passages in which Tacitus and Suetonius mention the Christians show that the new sect...was a prominent fact..."
[The Apostles (New York: Carleton, 1875), p. 227]
Also see "Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Outside the Bible"
• Limited Number of Possible/Probable Writers
Many Romans wouldn't have paid attention to what was thought by them to be an internecine dispute between different factions of Judaism. They were conquered people, after all. Who cares? Ancient historians specialized in certain areas. They didn't just write about anything and everything. History and news are not synonymous. Many notable Roman [and Jewish] historians would not have had the motive or opportunity to document anything about Jesus during His lifetime [e.g. because they were too young during the time of his active ministry]. –Contributed by Myron Crockett via Facebook
*If you did not view it before this would be a good time to view this video: Jesus Myth, Self-Refuted.
• Low Survival Rate of Ancient Documents
Very few documents from the first century about anything have survived to this day. More than 90% have disintegrated; have been destroyed, or lost. With few exceptions, the only documents to survive are those that were deemed important enough to copy by hand and proliferate to ensure their preservation. So, even if there had been more written reports about Jesus we simply do not still have them. Aside from sparse (but still important) citations from historians, the gospels alone have survived to give us the portrait of Jesus we have today.
As I said above, this is the main thrust of this part of my refutation (part 1). As such it deserves more attention and substantiation. Let's first hear from Dr. Timothy McGrew, Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University, who with his wife Lydia is an authority on the New Testament. He contributed this statement by way of Facebook:
"Bookends a foot apart can enclose all of the surviving literature from the Roman Empire in the middle decades of the first century, and that includes a treatise on agriculture by a retired soldier, some really bad Latin poetry, and a satire by Nero's pimp. It's outrageous that we have four first-century memoirs of one Palestinian peasant, each with some independent information that explains things found in the others."
Also consider this longer statement:
"The silence of antiquity." [*Afterall, Prof. Skrbina's argument is an argument for silence.]
Claim: "The Roman empire kept extensive records, so why is Jesus’ trial and crucifixion not recorded?" Assumption: It should have been.
"Why did Pontus Pilate not write about Jesus? Why didn’t Herod’s court make a record of Jesus? Often a string of ancient names (contemporaries of Jesus) will be listed and then it will be pointed out that none of them mentioned Jesus. That’s like pulling 100 books from the 1920s off the shelves of the library and saying, 'none of these books mention Babe Ruth, so he must not have existed.'
"The bottom line is, very few records from that time have survived. Even Pontus Pilate himself only has a few surviving references that verify his historical existence. We only have one reference to Pontus Pilate by a Roman Historian, and that reference was only there to give a frame of reference to who the sect of Christians were.
"So, most of what we know about Pontus Pilate actually comes from the Bible.
"There are a couple of things we need to remember. Jesus was only famous with a very small amount of people within his lifetime. Why would anyone write about him outside those who were his followers? Secondly, we don’t know whether Pilate, or Herod, or any other Roman official ever wrote about Jesus, because so many of the Roman records did not survive. There may have been records about him, but we don’t have any of the notes or records that Pilate’s administration kept from the time frame. Be sure you caught that line. They are gone, burned, eradicated, non-existent. This is the case with most of the documents and records of the time.
"The only way documents survive through the centuries is if they are copied. Copying had to be done by hand. It was expensive. Only the most important documents would be kept. Why would the execution record of one so-called insurrectionist survive? After all, people were being executed by the thousands all over the empire.
"This sounds like an intelligent argument, until you understand what small number of documents have survived through the centuries. When you consider the scant amount of documents that we have from antiquity, it’s actually EXTREMELY stunning that we have so many documents about Jesus. It’s almost unthinkable that so many were deemed valuable enough to be copied over and over. The only reason that this would be, is if something really important like a real live divine Jesus existed.
*Look for Part 2 which will be a defense of Paul himself and why it was impossible that he invented Christianity based on his own qualities, motives and resources.
1. In principle, Muslims take no issue with the many miracles of Jesus as recorded in the four gospels, although they are not mentioned in the Qur’an. However, the most common interpretations of Jesus as found in the Qur’an reject his crucifixion, his sonship, his deity, and any biblical allusions thereto.
2. Thomas Dalton on Nietzsche:
Most surprisingly, there is virtually no recorded documentation about Jesus during his lifetime, or by anyone who personally knew him. Jesus himself wrote nothing, which, while not impossible, is counter to a long tradition of moral or spiritual teachers leaving a written legacy. (On the other hand, if he was in fact a poor uneducated Jew, he likely did not know how to write.) In spite of alleged miracles performed in front of thousands of people — recall the fishes and loaves story — no one at the time bothered to record such momentous events on paper. The men who knew him best, the 12 apostles, wrote nothing. 12 Of their lives we know almost nothing, other than some presumed years of death for five of them (John, Peter, Phillip, Thomas, and Judas). Again this is striking; once the true nature of the Messiah was confirmed by his resurrection, one would have expected his close followers to be revered in themselves, and for their every step to be noted and recorded.
At this point the student of the Bible will respond that two of the apostles, John and Matthew, wrote their corresponding Gospels. But few experts believe this today. The present consensus is that the four Gospel authors were anonymous individuals who did not personally know Jesus. 13 Based on events mentioned in them, however, scholars have assigned them approximate dates. The earliest was Mark, written about the year 70—some 40 years after the crucifixion. Again, this is an amazingly long time to wait to record the miracle of the Messiah, even if done by Mark himself (a man who did not personally know him).
Nor do we have any confirmation of Jesus’ life story from contemporaneous non-Christian sources. One would certainly have expected his enemies to document his life, if he had been a person of substance or threat. But no such writings exist. The earliest mention is by the Jewish author Flavius Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews from circa 93 ad. Pliny the Younger and Tacitus both refer to the Christians in their writings of the early 100s ad. Again, these sources come 60 to 70 years after Jesus’ death—not what one would expect.
By all accounts, then, Jesus was a rather ordinary individual, a preacher of faith and action, and a consoler of troubled souls. He likely counseled his fellow down-trodden Jews to stick up for themselves, and perhaps to disobey the unjust Roman rule, and even the contemptuous dictates of their own Jewish elite. Such rabble-rousers were frequently exiled or put to death (recall Socrates), and so it is not surprising that the elite Jews would agitate for his execution—against the reluctant wishes of Pilate himself, if in fact he was ever truly involved. We know the result: “God on the Cross.”
Then we come to Paul. For Nietzsche, as for many other scholars, Paul is the central figure in early Christianity—to the extent that ‘Paulism’ would be the more appropriate designation. In Paul’s rendering, Jesus—the real Jesus—becomes virtually irrelevant, even counterproductive. Paul needed not Jesus’ life, but his death; only this could work miracles. The entire story of Jesus’ life was rewritten and altered, motivated not out of love but the very opposite: feelings of hatred and revenge toward the conquerors:
In Paul was embodied the opposite type to that of [Christ]: the genius in hatred, in the vision of hatred, in the inexorable logic of hatred. … The life, the example, the doctrine, the death… — nothing remained once this hate-inspired counterfeiter realized what alone he could use. Not the reality, not the historical truth! And once more the priestly instinct of the Jew committed the same great crime against history—he invented his own history of earliest Christianity.
The Savior type, the doctrine, the practice, the death, the meaning of death, even what came after death—nothing remained untouched, nothing remained even similar to the reality. Paul simply transposed the center of gravity of the whole existence after this existence—in the lie of the ‘resurrected’ Jesus. At bottom, he had no use at all for the life of the Savior—he needed the death on the cross and a little more. … Paul wanted the end, consequently he also wanted the means. What he himself did not believe, the idiots among whom he threw his doctrine believed. His need was for power; in Paul, the priest wanted power once again—he could use only concepts, doctrines, symbols with which one tyrannizes masses and forms herds. (sec. 42)
The real Jesus was thus reduced to a caricature, a trigger for some fictionalized grand narrative: “The founder of a religion can be insignificant — a match, no more!” (Will to Power, sec. 178). On Nietzsche’s view, then, Paul repeated the trick of the Old Testament: He took the basic elements of a man’s life and history, a kernel of truth, and wove out of this a fantastic story of miracles, immortality, and divinity incarnate. And precisely here was the source of the problem.
Recall the basic facts of Paul’s life. He was born in Tarsus (modern-day Turkey) around the year 10 ad as ‘Saul’, a Jew like the rest though different in one important respect: He was not a chandala Jew, but rather a Pharisee, an elite Jew.14 He never knew Jesus, and was in fact an early and harsh critic of the Christians, he tells us. Then on his travels to Damascus in the year 33, three years after the crucifixion, Saul encountered the ‘risen Christ’ in a revelatory vision and was immediately converted. Taking the name Paul, he became the foremost champion of Christianity — even more so, strangely, than any of the apostles who knew Jesus. He begins to create fledgling churches around the Mediterranean, and in the process writes a series of letters — the 13 “Pauline” epistles — encouraging and cajoling his recruits, and declaring his faith in Jesus the Messiah. These epistles — by far the earliest written Christian documents — would ultimately comprise nearly half the 27 books of the New Testament.15 Like his Savior, Paul evidently acquired a reputation as a troublemaker. He was arrested and sent to Rome for trial, though we know few details. He was apparently executed, either by beheading or crucifixion, sometime in the mid-60s ad. 16
Nietzsche is rightly suspicious of Paul’s conversion, and not only on grounds of ‘superstition.’ First of all, the two earliest epistles—Galatians and 1 Thessalonians—date to around 50 ad; this is a full 20 years after the crucifixion, and nearly as long after Paul’s conversion. Granted, starting up a new religion is slow work, but one would expect some written record sooner than this, particularly from an elite, well-educated Jew. Second, Paul’s conversion in or around the year 33 is virtually coincident with the initial outbreak of Jewish-Roman antipathy—during Pilate’s reign, and just prior to the major break in relations attributed to Caligula. This suggests some causal link. Third, things worsened under the subsequent emperor, Claudius, as he expelled the Jews from Rome in the year 49 (see Acts 18:2)—just about the time of the first epistles. Fourth, the epistles are strikingly lacking in details about Jesus’ life: nothing on his birth, early life, ministry, or the apostles. This suggests that Paul either did not know, or did not care, about such trivial details.
Thomas Dalton, Nietzsche on Christianity
http://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2010/01/30/nietzsche-and-the-origins-of-christianity/ Continue to Part 2