Earliest Christianity (1999)
Professor G.A. Wells continues the debate about the origins of Jesus and the development of Christianity. Drawing on the writings of recent theologians and historians and alluding to his latest book, The Jesus Myth, he throws light on the early history of Christianity.
[This article was originally published in The New Humanist Vol. 114, No. 3. Sept 1999, pp. 13-18.]
It is almost universally accepted that Jesus lived in the opening decades of the first century, taught certain doctrines in Galilee, worked there what were at any rate taken for miracles, and died in Jerusalem, at the behest of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. In my most recent book on Christian beginnings — The Jesus Myth, 1998, not to be confused with my The Jesus Legend of 1996 (both published by Open Court, Chicago) — I have reiterated that none of this is told of Jesus in the extant Christian epistles (Pauline and other) which are either earlier than the gospels or early enough to have been written independently of them. This discrepancy is particularly striking when behaviour or teaching ascribed to him in the gospels has obvious relevance to the concerns being persued by the writers of these epistles. The New Testament scholar Professor Graham Stanton frankly calls it ‘baffling’ that Paul fails to ‘refer more frequently and at greater length to the actions and teaching of Jesus’, particularly at points where ‘he might well have clinched his argument by doing so’. And Stanton is aware that other epistles present us with ‘similar problems’ (Gospel Truth? New Light on Jesus and the Gospels, London: Harper Collins, 1995). Similar remarks have been made by the German New Testament scholar Walter Schmithals, who also notes that one supposed reference by Paul to gospel material that is commonly adduced is based on nothing better than mistranslation of his Greek . There is, then, a discrepancy between the earliest documents and later Christian ones that should not be brushed aside.
This earliest literature includes, additionally to the genuine Paulines, three post-Paulines ascribed to Paul (2 Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians) and also the letter to the Hebrews, the epistle of James, the first epistle of Peter, the three epistles of John and the book of Revelation. If Paul alone had written as he did of Jesus, one might just possibly be able to attribute this to some personal idiosyncracy; but a consistent silence by numerous independent authors about matters which, had they known of them, they could not but have regarded as relevant to their purposes, cannot be so explained. It is perverse when critics ascribe to me the view that my whole reconstruction of Christian origins depends on the silence of one writer — Paul.
Moreover, it is not just that the early documents are silent about so much of Jesus that came to be recorded in the gospels, but that they view him in a substantially different way — as a basically supernatural personage only obscurely on Earth as a man at some unspecified period in the past, ’emptied’ then of all his supernatural attributes (Phil.2:7), and certainly not a worker of prodigious miracles which made him famous throughout ‘all Syria’ (Mt.4:24). I have argued that there is good reason to believe that the Jesus of Paul was constructed largely from musing and reflecting on a supernatural ‘Wisdom’ figure, amply documented in the earlier Jewish literature, who sought an abode on Earth, but was there rejected, rather than from information concerning a recently deceased historical individual. The influence of the Wisdom literature is undeniable; only assessment of what it amounted to still divides opinion.
When we come to Christian documents, in and outside the canon, which are known to have been written late enough for the gospels (or at any rate some of their underlying traditions) to have been current, then we do find clear allusions to relevant biographical material about Jesus in a way that is earlier unknown. These later documents, from the first half of the second century, include, within the canon, the Pastoral epistles and 2 Peter, the very latest of the twenty-seven canonical books; and outside the canon there are: the short manual on morals and church practice known as the Didache; the epistles of Ignatius, Barnabas and Polycarp, and the two epistles ascribed to Clement of Rome; the apocryphal Epistle of the Apostles, the Apology of Aristides and the surviving fragment of Quadratus’ Apology — both these were addressed to Roman emperors — and the two Apologies of Justin Martyr. Naturally the documents in this large group do not all reflect the same elements or the same amount of gospel matter, partly because their authors do not all have identical aims, and partly because older Christologies will have continued in some quarters when newer ones were emerging in others, particularly as we cannot assume complete inter-communion between different Christian centres. Furthermore, some second century apologists (not the ones I have mentioned) say little, even nothing, about the historical Jesus because they were concerned to advocate a Christianity acceptable to philosophical pagans. Pagan Platonists who held that God is incorporeal, passionless and unchanging did not want to hear of a God who took human form and suffered humiliation on Earth. Thus the epistle to Diognetus –a Christian address possibly as late as the end of the second century –speaks indeed, in the manner of the fourth gospel, of ‘the only- begotten Son’, but does not even call him ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’. He is a heavenly being, God’s agent in creating the universe, who descended, ‘sent’ to mankind as a redeemer who came not in power but ‘in gentleness amid humility’, as ‘a ransom For us’. Commentators observe that this writer obviously found the Pauline literature more suitable to his purpose than the gospels. Nevertheless, in spite of such residual persistence of older Christological thinking, there is no doubt that, in the first half of the second century, the Christian writers I have specified refer to Jesus in a way quite unknown in the earlier documents. I have repeatedly insisted that, until this distinction is accepted as fundamental, there will be no adequate understanding of Christian origins.
How unsatisfactory it is to ignore or gloss over the cleavage between the earliest Christian documents and the gospels, and to rely on the latter for an overview of earliest Christianity, is surely apparent from the extent to which theologians themselves have discredited the gospels. The Finnish theologian Heikki Räisänen lists the considerable number of incidents in them which Strauss set aside in 1835, and comments — in his Beyond New Testament Theology (SCM, 1990) — that, although this was found shocking at the time, one could today ‘glean a very similar list from almost any non-fundamentalist book on Jesus’, with the exception perhaps of some few of Strauss’ items, while the interpretation of the ‘Easter’ experiences, which Strauss regarded as mystical visions with no basis in reality, remains a most controversial issue’.
That this latter controversy produces much that undermines the traditional creeds is apparent from the most recent contribution to it that I have seen, namely Beyond Resurrection (SCM, 1999), by the Protestant New Testament scholar A.J.M. Wedderburn, who confesses that ‘the result of a historical investigation into the traditions of Jesus’ resurrection seems to yield very little that is of much use for Christian faith’, and who urges ‘a reverent agnosticism as to ‘whether anything in fact happened at Easter above and beyond what went on in the minds of’ the followers of Jesus’. In accordance with the title of his book, Wedderburn wants to move ‘beyond resurrection’ to ‘a faith that is thoroughly this — worldly’, which questions whether Jesus or anyone else can survive death. This and much else in the book goes quite against what is witnessed in the New Testament; yet Jesus, as there witnessed, remains the author’s ‘primary orientation point’, It is not surprising that, as a result of such ‘wrestlings with faith and understanding’, he finds ‘both God and reality most mysterious’.
If the gospels do not help us, we fare no better with the equally late Acts of the Apostles. In his first speech there Peter claims that he and others had kept Jesus’ company from his baptism onwards. But in no extant document before the gospels is Peter or anyone else called a ‘disciple’ in the sense of a companion during a ministry. The term used in the earliest documents is ‘apostle’ and it there means missionary’. After Acts 16:4 there is no further mention of these alleged companions of Jesus. They disappear from the narrative, with no suggestion that they appointed successors. The missionary work in the Diaspora is represented as effected principally by Paul.
Acts does not carry the history of the church up to the author’s own time, but depicts only Christianity’s path from Jerusalem to Rome — the ‘heroic’ period when the church was (supposedly) free from heresy, and when its officials still behaved impeccably, leading an ideal and completely harmonious community, widely respected and secure with its miraculous deeds. This was not conscious idealization, but was how the author and Christians generally of the early second century will have viewed the original period.
One of Acts’ overall concerns is to make clear that Christianity posed no threat to the authority of the Romans. Hence, although the author could not — against the obvious truth — conclude the book by having Paul set free from Roman captivity, he does his best to insinuate that this is what the Romans wanted. At 28:17-19 he goes so far as to make Paul say as much (‘the Romans, who, when they had examined me, desired to set me at liberty’) and to make him claim that he had to appeal to stand trial in Caesar’s court in Rome only in order to protect himself from hostile Jews in Judea. In his invaluable commentary on Acts — its seventh and final edition appeared in 1977, two years after the author’s death — Ernst Haenchen observes that even the account in earlier chapters of the book of Acts itself fails to bear this out; for only those Romans who do not have authority to decide Paul’s case are there represented as favouring his acquittal. Thus Claudius Lysias found him innocent (23:29), but, as a subordinate official, was obliged to send him to the governor Felix for trial. Later, Felix’ successor Festus declared him innocent (25:18. 25 and 26:31 1) only after the appeal to Rome had taken the case out of his hands. It is, then, clear what the author of Acts wants us to believe, and equally clear that he was not able to make the evidence add up to it. Moreover, Paul’s arrest and the proceedings against him are, for Acts, no minor matter, but occupy the whole of the final quarter of the book (chapters 21 to 28).
Some few theologians now go as far as to discount the gospels and Acts altogether, or nearly so. John Bowden, Anglican priest and Managing Director of SCM Press, designates them as ‘ideology, party history, which does not fall within the canons of what is acceptable history for us’. (This in his Appendix to his English translation of Gerd Lüdemann‘s The Unholy in Holy Scripture, SCM, 1997.) Yet neither Bowden nor most of his theological colleagues show any inclination to read early Christian documents which are clearly independent of gospel material without importing into them the gospels’ ideas about original Christianity. One reason for this is that, in the earliest documents, the apostles understand their ‘Easter’ experiences as manifestations of a particular person, whom they can name as ‘Jesus’ and who therefore must have been in some way already known to them (just as those who had visions of Jupiter or Isis experienced a figure known from their traditions): and the gospels supply what does seem to be the obvious basis for their knowledge of this Jesus, namely that they recognized him as a resurrected form of the person in whose ministry some of them had so recently participated. Thus even so critical a theologian as Räisänen can insist (in his book already quoted) that, while Jewish apocalyptic eschatology provided ideas of resurrection which enabled the apostles to interpret their visions as evidencing the resurrection of someone, it was recent (first-hand or reported) experience of’ the pre-crucifixion Jesus which enabled them to understand that, in these visions, ‘they had encountered that very Nazarene who had preached a particular message and invited them to a particular way of life’.
However, ‘Jesus’ means something like ‘salvation’, and would have been an appropriate name for the earliest Christians to give to anyone regarded as ensuring their salvation, whether or not he was a recently deceased familiar. (Even the relatively late gospel of Matthew betrays, at 1:2 1 that he shall be called Jesus because ‘he will save his people’.) Moreover, Paul does not say that the crucifixion and the resurrection three days later were recent events. It is the visions of the risen one which he and some of his contemporaries experienced which he designates as recent. He specifies eyewitnesses of these visions, but not of the death and burial, which he represents only as having happened ‘in accordance with the scriptures’. ‘Scriptures’ here certainly designates the sacred books of the Jews, and he may well have had in mind allegorical interpretations of Old Testament passages.
Alvar Ellegård, Emeritus Professor of English in the University of Göteborg, Sweden, has stressed the significance of these facts in his latest book, Jesus One Hundred Years Before Christ (London: Century, 1999). He argues that what was known of the person named as ‘Jesus’ in the Easter visions was, prior to those visions, some traditions about the Teacher of Righteousness who figures in Dead Sea scrolls written ca. 100 B.C. as a revered leader (not the Messiah, and not a supernatural personage) to whom God had made known all the mysteries of the prophets, and who had been severely persecuted. Whether he was an actual historical figure or largely a construction to give substance to his followers’ conception of the founder of their movement cannot now be determined. In any case, the Scrolls show that his memory was still treasured a century or more after his presumed death. What his followers thought they knew about him was that he had lived long ago and had been maltreated and persecuted probably dying as a martyr. It would be natural for those who knew, even indirectly, of what is said of him in, for instance, the Qumran Habakkuk commentary, to assume that the persecution eventually led to his martyrdom. The Scrolls do not name him — they avoid actually naming the sectarian personages (including the Teacher’s chief enemies) whom they mention but, as we saw, ‘Jesus’ would be an appropriate name to give to someone of such religious importance. Ellegård’s case is that visions of the Teacher convinced Paul and others that he was more than what he appeared to have been on Earth in the past, and was in fact a heavenly figure — an idea reinforced by’ the Wisdom literature which told of a supernatural personage who had sought an abode on Earth, and, rejected, had returned to heaven. The visions gave an assurance that this heavenly figure was now preparing to descend to Earth for the last Judgement.
An important feature of Ellegård’s argument is that the Essenes, whose ideas about the Teacher are reflected in the Scrolls, were established not only in Palestine but also in the Diaspora, where Jews were numerous and where some of them developed religious ideas which were much more accommodating to their gentile environment. Certainly, the descriptions of the Essenes given by Philo Judaeus of Alexandria ca. A.D.20 and by Josephus ca. A.D.80 portray a much more open community than that of the Qumran Scrolls. The Jewish Diaspora also housed some important early Christian communities, and the notable similarity between Christianity and Diaspora Judaism is exemplified by Philo. Ellegård holds that the Essene branch of Judaism in the Diaspora was particularly important for Christian origins. He instances the Therapeutae — Philo said they existed ‘in many parts’ of the Empire — as a special contemplative section of the Essenes who were so close to Christian ideas that Eusebius and other Christian writers could regard them as Christians. Philo tells that they studied ‘the writings of the founders of their way of thinking’, so they will surely have known of the Teacher of Righteousness.
The earliest Christian documents are directed to Diaspora communities, and were probably also written in the Diaspora. The addressees could hardly have known anything of a nearly contemporary Palestinian Jesus, and it makes sense to suppose that they treasured the memory of Jesus as a prophet of long ago. That the Teacher of Righteousness was regarded as such a person among the Essenes is, Ellegård says, beyond doubt. What the recipients of the early Christian epistles needed to be told, and are told in these documents, was that Jesus has now revealed himself as a heavenly figure and would soon come as judge. These early documents never (with the exception of Hebrews 9:28) call this coming what it is so often called in later Christian literature (e.g. in chapter 14 of the fourth gospel), namely a ‘return’ or ‘second coming’. This is not (as Earl Doherty supposes — see below) because he had never lived on Earth, but because, when he comes as judge, he will come in his true supernatural form, quite different from the form he had assumed on Earth in the distant past. In later Christian writings, however, where he and his followers are contemporaries, and where his supernatural powers are already manifest during his ministry, there is, appropriately enough, talk of his ‘coming again’.
The title of Ellegård’s book is intriguingly reminiscent of G.R.S. Mead’s Did Jesus Live 100 B.C.? (London and Benares: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1903). Mead, who died in 1933, of course knew nothing of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But he thought that ‘Jesus was probably an Essene’, and he pointed to ‘the patristically acknowledged striking similarity between the practices of the Therapeut Essene communities and the earliest Christian assemblies’. His main concern was to demonstrate that the dating of Jesus as a heretic who was put to death about 100 B.C. for misleading the people is ‘one of the most persistent elements of Jewish tradition concerning Jesus’ and ‘goes back to the floating mass of tradition’ from which the Talmud drew. He allows that this dating may have originated as a result of controversy between orthodox Jews and Christians of Pauline type, whose Christianity comprised ‘a minimum of history and a maximum of opposition to Jewish legalism’. In other words, if Pauline Christians thought of the earthly Jesus as a holy martyr of 100 B. C., the Jews would have replied that he was a heretic of that time.
Ellegård naturally has to account for how it came about that the gospels place Jesus’ life in the early decades of the first century. In the compass of this article I can do no more than indicate one significant point he makes in this connection. The evangelists, he says, writing not earlier than the end of the first century, will have known that Paul and his fellow apostles experienced their visions of the risen Jesus about the year 30, and so they naturally assumed that the crucifixion and resurrection had occurred shortly before. This is not what Paul had alleged, but it would seem plausible enough half a century later to evangelists writing outside Palestine, after earlier events there had been obscured from their view by’ the devastating war with Rome from A. D. 66. The earliest Christian writer outside the canon to link Jesus with Pilate was Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, writing ca. A. D. 110. He does not implicate Pilate in the events of Jesus’ life, but mentions him in order to date that life in the 30s (‘in the time — Greek epi — ‘of Pontius Pilate’), this being the normal way’ in Antiquity of dating events by reference to the reign of emperors, kings or governors. Ignatius was impelled to specify historical circumstances for the life because of the rampant Docetism confronting him. The Docetes regarded flesh as sinful, and suffering and pain as incompatible with the divine nature. Hence they supposed that Jesus did not have a real human body, but lived on Earth as a phantom, incapable of any suffering. Against them, Ignatius insisted that he really suffered by being nailed to the cross in a specified historical situation.
Ellegård finds that a Diaspora origin for Christianity, rather than a Galilean one, better accounts for the fact that the language of the early Christian documents is Greek, not Aramaic. He attributes the Galilean setting of the synoptic gospels to misinterpretation of nazoraios as a reference to Nazareth. Parallels between the ministry as depicted in the synoptics and the biographies of Cynic philosophers available in the first and second centuries have recently attracted much attention. Ellegård finds them intelligible enough if the evangelists modeled their hero on a type of preacher popular at their time of writing.
I have treated both the Galilean and the Cynic elements less skeptically in The Jesus Myth, allowing that they may contain a core of reminiscences of an itinerant Cynic-type Galilean preacher (who, however, is certainly not to be identified with the Jesus of the earliest Christian documents). I also find Ellegård’s exceptionally early dating of some of the early documents questionable. Nevertheless, his overall thesis concerning the earliest ideas of Jesus does not depend on what I question, as there is a genuine disparity between the way he is portrayed in the earliest and in later documents, and Ellegård’s reconstruction has the great merit of addressing itself to this disparity. Moreover, although much nonsense has been written linking Christianity’ with the Qumran scrolls, there is nevertheless a consensus that some beliefs and practices of the early church are prefigured in these documents. One striking similarity to which Ellegård points is the Christian and Essene use of the same names for the members of their movement: the Church of God, the Saints, the Elect, the Poor, those of the Way. The idea that the Teacher of Righteousness died by crucifixion (not suggested in the Scrolls) could have been prompted by awareness that, as we know from Josephus, holy Jews had been crucified live on spectacular occasions in the past.
Räisänen observes, in his illuminating study of Paul and the Law (1987), that earliest Christianity was ‘a charismatic movement where ecstatic experiences were daily bread’. It was in such a milieu that the visions of the apostles occurred and convinced them that a revered figure of the past was in fact a supernatural personage — an idea which I have argued was also prompted by musing on the Wisdom literature. Jewish conceptions of the Messiah were also relevant. William Horbury’s Jewish Messianism and the Cult of Christ (SCM, 1998) shows that in Judaism ‘the Messiah could be understood as the embodiment of an angel-like spirit’, that spiritual and superhuman portrayals’ of him were ‘more customary than has been commonly allowed’, and that there is ‘a considerable extent of common ground, especially in the period from the first century to the fourth, between ancient Jewish conceptions of a pre-existent Messiah, among other pre-existent entities, and contemporary Christian conceptions of the pre-existent Christ reigning over the church or creation’. There is thus a strong Jewish background, additional to statements in the Wisdom literature, to Paul’s idea of Christ as a supernatural personage, briefly embodied in human form. Horbury is quite orthodox in accepting that Jesus conducted a Galilean ministry, as depicted in the gospels. He is concerned only to explain how the cult or worship of him originated, and supposes that it probably’ developed from praise offered by followers during the ministry, But his book does show how extensive were the Jewish traditions on which Paul could draw for his portrait of a Jesus who ’emptied himself’ of all that was supernatural in him while he was briefly on Earth as a man (Phil.2:6-8).
In my The Jesus Myth I had to come to terms with apologists such as Professor J. Dunn, who holds that neither the Jewish Wisdom literature, nor the Pauline letters admittedly influenced by it, contain anything incompatible with the strictest monotheism. Dunn denies that, on the basis of Jewish accounts of Wisdom, Paul regarded Jesus as pre-existent (living in heaven, alongside God, before corning to Earth). This denial has naturally been welcomed in conservative quarters where, for instance, the veteran theologian John Macquarrie is ‘grateful’ for this attempt to free the sources from such obviously mythological ideas. The Jewish literature describes Wisdom as God’s chief agent, a member of his divine council, etc., and this implies supernatural, but not, I agree, divine status. Dunn, however, supported by Larry W. Hurtado’s discussion of Wisdom in his One God, One Lord (Edinburgh: Clark. 1998), will not allow even the supernatural status, and regards the Wisdom of the Jewish literature not as an actual being in God’s service, but as a mere personification of some of his attributes. Hurtado does not, however, dispute, as Dunn does, that Paul’s Jesus was pre-existent.
Jewish monotheism did not stop the Jewish authors of the Wisdom literature from speculating about semi-divine figures, any more than Christian monotheism has prevented Christians from seeing Jesus as God. In this connection it is relevant to keep in mind what may be called the degradation of ideas, something very often significant in religious history. Statements which may perhaps have originated as merely what Dunn calls ‘some form of poetic hyperbole’ can readily be taken more literally in the course of their transmission. In his 1940 book Stoic, Christian and Humanist, the classical scholar Gilbert Murray gave as examples the way in which, in some late pagan documents, ‘the providence (Pronoia) of God’ becomes a separate power; the wisdom of God’ (Sophia) becomes ‘the divine Sophia’ or ‘Sophia, the daughter of God’. He adds that ‘the doctrinal history’ of the conception “Logos” as the “word” or “speech” of God, shows similar developments’. Putting this important phenomenon in general terms, we may say that religion comprises beliefs and practices, and that, while a practice can be imitated without reference to any underlying belief — it is common for even civilized persons to conform to rites the precise purpose of which they cannot explain — a belief cannot be imitated in the same way; for, unless arising spontaneously out of common experience — and with religious beliefs this can seldom be the case –it must be conveyed from one mind to another by some kind of language. The essential ambiguities of language, combined with different capacities for abstraction in the persons who use it, are bound to lead to different interpretations of the same formulae; and this distortion will result in religious change, or at least affect the uniformity of belief even in a small community. In this way, complicated and sophisticated ideas become degraded into more tangible concretes.
Some recent critics have gone so far as to deny even that the early Christians believed Jesus ever to have lived on Earth as a man. I refer to Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, joint authors of The Jesus Mysteries (London: Thorsons, 1999), and to Earl Doherty, whose relevant publications include a 1997 article in the Journal of Higher Criticism and a series of articles on the Internet.  The strength of Freke and Gandy’s account lies in bringing out the pagan parallels, particularly in the mystery religions, to earliest Christianity. They do not, however, accept that pagan motifs have been grafted onto a Jesus who was at least believed to have existed historically, but insist that Paul regarded Christ as ‘a timeless mythical figure’. Doherty likewise holds that Paul speaks of Jesus ‘in exclusively mythological terms’. I have never — in spite of what some of my critics have alleged — subscribed to such a view: for Paul does, after all, call Jesus a descendant of David (Rom. 1:3), born of a woman under the (Jewish) law (Gal.4:4), who lived as a servant to the circumcision (Rom. 15:8) and was crucified on a tree (Gal.3:13) and buried (I Cor. 15:4). Doherty interprets these passages from the Platonic premiss that things on Earth have their ‘counterparts’ in the heavens. Thus ‘within the spirit realm’ Christ could be of David’s stock, etc. But, if the ‘spiritual’ reality was believed to correspond in some way to a material equivalent on Earth, then the existence of the latter is conceded. In any case, what was the point of Christ’s assuming human form (Phil.2:6-11) if he did not come to Earth to redeem us? It is of course true that the source of statements such as ‘descended from David’ is scripture, not historical tradition. But this does not mean, as Doherty supposes, that the life and the death were not believed to have occurred on Earth. The evangelists inferred much of what they took for Jesus life-history from scripture, but nevertheless set this life in a quite specific historical situation. I am quite unconvinced by Doherty’s suggestion that ‘it is very possible’ that even these four evangelists ‘regarded their midrashic tale as symbolic only and its Jesus figure as not historical’. Again, Doherty does not allow that stories of martyrdoms in historical situations — in, for instance, the books of the Maccabees — could have prompted Christian ideas about Jesus’ death as a historical event, since the deaths in the Jewish stories were ‘invariably for the sake of the Law’ and ‘dying for sin is not in the same category’. But, as has been pointed out, the Jewish stories do exemplify the desire to comply with God’s will, and so can have influenced the early Christian idea that Jesus did the same, even though he did not die for the Law.
Perhaps Doherty’s strongest point is Paul’s assertion (1 Cor.2:8) that Jesus was crucified by supernatural forces (the archontes). I take this to mean that they prompted the action of human agents: but I must admit that the text ascribes the deed to the archontes themselves.
Doherty tells that he was launched on the path of scepticism by my own critical work, but finds that my scepticism does not go far enough. This is certainly a novel criticism for me to face.
1. Translations represent Paul as speaking of the night when Jesus ‘was betrayed’ (1 Cor. 11:23), as if he were alluding to Judas, when the Greek has, not ‘was betrayed’ but ‘was delivered’. Schmithals comments (in chapter 16 of his The Theology of the First Christians, a 1997 English translation, published in America, from the German of 1994) that ‘Paul did not have in mind the betrayal by Judas at all, but rather was reaching back to the early Christian confessional tradition according to which God himself’ — the passive voice of ‘was delivered’ implies, as so often in the Old Testament and in early Christian literature, that God was the agent, while obviating any need to mention him directly — “delivered” Jesus into the darkness of human guilt and of death (cf. Isa.53:6; Rom.4:25: 8:32; Gal.2:20)’.
2. R. Eisenman and M. Wise (in their The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, Shaftesbury (Dorset): Element, 1992, pp. 2431) observe that at Qumran the use of the noun ‘Salvation’ or the verbal noun ‘His Salvation’ is both ‘fairly widespread and much underrated’. They instance a phrase such as ‘the children of Salvation’, and they point to ‘the personification of this concept in the Gospel presentation of Messianic events in Palestine in the first century’. Another factor which may well have contributed to the naming of Jesus is that, in Greek, ‘Joshua’ is rendered as ‘Jesus’, and Joshua was the model for some who claimed (or were expected to come and claim) supernatural powers. Details in my Did Jesus Exist?, 2nd edition, London: Pemberton, 1986. p.69 n.28.
“Earliest Christianity” is copyright © 1999 by G.A. Wells. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 2000 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of G.A. Wells. All rights reserved.