Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty

200 Missing References to the Gospel Jesus in the New Testament Epistles




 145. - James 1:1

From James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Greetings to the Twelve Tribes dispersed throughout the world. [NEB]
One of the commonest passages appealed to by those who deny any possibility that Jesus was a mythical figure in the eyes of the early Christians is Galatians 1:19, containing Paul's reference to the apostle James in Jerusalem as "brother of the Lord." The likely meaning of that phrase as a title given to James as head of the Jerusalem brotherhood (it may also be a marginal gloss by a later scribe, subsequently inserted into the text), has been argued elsewhere. (See my Response to Sean in Reader Feedback Set 3.)

What is rarely if ever addressed by those who point to Galatians 1:19 is the silence we find on any such sibling relationship to Jesus in the opening of the epistle of James. If James were indeed the brother of Jesus, it is difficult to fathom why the writer of this letter would simply designate him a "servant" of the Lord Jesus Christ, and not his brother. This is not only so if one assumes the letter is genuinely by James (which only the most conservative scholars would maintain) but also, and especially, if the letter was written under his name (pseudonymous) or had such an ascription added some time after it was written. The whole point of ascribing a piece of writing to a famous figure is to give it authority. The greater the authority, the better will be the support for the arguments the writer is putting forward.

Consequently, it stands to reason that the writer would want to include everything about James that would raise him in the readers' eyes. His relationship to Jesus as blood brother would certainly do that. And there is no denying that such a thought would be a natural one to express under any circumstances. Commentators recognize this silence as problematic and have attempted various explanations for it, none of which are very convincing. (See the latter part of my above-noted response to Sean for examples of these explanations.)

We will find a similar silence on a blood relationship to Jesus when we look at the opening of the epistle ascribed to Jude.

 146. - James 1:5

If any of you falls short in wisdom, he should ask God for it and it will be given him, for God is a generous giver who neither refuses nor reproaches anyone. [NEB]
Can we envision any Christian preacher today, seeking to convince his audience that God will give when he is asked, who would not appeal to Jesus' own assurances on this matter? Why did this writer not add the thought that Jesus himself had said: "Ask and you shall receive" (Mt. 7:7)? A similar silence is found in 4:2-3.

This is only the first of many instances in this epistle where a pointer to Jesus' teachings would have been natural and expected. In fact, there are so many echoes of Gospel sayings in this little letter that it is almost a compendium of Christian ethics. Yet not even a general reference to Jesus as a teacher can be found. The only glance in his direction (following the opening ascription) comes in 2:1: "Believing as you do in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ." The language here points to a Jesus Christ who is a divine entity in heaven, one who can be "believed in." Nothing in this epistle conveys the sense that the community enjoys a living body of traditions about a man who had recently been on earth, teaching, working miracles, dying and rising. In fact, as we shall see, there is not a murmur anywhere about a death and resurrection.

[ The silence on the teaching Jesus is so profound in this epistle that scholars have been driven to the most desperate lengths to accommodate it. None more so than Sophie Laws, in her commentary, The Epistle of James (p.34): "Whereas the Gospels have one form of adoption of Jesus' teaching, in that they identify it as his, James provides evidence of another way of retaining and preserving it: absorbed without differentiation into the general stock of ethical material."

This explanation is a kind of argument from silence turned on its head. Since James makes no mention of Jesus whatever in regard to these ethical teachings, this is evidence that they were in fact his! Another commentator on James, Peter H. Davids, acknowledges (James, p.16) that document after document clearly fails to label Jesus as the source of their moral teachings; accordingly, he labels them "allusions," thus defining the silence so as to make it appear the opposite of what it is.

And what do these observations do for the theory of oral transmission? How are Jesus' teachings kept alive through the decades before the composition of the Gospels by being "absorbed into the general stock of ethical material"? Nor does Laws make any attempt to theorize why such a bizarre development would have taken place, especially among people who had presumably experienced the Master himself. Why would they choose to give him no credit for his revolutionary teachings, to make no witness about him to fellow-believers and converts? Yet the probable explanation is too unpalatable. If all these teachings are never attributed to Jesus in the early documents (compare the equally profound silence on Jesus as the source of the many teachings found in the Didache), then the logical conclusion is that they come from other sources and were only attached to such a figure later.]

 147. - James 1:9-10

9The brother in humble circumstances may well be proud that God lifts him up; 10and the wealthy brother must find his pride in being brought low. [NEB]
One of the most characteristic teachings in the Kingdom of God movement was the promise of reversal of fortune: the rich and powerful would be brought down, the poor and dispossessed would be raised up. Who when expressing such a thought could avoid quoting Jesus' prediction of that very thing: "For whoever exalts himself will be humbled; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Mt. 23:12)? This powerful promise is quoted twice in Luke as well (Lk. 14:11 and 18:14). On its source in Jesus, James is silent, though he will point to a different source in 4:6 (#153).

 148. - James 1:21-22

21Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save your souls. 22Only be sure that you act on the word and do not merely listen . . . . [NIV/NEB]
Here the writer makes the only allusion to soteriology in the epistle. What is it that gives salvation to the soul of the believer? It is not the death and resurrection of Jesus, nor even the teachings identified as his. It is "the word planted in you" which, if we look back to earlier verses (1:17-18), is identified as coming from God himself, with no suggestion that a Jesus on earth had served as an intermediary: "Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . . . In the exercise of his will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we might be the first fruits among His creatures." [NASB]

This is a community of faith that comes solely from the revealed word of God. There is no sense here of Jesus as either Redeemer or Revealer, and only an unattributed echo is heard of Matthew's line in Jesus' mouth (7:24): "What then of the man who hears these words of mine and acts upon them?"

 149. - James 2:5

Listen, my friends. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? [NEB]
This is a prime example of an epistle writer 'urging' that his readers accept what he is saying, to have faith that something will happen or to follow a desirable mode of behavior. If Jesus himself had urged this very faith or practice, what Christian writer would not choose to clearly highlight such a thing? The argument that "there was no need" to do so cannot be invoked here, since every instinct on the part of such writers would impel them to make mention of Jesus' own words. Yet not even here, in echoing the memorable opening of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount (5:3) or Luke's Sermon on the Plain (6:20), can this writer bring himself to state that connection with Jesus' pronouncement: "Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven."

 150. - James 2:8

If you are observing the sovereign law laid down in Scripture, 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' that is excellent. [NEB]
Hardly less memorable is Jesus' general teaching on love, at least in the minds of two millennia of Christians who tend to view such a teaching as the centerpiece of Jesus' ethics. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, as James does above, Jesus more than once quotes Leviticus, while answering the question "Which is the greatest commandment?" James shows no sign that he is aware of this pronouncement by Jesus. Twice does Paul do exactly what Jesus is reported to have done. In Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14 he speaks of the whole Law being "summed up" in the one rule of 'loving one's neighbor.' Like James, he makes no mention of Jesus' own view on the matter.

Christian love is an obsessive focus in almost every epistle writer, yet not a single one of them points to Jesus as a teacher on the topic. Paul, as we have seen, goes so far as to say (1 Thessalonians 4:9) that: "You are taught by God to love one another"!

 151. - James 2:10

For if a man keeps the whole law apart from one single point, he is guilty of breaking all of it. [NEB]
Matthew and Luke, drawing from Q, have Jesus express the conviction that "not a letter, not a stroke, will disappear from the Law" (Mt. 5:18). The continued applicability of the Mosaic Law was a hotly debated issue in the early Christian movement. We can safely state as a general principle where any movement based on a great teacher is concerned, that any important issue will soon be regarded as having been pronounced upon by him, regardless of whether he did or not. While scholars tend not to take Q's statement on the Law, as reflected by Matthew and Luke, as authentic, its presence in their Gospels illustrates this principle (as do so many other Gospel sayings rejected as 'inauthentic'). Yet James here makes no appeal to any pronouncement by Jesus to support his own claim on this very important matter.

 152. - James 4:4

Have you never learned that love of the world is enmity to God? Whoever chooses to be the world's friend makes himself God's enemy. [NEB]
Matthew 6:24: "No servant can be slave to two masters; for either he will hate the first and love the second, or he will be devoted to the first and think nothing of the second. You cannot serve God and Money."

 153. - James 4:6 . . . 10

6. . . Thus Scripture says, 'God opposes the arrogant and gives grace to the humble . . . . 10Humble yourselves before God and he will lift you high. [NEB]
As in 1:9, 'James' fails to appeal to Jesus' assurances that the exalted will be humbled and the humble exalted. But he goes further in this verse, in that he apparently feels the need to ground his thought in some authority. The authority he chooses is not the teaching of Jesus, but the quotation of a passage from Proverbs. If we can make anything resembling a logical deduction in this field of research, we are surely entitled to claim that the writer of this epistle can have no knowledge of Jesus' teaching on this matter.

 154. - James 4:11

Do not, my brothers, speak ill of one another. The one who speaks ill of his brother or judges his brother is speaking against the law. [NAB]
Matthew 7:1f: "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?"

 155. - James 5:1-3

1Next a word to you who have great possessions. . . . 2Your riches have rotted; your fine clothes are moth-eaten; 3your silver and gold have rusted away . . . [NEB]
Again, an example of 'urging' a point of view on those who would not be sympathetic to it. No writer in such a situation could have passed up a pronouncement imputed to Jesus on this point of view, as we find in Matthew 6:19-20 (and Luke 11:33-34, from Q): "Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where it grows rusty and moth-eaten, and thieves break in to steal it. Store up treasure in heaven, where there is no moth and no rust to spoil it, no thieves to break in and steal. For where your wealth is, there will your heart be also."

 156. - James 5:6

You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you. [NASB]
Continuing his condemnation of the rich and powerful, the writer of James accuses them of killing the innocent, who are unable to offer any resistance. Not only does he hear no echo of the teaching Jesus in his ethical admonitions throughout the epistle, he apparently possesses in his mind no image of the Gospel picture of Jesus' death. Who could fail to draw the natural comparison to the powerful authorities who had condemned an innocent Jesus to death, and his humble acceptance of such a fate? This silence is intensified when we get to 5:10, where the writer says: "If you want an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord." (See Top 20, #10.)

 157. - James 5:7

Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. [NASB]
One of the prominent ideas of the Gospels is that Jesus would return at the end of the world to judge humanity and bring about God's kingdom. The writer of James seems to know nothing about this, for his reference to the "coming of the Lord" is a reference to the traditional Jewish expectation of the Day of the Lord, when God himself would come to judge the world and establish his kingdom.

That "the Lord" in the verse above is a reference to God and not to Jesus can be clearly seen from an examination of the passage as a whole. In verse 10, the writer refers (as noted above) to the prophets "who spoke in the name of the Lord," which must be a reference to God. In verse 11, the readers are reminded: "You have all heard how Job stood firm, and you have seen how the Lord treated him in the end," again a clear reference to the God of the Old Testament writings. Nothing would indicate that the epistle writer abruptly changed his meaning in the use of the term "Lord" in verse 7.

 — James 5:10 - See "Top 20" #10

 158. - James 5:12

But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but let your yes be yes, and your no, no; so that you may not fall under judgment. [NASB]
Here the writer is virtually commanding his readers to follow a specific mode of conduct. Had Jesus spoken a similar command, and he was aware of it, there can be no doubt that he would have appealed to it. In Matthew 5:34-37 we read: "But what I tell you is this: You are not to swear at all . . . Plain 'Yes' or 'No' is all you need to say; anything beyond that comes from the devil."

 — James 5:15 - See "Top 20" #19

1 Peter

 159. - 1 Peter 1:4-5 . . . 7

4The inheritance to which we are born is one that nothing can destroy or spoil or wither. It is kept for you in heaven, 5and you, because you put your faith in God, are under the protection of his power until salvation comes—the salvation which is even now in readiness and will be revealed at the end of time. . . . 7. . . so that your faith may prove itself worthy of all praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. [NEB]
As in so many other similar references to the coming of Christ throughout the epistles, there is again no sense of this being a return, or second coming. Instead, the verb "revealed" conveys the idea that Christ will be seen for the first time only at the Parousia (coming/presence). Even the concept of "salvation" is something that will be manifested only at the Parousia. Can these writers and readers have the life and death of Jesus before their mind's eye and not express the thought that salvation had arrived at the time of those events, that it had been revealed in the person and deeds of Jesus on earth?

Here we have the precise language that would fit the mythicist interpretation. Knowledge about Jesus, who underwent his sacrificial redeeming act in a mythical time and place, has been revealed to the world through inspired Christian prophets, but when the End-time arrives, he will become visible to all, arriving on earth in his glorious Parousia. The text conveys nothing of the recent earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth.

 160. - 1 Peter 1:8

You have not seen him, yet you love him; and trusting in him now without seeing him, you are transported with a joy too great for words . . . [NEB]
Here the writer talks of "seeing" Christ. Commentators assume that, the writer being Peter or purporting to be Peter, the implication is that 'whereas I and others have actually seen him (in person) and thus believe, you have not and yet do.' The text hardly goes this far, and any such meaning is simply being read into it. In fact, it is remarkable that no such sentiment is openly expressed. Here is a piece of writing represented as written by the chief apostle of Jesus on earth, and yet the speaker never mentions that fact, never talks about any of the things he did see with his own eyes.

The verb "to see" in this verse is the one used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:1: "Have I not seen the Lord?" This, of course, refers not to having been an eyewitness to Jesus' ministry but to a visionary experience, which Paul claims to have shared with all the others. When we move on to 5:1 in this epistle, we will encounter another statement commonly interpreted as meaning that 'Peter' has "seen" Christ in the flesh. There he is a "witness" of Christ's suffering, but the word is "martus" which refers to one who 'bears witness about.' In the context of religious belief, this means to profess one's faith in, not to offer some physical eyewitness. The writer of this epistle clearly has no sense that Peter knew Jesus on earth.

F. W. Beare (First Epistle of Peter, p.88) admits that the implication that the writer has seen Christ with his own eyes is "far-fetched." The idea of believing without seeing is a common one in the New Testament, especially in Paul, and a check of those passages shows (e.g., 2 Corinthians 5:7, Romans 8:24-25) that the idea is simply: we do believe in someone or something we do not see. No more than this is meant here in 1 Peter. In fact, one of the remarkable omissions here and elsewhere in the epistles is that no comparison is ever made between those who 'do not see' Christ, and those who presumably had seen him during his ministry on earth. When Paul says (2 Cor. 5:7) that "faith is our guide, we do not see him," there is no suggestion that this does not apply to everyone, apostles, prophets or anyone else alive today. There is no suggestion that many fortunate people did in fact recently have the privilege of seeing Christ in person with their own eyes.

 161. - 1 Peter 1:12

It was revealed to them [the prophets] that they were serving not themselves but you [i.e., they were speaking not of matters relating to their own time but to yours], in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven . . . [RSV]
Here we have yet another instance (compare Romans 1:2 and Titus 1:3) where an epistle writer points to an ancient event or prophecy in scripture, and moves from there to a present fulfillment in the apostolic movement, with no glance at any intervening event or fulfillment in the life of Jesus. The prophets have made predictions in the past, and those matters are now embodied in the gospel preached by apostles inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is Jesus' own chief apostle, and yet he cannot express the thought that such apostles have been inspired by Jesus himself and are carrying on his own preaching work!

The previous verses (1:10-11) are often pointed to as containing an oblique reference to an historical Jesus, in that the latter part of verse 11 is usually translated: "foretelling the sufferings in store for Christ and the splendors to follow." This passage will be dealt with at length in the Appendix, but here it can briefly be noted that, while such sufferings could be taken as applying to those of Christ in the higher world, in a mythical setting, an alternative understanding of this verse has been given by some translators. Not that Christ's sufferings are meant, but the believers' own. The for Christ is "eis Christon" which could produce the translation: ". . . the sufferings in store (for you, the believers) on your way to Christ and the splendors (yours) to follow." Selwyn uses the phrase "on the Christward road" (see Ernest Best, 1 Peter, p.81-3).

Reverting to the verse under examination, the writer mentions that these matters—about the sufferings destined, supposedly, for Jesus—were brought to the readers by the apostles. But if there was any subject about which Jesus himself had a lot to say, as recorded in the Gospels, it was his suffering, death and resurrection. Thus, we might have expected the writer to express a thought like: "as Jesus himself foretold to us who were with him, in his prophecies about the Son of Man." (The latter term, incidentally, is notably absent in all the epistles.)

 162. - 1 Peter 1:15

The One who called you is holy; like him, be holy in all your behavior, because Scripture says, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy.' [NEB]
The quotation from scripture (Leviticus 19:2) shows that the reference here is to God. Not only does this writer regard Christians as having been "called" by God, not Jesus, but God and not Jesus of Nazareth is offered as the benchmark of holiness, the example to be followed in the Christian's own practice of holiness. The profound void on the Gospel Jesus in the minds of first century Christians is rarely demonstrated so compellingly.

F. W. Beare (1 Peter, p.98) points out that "The rule of Christian conduct is holiness, modeled upon the holiness of God," and it is true that this is a theme running through the Old Testament. The writer is no doubt drawing upon it in expressing his idea. But the Old Testament did not have the available example of a Jesus. Christ on earth would have been an even more ideal model for Christian holiness, especially in the attributes the writer has just been discussing: self-control, obedience, general moral rectitude. And he, unlike God, had lived in human form and taken on the weaknesses, presumably, of flesh. Offering Jesus as an example should have been virtually inevitable by a writer who was supposed to have known him intimately in person.

This is a powerful silence, one to which the "no need to mention" explanation is entirely inapplicable.

 163. - 1 Peter 1:20-21

20He (Christ) was predestined before the foundation of the world, and in this last period of time he was made manifest for your sake. 21Through him you have come to trust in God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, and so your faith and hope are fixed on God. [NEB]
In verse 20, the verb "made manifest" is phaneroo: to reveal, bring to light. Moreover, the form is the passive participle. Christ is not the agency of his own revelation; rather, someone revealed him. This would be an extremely awkward way of describing Jesus' own coming to earth and living a life in full view of many.

Verse 21 shows who that agent of revelation was: God. This is in keeping with the way Paul and others consistently describe the present advent of the Son: he is an entity who has now been revealed through scripture to inspired apostles like himself, by God and the Spirit. This Son was previously unknown, a secret hidden through long generations, but he has now been disclosed (Romans 16:25, Ephesians 3:5, etc.). Verse 21 concludes with the universal focus of the epistle writers: their faith and hope are fixed on God. No movement proceeding from the person of Jesus on earth, preaching such a person and following his example, could consistently and exclusively think, feel and express itself this way.

 164. - 1 Peter 1:23-25

23 You have been born anew, not of mortal parentage but of immortal, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For (as Scripture says):
'All mortals are like grass;
All their splendor like the flower of the field;
The grass withers, the flower falls;
25 But the word of the Lord endures for evermore.'
And this 'word' is the word of the Gospel preached to you. [NEB]
Another profound silence here. If Jesus taught that one must be "born again," or indeed if he taught anything, this writer seems to know nothing about it. For him the Christian is born anew, not through the word preached by Jesus, but by the word of God, found in scripture. That word is also contained in the Gospel preached by Christian prophets, but there is no sign that this is to be derived in any way from an earthly Jesus. Rather, it is the word of God in the sacred writings, and other passages (such as Romans 1:2) have also stated that the Gospel preached by such as Paul is one derived from God and scripture and not from any precedent in Jesus. No wonder no one ever attributes Christian ethics to Jesus; the concept itself doesn't exist in the minds of the early Christian writers.

 165. - 1 Peter 2:12

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. [NIV]
This is yet another example of ignorance about the Gospel tradition that Jesus will be returning (as the Son of Man) to judge the world. Instead, like similar instances in James and 1 John, this community adheres to the older tradition that it is God himself who will be coming to earth, on the Day of the Lord. We must assume that the writer, Peter or otherwise, has no recollection of hearing Jesus' own predictions about his future return.

The thought in the opening part of this verse is very similar to one expressed by Jesus in Matthew 5:16: "And you, like the lamp, must shed light among your fellows, so that, when they see the good you do, they may give praise to your Father in heaven." A reminder of this would not have been out of place here.

 166. - 1 Peter 2:13

Submit yourselves to every human institution for the sake of the Lord. [NEB]
This writer must have no awareness of Jesus' famous dictum: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (A similar silence can be found in 2:17.)

 167. - 1 Peter 2:21-23

21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example. 22He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. [RSV]
Here, the writer wishes to point to Christ's sufferings and humility, as an example for his readers to follow. Does he cite oral traditions about Jesus' historical sufferings on Calvary? No, he paraphrases elements of Isaiah 53, the "song" of the Suffering Servant, a scriptural passage which contributed more than any other to the development of early thought about a suffering Christian Messiah in the spiritual realm. Scripture was the source of information about the Christ, which is why the early epistle writers consistently appeal to it in describing Christ's experiences. Later, Isaiah 53 contributed many details to the Markan Passion story. We can hear above some allusions to features of that story: the silence maintained at Jesus' trial before Pilate and the High Priest, his stoic bearing of abuse, his innocence.

Verse 22 is a close copy of Isaiah 53:9b: "For he practiced no iniquity, nor was deceit in his mouth." Verse 23 is dependent on the ideas of 53:7: "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before his shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth."

There is another silence evident in this passage. Jesus is sometimes portrayed in the Gospels as urging or warning his followers that they must follow and suffer in his footsteps. Yet the writer appeals to no such saying as: "Take up your cross and follow me." Had Jesus himself required that his followers emulate his suffering, it is difficult to believe that the writer would not have appealed to it. (In the Q from which this Gospel saying is taken, there is no support for the idea that the original saying referred to the cross of Jesus himself, thus constituting an allusion to the crucifixion. The cross is a potential one for the follower, and the saying may have been a circulating proverb.)

 168. - 1 Peter 3:5-6

5Thus it was among God's people in days of old: the women who fixed their hopes on him adorned themselves by submission to their husbands. 6Such was Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him 'my master.' Her children you have now become, if you do good and show no fear. [NEB]
Here (in verses 1 through 6) the writer fails to hold up Mary, Jesus' mother, as a model when he is advising women to be chaste, submissive in their behavior, and reverent like those "who fixed their hopes on (God)." Mary's submission to God's will is perhaps the most prominent characteristic given to her by Christian writers, as in the Magnificat of Luke's announcement scene (1:46-55). In 1 Peter, the writer can only offer Sarah.

 — 1 Peter 3:9 - See "Top 20" #5

 169. - 1 Peter 3:14

But even if you do suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. [RSV]
Matthew 5:10: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Perhaps Peter wasn't present for the Sermon on the Mount.

 170. - 1 Peter 3:18-19

18In the body [i.e., flesh, sarki] he was put to death; in the spirit he was brought to life. 19And in the spirit he went and made his proclamation to the imprisoned spirits. [NEB]
The glaring silence here concerns Christ's bodily resurrection, the Easter miracle described in the Gospels. There is no sign of such a concept in this epistle. Christ "came to life" in the spirit state and world; what he did in that spirit state was to visit the souls of the dead. Verse 22 then has him entering heaven after receiving the submission of the "angelic authorities and powers." The writer of this epistle can have no knowledge of the Gospel post-resurrection scenes, which portray Peter as being among the first to see the risen Christ in the flesh. He can speak of Christ visiting the angels after death, but nothing about him coming to life in the body and visiting his own followers.

[ In the first part of verse 18, we again encounter that curious, stereotypical way the epistle writers have of referring to Jesus' death and the occasional other 'human' sounding feature. They employ the word "flesh" (sarx) in standard phrases like (en) sarki, kata sarka. The translation of these phrases is by no means certain, and they are used in a variety of ways which are not identical. (Compare, for example, Romans 1:3 and 2 Corinthians 5:16.) If there is a common implication about them all, it is the idea of 'relation to the material world of the flesh,' whether this means the abstract 'worldly standards' (as in 2 Cor. 5:16) or an entering of the god into a state or arena where he takes on counterpart features or "likeness" to the flesh. For a divine being to communicate with and impact upon the human world, he must leave his fully transcendent state in the highest heaven and approach the realm of matter, whether one is referring to the savior-god concept or to the simpler idea of the Logos as a divine force and channel between God and the world. In other words, he/it must become "immanent." (See the fuller discussion in the Appendix article under Romans 1:3 and 2 Corinthians 5:16.) ]

 171. - 1 Peter 4:14

If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. [NASB]
Here, surely, any writer would want to remind his readers that Jesus himself had called them "blessed" who suffered such persecution: "How blest you are, when you suffer insults and persecution and every kind of calumny for my sake" (Mt. 5:11).

 172. - 1 Peter 5:1

And now I appeal to the elders of your community, as a fellow-elder and a witness of Christ's sufferings, and also a partaker in the splendor that is to be revealed. [NEB]
If this were Peter writing, or even someone writing in his name who knew of him as Jesus' chief apostle, he would hardly have characterized him(self) simply as a "fellow-elder" and make no mention of having been a follower of Jesus on earth. Of the latter there can be no knowledge on the part of this writer. If the epistle is being written in Peter's name there would have been even less reason for failing to include this information in a situation where he is "appealing" to the reader. Whether the letter was originally pseudonymous, or whether the ascription to Peter (1:1-2) was added later, it would appear that either of these stages was still prior to the dissemination of the Gospel story. Peter would only have been known as a prominent apostle of the spiritual Christ, as he was known to Paul.

J. N. D. Kelly (characteristically), in his First Epistle of Peter (p.198), tries to suggest that this silence on Peter's part is "self-effacement," a playing down of his status so that he can rank himself with the local church leaders. This is clearly special pleading, and hardly convincing, since no one would have considered Peter 'proud' simply for stating his role in Jesus' ministry, especially if the "witness" reference were to be taken as an eyewitness to the sufferings mentioned. Again, the power of authority and status in urging a course of action upon the reader would have been the overriding consideration.

In regard to that "witness," the word used is "martus." Some try to see this as having the meaning of 'eyewitness,' others interpret it as a declaration of faith. I can do no better than to quote the conservative Kelly, in his opinion (op.cit., p.198) on the matter: "The obvious and straightforward interpretation of this might seem to be that he has been an eyewitness of the Lord's passion, and as such is qualified to hold up His patient endurance of suffering as an example. But although many understand the phrase so, we should hesitate to follow them. Not only is the motive alien to the context, but Peter could hardly be described as having been in any strict sense a spectator of the passion. Properly speaking, martus [as does the related verb, martureo] denotes one who testifies rather than an eyewitness, and it is frequently applied in the NT to people who proclaim, and so bear witness to, Jesus."

Kelly goes on to suggest that the underlying meaning goes even further: that 'Peter' is a "martyr" in the sense that he has suffered himself, in a persecutory sense, on account of the testimony to Christ that he gives. This 'martyr' meaning is, of course, the one which the word martus eventually took on in the Christian context. All of this further removes the thought from any sense of eyewitness.

We can also bring the 'witness' of the entire epistle to bear on interpreting this passage. Our survey of the letter shows that Peter never speaks in terms of eyewitness. He fails to refer to Jesus' teachings in key arguments where an appeal to them would be most natural. He has not even an allusion to make about the bodily resurrection or the eyewitness of followers to the risen Christ in flesh. Rather his faith, and even his knowledge of Christ's passion, comes from the scriptures, as 2:22-3 illustrates.

 173. - 1 Peter 5:4

And when the chief Shepherd is manifested (or, revealed), you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. [RSV]
Peter, of all people, would surely have instinctively expressed the idea of Christ's "return." Instead the writer speaks only of Christ's 'revelation,' in the same way that all the epistle writers convey the idea that Christ is a revealed entity whose first appearance is yet to come, that he will first manifest himself to the eye of the world only at the imminent End-time.

[ In this particular reference to the Parousia, it is impossible for commentators to use a common 'out' to get around the silence about a 'return' of Jesus. They often rationalize that writers speak of the coming of Christ and not his return because they are referring to the exalted Christ who, when previously on earth, had not yet been exalted, and so, strictly speaking, by splitting semantic hairs, it could be said that the exalted Christ would not be spoken of as 'returning' to earth, but only coming for the first time. (One wonders if all the New Testament writers who so express themselves were capable of, or would have been concerned with, such peculiar nicety of expression.) But here in 1 Peter 5:4, the opposite is the case. A notable Gospel image of Jesus in his earthly career, in his teaching and ministry to the poor and the sick, is the image of the shepherd (John calls him the Good Shepherd). In using this term, the writer of this epistle would have had every justification—one might say, every impulse—to express the idea of 'return.' ]

 174. - 1 Peter 5:5-6

5. . . Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. 6Humble yourselves then under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. [RSV]
Like James, the writer of this epistle appeals to the thought that the mighty lack God's favor and the humble receive it, and he expresses the idea that a reversal of this fortune is to be expected. Yet, like James, we receive no indication that the writer is aware of Jesus' own teaching on this matter: "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Mt. 23:12).

2 Peter

 175. - 2 Peter 1:3

His divine power has bestowed on us everything that makes for life and true religion [literally, godliness], enabling us to know the One who called us by his own splendor and might. [NEB]
A possibly ambiguous passage, though the overall sense of it, especially within the larger context of 1 and 2 Peter, makes it virtually certain that the "His" at the opening of this verse is a reference to God, and "the One" toward its close is also a reference to God. (Compare the latter with the phrase in 1 Peter 1:15: "The One who called you is holy" which is without question referring to God: see above #162). J. N. D. Kelly (The Epistles of Peter and Jude, p.300) opts for the meaning of God in the phrase "His divine power," though he points out that some take it as Christ's. Ironically, Kelly opines, "One is tempted to think the author had not sorted the matter out clearly in his own mind," illustrating the perplexity which many scholars feel in the face of a silence like this.

In fact, this verse contains a dual void in the thinking of the author. He first says that it is God who has bestowed "everything that makes for life and godliness," an astonishing statement. Had not Jesus made some contribution to the attainment of life and godliness and would that not be a natural thought of any Christian writer? The bestowal of these things by God, he goes on to say, has enabled the believer to know God himself, as the One who has called the Christian. Amazingly, Jesus is not envisioned as having made that call (an omission reinforced by 1:10: "exert yourselves to clinch God's choice and calling of you").

The writer, in the next verse (4), speaks of God, through his might and splendor, as the one who "has given us his promises, great beyond price," and again we wonder at the absence of any thought that Jesus, too, had made promises in his ministry, about God and about the future.

 176. - 2 Peter 1:16-18

16It was not on tales artfully spun that we relied when we told (gnoridzo) you of the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and his coming (parousia); we saw him with our own eyes [literally, we became eyewitnesses] in majesty, 17when at the hands of God the Father he was invested with honor and glory, and there came to him from the sublime Presence a voice which said: 'This is my Son, my Beloved, on whom my favor rests.' 18This voice from heaven we ourselves heard; when it came we were with him on the sacred mountain. [NEB]
This passage is often referred to as the "Transfiguration" scene, since it bears a strong resemblance to the Gospel incident as recorded in Mark 9:28, Matthew 17:1-8, Luke 9:28-36. But is 2 Peter's account based on the memory of such an historical incident in Jesus' ministry, or upon the tradition as presented in a written Gospel?

There are significant missing details. No mention is made of the perceived presence of Elijah and Moses, no mention of the brightening of Jesus' clothes or face. The epistle does not record Peter's suggestion that a tabernacle be set up. Nor does it supply any setting for this incident, neither in Galilee nor indeed within an earthly ministry of Jesus. All these things have to be read into the epistle's account—and often are.

Taken by itself, with no preconceptions brought to it, the account in 2 Peter sounds like an epiphany, a visionary experience attributed to the apostle Peter and unnamed others. "We saw him with our own eyes in majesty" does not suggest that they had earlier that day been walking about with him as Jesus of Nazareth. There is no implication of a change in Jesus' state or appearance. Rather, they have received a vision of the Lord whom they worship and whose arrival in glory (the Parousia) they are awaiting. The writer offers this vision as 'proof' to the readers (some of whom have expressed skepticism) that this divine Son is powerful and blessed by God, that he is present among them and is indeed coming.

Certain Gospel preconceptions have been brought to the NEB translation, as is the case with most translations. Rather than the "honor and glory" being a separate event, implying a change of appearance, the Greek has the honor and glory bestowed by the divine words themselves. The Greek of verse 18 limits the "while we were with him" to this hearing of God's voice, not the entire event, which implies that the "with him" only became operative once the epiphany had taken place, ruling out a broader reference to the apostles being in Jesus' company prior to his 'transfiguration' experience.

In any case, we must ask, if the writer knows the Gospel tradition and is seeking to provide proof of the power of the Lord Jesus Christ, why does he not appeal to an incident Peter himself had witnessed which was far more dramatic than a supposed transfiguration in appearance: namely, Jesus rising from death? The post-resurrection appearances, including to Peter, could have been thrown in as well. What better way to illustrate the promise of eternal life (1:11)? (Scholars have asked these questions, too, in some perplexity.)

The word for "eyewitnesses" is epoptai, which is also used of the higher grade initiates in the Greek mystery cults who had experienced the perceived presence of the god. There is a high scriptural content in this passage as well. The overall atmosphere is of a typical Old Testament theophany of God; the voice from heaven is the well-known verse from Psalm 2; "honor and glory" echo Psalm 8:5; and "on the holy mountain" suggests Psalm 2:6's "on Zion his holy mountain." Not only is the writer describing a revelatory experience attributed to Peter, he must construct it out of scriptural pieces (in the fashion of midrash), presumably because no memory or exact tradition about such a Petrine vision was available.

A fuller discussion of this passage in 2 Peter (taken with verse 19: see next item) can be found in Supplementary Article No. 7: Transfigured on the Holy Mountain: The Beginnings of Christianity.

 177. - 2 Peter 1:19

All this only confirms for us the message of the prophets, to which you will do well to attend, because it is like a lamp shining in a murky place, until the day breaks and the morning star rises to illuminate your minds.
The writer concludes this passage with a statement that would be astonishing had he really been recounting a Gospel incident; instead, it illuminates the real nature of that experience. The vision of Jesus in majesty is said to "confirm the message of the prophets." Would an event in the ministry of Jesus be offered as something secondary to the promise contained in the scriptures? Would those scriptures be described as "a lamp shining in a murky place" until the Parousia arrives, ignoring the light cast by Jesus' own presence on earth as teacher, miracle-worker, prophet of the future, dying and rising from death?

Instead, the writer of this epistle is presenting Peter's vision as a corroboration for the primary testimony about Jesus and the hope of his coming: the Jewish scriptures. There can have been no experience of Jesus himself on earth prior to or subsequent to this vision. This epiphany of the Christ they awaited confirmed his presence, his power, his imminent arrival, and has given a boost to a faith that was first and foremost dependent on an interpretation of the sacred writings. Even a decade or so into the second century (which is when scholars tend to date 2 Peter), a Christian writer shows no sign of believing in an historical Jesus.

 178. - 2 Peter 2:1

But false prophets also arose among the people [of Israel], just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies. They will go so far as to deny the Master who acquired [lit., bought] them for his own. [NASB/NAB]
Did not Jesus warn his disciples that "Imposters will come claiming to be messiahs or prophets, and they will produce signs and wonders to mislead God's chosen" (Mk. 13:22)? One of the common tendencies of sectarian groups is to try to neutralize the development of heresies in their midst (and to demonize the heretics) by claiming that the founder of the movement had foretold that very thing. The writer here can make mention of "the Master" who has gained their allegiance, but not as the source of any teaching or prophecy. "Despotes" (Master) is a word meaning "lord, sovereign, a master, especially of slaves" and is often used of God himself. It conveys no sense of a simple human teacher.

 179. - 2 Peter 3:2

I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles. [NIV]
Again the writer seems to lack any awareness of prophecies spoken by Jesus himself. And when the idea finally appears that anything had actually come from Jesus, it is said to be "through your apostles." The latter phrase is not likely to be employed when speaking of teachings pronounced by Jesus on earth, since everything of that nature would naturally be regarded as coming to later generations through community leaders and apostles. Rather, the thought suggests that the Lord and Savior is speaking through revelation to those apostles, and they in turn are passing on the perceived communication from him to the community.

 180. - 2 Peter 3:3-4

3Note this first: in the last days there will come men who scoff at religion and live self-indulgent  lives, 4and they will say: 'Where now is the promise of his coming? Our fathers have been laid to their rest, but still everything continues exactly as it has always been since the world began.' [NEB]
Detractors and scoffers have been questioning the veracity of the expected Parousia. Would not a natural recourse have been to appeal to Jesus' personal promises? Mark 9:1 has him say: "I tell you this: there are some of those standing here who will not taste death before they have seen the kingdom of God already come in power." In fact, why do the scoffers not raise the whole question of Jesus' promises? Why is there not a debate in the community over the accuracy and dependability of those promises, especially if (as the letter suggests) a sufficient period of time has elapsed that they may be reasonably called into question?

Nor is it possible, along modern scholarly lines, to suggest that such promises are not 'authentic' to Jesus but were attributed to him later. If the Gospel communities could make such an attribution, how likely that the community of 2 Peter had not done the same? In fact, on something as important as the 'return' of Jesus at the End-time, no Christian community could have failed to develop the tradition that he had personally promised to return, whether authentic or not. Such promises seem outside the ken of this writer's circle.

Another omission is evident here. Where is the Son of Man? The Gospels (and even Q) are focused on the arrival or return of Jesus in his role as the Son of Man, a figure derived from Daniel 7. Why do none of the epistles, which are also saturated with the idea of the imminent End-time and arrival of the Christ, make no mention of such a figure or identity for Jesus? Why, if this focus on the Son of Man was a reality of the Gospel world, do all the epistles and their communities seem completely ignorant of it?

 181. - 2 Peter 3:10

But the Day of the Lord will come; it will come, unexpected as a thief. [NEB]
Jesus' warning recorded in Matthew 24:43, that one must be on guard at all times since it is not known "at what watch of the night the thief will come," is one of his more memorable prophecies about the End. Paul, too, expresses himself in similar phrases (1 Thessalonians 5:2), yet neither he nor the writer of 1 Peter (nor, as we shall see, the author of Revelation) links such a warning or image with Jesus' own teaching on the matter. Neither one of them, as well, introduces the figure of the Son of Man, the centerpiece of the discussion in Matthew and its parallels.

To File No. 9: 1 & 2 John, Jude, plus Revelation

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