THE JESUS PUZZLE
Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty

THE SOUND OF SILENCE
200 Missing References to the Gospel Jesus in the New Testament Epistles

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"TOP 20"


 "The Sound of Silence" begins with a selection of 20 missing references, chosen from the full spectrum of the epistles, silences which should strike any observer as being notably surprising and perplexing. Within this group of 20, I have tried to cover all the principal aspects of the Gospel story, while at the same time demonstrating what the epistles show us to be the true nature of the early Christian movement and its view of the Christ it preached.

ź 1. -Romans 1:19-20

My first choice is a somewhat innocuous-seeming passage, and yet one which reveals a telling void in the mind of an early Christian writer like Paul. Unlike later commentators from the 2nd century on, Paul here shows no conception that Jesus on earth had been a reflection of God himself, the Son demonstrating the Fatherís invisible attributes in his own incarnated person. Even more important, how could Paul fail to conceive and express the idea that Jesus himself was the primary revealer of "all that may be known of God"? It is difficult to explain how any Christian writer, cognizant of a recent life and ministry of Jesus, could show such a void on any role played by Jesus on earth, and yet we meet that silence at every turn, as we shall see.


 ź 2. - Romans 16:25-27

This is one of several passages throughout the epistles which give us a clear picture of the nature of the early Christian movement. It tells us the source of Paulís knowledge about the Christ, and how the movement started. At the same time, it leaves no room in the picture for an historical Jesus.

The concept of a divine "mystery," a secret kept by God for long ages, recurs several times in the Pauline corpus (cf. Col. 1:26 and 2:2, Eph. 3:5, Titus 1:3, etc.). The plain meaning of the above words would seem to define the mystery as Christ himself, now revealed through Paulís gospel (and that of others) after being hidden for long ages. There is no occasion for understanding any incarnation in these words, and we have the added element that what is known and proclaimed to the world comes through the scriptures.

The passage is also full of "revelation" words: apocalypsis, the verbs phaneroo and gnoridzo. Such words are used throughout the epistles to describe what has happened in the present period (cf. 1 Pet. 1:20, 2 Tim. 1:10, etc.). This language marks the 1st century as an age of revelation, when inspired knowledge came through a new reading of the sacred texts. It is scripture, and ultimately God, to which preachers like Paul regularly point as backing for their claims, not the remembered life and teachings of Jesus. The "mystery" has resided in the sacred writings, awaiting the inspirational key God has provided to unlock it.

[ Here is a good example of the opportunity to read Gospel preconceptions into a passage. Several translations use the phrase "through my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ," with the possible implication that it is the preaching by Christ that is meant. The Greek is "to kerygma Iesou Christou" with "Jesus Christ" being a genitive which should be taken as objective, that is, Jesus Christ is the object of the preaching, not the one doing it. "Kerygma" in the epistles consistently refers to the preaching of apostles like Paul, with Jesus as the content of the message. Bauerís Lexicon specifies this phrase as meaning "preaching about Jesus Christ." The NAB is surprising lucid in the meaning of the entire passage, with its: ". . . the gospel I proclaim when I preach Jesus Christ, the gospel which reveals the mystery hidden for many ages but now manifested through the writings of the prophets . . ." Between the long-hidden mystery and its decipherment from scripture by those like Paul, there is no room for an historical Jesus.

In passages like this we detect no sense that Jesus had recently been on earth, revealing himself through his own preaching. Scholars like to claim that the mystery now disclosed refers to Godís long-intended plan for salvation. But even were this the meaning, did Jesus himself not have a key role in disclosing that plan, in disclosing himself as its cornerstone? Yet Paul has left no room or role here for Jesusí career; instead, he places the focus of revelation and the coming of salvation entirely upon apostles like himself. ]


ź 3. - 1 Thessalonians 2:2

Early Christian writers like Paul are constantly referring to the message they carry as the "gospel of God." They also talk of the work of God, the saving actions of God, the call of God (cf. Romans 1:16, 3:24, 1 Cor. 1:9, Phil. 1:6, Gal. 4:7, etc.). If these apostles were preaching a message about an historical Jesus who had himself taught about God and his own relationship to him, surely they would style it the "gospel of Jesus." Why is there no mention in the epistles of an earthly ministry of Jesus? On the other hand, if Jesus is a spiritual figure, a "mystery" known only through scripture and Godís revelation of him, then Paulís message is indeed the gospel of God (see especially Romans 1:1-4), and God is the primary "Savior" (see also Titus 1:3).


ź 4. - 1 Thessalonians 4:9

An astonishing silence on Paulís part. Was not the centerpiece of Jesusí teaching the love commandment? Could Paul possibly be ignorant of that? What Christian, when admonishing the believer to show love to fellow human beings, would choose to say that God was the teacher of such a doctrine and ignore the entire weight and focus of Jesusí ministry? Yet this silence on the love command recurs consistently throughout the epistles: see Romans 13:8, 1 Cor. 13:1, Gal. 5:14, Eph. 5:1, James 2:8, 1 & 2 John (passim). Note that here it is not a case of failing to refer to something because everyone already knew it; Paulís statement is an exclusion of any such assumption that Jesus had taught about love.

[ J. P. Holding has a very strained explanation for this startling phenomenon, claiming that since Jesus spoke in Godís name, all these teachings are correctly ascribed to God. I pointed out in my response to himósee Reader Feedbackóthat it is inconceivable that all Christian letter writers would conform to such an esoteric consideration and deliberately avoid attributing any teachings to Jesus himself. See the section "A Twenty-Pound Gorilla" (his title) in my response to him for a thorough summary of the situation we face regarding the silences in the epistles: Response to J. P. Holding ]


ź 5. - 1 Peter 3:9

Even the Jesus Seminar regards the admonition to "turn the other cheek" as authentic to a preaching Jesus. And yet the writer of 1 Peter (presumably Jesusí own chief disciple) can express the above sentiments without so much as a glance at the words recorded in Matthewís Sermon on the Mount: "Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left" (5:39); and "Love your enemies" (5:44). The epistle writer gives us not even an "as Jesus himself taught us." It is not to be expected that every writer would provide such a phrase on every occasion, but a reference to an earthly Jesus and his words would seem natural in such a context, both to strengthen the authority of the action being urged by the writer, and to honor Jesus as the source. With the possible exception of two "words of the Lord" in 1 Corinthians (which are often interpreted as directives Paul believes he has received directly from Christ in heaven: see the Appendix and "Part One" in the Main Articles), we never get such an attribution from any epistle writer.


ź 6. - Galatians 2:8

Not only are the epistles silent on Jesus the teacher, they are silent on any appointment of apostles by Jesus on earth. (Cf. 1 Cor. 12:18, 2 Cor. 10:13, Eph. 2:20). Here Paul identifies both his own and Peterís call to apostleship as coming from God. (The Greek has the pronoun "he" where the NEB inserts "God" and this is the way most translators interpret it. Some translations leave the "he" but none I am aware of changes it to "Jesus".)

Moreover, Paul is clearly allowing for no distinction in quality or origin between his apostleship and that of Peter. In all the argument over the legitimacy of his credentials as an apostle and the opposition he faced from other preachers of the Christ (e.g., 2 Cor. 10 & 11), can we believe that no one would ever have used against him the fact that others had been apostles of Jesus during his lifetime, whereas Paul had not? Yet Paul shows no sign that such an issue was ever raised, and never addresses such a consideration.


ź 7. - Titus 1: 2-3

2. . .Yes, it is eternal life that God, who cannot lie, promised before the beginning of time, 3and now in his own good time he has brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior. [NEB/NIV]
Here is another passage in the epistles which draws a picture of what has happened in the present period, leaving no room for any role Jesus might have played in recent salvation history. In the past lie Godís promises of eternal life, and his first action on those promises is the present revelation to apostles like Paul who had gone out to proclaim the message. Jesusí own proclamation of eternal life, his own person as the embodiment of that life (as the Gospel of John so memorably puts it), has been shut out.

Note the reference to "God our Savior." The term "Savior," throughout the epistles, is applied in the vast majority of cases (cf. 1 Tim. 4:10) to God, and only in a small minority to Christ Jesus. This does not speak for a strong sense of immediacy for Jesus in the minds of his followers, or for the role he had played in the historical events of Calvary and the rising from the tomb. Instead, while Jesus was the Son who had undergone sacrifice, no one had witnessed this event, since it had taken place in the spiritual realm (like the salvific acts of all the savior gods of the day). The immediate agency in the present time has been God, revealing his Son and the redemptive activities of that Son. Thus, to the minds of men like Paul and his successors, including the writer of Titus, there is a primary sense of God being the "Savior" and providing them with his gospel.


ź 8. - 2 Corinthians 6:1-2

Another blatant passage which moves from Godís predictions of the past, contained in scripture, and the present moment of salvation now being put into effect by God. Paul quotes Isaiah 49:8, seeing it as Godís ancient promise that a time will arrive when he will come to humanityís aid and grant salvation. But what is that time? It is one thing for Paul, as he often does, to focus on his own apostolic career to the exclusion of any mention of Jesusí ministry. It is quite another for him to claim, as he does here, that the prophetic words of scripture foretell not the time of Jesusí life as "the hour of favour," not Jesusí acts of sacrifice and resurrection as "the day of deliverance," but Paulís own activities and his preaching of the Christian message!

Luke at least could recognize the monumental inappropriateness of this (if he had even read Paul), for in 4:19 of his Gospel, he has Jesus in a Nazareth synagogue read a similar passage from Isaiah (61:1-2) and declare to the startled assembly that it is he to whom this sacred prophecy refers.

Note once again how the passage quoted above begins with an exclusive focus on God as the one doing the work of the present time; grace has come from him. Paul seems impervious to any thought of a role in this culminating period of salvation history for the man he is supposedly preaching.


ź 9. - 1 Corinthians 15:12-16

There are some devastating implications to be drawn from this passage. Paul expresses himself as though the raising of Christ from the dead is a matter of faith, not of historical record as evidenced by eyewitness to a physical, risen Jesus at Easter. He is so adamant about the necessity to believe that the dead will be raised, that he is prepared to stateóand he repeats it four timesóthat if they are not, then Christ himself "has not been raised." If men he knew had witnessed the actual return of Jesus from the grave, I do not think he would have thought to make even a rhetorical denial of it.

Moreover, the verb for "witness" (martureo) is often used in the sense of witnessing to, of declaring oneís belief in, an item of faith, not of factual record (though it can mean this in some contexts). Such a meaning here is strongly supported by what follows this verb: kata tou theou, or "against God." Translators often seem uncertain of the exact import of this phrase, but Bauerís Lexicon firmly declares it as meaning "give testimony in contradiction to God." The idea that Paul is trying to get across here is that if in fact God did not raise Jesus from death (which would have to be the conclusion, he says, if all of the dead are not raised) then, rhetorically speaking, he and other apostles have been contradicting God and lying about Jesusí resurrection.

The point is, and itís unmistakable, Paul is saying that knowledge about Jesusí raising has come from God, and that his own preaching testimony, true or false, is something which relates to information which has come from Godóin other words, through revelation. Not history, not apostolic tradition about recent events on earth. In all this discussion about the trueness of Christís resurrection, Paulís standard is one of faith, faith based on Godís testimonyómeaning, in scripture. (Cf. Romans 8:25, 10:9, 1 Thess. 4:14.) Historical human witness plays no part.

[ It may be claimed that the famous passage just before this, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paulís statement of his gospel that "Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures (kata tas graphas), that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures," followed (v. 5-8) by a listing of all those who "saw" him, constitutes an appeal to historical witness. But we note that Paul twice says that his gospel is derived from scripture, for such a meaning can be taken from the kata tas graphas. We also note that in the subsequent discussion (v. 12-16) about whether Christ is raised or not, Paul does not repeat or refer to that list of "seeings" as evidence that Christ was raised. Why not? Because the list refers to a series of visions of the spiritual Christ (Paul includes his own, an acknowledged vision, using exactly the same language for them all), a Christ who, as part of the scripture-based gospel about him, is declared to have been raised on the third day. (The latter point comes from Hosea 6:2, not the Gospel chronology of Easter.) These "events" of Paulís gospel were part of the higher spiritual world of myth, and thus there is no immediate sequential relationship between the "raising" and the occurrence of the visions, which is why the latter are not stated in either spot as a proof of Christís resurrection. See my Supplementary Article No. 6: The Source of Paulís Gospel for a full discussion of the 1 Cor. 15:3-8 passage. See also this passage in the file on 1 & 2 Corinthians, below.]

But there is yet another important silence to highlight in this passage. Paul is most anxious to persuade his readers of the feasibility of human resurrection. If one accepts certain Gospel accounts, or assumes that such traditions very soon developed, ready evidence lay to hand. Stories of the revival of Jairusí daughter, the astounding emergence of Lazarus from his tomb (not to mention Matthewís recording of corpses rising from their graves at Jesusí crucifixion), would have provided Paul with undeniable proof for his readers that in fact humans could be resurrected from death. Lazarus might still have to die again, but an eternal resurrection would surely be seen as prefigured by the temporary ones granted by Jesus on earth, and there is no way Paul would not have appealed to these miracles in his argument.

Nor would he have passed up an appeal to Jesusí own promises on the matter. Luke records these sayings: "You will be repaid on the day when good men rise from the dead" (14:14); and: "Those who have been judged worthy of a place in the other world and of the resurrection from the dead, do not marry, for they are not subject to death any longer" (20:35). The Gospel of John, too, is pervaded by Jesusí promise that "he who believes in me will have life everlasting." Had such words, or such traditions about Jesusí miracles, been circulating in the Christian communities of Paulís time, there would have been no need for his plaintive inquiry: "How can you say there is no resurrection from the dead?"

Indeed, this sort of consideration discredits the entire rationalization for Paulís silence on the historical Jesus and his ministry, that he "had no interest in Jesusí earthly life." Paul had an undeniable interest in the question of the resurrection of the dead, as he did in many other matters, and if Jesus had preached about such things while on earth, Paul could not help but have been profoundly interested in what Jesus had to say on these matters and the examples he had set. Not to mention the inevitable interest his congregations would have had in such things. Paulís letters should be full of references to what the historical Jesus, the incarnated Son of God, had said and done while he was on earth.


ź 10. - James 5:10

The little epistle of James probably has more silences per square inch than any other New Testament document, but none of them are as striking as this one. How could the writer not draw on Jesus himself as the best and most compelling example when urging his readers to show patience in the face of suffering? Even if the Gospels were not yet in existence when this early epistle was written (many date it to the mid-1st century), oral tradition would surely have progressed to the point where Jesusí behavior before Pilate and his Jewish judges would entail such an idea. Here there is very much a "need" to refer to Jesus, even if the reader were familiar with the fact.


ź 11. - Romans 6:2-4

If any defining moment of Jesusí career had impressed itself on early Christians, it would surely have been its inauguration: that dramatic scene amid the waters of the Jordan, with a fiery John in camelís hair coat crying for repentance and thundering his doom-laden warnings upon the crowd. What an impact it must have made when Jesus received Johnís sudden deferential homage, when he immersed himself in the waters of the river, to emerge with the dove and Godís voice descending upon him from heaven. Even if the Holy Spirit and the divine words were a later elaboration, they indicate that the incident of Jesusí baptism must very soon have been invested with mythic significance.

Yet one would never know it from Paul. For Paul, baptism is the prime sacrament of Christian ritual. Through baptism, the convert dies to his old, sinful life and rises to a new one. Through baptism, the believer partakes of the spiritual body of Christ. In Romans 6:1-11 he breaks down the baptismal ritual into its mystical component parts. Yet never do any of those parts relate to the scene of Jesusí own baptism. No significance is given to any details of that scene, for from 1st century writers like Paul we would never even know that Jesus had been baptized.

If Paul had known a tradition that the Holy Spirit had descended upon Jesus at his baptism, that he had been welcomed by God himself as his Beloved Son, can we possibly believe that Paul would not have integrated such motifs into his own presentation of the rite? Paul everywhere stresses that believers have been adopted as sons of God, as in Romans 8:14-17. How could he fail to seize on the Fatherís words to the divine Son and apply them to the baptized convert? In that latter Romans passage, he also says that "the Spirit of God joins with our spirit in testifying that we are Godís children." Since Paulís baptism involved the descent of the Holy Spirit into the initiate, it is unthinkable that he would not point to the descent of the Spirit into Jesus at his baptism as an archetypal parallel, had any such tradition existed.

And where is the Baptist? In Christian mythology there is hardly a more commanding figure short of Jesus himself. The forerunner, the herald, the scourge of the unrepentant, the voice crying aloud in the wilderness. Until the Gospels appear, John is truly lost in the wilderness, for no Christian writer ever refers to him. Even as late as the turn of the 2nd century, the writer of 1 Clement is silent on John when he says (17:1): "Let us take pattern by those who went about in sheepskins and goatskins heralding the Messiahís coming; that is to say, Elijah, Elisha and Ezekiel among the prophets, and other famous names besides."

Are we to see John the Baptist buried in that last phrase? He hardly deserves such passing anonymity. Besides, Clement goes on to detail examples of those "famous names" and they are all from the Old Testament. Hebrews 11 also fails to include John in its enumeration of heroes of the faith who suffered, faced jeers and scourgings, stoning and prison and even death. (For that matter, as we shall see, it also fails to include Jesus.)

There was a common Jewish belief that the coming of the Messiah would be preceded by the appearance of the ancient prophet Elijah, to herald his advent. If 1st century Christian preachers were at all concerned with justifying their claim that Jesus had been the Messiah, John the Baptist would have been invaluable as an Elijah-type figure to fulfill this expectation.


ź 12. -Hebrews 9:19-20

At the core of this writerís theology lies the new covenant established by Christís sacrifice, a sacrifice which takes place in heaven. (See Supplementary Article No. 9: The Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews.) His exegetical technique revolves around the drawing of parallels between the communityís ritual and theology and the embodiment or prototype of these things in the scriptures. And yet the prime scriptural event which had established the old covenant, the blood sacrifice of animals conducted by Moses and the words spoken over this ritual (Exodus 24:8), is presented without the slightest glance toward Jesusí own establishment of the new covenant by the words he spoke over the bread and wine at the Last Supper.

The parallel between the old and the new, the very striking similarity between the words spoken by Moses in Exodus and the words spoken by Jesus at the sacramental meal which established the perpetual celebration of his sacrifice, should have been so compelling that the author could not possibly have avoided calling attention to it. The only conclusion to draw is that he knew of no such event, and no such words spoken by Jesus at a Last Supper. (The mythical scene in 1 Cor. 11:23f which Paul presents to his congregation as a product of personal revelationósee the section "Learning of a Sacred Meal" in Supplementary Article No 6: The Source of Paulís Gospelóhas apparently not yet reached the community of the Epistle to the Hebrews.)

[ We might point out that the turn of the 2nd century Christian document known as the Didache (Teaching) also shows a stunning silence on Jesusí establishment of the Eucharist. In chapter 9, community prayers attached to a thanksgiving meal are quoted, and they contain no sacramental element whatever. The bread and the wine in this communal meal in no way signify Jesusí death. Jesus did not institute this ceremony. It is attached to no incident in his life, certainly not the eve of his sacrifice. Jesusí role in the theology of this community seems to be nothing more than a kind of (spiritual) conduit from God, as indicated by this passage, quoting a verse from the prayers:

"At the Eucharist, offer the eucharistic prayer in this way. Begin with the chalice: ĎWe give thanks to thee, our Father, for the holy vine of thy servant David, which thou has made known to us through thy servant (or child) Jesus.í" In fact, the Didache in its entirety is notably silent on any aspect of Jesusí life and death. ]


ź 13 - Hebrews 12:15-17

Dante in his Inferno places Judas in the pit of Hell, locked in ice, gnawed on by Satan. The arch-betrayer who planted his deceitful kiss on Jesusí cheek and helped deliver him to death was to become a symbol in Christian minds of all falsehearted and disbelieving Jewry. Judas inaugurated the Jew as demon, and an entire race suffered fiercely for it over two millennia. Yet before he appears to fill his treacherous role in Markís Passion story, no ghost of Judas haunts the Christian landscape. He is notably missing from the above passage in Hebrews, where the selling of the Lord himself for 30 pieces of silver by a man embittered, jealous and deceitful, would surely have been a more apt symbol of the bitter, poisonous weed that arises unchecked within the community of the holy.

Hebrews is usually dated either just before or just after the Jewish War. It is in this period (60-80) that scholars usually place the writing of Mark, where Judas first surfaces. Considering Hebrewsí apparent ignorance of such a figure, either Mark should be dated later, or else the first Gospel contains ideas which were not widely known among Christian communities of the time. Or both.

We might note that the writer of 1 Clement also deals with the theme of jealousy, but to his list of Old Testament figures who suffered at the hands of jealous men, he fails to add Jesus himself, betrayed by the perfidious apostle in his own company.


ź 14. - Romans 13:3-4

Can Paul possibly have any sense of Jesusí historical trial and crucifixion and still express such sentiments? Pilate, whether he believed in Jesusí innocence or not, delivered this righteous man to scourging and unjust execution. If the story of such a fate suffered by Jesus of Nazareth were present in every Christianís mind, Paulís praise of the authorities, whether Jewish or Roman, as Godís agents for the good of all, and from which the innocent have nothing to fear, would ring hollow indeed.

In fact, all the early writers lack the essential atmosphere of the Gospel presentation of Jesusí death: that this was the unjust execution of an innocent man, beset by betrayal and false accusations and a pitiless establishment. Instead, Paul in Romans 8:32 extols the magnanimity of God who "did not spare his own Son but surrendered him for us all," and for the writer of Ephesians (5:2), it is Christ himself who in love "gave himself up on your behalf as an offering and a sacrifice whose fragrance is pleasing to God." This seems far from the dread Golgotha of the Gospels and its scene of deicide. (See Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus? for a full discussion of the nature and location of the spiritual Christís redemptive Ďcrucifixioní.)


ź 15. - 1 John 4:1-3

This passage tells us that in early Christian preaching, the test which determined whether a Christian apostle was speaking the truth related to the spirit which God had sent him. This epistle was written probably in the last decade of the 1st century. One would expect that by this time Christians possessed a body of material regarded as proceeding from Jesus himself, transmitted to them over the decades through a chain of authorized apostles and community leaders, a process of transmission through "apostolic tradition." Yet such an idea is nowhere to be found in any of the epistles (cf. 2 Cor. 11:4). We do not encounter even the barest concept of a teaching passed on between generations, arising out of an apostolic past attached ultimately to Jesus. Instead, doctrine comes directly through revelation from God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, though some "spirits" may come from the devil.

In the above passage, the test of the true spirit is whether the message being preached corresponds to the writerís own position, which he has arrived at through the spirit: the belief that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Though no time or circumstances are offered, such a rivalry between different "spirits" shows that at the end of the century, the doctrine that the heavenly Christ had been on earth (something known through the Holy Spirit, or revelation) was not being accepted by every Christian. (See my Supplementary Article No 2: A Solution to the First Epistle of John, for a full discussion of the meaning of this passage.)

We might compare the Didache, chapter 11, which contains a lengthy discussion about how to judge the legitimacy of wandering apostles, both in their teaching and their charismatic activities. No part of this judgment is based upon any links with apostolic tradition; there is no question of tracing authority or correctness back to Jesus, or to a group of apostles who had known and followed him on earth.


ź 16. - 1 Corinthians 10:11

One of the driving forces of the Christian movement was the expectation that the end of the world and the arrival of Christ to establish Godís Kingdom was at hand, part of a longstanding Jewish anticipation of the Day of the Lord.

The conception and pattern of history was simple. The period stretching back through history was the "old age," an age of sin and evil and darkness, when God had permitted Satan to rule, when the righteous were persecuted and divine justice was delayed. The "new age" would begin with the arrival of some heavenly figure or messianic agent of God, who would direct the overthrow of Israelís enemies and the forces of evil generally. The highlight of all this would be a day of judgment when the righteous would be exalted and the sinner and oppressor consigned to punishment. The pattern of salvation history, stretching in a line from past through future, fell into two sections: the old age and the new. Scholars refer to this pattern as "two-age dualism."

In the orthodox picture of Christian origins, however, a radically new dimension has been added to the pattern. The Messiah had come, but not the Kingdom with him. Christ had died and been resurrected, but still the new age had not dawned. That was to be delayed until his return, this time in glory and as judge at the Parousia. Between the two comings of Christ, as brief a period as that might be, the gospel message had to be carried to as many as possible and the world had to be made ready.

If this was indeed the scenario faced by the first couple of generations of Christian preachers and believers, we would expect to find two things. First, a significant recasting of the two-age pattern. The coming of Jesus would have to be seen as a pivotal point in the ongoing scheme of redemption history. After all, the Son of God had come to earth; his life had included the act of salvation itself, the atoning death and divine resurrection which guaranteed the resurrection of Christians at the Parousia. The "interregnum," that period between the life of Christ and his second coming, would have to be seen as a separate period of its own, during which forces were operating which had previously been absent, when precedents set by Jesus awaited their final fulfilment.

"Upon us the fulfilment of the ages has come!" Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 10:11, pointing to the Parousia which he believes is very near. Does he see no "fulfilment" in the recent past in Jesus? Preceding this comment has been Paulís enumeration of symbolic events in Israelite history at the time of the Exodus. Those events looked toward the future, "for our benefit." But that future is cast entirely in terms of believers like Paul, who await the imminent End. Paul, here and elsewhere, has not the smallest glance for an intervening event in the earthly life and work of Christ. To the extent that Paul has a past "pivot point" at all (as will be seen in Romans 8:22-3), it is the time of revelation, the "giving of the spirit," sometimes the sending of the spirit of the Son. The turning point of salvation history was the arrival of faith when God revealed Christ and people responded to the carriers of the revelationómost importantly, Paul himself. When Paul occasionally looks backward, it is to the unveiling of the mystery about Christ, the visions and inspirations, the "seeing" of the Christ by so many apostles, including himself (1 Cor. 15:3-8). These are the events he regards as inaugurating the final period of the old age leading to the new.

Neither here, nor in any of the other passages like it, does Paul address what should have been the key question: Why did the actual coming of the Messiah not in itself produce the turn of the ages? For this had been the expectation of centuries. No one could have anticipated that the arrival of the Messiah would not be accompanied by the establishment of the Kingdom. We would expect to find some kind of apologetic industry arising within the Christian movement to explain this unexpected and disappointing turn of events. Yet every single epistle writer is silent on such a thing.

[ There have been many analyses of the Christian conception of time which purport to see the early Christian view according to a recasting of the two-age pattern. A famous and influential one is Oscar Cullmannís Christ and Time, 1955. Cullmann professes to see a new, three-stage conception in Paul: first, primal history (going back to the myths of the patriarchs); second, the historical event of Jesus of Nazareth, the pivot through which all redemptive history is now seen to pass; and third, the future eschatological (end-time) myth and expectation. Cullmann sees in Paul an orientation that is no longer eschatological (looking to the future); rather it is "toward He (sic) who has already come."

Unfortunately, Cullmannís picture is a figment of his imagination, a product of his preconceptions which he will impose on Paul no matter what Paul says. No. 2 in our list, Romans 16:25-27, and No. 7, Titus 1:3 (along with others to come), speak of the long-hidden divine mysteries that God has revealed in the present time to apostles and prophets. There was certainly no "second stage" there, occupied by the recent Jesus of Nazareth and his redemptive life, no pivot point of salvation history which now lies in the past. Paulís orientation is very much toward the future, as the present passage and others to come will show (including Romans 8:19f and 13:11-12). ]


ź 17. - 1 Corinthians 1:7-8

This passage is representative of many in the epistles which speak of the anticipated coming of Christ (the Parousia). In many cases, as here, the verb employed is a revelation word. That is, the writer speaks of the "revealing" of the Christ (cf. 1 Peter 1:7 & 13, 2 Thess. 1:7). This is a strange way of putting it, if Jesus had just lived a full life on earth within living memory.

Another common mode of expression is the use of the verb "to come" (erchomai). Greek has no specific word for "return" in the sense of coming back to a place one has visited or been at before. The word erchomai is a basic verb of motion and can mean to come, or to go, or to pass; a specific meaning, which can include "return," is conveyed by adjuncts or the context. Other passages convey the idea of Christís coming by using words like "the appearance of" (e.g., 1 Tim. 6:14). With one possible exception (Hebrews 9:28, which will be touched on in connection with Hebrews 10:37 and dealt with fully in the Appendix), nowhere does any writer attempt to convey the sense of "return." For example, the simple word palin, "again," employed with erchomai, could have served this purpose, yet no one ever uses it. (Cf. also Phil. 1:6 and 3:20, Titus 2:13.)

Such reticence is in sharp contrast to New Testament scholars who, when translating or interpreting such terms as "come" or "appearance" in the epistles, routinely use the word "return" or the phrase "second coming." But if readers can free themselves from the Gospel background, they will find that all these references convey the distinct impression that this will be the first and only coming to earth, that this expectation, this longing to see Christ, has in no way been previously fulfilled.

We keep wanting these writers to clarify, to acknowledge, that Jesus had already come before, that he had begun when on earth the work he would complete at the Parousia; that people had formerly witnessed their deliverance in the event of his death and resurrection; that he had been "revealed" to the sight of all in his incarnated life as Jesus of Nazareth. But never an echo of such ideas do we hear in the background of these passages.

[ Note: A related but separate issue is whether the "coming" on the Day of the Lord is envisioned as the coming of Christ himself (as it is here), or only the older Jewish idea of the coming of God. This will be discussed in connection with James 5:7. ]


ź 18. - Romans 10:9

Here is Paulís basic declaration of faith, which he preaches in his missionary work, and I will use it to highlight one of the fundamental silences to be found in all the New Testament epistles. The above translation is from the King James version, and reflects the literal Greek, unlike most modern translations which render the key phrase: "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord." (The NASB gets close with its "If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord," its italicized "as" representing a supplied word that is not in the original.)

For all the discussion about faith which he indulges in throughout his letters, Paul never itemizes the one element of faith we would expect, the one that must come at the start. Indeed, even in modern Christian preaching to the outside world, we encounter it constantly: that Jesus of Nazareth, a human being who lived at a given point in the past and did certain things, was in fact the Son of God and Messiah. In all the New Testament epistles, no one is ever enjoined to believe that an historical man was anything. Paulís faith declarations are a belief in something. One believes that such a being exists, that he possesses certain powers and heavenly status, that he is Godís instrument of salvation. But never that a recent human being was such-and-such.

When read straightforwardly (as the KJ does), the above declaration says: "if you confess the Lord Christ," which is a statement that the believer acknowledges Christís existence and his power. If Paul were speaking of a recent historical man, that man would be the starting point of his thinking, and he would frame his faith declarations in terms of what that man was, his nature, identity and role. Instead, here as everywhere else, his starting point is the divine Son in heaven, the object of Godís revealed gospel. Claims are made about this spiritual figure, all of it based on scripture.

Paul places such a declaration entirely in the realm of present faith, not history. Even if we assume the common modern translation of "if you confess Jesus is Lord," we note the present tense and the fact that the statement is a confession about a given heavenly figure. Paul acknowledges that "Jesus is the Lord of us," which has the effect of an address directly to the divinity: "You are Lord."


ź 19. - James 5:15

The Gospels tell us how the sick pressed to touch the hem of Jesusí garment; how they stood in the byways and called out to him as he passed, crying for deliverance from their afflictions. Jesus had shown mercy to them all, even if those today who wish to bring the Gospel accounts down to earth suggest that many of these healings were psychological. How could the tradition have grown so strong that Jesus had performed such healings if he had not in fact brought relief to many sick and disordered people in the course of his ministry?

Yet we would never know it from James 5:15:

It is inconceivable that the writer would not have appealed to the fact that Jesus himself had done these very things, had he possessed any such traditions. Mark 2:1-12 presents us with a miracle scene in which Jesus does both. To the paralytic he says: "Take up thy bed and walk," and at the same time he pronounces the manís sins forgiven. The writer of James has clearly never heard of it.

Nor has he who sent the letter known as 1 Clement, from Rome to Corinth, at the very end of the first century. In chapter 59, "Clement" delivers a long prayer to God which must have been in the liturgy of the church at Rome. Here is one part of it:

The Gospels tell us that Jesus did these very things, from healing the sick to feeding the hungry. In Godís own name, as he walked the sands of Galilee and Judea, he pitied, he supported, he comforted, he revealed God. The reader should be left dumbfounded at the silence of Clement and his community about any such activities.


ź 20. - Philippians 3:10

The final silence in our "Top 20" is one that resonates throughout the entire record of early Christian correspondence, but we can focus on it through one passage in Paul. This striking and pervasive silence, perhaps the most telling of them all, can be summed up in one question: Where are the holy places?

In all the Christian writers of the 1st century, in all the devotion they display about Christ and the new faith, not one of them ever expresses the slightest desire to see the birthplace of Jesus, to visit Nazareth his home town, the sites of his preaching, the upper room where he held his Last Supper, the hill on which he was crucified, or the tomb where he was buried and rose from the dead. Not only is there no evidence that anyone showed an interest in such places, they go completely unmentioned. The words Bethlehem, Nazareth and Galilee never appear in the epistles, and the word Jerusalem is never used in connection with Jesus. Most astonishing of all, there is not a hint of pilgrimage to Calvary itself, where humanityís salvation was consummated. How could such a place not have become the center of Christian devotion, how could it not have been turned into a shrine? Each year at Passover we would expect to find Christians observing their own celebration on the hill outside Jerusalem, performing a rite every Easter Sunday at the site of the nearby tomb. Christian sermonizing and theological meditation could hardly fail to be built around the places of salvation, not just the abstract events.

Do Christians avoid frequenting such places out of fear? Acts, possibly preserving a kernel of historical reality, portrays the Apostles as preaching fearlessly in the Temple in the earliest days, despite arrest and persecution, and the persecution has in any case been much exaggerated for the early decades. Even such a threat, however, should not and would not have prevented clandestine visits by Christians, and there were many other places of Jesusí career whose visitation would have involved no danger. And, of course, there would have been no danger in mentioning them in their correspondence.

Even Paul seems immune to the lure of such places. He can speak, as in Philippians, of wanting to know Christ, to know the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings. And yet, does he rush to the hill of Calvary upon his conversion, to experience those sufferings the more vividly, to throw himself upon the sacred ground that bore the blood of his slain Lord? Does he stand before the empty tomb, the better to bring home to himself the power of Jesusí resurrection, the better to feel the conviction that his own resurrection is guaranteed? This is a man whose letters reveal someone full of insecurities and self-doubts, possessed by his own demons, highly emotional, a man driven to preach else he would go mad, as he tells us in 1 Corinthians 9:16. Would he not have derived great consolation from visiting the Gethsemane garden, where Jesus is reported to have passed through similar horrors and self-doubts? Would his sacramental convictions about the Lordís Supper, which he is anxious to impart to the Corinthians (11:23f), not have been heightened by a visit to the upper room in Jerusalem, to absorb the ambience of that hallowed place and occasion?

Once again, such considerations render unacceptable the standard rationalization that Paul was uninterested in the earthly life of Jesus. Moreover, when Paul undertakes to carry his mission to the gentiles, surely he would wantóand needóto go armed with the data of Jesusí life, with memories of the places Jesus had frequented, ready to answer the inevitable questions his new audiences would ask in their eagerness to hear all the details about the man who was the Son of God and Savior of the world. Instead, what does he do? By his own account in Galatians, he waits three years following his conversion before making a short visit to Jerusalem, "to get to know Cephas. I stayed with him for fifteen days, without seeing any of the other apostles except James, the brother of the lord." Nor was he to return there for another fourteen years. Did Paul learn all the data of Jesus life on that one occasion? Did he visit the holy places? Not having felt the urge to do so for three years, his silence on such things is perhaps not surprising. But if he did, can we believe he would not have shared these experiencesóand they would have been intensely emotional onesówith his readers? If not here, then at least at some point in his many letters?

But it is not only the places of Jesusí life and death. What about the relics? Jesusí clothes, the things he used in his everyday life, the things he touched? Can we believe that such items would not have remained behind, to be collected, clamored for, to be seen and touched by the faithful themselves? Would not an apostle like Paul be anxious to carry such a memento of the man he preached? Would not a rivalry develop between apostles, between Christian communities (as it did later), to gain such mementos and relics for worship and as status symbols? Did not one single cup survive from the Last Supperóone that would be claimed to have touched Jesusí own lips? Was there not a single nail with Jesus' flesh on it, not one thorn from the bloody crown, not the centurion's spear, not a piece of cloth from his garments gambled over by the soldiers at the foot of the crossónot, in fact, a host of relics claimed to be these very things, such as we find all through the Middle Ages?

Why is it only in the 4th century that pieces of "the true cross" begin to surface? Why is it left to Constantine to set up the first shrine on the supposed mount of Jesusí death, and to begin the mania for pilgrimage to the holy sites that has persisted to this day? Why would someone in the first 100 years of the movement not similarly seek to walk on the same ground that the Son of God himself had so recently walked on? The total absence of such things in the first hundred years of Christian correspondence is perhaps the single strongest argument for regarding the entire Gospel account of Jesus' life and death as nothing but literary fabrication.

[ It is often claimed, in relation not only to this silence but to a host of others, that the epistles, being "occasional" writings, simply donít happen to contain any "occasion" for mentioning such things. Well, the object of the present exercise is to demonstrate that this is not the case. But there is a larger rejoinder to such a rationalization. Had these things existed in the early Christian world, they would have been impressed on the minds of the epistle writers, commending themselves for mention; such writers would have made occasion for working them into their letters. Indeed, they could not have prevented themselves from doing so.

If one analyzes the epistles, one finds a consistency in the motifs employed, the modes of expression used. To a great extent these are drawn from the Hebrew Bible; and they reflect the atmosphere of revelation and inspiration which characterized the 1st century. But if the words and deeds, the places and relics of Jesusí recent life had been in the air, remembered and discussed and visited and touched, these are the things around which we would find an inevitable orientation of thought and expression. Such a phenomenon would have been unavoidable if everything had begun with a response to an historical man whose life and death so impressed his followers and those who were told of him. A focus on the man himself, and the physical trail of him, would pervade the record. But for these writers to show not the smallest sign that any of Jesusí words, deeds, places and relics were present in their thoughts when they took pen to paper, is a situation so bizarre, so unlikely, that we are obliged to look for another explanation. The one which most commends itself is that they knew of no such things and no such person.

Perhaps by the time we have gone through the entire corpus of New Testament epistles, and the picture of the extent and arresting nature of the silence is complete, you the reader may come to the same conclusion as well. ]


To File No. 3: Romans

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