Why Paul’s Writings Do Not Support Mythicism
One of the core tenets of the Jesus myth theory (aka "mythicism") is that the first Christians got the Gospel from private revelations or reading Scripture rather than from the historical Jesus.
In one sense, this is a no-brainer. If Jesus never existed, then of course the Gospel didn’t really come from him. However, there is in fact more to this than simply a logical corollary of the theory itself.
Many mythicists believe that the New Testament actually contains traces of the real origin of the Gospel, and they think they can prove it. Specifically, they point to passages in the epistles that seem to affirm this.
In this article, I want to look at two of these passages, the two that I think present the best evidence for the theory of mythicism, and see if the argument holds up.
The Gospel from Revelation?
In the opening chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, he explicitly tells us that the Gospel he preached was given to him by direct revelation from Jesus Christ:
“For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12)
On the surface, this looks like very strong evidence for the mythicist position, and the case becomes even stronger when we compare this passage with another one from Paul’s letters:
“Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand…For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:1, 3-4)
Popular mythicist Richard Carrier points out several verbal parallels between these two texts. They’re both about the “gospel” that Paul “received” and then “preached,” implying that they’re referring to the same set of information.1 In other words, when we look at these two texts together, it seems that Paul is claiming to have received the Gospel about Jesus’ death and resurrection via direct revelation from Jesus Christ, not from human witnesses to those events.
What Was Paul’s Gospel?
At first glance, this may seem like an airtight case, but let’s take a closer look at Paul’s claim in Galatians. Is he really talking about the basic message about Jesus’ death and resurrection, or is “the gospel which was preached by me” something else? If we look closely at the surrounding context, it seems like it’s actually the latter.
To begin, the whole letter is about whether or not Christians need to be circumcised and follow the Jewish Law. Paul argues that we do not, and his opponents claim that we do. With this in mind, take a look at something Paul says a few verses earlier:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel…If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:6, 9)
What is this “different gospel” that Paul is writing about? Is it a denial of the death and resurrection of Jesus? No, in the context of the entire letter, it’s obviously a Gospel that requires its adherents to follow the Jewish Law. Paul is here contrasting this with the Gospel that he preached, which didn’t require such obedience.
Once we realize this, we can understand what he means when he says that he received the Gospel directly from Jesus. He’s not talking about the basic message of the death and resurrection of Jesus; rather, he’s talking about the point of contention between him and his opponents. He’s saying that Jesus revealed to him that Christians no longer need to follow the Jewish Law.
As a result, Carrier’s connection between the passages in Galatians and 1 Corinthians doesn’t hold up. Yes, they both use similar language, but they’re about two different things. One is about the basic message of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the other is about the freedom from the Law that Christians enjoy. When Paul said in 1 Corinthians that he received the Gospel about Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is nothing to indicate that he received it directly from Jesus himself.
The Gospel from Scripture?
The second text I want to look at comes from Paul’s most famous letter, to the Romans:
“Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.” (Romans 16:25-27)
Like the passage from Galatians, this one also tells us that the Gospel Paul preached came from somewhere other than historical witnesses, and again, mythicists sometimes argue that this supports their case.2 The one difference is that in this text, the Gospel comes from the Old Testament (what Paul calls “the prophetic writings”) rather than direct revelation.
However, like that previous passage, this one too is about the freedom of Christians from the Jewish Law, so in the context of the entire letter, that is most likely what Paul means by the phrase “my gospel.”
However, there is one other element in this passage that we need to look at as well. Paul says that “the preaching of Jesus Christ” is now “through the prophetic writings…made known to all nations,” which some take to mean that he learned about Jesus’ own preaching only from Scripture.3 Again, on the surface, that looks like strong evidence for the mythicist position, but it’s actually pretty innocuous. The Greek phrase translated as “the preaching of Jesus Christ” is ambiguous. It can mean the preaching that Jesus himself did, or it can mean the preaching of others about Jesus. On purely grammatical grounds, it could go either way, but in context, the latter is more likely. All throughout Romans, Paul describes the Gospel he preached about Jesus, but he doesn’t say anything about Jesus’ own preaching, so this phrase is almost certainly referring to the preaching of others about Jesus.
At the end of the day, there is simply no evidence that any early Christians learned about Jesus’ death and resurrection solely from direct revelation or Scripture rather than from historical witnesses to those events.
Granted, this doesn’t prove that they did learn those things from historical witnesses or that Jesus even existed, but it does clear away some arguments for mythicism. As a result, the debate will have to move to other evidence. Simply put, Paul’s statements about the origin of his Gospel provide no evidence against the existence of Jesus.
- Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), 536. ↩
- Raphael Lataster, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015), 237-238. ↩
- Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), 137-138. ↩
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