Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Response to James Tabor

I recently read "Where Did Paul Get His Authority & Teachings?" on James Tabor's Jesus Dynasty Blog and was disappointed that there was nowhere to leave a comment concerning his thesis. So I decided to respond to it here, on my own blog.

Tabor basically argues that in 1 Cor 15 Paul discusses having received the gospel and that most interpreters get it wrong by assuming that there is some form of oral tradition underlying the phrase "received" in this particular context. He admits that the word normally carries that connotation but that the interpretation of 1 Cor 15 is to be understood in light of Gal 1:12 where Paul denies the human origins of his gospel. From this exegetical strategy, Tabor can claim that Paul is not interested in the historical Jesus and is only interested in the "fantasy" (his word) Christ that Paul himself has created. The following quote elucidates his thesis well:

If Paul is right, then so be it. But if he is wrong, then what a left turn was taken away from the historical Jesus. I say reader beware.

I believe that Tabor's exegesis does not fully take into account the context of the two passages he relies upon and I believe that he has certainly stretched too far in an effort to dismiss Paul, his letters, and his theology. (There is more to his argument, specifically 1 Cor 11:23 and 1 Thes 4:15, both of which I may return to in the future sometime.)

The way that I have always understood the apparent "conflict" between Gal 1:12 and 1 Cor 15:3 is that in each Paul is driven by different motivations and, therefore, Paul highlights different aspects of his reception of the gospel in each context.

In Gal 1 Paul is clearly defending his apostolic authority over against his enemies. To do so he found it rhetorically effective to highlight that it was directly through Jesus that he received a revelation of Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul was arguing that he did not make up what he preached and that it was not of human origins, but that instead it was impressed upon him by divine means. I imagine that Tabor would generally agree with me up to this point.

The difference, however, I have with Tabor is that the phrase "through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal 1:12) could refer not to the passing of information but to the manifestation of the Savior himself. In other words, Christ did not reveal facts to Paul per se, instead Jesus was the revelation itself (James Dunn, Galatians, 53-54). Paul is not arguing that the pedigree of his message is what gives him authority; no, it is the content of his message (Jesus Christ) that gives his apostleship its authority. Dunn (54) and David Garland (1 Corinthians, 683-84) both argue that what Paul received on the road to Damascus was not a litany of facts about Jesus' life, but instead the proper interpretation of these facts.

Further, these facts likely did not come to Paul via the pillars in Jerusalem directly, as Tabor claims is the common opinion of "conservative Christians." In Gal 1:17 Paul explicitly denies the Jerusalem connection, instead revealing that he spent his formative years as a young Christ-follower in Arabia and Damascus. It was not until three years had passed that Paul's first post-Damascus contact with Peter and James occurred (Gal 1:18-19) and Paul would not go back to visit Jerusalem for some fourteen years (Gal 2:1), thus revealing the weakness of the connection between Paul and the pillars of Jerusalem. However, 1 Cor 15:3 leaves one with the impression that Paul is talking about oral tradition, human oral tradition. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Paul establishes the human link in the first part of v. 3 by indicating that it was he who passed this knowledge to the Corinthians, thus in the second part of v.3 it is hard to imagine that he has suddenly switched to a divine passing on of tradition;
  2. In this passage Paul is arguing for the validity of the resurrection and, thus, it would be important for him to highlight as many human connections to those who saw Jesus physically resurrected as possible (1 Cor 15:5-8) -- which would seem to necessitate some contact with these people (and/or their associates) for them to have told Paul of their interaction with the physically-resurrected Jesus; and
  3. The content of the message that Paul received, as revealed in 1 Cor 15, is a matter of facts -- Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and he appeared to many, including Peter, James, quite a few others, and (last of all) to Paul (vv.3-8) -- and seems to be the very sort of thing that scholars like Gerhardsson (in The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition) claim was passed on in the early church, aka the kerygma.
Moreover, Tabor reveals his hand in the last paragraph of his blog entry by indicating that Paul's gospel and that of the eyewitnesses of Jesus (as preserved in the canonical Gospels presumably) are different in substance. This can easily be dismissed by looking at the content of Gal 2:2-10. Paul travels to Jerusalem because of a revelation and presents those of reputation there his gospel. Those of reputation saw that Paul had been entrusted with the gospel and had been given grace and, thus, James, Peter, and John gave Paul and Barnabas the stamp of approval. They added nothing to Paul's preaching of the gospel and only asked that Paul be conscious of the poor.

It appears that the content of the gospel, aka the kerygma, of the pillars and Paul was remarkably the same, even if their application of it was different at times (Gal 2:11-21). If so, then reader of Paul has no need to beware.


Charles Gadda said...

I myself am not a religious person, but allow me to point out that the entire "Lost Tomb of Jesus" thing, both the film and the book, is clearly a hoax.
The name "Jesus" is not even legible on the ossuary in question, as any serious semitics scholar will immediately tell you if you show him the tracing. The original transcriber himself (see the Israeli Catalogue of Ossuaries) put a question-mark after that part ("Yeshua") of his reading, and two dots over the name indicating that he was making an (obviously remote) conjecture. The film's producer has evasively omitted to address this fundamental point in his statements to the press, speaking simply of unnamed "experts who have conclusively confirmed the reading". For details, see http://jesus-illegible.blogspot.com/.
As for James Tabor, he appears to be involved in the biased and mendacious Dead Sea Scroll exhibits currently touring the country, and he is also at the center of the now debunked "Essene toilet" campaign recently waged in newspapers all over the world. Misleading claims about DNA "evidence" are at the core of both hoaxes, perpetrated on masses of unsuspecting people to make a profit. This entire matter is analyzed at length at http://jesus-crypt-fraud.blogspot.com/.

J. Matthew Barnes said...


Thanks for your comments.

It seems to me that Tabor is in the business of religious sensationalism; a business I stay as far away from as possible.

My fear is that his ridiculous claims will now be brought against Paul and uncritical thinkers may believe all that he is selling.


Anonymous said...

I was very disappointed with this book. The author seems to take liberties with the message of the gospel. The use of the gnostic gospel of Thomas was enough for me to conclude this author was clueless. Don't waste your time reading his fiction.

The truth will setyou free

J. Matthew Barnes said...

My unnamed friend,

Thanks for you comment. But know that you didn't have to tell me that this dude is a kook!