Reckless Apologetic Presumptuousness
by Dawson Bethrick
It may seem that bible-believers should be well-informed as to what is actually written in the bible. But firsthand experience often suggests that we should not be so ready to make such assumptions. Defenders of the Christian faith may be amply rehearsed on certain doctrines they're expected to believe and protect from criticism. But such knowledge is often a far cry from the record found in the bible itself. All too typically, believers tend to depend on extrabiblical sources to spec out their "doctrines." This is because the bible's own treatment of the positions which inform those doctrines is frequently ambiguous, insufficiently explained, and even inconsistent. The New Testament, for instance, nowhere explicitly identifies its god as a "trinity" - a god that is "one" but has "three persons" in which each person is equal to the others. And with statements attributed to Jesus, supposedly a member of this three-headed deity, like "my Father is greater than I" (Jn. 14:28), it is hard to see how one could believe that the New Testament is in uniform agreement with such a doctrine. To defend the belief that it is uniform, apologists turn to extrabiblical sources - to council rulings and the work of theologians. By turning to an Augustine, a Calvin, a Hodge or a Van Til to defend Christian doctrines, apologists performatively admit that appealing to the bible itself is not sufficient to support and defend them. And by leaning on such sources, believers are easily lulled into the habit of assuming that the bible is not only wholly uniform throughout, but also that it says more than it really does.
A glaring example of apologetic inflating of the the biblical record beyond what it actually says, is one that even many critics are prone to miss. The issue here has to do with what the apostle Paul knew or did not know of the Jesus portrayed in the gospels. Most believers and non-believers commonly assume that the apostle knew the same details as those which we find in the four gospels of the New Testament canon. Even the order in which the books of the New Testament are arranged seems to encourage this common erroneous assumption - that the apostle Paul preached the same Jesus as the one found in the four gospels. The order of the books in the New Testament, with the four gospels appearing first, then the book of Acts, then the many epistles of Paul and other Christian writers, and concluding with the Apocalypse, actually does not reflect the order in which these documents were written. In actuality, the first writings on the scene were the Pauline epistles. Only later did the biographical accounts contained in the gospels come to be written. In fact, it may very well be the case that the apostle Paul was not aware of the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or the book of Acts, for the available evidence strongly suggests that Paul was already dead by the time the gospels, as they currently stand, were composed, let alone disseminated
Facts such as this, however, do nothing to prevent apologists who are anxious to defend their faith-beliefs from exaggerating Paul's knowledge of Jesus to include what we find only in the gospels. In his "A Study of Apologetic Preaching," Christian apologist and devoted Bahnsenite Roger Wagner writes,
In Lystra, Paul and Barnabas encountered a man who had been crippled from birth (Acts 14:8). As Paul began to preach the Gospel of Christ, this man responded by faith. We are not told by Luke what Paul was saying at this early stage in his proclamation, but presumably he was telling the people of this town about the earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and the many wonders that He performed (cf. Acts 2:22). (1)
In this earlier preaching the full outline of the life, death, and
resurrection was do doubt covered, so much so that the crippled man was
able to put his faith in Christ as one who could heal him at Paul's word. (2)
basing his assumption of what Paul might have known about the gospel Jesus by
interpolating what he reads in Acts into his view of Paul, even though the book
of Acts was written possibly as late as CE 90, whereas Paul probably met his
doom in the 60's. (3) In spite of his far-reaching assumptions, Wagner admits
on top of this that, due to Paul's and Barnabus'
alleged protestations to a group of Greeks who mistook them as gods and an
ensuing uprising, "Paul did not have time to prepare a careful message for
the people of Lystra under these conditions."
(4) Wagner also confesses that "We cannot know on the basis of Luke's
summary of the message (probably received secondhand from Paul) just how much
the apostle actually said." (5) Given these admissions, on what basis
would Wagner suppose that the apostle Paul "was telling the people of this
town about the earthly ministry of Jesus of
Wagner's own statements indicate that he can only "presume" this. But by making such presumptions, apologists show how much they take completely for granted even though the writings in the New Testament in no way justify such overstatement. Below I have listed significant gospel details of Jesus' alleged earthly visit which are nowhere mentioned in the apostle Paul's copious letters. In his letters, the apostle Paul nowhere mentions:
- a place called '
- a Roman census (6)
- parents named Mary and Joseph
- angelic visitations to both Mary and Joseph
- the Virgin Birth (7)
- the Slaughter of the Innocents
- the Magi (they were magically summoned to meet the baby Jesus)
- John the Baptist (8)
- Jesus' baptism
- Jesus' career as a carpenter (9)
- Jesus' itinerant preaching ministry in
- that Jesus was a teacher of morals (11)
- that Jesus taught in parables
- Jesus' prayers
- Jesus' many miracles (Paul nowhere has his Jesus turn water into wine, stilling storms, feeding 5,000 or walking on lakes)
- Jesus' healings and cures (no mention of the blind receiving their sight, for example, after Jesus spits into dysfunctional eyes)
- Jesus' exorcisms
- Jesus' temptation in the wilderness
- Mary Magdalene
- Nicodemus (mentioned only in the gospel of John)
- Judas Iscariot (a key player in the lead-up to the passion story)
- a trial before Pilate
- Peter's repeated denials
- Jesus' flogging (12)
- Jesus' crucifixion outside the walls of
- a place called "
- the two malefactors condemned with Jesus
- Jesus' words from the cross
- the spear thrust in Jesus' side
- the darkness over the earth
- the earthquake
- the rising of the saints mentioned only in
Matthew 27:52-53 (14)
- Joseph of Arimathaea<<
- female witnesses
- an empty tomb (Paul never even mentions an empty tomb!)
- Doubting Thomas
at all familiar with Christianity can clearly see, this is quite a list. So the
problem here is simply way too big to be casually swept under the rug with the
kind of insouciant presumptuousness that Wagner's statement typifies of modern
apologetics. For instance, on what basis can someone say that the apostle Paul
taught "Jesus of Nazareth" when he nowhere even refers to a
What's very striking is the fact that in two places in his letters, the apostle Paul warned his intended audience about being seduced by competing versions of the gospel. In his letters,
Paul was addressing people who had accepted the supreme importance of Jesus, but were nevertheless in danger of falling victim to what he regarded as an erroneous Christology - 'another Jesus' (2 Cor. 11:4), and not what he preached (Gal. 1:6-9). (16)
The apostle himself tell us,
I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. (Gal. 1:6-7)
If it is the case that, during the time of Paul's ministry to the Gentiles, competing Christologies were circulating among the converted (and Paul's own statements attest to the fact that there were), what would have prevented those rival views of Jesus from being merged with the views expressed in Paul's epistles to create an amalgamated Jesus story? The list above demonstrates a dramatic distinction between Paul's Jesus and the gospels' Jesus. On what basis could we rule out the possibility that the Jesus of the gospels is the product of fusing Paul's views, which present none of the specifics which are crucial to the Jesus of the gospels, with conceptions of Jesus foreign to the Pauline Jesus which included descriptions of time and place of events in a recent earthly life of Jesus and which grew in legend as they circulated? Given what we can find in the New Testament record, a comparison of the gospels with the Pauline epistles shows a very wide variance between their respective portraits of Jesus. All four gospels bulid up to and climax with Jesus' crucifixion, which the apostle Paul clearly thought was important. But Paul gives no setting for this supposed event. Wells points out that
from Paul's premiss of the supreme importance of
knowing 'Christ crucified' (I Cor. 1:23 and 2:2) one
would expect him to be explicit about the Passion and at least to specify the
when and where. He is so imprecise about it that he may well have thought that
it occurred one or two centuries before his time of writing. We know from
Josephus that at these earlier dates holy men had been crucified alive in
We know from the history of Christianity that wide divergences in belief have been very difficult for the church to contain and prevent. Many casually assume that earliest Christianity was a completely homogenous, uniform and monolithic movement, with all believers everywhere being "of one accord." Surely the book of Acts would like us to believe this of the post-Easter Christians. But Paul's letters suggest that quite the opposite was the case: that the influence of non-Christian ideas and teachings were constantly making intrusions among the converted, and that disputes between himself and the Jerusalem Council gave Christianity a rocky start from its earliest days.
Doherty explains why the book of Acts is of central concern at this point:
Joined to the Gospel of Luke, the Acts of the Apostles followed as a means of accomplishing two things: one, to demonstrate that Paul belonged with the orthodox camp, that he had subordinated himself to the Jerusalem apostles' direction and was in no way a teacher of gnostic doctrines as Marcion had claimed; and two, to paint a Golden Age picture of the arly church and Christian community, supposedly before heresy had reared its ugly head. It also served to symbolize the (perceived) progression of the Christian movement from a Jewish sect to a gentile universal religion, inheritor of God's promises when the Jews had forfeited them by their unbelief in Jesus. (18)
In this way, the fusion of Paul's depiction of a spiritual personage and the gospels' portrait of an earthly god-man was sealed. But what is interesting here is that the author of Acts "never suggests that Paul had written any letters at all" (19), and yet half of the document is devoted to detailing the famed apostle's missionary adventures.
All of this points to a fallible beginning for Christianity in which early traditions of a vague and nondescript Suffering Servant figure underwent dramatic legendary transformation that resulted in the gospel stories that today's Christians take for granted. These facts, needless to say, pose insurmountable problems for today's believer, whose spokesmen, as we have seen, are more than happy to keep uninformed. Morever, apologists should think twice if they think they can outrun the implications of the early Christian record. Since presuppositionalists are eager to rest their case on what they call "the impossibility of the contrary" (another Christian myth that I have already debunked), they would, at minimum, have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is impossible that the Jesus we read about in Paul's letters is not the very same Jesus we read about in the gospels. The only way apologists could go about assembling such a proof is by interpreting statements in Paul's letters according to details found only in the gospels, and that's precisely what's at issue here.
Standard Bearer: A Festschrift for Greg L. Bahnsen, edited by Steven M. Schlissel, p. 442. Emphasis added.
(2) Ibid., p. 449. Emphasis added.
(3) I find G.A. Wells' historical ordering of the writing of the New Testament books to be the most informed, based on recent scholarship, that I have seen yet. This timeline puts the composition of the gospel of Mark between CE 70 and 90, and the composition of Matthew, Luke, John and the book of Acts in the 90's. See p. xi of Wells' Can We Trust the New Testament? Thoughts on the Reliability of Early Christian Testimony.
(4) The Standard Bearer, p. 443.
(5) Ibid., p. 444.
(6) For details of the problem this detail causes for the gospel of Luke, see Richard Carrier's The Date of the Nativity in Luke.
(7) For clues indicating that the idea of a virgin birth for baby Jesus was borrowed from pagan religions predating Christianity, see James Still's The Virgin Birth and Childhood Mysteries of Jesus.
(8) In The Sound of Silence: 'Top 20', Doherty asks:
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.
Interestingly, Mark 6:3 reads: "Is not this the carpenter, the son of
Mary..." while Matthew 13:55 reads "Is not this the
carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary?"
Apologists will rush to say that both Jesus and Joseph were carpenters, even
though no single author ever makes such a statement. Besides, isn't Jesus
supposed to be "the Son of God"? One could be forgiven for supposing
that Matthew's statement makes God a carpenter by trade.
(10) Both Galilee and
(11) For moral teachings attributed to Jesus in the gospels but which the apostle Paul gives as his own, see Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus, p. 33.
(12) In Challenging the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel's 'The Case for Christ', Doherty points out that Paul "himself, as he tells us in 2 Corinthians 11:23-24, was flogged severely many times. Does he draw a parallel wih Christ's own flogging?" (p. 158)
(13) In fact, the apostle Paul gives no time, place or circumstance to his Jesus' crucifixion.
(14) On this most curious gospel tale, see Ed Babinski's What Happened to the Resurrected Saints?
(15) Dogherty, Challenging the Verdict, p. 171.
(16) Wells, The Jesus Myth, p. 74.
(17) Wells, The Jesus Myth, p. 57.
(18) Challenging the Verdict, p. 252n.83.
(19) Wells, Can We Trust the New Testament? p. 77.