Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Gospel of John and The Problem of the Historical Jesus: Reflections From the Greer-Heard Conference, Pt. III

It has been some time ago since I wrote on John and the problem of the historical Jesus. I interrupted the series yesterday with a most blessed announcement...so today, I will get back to my work on the problem of the historical Jesus.
In the last post, I tried to establish the apostle John’s integrity in that he records Jesus’ actual sayings and doings. To state that the things John records are not true is to make ourselves eyewitnesses of the Lord Jesus (which we are not). We have no more truth about the facts of Jesus than John; in fact, we have very little when compared to John. He is one who actually saw Jesus in the flesh (1 Jn. 1:1-2). In addition, the Johannine community seems to affirm that John’s sayings are true (Gospel of John 21: 24). Were you and I eyewitnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ? No. Since we were not, we cannot presume to know more than the apostle John. What we have to do is allow the apostle John to tell his own story without presuming that our twenty-first-century way of thinking is better and “more accurate” than John’s was in the first century. But of course, that presumes that we would actually allow the text to speak for itself. God forbid that day should come...?
I believe that John’s Gospel is “worthy of all acceptation,” to use a phrase of Andrew Fuller’s; today’s post, however, will look at support for John’s work in the biblical canon: that is, John will be supported by the writings of the apostle Paul. To Paul, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ happened as the Old Testament Scriptures said they would. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians somewhere between 53-55 AD. The Gospel of John is placed somewhere between 50-70 AD, with great consensus on the 60s AD as the decade of John’s writing. If such information is correct, then Paul clearly wrote his letter to the Corinthians before John’s Gospel was compiled...which means that Paul could serve as a valid source for the historical Jesus in addition to John. Paul’s writing was not discussed at the Greer-Heard Conference, but I think it should have been. The debate was rather stacked by the debaters themselves when only John’s Gospel was mentioned. It basically made the Gospel of John look as if it was out on a limb all by itself.
In today’s post, then, I will tackle Paul’s work on the historical Jesus via 1 Corinthians 15, a passage where Paul justifies the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is important that Paul shows that Jesus really lived and died. However, it is not Christ’s humanity that is denied in the Gospel of John; rather, it is Christ’s deity, Christ’s divinity, that is questioned. Paul writes to show that Christ’s divinity must be true as well---or else, Christianity is a flop.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul writes that “I delivered to you first of all that which I also received,” stating that he himself was taught the facts about Christ. That’s right---the events Paul records are not up for negotiation as to whether they happened or not...rather, they did happen. In verse 3, Paul states that Christ “died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” What are the “Scriptures” he speaks of here? The Scriptures Paul references are the writings of the Old Testament concerning Jesus. Paul alerts us, if we have missed it throughout the New Testament up to this point, that the Old Testament foretold of the Incarnation (where Jesus would take upon Himself human flesh).
In verse 4, Christ not only died, but was buried and was resurrected on the third day, “according to the Scriptures.” The Old Testament also confirmed Christ’s burial and resurrection. A good text that comes to mind regarding the life of Christ that clearly shows the Messianic mission is Isaiah 53:
He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken. And they made His grave with the wicked---but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin...” (Isaiah 53:8b-10a, NKJV)
Isaiah goes on to say more:
“He shall divide the spoil with the strong, because He poured out His soul unto death, and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12b).
Paul validates the Old Testament concerning Christ. Since he himself had been a Pharisee, well-educated in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), he was qualified to make such a statement: that Christ’s life, death, burial, and resurrection took place “according to the Scriptures.”
But Paul does not stop there. He not only says that the Old Testament prophesied the events of Christ’s life, but that the events had eyewitness testimony: “and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5). Jesus appeared to the men He had chosen to follow Him. In verse 6, Paul says that “He was seen by over five-hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.” What did Paul mean by this statement? Some eyewitnesses have died, but there are many who are still alive!!! The significance of such a statement is, “If you think I’m deceiving you, go check with these men...they are still around to support what I’m telling you.” The apostle John would have been one of these who was still alive at the time. From what we know, John lived to be a ripe old age and enjoyed being an elder in the church until his death. The apostle would have been one of those who could serve as a reliable eyewitness to the events that Paul recorded.
Isn’t that interesting? Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians before John wrote his Gospel...but John could serve as reliable testimony, in the eyes of Paul. And if Paul could validate John’s testimony as an eyewitness, does Paul not validate John’s Gospel, written after his Corinthian letter? Even though Paul himself wrote about 20 years after the death and resurrection of Christ (53-55 AD, Christ died around 30-33), he believed that the living eyewitnesses could validate the events in his letter; that is, that the mental faculties (memory especially) of the eyewitnesses was still sharp enough to recall the moment they looked upon the risen Christ. Unlike many skeptical scholars and historians today, Paul didn’t think the eyewitnesses were hallucinating!
In verse 7, Paul notes that James (Jesus’ half-brother) and other apostles in the early church got to see the risen Christ as well. And in verse 8, he says that he himself saw the risen Christ, an account that we have preserved in the biblical canon itself (Acts 9:1-22; 22:1-21).
Now someone could easily say, “Paul is validating John because he met with John to talk about the risen Christ, right? After all, Paul collaborated with the apostles regarding what he had seen and heard.” A skeptic could easily dismiss Paul’s testimony by saying that the apostles told him what he saw and “brushed up” his story a bit. However, to think such a thing actually contradicts what Luke writes:
And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the disciples. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to Him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:26-27).
When Paul meets the disciples, he had already begun preaching the gospel of the risen Christ in Damascus. His preaching and revelation, then, were given INDEPENDENTLY of the disciples. A case for independent attestation is made here with Paul and the disciples...
And this also contradicts what Paul writes about his own experience. Paul says that after seeing the risen Christ,
I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. THEN AFTER THREE YEARS I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him fifteen days” (Galatians 1:16-18).
Paul spends three years in the desert of Arabia before meeting with the first apostle. This is clear testimony of independent attestation. Paul uses this to prove that he is a legitimate apostle and eyewitness of the risen Christ because he received the revelation from Christ Himself, not from any human.
Today’s post was to validate the apostle John’s eyewitness testimony by using the testimony of the apostle Paul. The fact that Paul went alone to preach in Damascus and to spend three years in the desert of Arabia after the Christ revelation demonstrates that his testimony was not “propped” or “created” after corroboration, but rather was a genuine revelation from the Divine Himself. And if Paul could write 1 Corinthians 15 and validate the eyewitnesses (both dead and living) of Christ, then surely, the apostle John’s testimony is valid and true. John was one of the Twelve, and the first to see the risen Lord; consequently, he surely could not have falsified such testimony...considering also that many others saw the risen Christ as well. Stay tuned...

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