“Am I not an apostle? Did I not see Jesus our Lord?”
(1 Corinthians 9)
A month has passed since Paul, Part One appeared, first of a four or five part series. For new readers, or veterans of the two-years discussion, it might benefit to read/refresh the earlier post, hyperlinked above.
Paul’s reference to his “conversion,” to his identity as “apostle” in 1 Corinthians 15: 7-8 is matter of fact, lacking in the drama of Acts of the Apostles:
“then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.”
Compared to “Luke’s” Acts, Paul is almost casual in his description of the encounter, a “vision.” He then extends his own experience “to James, then to all the apostles.” Paul’s description is significant because it bears on future controversy regarding Jesus’ corporeality, an early debate pitting Marcion (Jesus as “spirit”) against what would emerge as catholic Christianity at the Council of Nicea in 325 (both “spirit” and “human”). The ambiguity of Jesus’ identity would remain contentious and would ebventually contribute to the academic effort, beginning around the seventeenth century, to prove gospel accounts describing Jesus existing and missionizing in human form. In my earlier work, “An American Exception?”, I described the Search for the Historical Jesus as indicating insecurity of belief beginning at the religion’s earliest period. I also suggested this insecurity as energizing anti-Jewish animus, describing the Jewish Problem that would emerge in the twentieth century as Germany’s nearly successful “final” solution to the Problem.
The earliest efforts to address doubts regarding Jesus-as-human appear in gospel accounts: Thomas touching Jesus’ wound for assurance (John 20:24-29); multiple accounts of encounters with Jesus post-resurrection, including taking meal with eleven disciples. And, of course, Paul’s conversion experience described (Acts 9:3-5):
”As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.”
The Search for the Historical Jesus is on-going today and today still no material evidence has been unearthed. What other than unconscious doubt explains the drive to prove Jesus corporeal existence? And if Jesus-as-human cannot be proved, what questions might that suggest? It is this doubt “gnawing at the soul” that motivated Augustine’s “Witness Doctrine,” his explanation for God allowing Jewish survival which was adopted by the Vatican (to be discussed in a future chapter); it is this doubt that remains an open question today, motivating the continuing search for a historical Jesus.
One example of push-back to “rationalist” approaches to Christian scripture is found at. New Advent, a Catholic website. In defending Acts’ depiction of Paul’s conversion:
“He [Paul] is wrongly credited with doubts, perplexities, fears, remorse, before his conversion. He was halted by Christ when his fury was at its height (Acts 9:1-2); it was "through zeal" that he persecuted the Church (Philippians 3:6), and he obtained mercy because he had acted "ignorantly in unbelief" (1 Timothy 1:13).”
With these “proofs New Advent insists that,
“All explanations, psychological or otherwise, are worthless in face of these definite assertions, for all suppose that it was Paul''s faith in Christ which engendered the vision, whereas according to the concordant testimony of the Acts and the Epistles it was the actual vision of Christ which engendered faith.”
Is resort to documents of “faith” such as those above (Acts, and the gospels) convincing to one outside the community of faith? I will return to a discussion of academic rules applying to historical validity later. But for now nothing appearing in Acts is considered “historical” by historians since Acts and the gospels all appeared after Paul’s death, were not witnessed by their authors, and were based on word of mouth. “Hearsay” is not “historical” evidence. As to 1 Corinthians 15: 7-8, if written by Paul then it is "historical" in representing his having “experienced” Jesus, but is not evidence of Jesus’ corporeality.
Catholic scholar and historian John Dominick Crossan dismisses Acts’ description of Paul’s journey to Jerusalem on several counts. First is that “Luke''s” depiction was written decades after Paul’s death, which I already mentioned above. But Crossan also adds that Acts fails as “history” because,
“whatever [the degree of] high-priestly power in Judea, it could never have been exercised across Roman provincial borders as far away as Damascus."