It is very clear that although the Gospels emerged in the last decade of the lst century AD, they took a long long time to be circulated and/or accepted which is strange if they are accurate reports of Jesus' life. With regard to the eyewitness testimony for Jesus' existence, there is certainly a problem. It is amazing that anything up to 70(100 ?),000 people saw Jesus, but no one made an eye-witness record of it. Mark was obviously not an eyewitness due to his host of errors concerning chronological, historical, geographical and theological matters in lst. cent Palestine.
The writers of Matt and Luke have to use Mark as their source (which they obviously wouldn't have needed to do if they were eyewitnesses); in the case of John,this has always caused problems for the church as the Jesus it speaks of is so different from the Synoptics. Also, it details events that could not have happened, eg. eg. Jesus' speech about drinking blood to a Jewish audience in John 6; it has to be rejected if the Synoptics are accepted as it conflicts with them, eg. his dating of the Temple-clearing and the last supper etc in relation to the Passover. He also reports situations eg. expulsions from the synagogue (l6:2) that didn't occur until after 90 CE (ie. Rabbi Gamaliel II's official cursing prayer of the 'Minim' in ca. 90 CE). In the case of Paul, he gives virtually no detail about Jesus' earthly life, other than he was a descendent of David, was crucified and was raised by God. If Romans, a genuinely Pauline letter, and the longest, is examined to discern Paul's reference to Jesus' earthly life, the silence becomes most apparent:
(l)Jesus was a Jew/descended from David (l:3, l5:8,12);
(2)Jesus was human (8:3);
(3)His blood was shed (3:25, 5:9);
(4)Jesus suffered/died/was crucified (5:6,8,10,l5, 6:3,4,5,6,8, 8:l7, l4:l5);
(5)Jesus rose from the dead (l:4, 4:24,25, 6:4,5,9,l0, 8:ll,34, l0:7,9, l4:9):
As can be seen, the same few details are repeated over and over again; in the letters that are genuinely accepted as being written by Paul there is no specific reference to the parents of Jesus, and certainly not a virgin birth; his place of birth or the area in which his ministry took place is not mentioned either; 'Of Nazareth' is never used; the details Paul supplies give no indication whatsoever of the time or place of Jesus' earthly existence.
Paul never refers to Jesus' Roman trial, and in fact he does not appear to even know who crucified Jesus - in l Cor 2:8 he refers to the death of Christ by 'rulers of the age' - this hardly fits a tinpot prefect called Pilate; this term really denotes supernatural spirits - 2 Cor 4:4, Col 2:l5 *. Paul never refers to Jerusalem as the place of Jesus' execution and never mentions John the Baptist, nor Judas, nor Peter's denials (This would have been quite pertinent in combatting Cephas/Peter at Antioch - Gal 2:ll-l7. Paul's position was apparently being threatened by Peter and despite calling him a hypocrite, he does not allude to his three denials of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, eg. Mark l4:30 par). The only chronological reference to Jesus in the Pauline corpus is in l Tim 6:13 and this letter is widely accepted as post-Pauline. Furthermore it appears to be a non-Pauline insertion from a baptismal creed.
(* Although some say Paul's ref in 1 Thess 2:l4-l5 shows he knew the Jews crucified Christ (which is in- correct - the Romans did), this clearly refers to God's vengeance on the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE - therefore it has to be an interpolation as 1 Thess was written ca. 55 CE; however insistence that Paul did write this statement originally would preclude Paul being the author as it would have to be after 70CE, but Paul died before this date.
Paul also fails to mention any of the miracles Jesus is reported to have accomplished in the Gospels; Paul suggests that miracles might be expected wherever a Christian mission went, for he includes the working of them among 'the gifts of the Spirit' (l Cor 12:l0,28) and himself claimed to have won converts by 'the power of signs and wonders' (Rom l5:l9).
Among the signs of a true apostle, he lists 'signs and wonders and mighty works' (2 Cor 12:12); the striking feature is that he fails to mention that Jesus is reported as having done on an extensive scale in his earthly life. Another striking feature is that whilst the Synoptic Gospels portray Jesus as an ethical teacher, there is no suggestion of this in Paul's letters; Paul is certainly not indifferent to ethical problems and on several occasions his letters contain a sizeable amount of ethical instruction. On only one occasion does he represent Jesus as having made an ethical injunction and this is in l Cor 7:l0 when Paul discusses the subject of divorce. The Gospel 'parallel' to this is Mark l0:ll-l2 (Matt is simply following Mark), but there is a difficulty even here as some reject this is authentic as Jesus refers to women divorcing their husbands - something that was not possible in Palestine.
Some say the statement was assigned to Jesus through Paul quoting a Christian prophet (himself ?) through whom the risen Lord was speaking and it was then utilised by the author of Mark who placed it in the mouth of Jesus whilst on earth, but was careless in not realising that its context was Gentile rather than Palestinian. It is clear from such early Christian writings as the Didache that as late as the end of the first century Christian prophets were viewed as being channels of communication for the risen Lord.
Paul was content to suffer weakness, insults, humiliation, persecution and hardship (2 Cor l2:l0) adding that he entreated the readers by the 'meekness and gentleness of Christ' (2 Cor l0:l). He stated that he imitated Christ (l Cor ll:l) and that his whole existence was 'to know nothing....except Jesus Christ and him crucified' (l Cor 2:2) and then goes on to say he was with his readers in 'weakness, much fear and trembling' (l Cor 2:3). If this is Paul's 'imitation' of Christ, then it is a far cry from the Jesus of the Gospels and particularly the picture of Jesus portrayed in John. It appears Paul thought Jesus led a humble inconspicuous life that went completely unnoticed by the world.
Other situations arise in Paul's writing that suggest knew very little about Jesus' supposed earthly life. He clearly was unaware of Jesus' command not to go to the Gentiles (Matt l0:5) in Rom ll:l3, and in Rom 8:26 he states 'for we do not know how to pray as we ought' suggesting he knew nothing of Jesus instructions of how to pray in Matt 5:7-l3, Luke ll:l4; the instructions regarding baptism by Jesus in Matt 28:l9 were also apparently unknown to Paul (l Cor l:l7).
The person of Paul was that of someone who believed that God was now revealing secrets or mysteries; these term arise frequently in Paul's letters, eg. l Cor 2:7, l3:2, l4:2,, l5:51, with 'revealed' or similiar arising frequently also, eg. Rom l:l7,l8, 8:l8, l6:25, l Cor 2:l0,l3, 3:l3, 2 Cor 12:l. Paul believed that he had seen the risen Jesus (l Cor l5:8) and he had spoken directly to him (2 Cor l2:8-9); he had experienced ecstatic states (2 Cor l2:l-4, l Cor l4:l8) and God was now revealing previously-hidden information (1 Cor 2:l0,12-13, 7:40). A question therefore arises, did Paul's rather scant knowledge about Jesus arise through his belief that the risen Lord was now communicating with and through him, alongwith other Christian prophets, or from information gleaned from earthly companions and eyewitnesses of the earthly Jesus. One passage in which Paul clearly refers to a historical event in Jesus' earthly life, ie. the last supper, is 1 Cor 11:23-26. However even this passage begins "For I received from the Lord...." and again, suggests this information was transmitted directly from the risen Christ, rather than from the apostles.
The inevitable question arises, ie. why this should be as Paul had met the apostles (Acts 9:27, Gal 1:18-19, 2:2,9) and would have been given this information by them - that is of course if these "apostles" had in fact accompanied the earthly Jesus rather than being as Paul, ie. Christians receiving information direct from the risen Lord, but that is what the situation appears to have been.
Reference to Jesus' resurrection, rather than his earthly life appears in l Cor l5:3-8, when Paul lists the resurrection appearances (apparently in chronological order); these bear no resemblance to the Gospels and reference to an appearance to 'all the 12' whilst Matt report Judas' suicide again suggests lack of information; his mention of an appearance to five hundred brethren at one time (l5:6) is quite extraordinary as it would be inexplicable for the Gospel writers to have omitted this event if they had known of it. The empty tomb, nor Jerusalem itself is ever mentioned by Paul; his several visits to Jerusalem, recorded in both Acts and Gal. surely would have brought him into contact with the empty tomb.
The failure of Paul to mention the empty tomb, which surely would have had great significance for Paul due to his preoccupation with Jesus' death and resurrection, may have been due, unlike the Gospels reporting a physical resurrection, to a belief in Jesus being raised as a spirit (l Cor l5:44,45,50). The l Cor l5:3-8 passage does not link Jesus to any specific historical time; it simply reports that he died, was buried, was raised, and had appeared to a number of people alive in Paul's time. There is no suggestion whatsoever that these appearances occurred immediately after his death/resurrection. Whilst the Gospels have Jesus appearing as a resurrected physical human being to his apostles and Acts having Jesus appearing in a totally different form to Paul (ie. after his ascension), there is no such suggestion here; Paul does not differenciate in any way between the earlier appearances in l Cor l5:3-7 and the one to him (l5:8). It appears from this that he believed all those listed in l5:3-7 had experienced the same vision as he had done - they are certainly not made to be companions of Jesus in his earthly life and Paul appears to think of the others who are listed as experiencing a supernatural vision as he had done. The reason for Jesus now appearing was apparently because of the approaching end which was imminent (l Cor 7:29, l5:23-24, l Thess 4:14-17, etc, etc).
Examples of Paul's failure to invoke Jesus' words are:-
Rom 2:l,l4:l3/Matt 7:l, Luke 6:37
Rom l2:l4,l7/Matt 5:44, Luke 6:38
Rom l3:9,Gal 5:l4/Matt 22:39-40, Mark l2:31, Luke l0:27
Rom l3:6/Mark l2:l7
Rom l4:l4/Mark 7:l8-l9
l Cor 6:7/Matt 5:39-40
l Cor l5:35-55*/Mark l2:25
l Thess 4:9/John l5:l7
(* In l Cor l5, Paul uses the O.T. rather than Jesus' statements in the Gospels ie. l5:45 (Gen 2:7), l5:54 (Isa 25:8) and l5:55 (Hos l3:l4).
Paul argues that the 'spirits of this age' will be put down at Christ's second coming (l Cor l5:24-25) - he appears to be ignorant of the fact that spirits were overcome by Jesus in his earthly life (eg. Mark 3:ll) and furthermore this was when Satan himself was judged and cast out (John 12:31).
Furthermore there seems to be no pagan evidence for Jesus' existence either. Reference to his existence doesn't occur until well into the second century and even then the writers seem to be merely repeating Christian statements about Jesus (eg. Tacitus in 120 CE). What is really striking is that thee same ignorance about Jesus' earthly life is found in most other N.T writings, eg. in l Pet, readers are told to love one another, have unswerving faith and put away malice - but the writer never quotes Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount - instead he quotes the Old Testament.
With regard to Paul and the origins for Jesus, it does seem that Jesus' 'teachings' overall were borrowed from the O.T. and occasionally elsewhere. It does also seem that messages received 'from the risen Lord' by Christian prophets in trance were fed back into Jesus' earthly life. The Didache, a Christian writing of ca. lst century (probably from Syria) writes of Christian prophets; "Welcome them as the Lord...Every missioner who comes to you should be welcomed as the Lord....While a prophet is uttering words in a trance, you are on no account to subject him to any tests or verifications - this is the sin that shall never be forgiven.......They exhibit the manner and conduct of the Lord.....". Here it can be seen these prophets were treated with the same respect as Jesus himself; what they said was treated as coming direct from Jesus and was not to be questioned. Furthermore this feature is found elsewhere, eg. B.E.Beck (Senior Tutor and Methodist minister, New Testament Studies, Wesley House, Cambridge), in his Reading the New Testament Today, "....Sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels were used by Christians without acknowledgement, but the possibility cannot be ruled out that the reverse process has occurred - maxims in general use, from whatever source, have been mistakenly attributed to Jesus, eg. Matt 6:34, 7:6. Apparently Christian prophets spoke in the name of the risen Lord, that is, on his behalf. Were such sayings treasured as those of the earthly Jesus ? Was any real distinction made between them when both were felt to express the mind of the Lord who had now risen and was still acting through his church ?
If the distinction was not sharply drawn, what was to prevent a saying of the Lord, delivered through a prop- het, being attributed to the Lord in his earthly minis- try ?...". Much the same thing is said by Ernest Best (Professor of Divinity and Biblical criticism, Univers- ity of Glasgow) in his book, 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
As Paul and indeed other N.T. writers say little or nothing about Jesus' earthly life and Paul's knowledge of him appears to have come directly through revelations and ecstatic states (See 2 Cor ll:1, Gal l:12); at the end of the day it appears that Paul and a few others* believed there were getting messages from the crucified and now-risen Christ who had lived on earth 'sometime in the past' and was now revealing himself as the close of the age dawned (See l Cor 7:29, l0:11). * Note how the post-resurrection appearances listed in l Cor l5:5-8 (which flatly contradicts the Gospels) does not differentiate between the appearances to those listed in l5:5-7 and the one to Paul, but in fact the Gospels and Acts have Jesus' appearances to some of those in l5:5-7 in a physical body and before his ascension, but to Paul it was a wholly different experience, ie. a blinding vision (eg. Acts 9:3-5).
However, the way in which the 1 Corinthians l5 list is worded certainly suggests, as some have noted, that Paul believed the others who had seen the risen Lord experienced it in the same way he did - ie. by direct revelation. He seems to know nothing of any idea that they had ever seen the earthly Jesus.
It is necessary to comment on the argument that proposes that as Josephus and Tacitus, both non-Christians, refer to Jesus, this surely proves he was a historical personage.
These references are very brief fleeting statements concerning a Jesus by (1)Josephus (XVIII, 3.3), ca. 95 CE and (2)Tacitus (anals. xv, 44) ca. 120 CE. However with regard to these, it must be asked, (1)Josephus. (i)Why do no Christians up to the 4th cent. refer to Josephus' priceless remark that 'Jesus was the Christ' ? (ii)Why does the Christian apologist Origen (l85-254 AD) state categorically that Josephus did NOT believe that Jesus was the Christ in view of the statement that calls Jesus by this very title ? (iii)How could a strict Pharasaic Jew make such a statement ? (iv)Why is it written in the same style as Luke ? Surely this suggests rather than being written by Josephus it was taken from this Gospel ? (v)Why does it look like an insertion in the narrative and appears to interrupt the flow, not following on from what is said before and not leading into what is said afterwards ? (vi)Why doesn't Josephus say more about Jesus if he did really believe 'he was the Christ' ? (vii)How it is that a whole host of eminent Christian theologians/scholars who firmly believe in Jesus' historicity reject the passage ?
(viii)Why should this be genuine when other copies of Josephus's Antiquities have been discovered that are heavily interpolated with Christian references ?
(ix)The very fact that it does appear to be a Christian interpolation surely suggests there was a problem, as why should Christians feel there was a need to even do this ?
(2)Tacitus. It is never clear why this is even referred to; this was written nearly a century after Jesus' supposed existence - it is hardly 'contemporary'. If he is quoting a historical fact, then why does he make the same error that Christians also made about Pilate, ie. calling him a procurator when really he was a prefect. Trilling - an orthodox Christian - comments that Tacitus was saying what 'could have reached him from any educated contemporary' and 'is no more than what could be learned anywhere in Rome'. In fact when Pliny wrote to Trajan (ca. 117 AD) he admits that his information about Christians came through actually questioning Christians - not by using any historical record or common knowledge. Tacitus is undoubtedly doing the same. Tacitus does not refer to Jesus as 'Jesus' but 'Christ' - ie. the title ('Anointed/Messiah') that Christians gave Jesus. He could have hardly found this reference in any records he consulted (which would have therefore read:- 'We executed the Christ today' !). Again it is obvious he is only repeating what he had heard Christians believed.
Therefore, despite the feats supposedly accomplished by Jesus according to the four Gospels, apart from there being no eyewitness account about him by any Christians there is none by any non-Christian also, and furthermore there is not even a mention of him by any non-Christian until well into the second century. Somewhat strange if he live, and lived the life as Christians teach.
In sum, there is no eyewitness account of Jesus' supposed life, belief in him apparently arose from a small group of messianists who believed the Christ had lived an incon -spicious life, and died sometime in the past and was now, as he was about to shortly return to usher in the end of the age, revealing himself to them; only by the close of the first century, was this person's life set down as in the 30's and then given a chronological, geographical and historical setting.
"Of the 27 books of the New Testament only the authentic Pauline epistles are, strictly speaking, the testimony of an apostolic witness. And even Paul...was not a witness of the historical Jesus. Since the earliest witnesses wrote nothing...there is not a single book in the New Testament which is the direct work of an eyewitness of the historical Jesus..." (page 197).
(Professor Fuller, Professor of New Testament, Union Theological Seminary, New York. A Critical Introduction to the New Testament, p.197)