In your list of the things Paul tells us about the historical Jesus (he was born of a woman, he was a Jew, he had brothers, he had twelve disciples, etc.) one thing you seem to have left out was the fact that he was “betrayed” on the night he had the last supper. 1 Corinthians 11:23 says
“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you…”
Why haven’t you included the betrayal as part of the tradition about Jesus that Paul knows?
Ah, good question. Many years ago when I was first teaching I did include that datum as rather important. I don’t do so any longer any more for one particular (and, in my books, very good) reason: I think the word “betrayed” is a mistranslation of the Greek of the verse I’m not alone in that. It’s a fairly widely held view. Here’s why.
The word Paul uses in the passage is PARADIDOMI. It is the word that literally means “handed over.” So the passage says “In the night in which he was handed over, the Lord Jesus took bread….” What does that mean though? Traditionally it has been thought that it means “the night Judas betrayed him.” The problem is that there is a different, and related, word that means “betrayed.” That is the word PRODIDOMI. If Paul wanted to refer to Judas’s betrayal, he would have used that word. Instead he uses PARADIDOMI.
Paul uses PARADIDOMI on other occasions, and when he uses it in reference to Jesus, it is *not* to an act of Judas, but to an act of God. Paul talks about God “handing Jesus over” to his fate. As an example, see Romans 8:32: God did not spare his son but “handed him over” for us. That appears to be what Paul is referring to in 1 Cor. 11:23 as well. It is a mistranslation, then, to translate PARADIDOMI as if it were, instead, PRODIDOMI. Paul is saying that the last supper happened the night in which God handed Jesus over to fulfill his destiny.
One related point. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul indicates the various individuals and groups to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection – Cephas, James, all the apostles, 500 people at once, Paul himself, and, interestingly, “the twelve.” But how is that supposed to work? How could Jesus have appeared to his twelve disciples if one of them was the betrayer who had hanged himself?
There are two solutions to that question that both make sense to me. I’m not sure how to decide which one is more likely. The first is that in the New Testament “the twelve” is a technical term that simply refers to Jesus’ inner group of disciples, a term that is used even if there were not exactly twelve of them at any one time. We certainly have analogies for that kind of usage. If you’re a college sports fan, you know that one of the most important leagues (for decades now) is “The Big Ten.” It was originally called that because it had ten teams in it. Except it doesn’t any more. It now has fourteen. But the league that these fourteen are in is still called the Big “Ten.” Go figure. Maybe “the twelve” was like that: it was the designation for the group, even though there were not exactly twelve in it.
The other solution seems equally plausible to me. Maybe Paul didn’t know the story about Judas betraying Jesus. He certainly would not have been familiar with the Gospels that tell the story, since the Gospels had not been written yet. In addition, Matthew is the only Gospel that indicates that Judas killed himself immediately after the crucifixion. Do the other Gospel writers know about that?
Luke knows that Judas died, because he has an account of it, not in his Gospel but in the book of Acts (same author for both books). The account is strikingly at odds with what is found in the Gospel of Matthew. Here is a great exercise, and I highly recommend it: read carefully through Matthew’s version of how Judas died in Matthew 27:3-8 and then the account of his death in Acts 1:16-19. Ask yourself: who bought the field that is mentioned in the story? What is the relationship between the field and Judas’s death? Why is it called the field of blood? And how did Judas actually die? If you don’t find discrepancies at these points, then you’re reading different versions than I am!
Luke thus knows that Judas died, but it’s not clear exactly when. Mark and John say nothing about the matter. And either does Paul. Does Paul know about Judas? If so, he doesn’t tell us. (He never mentions his name, for example.)
Maybe, then, there were alternative versions not just of how Judas died, but of everything about Judas. Maybe in some stories of Jesus’ death, there were no references to Judas. It’s possible. But it’s very hard to say.
What we can say, I think, is that Paul makes no definitive reference to Judas or the betrayal. So that’s why I don’t include it in my list of things that we know that Paul knew. I wish I *could* include it, since it would lengthen my list, and the more we can say that Paul knew about the historical man Jesus the more we can be certain that he knew about the historical man Jesus, a matter of some importance when dealing with those who claim that Paul did not even know there was such a man. But my view is that we should not accept claims or data simply because they are convenient to our arguments!
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