If we now ask what can be learned from Paul of Jesus’s pre-crucifixion life, the answer is: nothing except that he was descended from David (Rom. 1:3) and born of a woman under the Jewish law (Gal. 4:4). Paul never mentions Mary or Joseph (nor does any other NT epistle writer) and says nothing to suggest that the birth was from a virgin mother. For him, Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God with power” by dint of his resurrection (Rom. 1:4), not by a supernatural birth, nor by manifestations of power such as miracle-working or exorcisms during his lifetime. He never even suggests that Jesus had been active in Jerusalem and Galilee. Tom Wright, Dean of Lichfield, says again and again in his 1997 book that Paul preached “Jesus of Nazareth”, whereas in fact Paul never mentions Nazareth and says nothing to link Jesus with the place. Within the NT, the title ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is used only in Acts... The position is no better in respect to Paul’s knowledge of Jesus’s teaching. He never suggests that Jesus taught in parables, even though these are quite central to the synoptic teaching. He also never suggests that Jesus was involved in doctrinal conflicts with Pharisees. At no point in his letters where he is expounding the central content of his gospel does he cite or clearly allude to any saying of Jesus. No question was more central to Paul than whether it was necessary for Christians to keep the Jewish law, yet the controversies on the matter recorded in his letters, and even in Acts, show no knowledge of the various teachings on the law that are ascribed to Jesus in the gospels. In these, the parts of the law most prominent are the regulations about Sabbath and about food; and if Jesus’s attitudes on these matters had been as lax as some gospel passages suggest, this would surely have surfaced in other documents where these issues are to the fore. According to Mk. 7:19, for instance, he declared all foods clean. Paul can have known nothing of this, for he records a furious quarrel with Peter as to whether it was permissible for Christian Jews and Christian gentiles to eat together (Gal. 2:11-16), and it took a thrice-repeated post-resurrection revelation even to half convince Peter to permissiveness on the matter (Acts 10:9-17). Again, at Gal. 4:10 Paul reproves Christian opponents on the ground that they observe special “days”, and this must include Sabbath observance. But he does not support his case with any suggestion that Jesus had transgressed the Sabbath, had allowed his disciples to do the same, and had justified such action publicly in debate – all of which is alleged in the gospels. As to the all-important matter as to whether Christians need to be circumcised, Paul obviously knew nothing in Jesus’s teaching or behaviour to which he could appeal, and has to resort to a quite desperate argument in order to controvert the clear doctrine of Genesis 17:10 (“every male among you shall be circumcised”). How arbitrary Paul’s argument is has been well brought out by E.P. Sanders’s summary of it ([Paul], pp. 55ff). (The Jesus Myth, pp. 58-59)
As we note these and other similar points of remarkable difference between the portrait of Jesus in the gospels and Paul’s treatment of Jesus in his writings, the tell-tale signs of legend-building begin to emerge and make themselves noticeably apparent. But Christian literalists, anxious to protect their religious confession from the threat that such analysis poses for Christianity, busy themselves with the task of damage-control, hoping to discredit the message-bearers if they can’t discredit the message itself.
In the present case, commenter David has listed what he apparently thinks are good indications in Paul’s letters that Paul had knowledge of the Jesus we read about in the gospel narratives. I will review these and see whether they really do point to the Jesus of the gospel narratives, or if they are in fact primitive rudiments which later narrative-constructors adapted in their growing yarn of Jesus’ pre-crucifixion life.
As for whether or not the gospel writers used Paul as a source, this is unclear. However, as I have shown, many of the teachings which Paul gives as his own or as inspired by his interpretation of ‘the scriptures’ are put into Jesus' mouth in the gospels. This suggests that later writers were using sources that were influenced by Paul, even if they did not mention or credit Paul.
I haven’t been shown any examples of this,
You have. Go back and check our exchanges. One of the Wells quotes that I gave lists several examples. There are plenty more, but the Wells quote is sufficient to show this.
but I have heard about lots of things Paul doesn’t mention.
Indeed. Does Paul mention Bethlehem? Nazareth? The virgin birth? Son of a carpenter? Escape from the slaughter of the innocents? A baptism by John the Baptist? Miracle-working? Magic cures? A ministry in various towns throughout Judea and in Jerusalem? Conflict with the chief priests? Teaching in parables? The feeding of five thousand? The raising of Jairus’ daughter? The raising of Lazarus? A trial before Pilate? A crucifixion outside Jerusalem? An empty tomb? Pentecost? Etc. Etc. Not only is Paul silent on these things, but all the early epistles are! These elements simply weren’t part of the legend yet. As the story was retold, they began to be added into the mix, until the resulting product is what we have in the gospels (and many non-canonical writings) today.
What about some things he does tell us about Jesus?
Yes, let’s look at them.
Jesus was born in human fashion, as a Jew, and had a ministry to the Jews. (Galations 4:4)
Yes, Paul does say that Jesus was born. But where was he born? When was he born? Who were his parents? Paul gives us no indication of these things. Paul mentions that he had a mother, but nowhere suggests that he was born a virgin. This legendary element came later as some communities sought to assimilate motifs from rival religions into their own version of Christianity.
Jesus was referred to as "Son of God". (1 Cor. 1:9)
On this, Wells notes significantly:
Paul characteristically applies to [Jesus] titles such as Lord and Son of God – titles which already existed within Judaism and also in pagan religions (see [H. Braun, ‘Der Sinn der NT Christology’, Zeitschrift fur Theologie und Kirche, 54, pp 350-1) – although Jewish monotheistic influences prevents the earliest Christian writers from calling him God. (Did Jesus exist?, p. 18)
If this is true – that the title “Son of God” was already in use “within Judaism and also in pagan religions” – this is another motif which Christianity borrowed from predecessor religions and applied to Jesus. As such, it has theological, but not historical meaning: it does nothing to specify a historical setting to Paul’s Jesus.
Jesus was a direct descendent of King David. (Romans 1:3)
David was highly venerated by the Jews, as the legends about him in the OT indicate. Also, since Paul was drawing on OT themes as the palate for his portrait of Jesus, linking him to David would hardly be surprising. Again Wells poignantly nails it:
There are many centuries between David and Paul, and Paul gives no indication in which of them Jesus’ earthly life fell. (Did Jesus exist?, p. 18)
The reference to Jesus as coming from the seed of David opens the possible timeline for Paul’s Jesus significantly.
Jesus prayed to God using the term ‘abba’. (Galations 4:6)
When does Paul have his Jesus do this, and where? How does Paul know? Is Paul making a historical reference, or is he making a theological point? The context of the Galatians passage suggests the latter rather than the former. This interpretation is only buttressed by its appearance in Mark, the earliest gospel:
Jesus in Gethsemane (Mk. 14:36) address God with the Aramaic word ‘abba’ (father). Mark supplies no witnesses who could have heard what was said, and also finds it necessary to put into Jesus’ mouth the Greek translation of the word (making him say: ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee’). Nevertheless, Jeremias insists that the logion is genuine since in Jewish traditions God is never address simply as ‘abba’ without some additional qualifying phrase, such as is preserved in Matthew’s ‘our father who art in heaven’ ([‘Kennzeichen der ipsisima vox Jesu’, in Synoptische Studien, Festschrift fur A. Wikenhauser], p 89). To this the adequate reply has been made ([Haenchen, Der Weg Jesu], p 493) that Paul’s references to an early Christian practice of ‘Abba, Father’ (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6) show that ‘abba’ followed by its Greek translation was a formula current in Hellenistic Christian circles, and that Mark has simply put it into Jesus’ mouth. And a leading Jewish scholar (Vermes, [Jesus the Jew], pp 210-11) has given evidence that ‘abba’ was used in the prayer language of the Judaism of the day in precisely the manner in which Jeremias and other Christian scholars have declared to be ‘unthinkable’. (Did Jesus exist?, p. 75)
So again, we have an early theological reference which was imported into the Christian tradition and later treated as a historical datum.
Jesus expressly forbid divorce. (1 Cor. 7:10)
Does Paul say when, or where, or indicate the circumstances of this delivery? How would Paul know this? That’s right, Paul appeals to revelation as the means by which he learned his gospel. Later writers could easily take such references and put them into a portrait of an earthly Jesus purported by some to be historical. How hard would it be to do this?
Jesus taught that ‘preachers’ should be paid for their preaching. (1 Cor. 9:14)
Another feature that Paul got from the OT. He even quotes Deut. 25:4 in I Cor. 9:9. Paul is not giving evidence of familiarity with an earthly Jesus here; he gives no indication of a historical setting on earth where Jesus would have given such instruction, and attributes the teaching to “the Lord,” for Paul, the risen Jesus, not the earthly Jesus. The later writers (i.e., of the gospels) take this reference, which has ecclesiastical significance for Paul, and give it the impression of historical significance by putting the teaching into Jesus’ mouth (cf. Mt. 10:10; Lk. 10:7).
Jesus taught about the end-time. (1 Thess. 4:15)
Let's look at what I Thess. 4:15 states:
For this we say unto you by word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.
Again, Paul is here appealing to “the Lord” (as opposed to Jesus), which signifies for him the risen savior. Nor Paul does indicate a historical context for the teaching he ascribes to “the Lord.” By referring to “we” here (instead of “they” or some other third person reference), Paul indicates (as he does in other passages) his belief that Jesus’ return was coming soon, probably even within his own expected lifetime. No such luck. But this did not prevent later writers from adapting the gloom and doom eschatology and putting it into Jesus’ mouth.
Paul refers to Peter by the name Cephas (rock), which was the name Jesus gave to him. (1 Cor. 3:22)
Paul tells us that he had a very involved conflict with Peter, but he never tells us that Jesus gave Peter this name. This is not even hinted at in anything Paul says about Peter. In fact, Paul nowhere indicates that Peter was a traveling companion of Jesus on earth before the crucifixion. Later writers were probably perplexed by the use of two names for Peter, and explained it by having the Jesus of their narratives give the name Cephas to Peter in an exchange which is nowhere given in Paul.
Jesus had a brother named James. (Galations 1:19)
We've already beaten this horse to death. Paul never gives a brother to Jesus - that is, a biological sibling to the earthly, pre-crucifixion Jesus. Paul is clear in reference James as "the brother of the Lord," which title signifies the post-resurrection Jesus. James, it was seen, was referred to as one of the "pillars" of the church by Paul. It is most probable then that Paul is referring to James with a fraternity title, similar to the one he uses for an unspecified number of persons in I Cor. 9:5, where he states: "Have we no right to lead about a wife that is a believer, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?" Here Paul is obviously referencing the upper echelon of the Christianity of his day. It would be hard to suppose that Paul is referring to a group of biological siblings of Jesus here. Instead, he's speaking of an inner circle group, who were obviously held in high regard. The assumption that Paul is referring to a biological relationship is generated by reading the gospel details into Paul's letters, when in fact Paul's letters in no way confirm this reading.
Jesus initiated the Lord's supper and referred to the bread and the cup. (1 Cor. 11:23-25)
As I asked before, when does Paul say this happened? Where? Under what circumstances? Who attended this event? Paul doesn't give any details. Later writers came along and supplied them. Paul gave the primitive rudiments, indicating no time, place or historical setting. In fact, I don't even find any indication that Paul is associating "the Lord's supper" with the Passover. It would be temptingly easy for later writers to take what Paul writes here and redress it in a narrative situation that seemed historical, but is essentially just a piece of fiction.
Jesus was betrayed on the night of the Lord's Supper. (1 Cor. 11:23-25)
Jesus' death was related to the Passover Celebration. (1 Cor. 5:7)
Look at what the passage does say:
Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us
Is Paul saying that Jesus was crucified around the Passover holiday? I don't get that from this. This is Pauline symbolism, derived from his Jewish roots, and later writers took references like this and assembled them into their narrative. Again, it would be temptingly easy for them to do this.
The death of Jesus was at the hands of earthly rulers. (1 Cor. 2:8)
The passage says:
Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
It is not clear what Paul means here by "princes of this world" (the ESV translates this phrase as "rules of this age" and the ASV has it as "rulers of this world"). Doherty has some interesting thoughts on this:
Where, then, was Jesus crucified and by whom? Like the myths of the savior gods, this deed took place in the mythical world, the upper spirit realm of Platonic philosophy, where spiritual processes were seen to be located. It was the work of demon spirits. Paul says, in I Corinthians 2:8, that those who “crucified the Lord of glory” were “the rulers of this age.” That phrase is not a reference to human authorities on earth, but to the demon spirits, who were regarded as controlling the world in the present age of history and who would be overthrown with the arrival of the new apocalyptic age... This was the interpretation of 2:8 by ancient commentators like Marcion and Origen. Modern critical scholars have largely followed suit: Brandon, Barrett, Hering, Fredriksen. Paul Ellingworth, Translator’s Handbook for I Corinthians, p. 46, says: “A majority of scholars think that supernatural powers are intended here.” The Ascension of Isaiah, a Jewish-Christian document in the Pseudepigrapha, foretells the Son descending through the layers of heaven, hiding his identity from the angels and demons until he reaches the lower celestial sphere, where he is “crucified by the god of the world,” meaning Satan (chapter 9). The crucifixion of Paul’s Christ was a spiritual event. (Challenging the Verdict, pp. 250-251)
So “princes of this world” or “rulers of this age” may in fact not mean human agents, but supernatural agents of evil who have seized control of the world.
In any case, Paul seems to be excusing Jesus' executioners for their ignorance, and granting them a moral caliber that just needed better information. I've known a lot of Christians who accuse all human beings of being guilty of crucifying Jesus (even though those who are alive today weren't around 2000 years ago in the first place).
Jesus underwent abuse and humiliation. (Romans 15:3)
These are themes that are common throughout the Psalms and Isaiah, both of which very highly influenced Paul’s views. Romans 15:3, the very passage you cite here, quotes Psalms 69:9, which is attributed by the OT to David! Moreover, when Paul refers to Jesus’ abuse and humiliation, he refers to them only vaguely, and gives no historical setting, indicating no specifics of the occasion. Later writers (i.e., of the gospels) take this motif and elaborate on it in their passion scenes, which are variously embellished in the different versions.
Jewish authorities were involved with Jesus' death. (1 Thess. 2:14-16)
Doherty points out for us that many scholars are of the view that I Thess. 2:15-16 is an interpolation into an otherwise (for the most part) authentically Pauline letter. He writes:
What then are we to make of the passage in 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, about the Jews "who killed the Lord Jesus"? Well, many scholars (e.g., Mack, Koester, Pearson, Meeks, Perkins, Brandon: see the Bibliography at end) have tended to make short work of it, dismissing it as an interpolation by some later editor or copyist. (Who Crucified Jesus?)
Wells points out that RE Brown, in his The Death of the Messiah (p. 378-381), has summarized the reasons for this, and quotes Furnish (Jesus According to Paul, p. 70) as saying of this passage that “there are good reasons to think that it has come from a later hand” (in Wells’ The Jesus Legend, p. 24).
Jesus died by crucifixion. (2 Cor. 13:4 et al)
Yes, Paul does affirm that Jesus died by crucifixion. I don’t think anyone with any familiarity with Paul’s writing would venture so much as to call this facet of his Jesus into question. It is certainly not a point of contention for me. But what’s curious is that Paul does not allude to any of the accompanying details that we find in the gospel passion scenes. Paul nowhere gives any indications of the time or place of Jesus’ crucifixion; for all that Paul gives us, it could have happened 100 years (or more) before Paul was running about growing his churches. According to the gospels, Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem, but you would never learn this going by what Paul has to say. Yes, Paul tells us that Jesus was crucified, but leaves all the details open to a wide assortment of possible variables, and nothing in Paul necessitates the details we find in the gospel narratives, which were written well after Paul’s time.
The Suffering Servant motif was already central to the prophets and the Wisdom literature, both of which figure largely in Paul's worldview. As we saw, Paul's Jesus hailed from a lineage of a royal Jewish household, the house of David. Any connection between Paul's view of Jesus and actual historical events was probably vastly different than one familiar only with the gospels might suppose. Wells gives some pertinent clues in the following passage:
My view is that Paul knew next to nothing of the earthly life of Jesus, and did not have in mind any definite historical moment for his crucifixion. As we saw, holy Jews had been crucified alive in the first and second centuries BC, but traditions about these events, and about the persecuted Teacher of Righteousness, could well have reached Paul without reference to times and places, and he need not have regarded their occurrences as anything like as remote in time as they in fact were. Whenever it was that Jesus had lived obscurely and died, he had, for Paul, returned promptly after death to heaven; and the evidence for this exaltation, and indeed for his whole religious significance, was his recent appearances to Paul and to contemporaries of Paul which signaled that the final events which would end the world were imminent... Thus even if the death and resurrection were put at some indefinite time past, it remains quite intelligible that Christianity did not originate before the opening decades of the first century AD. Nor need any supposed relevance to Jesus of the Wisdom literature have been appreciated earlier. (Can We Trust the New Testament?, p. 34)
Jesus was physically buried. (1 Cor. 15:4)
Does Paul specify that Jesus’ dead body was put into a tomb? No, he nowhere does this. Does Paul indicate when Jesus was buried? No, he does not. Does he indicate where Jesus was buried? No, he does not. Does he indicate the circumstances under which he was buried? No, he does not, he only indicates that Jesus died by crucifixion, but indicates nothing of the details of this occasion. Later writers took what is for Paul more of a theological dogma and cast it into a historical context, inventing all kinds of details (e.g., the earthquake, the rising of the saints, the tear in the veil, Joseph of Arimathaea, the packing of the body in spices, the guards at the tomb, the visitation of the women to the tomb, the angels at the tomb, etc.). All these are elements of great story-telling, for sure, but they’re only stories, legends by any other name.
The conclusion here is unavoidable: none of the features and motifs which have been discussed here put Paul's Jesus in any specific time, location or situation. Each can be explained without appeal to the gospel narratives, and each could have easily been assimilated by later writers in concocting a narrative of Jesus' life. In fact, what David has isolated for us is some of the raw material that was central to the creation of Christian story-making, the stuff of legends which grew in scale and impressiveness as the yarn was reworked and refashioned to suit new theological needs and new social challenges.
by Dawson Bethrick