Monday, November 16, 2009

Was Paul's Jesus Historical? (2)

One reason that conservative Christians offer for Paul eschewing discussion of what Jesus said or did during his earthly ministry is that Paul was writing epistles rather than gospels, which I think boils down to the idea that Paul didn't need to reference any of those teachings or activities in order to make his points.

One of the reasons I find this unpersuasive is that even if Paul did not feel the need to quote Jesus, he would have needed to deal with opponents who did. In Galatians, Paul describes his disagreement debate with Peter and James over whether pagan converts needed to be circumcised and observe the Jewish laws. Surely, Paul's opponents would have cited Jesus own words in support of their position:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:17-20. If Jesus' words were known and considered authoritative during Paul's time, it is difficult to see how he could address these issues without touching upon what Jesus had to say on the subject.

I can accept that Paul thought that Jesus was an actual person who had walked the earth, but it is hard for me to see how he could have thought that anyone he knew had personally interacted with Jesus while he had.


  1. Your example assumes early Christians thought that statement supported circumcision.

    Obviously they didn't think it covered everything in the law because Christians had already stopped offering sacrifices. (I think the key phrase in this passage is "until everything is accomplished.")

    I suspect the apostles (since none of them quote Jesus) assumed their audiences knew what Jesus said; they just needed to explain the signifigance of what He did.

  2. '....Paul didn't need to reference any of those teachings or activities in order to make his points.'

    So Paul wrote an entire book on theology (Romans) describing how Jesus had totally changed the relationship between Jew, Gentile, the Law and salvation without ever once needing to reference anything Jesus had said?

    1 Corinthians 1
    'Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified:'

    Paul didn't need to mention any miracles of Jesus to refute Jews who demanded to hear about miracles before they would accept Christianity?

    Paul didn't mention the miracles of Jesus in his letters because Christians knew all about them, and he didn't mention the miracles of Jesus when talking to Jews, because they demanded to hear about miracles?

  3. Chris,

    All I assume is that understanding what Jesus had to say about the law would be a necessary step in determining whether pagan coverts were required to follow Jewish practices. If, that is, Jesus' teachings were commonly known and believed to be authoritative.

    Since Paul did not have any personal knowledge of what Jesus said and claimed not to have been taught anything by any man, I find it hard to imagine how there could have been a generally accepted body of Jesus' sayings that everyone recognized as authentic.


    Not only was it unnecessary to reference anything Jesus had said, it wasn't even necessary to reference the fact that Jesus had said anything at all.

  4. Paul sometimes has 'words of the Lord', which seem to be revelation.

  5. Vinny,

    A fascinating topic I have yet to see a satisfying explanation, other than Paul not knowing the Jesus described in the Gospels.

    No matter what Christian apologetic is provided, it only creates more problems; not less.

    Either Paul knew the story regarding Jesus in the Gospels, or he didn’t. If Paul didn’t, this undercuts the continuing claim how “the Gospels couldn’t be false, because opponents would point out discrepancies.” If Paul, both a one-time critic, and a subsequent believer didn’t know the story of the Jesus--why would we expect any other opponent, or any other believer to, as well?

    If Paul did know this story, why doesn’t he utilize Jesus’ words or actions in his epistles? Not one single quote, other than words stated directly to Paul, and the brief mention of the Last Supper. [(1 Cor. 11:23) and even that, Paul indicated he got from the Lord, not from another person.] Not a single parable; not a sermon line; not an example. (1 Cor. 15 is a creed.)

    The claim these are epistles, not gospels, actually hurts the Christian cause. I think we can all agree Paul was writing these letters to address perceived problems. Paul was attempting to convince his audience to act certain ways, or ascribe to certain theologies. Paul was not writing travel documentaries—“Try the little Roman Café at the harbor in Corinth.” Paul was not writing histories. Paul was not writing biographies.

    Paul was writing persuasive words, attempting to convince. He utilizes whatever means necessary—he uses emotional appeal, logic, examples, rhetoric, and even quotes from the Tanakh. But nothing about Jesus’ life!

    The only conclusion I can draw from that, if Paul knew the stories of Jesus--he did not think they were authoritative! That they would not be persuasive! Does a Christian really want to head down this path?

    I do not see consistency regarding the claim the audience already knew the words of Jesus, so they didn’t need them repeated. Not…once?

    Paul informs us all the commandments are summed up in the one law, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Gal. 5:14. In fact, Paul likes this so much he uses it in another letter to another city. Rom. 13:9

    Yet he fails to mention Jesus said it? Mark 12:31. How does the methodology work here? If the audience already knows this statement, then Paul wouldn’t have said it, right? Remember, the claim is that Paul didn’t say the words of Jesus, because the recipients already knew them.

    But if the people on the receiving end DIDN’T know these words, why didn’t Paul mention they came from…oh…I don’t know…Jesus Christ himself? (And yes, I know Paul is quoting from the Torah. Lev. 19:18.)

    Paul argues for the resurrection of the Dead without referring to Lazarus, the dead walking at the resurrection, Jairus’ daughter, etc. Mentions the Jews looking for a sign, but nothing about the sign of Jonah.

    How does the method work here? The recipients knew about the sign of Jonah, but didn’t know the Jews were looking for a sign?

    Or take Romans 9. Paul, agonizing over Jews not following Jesus, uses numerous Tanakh examples. Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Rebecca, Jacob, Esau, Moses, Pharaoh. Using our, “Paul only mentions things they don’t know” method, we would have to assume the audience didn’t know these stories! Is that what the Christian is claiming?

    Why didn’t Paul use the example of Judas? Or the High Priest?

    Look, if there were only a few occasions where Paul didn’t use something from the Gospels to make his point, I could understand. But over and over and over and over, we see instances where what Jesus did, or what Jesus said, or what Jesus preached would be so applicable, and (presumably) authoritative on the subject, yet Paul never, EVER mentions it!

    I haven’t seen a good, consistent explanation for this.

    Other than the most obvious—Paul didn’t know the stories surrounding Jesus of the Gospels.

  6. Dagoods,

    Would anyone other than a Christian apologist conclude that everybody knows something based on the fact that nobody mentions it?

    How was it that everyone came to know the words of Jesus? Were they required to memorize everything that Jesus said upon their conversion? Even if I were to buy the argument that the Jewish oral culture of the first century had extraordinary memorization skills, we are talking about pagan converts from a variety of cultures. Moreover, we aren’t simply talking about the words of the gospels. Wouldn’t everything Jesus said during his three year ministry have to be common knowledge?

    Were there no disputed statements of Jesus? Paul warned the Thessalonians that there were forged letters being attributed to him, but none of the false teachings he had to correct required him to address whether Jesus had actually said something that was attributed to him. Nor did Paul ever have to reconcile any two statements of Jesus that might have appeared contradictory at first blush.