In many ways, the Jesus we find in Paul’s letters is a cipher. His activities prior to his death are unknown other than the fact that he instituted the Eucharistic meal. Where and when he lived is unknown. Where and when he was crucified is unknown. Little if anything is known of the circumstances surrounding his crucifixion other than that he was betrayed. His only contacts with identifiable people are the appearances he made after he rose from the dead. He might have had a brother named James, but maybe that was a spiritual relationship rather that a biological one.
Paul was not the first person to witness an appearance of Jesus, but we don’t know much about the theological significance that the others attached to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul says that the message he preached about Christ’s atoning death was revealed to him directly by Christ himself. Even the part about the Eucharistic meal Paul says he received from Christ. We don’t know whether this is what the earlier believers thought before Paul came along because Paul says that they contributed nothing to his message.
If all we had was Paul’s letters, we might reasonably conclude that Christianity had its origins in the vision that Paul had on the road to Damascus rather than in an actual person who lived and walked around Galilee in the first century.
So where did the gospel stories come from?
Paul was undoubtedly a very charismatic guy and his story and his message of Christ’s atoning death was enough to convince a lot of people to embrace the new faith. As time went by, however, and the religion spread, curiosity about what Jesus had said and done would have grown. Paul’s story might have been enough for people who heard it directly from him, but as the religion became several steps removed from it, people might have been easier to convert if the preachers could tell them some stories about Jesus himself.
If these early preachers were honest fellows, they wouldn’t want simply to invent stories, so they would need a source. They knew that Jesus had been the Messiah who had been foretold in the Jewish scriptures because Paul told them so. As the Messiah, he must have done the things that the Jewish prophets had said the Messiah would do. All the preachers had to do was look in the Old Testament to find out what Jesus had done during his life.
As the stories were told and retold, they were expanded. Things that Paul had said were attribute to Jesus. Things that other apocalyptic preachers like John the Baptist had said and done were attributed to Jesus. Eventually, the author of the Gospel of Mark pulled the stories together to form a coherent narrative that supported his interpretation of Jesus.
Can I prove that this is what happened?
Of course not. In fact, I see some serious holes in this theory as well, because it is not just Paul’s letters that neglect Jesus’ life prior to his crucifixion. None of the first century Christian writers including Clement demonstrate any knowledge of the gospels or the stories they contain. Perhaps the attempts to historicize Paul’s Jesus did not take place until much later.
In the comments to a post about alternative explanations for the resurrection over at Parchment and Pen, C. Michael Patton posed the following question: “If you did not have a anti-supernaturalistic bias against the possibility of the resurrection, wouldn’t you say that a belief that Christ rose from the grave is at least a good possibility for the evidence?”
Not surprisingly, I answered no. A big part of that no comes from my inability to trace the lineage of the gospel stories. If in fact the Christian message in Jerusalem around 35 A.D. was based on a recently diseased individual whose life and death were personally witnessed by the earliest Christians, I would think that any historical explanation would have to take the stories about Jesus’ life and death seriously. However, I don’t think that there is enough evidence to show that the gospel stories were not much later additions to a movement that was founded solely on Paul’s interpretation of a vision he had. As such, I cannot see any reason to resort to supernatural explanations.