Sunday, January 17, 2010

Did Paul Need a Historical Jesus?

As my post titled “Conservative Scholars ‘Make Do’ with the Historical Jesus” is over seventy-five comments, I thought I would make this a separate post.

In one the comments, Marshall said he had never noticed before that Paul rarely says anything about what Jesus said or did prior to his crucifixion. It seems that many Bible believing Christians have not noticed this before. A couple months back, Nick Norelli said that he had “never actually thought about this before,” but it did not strike him as odd.

What I found most telling about Nick’s post was that he said he did not usually refer to things that Jesus said or did when sharing his own faith.
I generally hit certain notes pertaining to our culpability for sin and Jesus’ sacrifice for said sin via his crucifixion and the subsequent victory over death in his resurrection. But I can’t say that I really point to the sayings of the so-called historical Jesus that we find in the Gospels, nor do I refer much to the miracles he worked throughout the course of his ministry . . . . The more I think about it the more I’m convinced that it’s not at all suspicious (granted, I never found any suspicion in it anyway) that Paul doesn’t mention such things more often. Like Paul, I presuppose the existence of Jesus when presenting the Gospel.
Christians have suggested many explanations for why Paul might not have mentioned anything about Jesus' earthly ministry.  In another post, Nick had said that "Paul was writing epistles, not gospels."  In the comments to my earlier post, Bubba said that Paul and the other apostles were "ambassadors" rather than "heralds."  Bubba also suggests that the issues Paul addresses in his letters would not have come up during Jesus' earthly ministry.  He also floats the idea that Jesus' parables were intended for unbelievers while Paul's letters were directed towards believers.

As far as I can tell, all the apologetic explanations for Paul's neglect of Jesus' earthly ministry in his epistles amount to this: Paul did not need to mention Jesus' teachings or miracles in order to explain the meaning of his death and resurrection. Another way of saying this is that Paul's message of salvation through Christ's atonement works perfectly well without any reference to anything that Jesus said or did prior to his crucifixion. Taking it a step further, even if Paul's gospel depends upon Jesus being an actual flesh and blood person who walked the earth, it does not depend on anyone knowing anything about anything Jesus said or did prior to his crucifixion.

The fact that Paul's writings don't require a historical person who said and did the things described in gospels doesn't preclude the possibility that there was one or that Paul knew of him.  I personally think that it is more logical to conclude that Paul didn't know anything about such a person and Dagoods does a good job of making that argument in the comments to my earlier post.  Nevertheless, even if there is some reasonable explanation for Paul's failure to demonstrate knowledge of the historical Jesus, he still fails to demonstrate any knowledge of the historical Jesus.  Therefore, we cannot look to him for historical corroboration of the stories about Jesus' earthly ministry.


  1. 'What I found most telling about Nick’s post was that he said he did not usually refer to things that Jesus said or did when sharing his own faith.'

    I guess those Gideons are just plain stupid when they leave copies of the Bible in hotel rooms.

    You don't evangelise people by giving them copies of the Gospels to read!

    Every Christian knows that.

  2. Paul refers to things that Moses did, or people killed by snakes when testing the Lord, or Abraham and the circumcision.

    Paul refers to Sarah and Hagar when discussing miraculous births.

    Obviously, those are the stories we expect Christians like Nick to use when sharing his faith - not stories about Jesus.

    Paul's practice of talking about the deeds of Sarah, Hagar, Abraham, Isaac , Adam etc mirrors modern Christian practice when people share their faith.

    So Nick sees nothing out of the ordinary when he reads Paul's letters.