- Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
- Jesus called disciples.
- He preached “the kingdom of God”.
- Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
- Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
- After his death, his followers continued as an identifiable movement.
Paul does not seem to know any of these facts. He never mentions John the Baptist. He never mentions Jesus' interaction with any of his disciples. Paul discusses "the kingdom of God" but he never identifies it as something that Jesus preached during his earthly ministry. Paul never mentions Jesus engaging in a a controversy about the temple. He never says where Jesus was crucified. Finally, Paul does not indicate that any of his contemporaries in the movement had been followers of Jesus prior to his death.
There are plenty of references in Paul that could lead to the conclusion that he saw Jesus as a real flesh and blood human being who actually walked the earth. I don't think that is enough to make his Jesus historical though. After all, Paul seems to indicate that he considered Adam a real flesh and blood human being who walked the earth and .
The first response I usually get when I question the historicity of Paul's Jesus is that Paul met with the original apostles. This may be true, but according to Galatians, Paul had already been out preaching his gospel for three years before he went to Jerusalem to meet Peter and James. Paul's understanding of who Jesus was and what he had done must have had some other source. What was it?
The only source that Paul acknowledges seems to be direct revelation from God. "I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. 12I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." Gal. 1:11. "For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you . . ." 1 Cor. 11:23. After Paul had been preaching the gospel to the Gentiles for seventeen years, he finally went to Jerusalem to set it before the other apostles, but he is quite adamant that "those men added nothing to my message." Gal. 2:2,6.
McGrath points out that it unreasonable to accept Paul's claims to divine revelation at face value and that that Paul was simply unwilling to acknowledge any dependence on others for information because he was trying to establish his own apostolic bona fides. That seems sensible. However, determining who those others might have been is still a problem since Paul denies that he even met Peter and James until he had been preaching for three years. The only source would seem to be the Christians that Paul was persecuting prior to his conversion, but how likely is it that such information can be deemed historically reliable.
McGrath also thinks that Paul's persecutions are the logical place to look for his human sources of information about the historical Jesus and he asked what I think is a very revealing question: "Don't you think that it is a priori likely that Paul was led by things he knew about Christianity to persecute it, and thus had some knowledge about it even before he himself became a Christian?"
My response to this question is (and was) that a priori it is likely that Paul was led to persecute the early church by misunderstandings of their beliefs as much as by any accurate information he had about them. I think that this is the lesson of history. The pogroms and the Holocaust were not carried out because a sound and rational understanding of Judaism convinced someone that it posed a threat to Russian civilization. Persecution of the Jews was based on nonsense like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I don't think there is any reason to think that Paul began persecuting Christians because he had an accurate understanding of their beliefs.
Nor do I think there is any reason to think that Paul would have gained an accurate understanding of the early church's beliefs while he was persecuting it. Paul could very well have used paid informants to identify heretics and he might well have used torture to elicit confessions from his victims. In either circumstance, Paul was likely to have heard stories that were shaped by a desire to tell him what it was thought he wanted to hear rather than a desire to give him a fair and accurate understanding or theological beliefs. I would think it quite likely that when Paul had his vision on the road to Damascus, his understanding of early Christian beliefs was likely to contain plenty of misinformation.
John Loftus of Debunking Christianity is also convinced that the link between Paul and the historical Jesus runs through Paul's persecutions: He commented:
Vinny, in my opinion there is only one way to deny there was a historical founder of the Jesus cult and that is to reject the whole NT tradition in total. Paul said he was persecuting the church in Galatians chapter one so the church was already in existence in some form or another when Paul was converted by his vision. Paul was not the original founder to this original movement, although he did hijack it. So you must deny that Paul is the actual author of the seven letters usually attributed to him, or deny that he existed too, and I find such an utter skepticism unjustified.I don't think my agnosticism about a historical Jesus constitutes utter skepticism at all. I simply don't see how we can determine the degree of theological continuity between the gospel that Paul preached and the beliefs of the early church that he persecuted. We don't know much about what Paul thought Jesus said or did during his time on earth. Since he does not credit any human sources for his understanding of Jesus, we cannot say how much of his gospel might have been the product his own imagination or creativity, which he then identified as his revelation and we don't know how much was part of some ecstatic visions. We don't know how much Paul's gospel varied from earlier beliefs as the result of misinformation. As Loftus pointed out apocalyptic prophets were a dime a dozen in first century Palestine so Paul's gospel even could have been an amalgamation of messianic beliefs that were in the air. In short, since we don't know how much Paul hijacked the original movement, I think it makes sense to be agnostic about the extent to which Paul's gospel goes back to an earlier historical person.