Professor of History and Literature of Early Christianity at Georg-August-University Göttingen, and director of the Institute of Early Christian Studies, Dr Gerd Lüdemann, concludes an essay published in 2010 with this sentence:
In short, Paul cannot be considered a reliable witness to either the teachings, the life, or the historical existence of Jesus. (“Paul as Witness to the Historical Jesus” in Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating Jesus from Myth, p. 212)
So what is his reasoning or understanding of the letters of Paul that leads him to such a conclusion?
Earlier in the same essay Dr Lüdemann also wrote:
In short, while Paul is far from a systematic biographer, it is incorrect to say that the earthly Jesus did not matter to him. (p. 200)
Lüdemann argues that it makes no sense to speak of Paul’s view of “the historical Jesus”, since this concept is the product of a scholarly study of the texts. Rather, he speaks of Paul’s interest in “the earthly Jesus”.
Lüdemann interprets passages such as Galatians 4:4 (born of a woman) and Galatians 1:19 (James the Lord’s brother) as references to the earthly Jesus.
So I am posting this to present a different viewpoint on the question of Jesus’ historicity.
For Paul, Lüdemann explains, Jesus was of preeminent importance as the Risen One, yet it was as the Risen and Heavenly Lord and simultaneously as the one who humbled himself to become flesh and die that Jesus was upheld as “the main figure in the cosmic drama”.
Lüdemann notes that whenever he alludes to teachings by Jesus, Paul always refers to him as the Lord. But it is to be noted that while Paul may speak of Jesus as the authority in this way, Paul “can always claim for himself, as one commissioned by Christ, the mantle of present authority. Note, for example, 1 Cor. 7:40: “But I think that I have the spirit of God.”
Lüdemann discusses the various passages that Paul accounts of as words or instructions of the Lord, and argues why Jesus is unlikely to have said many of them. For example, the Lord’s supper commands to eat flesh and drink blood of Jesus could scarcely have come from a righteous Jewish teacher, even with symbolic meaning. Further, this Last Supper is a cult observance that is not the Passover — for Paul Jesus was the Passover — as in the Synoptics.
Paul’s claim that the Lord ordered those who preach the gospel must make their living from the gospel (1 Cor. 9:14) serves Paul’s agenda in wanting to build up a strong case for supporting missionaries (though he himself refrains from the right). Paul asserts the missionaries’ right by appealing to reason and common sense (v.7), the Old Testament (v.9), universal religious practice (v.13), and the teaching of Jesus himself (v.14). Lüdemann believes this saying has in mind the one from Q, “the laborer deserves his hire” (Matt. 10:10/Luke 10:7). But Lüdemann also adds that
It presupposes a fully developed movement and seems to be a group invention. (p. 202)
The passage in Acts 20:35 where Paul is said to have quoted the words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”, appears to derive from Thucydides II, 97, 4, “to give rather than receive”, and where it appears again in 1 Clement 2:1 but not as a saying of Jesus.
Even passages exhorting nonresistance, and blessing one’s enemies (Rom. 12:17, 21) find no justification in being traced back to Jesus, since the advice to conquer evil by doing good was a maxim in Judaism.
Despite what I considered a very negative assessment of the likelihood of Paul quoting an earthly Jesus saying, Lüdemann concludes that Paul was familiar with some traditions about Jesus’ teaching. (Lüdemann discusses additional “allusions” in Paul to similar sayings by Jesus, but again it seems to me his conclusions are far from unequivocal.)
However, it goes without saying that Jesus’ ethic was ill suited to serve as a moral guide for the church in a Hellenistic society.
Hence Paul expresses disappointment that he does not have an instruction from the Lord for all marriage situations. The “command of the Lord” in 1 Cor. 7:10-11 cannot be from Jesus, Lüdemann reasons, because it addresses a Greco-Roman law allowing women to initiate a divorce, and not a Jewish custom.
Nevertheless, Lüdemann concedes the infrequency of Paul’s explicit and implicit references to the teachings of Jesus in Paul’s letters. How to account for this?
Were Paul’s readers already familiar with the life and teachings of Jesus?
Lüdemann gives reasons to reject this proposition.
Firstly, Paul assumes his readers are familiar with the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures, the Septuagint. Yet it is this familiarity that enables Paul to make regular use of these scriptures in his letters. He regularly and specifically cites them as his source of ethical teaching.
So why would he not also refer to the life and teaching of Jesus if his readers were as familiar with that as with the Scriptures?
Secondly, Paul himself twice sums up exactly what he had earlier delivered to his readers, so we do know what they were familiar with from previous encounters with Paul. Paul reminds them he taught them several things but not once is the life and teaching of Jesus included:
1 Corinthians 2:1-2
1 And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
1 Corinthians 15:3-5
3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve.
One must record with some surprise the fact that Jesus’ teachings seem to play a less vital role in Paul’s religious and ethical instruction than does the Old Testament. (p. 211)
not once does Paul refer to Jesus as a teacher, to his words as teaching, or to Christians as disciples. In this regard it is of the greatest significance that when Paul cites “sayings of Jesus,” they are never so designated; rather, without a single exception, he attributes such sayings to “the Lord.”
So Lüdemann’s conclusion is this:
Paul thought that a person named Jesus had lived and that he now sat at the right hand of God in heaven. Yet he shows only a passing acquaintance with traditions related to life and nowhere an independent acquaintance with them. In short, Paul cannot be considered a reliable witness to either the teachings, the life, or the historical existence of Jesus.
So Dr Lüdemann’s reasoning is this. The earthly Jesus did matter to Paul, but this does not make Paul a reliable witness to the existence of Jesus. “Or, to put it bluntly, interest in Jesus’ historical existence does not prove his existence.”