Jesus: the Same in Both Paul and the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Revised and updated 3 hours after the original posting.

Both the letters of Paul and the narrative in the Gospels speak of Jesus crucified. Jesus’ death is significant. The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus’ blood and Paul refers often to his blood. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke in particular stress his birth from a woman and we find a passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians saying Jesus was born of a woman. The Synoptic Gospels indicate Jesus was descended from David and in Paul’s letter to the Romans we likewise read Jesus was connected with David.

The contexts are quite different, of course. The Gospels are portraying a past narrative of an earthly mission of Jesus and Paul is addressing Jesus’ saving power in the “here and now and soon to be”.

And all of those references to Jesus’ crucifixion, blood, Davidic relationship, flesh, etc are derived from the same source. They are all speaking about the same thing.

They are taken from the same source as the account in all four Gospels of the cleansing of the Temple, the baptism by John, the failure of the disciples, the stories of healing, etc. All of these theological cum narrative plot constructs in the Gospels. They are all theological constructs.

Burton Mack and Paula Fredriksen, for example, recognize this in particular in the case of the “cleansing of the Temple”. I won’t quote them again here because I have already written of their arguments with full quotations more than once in previous posts. And mainly because right now I don’t have the time. But the point is that they recognize that the simplest explanation for this incident is that it was created from OT scriptures (midrash, if you like, to use a word we find in Dale C. Allison Jr. in relation to other gospel stories, though not in this specific context) in order to fulfill a plot function.

It is all just “too neat” as a plot device to be realistically thought of as a historical memory.

Mack and others recognize the same theological and narrative-plot function that the baptism of Jesus served in Mark’s Gospel, too. Unfortunately Fredriksen is less consistent and forgets the narrative-plot device argument when it does not suit her hypothesis for historical constructions. For example, despite all the indicators in the Gospels that the failure of the disciples is also based on OT scriptures and ever-so-neatly fills a narrative plot function, she does accept this event as historical.

And in Paul? Is there a single reference to Jesus in the epistles that does not serve to convey a theological message? How many other historical executions do we read about where a historian will dwell so much on the victim shedding “blood”?

No, “blood” is a theological signifier to Paul. It is not a historical event in the sense that Caesar’s assassination was an historical event. It has no focal historical moment in time and place. It is as much a theological construct as the Stoic’s Logos was a philosophical construct.

The same with Jesus’ Davidic connection. That is entirely a theological signifier in both the Gospels and Paul.

Sometimes one reads that even the name “Jesus” is too quotidian to be considered a name of a deity. But even a Classical scholar (John Moles) can see the ironical and theologically charged nature of the name Jesus and its aptness for a deity who also appears in the flesh as a healer and who rises from the dead.

Now of course none of the above excludes the possibility that Jesus was also historical. Of course not. And that’s not what I have ever argued. What I do argue is that the simplest explanation for the above data about Jesus — whether in Paul or in the Gospels — is that it is all a theological construct. In the case of the Gospels there is the additional factor of narrative plot devices.

That is the simplest explanation.

But that explanation could be invalidated if we were to find indisputable evidence — external to the theological literature — that the same persons and events were historical. If we had such evidence then the hypothesis of an exclusively theological origin would be invalidated.

We can read a historian like Herodotus and see that he has both a “nationalistic” (or “Hellenistic ethnic”) and “theological” bias and motive for his history of the Persian war. He is writing a drama of hubris and fall, of first the Persians and then the Greeks. He is “preaching” the over-riding power of the will of Apollo over the affairs of humankind. But we have external — independent — testimony of the same war that does not share these same dramatic and “theological” interests of Herodotus. We know Herodotus’s narrative of the Persian war is more than a theological drama.

We also have the little question of genre — a potential key to understanding the intent of the author. And we have details of provenance. We have some idea who was writing Histories and when and where and why and for whom.

We have no comparable evidence to assure us of the historicity of Jesus.

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Neil Godfrey

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  • reyjacobs
    2011-10-18 13:40:12 GMT+0000 - 13:40 | Permalink

    “Jesus: the Same in both Paul and the Gospels”

    If you’re as drunk as Martin Luther or as totally depraved as John Calvin, you might buy that. As far as what you are saying, OK. But when it concerns doctrinal content, the Jesus of the gospels says “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things” whereas Paul says “there is none good, no not one.” The gospels, “not everyone that says to me Lord Lord will enter the kingdom, but he that DOES the will of my Father” versus Paul “we are justified by faith and not by works.” Again, the gospels “The man who hears these sayings of mine and does them I liken to a wise man who built his house on a rock…who does not do them I liken to a fool who built his house on the sand…and great was the fall of it” vs Paul “by grace are you saved through faith.” Whoever buys that these are the same must be smoking some mighty potent Marijuana.

  • 2011-10-18 13:46:05 GMT+0000 - 13:46 | Permalink

    You misunderstand. Jesus in both Paul and the Gospels is a theological entity. He is not spoken about as a historical memory but as a theological idea.

    We nowhere see evidence of a historical person and set of events to which a theological meaning was attached. No, every detail itself is theological.

    • reyjacobs
      2011-10-18 14:06:15 GMT+0000 - 14:06 | Permalink

      I understood that, which is why I said, “As far as what you are saying, OK.” I still am not on board with the idea that Jesus never existed and was just entirely made up. However, I do realize that everyone was basically using him as their theological mouth-piece character. I certainly find it not only implausible but impossible that he or anyone of any stature, anyone of any popularity, anyone thought of as either a rabbi or a messiah especially, could have said “lend to everyone who asks” and “don’t ask for it back.” I can’t imagine how or why the gospel-writer decided to put this strange theology in Jesus’ mouth, but it is clear that the compilers of the Didache were embarrassed enough by it to feel the need to temper it with a loose quote from the book of Sirach “let your alms sweat in your hand until you know to whom to give” which they seem to be attributing to Jesus of Nazareth although it is merely a paraphrase of Jesus ben-Sira. I am inclined even to some extent to think that Jesus ben-Sira is the Jesus whose popularity resulted in the name Jesus being used for the gospels, and perhaps the animosity between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels is a vague historical remembrance of a Saduceean ben-Sira’s opposition to the Pharisees. Especially since certain phrases in the gospels come from ben-Sira in one way or another, sometimes by being turned completely around. Where ben-Sira makes Wisdom to say “he who drinks of me will yet thirst” the gospel of John has Jesus say “whoever drinketh of the water I give him will never thirst again” and again “I am the bread of life, he who eats me will never hunger” versus Wisdom in ben-Sira “he who eats of me will yet hunger.”

      “We nowhere see evidence of a historical person and set of events to which a theological meaning was attached.”

      On this I have to differ for two stories’ sakes: the rich young ruler to some extent but moreso of the lawyer in Luke 10:25 who asked “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” For although the Christian answer to this question is “follow me” or “become a Christian” or “believe in my death” or “get baptized”, Jesus’ answer here is: “What is written in the law? how readest thou?” This answer must harken back to the days before Christian theology was developed and imposed on and shoved into the mouth of whoever the historical prototype for the Jesus character was. Here we find the answer of the historical Jesus, even if the historical Jesus lived a century or two before when the gospels say he did and even if he was never crucified.

      • 2011-10-18 14:44:08 GMT+0000 - 14:44 | Permalink

        reyjacobs: “For although the Christian answer to this question is ‘follow me’ or ‘become a Christian’ or ‘believe in my death’ or ‘get baptized’,Jesus’ answer here is: ‘What is written in the law? how readest thou?’ This answer must harken back to the days before Christian theology was developed and imposed on and shoved into the mouth of whoever the historical prototype for the Jesus character was.”

        I have to disagree, because the point of this synoptic story is that the law is not bad, but the law is insufficient. Jesus says: “Yet you lack one thing: sell all that you have, and distribute unto the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.”

        The law will not give you eternal life, nor will your possessions, says this Jesus. If you suspect as I do that “the poor” is code for the traveling throng that follows Jesus, then the command to give up everything has to do with relinquishing one’s personal ownership and giving it over to the commune. Finally, we’re to follow him — to Jerusalem, Golgotha, and beyond.

        However, the story probably comes from the second-century churches which took care of its poorer members through donations from more affluent members.

        As Neil said, “…every detail is theological.” To which I would add: “…and probably also serves a sociological purpose in the early church.”

        • 2011-10-23 14:37:55 GMT+0000 - 14:37 | Permalink

          This is not the case with the story in Luke 10:25 . In my estimation, the story of the rich young ruler is just a rewrite of this story where lawyer asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus points him to the law “what does the law say? how do you interpret it?” The lawyer interprets it as saying Love God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself, and Jesus says “do this and you will live.” And that’s the end of it, except for the lawyer asking “who is my neighbor?” thus launching into the parable of the good samaritan. But it is not at all hinted at that the law is insufficient for salvation. Not only is this the original behind the rich young ruler story, which is nothing but a Christianized rewrite of this, but it also is apparently the original behind the story of the lawyer/Pharisee asking Jesus “which is the greatest commandment?” during Jesus’ last week. This story is found in Matthew and Mark but conspicuously absent from Luke because this story in Luke 10:25 is the original, and in it, it is not Jesus who makes Love God with all your being and your neighbor as yourself the two greatest commandments, but it is the lawyer who does so when Jesus says “what does the law say? how do you interpret it?”

          • 2011-10-23 17:36:28 GMT+0000 - 17:36 | Permalink

            reyjacobs: “This story is found in Matthew and Mark but conspicuously absent from Luke because this story in Luke 10:25 is the original”

            I find the idea that Luke’s version is the original hard to swallow, but or course I’m in the Markan priority camp. The fact that the wording of the question in Mark 10:17 is so close to Luke 10:25 (as well as Luke 18:18) betrays a literary dependence.

            Mark 10:27b: διδάσκαλε ἀγαθέ, τί ποιήσω ἵνα ζωὴν αἰώνιον κληρονομήσω;

            Luke 10:25b: διδάσκαλε, τί ποιήσας ζωὴν αἰώνιον κληρονομήσω;

            Luke 18:18b: διδάσκαλε ἀγαθέ, τί ποιήσας ζωὴν αἰώνιον κληρονομήσω;

            Especially interesting is the verb. The questioner doesn’t ask how to gain or receive eternal life but to inherit it. One author is surely copying from the other but who from whom?

            It seems more likely that the author of Luke has copied some of the dialog for the rich man (or “ruler,” in Luke 18:18) into the pericope that directly follows the Sadducees’ question about the greatest commandment (as it’s worded in the other two synoptics — Mark 12:28 ff., Matt. 22:35). Even though the questioner in Luke is ostensibly asking about eternal life, the original question is found in Mark and Matthew — What is the greatest commandment? Even in Luke, the answer to the question makes more sense if the question is about the law and not how to inherit eternal life.

            In all three gospels there are two great commandments — Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18.

            reyjacobs: “Not only is this the original behind the rich young ruler story, which is nothing but a Christianized rewrite of this, but it also is apparently the original behind the story of the lawyer/Pharisee asking Jesus “which is the greatest commandment?” during Jesus’ last week. This story is found in Matthew and Mark but conspicuously absent from Luke because this story in Luke 10:25 is the original…

            Are you saying the story of the rich young ruler is not in Luke? But it is — in Luke 18:18 ff. Luke faithfully copies the awkward response from Jesus — “Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God.” (Luke 18:19).

            Or are you saying that the story of the question about the greatest commandment is missing? If that’s the case, then I would say that is not missing from Luke. It is there in Luke 10:25; however Luke has rewritten the question so that it’s practically identical to the question in Luke 18:18 (and Mark 10:17).

            The most likely reason Luke redacted and moved the pericope of the “questioning or tempting scribe” was to provide a transition into the parable of the Good Samaritan. He needed to get somebody in the narrative to ask, “Who is my neighbor?”

            • 2011-10-24 02:25:08 GMT+0000 - 02:25 | Permalink

              A small correction: It wasn’t the Sadducees who asked about the greatest commandment, but rather a scribe, a Pharisee, or a lawyer — depending on which “bad guy” the evangelist wanted to poke a stick at.

            • rey
              2011-10-27 14:52:58 GMT+0000 - 14:52 | Permalink

              “Are you saying the story of the rich young ruler is not in Luke?…Or are you saying that the story of the question about the greatest commandment is missing?” I’m saying it isn’t found where we expect it, after Jesus silences the Saducees during his last week, but is found in a different form in Luke 10.

              The concept of the priority of one gospel over another is total bunk to me. Priority is to be questioned on a story by story basis. All the gospels are dependent on all the others because they have all been edited by a final editor. Mark is dependant on Matthew and Luke and Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark and on each other. The dependence is story by story.

              The reason I say Luke 10 is the original behind the story which Mark and Matthew displace to Jesus’ last week is that Luke would not have taken the credit for coming up with the two greatest commandment from Jesus and given it to a Pharisee. That is against the tendency of the gospels. But Matthew and Mark would take the Pharisee having come up with this concept and change it to where Jesus came up with it, in order to present Jesus as really smart.

              Dependence can’t be judged by the childish criterion of scholars who think that the gospels have come down to us entirely as originally written and have gone through no editing, so that Mark as we have it is Mark as it was written, and therefore we can say “Luke is dependent on Mark.” No. Whoever edited the four gospels and put them together as the four-gospel canon (Ireneaus? Polycarp?) had his hand in the cookie jar and moved stories from one gospel to the others, changed them as he liked, made all the gospels dependent on each other, perhaps even invented the separate gospels entirely, in order to impose the concept of the four-fold canon on Christianity. The number four was allegorically chosen (if you read Ireneaus) because the cherubim in Ezekiel’s vision have four faces and because the book of Revelation has four beasts and the world has four winds. But how can you convince people accustomed to only using one gospel that they must use a four-fold canon? Intermix the stories between them, created a forced interdependence, so that in the future the sect who used to use Luke must now go to Mark to find its favorite story, because its been displaced.

              • 2011-10-28 11:06:12 GMT+0000 - 11:06 | Permalink

                The concept of the priority of one gospel over another is total bunk to me. Priority is to be questioned on a story by story basis. All the gospels are dependent on all the others because they have all been edited by a final editor. Mark is dependant on Matthew and Luke and Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark and on each other. The dependence is story by story.

                I can’t accept that it’s “total bunk” but I used to wonder if there was some sort of ongoing dialogue among different schools with their own gospels. As one would respond to another with a particular slant on a story, the other would respond in turn with something else . . . . until finally everything settled. But against this is the narrative coherence of some of the gospels — if that is not an illusion.

      • 2011-10-18 19:05:14 GMT+0000 - 19:05 | Permalink

        reyjacobs, you raise some intetesting points. Tim has dealt with the question from the rich (young) man. The question from the lawyer results in a discourse that turns the definition of a neighbour into anyone on whom one shows kindness.

        In my pipleline of drafts to be completed and posted I have one that addresses this very question — and it appeals to the pagan world concept of “neighbour” and “kindness/mercy” according to the same sorts of actions as we read of in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Luke’s address to the lawyer on the meaning of “neighbour” needs to be read in that context.

        Matthew has his own means of finding an exalted teaching in Jesus, Luke has others. They are each writing in different time zones and for different audiences. The version of Luke we have I think originates from the mid 2nd century. Matthew much earlier.

        I would like to say more, but before I do, let me know your thoughts thus far.

        • 2011-10-23 14:55:11 GMT+0000 - 14:55 | Permalink

          Well, i just finished reading Reimarus’ The Aims of Jesus and his disciples and Hyam Maccoby’s he Mythmaker: Paule and the invention of Christianity. Both of them see Jesus as having been a Jew who made himself out to be the Messiah in the normal Jewish meaning of the term, a worldly deliverer who would save the nation from foreign oppression, but that he intended to do this with a miracle from God which never happened, and thus the final words on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” or why didn’t you perform the miracle I expected and have me crowned king? Reimarus shows that the apostles thought of Jesus as a worldly Messiah all throughout Jesus’ life, as the gospels and Acts show, and that Jesus sent them to preach it, for he sent them throughout Judea in his lifetime to preach “repentance” as he himself preached “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” and did not himself ever correct the understanding of the kingdom of God before the Jews (i.e. never said it was spiritual) nor correct their view of the Messiah (i.e. by making him spiritual) nor did he have the apostles do so when he sent them out during his life. And at the end of Luke on the road to Emmaus they confess “we thought he would be the one to liberate Israel.” As for his predictions of his death, per Reimarus, Jesus probably understood that it was possible he might fail and be put to death during his attempt to make himself king in Jerusalem and so warned his disciples of the possibility that he might end up being crucified, and this is when Peter says “I will die with you”, and so Jesus and the apostles go, knowing the risk. The apostles, he says, follow Jesus to become worldly rulers themselves, for they were promised twelve thrones, and when Peter asks “Lord we have left all too follow you: what shall we have therefore” he is told houses and land and so on. So they follow for worldly benefit. When, therefore, Jesus is put to death, their motive (seeking worldly benefit) does not change, but only their tactic. So, having learned that a man can make a good living off of preaching, they do not want to return to fishing, but rather must come up with a new message since Jesus as worldly Messiah wont do after he is dead, so they invent Christianity as we know it. Here is where Maccoby differs. For Maccoby focuses on Acts and the apostles where Reimarus focuses on the gospels and Jesus. Reimarus makes no distinction between Paul and the originals, but Maccoby does. And Maccoby is interested in James the brother of Jesus and his position in Acts. So he argues that the apostles put forth that Jesus was resurrected and will return to finish his worldly deliverer Messiah mission and overthrow Rome, and until then, James his brother takes his place as prince regent keeping Jesus’ throne warm as it were. He thinks the Jesus movement is a Messianic movement of the same sort as Theudas’ movement, based on Gamaliel in Acts comparing it to Theudas, which suggests to him that it must be of the same sort, otherwise the comparison is pointless. So he sees it as a Messianic overthrow Rome movement that rather than violently seeking to overthrow Rome, awaits the return of Jesus which will be the miracle that overthrows Rome. But along comes Paul and invents the mystery-religion known as Christianity, thus changing a Messianic movement within Judaism to a new religion. These two guys together have in my estimation taken ALL of the evidence into account.

        • 2011-10-23 15:11:33 GMT+0000 - 15:11 | Permalink

          Maccoby makes arguments that you can see sporadically in the gospels that Jesus and the Pharisees were on good terms (he interprets these as Jesus being a Pharisee himself) which “run against the grain” of the gospels which tend to portray the Pharisees as evil and totally opposed to Jesus. It is hard to imagine why someone inventing the story completely out of thin air would make the mistake of sometimes showing Jesus as a Pharisee or the Pharisees as on friendly terms, like when they warn him that Herod is seeking to kill him, or in Mark’s version of the Pharisee asking “which is the greatest commandment?” Another case is in Paul’s treatment by the Romans in Acts. After Paul is saved by the Romans commander at the temple, the commander is going to have him scourged and Paul reveals that he is a citizen and the commander is afraid. Yet a little later on Luke gives us a bit of a letter the commander sends to the governor and in the letter he says “I saved this man from the Jews BECAUSE he is a Roman” thus revealing that the commander had known about Paul’s citizenship prior to saving him (i.e. Paul had known that he might be jumped at the temple and had made arrangements with the Romans already). If Luke were entirely making the story up out of nothing, would he have created such a contradiction? or is this a mistake where he has let the historical reality through despite his attempt to revise history? I think it is convincing that these sorts of mistakes are cracks in the revisionist agenda, and prove the story is not entirely made up. Maccoby shows after all with respect to Jesus’ crucifixion that it was the high priest and the saducees not the pharisees who handed him over to Rome, and he shows that the charge was in fact a POLITICAL charge, for the people cry out “if you let this man go you are not friend of Caesar.” Although the gospels try to revise history and make Jesus to be put to death for religion reasons (like claiming to be God) Maccoby shows that the real reason, claiming to be a king which puts him at odds with Caesar, nonetheless shows through, and thus concludes that Jesus indeed was a normal Messianic claimant who saw himself as an earthly king and not some dying and rising god. The gospels occasionally let the truth through, and thusself-refute the claims of Christianity with respect to Jesus’ divinity and such like.

  • 2011-10-19 15:06:13 GMT+0000 - 15:06 | Permalink

    The original Christians in their original mystical vision perceived Jesus Christ, the Son of God, going through a crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection and ascension. This mystical drama took place on the Firmament.

    As the months and years passed, various discussions developed among those original Christians. One such discussion was about the nature of Jesus Christ as he went through those mystical events. Was Jesus Christ a divine being, a human being or a divine-human being?

    Those Christians who supposed that Jesus Christ was a human being or a divine-human being were compelled by the discussion to explain how Jesus Christ had changed from a divine being, which he had been on the seventh level of Heaven, into a human being or a divine-human being by the time he was crucified on the Firmament. One explanation was that the divine Jesus Christ had entered the body of a woman on the Firmament, and this woman subsequently gave birth to a human or divine-human Jesus Christ on the Firmament. This impregnation and birth were not part of the mystical vision, but they were deduced.

    This was the state of discussion when Paul joined the religion and experienced the mystical vision. Paul subsequently taught and wrote that a divine Jesus Christ had been born of a woman on the Firmament and thus been transformed into a human being or a divine-human and that Jesus Christ then had gone though the mystical drama on the Firmament.

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  • Lowen Gartner
    2019-02-25 19:54:30 GMT+0000 - 19:54 | Permalink

    Do any of the four canonical gospels unambiguously rely on any of Paul’s writings or do we have two “channels” of literature that were “harmonized” sometime later?

    • Lowen Gartner
      2019-02-25 21:21:25 GMT+0000 - 21:21 | Permalink
      • MrHorse
        2019-02-25 21:50:05 GMT+0000 - 21:50 | Permalink

        In a similar vein to Dykstra’s book, see

        Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul: The Influence of the Epistles on the Synoptic Gospels, David Oliver Smith, 2011

        Deciphering the Gospels: Proves Jesus Never Existed, RG Price, 2018

        Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material, Adam Winn, 2010

        Unlocking the Puzzle: The Keys to the Christology and Structure of the Original Gospel of Mark, David Oliver Smith, 2016

  • Lowen Gartner
    2019-02-25 23:56:35 GMT+0000 - 23:56 | Permalink

    Thank you

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