The historical Jesus in Paul? For and (mostly) Against

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by Neil Godfrey

Robert Price includes a packed selection of arguments commonly raised to affirm Paul’s awareness of the teachings of Jesus along with the counterarguments. Little of this is new to many readers, but it seems appropriate to list the details as a sequel to my previous post that covered the main thrust of his argument in his chapter in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’

But first, I’ll cover the evidence he piles up in response to two reasons often given to explain why we don’t find explicit references to Jesus’ life and teaching in the letters. Price is collating these from G. A. Wells’ The Jesus of the Early Christians. (As Earl Doherty has further noted, the argument becomes even stronger when it is realized it applies not only to Paul’s writings but to the entire corpus of New Testament epistles.)

Jesus’ biographical details were irrelevant to the matters that happened to arise in occasional letters

Although I have encountered this assertion many times I have never seen it demonstrated. Without demonstration the statement becomes a mere brushing-aside of a serious question.

On the other hand, one readily finds cases raised that do support the counter-claim. Price several the following from Wells’ early book. It’s easy to make a list of these here as I do below, but that is only for the sake of information. What really counts is some way to test the alternative hypotheses. Before reading the list it is a good idea to do two things.

  1. One, think through what one would expect to find in the data IF there were oral traditions making the rounds that relayed what Jesus was supposed to have said and done.
  2. Two, think through what we would expect IF sayings were imputed to Jesus by various churches to add authority to their customs or teachings. (This was the conclusion of form critics like Rudolf Bultmann.)

In other words, ask what each hypothesis predicts we will find. It’s a while since I’ve posted on Richard Carrier’s Bayesian theory and when I resume (I still hope to resume posting on his book) the next post will discuss the importance of testing the hypotheses that oppose your own. The best way to strengthen your own argument, Carrier points out, is to demonstrate the inadequacies of those of your opponents. (This, by the way, is one reason I am slow on the uptake with theories of Christian origins that are heavy on proofs or arguments for their own point of view but almost totally ignore alternative explanations. Think of the caricature of the boy who looks only for hints that a girl likes him but ignores all evidence that points to a different state of affairs.)

So it always pays to be slightly more generous to the arguments for the side you are against if you want to demonstrate their comparative inadequacy to your own. Of course, there is always a risk that you’ll end up not being quite so dogmatic for one point of view as when you started, but life is full of risks.

The following points are from Price’s/Wells’ list. Presentation and commentary are my own.

Paul often wrote about the question of the Law’s relevance. The gospels’ speak of Jesus having controversial and outspoken positions on the Law.

Recall the sabbath controversies that Jesus provoked. The gospels leave us with the impression that sabbath observance was a critically divisive controversy in the time of Jesus. Was it all water under the bridge by the time Paul wrote? If so, why do we find sabbath controversies still on the agenda in the time of Justin of the mid second century?

Matthew’s antitheses? If Jesus was really famous for having preached a higher ethic than the letter of the law (Don’t kill? I say Don’t even hate! Don’t commit adultery? Don’t even have illicit sexual desire!) what would we expect in Paul’s letters? If we find nothing more remarkable than Stoic ethics . . . . . ?

Did Jesus really say that no food that enters a person defiles them (Mark 7:15)? So how might we explain the problems facing Paul and his “reasoned” responses to these? Rom 14:1-4; 1 Cor. 8; Col. 2:20-21 — okay, if you don’t accept Colossians as being written by Paul, the point of the question remains.

Rom 3:1 and Gal 5:1-2 — circumcision. Where is the example, if not the teaching, of Jesus? He could speak of the sabbath and dietary laws, yes? Ah, of course — here it is, in Thomas 53. So why was there ever a fuss over the matter if Jesus explained it all from the outset?

Be generous givers. Paul strove for the rhetoric that would persuade his readers of their need to give generously to the poor. He found it when he wrote: 2 Cor. 8:9 — “Look, Jesus came down from heaven! Just so you could have a heavenly reward!” –How many charities would use that line?

Luke 18:22 — Was this teaching of Jesus (to give up everything!) so embarrassing no-one ever used it? Did the gospel authors only discover Jesus’ words through an underground counter-Christianity Christianity movement?

Paul recommended celibacy in 1 Cor. 7:7

Was it just a coincidence, unknown to Paul, that Jesus had recommended the same? Matt. 19:10-12

How was Paul to justify his insistence that the faithful pay taxes to Rome? He appears to have taught that those who were Christ’s were “citizens of heaven”, after all. Romans 13:1-6

However he did this, anything Jesus said on the matter was unknown to him: Mark 12:15-17.

Robert M. Price lists the above sayings of Jesus (taken from Wells) that should have bolstered Paul’s arguments with his flock. But what if Paul knew of no sayings of Jesus to come to his aid?

But suppose there were originally no dominical sayings to settle these questions; it is not hard to imagine that soon people would be coining them — or attaching Jesus’ name to a saying they already liked, to make it authoritative. (p. 97)

We come, now, to Price’s response to the following point often raised by those who insist that Paul knew of historical Jesus traditions:

Paul would not repeat details with which readers were already familiar

It is not hard for anyone who has an ounce of energy to raise problems for this assertion. So much for Maurice Casey’s flippant allusion to E. T. Hall’s concept of high and low cultures having any relevance to this discussion:

Paul was always repeating the fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus/Christ;

Paul did indeed feel a need to remind his readers of his earlier preaching among them: 1 Cor. 2:1-5 and 15:1, 15

He reminded them of his instruction to avoid sexually promiscuous brethren: 5:9-11

And found it necessary to remind them in writing that the saints would judge angels: 6:3

If Paul had spelled out his travel plans to a church he clearly understood they were not interested enough to remember after the first telling: 2 Cor. 2:1-4

If Paul told them once, did he need to tell them twice? Consider his reminder of his earlier disciplinary warnings in 13:2

Was Paul’s pre-Christian life something with which his converts were not familiar? If so, how to explain Paul writing Gal 1:13-14

Did Paul even need to raise again what his Galatian converts knew about their own initial encounter with the Christian mystery? 3:1

Curiously Paul’s converts apparently kept forgetting what Paul had told them was “sin”: 5:21

Paul or his followers had to remind the Ephesians of their very first catechism: Eph 4:20

Paul even said it was not bothersome to repeat what he had told them earlier, and with the understanding that his converts would not tire of hearing it, either: Phil 3:1

Paul had already told the Philippians who his enemies were, but that did not stop him from wanting to tell them again: 3:18

Paul knew his readers knew very well of the spread of his gospel, so why did he keep telling them what he knew they knew? Col 1:5-6

Paul knew they knew their roots in Christ but still he repeated the message: 2:7

Paul even had to repeat for them what they knew full well of his reputation: 1 Thess 1:5; 2:5-12

Paul needed to remind his converts how to live a Christian life: 4:1

When it came to the end-times Paul knew they did not need reminding but he also knew they did! 5:1-11; 2:5

Then we come to one of those curliest arguments of all.

Appeal to (whose?) authority!

Price recapitulates it thus:

Some say the epistles display extensive awareness of the Gospel teachings of Jesus but paraphrase them without indicating that Jesus first said them. Romans 12 and the Epistle of James are full of such logia. James D. Dunn maintains that Paul and James intended the reader to sniff out the dominical origin (and authority!) in these cases, leaving them as allusions for those who had ears to hear (‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge’). But this is one of those arguments no one would offer if they were not trying to wriggle out of a tight spot.

Think about it: if you want to settle a question by appealing to the words of Jesus, you are going to make sure the reader understands that they are indeed the words of Jesus, and you are going to do that by the simple expedient of saying so.

Given the whole point of appealing to the dominical words, who would neglect to attribute them explicitly to the name of Jesus? If one trusted simply the to the self-evident force of an argument or a principle, why seek to undergird it by an appeal to authoritative words in the first place? It seems quite reasonable to suggest that in the epistles we find early Christian sayings, just before they were ascribed to Jesus. (p. 98, my formatting)

Many of us are familiar with Paul’s instructions concerning the Last Supper. But notice that Paul explicitly informs us all that he did not receive his information about this from any tradition. No. He learned of it directly from the Lord himself! It was a revelation.

Similarly Paul’s ruling on divorce: 1 Cor 7:10-12 (So Jesus said nothing memorable?)

Was Jesus married? Did he have nothing worth recollecting about remaining unmarried: 1 Cor. 7:25; 7:40.

And how was a preacher to support himself. Jesus made some memorable statements about that so why do they not appear in 1 Cor. 9:14.

Paul frequently spoke of the “commands of the Lord”: (As above and more: 1 Cor 7:10-12; 1 Cor 7:25; 1 Cor 7:40; 1 Cor 9:14; 1 Cor 14:37)

It becomes obvious that [some of the above commands] originated in prophetic bulletins, ‘words of knowledge’ or ‘words of wisdom’ vouchsafed to Christian prophets, oracles of the Risen Christ, probably to the writer himself. This becomes especially clear in light of [those passages] which define the ‘commands of the Lord’ by contrast.

It is not that the commands have some origin elsewhere than Paul; it is only that his ‘opinion’ and ‘judgment’ have not emerged from a prophetic state as the ‘commands’ did. It seems gross overinterpretation even to hold open the possibility that in his ‘commands of the Lord’ the writer should be referring to sayings of the historical Jesus.

What we are seeing is a Christian rebirth of the Old Testament practice of the priests ‘giving Torah’ via oracular judgments on matters brought to them. (p. 99, my formatting)

I have little to argue with over any of this. But if I have prematurely judged that the author of these epistles at no point drew upon a single “Jesus tradition” then I am open to being corrected — but it will take evidence to persuade me, or a clear logical demonstration that what we read in the epistles is exactly what we would expect according to our hypothesis, and contrary to what we would expect on the opposition’s argument.

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12 thoughts on “The historical Jesus in Paul? For and (mostly) Against”

  1. If the Pauline writer can say that he received the Last Supper from revelation, then I don’t see any reason why he could not have received the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection through the same channel. A charismatic religious fanatic having a vision that the Jews crucified God’s “son” — and the Gentiles thereby getting to claim their inheritance — is all that’s needed to explain the origins of Christianity.

  2. A basic law of science is that a cause always precedes its effects. The traditional understanding of the relation between Paul and Jesus fails this basic scientific tenet, and has to grasp at the straw of Paul not repeating things well known. This straw in the wind is comprehensively demolished by the examples Neil provides here.

    If the teachings of Jesus existed before the time of Paul, the arrow of time indicates there would be evidence for this temporal relation of influence. But there is none, except a couple of obscure symbolic references which could just as easily be part of a mythic spiritual vision of Christ. Only through the massive systematic effort of the church to rewrite history, not least the placement of the Epistles after the Gospels in the Bible, can we explain the pervasive view that Paul was influenced by the historical Jesus.

    Neil, are you aware of any studies of how the theology of Paul may have influenced the theology of the Gospels? If there is no causality from Gospel Jesus to Pauline Epistle, is there any apparent causal derivation from Paul to the Gospels?

    1. That expression, “a cause always precedes its effects”, is too well known from my own past life in a certain cult. It is a meaningless statement, outright question begging. A “cause” by definition produces “effects” and “effects” by definition are “caused”. It is a semantic game attempting to usurp scientific or valid logic.

      If we could (and yes, there are some who claim to have done so) establish an ideological link between Paul and the Gospel of Mark, how would we then proceed to determine which way the influence went? From Paul to the Gospel or the Gospel (or its various traditions that fed into the Gospel) to Paul?

  3. JW:
    You/Price have missed the logical reason why Paul did not talk about Jesus’ life. Paul did not know Jesus and therefore could not compete with people that did regarding Jesus’ life (natural). Paul emphasized Jesus’ death where he was on equal footing with everyone (supernatural). You/Price are not forced to deal with this because generally HJ do not want to confess that Paul was a competitor with Jesus’ witness who emphasized the natural.

    As always the above general argument is secondary to formal historical methodology which emphasizes the weight of historical witness:

    1) Was Paul in position to witness HJ?

    2) Is Paul a credible witness?

    3) What are the qualities of Paul’s specific witness? (scope, confirmation, transmission)

    You are just arguing Literary Criticism, which does test strong for fiction, but you should be arguing Source Criticism.


    1. I have to disagree. The most source criticism can ever hope to do is reveal the earliest stratum of a pericope, which may or may not go back to the historical Jesus.

      For Paul and any follower of Christ during the earliest days of the movement the term “historical Jesus” would be meaningless. There was just “Jesus Christ,” who could and did speak to his followers through prophets and apostles. As Norman Perrin pointed out years ago, Luke considered Paul to be a witness of Christ. The distinction between the earthly, historical Jesus and the risen Christ is a modern notion that would make no sense to the authors of the NT.

      And herein lies the central problem. Source criticism can tell you what the early church believed. But it simply cannot distinguish between a saying received from the risen mythical Christ and an authentic saying of the historical Yeshua of Galilee (if he existed).

    2. ‘Paul did not know Jesus and therefore could not compete with people that did regarding Jesus’ life (natural)’

      So the only people who talked about the life of Jesus were people who had seen him perform live?

      So how did this oral tradition get passed on? As the vast majority of Christians regarded themselves unqualified to talk about what Jesus had said or done?

      Paul restricted himself to talking about Jesus’s death.

      So why no mentions of any death in Jerusalem, or Pilate, or how Jesus was betrayed, or how Jesus was treated by these ‘God’s agents’ who ‘bear no terror for the innocent’?

    3. What is the basis of our view that Paul’s rivals were teaching about a “life of Jesus”, or “the natural” side of Jesus? The notion that Paul was competing against disciples who were reputed to have known Jesus throughout a ministry period he spent with them is an extrapolation from the narrative in Acts, from what I understand. Couchoud, on the other hand, demonstrates a stronger case that Paul’s rivals taught a Jesus who was no more earthly or natural than Paul’s, but differed primarily in the role of the crucifixion.

      1. If “Paul’s rivals taught a Jesus who was no more earthly or natural than Paul’s, but differed primarily in the role of the crucifixion” – then what makes Paul’s vision so special? A difference of emphasis? Is that all Paul got from his vision? A more nuanced approach to a common spiritual Christ template? Even if this was so for Paul (and I don’t believe ‘Paul’ is historical, rather a composite figure) then one is faced with the question of what Paul’s rivals were basing their spiritual Christ figure on. Another Christ vision or two – or three? A battle of visions? What is that saying – “You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.” Sure, people believe weird things today just as they did back then. But, for me, it’s a step too far to imagine that all the early christians were doing was selling a vision. And is this not Well’s criticism of Doherty – it was not all mythical. It was not all about selling some floating abstraction – a vision with no relevance for living on terra firma.

        Can we trust the New Testament?: thoughts on the reliability of Early Christian Testimony. (2003) George Albert Wells.

        page 50

        My present standpoint is: this complex is not all post-Pauline (Q, or at any rate parts of it, may well be as early as ca. A.D. 50); and – if I am right, against Doherty and Price – it is not all mythical. The essential point, as I see it, is that the Q material, whether or not it suffices as evidence of Jesus’s historicity, refers to a personage who is not to be identified with the dying and rising Christ of the early epistles.

        Page 43

        …This Galilean Jesus was not crucified and was not believed to have been resurrected after his death. The dying and rising Christ – devoid of time and place – of the early epistles is a quite different figure and must have a different origin.


        And that, I would suggest, is a great contribution, a great insight, from Wells to the historicist/ahistoricist debate. A non-crucified Jesus figure. And with that insight, Wells has moved this debate away from the gospel JC story and opened wide the door to history….

        1. One alternative vision of Christ we know of, or type of visions, is that of the conquering Christ or Son of Man in Revelation, see also Enoch and Hermas. Visions were not meaningless. They transformed the devotee into the one seen. They were a powerful attraction of the Mysteries, such as those of Eleusis. It’s interesting, to me anyway, to notice the absence of crucifixion scenes in earliest Christian art. Jesus is the new life, the conqueror of death, but always vigorous and energetic.

          1. Mysteries? Great for those with inclination for mental gymnastics and the time for the luxury of such contemplation – but the mysteries will not put bread and butter on the table. Self-absorption is of limited value – at some stage one has to open that front door! And, Neil, if nothing else, that gospel JC story is the in your face answer to mysticism – JC walked those sands of Palestine.Two feet – albeit mythological ‘feet’ – securely placed on terra firma. Visions, to have value for living on this earth, have to relate, have benefit, not just for those with contemplative interests – but also those with bread and butter interests.

            Interesting, re “the absence of crucifixion scenes in earliest Christian art”.

            What I would take away from that is the possibility of a strand of early christian history that was not based upon a crucified figure. A non-crucified Jesus figure – as Wells upholds. And that is a position that allows the gospel JC figure to be viewed as a composite figure. Two stories, two Jesus figures. One crucified, the other not crucified. Two historical messiah figures that have had elements from their lives fused together to create the gospel symbolic, mythological, literary, JC figure; The Pauline writer takes the next step. His crucified JC being the spiritual counterpart to the gospel mythological JC . – the end product, if one likes, of the fusing process, a new creation, a spiritual JC figure.

  4. And if Paul did not talk about what Jesus had done during his life, why did he claim other people had done what Jesus was supposed to have done ie appoint apostles, testify to this new righteousness.

    I can’t compete with the testimony of Holocaust survivors, because I was not there at the time. So I suppose I should start claiming that the Russians ran Auschwitz, that the main disadvantage of the Jews during the war was that their synagogues were bombed etc etc.

    And we know that it would be an invalid ‘argument from silence’ to use my writings to claim I was a Holocaust denier…..

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