Paul: Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’

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by Neil Godfrey

Chapter 7 of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ presents what I understand are the arguments of mainstream New Testament scholarship that Paul’s epistles testify to the existence of an historical Jesus. Its author, Mogens Müller (MM), is responsible for what has been praised as the best work to date on the expression “Son of Man”. He is also a leader in a project undertaking a new look at the relationship among the canonical Gospels that extends to recognizing their place in the wider Gospel literature, including apocryphal and gnostic gospels. In this chapter he places the Gospel of Luke around 120-130, which is interesting, and not very far from views often expressed on this blog, though I suspect MM’s reasons would be to some extent different from my own. His view that the synoptic gospels — Mark, Matthew and Luke — are successive stages of theological and narrative development surfaces regularly in this chapter. (I also like the look of his book The First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint.)

This is the irony one encounters when reading many New Testament scholars’ works. There is so much that is so interesting and thought-provoking. But when it comes to addressing the historicity of Jesus one is struck by the way the reader is asked to accept tenuously justified assumptions and sometimes what looks at least to this layman like circuitous reasoning. So my bias will show in what follows.

MM argues that the primary evidence for the historicity of Jesus is the impact such a figure had on believers after his death.


On The Messiah Myth

MM refers to Thomas L. Thompson’s The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David in which it was argued that the Gospels are loaded with “messianic” concepts from far and wide, Mesopotamia to Egypt. MM’s response is that these concepts were all channelled to the Gospel authors through the Jewish Scriptures and related Second Temple literature. They did not come from far and wide like the Magi to the newborn Christ.

But is that true? Are not increasing numbers of New Testament scholars drawing attention to the role Hellenistic (non-Jewish) literature had in influencing the evangelists? Don’t we see the influence of Greek as well as Jewish literature in the Gospels — and in Paul’s thought, too?

MM does not dispute that the Gospels do portray a largely “mythical” Jesus — that has long been a well-established view of mainstream NT scholarship — but he adds that this truism

does not negate the fact that it all began with a historical preacher-prophet. (p. 118)

Parallels are not necessarily sources, MM reminds us.

This point is made in response to arguments for the Christ myth theory quite often. Too often, I think. I believe the point is well understood among those Christ myth theorists who have engaged seriously with the mainstream scholarly literature. It’s only a matter of logic, after all. Of course arguing for the Gospel Jesus being a mythical construction is not the same as arguing that there was no historical Jesus to start it all. At the same time, however — and this point seems to get lost quite often — if the Gospel Jesus is entirely mythical then from what basis does one begin to argue that there was a historical Jesus to begin with? We know ancient potentates were sometimes confettied in mythical trappings, sometimes by their admiring biographers and sometimes quite consciously by themselves. But we can also see the historical referent of those potentates. They are not entirely mythical as the Jesus of the Gospels clearly is.


Paul the foundation

Mogens Müller

MM will argue that Paul’s writings provide grounds for knowing there really was a historical Jesus to get the whole shebang going.

The declaration that the apostle Paul was the founder of Christianity is not as far fetched as it might sound. Not only is he the author of the oldest documents in the New Testament, his letters, that is, the genuine ones, are also the only New Testament documents of which we know the author as a person whose life and teaching can be reasonably sketched. Furthermore, Paul is the oldest witness to the transformation of the historical person, that is, Jesus of Nazareth, into a heavenly saviour, although this transformation occurred in such a way that Jesus, as a historical person of the past, has nearly disappeared. (p. 118)

This is the conventional wisdom. I find it problematic for several reasons.

  1. It confuses authorial voice with the real author who penned the epistles. What we know is the authorial voice that the author has created. We have no way of knowing anything about the real author beyond that literary voice. We know that when Paul first appears in the external records in the second century he does so not as a single personality but as several different Pauls (the Paul of the Pastorals, of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, of the Acts of the Apostles, of the “genuine” and spurious canonical letters). We also know that the canonical epistles of Paul point to a number of “different Pauls”. These are sometimes explained as the result of Paul maturing over the years and/or being an untidy thinker and having an erratic and impulsive nature.
  2. That literary voice is further complicated by the question of whether it is an impulsive and digressive thinker or whether we are reading strata of interpolations (Walker, Munro) that were deposited during cataclysmic theological warfare, or both.
  3. The “genuine” letters are determined by a process of circular reasoning: we know from the ‘genuine’ epistles that Paul had such and such interests, thoughts and characteristics; since we find these interests, thoughts and characteristics in some letters of Paul, we can call these the genuine ones.
  4. Paul’s life is generally “reasonably sketched” through what is arguably a polemical second century anti-Marcionite work, the Book of Acts.

The final point — that Paul is the oldest witness to the transformation of the historical Jesus to a heavenly saviour — is what MM sets out to establish in this chapter.

The Gospels themselves, MM writes, “have [very likely] been more or less influenced by the Pauline interpretation, which gives meaning to the historical Jesus as providing salvation to humankind.” (My response to this statement is that it is yet to be established that Paul was indeed giving meaning to an historical Jesus.) It was the author of the Gospel of Mark who was the first we know of “to draw this faith’s picture of the earthly Jesus“, and subsequent evangelists attempted to improve on this first Gospel by almost entirely eliminating the original earthly Jesus.

Again, my response is that this is yet to be established. Emmanuel Pfoh writes quite the opposite in chapter 5 of this volume:

The gospels are not about [an historical figure of first-century Palestine]. They deal with something else.

The Gospel of Mark, the earliest Gospel by most reckonings, is outstandingly the most symbolic of all the Gospels. This earthly Jesus does quite unearthly things that make no sense to his disciples. When Jesus scares the bejeezus out of his disciples by walking on water the author “explains” that the reason for their fear was that they failed to understand another (presumably symbolic) Moses-Elijah like miracle performed earlier. When Jesus enters Jerusalem he is hailed as a king by all and sundry (to fulfill prophecy) but only a few days later the crowds howl for his blood (again to fulfill prophecy). For many such reasons the first Gospel makes no sense either as being about an earthly man or as being a biographical narrative.

Moreover, one often encounters an opponent of the Christ Myth theory equating Paul’s apparent reference to an “earthly” Jesus with the existence of an historical figure. This is another fallacy (I am not saying I see it MM, necessarily). I imagine countless mythical figures that people have ever believed in have been “earthly” or “real flesh and blood”. Such a belief hardly catapults a mythical figure into an historical one.

But I’m already unfairly drowning out MM before he has had a chance to speak. So let’s return to what he writes:


The historical Jesus was never fully buried

My understanding of MM’s point is that the Gospel authors often used redacted sources of the teachings and actions of the historical Jesus and further redacted those records again in the interests of their theological messages. So it is by means of redaction criticism that we can glean some images of the historical Jesus. There are still crumbs of the raw material to be found beneath the tables of Paul and the Evangelists. MM cites Eberhand Jüngel’s classic Paulus und Jesus as one attempt to find “a common denominator between Paul and the historical Jesus”. Unfortunately I am at a disadvantage here because this is one (German language) work I have not been able to read in its entirety.

But then MM moves to another argument I again find problematic.

To treat Paul as a witness to the historical Jesus should not primarily be an attempt to find in his letters traditions which later became a part of the Gospels. It has long been noticed that such ‘remnants’ are remarkably seldom not only in Paul’s letters but also in the New Testament writings outside the Gospels. (p. 120)

And here lies what is probably the primary foundation of the Christ Myth theory. MM notes Bruno Bauer and literary scholar Georg Brandes among the most notable figures who have concluded on this basis that there was no historical Jesus. MM’s view would undermine their conclusion. He explains:

We need, however, a broader understanding of the predicate ‘historical’ as used in connection with the person of Jesus. Thus, ‘historical’ should not be employed simply in connection with attempts to reconstruct details in the life and teaching of Jesus, treating him solely as a figure of the past. The predicate ‘historical’ should be allowed also to include his impact as it has been conveyed to us through the meanings attached to his life and conduct in the different interpretations of the Christ-faith represented in the New Testament Scriptures.

Presupposed as historical cause, it should be possible to deduce various characteristics of the ‘historical’ Jesus through the interpretations he received from his first followers. (pp. 120-121, my bolding)

Have we not returned here to the very problem Thomas L. Thompson claims is the sand-foundation of historical Jesus studies?

[New Testament scholars] always assumed there was a historical Jesus to describe. (p. 7, The Messiah Myth)

Redaction criticism can only take us back to the earliest source. It cannot confirm that that earliest source testifies to an historical Jesus. It is a fallacy to confuse a primary narrative, by definition, with an historical narrative.

Many people today speak of the “impact” the heavenly Jesus, or some other belief or power or person or past-life or character in a novel etc etc, has had on their lives; they can speak of the meaning they attach to this entity or figure and the meaning it gives their own lives. It does not follow that that entity, even if God himself or the heavenly Jesus today, is real.

The question raised by the Christ Myth theory is, “What exactly was it to which early Christians were attributing meaning and heavenly (as well as sometimes earthly) status?” MM declares that it was the historical Jesus. Christ Myth theorists — and even a few mainstream scholars who are addressing matters literary and theological without any reference to the question of a narrative’s historicity — raise arguments against this assumption.

It appears that what MM has done is redefine the meaning of “historical” in order to find the evidence he wants for the historical Jesus.

Sorry, I’m being very rude and butting in again. I should return to my seat and let MM resume speaking.


The evidence in Paul

MM begins with the conventional caveat that we may conclude that Paul never met Jesus personally. But if so, what are we to make of Philip R. Davies’ point that Paul’s writing

is almost certainly the only extant direct testimony of someone who claims to have met Jesus . . . . (See Did Jesus Exist for . . . Philip Davies?)?

Okay, I’ll sit down again.

But MM does repeat the common claim that Paul,

according to his own utterances . . . did meet with and therefore personally knew two of [Jesus’] first followers, namely Peter . . . and James, the Lord’s brother. . . . (p. 121)

Not standing up to interrupt this time but quietly sitting here thinking: “But is not MM here falling victim to the ‘tyranny of the Gospels’ [Earl Doherty’s expression]? There is nothing in Paul’s writings to inform us that Peter and James were “followers of Jesus” in the sense of physically accompanying him in an earthly career. That concept is entirely indebted to the Gospels in the case of Peter and to nothing but post-resurrection tradition in the case of James.”

The whole of his understanding must have been channelled through followers and adversaries when he acted as persecutor of the new faith . . . .

Now thinking quietly to myself: “Isn’t the legend of Paul being a persecutor entirely an “orthodox” understanding and that the Marcionites, who claimed to be the true disciples of Paul (and recall even Tertullian called Paul “the apostle of the heretics”) had no such concept of Paul? How do we get to the bottom of such conflicting views? Besides, even if Paul (Saul) had been a persecutor, would he not have found reason enough to persecute Christians in something “outrageously blasphemous” like a claim that a man had become, in effect, a god? We know the Pharisees of the day tolerated and lived with a wide diversity of opinions. What else could have led S/Paul on a persecution campaign? And if Jesus was said to have been a man-become-god, can we be any closer to assuming that such a figure was historical?”

In his self-understanding as an apostle of Christ, however, he claimed not to have his calling through any human person, but directly from the resurrected and exalted Lord (Gal. 1:1). In this way, Paul is himself witness to the circumstance, that, for faith, Jesus is only relevant in his impact — according to which he, through his life, teaching and fate, brought about faith in the lives of those believing in him. Accordingly, the term ‘historical Jesus’, in this context, should be extended to include also such effects as a valuable source. (p. 121)

Standing up to interrupt again: No. The argument does not follow and there’s also a fallacy in there. All MM has as the supposed evidence for the historicity of Jesus is a “faith-claim” by Paul, including Paul’s inference that others also had faith, not in an historical earthly Jesus but in a heavenly revealer!

The impact of that Jesus upon Paul in this instance was explicitly the impact not of an historical Jesus but of a heavenly Jesus!

If we really want to insist that Paul was impacted by an earthly life, teaching and fate of Jesus, we may appeal to God to settle this question. Accordingly we can replay God’s edict that only in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall a matter be established (Deut. 19:15). Secular scholars closer to planet earth have spoken of the importance of “controls”, of “independent supporting testimony”. They agree with God. All we have, however, is an authorial voice, for which we find no external witness until the second century. We are left with no alternative but to pay close attention to the evidence of the precise written word alone.

MM sees matters differently, however.

Paul’s letters “presuppose” that “Jesus Christ has lived the life of a human being on this earth.” Christ Myth theorists assert the contrary. This is where serious analysis and exchange needs to occur.

MM points to Galatians 4:4-5. R(?) Joseph Hoffmann has recently argued that this passage confirms the historicity of Jesus. On advice from James Tabor, Hoffmann has added Jane Shaberg’s The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives to his arsenal. I have since received my own copy of Shaberg’s book and hope to post sometime soon why I think Tabor’s advice to Hoffmann was a serious mistake. Aside from any recent shenanigans from Hoffmann et al, the discussion over “born/made of a woman” has been covered so many times it seems overkill to tackle the question again here. Suffice it to say that I have yet to see any historicist address cerebrally (as opposed to viscerally) the many arguments “out there” and “on this blog!” that, to my mind, tackle the “Christ Myth” answer to the supposedly surface meaning of the text.

MM follows by pointing to the claim in the introduction to Romans that Jesus was, in his words, “descended” from the seed of David. But the Greek word, genomenou, is not necessarily “descended” at all — unless one is under the spell of the claims of the Gospels.

MM then refers to

  • Romans 9:5 that speaks of Christ coming, as promised, “according to the flesh”;
  • the one event (apart from death and burial) in the life of Christ — his institution of the Eucharist.
  • Paul’s references to the death of Christ imply a historical sense of Jesus
  • Paul’s list of witnesses (Peter, the Twelve, 500 brethren, James) to the resurrection being a reference to the Jesus of history

With respect to meeting Cephas/Peter and James “the brother of the Lord”, MM repeats the rejoinder we often hear that Paul would have been talking about more than just the weather with him:

As expressed by Charles Harold Dodd (1884-1973), presumably ‘they did not spend all the time talking about the weather’ at this meeting . . . .

MM calls on Acts to affirm that Paul met this same James again eleven years later at the Jerusalem conference (53 CE).

The “brother of the Lord” we are assured was an “historical figure” and his brother was as well. (p 123)

And even though the Gospels say that Jesus was not appreciated by his family, his brother James was accorded high status in the Church no doubt in part because of his personal acquaintance with or personal knowledge of Jesus.

The Philippian hymn, 2:6-11, “draws of the life of Jesus.”

In the beginning he renounces his divinity; that is, he abandons his so-called pre-existence that he might be a human.

The only thing we learn about this human life is that he was obedient and died. Paul’s mythical exaltation follows and is used to admonish the Philippians to live a similar life of obedience in fear and trembling.

Contrary to what others have been cited as saying in earlier posts in this series, 2 Corinthians 8:9 is called upon as holding up Jesus as an example to follow. His giving up of divinity is used as a motivator for the Corinthians to give of their money generously.

Whenever Paul refers to the words of Jesus — and these are always admonitions — he calls them “the words of the Lord”:

  • prohibiting divorce (1 Cor. 7:10)
  • another commandment relating to church practices (1 Cor. 14:37)
  • a ruling in relation to the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:23-25)

MM follows with a couple of pages expounding Paul’s understanding of the new life (or “new creation”) in Christ. It is not that Paul is teaching a new ethic — he quotes from Moses and the old Law often enough — but that belief in the love of God inspires a new spirit within the faithful so that they obey without being hung up over fear of punishment or fear of not being found worthy. So Paul’s message is an extension of Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s hope for a “new covenant”, a new spirit.

So what from all this do we learn of the historical Jesus?

If we only had the genuine letters of Paul, we would not know much about the earthly, not to say the ‘historical’, Jesus. We would know that

  • the night he was delivered
    • he held a Passover meal with his disciples
    • during which he instituted the Eucharist
  • that he died on a cross
  • and was buried,
  • but was believed to have risen from the dead.
  • We would know that he gave commandments (in spite of the evidence being very slender).

(p. 127, my formatting)

I’ve been very good in not interjecting for a while now, but allow me to remark that I always find it interesting that so many NT scholars will speak of Paul’s belief in the death of Jesus as a fact but never of his belief in the resurrection as a fact. Yet I am sure Paul saw them as equally “factual”. Scholars seem always to speak of Jesus death as “a fact” but of his resurrection as “a belief”. Why this distinction when such a distinction nowhere appears in our sources?

Thus, it is possible to deduce that Paul did know of the existence of the man Jesus and it is reasonable to deduce that, in his preaching and teaching, he told his congregations more than a little about what this Jesus, the Lord, had said and done. (p. 127, my emphasis)

Yes, I suppose it is “possible” to so deduce.

But why is the evidence so slim?

However, the letter genre was not appropriate for such descriptions, which are, rather, presupposed. What these letters contain is above all else the theological consequences which Paul drew from this human life and its fate as an expression of the salvific will of God.

MM does not in this chapter address the problems raised against this explanation for Paul’s “silence”.

MM does, however, attempt to strengthen his claim that “the letter genre hardly invites such allusions” with references to 1 and 2 Peter:

  1. The author of this 1 Peter, we can assume, knew his pseudonym, Peter, was recognized as a companion and eyewitness of Jesus, yet he failed to take advantage of this by directly quoting a single saying of Jesus or mentioning a single event he shared with him in his life;
  2. Such an allusion is not found until the even later 2 Peter with its supposed (some would also say “problematic”) reference to the transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels.

Is not there some circularity here? The historical Jesus is not found in the letter genre because the letter genre is not conducive to the writing of such details; the letter genre is not conducive to such expressions and that’s why we don’t find them there.

MM does point to Acts 13 and Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch in which he does refer to “important stations in the life of Jesus”. But MM also rightly notices that each of these stations are the fulfilment of OT prophecy. The events are selected to “prove the Scriptures” true. For MM, this sort of preaching was fundamental to the early church’s message.

MM also believes

it is possible to conclude, indirectly, that the special preaching of the law that originated with Jesus, especially if not solely implying the ethical part of the Law of Moses, was still in force, while the ceremonial part . . . was no longer seen as binding. This is a natural consequence of writing the commandments on the tablets of human hearts with the result that they are fulfilled. It is in this way that the commandment of love is made the greater. (p. 128)

(I think the OT itself teaches the superiority of the “heart” commandments over the rituals.)


What we meet in the letters of Paul is Jesus Christ as faith sees and experiences him. (p. 128)

The evidence we have for the historical Jesus as a figure who was teaching “a new understanding of what it means to fulfil the will of God . . . a charismatic interpreter of the will of God“, then, is in the faith and “new life” of the believers who followed. (I would find this more persuasive if we found more examples of such a teaching from the mouth of Jesus in both the epistles and the gospels.)

I have intruded too much. Here is MM with his final concluding words:

And just as Paul must be presumed to be a historical person, who lived and worked in the forties and fifties of the first century, so the Jesus of the apostle’s preaching and teaching is likewise to be taken as a historical figure, having been crucified in the reign of Tiberius in the beginning of the thirties. Thus, my conclusion is that if Paul is assumed to have been a historical person, the same must be assumed with regard to Jesus of Nazareth. (p. 130)


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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Paul: Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’”

  1. It may look indulgent to comment on my own post but it’s either a comment here or another post commenting on this post. Mogen Muller’s comments need to be seriously addressed. They represent, I suspect, majority opinion. It’s no good two sides talking past one another.

    I tried to be as clear and fair about the views expressed in this chapter, though of course I cannot capture the full flavour or nuances — for those you will have to read the chapter for yourself.

    Mogen’s key point needs to be carefully and thoroughly thought through. At first Bayes’ theorem crossed my mind, but there’s no need for that. What is important is that the many factors of assumption and probabilities that would have to be fed into BT need to be fully aired.

    For starters, is there really evidence in Paul that we see a transformation of a historical Jesus to a heavenly saviour? Transformation implies some sort of graduated process, at least to my mind. Rather, we see only a reference to a figure “made” of a woman under the law as being unequivocally (in the minds of most) on the “human” or “human-like” side. There is scarcely any process traceable from that to the celestial potentate in Paul.

    Many debates can be raised over “Son of David” and “brother of the Lord” and “made of a woman”, even “the sayings of the Lord”, but what would we expect in the record if the record is indeed a reaction to an historical person?

    That’s where we need to look at comparable examples, human nature, likelihoods, other studies as controls if possible.

  2. Mogen Muller’s essay reminds me of the extraordinary lengths people are willing to go in order to rationalize and historicize a myth. Once you begin with the assumption that Jesus and Paul cannot possibly have been mere theological constructs, the sky’s the limit on what can be found in the texts to supposedly “prove” those assertions. It’s all starting to seem quite mad at this point, and we are making ourselves mad by trying to seriously engage with such credulity.

  3. Just from reading your review here? I’d say that like many scholars we think of as Historicists or as believers, Muller is playing a popular kind of word game condemned as a fallacy by formal logic: as “ Equivocation.” In this case, Muller is equivocating with the word “historical.” So that finally perhaps he doesn’t really support Historicism properly understood, at all.

    What is Muller doing? As semanticists and logicians well know, words, phrases, often have more than one meaning. Especially if you stipulatively assign a new meaning to one of them. While here for example, Muller plays this common word game. Muller appears to support an “historical” Jesus – but then he re-defines “historical” not to mean, 1) having had an actual, real, earthly existences; but rather 2) as an influence, real or not, that had real effects. So that even a wholly mythical Jesus, having been believed in by many, could have very real and measurable effects. According to this, Jesus could have been wholly mythical … but the church down the block is a very, very real – and historical – outcome, nevertheless. . . . .

    [Remainder of comment removed by Neil]

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