What Did Paul Know About Jesus?

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by Neil Godfrey

Gregory Jenks
Gregory Jenks

Gregory Jenks has posted a new article on academia.edu, What did Paul know about Jesus? Jenks is a senior lecturer of theology at Charles Sturt University. Among other things he is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar and has a blog with the byline revisioning faith . . . shaping holy lives. I met Gregory Jenks in Toowoomba some years ago now when John Shelby Spong dropped in for a visit at his Anglican parish. He’s a nice bloke so I hope I don’t do any injustice to his article.

So first up let me give you the message Jenks wants to leave with sympathetic readers. He begins with this question for believers:

Does the historical Paul provide any help for contemporary people wondering to what extent information about the pre-Easter Jesus is relevant to the project of discipleship and faith?

After showing how little Paul addressed “Jesus traditions” he closes with the following answer that amplifies the message of his blog’s byline:

Paul appears to have exercised considerable flexibility and creative license in using whatever Jesus traditions may have been known to him and his readers. Christians today can claim that same freedom with respect to the Jesus tradition and the Pauline legacy.

Paul demonstrated that the priority always lies with direct life experience—interpreted within the context of one’s faith community and in the light of its tradition. Those who wish to honor the sage of Galilee might do it best by moving beyond veneration to the more challenging project of embracing life with openness and trust here and now.

I think I’ve been fair in presenting what Jenks sees as the importance of his article. I’ve no problem with his question or answer and respect his efforts in working towards a more tolerant and understanding society with that kind of message.

But what about the question of historicity and origins?

I was fearing that Jenks’ article would be yet one more “reading Paul through the Gospels” exercise but there was no need. Jenks is smarter than that.

Recall his Jesus Seminar credentials. It is so refreshing to read something from that perspective after all these years when we seem to encounter so much (relatively) conservative backlash dismissing the Seminar as if it were a minor blip that disappeared as soon as it pinged. Jenks builds on the results of the Jesus Seminar that were published in The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus. Robert Funk followed those up with The Gospel of Jesus according to the Jesus Seminar setting out thematically the materials that can be considered the bedrock or minimal teaching and acts of Jesus that can claim the highest confidence of authenticity. Jenks uses this material as “the control sample for our examination of the Jesus tradition within the Pauline material.”

That is, Jenks is getting behind the canonical gospels and reaching back to the traditions about Jesus that were extant before and during the time of Paul.

Now I have posted often enough on the kinds of assumptions that underlie this approach and have contrasted what happens when we see the gospels as literary creations of their authors who, rather than collating oral traditions, were drawing upon other literature (especially the Greek version of the Jewish bible) for their inspiration. I have posted quite a bit on reasons we ought to question the very idea of oral traditions being the raw materials of the evangelists. This post, however, is not interested in taking on those questions again or subjecting Jenks’ article to the doubts they raise. Rather, let’s for the sake of argument accept Jenks’ starting point.

First, note what Jenks is not doing. He is not looking out for all the possible allusions in Paul’s writings to the gospels. That approach has led to dead-ends in the past: what one person sees as an allusion to a Jesus tradition another sees as nothing more than a coincidental parallel phrase.

Secondly, in their enthusiasm to find parallels some people fail to take into account the history of the tradition and the way it has been redacted or evolved over time in the different gospels.

So Jenks is not interested in trying to identify passages in Paul’s letters that seem to be tied to gospel material.

The objective is not so much to find parallels to the earliest Jesus traditions within Paul, let alone explicit citations of Jesus’ sayings. Rather, we are testing the extent to which the Pauline material, as represented in the surviving New Testament material, indicates any knowledge of the earliest Jesus tradition—either in content or form. (my bolding)

Only the seven letters generally acknowledged as authentic to Paul come into the equation: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon.

The headings come from The Gospel of Jesus according to the Jesus Seminar.

Preface: Birth, childhood and family of Jesus

Paul knows the name Jesus though he normally refers to this person as Christ. He knows him as a descendant of Abraham; as “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) and “from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3). The latter he sees as reflecting Messianic traditions and is without relevance to Jesus’ paternity.

Unfortunately Jenks overlooks the manuscript history behind the Greek text that is the basis for these translations. As Bart Ehrman has pointed out in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (pp. 238-239) the word for “born” appears to have been slipped in to replace the original “came from”. The motive was to have proof-texts to fight “heretics” who were denying that Jesus was as truly human as the rest of us.

So when Jenks concludes of the Galatians passage that “in no way can it be read as excluding human paternity” it is evident that that is exactly how many were reading that passage up until the third century.

1. John the Baptist and Jesus

No trace in Paul’s letters.

2. Jesus announces the good news

Paul uses the term “good news” (euangelion) but for him it has a different meaning from its usage by Jesus. For Paul the good news encompassed nothing like the comforting message of the Beatitudes. If Jesus’ good news message was the reversal of fortunes here on earth, with the poor comforted and lifted up and the rich abased, Paul’s was something quite different:

The good news for Paul is focused on what God did through Jesus on the cross, and on Jesus’ imminent appearance as Christ, the exalted one. 

3. Disciples and discipleship

Paul names James, Peter/Cephas and John (Galatians 2:9) and Jenks adds that he makes a general reference to “the twelve” in 1 Corinthians 15:5. Recall, however, that we recently saw that Corinthian passage being under the suspicion of many a scholar over the years as an interpolation: Barnes (1947: 228); Straatman; Van Manen; Teylers; Holsten; O’Neill (1975: 96); R.M. Price (1995).

We also know Paul’s attitude towards claims of high status among the church leadership: in Galatians he pointedly says it makes no difference to him what reputation certain “pillars” in the church held in the eyes of others.

Paul makes no reference to any close women followers of Jesus, either, despite the “early tradition” testifying to their involvement.

Another difference is that where Jesus is portrayed as calling others to follow him even at the cost of leaving all one’s past life behind. This concept does not surface in Paul’s writings: rather,

Paul tends to replace Jesus’ calls for personal discipleship with the requirement to “have faith” in Christ (Gal 2:16) or in God (Rom 1:5), and to “wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thess 1:10). This is far removed from the call to radical discipleship that runs so powerfully through the early Jesus tradition.

4. Teaching with authority

Although the early tradition depicts Jesus as “a distinctive teacher with a unique sense of personal authority”

Paul makes virtually no appeal to Jesus as a teacher, or as an authoritative source of instruction. 

I have read many expressions of surprise that Paul does not appeal to the teaching of Jesus when it would in so many instances have been so useful to helping him resolve a problem among readers to whom he was writing, but Jenks reminds us that this gap is especially surprising if Jesus astonished the crowds by his authoritative manner of speaking.

In the only passages (three of them) where Paul does call upon “the Lord” as his authority for an opinion — 1 Corinthians 7:10; 9:14; 11:23-26 —

Paul invokes Christ as a divine authority figure, as the risen Lord, rather than as Jesus, the authoritative teacher of divine wisdom. 

5. Demons by the finger of God

Paul makes no reference to Jesus as a healer or exorcist. His focus is on the heavenly Jesus; earthly deeds are not part of his picture.

6. Death of John the Baptist

John the Baptist and “his movement” does not touch Paul’s Jesus or his early followers in any way.

7. Love and forgiveness

Jenks is kind here and sees Paul being generous to others in his aspiration to “be all things to all persons” (1 Cor. 9:22) and he does urge the Romans to bless those who persecute them. What we think of the personality of Paul otherwise is something we might want to defer for another discussion.

8. Jesus at the table

Paul does echo Jesus (or Jesus Paul?) here insofar as both insisted on eating with mixed company, not only the righteous or eating with gentiles and Jews separately. Similarly Paul chastised the Corinthians for allowing social distinctions to corrupt the Lord’s Supper.

And yet even on this issue, Paul never cites the example of Jesus’ own behavior to support his vehement denunciation of Peter and the Corinthians! Was he unaware of such a tradition? We can hardly fail to note that Paul’s words in Rom 14:17 (“the kingdom of God does not consist of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”) seem quite at odds with the earliest Jesus traditions.

9. Celebration

Jesus was known as a wine-bibber and one who mixed freely with all peoples regardless of the consequences. Paul, on the other hand, taught that it was not always helpful to exercise one’s rights and that one should habitually defer to the consciences of others.

10. Sabbath observance

Jesus taught the importance of addressing human needs (hunger, sickness) over the observance of the sabbath. Paul appears to have continued to observe the sabbath, “perhaps coupling it with the gatherings of the Christian assembly on the first day of the week (1 Cor 16.2).”

Some may question this interpretation in the light of Galatians but it’s not a discussion Jenks addresses in depth.

11. Kinship in the kingdom

Jesus taught the priority of spiritual kinship over natural family ties. Paul also “relativizes human relationships such as marriage (1 Cor 7:26-27)” but for a different reason: the end is nigh.

12. In parables

The most characteristic form of teaching of Jesus was said to be the parable. (Forget recent posts on parables for the moment; turn instead to early posts on Crossan’s new book about parables and the gospels.) The teaching of the parables appear to have been completely lost to Paul.

13. Public and private piety

Paul is seen to observe traditional Jewish piety more scrupulously than Jesus. Not only does Paul invoke his apostolic privations (2 Cor 11:28) and personal spiritual disciplines (1 Cor 10:24–27), he also exhorts people to imitate his behavior (Phil 3:17).

Recall also Paul’s efforts to stimulate rivalry among churches to increase their donations (2 Cor 9:1-5).

How different from Jesus’ insistence on doing one’s good works in secret.

Likewise Jesus’ teaching on how to pray left no impact on Paul.

14. Jesus and purity

Jesus clashed with Jewish tradition over purity rules (Mark 7:1-16). Paul taught that food rules were irrelevant to a person’s relationship with God (1 Cor 8:8; Rom 14:20). At the same time he wanted converts to be scrupulous about such things if that were necessary to avoid causing offences and division (Rom 14:1-23).

Paul’s teaching was a strategy to minimize the potential for division. There was no reference to any teaching of Jesus even though the topic was a significant one in early Christianity.

15. Signs of God’s imperial rule

Jesus is described as a reluctant miracle worker in the earliest traditions. Typically, Jesus refuses requests for miraculous signs (Mark 8:11–13). 

Paul never refers to Jesus as a miracle worker though he does speak of his own performances of “signs and wonders” in the conduct of his ministry (Rom 15:19). Here Paul has more in common with the “later stage of the Jesus tradition” and the later “typical element in traditional apocalyptic lore.”

16. Five cures

Jesus as a healer has no part in Paul’s teaching.

17. Success, wealth and God’s domain

Jesus taught the ephemeral nature of material goods, that the rich would have a very hard time making it into the kingdom of God and the need to forsake all to follow him.

Paul is ambivalent here. Though he spoke of losing his own life for the gospel and life in Christ, and that only a few wealthy were among his converts, at the same time he exalted his own status as an apostle and would let no one challenge him on that score.

18. Hospitality

Both Jesus and Paul assumed that hospitality would be the reigning custom among the brethren. The servants of Christ could expect to be cared for and supported by the faithful.

19. Sight and light

The images that decorated the words of Jesus — new sight, prominent cities, salt and savour, grapes and thistles, fig trees without figs — are absent from Paul.

20. In Jerusalem

As far as Paul’s letters are concerned Jesus may as well never had any conflicts with the Jerusalem and Temple authorities and never have attempted to make any changes to Temple practices.

Indeed, Paul’s views on submission to the civil authorities (Rom 13:1–7) run quite contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Had Jesus followed Paul’s advice there may have been no crucifixion.

21. The passion

Paul does find deep theological significance in the death of Jesus.

Even so, we do not get a detailed exposition of the circumstances of Jesus’ death or of its theological significance.

Jenks is sure that Paul does refer to Jesus’

  • betrayal and  arrest,
  • execution by the Roman authorities
  • and burial.

Unfortunately it appears that Jenks’ deeply ingrained theological beliefs have taken over here. Paul speaks of

  • a “handing over”, not at all necessarily a betrayal;
  • powers crucifying Jesus (most widely interpreted as a reference, often indirect reference, to Roman agents of the powers).

But even so, the details are out of focus. The importance is on the cosmic significance of the death and resurrection and the reconciliation of the alienate elements of the universe.

Epilogue: Pillars and Pioneers

Paul is closer to the early [i.e. less detail in their narrative such as the empty tomb] appearance traditions. He provides the earliest extant list of appearances (1 Cor 15:4). More than once Paul refers to his own experience of the risen Jesus (1 Cor 15:8; Gal 1:12,16) in the form of simple reports.

“Lists” and “reports” are according to the Jesus Seminar the marks of the simpler and earlier form of the tradition of Jesus appearing to his followers after death.

Returning to the Conclusion

So we return now to the message to be taken from all this that we set out at the beginning of this post.

It would seem that Paul had little access to the earliest Jesus traditions. . . .

This finding confirms the scholarly consensus that Paul made little use of Jesus tradition in his writings. Scholars generally concede that we can learn almost nothing about Jesus’ life or teachings from Paul. 

Jenks does not lack confidence in modern scholarly methods to uncover the earliest traditions of Jesus:

Christians have always derived their information about Jesus from the catechetical and liturgical traditions of the Church. As it happens, through the critical research of generations of biblical scholars—including the Jesus Seminar, today’s Christians may actually have access to more reliable traditions about Jesus than even Paul enjoyed. 

Paul’s experience of Christ was of the exalted figure, post-resurrection, the divine agent who mediated the power of God. His religious experience was of “the living Jesus” who was “the presence and action of God (2 Cor 5:19)”.

Gregory Jenks finds a liberating lesson for Christians in this analysis. Those of us with a historical interest that does not view the gospels like windows to be looked through (as Jack Miles has represented it) to events in the past mediated through oral traditions but more like stained-glass windows to be studied and admired and understood as literary creations put together from items more immediately at the hand of their crafters, can see another way of viewing Christian origins. The question then becomes how the world of the gospels might have emerged from the faith of the writers of epistles.

I find the differences and the question fascinating. Jenks has set out the contrast more starkly than many other works I have read.

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “What Did Paul Know About Jesus?”

  1. “It would seem that Paul had little access to the earliest Jesus traditions. . . .”

    Does this not greatly impact one’s interpretation of “brother of the Lord” in Gal. 1? In your summation of the family life section there is no reference to this passage yet it is as close to a pivot point in historicity as any thing we have.

    1. It does strongly stress Paul’s headspace being in quite a different place from anywhere that would be bothered with Jesus’ biological relationships on earth. Many have said that Paul “would have asked all about Jesus’ life on earth” when he was with Peter, James and John — but Jenks would seem to demonstrated that Paul would not have been the least interested in such questions and not the least impressed that he was talking with anyone who had known Jesus in the flesh. Of course the whole idea is fanciful but that’s another story.

  2. Clarification on the Preface. Jenks separates “born of a woman” and “descended from David according to the flesh”. Only of the former does he state “In no way can it be read as excluding human paternity.” In a simpler form, isn’t he saying “It can’t be read as saying Jesus’ father was divine.” So I might be confused, but I think Jenks is saying the same thing as Ehrman.

    Is your Ehrman citation about the “born of a woman” in Gal 4:4? Jenks claims this was a well-known idiom in Jewish literature for “human being” and cites Job, DSS and Matthew. Does Ehrman’s evidence rebut this claim?

    1. Yes, it does, as I understand it. The expression was changed to mean “born” in order to combat those arguing Jesus was not a true flesh and blood human being: http://vridar.org/2012/06/08/18-earl-dohertys-response-to-bart-ehrmans-case-against-mythicism-pt-18/

      The original was interpreted as meaning Jesus somehow slipped hermetically through Mary’s body without having had a normal conception and not being contaminated by fleshy stuff.

      Thanks for the correction. That was a bad oversight of mine. Have fixed the post.

  3. “…descended from David according to the flesh…”

    I have a speculation that Paul is not referring to “David” as an ordinary human being,
    but as an “anointed” one, a messianic figure in his own right.

    An obvious statement ^ perhaps, but if David is more than just a genetic origin, then
    the word “flesh” can be interpreted as “incarnation” of a recurring figure.

    In human mythology, we know that the concept of “god-king”, or “divine ruler” is well
    represented as a kind of archetype. My reading of passages in Samuel about David
    demonstrates to me that we are dealing with a “sanctified chosen one”.

    In context of writings outside of the Torah, the “messiah” is a relatively defined agent
    who is divinely appointed, and seems to be mandated with the rank of “son of God”
    in the same way angels are. I think some of the prophets can be seen as “angels on
    earth” in how they are instruments for divine communication.

    In the same way a Japanese emperor is considered part of a divine lineage, the late 2nd
    Temple version of a messianic “god-king”, perhaps originating in Adam, through all the
    patriarchs to the allegedly historical unification kings, maybe even the Hasmoneans, is
    now metaphysically enthroned, for Paul, as the “angelic Son”, or Christ.

    So to stay on topic, interpreting Paul, and the supposed “early traditions” may be not
    utterly ambiguous if the basic understanding of “Christ” or “anointed one”, “chosen one”,
    “divinely mandated king” is always present as a guiding star.

    We who are curious about Christian origins can simplify the “quest” (no pun) by honing
    in on Christianity as a variation of the messianic tradition. If we trim away “Christianities”
    which are sourced in “early church fathers” who claimed contact with a pristine apostolic
    heritage, then we are free of 1900 years of distortions further amplified by various
    doctrinal councils.

    Also, if actual, non-credal, restorationist efforts really want to go to the core “original”
    church, the division between that sect and the last years of 2nd Temple Judaism is
    minimal, and no more special than other apparent divisions discussed by Josephus.

    So for me, the study of “Christian origins” must be re-directed; the general problem
    is better defined as “origins of post-2nd Temple Rabbinical traditions”; factor in all the
    influences on Israel/Judea by cultures which invaded it and resettled it’s occupants, see
    the probable consequences of assimilation, syncretic exchange, and forget the idea that
    current Judaic sects are good analogs for what they were in antiquity.

    “Christian origins” seems a more appropriate term for nominal post-Nicene sects.

    OK excuse my long comment, I was hoping to write just a few lines, but I got carried
    away. Vridarian content can really spark my brain!

  4. In the only passages (three of them) where Paul does call upon “the Lord” as his authority — 1 Corinthians 7:10; 9:14; 1:23-26

    I think the third one is 11:23-26. You could add 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 to the list (“For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord”), too.

    But I think Paul was making references to the Lord speaking through the scriptures like in 1 Corinthians 14:21 where he quotes from Isaiah 28:11-12 and adds “says the Lord” at the end. 1 Corinthians 7:10 is about divorce. He infers that the Lord opposes the wife divorcing the husband because there is no provision in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 for it. The command from the Lord in 1 Corinthians 9:13-14 comes from Deuteronomy 18:3-8. The whole eschatological sequence of 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 (as well as those in 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 and Philippians 3:20-21) seems to come from Isaiah 26:19-21a; Daniel 7:11a; Daniel 13a; Daniel 12:2; Isaiah 25:8a. The 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 is nearly identical to Mark 14:22-25 and Luke 22:19-20. Whoever composed it likely based it on Psalm 41:9 for the betrayal and the bread element and Isaiah 53:12 for the pouring out of the wine. Mark may have taken it from Paul or wrote it himself. Luke got it from Mark and added a few embellishments that are in 1 Corinthians, so Luke’s version may have been interpolated into 1 Corinthians. There is evidence that a large portion of 1 Corinthians 10 and 11 is a big interpolation.

    Paul may have got the idea that Jesus was a descendant of David from many Old Testament verses like 2 Samuel 7:12 or Isaiah 11:10. He may have thought Jesus was born of a woman from Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah 49:1, or Isaiah 49:5

    1. Yes, in the 1 Thess passage it appears Paul is saying that the particular teaching is from the “word of the Lord” — scripture. I have clarified the original text to reflect more accurately Jenks’s original statement that Paul calls upon the Lord as his authority when expressing an opinion.

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