The Reception of Jesus Tradition in Paul

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by Neil Godfrey

The second paper of the first day of the Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference (10th-11th June 2016, St Mary’s University) is “The Reception of Jesus in Paul” by Christine Jacobi.

In sum, to the best of my understanding (and there is considerable external noise in the video) here is Christine Jacobi’s main argument.

Paul’s was indebted to a Jesus tradition conveyed by eyewitnesses and others but what impressed him the most and formed the foundation of his and his community’s identity was the Christ Event itself. This enabled him to justify certain rulings that were in keeping with the meaning of that event and the needs of his churches as they identified themselves with that Christ event, even if those teachings contradicted specific sayings that the tradition attributed to Jesus himself.

Christine Jacobi
Christine Jacobi

Christine Jabobi’s thesis: Pauline letters are part of the early Christian memory of Jesus although Paul was not interested in the earthly Jesus. With traditional materials and his own reasoning, the apostle subordinated the Jesus tradition that was known to him to a comprehensive overarching interpretation of the Christ Event. Paul did not care for historical distinctions between early original material and later interpretations.

Romans 12:14-21 is believed by many scholars to indicate that Paul did know of the Jesus tradition that later found its way into the gospels. The NIV translation:

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Jacobi explains that many scholars believe Paul took these ideas from those who had been eyewitnesses of Jesus and who were preserving and teaching the words they had heard Jesus speak, the evidence for this being found in the gospels; Luke 6:28

28 Bless those who curse you . . . .

Did Paul take the words of Jesus that he heard from the eyewitnesses of Jesus and did those eyewitness traditions eventually catch up with the gospel authors who set them in writing? Jacobi rightly argues that the evidence can just as validly support the argument that Paul adapted the teachings from other traditions, especially Jewish wisdom literature such as the Book of Proverbs, and that the evangelists who wrote the gospels took the words from Paul and adapted them to make them the words of Jesus.

One scholar, Dunn, argues that Paul could mix the “remembered” words of Jesus with his recollections of Jewish Scripture and use them both as if they had equal authority. Jacobi thinks it unlikely that Jesus’ words would have had such authority so early.

But Jacobi points to other passages in Paul’s writings that explicitly contradict the words of Jesus that the gospels indicated came from the “Jesus tradition”. We are familiar with Paul’s disagreement with Jesus over marriage and divorce. Paul additionally rejected the right, even thought it had been made explicit by Jesus, to be supported by the people he served in his ministry.

I Corinthians 9

14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast.

Compare Luke 10

7 Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages.

What is going on here? If Paul knows of the same Jesus tradition that is said to emerge later in the gospels then why does he short-change it? Notice that even in the Romans 12 passage on blessing one’s enemies Paul does not appeal to the same carrot that Jesus held out to motivate his readers. Jesus promised those who acted this way a great reward in heaven. Paul, rather, in other passages in his writings appeals to his followers to identify with God himself and to be like the God who revealed himself in the Christ event — that is, to be like the God who revealed himself in the flesh and forgave others before and after ascending to heaven.

In other words, Paul subordinated the words of Jesus to something far more important, far bigger, than discerning their exact form.

What is surprising to Christine Jacobi is that such a hypothesis would mean that the earliest accounts available to us that contain memories of Jesus are highly interpreted and adapted for contemporary needs while the later evidence, the gospels, contain the words of Jesus in a less interpreted and a more original form. One would normally expect to find the reverse in the extant evidence: the earlier containing the more primitive account and the later evidence the more highly interpreted and adapted forms.

Such in summary is my memory of Christine Jacobi’s conference presentation. Jacobi’s hypothesis is built upon the assumption that the gospel authors inherited memorized traditions from eyewitnesses of Jesus. There is no reference in her paper to any arguments that challenge the view that the gospels have written down oral recollections rather than having borrowed from other literature (e.g. Henaut 1993; Brodie 2004). (Although Jacobi does claim, if I caught her words correctly, that Paul’s/Jesus’ teaching to “Bless those who persecute/curse you” is a new form of pre-existing teachings and not directly found outside the Jesus tradition.)

Is it not a simpler hypothesis that Paul adapted teachings from Jewish and Hellenistic literature and that the gospels reframed many of his words and placed them in the mouth of Jesus? Does not this simpler hypothesis account for the same data we find in both the letters of Paul and the Gospels while raising fewer questions about why Paul went to such extreme lengths to distance himself and his words from any acknowledgement to “the historical Jesus of Galilee” whose life was, after all, integral to “the Christ Event” that so completely consumed Paul’s focus?


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8 thoughts on “The Reception of Jesus Tradition in Paul”

  1. Yes, it is a simpler hypothesis that Paul adapted teachings from Jewish and Hellenistic literature [and from the Jerusalem Church] and that the gospels re-framed many of Paul’s words and placed them in the mouth of Jesus. If it be a given that Mark’s Gospel is a parable for Paul and Paul’s teaching, and that the objective of Mark’s Gospel and the other Gospels is to canonize Paul, then there seems little reason to think that Mark would have included the original teaching or sayings of Jesus, even if he had access to them. And, after all, the original teaching of Jesus, if any existed, would probably have been the same Ebionite heresy that Paul was fighting and that the Gentile Gospels were trying to suppress. The disastrous Jewish war with Rome would only have heightened the desire of the Gentile Churches founded by Paul to distant themselves from what remained of the Jerusalem Church founded by Jesus. That at least is the theory.

    1. Compare Luke 10:7 Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages….I Corinthians 9:14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel….1Co 9:12 If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ.

      What is going on here? If Paul knows of the same Jesus tradition that is said to emerge later in the gospels then why does he short-change it?

      I guess that is a rhetorical question. But Paul was simply in competition with the Jerusalem Church and distanced himself from Jesus after the flesh so as to promote his Gospel to the Gentiles. For Paul the focus was his Gospel to the Gentiles in which he believed that Christ had made possible the salvation of all men (including the Gentiles) without having to take on the additional burden of Jewish law and tradition.

      Perhaps the Jerusalem Church did allow that Gentiles could be saved if they adhered to the Noachic covenant, but the Jerusalem Church still insisted the Gentiles not eat things sacrificed to idols. Paul was rather lax on this prohibition, and as long as it was not a cause for stumbling for the [Jewish] brethren who were “weaker” in faith, then even sacrificial meats sold in the butcher shop could be eaten. One might also guess, based on the Gospels, the Jerusalem Church was insisting the Gentiles keep the Sabbath. And it seems that the Jerusalem Church may have considered the Gentile believers second class citizens in this coming kingdom of God, which gave Paul (and the Gospel writers) some heartburn.

      Mat_20:12 Saying, These last (the Gentiles) have wrought but one hour, and thou (Paul and Paul’s Jesus) hast made them equal unto us (the Jerusalem Church), which have borne the burden and heat of the day.

      I think this saying refers to the competition between Paul and the Jerusalem Church, and not Paul and “the Jews” as generally understood. Paul’s main competition was the “chief priest” James and those sent by James, and that is reflected in Paul’s letters and in the Gospels.

  2. Hi Steve. Your comment reminds me now of two other important themes of Jacobi’s address. One is Paul’s stress upon being “in Christ” and the other on the importance of paraenesis in his writings.

    Christine Jacobi’s explanation is that instead of being in competition with others Paul was most focused on “the Christ event” and its meaning for him and his churches — how it transformed their lives, put them at one “in Christ” etc — that he was quite capable of taking words of Jesus and making the judgment that they did not apply or were not edifying for the new situation he and his fellow Christians now found themselves. New priorities emerged in order to make the most of all that the Christ event meant in their lives that details about the actual words of Jesus were less important than the full transformative meaning of his life, death and resurrection for everyone. The actual words were thus subordinated, sometimes set aside, in order to focus on decisions and rulings that were edifying for the new body “in Christ”.

    1. Paul did believe in personal transformation, but he was also very dedicated to the idea of being an apostle to the Gentiles for their salvation. Anything that stood in the way of that he opposed. For Paul it was not just the Jerusalem Church that was hindering his Gospel, but the demonic principalities and powers of this world that were trying to prevent mankind from being saved. I suspect that was just as real to Paul as any human power here on earth. Paul, I think, still had a very apocalyptic mindset, like the Jerusalem Church, and his message was not completely about transformation. Transformation, I think, was simply Paul’s way of preparing oneself for the end of the age. I am not certain Paul would have held his view about transformation if he didn’t expect the end of the age very soon. I recall another author also pointing that out.

      Eph_6:12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

      1. Paul, I think, still had a very apocalyptic mindset, like the Jerusalem Church

        I agree. Paul was a sincere apocalypticist. Insofar he was a follower of Paul, also ”Mark” ”had” to be an apocalypticist but Mark had a clear spiritual problem (unknown to Paul): the first fatal clues of the unexpected delay of the Parousia. So Mark found a compromise between the ardent hope in a coming Messiah (the Justice of God) and his surprising delay (the Mercy of God). But clearly more and more the delay was becoming a serious problem, then more and more the common Christian apology was that the Mercy of God is more important than his Justice. At the radical point that for Marcion the true God is only Mercy and not Justice: hence not more sincere apocalypticism in Marcion. And against Marcion, the proto-catholics could only simulate their being apocalypticists (=believers in the Justice of God) without to be really so. The proto-Catholic compromise was that the presence himself of the Church is a sign of the Mercy of God, while his Justice is meant to happen in an indeterminate future.

        1. Thanks Giueppe. I read a little more on Paul’s apocalypticism, that is Paul’s belief in the end times, and yes it seems to be fairly well recognized. I like Neil’s suggestion that Mark came to see the destruction of Jerusalem as part of that end time judgement. And like you say, probably the delay in the Parousia became more and more a problem for Christianity which eventually (but never completely) distanced itself from the Jewish concept of a kingdom of God here on earth.

          There was enough death and suffering in this world to give Christianity a meaning and solace all its own. And with the destruction of Jerusalem and Judea, a Jewish kingdom of God here on earth became a moot point for the Gentiles, assuming that such a kingdom was ever important to the Gentiles at all, which it probably wasn’t.

  3. Thanks for the synopsis and commentary. Another “scholar” letting their preconceptions overwhelm their reading comprehension. She came in with the story arse backwards and so it has remained. I simply do not understand how anyone can read Galatians and Romans in particular and come away with the idea that Paul got any part of his message from others apart from the long dead authors of the Septuagint and Pseudepigrapha let alone that those others (Cephas, James, John, and Peter) got their teaching from a living person.

    I see her doctorate is only ten years old; hadn’t even those who seem to be influential (what they are makes no difference to me; reason shows no partiality) conceded by then that “Mark” was all midrash and mimesis from the Septuagint/Targums/Homer where it wasn’t drawn from Paul and his theology? Wasn’t the putative “Q” qua “Matthew” similarly deconstructed and “Luke – Acts” a mining of a poorly understood Josephus, as well as an adaption of the other two, recognised by then also? The thing goes poof! This is the ‘original’ Jesus just as the proverbial axe is ‘original’: having had it’s head and haft replaced. More than once if you credit the fantastical redaction histories put about for the Gospels.

    In 1 Cor. 9:14 Paul writes of the Lord but only a few verses earlier he is writing of God, referencing proverbs about oxen, and the priests in the Temple. ‘The Lord’ is better argued, I think, to be God; not Christ. Even so the inherent ambiguity makes it that you cannot get beyond fifty/fifty in favour of it referring to Christ. Further it is unlikely Paul would be disregarding the instructions of his own daemon; rather the instructions of other apostles daemons coming to him third hand as reproachments. Already there are several versions of the Christ daemon evident from the disputes Paul has with these other apostles he refers to in his epistles. Not unexpectedly, Paul privileges his own Christ over that of others.

    We cannot speak of “heresies” at this time; these different visions of the Christ appeared more or less simultaneously and we, as against Paul, cannot privilege one over the other. They arose in different places and we cannot recover a chronology. Paul begrudgingly has the “pillars” preceding him in their visions but he surrenders no authority to them. The Corinthians Paul writes of are espousing and adhering to four versions of the Christ teaching, one of which is not a Christ speaking through an apostle but referred to as having no intermediary. Is this conflation and harmonising or are some Corinthians having visions of their own and similarly seeing no distinction in authority? This discounts the Judaisers; who seem to be another instance altogether. All of these parties would like to have authority over the others but none are in a position to exert any such thing. To speak of “heresy” as it came to be understood a century or two later is an anachronism.

    Gather a dozen of these “scholars” so-called together and a bakers dozen Jesus’ will manifest. Burton Mack as far as I can make out managed to do what Paul rails against at 1 Cor. 1:13 and divide Christ: he had a Jesus People and a Christ Cult. They originated in the same supposed person but his Jesus and his Christ appeared, as far as I understood him, to be apparently separate entities with hardly any overlap. I’m buggered if I could work out how that was supposed to happen!

    As you may have gathered from the length, half of me is a little bit taken with this Christ puzzle; but the other half of me has to say “Can’t we give over with these people already? The Christ King is nekid! There are wedges of Black Swans honking
    overhead! Leave these eejits burbling their nonsenses to one another and pay attention to those that actually read the damned books; pay attention to the sectarian milieu of their original context; that not only use the tools of the historian and sibling trades but actually are historians or of sister disciplines. Enough of their waffle gabble. Their “consensus” is meaningless; and their “authority” to be heeded less than the well-read layman who can reason from first principles”

  4. If I understand Jacobi’s thesis correctly, Paul knew of the historical Jesus traditions, he just chose to ignore them, because: reasons. That’s unfalsifiable.

    Jacobi and other desperate apologists have pounced upon Social Memory Theory as an ad hoc explanation for why the NT serves so atrociously as an historical record. The flaw in their approach: there exists no mechanism for distinguishing between a garbled account based on fickle memory, and a fictional tale larded with pseudo-historical tidbits.

    It’d be amusing to see Jacobi’s methodology applied to Verbal Kint’s testimony in THE USUAL SUSPECTS.

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