Paul and the Historical Jesus



Small Intro:



It is often claimed that Pauline thought had little if anything to do with a historical Jesus. I put up an excerpt from N.T. Wright on this site that argued there is an appropriate continuity between Jesus and Paul. I also put up an excerpt from F.F. Bruce which outlines Pauline thought that does reference aspects of a “historical” Jesus. I also have a piece up by O Collin’s on what Jesus thought of himself and his mission. I wish merely to tie things together here and state a little more on Paul. For this article, I am indebted to the works published by N.T. Wright, F.F. Bruce, Gerald O’ Collins, Raymond Brown and Luke Timothy Johnson.


The basics of Paul and Jesus



First, how we understand both Jesus and Paul largely scopes our observations here. I share the view that we should seek to interpret both figures in light of Jewish Eschatology. Jesus had a specific vocation and so did Paul. "Jesus saw himself as the prophet and messianic agent commissioned by God to bring about the definitive divine rule." 1 Paul’s actions need to be seen in light of that climactic act. From N.T. Wright: It should be clear from all this that if Paul had simply trotted out, parrot-fashion, every line of Jesus’ teaching – if he had repeated the parables, if he had tried to do again what Jesus did in announcing and inaugurating the kingdom – he would not have been endorsing Jesus, as an appropriate and loyal follower should. He would have been denying him. Someone who copies exactly what a would-be Messiah does is himself trying to be a Messiah; which means denying the earlier claim. When we see the entire sequence within the context of Jewish eschatology, we are forced to realize that for Paul to be a loyal ‘servant of Jesus Christ’, as he describes himself, could never mean that Paul would repeat Jesus’ unique, one-off announcement of the kingdom to his fellow Jews. What we are looking for is not a parallelism between two abstract messages. It is the appropriate continuity between two people living, and conscious of living, at different points in the eschatological timetable.


Jesus believed it was his vocation to bring Israel’s history to its climax. Paul believed, in consequence of that belief and as part of his own special vocation, that he was  himself now called to announce to the whole world that Israel’s history had been brought to its climax in that way. When Paul announced the Gospel to the Gentile world, therefore, he was deliberately and consciously implementing the achievement of Jesus. He was, as he himself said, building on the foundation, not laying another one (1 Corinthians 3:11). He was not ‘founding a separate religion’. He was not inventing a new ethical system. He was not perpetrating a timeless scheme of salvation, a new mystery-religion divorced from the real, human Jesus of Nazareth. He was calling the world to allegiance to its rightful Lord, the Jewish Messiah now exalted as the Jewish Messiah was supposed to be. A new mystery religion, focused on a mythical ‘lord’, would not have threatened anyone in the Greek or Roman world. ‘Another king’, the human Jesus whose claims cut directly across those of Caesar, did. 2


As we can see, there is an appropriate continuity between Jesus and Paul. As N.T Wright said, “It will not do, therefore, to line up ‘Jesus’ key concepts’ and ‘Paul’s key concepts’ and play them off against one another. 3” Note that there is no indication here that Paul did not accept a historical Jesus. In fact, the exact opposite is implied! Paul accepted the idea that Jesus (a real live person) came about and brought Israel’s history to its climax.



James, the brother of a non-historical Lord?



In another paper on this site, I argued for the historicity of Jesus on the basis of three independent references that attest to the fact that he had a brother named James. All references come from the first century, are early in source, and one is from a non-Christian! One of my references comes from Paul in Galatians and these are my brief comments from that article in blue text:


1) We start with Paul who relays info about a historical Jesus and his brother in Galatians 1:13-24:

13For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.

18Then after three years, I went up to
Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. 19I saw none of the other apostles--only James, the Lord's brother. 20I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. 21Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23They only heard the report: "The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy." 24And they praised God because of me.


Paul speaks about his previous way of life persecuting Christians in which he most likely was a Shammaite Pharisee (Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said). Paul speaks of his conversion experience and Paul tells us that he knew Peter and also that he had met James, the Lord’s brother. That seems like an impediment to those who advocate the non-historicity of Jesus. Did Paul “think” there was a historical Jesus? Certainly, if his own statements are any indication of his actual thoughts. He says he met Jesus’ brother. Talk of this being a “spiritual brother” does not wash. It should also be noted that Galatians was written some time during the fifties C.E..


The idea that Jesus had a brother named James is independently attested to by both the Gospel of Mark and Josephus in Antiquities 20. So when Paul said he met the Lord’s brother there is no reason to think Paul did not believe in or care about a historical Jesus.



F.F. Bruce on information from the Pauline Epistles



There are other references to historical details concerning Jesus in Paul which we will turn to in the following paragraph. It should be noted that Paul wrote before the Gospels were penned and both Paul and the Gospels were written independent of one another. Here is a lengthy citation from F.F. Bruce (in blue text):


Here, however, we are chiefly concerned with the information we can
derive from his Epistles. These were not written to record the facts
of the life and ministry of Jesus; they were addressed to Christians,
who already knew the Gospel story. Yet in them we can find sufficient
material to construct an outline of the early apostolic preaching
about Jesus. While Paul insists on the divine pre-existence of Jesus
(E.G., Col..1:15 ff.), yet he knows that He was none the less a real
human being (Gal. 4:4), a descendent of Abraham ( Rom 9:5) and David
(Rom. 1:3); who lived under the Jewish law (Gal 4:4); who was
betrayed, and on the night of his betrayal instituted a memorial meal
of bread and wine (1 Cor. 11:23 ff.); who endured the Roman penalty
of crucifixion (Phil. 2:8; 1 Cor 1:23), although the responsibility
for His death is laid at the door of the representatives of the
Jewish nation (Gal 3:12; 6:14 etc); who was buried, rose the third
day, and was thereafter seen alive by many eyewitnesses on various
occasions, including one occasion on which He was so seen by over
five hundred at once, of whom the majority were alive nearly twenty-
five years alter (1 Cor 15:4 ff.). In this summary of the evidence
for the reality of Christ's resurrection, Paul shows a sound instinct
for the necessity of marshalling personal testimony in support of
what might well appear an incredible assertion.

Paul knows of the Lord's apostles (Gal
1:17 ff.), of whom Peter and
John are mentioned by name as 'pillars' of the
Jerusalem community
(Gal 2:9), and of His brothers, of whom James is similarly mentioned
1:19, 2:9). He knows that the Lord's brothers and apostles,
including Peter, were married (1 Cor. 9:5)--an incidental agreement
with the Gospel story of the healing of Peter's mother-in-law (Mark
1:30). He quotes sayings of Jesus on occasion--e.g., His teaching on
marriage and divorce (1 Cor
7:10 f.), and on the right of the Gospel
preachers to have their material needs supplied (1 Cor.
9:14; 1 Tim.
5:18; cf. Lk 10:7); and the words He used at the institution of the
Lord’s Supper.

Even when he does not quote the actual sayings of Jesus of Jesus, he
shows throughout his works how well acquainted he was with them. In
particular, we ought to compare the ethical section of the Epistle to
the Romans (12:1 - 15:7), where Paul summarizes the practical
implication of the gospel for the lives of believers, with the
Sermon on the Mount, to see how thoroughly imbued the Apostle was
with the teaching of his Master. Besides, there and elsewhere Paul's
chief argument in his ethical instruction is the example of Christ
Himself. And the character of Christ as understood by Paul is in
perfect agreement with His character as portrayed in the Gospels.
When Paul speaks of 'the meekness and gentleness of Christ' (2 Cor.
10:1), we remember our Lord's own words, "I am meek and lowly in
heart' (Matt.
11:29). The self-denying Christ of the gospels is the
one of whom Paul says, 'Even Christ pleased not himself' (Rom. 15:3);
and just as the Christ of the Gospels called on His followers to deny
themselves (Mark 8:34), so the apostle insists that, after the
example of Christ Himself, it is our Christian duty 'to bear the
infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves' (Rom 15:1). He
who said: 'I am among you as the servant' (Luke
22:27), and
performed the menial task of washing His disciples' feet (John 13:4
ff.), is He who, according to Paul, 'took the form of a slave' (Phil.
2:7). In a word, when Paul wishes to commend his readers all those
moral graces which adorn the Christ of the Gospels he does so in
language like this: 'Put on the Lord Jesus Christ' (Rom

In short, the outline of the gospel story as we can trace it in the
writings of Paul agrees with the outline which we find elsewhere in
the New Testament and in the four Gospels in particular.


We see from Bruce that Paul does in fact mention a good number of historical things concerning Jesus. It should be noted that the Gospels do not  present us with biographies of Jesus in the modern sense. We do not know what Jesus looked like, we do not know what type of food he preferred nor what he did for most of his life. The Gospels concern themselves primarily with Jesus’ ministry and the genuine Pauline epistles line up with the thoughts regarding Jesus’ ministry found in the Gospels. The indication here is that Paul accepted a historical Jesus. The evidence dictates that Paul thought Jesus was “commissioned by God to bring about the definitive divine rule.” Pauline thought was not so much concerned with the details of Jesus’ life as he was with his ministry and death and resurrection. There was, is, and always will be an appropriate continuity between Jesus and Paul.



The Danger of Exegesis that Employs What the Evangelist did not say


There is a dangerous trap here that many fall into. It is often noted that Paul does not mention the virgin birth or that he never mentions an empty tomb etc. How could he have never mentioned such pivotal views in all his writings if he accepted them as true? First, an aside is necessary on the virgin birth: I do not accept the historicity of the Matthean and Lukan infancy narratives and it is irrelevant to my Christian faith as to whether Jesus was born of a virgin or not. Does a non-mention of the virgin birth by Paul or the author of Mark or any other 1st century author mean they did not know about it or disagreed with the idea?. From Raymond Brown “The NT writers certainly knew more of the Christian tradition than they were able or chose to convey in their writings; John 21:25 is specific about that. Therefore we should maintain a certain distrust of negative arguments from silence, as if the failure to write meant the failure to know. For instance, only Matt and Luke tell us about Jesus' virginal conception. Failure of other NT writers to mention it does not necessarily mean that they did not know of it (or, a fortiori, would deny it); yet neither can we assume that the knowledge was widespread. On the level of the literal sense, exegesis that embraces what the evangelist did not actually convey in writing becomes very speculative.”5 Those who argue that Paul does not speak of a historical Jesus are clearly wrong and those who want to modify their argument and say Paul does not speak enough of a historical Jesus should know that they are in the boonies of “speculation-ville” and the slums of “argument from silence-land”. A devastating citation, in regards to that position, from Raymond Brown: Thus in the 50s of the 1st century Paul produced the earliest surviving Christian documents: 1 Thess, Gal, Phil, Phlm, I and II Cor, and Rom. There is a somewhat different tone and emphasis to each, corresponding to what Paul perceived as the needs of the respective community at a particular time. This fact should make us cautious about generalizations in reference to Pauline theology. Paul was not a systematic theologian but an evangelizing preacher, giving strong emphasis at a certain moment to one aspect of faith in Jesus, at another moment to another aspect—indeed to a degree that may seem to us inconsistent. On the grounds that Paul does not mention an idea or practice, very adventurous assumptions are sometimes made about his views. For example, the Eucharist is mentioned in only one Pauline writing and there largely because of abuses at the Eucharistic meal at Corinth. Except for that situation scholars might be misled to assume that there was no Eucharist in the Pauline churches, reasoning that Paul could scarcely written so much without mentioning such an important aspect of Christian life. 6



Johnson and the Messianic Pattern


In The Real Jesus, Luke Timothy Johnson argues that there is a common Jesus story, or messianic pattern that pervades the New Testament. For Johnson, “Paul uses the Jesus story—not the facts of his life but the meaning of his life—as the basis for community instruction in the letter to the Romans [and the same goes for the other Pauline epistles]. Remember that this is a community that Paul has never met. Its members have not previously been instructed by him. If he uses elements from the Jesus story, and expects them to grasp his point, he must be able to assume that these early Christians also were aware both of the story and its essential character.7 Do not misinterpret Johnson though, as he states (p.158) “Paul makes a number of discrete references to Jesus’ earthly life.” Johnson also highlights many of the things F.F. Bruce did above on pp 119-120 and repeating them here is clearly unnecessary. I encourage readers to obtain a copy of Johnson’s The Real Jesus to see a defense of his argument for such views and to get a more comprehensive understanding of his views in general. I put forth a snippet from Johnson’s conclusion (pp. 165-166) in closing:


By looking at the “story of Jesus” not in terms of a collection of fact or in terms of a pile of discrete pieces, but in terms of pattern and meaning, we have found a deep consistency in the earliest Christian literature concerning the character of Jesus as Messiah.


The conviction sometimes takes the form of a narrative epitome, an abbreviated form of the “story of Jesus” that is applied to the lives of believers. It expresses the meaning of Jesus’ ministry in terms of its ending: Jesus is the suffering servant whose death is a radical act of obedience toward God and an expression of loving care for his followers.


Both in the Gospels and in the epistolary literature, this “messianic pattern” is explicitly connected to an understanding of discipleship. To be a member of the messianic community is to live according to this “mind of Christ,” to express obedient faith in God by loving service to the neighbor.


When the witness of the New Testament is taken as a whole, a deep consistency can be detected beneath its surface diversity. The “real Jesus” is first of all the powerful, resurrected Lord whose transforming Spirit is active in the community. But following Jesus is not a matter of the sort of power that dominates others, nor of “already ruling” in the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 4:8). It is instead a matter of transformation according to the pattern of the Messiah. The “real Jesus” is therefore also the one who through the spirit replicates in the lives of believers faithful obedience to God and loving service to others. Everywhere in these writings the image of Jesus involves the tension filled paradox of death and resurrection, suffering and glory.





1. Gerald O’ Collins S. J., Christology A Biblical, Historical, And Systematic Study of Jesus, p. 62, (Oxford, 1995).


2. N. T. Wright, What St. Paul Really Said, pp180-181,(Eerdmans, 1997).


3, Ibid, pp 179. M.


4. F.F Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? , pp. 77-70 (Eerdmans, first published in 1943, 5th revised addition: 1997).


5 Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, p. 38-39 (ABRL DOUBLEDAY, 1997).


6. Ibid, p. 6.


7.  Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus, page 160 (Harper Collins, 1996).


© 2002 Vincent Sapone