|What did Paul know about Jesus?
Gregory C. Jenks
The formative period of earliest Christianity falls between
the execution of Jesus in the year 30 and the destruction of Jerusalem
by the Roman armies in 70. The New Testament would suggest that during
those forty years there was no more influential figure than Saul of
Tarsus, best known in later Christian tradition as Paul the Apostle.
But what did Paul actually know about Jesus? What part did such
information play in his personal understanding of the post-Easter Jesus?
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?
The "problem" of Paul�s knowledge of Jesus
One of the first problems to be faced concerns the definition of
Pauline material. Is our inquiry to focus on the historical Paul or the
canonical Paul? By canonical Paul, I mean the identikit picture of Paul
that is created when all the biblical traditions associated with Paul
are simply put together uncritically.
Of the twenty-seven books that finally came to comprise the New
Testament, 16 are attributed to Paul or his admirers:
The Pauline corpus includes the seven letters widely accepted
as authentic by New Testament scholars: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2
Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon.
Then there are the disputed letters of 2 Thessalonians,
Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus. Their claim to
authenticity is widely challenged in New Testament scholarship.
In addition, there is the Letter to the Hebrews, long ascribed
to Paul in popular tradition even though it is actually anonymous.
Finally, we have the two volumes of Luke-Acts. This influential
account of the life of Jesus and of the early church is usually
considered to have been written by someone wishing to affirm the
validity and the providential character of the Pauline mission.
It is possible that authentic Pauline material has been preserved in
some of the disputed letters. However, for our purposes it is better to
limit the discussion to the Pauline data that is earliest and has the
widest critical acceptance as genuine.
The question of Paul�s access to and influence upon the earliest
Jesus traditions has been debated for nearly two hundred years. Was Paul
drawing upon a primitive Jesus tradition inherited from the first
disciples in Jerusalem, or was he contributing to the formation of an
emerging Jesus legend that would later find literary expression in the
Much earlier effort has concentrated on seeking passages in Paul�s
writings that seem to cite, evoke or parallel material known from the
canonical gospels. After decades of effort the trenches of that academic
battlefront have been dug deeply and reinforced with impressive
scholarship, but there is something of an impasse.
Two critical flaws seem to bedevil many attempts at progress. Lists
of possible "echoes" of the Jesus tradition in Paul are common, ranging
from a few items to several hundred. But what one person recognizes as
an allusion to Jesus traditions known by Paul and his readers, another
sees simply a parallel phrase that need not presuppose any knowledge of
the Jesus traditions.
Further, in their enthusiasm at finding such parallels some people
fail to discriminate between the various stages of the gospel
traditions. For example, a clear parallel such as Jesus� words at the
Last Supper about the bread and wine (1 Corinthians 11.23-25 and Luke
21.19-20) raises as many questions as it resolves. Did Paul and Luke
have independent access to this tradition? Why is it different from the
versions in Mark and Matthew? Has the text in Luke been altered to make
it conform more closely with the formula in 1 Corinthians?
It is widely agreed that Paul hardly ever makes use of Jesus
traditions in his writings. Scholars generally concede that we can learn
almost nothing about Jesus� life or teachings from Paul.
If Paul were our only source we would know only that Jesus had been
born as a Jewish male, after an apparently natural conception. We would
know that his death by official execution was given great theological
significance by Paul, but we would not know any details about even that
We would know that Paul believed Jesus to have been experienced as
still alive after his execution, and that Paul expected Jesus to
re-appear as a divine being to punish the wicked and reward the
righteous, but still we would have no narrative descriptions of the
Paul and the early Jesus tradition
Rather than tour the trenches in search of some overlooked key to
the stalemate, we can take a fresh approach to this problem thanks to
the deliberations of the Jesus Seminar over several years.
The results of the Seminar�s work, published in The Five Gospels
and The Acts of Jesus, provide us with a critical database
for the Jesus tradition. The authentic Pauline data can be tested
against that benchmark.
The sayings and deeds that have been voted either Red or Pink have a
strong claim to authenticity. These will provide the control sample for
our examination of the Jesus tradition within the Pauline material. We
shall therefore be starting with data relating to Jesus before
considering information available from Paul.
In particular, I will use the anthology of materials that was
assembled into a Gospel of Jesus, according to the Jesus Seminar
by Robert Funk for the Spring 1998 Westar Institute meeting (now
published, in a slightly amended form, by Polebridge Press).
That collection of the Jesus data has a minimal narrative framework.
Funk�s Gospel relies upon a thematic presentation of the Jesus
tradition. As such, it is especially suitable for use in our analysis of
the Pauline material, as it would be expected that any Jesus material in
Paul would typically be thematic rather than sequential narrative.
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.
Preface: Birth, childhood and family of Jesus
The Jewishness of Jesus is assumed throughout Paul�s writings, and
his descent from Abraham is seen to have theological significance
(Galatians 3.14-16). However, Paul displays no interest in the childhood
of Jesus - or in any other period of Jesus� life.
Paul is aware of the name of Jesus (Yeshua), but typically
refers to Jesus as "Christ." He makes no reference to the significance
of the name or to any special divine instruction about the naming of the
Christ child. Even when affirming that every knee shall bow "at the name
of Jesus" (Philippians 2.10), Paul makes no use of the symbolism
embedded in that name.
Paul has only two passages that could be interpreted as a reference
to the birth of Jesus (Galatians 4.4; Romans 1.3). Both assume a normal
human conception and birth. The phrase "born of a woman" (Galatians 4.4)
is a well-attested idiom for "human being," occurring in Jewish
literature as diverse as Job (14.1; 15.14; 25.4), the Dead Sea Scrolls
from Qumran (IQS 11.20-21; 1QH 13.14; 18.12-13, 16) and Matthew (11.11).
In no way can it be read as excluding human paternity.
Similarly, the phrase "descended from David according to the flesh"
in Romans 1.3 is best understood as reflecting the tradition that a
messianic figure must have Davidic connections. It simply has no
relevance to the question of Jesus� paternity.
1. John the Baptist and Jesus
Paul never alludes to the traditions about John the Baptist. The
strange episode concerning Paul and the Baptist disciples in Acts 19.1-7
has no parallel in the Pauline writings. The ambivalence about John the
Baptist�s relationship with Jesus that is attested in the traditions
that found their way into the gospels has left no trace in Paul�s
2. Jesus announces the good news
While Paul is familiar with the expression the "good news" (euangelion)
it functions rather differently in his letters than in the earliest
Jesus traditions. For example, there is no use made of the kind of
tradition preserved in the Beatitudes. There is no trace that Jesus was
remembered as one who congratulates those who seem to have missed out on
life�s blessings, but denounces those who are enjoying the good things
of life now.
Further, in the way that Paul presents his gospel there is nothing
like the parables and aphorisms of Jesus about the present reality of
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.
In Paul, there is little sign of celebration here-and-now of the divine
reversal of human predicament.
It is possible that texts such as Philippians 4.13 ("I can do all
things in him who strengthens me") and Romans 8.28 ("in everything God
works for good with those who love him") provide a pale echo of the
trust ethic so integral to the good news Jesus proclaimed. However, it
is equally possible to see these simply as expressions of a pious wisdom
that relies on God�s blessing for those who are faithful.
3. Disciples and discipleship
It is clear that Paul acknowledges a group of people with some claim
to status within the earliest Christian communities based on their
relationship with Jesus prior to his execution. In particular, Paul
names James, Cephas (Peter) and John (Galatians 2.9), and refers in a
general way to "the twelve" among the witnesses to the resurrection (1
On the other hand, Paul has no use for such claims to status as his
dismissive words make clear:
And from those who were reputed to be something (what they were
makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) - those, I say,
who were of repute added nothing to me; but on the contrary � (those)
who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand
of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the
circumcised; only they would have us remember the poor, which very
thing I was eager to do. (Galatians 2.6-10 )
Those with high esteem in Paul�s eyes only included the males from
the original disciples.
There is no reference to the many women who were among Jesus�
disciples. No mention of Mary Magdalene. No mention of Mary, the mother
of Jesus. In addition, Paul tends to replace Jesus� calls for personal
discipleship with the requirement to "have faith" in Christ (Galatians
2.16) or in God (Romans 1.5), and to "wait for his Son from heaven" (1
Thessalonians 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
The earliest traditions describe 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. There
are only three occasions that "the Lord" is invoked by Paul as the
authority for some 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.
Not surprisingly then, Paul�s writings do not draw upon any of the
classic parables and aphorisms of Jesus. Even though these seem to be
have been characteristic and distinctive aspects of Jesus� activity as a
teacher, they have left no trace in the Pauline tradition of the New
5. Demons by the finger of God
Paul makes no use of the tradition of Jesus as a healer and
exorcist. This would appear to be due to his consistent focus on the
post-Easter Jesus, understood as Christ, Lord, and Son. It is not that
Paul would have regarded such actions as improbable, they simply were
irrelevant to the portrait of Jesus that he worked with.
6. Death of John the Baptist
We have already noted that Paul seems unaware of the part played by
John the Baptist in the life of Jesus. It is therefore not surprising to
find that Paul does not mention the high regard in which Jesus seems to
have held John, nor the critical influence of John�s arrest in
stimulating Jesus� own public activity.
7. Love & forgiveness
Unconditional generosity to others, including love of one�s enemies
may be one authentic Jesus tradition that has survived in Paul�s
writings. While Paul�s response to criticism and opposition often seems
to fall rather short of unconditional generosity, he does aspire to "be
all things to all persons" (1 Corinthians 9.22) rather than insist on
his rights. And Paul does exhort the Roman Christians to bless those who
persecute them, rather than respond in kind (Romans 12.14).
8. Jesus at the table
The early traditions preserve the memory of Jesus as one who shared
table fellowship with a diverse circle of people, and for whom the
shared table was a powerful symbol of God�s domain here and now. It is
of interest, then, to note that Paul describes his own personal argument
with Peter over just such an issue (Galatians 2.11-14).
In this context, Paul�s rebuke of the Corinthians for their
diminishment of the Supper of the Lord into an occasion that reaffirmed
social distinctions is especially significant (1 Corinthians 11.17-22).
Is it possible that Paul�s concern for radically inclusive table rules
reflects the influence of Jesus� own practice within the early church?
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 Romans 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.
Jesus is remembered in the gospel tradition as having acquired a
reputation as a "party animal." The extant form of the argument in Luke
7.31-35 was voted grey by the Seminar, but a case can be made that it
preserves an authentic note from the life of Jesus. What of Paul�s
treatment of extravagant celebration as an appropriate response to the
presence of God�s domain?
Paul does concede that "all things are lawful" (1 Corinthians 10.23)
"but," he immediately adds, "not all things are helpful." Indeed, the
general tenor of Paul�s advice to the earnest Christian is to promote
sexual abstinence, sobriety of public conduct, and a deference to the
tender consciences of others. Paul sounds more like the first puritan
than a disciple of Jesus.
10. Sabbath observance
Jesus was known as someone who readily subordinated the observance
of Sabbath to the instinctive needs of the human person: whether that be
hunger, or sickness (Mark 2.23-3 .5).
Paul does not directly address such issues, but it would seem that he
typically continued the observance of the Sabbath - perhaps coupling it
with the gathering of the Christian assembly on the first day of week (1
Corinthians 16.2). This would appear to be consistent with his continued
observance of other Jewish rituals (see �13 below.)
11. Kinship in the kingdom
This thread from the Jesus database reminds us that Jesus
experienced estrangement from his biological family on account of his
vocation (Mark 3.20-35; Thomas 99.1-3). It seems that Jesus subordinated
natural kinship ties to the new relationships shared with disciples and
companions (Luke 14.25-27).
In keeping with his less celebratory demeanor, Paul relativizes human
relationships such as marriage (1 Corinthians 7.26-27). However, this is
because of the nearness of the End, and not because they are displaced
by more meaningful relationships within the community.
To his credit, Paul seems to have practised what he preached and
remained single (1 Corinthians 7.8), even though he acknowledged that
others acted differently (1 Corinthians 9.5).
12. In parables
Paul is silent on this core memory concerning the historical Jesus.
There is no hint of the tradition that Jesus taught in parables, even
though this seems to have been especially characteristic of Jesus�
ministry as a teacher. None of the classic parables (e.g. the Samaritan,
the Prodigal, the Shrewd Manager or the Corrupt Judge) seem to have left
any mark on Paul�s tradition. And Paul never uses the genre of parable
13. Public & private piety
As hinted earlier, Paul is seen to observe traditional Jewish piety
more scrupulously than Jesus. Not only does Paul invoke his apostolic
privations (2 Corinthians 11.28) and personal spiritual disciplines (1
Corinthians 10.4-27), he also exhorts people to imitate his behavior
(Philippians 3.17). This is rather different from Jesus� instruction
that acts of charity are not to be publicized (Matthew 6.3) and personal
devotions are not to be paraded before others (Matthew 6.6).
Paul�s use of "competitive giving" (2 Corinthians 9.1-5) to ensure
that the Christians of Macedonia contribute at least as much as those in
Achaia also seems blissfully untouched by Jesus� emphasis on simple
trust and uncomplicated generosity.
Finally, the Lord�s Prayer would appear to have left no trace in the
tradition that Paul knew. This tends to reinforce the conclusion that
Paul�s own practice of public piety, and even his understanding of
prayer, was informed by sources other than the Jesus tradition.
14. Jesus & purity
Purity rules constituted one of the points where Jesus was in
conflict with his Jewish tradition (Mark 7.1-16). Paul has a certain
ambivalence here. He affirms in principle that food rules make no
difference at all to a person�s relationship with God (1 Corinthians
8.8; Romans 14.20). Yet he also argues that rules about food, like
ritual and calender requirements, should not be ignored if doing so
would cause any spiritual harm to another Christian (Romans 14.1-23).
Paul�s position in these matters seems better explained as a
compromise of his views in the interests of harmony within a more
conservative environment, rather than as the direct legacy of the
teachings of Jesus. Certainly Paul never cites Jesus even though the
topic had such significance within early Christianity that he had to
deal with it in both 1 Corinthians and Romans.
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). Given the occasional nature and epistolary form of Paul�s
writings, descriptions of such events would not be expected.
But there is never a hint in Paul that Jesus may have been remembered
as a miracle worker, even though Paul does refer to the "power of signs
and wonders" that were characteristic of his own ministry in various
places (Romans 15.19). This more positive evaluation of signs and
portents seems consistent with a later stage of the Jesus tradition, as
well as being a typical element in traditional apocalyptic lore.
16. Five cures
The tradition of Jesus as a healer (Mark 1.32-34) is a variant of
the preceding item. This also plays no part in the Pauline tradition.
17. Success, wealth and God�s domain
Jesus demonstrated a certain detachment from success and status
(Mark 10.1), and described wealth as a major hurdle for those seeking a
share in God�s domain (Matthew 19.23-24). Attachment to material success
is precluded by proper single-minded devotion to God (Luke 16.13). And,
in any case, human mortality makes such achievements ephemeral (Thomas
63.14; Luke 17.33).
Paul seems somewhat confused on these issues. On the one hand, he
valued his status as an apostle in the early Christian communities, and
would allow no one to gainsay him (1 Corinthians 9.1-2; 2 Corinthians
10.7-11:6). Still, he could acknowledge that few of the rich and
influential were to be found among the faithful (1 Corinthians 1.26-31).
And Paul could willingly "lose his own life" for the sake of the gospel
in order to find life in Christ (Galatians 2.20; Philippians 3.8-11).
In the earliest Jesus tradition, generous hospitality is a hallmark
of God�s domain (Luke 11.8). Like God, the disciple was to be generous
(Matthew 5.42). And those active in ministry were to presume upon the
hospitality of others (Luke 10.5,7).
Paul lists generosity to needy Christians and the practice of
hospitality as key virtues of the life of faith (Romans 12.13). He
assumed hospitality for his own travels, and when sending his
representatives to various congregations. Even if he waived his right to
personal remuneration (1 Corinthians 9.15), Paul still affirmed the
principle that Christian workers should be supported by the faithful,
even citing a command of "the Lord" to that effect (1 Corinthians 9.14).
19. Sight & light
Under this category, Funk�s collection draws together a number of
sayings that draw on images of new sight (Mark 10.46-52), prominent
cities (Matthew 5.14-15), salt with all its zing (Mark 9.50), grapes not
growing on thistles (Matthew 7.16) and a fig tree without figs (Luke
13.6-9). There is nothing in the writings of Paul that reflects this
characteristic material in the earliest Jesus tradition.
20. In Jerusalem
Paul has nothing that alludes to Jesus� struggle with the Jerusalem
authorities (Mark 11.15,17; Thomas 10.1-3). There is no hint of Jesus�
critique of the Temple, nor his radical threat to destroy the whole
system of religious brokerage that was centered upon it. Indeed, Paul�s
views on submission to the civil authorities (Romans 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
It is only when we come to the passion that we find a significant
drawing upon the Jesus tradition in the writings of Paul. The primary
text is the account of the institution of the Lord�s Supper (1
Corinthians 11.23-26), but there are significant references to the death
of Jesus elsewhere in Paul (1 Thessalonians 2.14-16; 1 Corinthians
1.18-25; 2 Corinthians 13.4a; Philippians 2.8; Romans 5.6-11).
Here we have come to that aspect of the Jesus tradition that had real
importance to Paul. Even so, we do not get a detailed exposition of the
circumstances of Jesus� death or of its theological significance.
From the various passages we can be sure that Paul included the
following elements in his understanding of the passion: betrayal to and
arrest by the Jewish religious leadership the previous night; the Roman
authorities executed Jesus by crucifixion; he was buried.
In addition, for Paul, this ghastly event had cosmic significance as
an action that provided (in fulfillment of the Scriptures) a sacrificial
death through which sins could be forgiven and reconciliation achieved
between the estranged elements of the universe.
Epilogue: Pillars & Pioneers
The earliest Jesus tradition included accounts of Jesus appearing to
a number of his closest followers. As noted in The Acts of Jesus,
evidence for the appearances of the risen Jesus occurs in five forms:
lists, simple reports, concise stories, developed stories and legends.
The more developed traditions, and especially those with legendary
elements, are judged to be later than the simpler forms of the
Paul is closer to the early appearance traditions. He provides the
earliest extant list of appearances (1 Corinthians 15.4). More than once
Paul refers to his own experience of the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians
15.8; Galatians 1.12,16) in the form of simple reports. There is no
mention of an empty tomb in Paul.
Unlike Mark, who seems to have created the empty tomb tradition,
Paul�s descriptions of the risen Jesus lack any narrative or legendary
Typical Pauline references to the resurrection are as follows: "the
last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15.45), "but (he)
lives by the power of God" (2 Corinthians 13.4), "designated Son of God
in power according to the spirit of holiness by his resurrection from
the dead" (Romans 1.4), "wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised
from the dead" (1 Thessalonians 1.10) and "God has highly exalted him"
Paul, Jesus and contemporary Christians
We began with three questions relating to Paul�s possible knowledge
of Jesus. First, we wanted to identify what Paul may actually have known
It would seem that Paul had little access to the earliest Jesus
traditions. Even if Paul knew of the kind of material that has found a
place in the Jesus Seminar database, it has rarely influenced his
surviving public discourse. Neither the content nor the form of the
earliest Jesus tradition seems to have left much of a trace in Paul�s
This finding confirms the scholarly consensus that Paul made little
use of Jesus traditions in his writings. Scholars generally concede that
we can learn almost nothing about Jesus� life or teachings from Paul.
If Paul were our only source we would know that Jesus had been born
as a Jewish male - after an apparently natural conception. We would know
that his death by official execution was given great theological
significance by Paul - but we would not have any description of the
events leading to his death. We would know that Paul believed Jesus to
have been experienced as still alive after his execution, but we would
have no narrative accounts of the Easter tradition.
A second question concerned the part such information might have
played in Paul�s own understanding of the post-Easter Jesus?
We have seen that Paul�s theological and religious focus was more on
the exalted Lord who was expected to return from heaven in the near
future as the Christ. The one who had pointed people to God�s
rejuvenating presence in their daily experience had become (in Paul�s
version of the gospel) the divine agent through whom the power of God
could and would be experienced upon his re-appearance.
Paul appears to have been captured by his religious experience of the
living Jesus. This Christ became, for Paul, the focal point for the
presence and action of God (2 Corinthians 5.19). The brilliance of that
conviction may have over-exposed the historical figure of the man of
Nazareth. In doing so, there was little chance that the surviving
traditions from Jesus could critique the mystical Christ of Paul�s rich
Finally, we indicated an interest in the broader question of how
information about the pre- Easter Jesus may be relevant to contemporary
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.
Christians find that their faith community enables them to name and
engage with the sacred within a living Jesus tradition. That tradition
provides the lexicon of faith from which the words are drawn to make
sense of life as an encounter with God-in-Christ. Paul played a seminal
role in developing the canonical forms of that lexicon.
Like Paul, contemporary Christians stand on this side of Calvary.
Unlike the pre-Easter Jesus, they know what happened in Jerusalem in the
year 30 - and also the traditions of his continuing influence within the
community formed in his name. One inevitable result is that the good
news now includes Jesus himself as part of the message, and not simply
its first messenger.
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
� Gregory C Jenks