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Here is the first response in an ongoing conversation between an atheist (ex-evangelical, I believe) and a Christian theologian in training. The first and second guest posts (find them here and here) from Ed Atkinson of Wycombe Skeptics in the Pub, and occasional atheist appearer on Unbelievable on Premier Christian Radio in the UK, hosted by Justin Brierley, set the scene. Now, John Nelson, our Christian interlocutor, responds.

Please be warm in welcoming John here; even though you may vehemently disagree with claims, as may be, please extend courtesy and politeness. Let’s aim for cordial discourse, as ever. It’s not about encamping in ideology but challenging ourselves and what we believe so that our end conclusions are as robust as they possibly can be. Big thanks to John for this conversation.

Paul and the Historical Jesus: Continuing the Conversation

I want to thank Jonathan for the opportunity to continue my discussion with Ed Atkinson on ‘Paul and the Historical Jesus.’ (For those new to the debate, please find my initial three posts here, and Ed’s two response posts here.) My friend Ed and I are exploring the extent of the apostle Paul’s interest in and knowledge about the historical Jesus. Whilst we broadly agree that there is very little explicit reference to the historical Jesus in Paul, we disagree on how best to explain the data. For Ed, the paucity of data is best explained by the fact that Paul (and other early Jesus-people) knew little about the historical Jesus, and what interest Paul did have was ‘inferior’ to his personal experience of the risen Lord. My own view, by contrast, is that Paul probably knew more about Jesus than his letters betray. For a number of reasons, I am concerned that it is an argument from silence to reconstruct Paul’s knowledge and interest in Jesus from his epistles. In this post, I hope to answer some of Ed’s key objections to my previous contentions, clarify some of my previous points, and proffer some further arguments.

The Jewish Law and Greek Poets: Reinforcing the Silence?

One of the key planks in Ed’s argument is that we would expect Paul to cite Jesus more frequently than he does. This expectation is reinforced by the fact that Paul quotes Greek poetry (once), and the scriptures (over 180 times). He points to Romans 12:17 as an example of a place where Paul uses two passages from the Torah to substantiate his teaching, as opposed to using Jesus’ teaching itself (e.g. Sermon on the Mount material). This is apparently surprising, for “It is hard to imagine a preacher today teaching on not taking revenge by quoting these passages rather than Jesus.” I agree here with Ed. A Christian preacher would likely use Jesus’ words. The problem, of course, is that Paul was not a Christian preacher. Paul was a Jewish Pharisee,  someone trained in quoting and using and discussing the scriptures. This scripture was God’s word, the command of which Paul describes as ‘holy, just and good.’ It was the foundational document for Israel, and there was nothing more valuable than its incontrovenable words. Thus, as Paul wrestled with the unique questions and controversies that arose in his churches – and, indeed, as he comes to terms with the Christ event – it was natural for him to cite the scriptures abundantly in his discourse. To suggest that Paul should have instead used Jesus’ “better” teaching may seem natural to an ex-Protestant, but would have been foreign to Paul’s Jewish outlook.

Outside of the Jewish law, the only other reference I have found ‘cited’ by the apostle Paul is the Greek poet Menander, in 1 Corinthians 15:33 (“Bad company corrupts good morals”). But the source is not ‘quoted, and the piece of wisdom is simply included for rhetorical effect. It adds little to the case that we would expect more from Jesus. Words from Jesus, traditions about Jesus, and allusions to what may be Jesus’ teaching, remain in fact the primary well of information in Paul’s letters after the scriptures.

Paul’s Divine Revelation in Galatians

Ed considers my view rendered “problematic” by Paul’s comments in Galatians, where Paul describes how he received his gospel from “no man”, but directly from the Lord. Even if this does not exclude Paul receiving additional information about Jesus, Ed thinks it shows that Paul would regard such information as ‘inferior.’ To frame Paul’s comments, and to explain how I may see it differently, I wish to make four points.

Firstly, it is important to consider that even prior to Paul’s calling, Paul had a closer relationship to the burgeoning Jesus-movement than most of his contemporaries. In Galatians, he explains how he was persecuting the Church (a fact also known from Acts). This being the case, it would be very surprising if Paul did not have some knowledge regarding the movement he set out to destroy. I take the reasonable assumption that the ‘pre-Christian’ Paul did have some knowledge of Christianity, and changed his mind (‘repented’) regarding its message following a divine encounter.

Secondly, it is intriguing that whilst Paul insists that he received his gospel from ‘no man’, he nevertheless considered it important to check with Jesus’ own disciples to see whether he had been running ‘in vain’. This hardly supports the portrait of Paul as an idiosyncratic mystic with little interest in the historical Jesus. Paul knew followers of the Way, and returned to them as the source of the Jesus movement to confirm his calling. This is not conducive to the idea that Paul regards his message as ‘superior’ to the message preached by those who were companions of Jesus during his earthly ministry.

Thirdly, Galatians is unique in stressing the gospel as something that uniquely belongs to the apostle Paul. Elsewhere, Paul describes it otherwise. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15 he uses the phrase ‘the gospel’ to refer to a list of historical facts about Jesus that he has received from others as traditional material. He can also write of the gospel as ‘our gospel’ (1 Thess 1:5; 2 Cor 4:3) – something that he shares with others. The fact that Paul speaks so emphatically in Galatians as the ‘gospel’ as his own, revealed directly from the Lord, should therefore raise the question of why he is speaking in this way. What is the sense of ‘gospel’ that he is stressing in Galatians?

My fourth point is that to understand what Paul means by ‘the gospel’ in Galatians, we must understand his overall concerns with the Galatian church. From the beginning of the letter, Paul is clearly upset to hear that the Galatians are turning to another so-called ‘gospel’, according to which Gentile Christ-followers would become Jews (people under the law) to be counted righteous. This gives us a strong suggestion as to the distinctive nature of Paul’s message; namely, that his gospel is one that is inclusive of Gentiles as Gentiles. As a reading of the letter reveals, this motif of Paul’s gospel as a gospel to Gentiles permeates Galatians. I consider it likely, then, that ‘the gospel’ Paul describes here (as divinely revealed by the Lord) is specifically a message of salvation to the Gentiles as Gentiles. Yes, it is a unique revelation to Paul from the risen Christ, but it does not contravene, contradict, or subtract from what else Paul knew regarding the historical Jesus from natural means; nor does it suggest that all of Paul’s knowledge about Jesus came via divine revelation. On the contrary, if what I have suggested here is correct, it was specifically the element of Gentile inclusion which was peculiar to Paul.

Early Christian Letters and the Jesus Movement

In a previous post, I pointed out that Paul’s epistles are not unique in containing a paucity of data regarding the historical Jesus. Letters generally considered to be written in the second-generation of Christians (i.e. the time when the gospels were being penned), also do not convey teachings of/stories about the historical Jesus. Ed thinks this exacerbates the problem, for it not only suggests that Paul, but other leaders also lacked information about Jesus. Far from it! We know that there was narrative material and biographical content regarding Jesus’ life that was circulating in early Christian communities. The consistent pattern, however, is for this material to appear in writings of a more historiographical nature (e.g. the gospels), or collections of sayings (Q, and Thomas), not in the early epistolary literature (although some of it is cited there as well).

Ed’s contention strikes me as similar to the common (but unfounded) assumption that we can reconstruct the entire beliefs of a Christian community through reading a specific text associated with said-community. The most common example of this relates to the so-called Q source. It is supposed that Q gives us a window into an early Christian community which does not believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus (events which it does not relate). For this type of argument to work, we would have to assume that Christianity was a closed-network of isolated communities, with little relationship to one another; we would have to assume that the sum of the so-called ‘Q community’ is represented by the Q text. The evidence of early Christian literature, however, suggests the opposite. Far from being isolated or insular, the movement was open and connected. Literature about Jesus was passed around freely (consider the synoptic problem!), and early Christian leaders and evangelists travelled and networked widely. It is this fact, amongst others, which makes me reluctant to see Paul’s epistles as a comprehensive representation of his knowledge regarding the historical Jesus.

Allusions and Quotations in Early Christian Epistles

I would like to finish this post by briefly returning to the sources, and answering Ed’s call for possible allusions to Jesus’ teaching in Paul and elsewhere. Theissen and Mertz, in their statutory guide to the Historical Jesus, state (as a matter of fact) that in 1 Corinthians 1-4 “numerous possible allusions can be found to wisdom logia of Jesus which have parallels in Q, Mark and the Gospel of Thomas” (p.55). They go on to state on the same page that “In the Letter of James and 1 Peter numerous parenthetical traditions can be indicated which belong to the preaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.” James Dunn (and others) have documented such parallels; I will repeat Dunn’s list of ‘the most striking’ allusions to Jesus’ teaching in Paul: Rom 1:16/Mk 8:38/Lk 9.26; Rom 2:1/14.10/Lk 6:37/Mt 7:1-2; Rom 8:15-17/Gal 4:4-6/Abba; Rom 12:14/Lk 6:27-28/Mt 5:44; Rom 12:17/1 Thess 5:15/Mt 5:39/Lk 6:29; Rom 12:18/Mk 9.50; Rom 13:7/ Mark 12:17 pars; Rom 13:9/Mk 12:31 pars; Rom 14:13/Mk 9:42 pars; Rom 14:14/Mk 7:15; Rom 14:17/kingdom of God; 1 Cor 2:7/Mt 13:35; 1 Cor 13:2/Mt 17:20; 1 Thess 5:2,4/Mt 24:43/Lk 12:39; 1 Thess 5:13/Mk 9:50.

What interests Dunn is that these pithy allusions to Jesus’ teaching in Paul are also not ‘quoted’ in James and 1 Peter. He suggests, then, that it was possible for Paul (and other early Christians) to take up and repeat the teaching of Jesus without quoting it (as one would with the text of the Hebrew scriptures). What we find in the epistles is simply one way that the Jesus-tradition has been taken up, remembered, articulated, and employed (recall, once again, that the epistles are not historiographical texts, nor Paul’s sermons, nor gospel commentaries)! The fact that Paul can casually allude to authentic Jesus-tradition also gives point to the fact that Christian communities were already aware of such a tradition. This is a perfectly plausible interpretation of the data, given that Jesus-tradition was probably passed on to such communities from their foundation.

Final Remarks

In this post, I have attempted to respond to Ed in a few ways. Firstly, I have elucidated the differences for Paul between the Jewish scriptures and Jesus tradition, which in my view weakens Ed’s argument from silence; secondly, I have attempted a very brief overview of why I do not agree that Paul’s letter to the Galatians is “problematic,” as Ed sees it; thirdly, I have pointed to the free nature of the Jesus movement and pattern of the early Christian epistles as further evidence that we would not expect to find a great deal of (known) Jesus tradition in the epistles; and finally, I have suggested that we do find a number of allusions to Jesus’ teaching in the epistles of Paul. On the whole, this reinforces the view that Paul knew more about and was more actively interested in the historical Jesus than a ‘prima facie’ reading of the sources might suggest.

Ed, over to you! I look forward to your responses.


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...