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Here is a guest post from Ed Atkinson of Wycombe Skeptics in the Pub, and occasional appearer on Unbelievable on Premier Christian Radio in the UK, hosted by Justin Brierley. I will host a dialogue, here for Ed, between Ed and a Christian called John Nelson. Join in the debate! Read a previous piece by Ed here at ATP, on his podcast project.

Paul and the Historical Jesus

A striking aspect of the New Testament is the way the letters attributed to the apostle Paul have so little material in them about the historical figure of Jesus and his teaching. Paul’s letters contain teachings largely from his own thinking or derived from the Old Testament. Paul speaks of ‘Christ’ a lot, but this is usually theology, especially on what Jesus’ crucifixion implies.  Two fairly random examples:

1 Corinthians 3v23 “you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”

Colossians 1v22 “he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight”

It is not merely that there is little regarding Jesus’ teachings and deeds in Paul’s epistles, it is that Paul uses quotes and references very frequently , he does so of the Old Testament (over 180 times I am told), of creeds/hymns (about 7) and even Roman poets (2). So we would expect a large volume of quotes from Jesus’ teachings and deeds as well. But it is pretty meagre with just one actual quote and a few references (more on this below). When Paul wants to make a point he rarely draws on the body of information that he and his readers have on the life of Jesus, he nearly always goes elsewhere.

“Do not repay evil for evil”- a great example

A good case in point is Paul’s letter to the Romans chapter 12 where he says from verse 17: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge,…… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  This is just the kind of thing Jesus taught on, with memorable quotes like “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles”, “turn to them the other cheek”, “blessed are the peacemakers” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.  If Paul and his audience were familiar with this material from the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ teachings carried authority he would surely have used it. Paul could also have mentioned Jesus’ exemplary behaviour at his arrest, flogging, trial and crucifixion.

Instead, Paul uses two quotes from the Old Testament (Deut. 32:35 “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” and Prov. 25:21,22 “If your enemy is hungry, feed him….”). They do the job of backing up Paul’s points, you will have to assess whether it is better than Jesus’ material. I think not. It is hard to imagine a preacher today teaching on not taking revenge by quoting these passages rather than Jesus.

An obvious conclusion to draw from this is that Paul was either ignorant of the life of Jesus and his teachings, or that these matters did not interest him.  The option that Paul knew of Jesus’ teachings but his audiences did not seems implausible as Paul would want to teach them Jesus’ words. That Paul’s audience knew Jesus’ life and teachings is usually given as a reason for why Paul gives so little information: they didn’t need it.

Paul’s direct revelation

A further problem is that Paul says how he gets his core message, his ‘gospel’, from direct revelation from Jesus in heaven (they never met on earth). He says it in his letter to the Galatians chapter 1 from verse 11: “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”  This does not exclude Paul getting additional material on Jesus by being told by those who knew Jesus, but it does seem to suggest that for Paul that is inferior.  Authors such as Richard Carrier make a lot from this and eventually conclude that a historical character Jesus may well not have existed at all. They have not made much progress with mainstream scholarship and I am both inclined to follow the consensus and am persuaded by the responses to Carrier.

Let’s discuss

It is possible that Christian attempts to integrate Paul and the historical Jesus are valid and this is very much an area of debate about which I am eager to learn. Hence I was delighted when a Christian friend of mine, John Nelson, who is considerably more knowledgeable than me in New Testament studies, started blogging on the issue. John has studied at Nottingham and will continue at Oxford University this autumn.

Jonathan, here, has kindly allowed me to use this platform to write a reply

Here I will respond to what my friend John has blogged in his first blog and the start of the second. John explains the issue from his perspective very helpfully and I recommend reading the introductions to both the first two blogs for that reason if no other. The first material I want to discuss is point 1 of his six points in the second blog because it gives the information that we can tell Paul did know about Jesus. Of course, Paul may have known more, and he probably did. He just didn’t happen to mention it in his surviving material.

So what did Paul know of Jesus?

John says the list of details about Jesus which can be ascertained from Paul can be stretched to 15 items. John gives 8 of them and I assume he picked the most notable. I would say that if this is the best 8, the remaining 7 must be pretty paltry. Here’s the 8:

  1. Jesus’ descent from Abraham and David,
  2. his birth ‘of a woman’,
  3. his life of poverty,
  4. his birth and life under the law,
  5. his sibling called James,
  6. his humble lifestyle,
  7. his memorial meal on the night of his betrayal, and
  8. other facts regarding his death, burial, and resurrection (maybe the remaining 7 are in here).

My immediate response is to eliminate as useless for our question half of the 8: 1 is theologising and is not about Jesus as a historical figure. The problems with the genealogies in the gospels show this. Some points under 8 below also apply. 2 & 4 are not things Paul would need to find out about Jesus given that he was a human and a Jew. 5 is because he met James so does not undermine the idea that Paul was disinterested in Jesus as a historical figure.

We are left with 3 & 6 which are the same thing, and 7 & 8 which are what Paul is interested in – Jesus’ death for sins and raising. The argument that needs making is that Paul is interested in Jesus more widely that his seemingly single-track agenda that I outlined right at the beginning of this blog. So all we have left of use in the list of 15 is that Jesus was poor and humble in lifestyle. Someone’s social standing is about the minimum you could know about someone.  It is remarkable in all his Christian writings that is all we can say that Paul knew about the Jesus of history beyond his narrow ‘Christ died for sins and rose again’ agenda

Moving on to what we can tell that Paul knew of Jesus’ teachings, John mentions three explicit citings. I agree here, but for the third we still need to be clear that Paul is getting this info from the church and not from his direct line to Jesus in heaven. It is Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, 1Cor11v23-26, and Paul’s wording here “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you:” seems similar to that in Gal 1 (quoted earlier) which was direct from Jesus in heaven.  We can’t rule out that Paul influenced the gospels in this one case. It is the only case where we have Paul quoting Jesus’ actual words.

Regarding a fourth case, from 1 Thessalonians 4v15-17, John is more reticent but I see obvious and specific overlap between Paul’s reporting of Jesus’ words and them as given in Matthew 24 v30-31. I accept it.

John also mentions how scholars have seen further allusions to Jesus’ teachings in Paul. If this is convincing it would be good to see some examples.

Meals with outcasts?

Moving now to John’s first blog where he sets out a connection between Jesus and Paul that I had not heard about previously.  Both Jesus and Paul were keen to share meals with people considered outsiders by upstanding Jews such as ‘immoral’ women or the poor. We see this frequently in the gospels and for Paul in his attitude to Eucharist meals in Corinth. It is a good point and if it holds would add another item to our short list of what we know Paul knew of Jesus.

However, I still would want to know a bit more before adding it to the list. I would want to see how we know that Jesus himself started the tradition of meals with outsiders. It could potentially be an influence from 1stC Judaism or Greek culture that (1) produced those accounts in the gospels and (2) was the driving force for Paul’s attitude to the in-group fractional nature of Corinthian Eucharist. (2) is easy to see, and for (1) we can imagine a charismatic and attractive figure like Jesus having the good qualities of his day being imposed on his legacy.

Another concern is that Paul does not refer to Jesus’ inclusion of outsiders when he chastises the Corinthians. If everyone knew such good behaviour was Christ-like it would be easy for Paul to throw in another mention of ‘imitate Christ’ as he did earlier in another context.

Something else to ask is why Peter, who knew Jesus intimately, was so scathingly criticised by Paul for dithering regarding sharing meals with Gentiles (Gal 2:11-13). Paul said to the Corinthians, who must have been a mix of Jews and Gentiles, “you should all eat together” (ch11v33). Also, Jesus was good about non-Jews like the Roman centurion, the Samaritan women and (to a degree) the Syro-Phoenician woman. We can’t imagine the Jesus of the gospels refusing to share meals with Gentiles.  But the closest link between Jesus and Paul, Peter who spent time with both, dithered on eating meals with Gentiles. Something doesn’t quite hang together here.

I am inclined to agree with John that it is likely that Jesus did set up the ethos of being inclusive at meals and this has filtered through to Paul. But I need more before using it as a clear data point regarding Paul’s knowledge about Jesus.


I have set up the problem here as I see it: why did Paul seem to have interest in or knowledge of Jesus almost entirely in this narrow ‘Christ died for sins’ way and not more widely as a teacher and figure? If Jesus was believed to be the Son of God on earth, if not part of the Godhead itself, this is astounding.  Paul’s direct claim that he got his gospel about Jesus direct from revelation from heaven, rather than the teachings of Jesus passed on to the church, only makes this worse.

I am keen to get answers from my friend John Nelson and have referred to his helpful blogs – initially to discuss what data we have to show Paul’s wider knowledge of the historical Jesus. I have come up with meagre pickings:

  1. Three references to Jesus’ teachings
  2. One quote from Jesus that seems a bit dubious
  3. Paul’s knowledge that Jesus was poor and humble in lifestyle
  4. A possible connection regarding sharing meals with shunned people

Remember this is in the context of Paul’s love for quoting and alluding to authoritative sources in his letters, about 200 in all.

In my next blog here I’ll look at the reasons John suggests for this situation which are given in the rest of his second blog. Thanks John, it is a pleasure to dialogue with you.


John’s first blog is here:


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,...