Paul’s Interest in and Knowledge of the Historical Jesus 

How interested was the Apostle Paul in the historical Jesus? We believe that he was very interested; as scholar Donald Hagner rightly asks,

“To the question “Was Paul interested in Jesus the Galilean Jew?” one is tempted to respond, “How could he not have been?” How could Paul not have been more than mildly curious about the earthly existence, the words and deeds, of the risen one whom he now recognized and proclaimed as Lord?” (1)

Although we know that Paul did not interact with Jesus personally and, as far as we know, he did not hear him teach, we can confidently hold that he learned much about the words and deeds of Jesus. In Galatians 1:18, an epistle composed by Paul himself, we learn that he stayed with Peter in Jerusalem for fifteen days. There he also met James, a pillar in the Church and the brother of Jesus. According to Hagner,

“The translation of the verb historēsai in Galatians 1:18 as “to visit” does not bring out its true meaning. More precisely it means “to inquire into or about a thing [or person]” and hence in Galatians 1:18 to “visit a person for the purpose of inquiry.” Paul had not come to Jerusalem for a holiday; he was there to obtain information—almost certainly about what Jesus said and did, the meaning of what had happened, but also probably about the birth and mission of the church” (2).

It is most likely that Paul interviewed Peter to obtain a firsthand account of the story of Jesus. Moreover, Paul had access to the oral and historical tradition in which the sayings and deeds of Jesus were passed down and made available in the churches. This is demonstrated by there being many allusions to the historical Jesus in Paul’s letters. It was not at all Paul’s intent to write a biography of Jesus, but we do find important details: Jesus was a man; had brothers; had twelve disciples; was born under the law; was descended from Abraham and David; engaged in ministry to the Jews; engaged in ethical teaching; was poor, gentle, and meek; had a last supper with his disciples before his crucifixion; was crucified; and was buried.

Paul also likely quotes the words of Jesus on divorce (1 Cor. 7:10-11; cf. Mark 10:9–12) and on preachers earning a living from the gospel (1 Cor. 9:14; cf. Luke 10:7). Some have suggested there are also, although less probable, quotes of Jesus found in 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17 (cf. Matt. 24:30–31) and 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 (cf. Mark 9:31; 10:33; 14:18, 21), and “echoes” in 1 Thessalonians 5:1–7 (cf. Matt. 24:43), Romans 14:14 (cf. Mark 7:15), Romans 12-14, and 1 Thessalonians 4-5 (3).

Taken together, these provide sufficient attestation to the historical Jesus by Paul when he did not have the end goal of focusing on Jesus as a teacher. Instead, Paul’s focus was on Jesus as a divine redeemer who died and was resurrected from the dead for the salvation of the world.

But should Paul have provided us with more specifics regarding the sayings and deeds of Jesus? As we just noted, Paul’s intent was not to provide a biographical gospel on the historical Jesus. His interests were placed elsewhere such as on Jesus as a divine redeemer and various church issues and questions. So the answer to that question is no. As Hagner reflects: “Paul, after all, writes not Gospels but epistles.” Despite that, we do receive over a dozen allusions to the Earthly Jesus who walked first-century Palestine.

References

  1. Hagner, Donald. 2012. The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Baker Books. p. 606.
  2. Hagner, Donald. 2012. Ibid. p. 607.
  3. Wenham, David. 1985. “Paul’s Use of the Jesus Tradition.” In Gospel Perspectives, edited by David Wenham, 7-37. Sheffield: JSOT Press; Kim, Seyoon. 1993. “Jesus, Sayings of.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by G. F. Hawthorne, R. P. Martin, and D. G. Reid, 474-492. Downers Grove. p. 490.

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