This article explores what we can know about the historical Jesus from our earliest New Testament writer, the Apostle Paul. What can Paul tell us about the events in Jesus’ life and of his teachings? Does he tell us anything? We attempt to provide some insight into these questions.
Paul as a Writer
We must begin by acknowledging that Paul never met Jesus personally. Paul claims to have had supernatural and visionary encounters of Jesus (2 Cor. 12, see also Acts 22:6-13), notably after Jesus had already died by crucifixion. But Paul did not meet Jesus person-to-person. But as I will argue, there is strong evidence in Paul’s authentic letters demonstrating that he knew much about the ministry and important events in the life of the historical Jesus.
Another fact we must note is that Paul was not a biographer, or ever intended to compose something resembling a type of biography, as we have in our four gospels. Rather, one of Paul’s primary purposes is to put out the many fires to ignite the earliest churches, problems like infidelity, internal conflicts, abuses (of the Last Supper, for example), etc. He is interested in the many practical issues early Christians were experiencing, such as offering food to idols, the correct and appropriate manner of worship, and appropriate relations in marriage and with one another in the church. Paul is interested in doctrinal and theological interpretations and how best to understand them. So, at barely any point does Paul begin with an attempt at providing a biographical sketch of the life and ministry of the historical Jesus. When Paul does mention historical facts of Jesus’ ministry, he usually does so incidentally while making a theological point.
This is an important detail to keep in mind as we look at Paul’s writings. This should enable us to appreciate it ever the more where we find references to the historical Jesus in Paul’s letters. It is worth noting that where Paul’s teachings are concerned, they were approved by the early Church and seen to be consistent with what it was teaching (Gal. 2:6).
Finally, we here only refer to Paul’s “authentic” letters according to New Testament scholars. So we only use First Thessalonians, Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, and Romans.
The Historical Jesus in Paul
The earliest event in the life of Jesus that Paul informs us of is his birth. Jesus was born of a woman under the law (Gal. 4:4). Being born under the law suggests that Jesus was brought up as a strict Jew. Jesus was a descendant of Abraham (Gal 3:16) and a “son” of David (Rom. 1:3). Although Jesus is believed by Paul to be God and pre-existent, Jesus still took on the role of a human being with the nature of a servant (Phil. 2:7).
Paul evidences an awareness of the Last Supper that was established by Jesus just before his crucifixion: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:16). Paul is also aware that Jesus was betrayed on the night of the Last Supper (1 Cor 11:23). Paul does not mention who betrayed Jesus, but according to the gospels, it was Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples.
Paul tells us that Jesus died for human sins and that he was buried (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Jesus died for all of humanity (2 Cor. 5:14, Rom. 5:8). How did he die? Paul tells us that he was crucified (Gal 2:20, 6:14), that this happened before people’s very eyes (Gal 3:1), and it involved a cross (Gal 5:11), also referred to as being “hung on a pole” (Gal. 3:13). Jesus was killed by the Jews of Judea (1 Thess 2:14–15). In one of his teachings, Paul associates the cross with nails (Col. 2:14-15), which we learn from the gospels is what was used to fix Jesus to the cross. Jesus died (1 These. 5:10, see also Phil 3:10) and was buried (1 Cor. 15:4). The theme of Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross is an important element in Paul’s teachings (Gal. 6:12), so he talks about how “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24).
Regarding ministry, Jesus had a welcoming attitude towards people (Rom. 15:5, 7) and he was insulted during his lifetime (Rom. 15:3). He had a brother called James (Gal 1:19) and other brothers (1 Cor 9:5). Paul includes several of Jesus’ teachings such as on divorce and remarriage (1 Cor. 7:10–11; cf. Mark 10:1–12), the laborer deserving wages (1 Cor. 9:14; cf. Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7), giving tribute to whom it is due (Romans 13:7; cf. Mark 12:13–17), and the teaching of the thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:2–5; cf. Luke 12:39, 40). It is from Jesus that “apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers” emerged to build up “the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11).
God also resurrected Jesus from the dead (Phil. 3:10, 2 Cor. 5:15). In 1 Corinthians 15:4-8, Paul implies that the tomb in which Jesus was buried became vacant. During his resurrection, Jesus appeared to Peter, the disciples, to a group of 500 people, James, and then to Paul himself. This verse contains an early creed that has been dated to within five years of Jesus’ death on the cross.
There is another important detail we need to acknowledge, which is that Paul personally met with the brother of Jesus, James, and Jesus’ closest disciple, Peter, as he informs us in Galatians 1:18-20. During this time, James and Peter would have informed Paul much about Jesus’ ministry, teachings, and deeds. This provided Paul with significant insider information about Jesus from two of the closest persons to Jesus himself.
Paul provides us with a very brief and general outline of the life and ministry of the historical Jesus. According to Paul’s testimony, we are told that Jesus was born of a woman, a descendent of Abraham, that he came from the line of David, took on the role of a human being, inaugurated the Last Supper, was betrayed, suffered, crucified on a cross, buried, that his tomb became empty (implied by Paul), he appeared to several groups and eyewitnesses in his resurrected body, and that it was from him that Christians began evangelizing to build up the body of Christ.
Comparing Paul to the Gospels
So, very generally and with many details lacking, Paul does provide us a general outline of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection, which are all important to the authors of the four gospels.
Of course, we would have liked much more, but fortunately, we have the gospels to fill us in with most of the details. That said, Paul would have known much more about the historical Jesus than what we find in his letters. Another reason worth noting as to Paul not filling us in with additional details is that he thought there little need to provide further information than he did, presumably because the basic facts of the ministry of Jesus were already known by those to whom he was writing.
Paul compares favorably to the general outline of the gospels. We find in both an attestation to Jesus having a brother, several of his teachings (on divorce and remarriage, the laborer deserving wages, etc.), his crucifixion on the cross in the presence of eyewitnesses, death, burial, him being raised from the dead, and resurrection appearances to various persons and groups. That we find such attestation in Paul to the historical Jesus is, in Paul Barnett’s view, “all the more impressive because Paul’s chief focus was not the historical, but the heavenly, Lord” (1).
- Barnett, Paul. 2015. Is the New Testament Reliable? Westmont: InterVarsity Press. p. 141.