Friday, 4 December 2015

Did Jesus Exist? 3b. Why didn’t St Paul say more about Jesus?

This page is a companion piece to Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus? That blog is about what Paul said about Jesus. This blog is different: mainly it addresses questions about whether Paul should have said more. (and whether he did!) (This page was originally part of the previous blog, but that was getting far too long for a blog, so I’ve split it into two blogs. Hopefully, this makes it easier to read).

As before, it’s worth saying that Paul talks about both a pre-resurrection Jesus on earth and a post-resurrection Jesus in heaven. And as before, this blog is only about the former, the Jesus on earth from birth to death. If you think about the details of Jesus' life that Paul gives (mentioned in the other blog), it is not a massive amount.

A ‘control’

First you have to be methodical, and that means you have to decide what you should reasonably expect to find. You have to compare how much Paul says about Jesus with how much he says about other things that are important to him. It’s like the ‘control’ in an experiment. People who ask me the question are usually using the gospels as a ‘control’. That is to say, they are comparing Paul’s letters with the gospels to decide whether his letters say enough. Making that comparison leads them to ask: why doesn’t Paul mention Nazareth? Why doesn’t he mention Galilee? You could read the gospels and make your own list; it might not make much difference what is on the list! The problem is the method here: Paul never wrote a gospel, so why on earth are we comparing his personal letters with a gospel? It’s an informative experiment – good to see the difference – but it doesn’t tell us what Paul should be expected to write.

We need a ‘control’ that gives a meaningful result: we have to decide whether telling anyone’s life stories is typical or unusual for Paul? Indeed, is Paul interested in telling life stories of any length, long or small? What if we find no sign of him ever liking to tell anyone’s story in his letters?

And once we have a control, we can see to what degree Paul behaves differently when he is writing about Jesus.

Our control experiment reveals that Paul doesn’t normally tell the details of people’s lives or reflect on the history of the places he has been. For a first century Jew who lived in Jerusalem, there are glaring omissions in Paul's letters. For example:

  • Paul writes that he himself was from a very traditional Jewish background, but he never names his parents.
  • Paul mentions that he has done missions and preached and taught and passed on traditions, but he never actually writes the content of his talks in any of the letters we have. We’d love to have one of his missionary talks to read: the best we can do is try to piece them together from bits and pieces that he does write.
  • Paul talks about Caesar's household but he never names a Roman emperor. In the time of the events he was referring to, the emperors were, in turn, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. But he never names them.
  • He speaks of his trips to Jerusalem, but he doesn't name its famous residents. He doesn't even name any of its high priests.
  • Paul says he chose to follow Pharisaism before he followed Jesus, but he doesn't name the most famous Jewish rabbis. Even famous names such as Hillel and Shammai don't get any mention in his letters.
  • Judea in Paul's day was under Roman occupation, and historian Josephus mentions the dreaded Roman poll tax which had triggered a Jewish rebellion around the time, more or less, that Paul would have been born. Even though Paul says to pay your taxes, he does so without a hint of the past disturbances resulting from that issue. 
  • Paul tells us that he has spent time in Jerusalem but – unlike Josephus - never mentions the incendiary acts of Pontius Pilate that stirred up his countrymen. He doesn't even name Pontius Pilate in the letters this blog uses. (The reference to Pilate in Timothy is a separate subject for another day). (And by the way, this silence is quite unlike second century Christians who repeatedly name Pontius Pilate in the manner of a creed, whereas Paul's letters don't do so.)  
  • Paul is well read, but his letters don't state which authors he has read. He never even mentions Philo by name, a fellow Jew also writing in Greek, who was a contemporary of Paul. 

Paul is like someone who sometimes says, "I don't like to talk about it." He’s not making much of an exception for Jesus, except that he does give information about Jesus’ life story. But let’s carry on with the ‘control’ because this is interesting.

More things Paul doesn't say

Take what Paul says about Peter. Hardly anything, except to describe an argument with him (Galatians 2). For someone who spent fifteen days with Peter, he tells us precious little about him. He never tells us about Peter’s parents or Peter’s job, or Peter’s age, appearance, health, education or background. He mentions in passing that Peter had a wife but doesn’t mention her name (1 Cor 9:5), and that Peter was a church leader in Jerusalem (with a claim about Peter having seen a resurrected Jesus, but that’s another story), and that’s about all, really. Oh, and he calls Peter by his Greek name Cephas. Not much to go on. It’s a shame if – like me – you would like to know more from Paul about Peter! And that was someone Paul actually spent time with! Come to that, Paul never mentions that he himself used to be called Saul. (Only Luke tells us that.)

Or what about Barnabas whom Paul actually spent time doing mission work with? Paul says next to nothing except that they both had to work for a living (1 Cor 9:6).

In other words, if you wanted to find a full blown biography of Jesus, Paul’s personal letters aren’t really the place you would look. Paul did not write letters like a reporter would write. He didn’t write stories about other people. People only really get a mention in Paul’s letters when he is telling his own life story and he mentions who helped him and who didn’t. He never tells us much about anyone - except Jesus. It’s a shame. People would love to know more about someone called Junia - it’s a woman’s name - as he calls her an apostle, but he doesn’t tell her story.

Fact: Paul gives us more information about the life story of Jesus than of anyone else he mentions, except about himself! The historian can make use of what he does tell us about Jesus (using Paul as a historian's 'secondary souce'), and about the people in the church (as a 'primary source'). As a primary source, Paul helps us to understand what other people said about Jesus  in the 30s,before he, Paul, personally took any interest in Jesus.

So our ‘control’ cautions us not to make sweeping judgments about Jesus from the fact that Paul doesn’t say more about Jesus’ life story. It also cautions us not to have expectations based on what we would wish rather than what Paul would wish. What he does say about Jesus is way more than what he says about anyone else, and there’s a thing.


Important to say, it could be that an account of Jesus' ministry that was doing the rounds in Paul's day (say an oral version of something like Mark's Gospel) may have been inconvenient to Paul, inasmuch as Mark's Gospel does not obviously yield up Paul's theology. Someone hearing how Jesus interacted with Jews (in Mark) is not going to leap to Paul's conclusion that the Gentiles are saved by faith alone. Scholars today disagree on reconciling the two messages, and Paul may not have had it any easier. There are ways to reconcile the messages, but Paul could easily have come across as awkward if he were the person who tries to do so convincingly, when this sort of material could cause a church split or, worse still for Paul, better serve his opponents (such as so-called "Judaizers"). It may have been more convenient for Paul to try and to keep "Chinese Walls" up between his letters and the oral/written text of, say, Mark's Gospel. Any great use by Paul of something like Mark's text could easily expose the difficulty Paul faced. One cannot emphasise enough how vulnerable to collapse new religious movements and churches can be: any such new movement in Paul's day was entering a crowded market place, where there would be other groups only too glad to take Paul's church members off him. There are clear signs that Paul knew he had to compete successfully: the mere fact of using letters to gain an advantage in communication indicates it loud and clear; put that together with his attempts to get to know the lead apostles in Jerusalem; and his long distance visits to his churches - all this points to Paul knowing that the gains in his mission were precarious at times. Making a good deal of early gospel content - say like Mark's  complex content - would just be throwing a potential spanner in the works of his simplified salvation of gentiles by faith message, raising too many awkward questions - questions that divide scholars to this day.

Does Paul say more than we credit him for?

A strange one, this: I've seen it claimed that, from Paul's letters, you would never know about Jesus' personality, or any of Jesus' teachings, or even that Jesus had a ministry, or that Jesus had disciples, or that Jesus ever dealt with anyone other than apostles. But is that true? The following notes are about that.

The first thing to say is that those raising the question are making a comparison. They are comparing what Paul says with what we read about Jesus in the gospels. Regular readers will know that this series of blogs is not about using Paul to prove that the gospels are true. These blogs are just about gathering the data in Paul’s letters as stand-alone witness evidence. However, for the sake of readers who make the comparison with the gospels, this is for you!

1: Does Paul ever describe Jesus' personality?

If anyone were to say that Paul should have described the personality of Jesus, Paul does. This is not to prove whether Paul is talking about either the pre-resurrection Jesus or the post-resurrection Jesus, but it can't be said that such comments are altogether missing. So in Romans and 2 Corinthians, we find that Paul says this about Jesus' personality:

  • Jesus was not the sort of person who lives to please himself. And Jesus took the attitude of being a servant – and this was towards circumcised people (that is to say, Jews) (Romans 15:3, 8)
  • Jesus chose a life of poverty, and Paul describes Jesus as meek and gentle (2 Corinthians 8:9; 10:1)

So whether you choose to believe Paul is describing the pre-resurrection Christ, or the post-resurrection Christ (or both!), we can't say that the sort of comments that should be made about the personality of a real person are totally missing - they're not.

In addition, there are inferences that can be drawn that tell us more about Jesus’ attitudes. For example, before his conversion, Paul was a violent traditionalist, such was his brand of what he calls Judaism. That was when he persecuted the church. On his conversion, he renounced his past: as he put it himself, he was going over to the faith of the people he had persecuted. For him, going over to Peter's and James' side meant giving up his violent traditionalist agenda; and meeting them three years later kept him on his new course. This all happened in the 30s of the first century (I work out the dates from eyewitness data here
). This is so close to the time when Jesus was supposed to have lived that it has an extra significance: the short time makes most likely that the views of Peter and James would not have changed significantly from the views they believed Jesus held to only a handful of years before. Paul, in renouncing violent nationalism and joining the persecuted church, was doing what he believed was in line with the views and attitudes of Jesus.

2: Does Paul ever mention Jesus had a ministry?

If anyone were to say that Paul should have mentioned Jesus' ministry, Paul does. Again, this is not to prove whether Paul is talking about either the pre-resurrection Jesus or the post-resurrection Jesus, but it can't be said that such comments are altogether missing. So in Romans, we find that Paul says:

"Christ became a servant to the circumcised [the Jews] to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs" (
Romans 15:8)

So Paul says that Christ has served/ministered to Israelites. (as it happens, that is of course what the Jesus of the gospels spends most of his time doing). This doesn't say Christ has become a servant of Israelites and Gentiles, which is what you might expect it to say if it were about a post-resurrection Christ in heaven. In fact Gentiles only come into this statement with a secondary benefit: after Christ has served Jews, and after Christ has confirmed promises made to Israel's ancient fathers, only then do the Gentiles glorify God:

"Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy." (
Romans 15:8-9, ESV)

To be clear, this is a human Jesus ministering to fellow Israelites as a member of their race: "To them [the Jews] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Messiah" (Romans 9:5).

But when was Christ a servant to the Israelites? Paul says it was when Jesus arrived in the world as a descendant of King David and of David's father Jesse (as Paul says, 'the root of Jesse'
Romans 15:12).

So a pre-resurrection Jesus who had a ministry of service to Israelites is surely what Paul is writing about.

In short, whether you choose to believe Paul is describing the pre-resurrection Christ, or the post-resurrection Christ (or both!), we could not say that the sort of reference that should be made about the ministry of Jesus is totally absent - it's not.

Lastly, on the life and ministry of Jesus, Paul's awareness of Jesus' lived example needs to be heard where he tells Christians in Corinth to " Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." Paul's logic is that their lived experience should mirror his own lived experience which follows the example of Jesus' lived experience. Like follows like follows like. This only makes sense if Paul knew what experiences (of Jesus) he was modelling his life on, and that Paul and Jesus had comparable life experiences in comparable situations - in their ministry - which the Christians could imitate. Paul describes this example over and again, but this one specific mention is in 1 Corinthians 11:1. Repeatedly, Paul keeps describing how this means a life of sharing the gospel despite suffering for it, without retaliating when abused, and building a community of kindness and love, with an attitude of serving people rather than dominating over them. This clearly can be nothing but the example of Jesus that he considered himself to be following; this is how his words are intelligible. By the way, the word 'servant' - which is what Paul describes Jesus as - is the same word that the Jesus of the gospels uses himself when he tells his disciples to have a lowly attitude like servants  (e.g.
Mark 9:35; 10:43).

And curiously, on Jesus being a descendant of Jesse: in Luke's Acts, Paul is shown as making a speech which makes a similar point that Jesus came as a descendant of Jesse (
Acts 13:22-25).

If anyone should ask why Paul doesn't write the stories of the Galilee days, it is obvious that others in the early church were the eyewitness authorities on that, and Paul could not rival that: it would put him in the shadow of the eyewitnesses if he were to author such a thing. That was not something that would bother other authors, but it would bother Paul, whose relationship with the apostles was something of an issue. Why set yourself up for a comparison where you will come off worse? Paul only compares himself with the apostles where he can come off equal to them (except where he is making a dramatic point about himself being 'the least of the apostles', which is of course a way of including himself in their number, while being self-effacing).

3: Does Paul ever mention Jesus having disciples?

If anyone were to say that Paul should have mentioned Jesus having disciples, Paul does. In 1 Corinthians, we find that Paul says the post-resurrection Jesus was seen by 'the twelve' (1 Cor 15:5). Paul just assumes that the reader knows what he means by 'the twelve'.

By the way, the words 'the twelve' are used in the gospels to describe Jesus' disciples (e.g.
Mark 9:35
). It would be very odd if Paul's 'the twelve' meant something totally different (such as the twelve turnips!). Whatever you think 'the twelve' are, we can't say that the sort of reference that should be made about Jesus' disciples is totally missing - it's not.

4: Does Paul ever mention Jesus' teachings?

If anyone were to say that Paul should have mentioned Jesus' teachings, there is much to see here too. (Never mind that Paul never even actually wrote down his own sermons for posterity, let alone anyone else's.) People usually have in mind only the teachings of the Jesus of the biblical gospels when they raise this question.

There is more to see than you might expect. For comparison, in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, Paul starts off declaring stuff "in the word of the Lord". Whatever "in the word of the Lord" means, what Paul says next does actually align with the apocalyptic teaching of the gospels' Jesus. Thus:

1 Thess 4:15-16 = Matthew 24:31 (note the mention of the trumpet)

1 Thess 4:17 = Matthew 25:5-7 (note the mention of meeting Jesus)

1 Thess 5:3-7 = Matthew 24:42-43 (note the mention of the thief in the night)

In 1 Corinthians, repeatedly when Paul says he has a teaching from the Lord, it does actually align with the gospels' Jesus. So:

1 Cor 7:10-11 = Mark 10:9-12 (on marriage and divorce)

1 Cor 9:14 = Luke 10:7 (on labourers for the Lord being paid)

Whether you think Paul got this information before, during or after his revelations - and whatever explanation you hold for the alignment - we can't say that the sort of reference that should be made about Jesus' teaching is totally missing - it's not.

There is a general alignment too with a good deal of Jesus' ethical teaching, and it is striking that out of all the alternatives in Paul's world, this finds its way into his letters. So in Romans:

Romans 12:14 = Matthew 5:44

Romans 12:17 = Matthew 5:38-48

Romans 13:7 = Mark 12:17

Romans 13:8 = Mark 12:31

Romans 14:13 = Mark 9:42

Romans 14:14 = Mark 7:15

Romans 14:20 = Mark 7:19

One thing you may have noticed is that these are not haphazard scatterings of teachings in Paul’s letters. They come in packages such as 1 Thess 4-5 and Romans 12-14. They are known to Paul as chunks of teaching.  

Again, whether you think Paul got this information before, during or after his revelations - and whatever explanation you hold for the alignment - we can't say that teachings of the gospels' Jesus are totally absent - they're not.

For more on these things, see Paul Barnett's The Birth of Christianity, pages 120-126 (to which I am indebted for this summary of teachings).

Did Jesus Really Exist? 1. A little introduction

Did Jesus Exist? 2a. Did any writers mention Jesus at the time he was alive?

Did Jesus Exist? 2b. Were ancient authors silent about Jesus' existence?

Did Jesus Exist? 2c. Outside the Bible, does anyone else say Jesus existed?

Did Jesus Exist? 2d. What about these authors then, Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny?

Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus?

You are here - Did Jesus Exist? 3b. Why didn’t St Paul say more about Jesus?

Did Jesus Exist? 3c. Did Peter and Paul talk about Jesus?

So when did St Paul persecute the church? (And when did Jesus die?)

Did Jesus Exist? 4a. So then: what about the people who were interested in Jesus before Paul was?

Did Jesus Exist? 4b. What did people know about the life story of Jesus before Paul came on the scene?

Did Jesus Exist? 5. Did Paul invent Jesus?

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