Sunday, 1 May 2016

What Paul says about the earthly pre-resurrection Jesus – a summary list

I have often heard, from non-historians, a claim that St Paul knew nothing about a human Jesus, only a heavenly Jesus. This time around, instead of setting out background information as I’ve done elsewhere, this blog is just a summary list for easy reference (since the claim often comes up). (This blog collects into one place – in shorter form – material from across some of my other blogs.)
So: of the things Paul was taught about the earthly human Jesus, which does he mention in his letters?
In answering that question, I’m relying here only on letters which are generally undisputed as authentic by secular scholars, letters written by Paul around the 50s of the first century within about two decades of when Jesus is said to have died.
Some selected things Paul gives us:
  • Jesus’ birth (out of a woman, he says, with no mention of a human father - Paul does not give names of parents – neither his own nor, unsurprisingly therefore, Jesus’ parents)
  • Jesus’ location (Judea)
  • Jesus’ childhood included having brothers and being in a family of observant Jews
  • era in which Jesus lived (first half of first century - see timeline)
  • Paul also references moral teachings in a way consistent with someone who knew they were Jesus’ teachings
  • he also references Jesus’ apocalyptic views in a similar way
  • he mentions Jesus’ betrayal (although he does not care to name his betrayer, just as he mentions ‘the twelve’ without bothering to name most of them)
  • Paul calls Jesus the 'Son of Adam', which in Hebrew of course is exactly the same as 'Son of Man' (ben-'adam), the name by which Jesus called himself
Some of those things are unpacked more below.
Timeline – life story of Jesus
Following the timeline of Jesus’ life, I pick out the following from those letters by Paul:

Jesus’ genealogy and birth

          Jesus was an Israelite and he was descended from the family of King David (Romans 1:3).

  • Indeed: "To them [the Jews] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Messiah" (Romans 9:5)
          Jesus arrived ‘out of a woman’ (Gal 4:4), so was undoubtedly a human with a mother as far as Paul was concerned!
Family and upbringing
          Jesus was born into a family of observant Jews (that is clear because he was born under the Jewish law, which Jews call the Torah) (Galatians 4:4).
          In his biological family, Jesus had a brother named James (Gal 1:19), and he had other brothers (who had wives – 1 Corinthians 9:5).
          Jesus’ life was in the first half of the first century.
o          Paul was writing in the 50s of the first century (the date is calculated from dating information in Paul's letters), and Jesus' brothers were adults with wives and clearly still alive in the 50s: this means Jesus' life can be dated to the first half of the first century.
Jesus’ ministry
          Jesus had a ministry specifically to Israelites: "Christ became a servant of the Jews" (Romans 15:8-9). Again, 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)
Jesus’ Passion Week (the last week of his life)
          Jesus spent time in the land of the Judeans, homeland of Israelites, and this is where he died (1 Thessalonians 2:15).
          Jesus was betrayed at night-time, during a gathering which extended from before supper till after supper, at which Jesus handled some of the food and a cup (1 Cor 11:23).
          Some people of Judea caused Jesus’ death (1 Thess 2:15): “You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches [in Judea] suffered from the Judeans, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.” –
o          That’s a bit of a scrapbook of incidents – the sufferings in Judea of churches and Jesus and Paul and his friends, as well as ancient prophets who Paul drags into the subject!
          Jesus’ death was by crucifixion (1 Cor 2:8), which means the execution was carried out by the Romans (Paul would have known that it was the Romans, not Jews, who practised crucifixion in Judea). 
          His death was no later than the 30s of the first century. (The date is calculated from dating information in Paul's letters.)
          Jesus’ body was buried (1 Cor 15:4).
And there’s more…
In addition, Paul says other things about Jesus that you would expect him to say if he were talking about a human Jesus. (Whether you choose to believe Paul here 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.) So Paul speaks of:
Jesus’ personality
    • 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

Jesus having disciples
  • 'the twelve' (1 Cor 15:5). Paul just assumes that the reader knows what he means by 'the twelve'.

Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings
          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) 

Jesus’ moral teachings 
          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)
  • 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. 

Glen Miller provides more example here

Taking all the above together, to claim as if it were a fact that Paul knew nothing about the earthly Jesus would be sheer ignorance. Paul is an important secondary source on the historical Jesus, and our earliest. He was a contemporary of Jesus who was writing within about two decades of Jesus’ death, which is nothing really. And his sources weren’t bad: he knew Jesus’ brother James, and also Peter and John – people reputed to be eyewitnesses of the historical Jesus. Which is why Paul is an important secondary witness to Jesus. Historians of ancient history deal with secondary sources all the time – they are bread and butter of a historians’ work, along with primary sources.

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