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. For in depth analysis of what I mean in relation to the details below, please see them.)
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 in Galatians, Thessalonians, Corinthians and Romans (expanded detail further below with examples and references):
  • 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 being handed over (although he does not care to name who handed him over to whom, just as he mentions ‘the twelve’ without bothering to name most of them)
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, and that is 'according to the flesh'. Since it is 'according to the flesh' (rather than, say, 'according to the spiritual nature') then it is of human descent, of the flesh (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 into the world ‘out of a woman’ (Gal 4:4). Where a woman gives birth to a son, this makes her a mother, and her offspring human, obviously. So logically, Jesus was undoubtedly a human with a mother as far as Paul was concerned!

In summary, Paul says Jesus is of the Jewish race, of their flesh, of David's flesh, born "out of a woman", making them a Jewish mother and son, obviously.

Family and upbringing
         This is not only a racial background (of the Jewish race, of their flesh, of David's flesh), but also a religious family background, as Jesus was born into a family of observant Jews. That is clear because he was born "under the law", that is, under the Jewish law, which Jews call the Torah(Galatians 4:4).
          In his family, Jesus had a brother named James (Gal 1:19), and he had other brothers, who had wives (1 Cor 9:5).
  • By way of contrast, note how in Galatians Paul addresses the church as "brothers", unlike how he speaks in passing of James categorically as "the Lord's brother" whom he met (1:19), perhaps so that this James not be confused with another James. (Not crucial to mention here, but elsewhere we are told that the John whom Paul met in Jerusalem had a sibling who was also called James, was one of the twelve, and was killed in Jerusalem, but that's another story. What Paul says here makes it clear which James he met.) 
  • And again for contrast, note how in 1 Corinthians Paul speaks of the church as "my brothers" (1 Cor 1:11; 11:33; 14:39; 15:58), unlike how he categorically speaks of "the Lord's brothers" who could travel with a believing wife (1 Cor 9:5).
  • In a broader contrast, Paul speaks of "my brother Titus" (2 Cor 2:13), "my brother Epaphroditus" (Phil 2:25),  and "our brother Timothy" (1 Thess 3:2), whereas James is not called Paul's brother but "the Lord's brother".
  • It's quite clear that there is a difference in the way that Paul speaks of the Lord's brother James and the Lord's brothers who had wives, for which the simplest explanation is the natural reading that these were members of Jesus' family.
  • In referring to James, Paul actually speaks of himself and Peter and James, but only James gets called "the Lord's brother", an honour which Paul couldn't claim for himself or Peter. It becomes all the more clear with each piece of evidence that the simplest explanation is the natural reading that James was a member of Jesus' family.
          Jesus’ life was in the first half of the first century:
  • That is, 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.
Reference to Jesus' brothers makes it reasonable to conclude that these brothers were part and parcel of his childhood and upbringing.

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)
          Location-wise, Jesus spent time in the land of the Judeans, homeland of Israelites, and this is where he died (1 Thess 2:15 - see footnote on this text).
          Jesus was handed over at night-time, on the night of 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) - I go into this scene in much more detail in another post.

          Jesus' death was associated with Passover, which is a specific time in the Jewish calendar each year when  lamb was killed (1 Cor 5:7).
          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 (ἐσταύρωσαν - 1 Cor 2:8), and therefore logically by the Romans. The Romans because Paul would have known that it was the Romans who practised crucifixion in Judea and elsewhere, but he simply refers to the killers cagily as  ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος, "the rulers of this age". He uses that ἀρχόντων (plural) in 1 Cor 2:6-8, and otherwise only in Romans 13:3, where it refers to the human governments under whom people live. The simplest identifier for who they were, is that they were relying on a Roman method of execution. Interestingly, by the way, it is the very same word used by Luke for some rulers in Judea who were instrumental in the execution of Jesus (Luke 23:13, 35).
          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).

You may have noticed that 1 Corinthians is the most informative of Paul's letters about Jesus' death - so, to pick these out from it:

          Jesus' death was associated with a time in the Jewish calendar when a lamb was killed - Passover

          Jesus was handed over at night-time, the night of a gathering which extended from before supper till after supper, at which Jesus handled some of the food and a cup

          Jesus’ death was by crucifixion

          Jesus died and was buried

Of course, all of those details are also found in the gospels, but that's a subject for other posts. You'll notice elsewhere in this post that it is also in 1 Corinthians that quite a bit of the other material here is found too. 

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.

The important thing shown by this is that, whether you think this is a connection between Paul and the words of the pre-resurrection Jesus or post-resurrection Jesus, you can't say that teachings associated with the pre-resurrection Jesus are completely missing, as they are not.

Glen Miller provides more example here

Some would ask whether Paul's sources included anything other than supernatural revelation and reading scripture, and I discuss that in another post.

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. We can gauge that because writing in the 50s of the first century - dated according to secular scholars - Paul refers to himself as an "old man" (Philemon v.9) which, going by the writings of his Jewish contemporaries, means that Paul was in his fifties at the time of his writing and therefore he was born around the start of that century: thus a contemporary of Jesus. This is a simple deduction. Thus he was writing within about two decades of Jesus’ death, which is nothing really. And his potential 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. In fact, when Paul is talking about his contemporaries, he doesn't talk about fictional ones.

Prior to his interrogating church members, Paul's knowledge of Jesus may have been limited to what he heard through the grapevine from his fellow Pharisees. (As for that being part of his background, he describes himself as "in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church" Phil 3:6.) It is doubtful whether he would have regarded anything as reliable that he heard through that grapevine, once he had converted to following Jesus. As for his sources, I discuss that in another post.

Footnote: 1 Thessalonians 2:15
The footnote on the authenticity of 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 has been moved to here.

1 comment:

  1. A reader who chooses to be anonymous posted around 4,500 words of comment below my post. That's getting on towards twice the length of my post! That's not what the comments section is for. I'm sure the anonymous reader will have an appropriate platform to post a work of such length. I have saved a copy of the comments posted in case I am asked for it.