For being the founder of Christianity, Paul knew surprisingly little about Jesus.
Paul is our first and, for that reason, potentially our most reliable source of information on the life of Jesus. Let’s sift Paul’s writings for information about Jesus.
If we were to do this with the gospels, we’d have a long list—the story of Jesus turning water into wine, walking on water, raising Lazarus, the Prodigal Son story, curious events like his cursing the fig tree, and so on. But what information about Jesus does Paul give us?
We’ll start with that well-known passage from 1 Corinthians 15.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor. 15:3–8)
This tells us that
1. Jesus died “for our sins.”
2. Jesus was resurrected from the dead three days later, in fulfillment of prophecy.
3. Jesus made many post-resurrection appearances.
Though 1 Corinthians was written perhaps 20 years after the death of Jesus, some scholars argue that this 3-sentence passage was written with a different style and so is an early creed that preceded Paul’s writing, taking us back closer to the earliest disciples. Others use the same logic to argue the opposite conclusion: that it was a later scribal addition. (Our oldest copy of this passage comes from document P46, written after 200. That’s close to two centuries of party time during which changes could’ve been made.)
First, we’ll sift through Paul’s epistles to find confirmation of these first claims.
1. Confirmed—many verses report that Jesus was a sacrifice (see Rom. 3:25, 5:6–8, 8:3; 1 Cor. 5:7; and more). The passage above does not contain the word “Jesus,” but many other Pauline verses combine “Jesus” and “Christ.”
2. Confirmed:many verses report that Jesus was raised from the dead (see 1 Cor. 15:20; Rom. 1:4, 4:24; 2 Cor. 4:14; and more). Note, however, that there is no confirmation of the three days or the scriptural prophecy.
3. Not Confirmed:I could find no confirmation of the post-resurrection appearances in Paul’s epistles.
What other biographical details about Jesus can we find in Paul?
4. He was crucified: “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23; also 1 Cor. 2:2, Gal. 3:1, 2 Cor. 13:4, and more).
5. He was a descendant of David: “his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David” (Rom. 1:3).
6. He was betrayed: “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed” (1 Cor. 11:23; also 2 Tim. 2:8).
7. He asked that his followers eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of him (1 Cor. 11:23–6).
8. Jesus was killed by Jews: “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus” (1 Thes. 2:14–15)
We can go further afield, into books that are almost universally rejected as authored by Paul. For example, 1 Tim. 6:13 places the trial of Jesus during the rule of Pontius Pilate, and Heb. 5:5 gives an adoptionist view of Jesus (that is, Jesus was a man adopted by God).
By the way, this list comes from my own search. Please point out any omissions.
If we stick to the reliably Pauline works and assume the authenticity of 1 Cor. 15, here is the Gospel of Paul:
Jesus died for our sins by crucifixion and was then raised from the dead three days later, according to prophecy. He was seen by many after the resurrection. He was a descendant of David, he was betrayed, he defined a bread and wine ritual for his followers, and the Jews killed him.
The Gospel of Paul is one brief paragraph. It arguably has the most important element—death as a sacrifice for our sins and resurrection—but very little else.
No parables of the sheep and the goats, or the prodigal son, or the rich man and Lazarus, or the lost sheep, or the good Samaritan. In fact, no Jesus as teacher at all.
No driving out evil spirits, or healing the invalid at Bethesda, or cleansing the lepers, or raising Lazarus, or other healing miracles. As far as Paul tells us, Jesus performed no miracles at all.
No virgin birth, no Sermon on the Mount, no feeding the 5000, no public ministry, no cleansing the temple, no final words, and no Great Commission. Paul doesn’t even place Jesus within history—there’s nothing to connect Jesus with historical figures like Caesar Augustus, King Herod, or Pontius Pilate.
Perhaps everyone to whom Paul wrote his letters knew all this already? Okay, but presumably they already knew about the crucifixion, and Paul mentions that 13 times. And the resurrection, which Paul mentions 14 times.
Paul indirectly admits that he knew of no Jesus miracles.
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:22–3)
Why “a stumbling block”? Jesus did lots of miraculous “signs”—why didn’t Paul convince the Jews with these? Paul apparently didn’t know any. The Jesus of Paul is not the miracle worker that we see in the Jesus of the gospels.
But perhaps the problem is Jews demanding actual miracles performed in front of them, not merely stories of miracles. That shouldn’t be a problem either. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these” (John 14:12). And, indeed, Luke (that is, the author of both Luke and Acts) reports that this happened. Peter healed a lame man (Acts 3:1–8) and raised a woman from the dead (Acts 9:36–42), Philip exorcised demons to heal people (Acts 8:5–8), and “the apostles performed many signs and wonders” (Acts 5:12).
Again, the Jesus of Paul isn’t the Jesus of the gospels. Robert Price questions whether Paul even imagined an earthly Jesus (Bible Geek podcast for 10/3/12 @ 1:15:10). I’ve written more about the evolution of the Jesus story here.
What would Paul have said about the philosophical issues that divided the church for centuries? These don’t mean much to most of us today because they’ve long been decided, but they were divisive in their day—whether Jesus was subordinate to God or not, whether Jesus had a human body or not, whether he had a human nature or not, whether he had two wills or not, whether the Holy Spirit was part of the Godhead, and so on. No one knows how Paul would have resolved them or even if they crossed his mind.
The Gospel of Paul is more evidence that the Jesus story is a legend that grew with time.
Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed.
Faith must trample underfoot
all reason, sense, and understanding.
— Martin Luther
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