Here’s Jimmy! 6

Every now and then someone renews an old concern: Who is most responsible for the Christian faith? is the question and the two answers are Jesus or Paul. One of the most prolific NT scholars today is my own professor, J.D.G. (Jimmy) Dunn, and his newest book, Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels, jumps into the question above. This book, as we’ve said here a few times, is a great introduction to Jimmy’s major ideas.

Do you think Christianity is Pauline or Jesus-ian? Where was the gravity of Paul’s own identity?

There are some who think this question has been asked, and it has been answered, and it’s time to move on. Some think Jesus was the founder; others blame Paul. And yet this isn’t a small issue even today. Some groups in the Church are more Jesus-ian than they are Pauline, while others are more Pauline than they are Jesus-ian.

One way of entering into this issue, and it is complex, is to ask the question that Jimmy Dunn asks in chp 6: “Who did Paul think he was?” Did he see himself as a Jew? as part of Judaism? Or did he see himself as an ecumenical Christian? These questions actually lead us into the questions above.

To examine this, Jimmy proposes four ideas that help form the identity of Paul. Before we get there we have to see his big point: at the hand of Paul (not Peter, not James), a messianic sect was transformed into a Christian, and global, religion. The converts of Paul were not led by him into the traditional forms of Judaism. He then lists the major identity passages: Rom 11:1, 13; 15:16; 1 Cor 9:1-2, 20-21; 15:9-10; 2 Cor 11:22-23; Gal 1:13-14; 2:19-20; Phil 3:5-8. Four ideas now:

1. Paul was no longer “in Judaism” (Gal 1:13-14), but here “Judaism” means Pharisaism and a zealot-shaped view of Judaism.

2. But Paul was still a Jew (Rom 2:17-24, 28–29; 3:1-2). But “Jew” is no longer an ethnic identifier; its distinctiveness over against Gentiles was not his point: it was about relationship to God. And 1 Cor 9:20-21 shows Paul saw “Jew” as something he could be or not be — it was a role for him. But he was not willing to abandon “Jew.”

3. Paul was an “Israelite” and this term spoke of God’s election or call. But this term, too, transcends the ethnic marker.

4. Paul’s fundamental identity marker is “in Christ.” Gal 2:19-20; Phil 3:5-8. Paul’s self-identity shifted from “in Judaism” (Pharisaism, zealotic) to being “in Christ” and this was his primary marker: it transcends the ethnic and the social.

Jimmy doesn’t tie back to our opening questions, but if “in Christ” identifies Paul then Paul can’t be seen as the originator of the Christian religion; Jesus is, but Paul can be credited with the move from restrictions to Jews and of Jews to a more global and inclusive faith. I would also want to contend that Jesus set the stage here and that Paul enacted it.

While some today are blaming Paul for Christianity’s origins, I’m more concerned with those who dismiss Paul and want to have a Jesus-only kind of Christianity — the irony is that this the heart cry of too many Gentile Christians and too many who more and more want the very contributions — inclusivism, expansiveness, etc — that was most developed by the one they want to avoid — namely, Paul. Some don’t like Paul’s soteriology, but the irony there is that Paul’s soteriology was for all! Paul is the model for how to take Jesus from the Land of Israel into the Roman empire.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Chris Donato

    Regarding your questions, Scot, and following what you’ve written at the end of this post, I like the idea (and I think I picked this up from Wright) that “Jesus set the stage,” i.e., that if God’s Messiah, the true Israelite, had come, then the eschaton had begun, and thus it behooved those “in him” to finally and fully pick up the redemptive work of calling all the nations to worship the one, true God.

    I’m also liking Bockmuehl’s work on the law and James and what that means re: Paul and his relationship to Torah and “Judaism” (though, per Neusner, shouldn’t we be speaking of “Judaisms“?).

  • Phil Wood

    This is an old question but I agree it’s worth revisiting. Your concluding sentence is crucial:

    “Paul is the model for how to take Jesus from the Land of Israel into the Roman empire.”

    That process could be straightforward contextualization except there are major problems with what was necessary to outfit an imperial Christianity. Rightly in my view the Constantinian shift has been sharply criticized. I wonder though, if Neo-Anabaptists like myself are being entirely honest. As you say it was Paul who is the model to take Jesus into the Roman Empire. The church of Constantine’s day was, in crucial respects, Paul’s offspring. I suspect that the reason we’re so hard on Constantine and the Eusebian church is that we’re protecting Paul by pushing our critique forward three hundred years. Whatever else Paul was, he sought to be a Jesus-only kind of man. The dogma (for which Paul was partly responsible) that shaped the church for empire was however, ‘Jesus plus’. The Epistles are a mixed bag that both embody elements of Jesus’ teaching and point forward to a departure from that teaching. Jesus-only is a good phrase and a fine beginning for renewal.

  • Dru Dodson

    Really like starting with Paul’s own self identity. Two things stand out when I read:

    He insists he was trained in the Gospel by Jesus Himself and sent by Him.

    He was given a “mystery to administer” by Jesus – the inclusion of the Gentiles.

    If he wasn’t delusional, then it’s a false dichotomy to pit his theology and methods against Jesus’. Their difference is that Jesus was not – humanly speaking – a cross-cultural missionary and Paul was.

  • Jamey W.

    I like the self-identification aspect for thinking about Paul’s identity. However, I think it’s a stretch to apply it to the founder of Christianity discussion. The concluding sentence from above regarding this (“…but if “in Christ” identifies Paul then Paul can’t be seen as the originator of the Christian religion…”) does not follow logically at all. The argument is not about whether Jesus came first and that Paul identified with him. That’s indisputable. What most people mean by arguing that Paul is the originator of the Christian religion is that he is the one who set up the “religion” aspect with requirements, hierarchical leadership, and doctrine. I’m not even saying I agree with this side of the argument; I’m just saying Paul’s self-identification does not solve it.

  • smcknight

    Jamey W, fair enough. The ends were not tied together in this short chp by Dunn, and I expanded even his introduction and may have taken it beyond what he was about to do in the chp. But, there is a sense in which if Paul says everything is “in Christ” then he’s not seeing himself as an inventor of a new religion. And, yes, I agree: the “religion” dimension is often defined in a way that leads to seeing Paul innovating on top of Jesus and leading Jesus into new waters entirely.

  • Tim Gombis

    Paul preaches Christ and means for his gospel to reflect Jesus’ Kingdom vision, albeit translated into non-Jewish contexts. Pauline theologies, then, that see Paul in contrast to Jesus are likely off the mark.

    One way back is certainly Dunn’s re-contextualization of Paul in his Jewish world.

  • John W Frye

    Is it fair to think that Paul was the sharpest in unpacking the origin mission of Israel as contained in the promises to Abraham? By the time Jesus arrived, 1st century Pharasaic/zealotic Judaism had made an ugly turn into itself to the neglect, even despising the ‘nations’ (Gentiles). Jesus prophetically and redemptively engaged that particular wrong and Paul expanded what true “Israel” really was intended to be and to mean. God had never lost sight of “all the nations being blessed.” C. H. Dodd’s little book *According to the Scriptures: The Sub-structure of the New Testament* helped me see the genius of Paul’s use of the OT in bringing out the mission of God through Israel and Jesus.

  • Paul D

    I have always thought that references to 1st century Jewish religion as Judaism is a bit anachronistic. I see Judaism as a later development (out of the Pharisaic tradition) alongside Christianity.

  • Amos Paul

    Personally, I see the tendency (at least in the Western world I know) to be much more bent towards founding almost everything they say on Paul. And there’s good reason for that. Paul used lots of legal and economic terminology that resonated with Roman society–and our Western paradigms emerged from those paradigms.

    While I admit that there are *some* reactionary groups that have grown sick with the sort of black and white imagery explained in terms of legal status, debt, etc. and thus have rejected what they see as Pauline intrusions on the seemingly more personal paradigms found within the Gospels–I have rarely seen these individuals as being influential or teachers of any specific set of beliefs.

    But I do agree with them in part. And this is because so many thinkers in Western history have founded their theology upon Western legal structures and the Pauline epistles while using the Gospels to enrich their understanding. I think the exact opposite needs to be the case.

    This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with using Paul’s example and Western paradigms to approach Christ, but Paul and Western thinking should be understood in the context of Christ and not the other way around.

    Of course, that may be exactly what this book argues for (considering I haven’t read it), but it is a legitimate concern of mine that Jesus is often understood in the context of Paul. Indeed, Eastern theological history has often been the flip side of this and been more based on James/Peter/John/Hebrews–often explaining soteriology in more organic and mystical terms. That is why one suggestion I often make to challenge one’s conception of the Gospels is, if you’re a Western thinker, read Eastern theology, and if you’re an Eastern thinker, read Western theology.

    If we embrace the rich amount of persepectives in understanding Jesus, we may perhaps be able to found our thinking more surely upon his person rather than our own preferred methods of explaining Him.

  • John W Frye

    Paul D @ 8,
    You are right on the one hand that there was no prevailing congealed Judaism in the 1st century. On the other hand, E P Sanders points out in *Jesus and Judaism* that there were various Judaisms (plural) in Jesus’ time, and even within those there was a ‘common Judaism.’ Not until the second century (after the fall of Jerusalem) did the various factions merge into what is commonly called Judaism.

  • Rick

    John #7-

    Just to clarify, are you speaking just in terms of “mission”, or are you speaking of the overall fulfillment of Israel in Jesus? If the latter, are you saying Paul came up with that?

  • John Mark Harris

    This is an area of interest for me, the relationship between Jesus and Paul. As I’m investigating Paul’s view of “immortality” and “resurrection” in the Corinthian correspondence, I’ve also tried to set his arguments in light of the borader teachings of Jesus in the gospels, and there are interesting connections. Paul followed Jesus, but they were not the same person, nor were they talking to the same audience. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Jesus set the stage, Paul executed the performance. Jesus is the message, Paul is the messenger.

  • Terry

    John Mark, I like what you’ve said about Jesus and Paul not being the same person, nor having the same audience. Might it be said that Jesus is the message and Paul is a messenger? But one messenger, and one whose efforts and teaching are recorded in/as Scripture.

    Perhaps it’s a distinction without a difference, but Paul often seems to be looked at as Jesus II. He’s a guy. He’s not the best Christian that ever lived. I love Paul, but I don’t worship him (nor do I mean to suggest that anyone here does.) It seems to me that he’s executed a performance, as a messenger, and perhaps the epitome of what we would call missional. Paul’s days in Paul’s ways?

    Does this help or hinder?

  • John W Frye

    Rick @ 11,
    I think that Jesus initiated the ideas that he was the fulfillment of all that Israel was supposed to be and the NT writers, not just Paul, picked it up and went much farther. In terms of Israel’s mission to be a blessing to the nations (e.g., Gen 12:1-4), Paul was the genius there.

  • Erwin

    Would it be wrong to call Paul a messianic Jew? That label is of course anachronistic, but it does the job well. As for Jesus and Paul, Joseph Hellerman’s thesis that both Jesus and Paul argued for the community of God as family (in a technical sense) provides a point of continuity between the two. See

  • Watchman

    I have struggled with this paradox for several years. I see some similarities and some differences between Jesus and Paul. Jesus seemed to be more of a doer, an idealist, impulsive, let’s get it done, grace-oriented, a big picture kind of guy. He transcended all limitations, boundaries, obstacles, bias, and culture. Nothing could hold him back, literally.

    Paul, on the other hand seemed to pull it altogether and put it on paper or through oral tradition. He took what Jesus did and put it into neatly packed tidbits of theological packages. This is where I see the continuity.

    Where I see the differences is that Paul seemed fixated on doctrine and theology. He seemed focused on right beliefs and right behavior, but very little about incarnating the kingdom of God on earth. The singlemost issue that Jesus spoke most about was the kingdom of God; not salvation, not hell, not how to be a good little Christian. But, the kingdom of God.

    And, it is at this divergent point where I see two different people espousing two different ideologies. However, I personally believe Jesus trumps Paul in any matter relating to faith, theology, or ministry. This is likely the reason why the Anabaptist tradition along with the Emergent Church movement resonate with me more than fundamentalism and neo-Reformed theology. It’s about incarnating the kingdom of God on earth. Not about right beliefs, right behavior, doctrine and theology. Grace reigns and love wins.

  • normbv

    Actually the ideas that Christ presented and that Paul reinforced had been percolating throughout Jewish History. There was a tension embedded in the very beginning literature of Genesis that identified the faithful Abel and Seth as contrasted to the unfaithful Cain. Those that rejected Christ are said to be descendants of their father [Satan] who birthed Cain first. This tension was growing and festering between the remnant prophetic faithful and the power broker Jews who ran the religion for hundreds of years before Christ arrived.

    Second Temple Jewish literature became more and more strident against the power elite and did so through prophecy projecting relief at the arrival of messiah. Christ was the culminated completion of that tension and put teeth into the long held aspirations that considered true Judaism as having finally arrived. Paul simply develops from the OT in reinforcing that old theme and its culmination. He points out that through Christ the remnant faithful Jews who accepted His messiahship were in accord with the plan all along desired for God’s people.

    Paul states that he preached nothing other than the prophets and the Law which as he presents pointed to the messiah. Christ established His qualifications as the glorified Messiah that scriptures spoke of. What makes it more difficult for many in recognizing this natural flow is that the second Temple literature that actually presents these ideas more vividly have been ignored by the church and thus there appears to be a veil over the eyes of understanding the climate that produced Christ and Paul. There were groups that were looking for the messiah and they were expecting Him imminently during the time He arrived. There was not a blank tablet that Christ and Paul encountered during this period but a highly expectant one already with much of the work already laid out. Those who took to Christ essentially had been prepped for His coming and were expecting Him and Paul was simply instructing them in how to understand this development.

    Paul states … “Rom 9:6 It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring”

  • JohnC

    I wouldn’t say I want a Jesus-only Christianity, and todismiss Paul, but I am quite tired of everything being read through the lens of Paul’s “Justification by faith”. I am not denying justification by faith, but wow has it’s “re-discovery” ruined many a good exegete. People seem to be unable to allow the power and volume of Jesus words to say what they are saying without somehow distorting them through the lens of Pauline epistles. (Not saying that has to be the case)

    On top of that, Paul’s language and ideas are often far too intellectual for my taste. He is way too easy to misunderstand. Jesus is much more difficult to misunderstand. Jesus speaks as if to children, in word stories, and clear statements. Paul speaks in sweeping themes and ideas that (I personally think) are very difficult to grasp without years of readings and careful contemplation.

    If we are going to read scripture through a lens, it should be the lens of the Jesus we find in the gospels, not the Paul we find in Paul’s epistles. That’s obviously a false dichotomy, but I am saying it to further my point about reading everything through a Pauline lens, and coming out with meanings that are simply not there, and are completely unnatural readings of the text.