Why Paul Didn’t Write about the Historical Jesus

Why Paul Didn’t Write about the Historical Jesus August 16, 2018

Here is a second guest post (find the first one here) from Ed Atkinson of Wycombe Skeptics in the Pub, and occasional atheist appearer on Unbelievable on Premier Christian Radio in the UK, hosted by Justin Brierley. I will host a dialogue, here for Ed, between Ed and a Christian called John Nelson. Join in the debate! Read another previous piece by Ed here at ATP, on his podcast project.

Suggestions for Why Paul didn’t write about the Historical Jesus

My first guest blog in this series introduced the surprising problem that the leading missionary of Christianity to the Greek world, St Paul, seemed to regard the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth as of little importance, or he had minimal knowledge of Jesus. The vast majority of what Paul wrote about Jesus surrounded the Easter events of Passover supper, betrayal, death on the cross and resurrection.

I am exploring these issues with my Christian friend and New Testament studies student, John Nelson, who has blogged about them on another site. I guess John will want to moderate the summary above and he has kindly agreed to write a response to these first two blogs of mine, he will blog here on the Tippling Philosopher.

So far

In the first blog, I set up the problem as I see it, noting especially how Paul loved to quote authoritative sources such as the Old Testament, Christian creeds and Roman poets, but he barely referred to Jesus’ teachings or his life before Easter. Paul’s direct claim that he got his gospel about Jesus direct from revelation from heaven only makes this worse.

Using material from my friend John, this short list is all I have to show Paul’s wider knowledge of the historical Jesus pre-Easter:

Three references to Jesus’ teachings

One quote from Jesus that seems a bit dubious

Paul’s knowledge that Jesus was poor and humble in lifestyle

A possible connection regarding sharing meals with shunned people (from John’s first blog)

In his second blog, John suggests some reasons or explanations for this situation that seek to retain the idea that Paul was knowledgeable and interested in the non-Easter Jesus. In this blog, I will respond to them in detail.

But Sir, Peter and James are the same

John points out how this lack of quoting in Paul’s letters is not unique to Paul. The letters of Peter and James have the same feature.  To me, that just widens the problem rather than explains or resolves it.  It would indicate that what we know of the non-Easter Jesus and his teachings were not widely known in the church generally.

But there are other factors. Firstly we know very little as to who wrote the letter of James, nor when.  For the letters ascribed to Peter, few scholars consider it by Peter of the gospels and it is generally dated late. For a good set of Paul’s letters, including the key ones I’m using in these blogs, we are pretty confident of authorship and approximate dates.

Secondly, John claims that James’ teaching is saturated with allusions to Jesus’ teaching. But I don’t see it. James does give teaching that we also hear from Jesus, but I don’t see James hinting that he is using Jesus as the source when this occurs. In fact, in all of James, 1 Peter or 2 Peter there is just one clear allusion or reference to Jesus’ non-Easter life or teaching: a clear reference to the Transfiguration narrative, see 2 Peter 1v17-8.

And finally, we should note how the lack of quotes from Jesus in these three letters is in contrast to plenty of quotes from the Old Testament, just like in Paul. I counted 16 quotes in the 3 letters and a further 14 obvious allusions, such as discussing a story with a named character like Noah, Lot, Abraham or Rahab. There is even a mention of Paul’s teachings and calling it ‘scripture’. There were also less obvious allusions which I didn’t count. To indicate the threshold for ‘obvious’, here is one that to me just failed to be obvious: James 3:9 “….human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” It alludes to Genesis 1:26 “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.’ ”

It seems this problem is throughout the early church. Christian teachers couldn’t refer to a gospel story or a teaching of Jesus as they do today, and as they did do back then with the Old Testament.

History, documents and creeds

John wants to explain the lack of information on Jesus and his teachings in the letters partly because Paul is not seeking to write history for the churches. But here I feel that he has missed the point. It is not merely that there is little regarding Jesus’ teachings and deeds in the epistles, it is that Paul uses quotes and references very frequently , he does so not only from the Old Testament (remember over 180 times), but also from Christian creeds/hymns (about 7) and even Roman poets (2). So we would expect a large volume from Jesus’ teachings and deeds as well, but it is so meagre. When Paul wants to make a point he rarely draws on the body of information that he and his readers supposedly share on the life and teaching of Jesus, he goes elsewhere.  In this light, let’s see if John’s detailed explanations help (I just give summaries, read his blog for full details):

  • Paul’s epistles are not historiographical writings. My answer – and yet that does not prevent Paul repeatedly and frequently referencing Old Testament events believed to have occurred in history
  • So this should give us all the more reason to prick our ears when we do find historical tit-bits in the texts. My answer – no in this context it is the opposite, we prick up our ears when we see how few are Paul’s references to Jesus’ ministry and teaching.
  • Paul may not have had documents with Jesus’ teachings in them at hand due to circumstances such as prison or travelling. My answer – Paul can seemingly quote creeds, poets and Old Testament from memory, shouldn’t the words of Jesus be even more important? Many are memorable and anyway Paul could refer to a parable or healing story without quoting it as Christians do today. Also, if Paul was travelling, it would be for his missionary work, any documents with Jesus’ teachings in them would be top of the packing list. So, even if this point worked, it would only apply to the four prison epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) which is about 18% of the material attributed to Paul (Hebrews is excluded).
  • Instead of quotes of Jesus, we would more likely expect the kind of generic creedal formulae which we do find. My answer – Jesus’ words are often more memorable than creeds ‘let the dead bury their own dead’, ‘the first will be last’, ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘what you did for the least of these you did for me’ etc. Parables are memorable too. None of this stuff gets into Paul, just that one quote from the Last Supper.  The fact that creeds were what Paul had in memory and were what the church used in preference to Jesus’ words and deeds is telling in itself.
  • As one with authority there is no reason for Paul to give instruction with frequent citations of the early Jesus. My answer – so equally there is no reason he would need to use the Old Testament & creeds, but he does.

So these give no reasons why Paul loves to use the other material but does so little with the words and deeds of Jesus.

Allusions and code words?

The idea here is that there was a common pool of knowledge of Jesus between Paul and his audience. Paul merely needed to allude to it and they would grasp it. A mere code word would be sufficient. Lack of actual quotes is then not a problem because there are allusions instead.

 I have mentioned allusions above in relation to the letters of Peter and James. I think it helps to divide the allusions into the obvious ones, such as when the name of a character serves as a code word, and the less obvious ones. We can liken this claim to an iceberg where the obvious allusions and direct quotes are the visible tip above water, while the vast bulk below are allusions less obvious to us, or to me anyway.

The problem here is that Paul’s writing is steeped in the obvious allusions and direct quotes when it comes to the Old Testament, if his style is to merely allude in ways obscure to us, why does he only do that for Jesus and not the Old Testament?  Where are all the obvious allusions to go with the more obscure ones? Where are the allusions to Good Samaritans, to believing Centurions, to the 5000 etc? For the Old Testament it is a vast tip of the iceberg with an unknown bulk below, for traditions on Jesus it is a tiny tip but we have to believe that the bulk below is huge.  And I have looked below water and I see very little in either case.

Another problem is that we have to know the actual wording of the teaching of Jesus that Paul and his readers have in common before we can judge whether it is an allusion or not. Take the example in Romans 12 that I discussed at the start of my first blog.  Paul says ‘do not repay anyone evil for evil’ in v17. Is that an allusion to Jesus who taught on the same topic? I argued that in context it is the opposite, evidence that Paul didn’t know Jesus’ teaching on this issue. Paul is not leaning on implied authority from Jesus because he has to back up his points using Old Testament authority instead.  It is putting the cart before the horse to see a similarity with what Jesus said and then claim an allusion and so suggest that this is evidence for a pool of common knowledge on Jesus’ teachings. First show this pool existed with its wording, then we can assess whether it is allusion.

It would be good to know what the supposed allusions to the teaching of Jesus in Paul actually are. John has said that a scholar Dunn has identified some. I hope that in your response blog John you will present some for us to discuss.  I often see a reference to the Old Testament in Paul without any help, but not to Jesus’ teachings beyond the few commonly cited.

Argument from silence?

John’s next point I would categorise as pointing out the dangers of arguing from silence that he mentioned in the introduction to his second blog. John doesn’t actually put it in those words here but it’s the point being made.  (He also mentions reasons to think, despite the silence, Paul did know more, such as his report that he met two key witnesses to Jesus’ life: Peter and James. I will postpone that discussion to another blog).

The circumstances under which arguing from silence is valid is where the evidence that we should expect to see is missing. For example, if we visit a flat and find no food in the fridge or cupboards, no books or magazines strewn about, no toothbush or soap in the bathroom, no clothes, no rubbish in bins, etc then it is valid to conclude that the flat is unoccupied. What we would expect to see in an occupied flat is missing. And that is like the case here, the way Paul (and the authors of James & Peter) use the Old Testament and other authorities so much leads us to expect similar widespread use of the traditions about Jesus should they both be held in common with their readers and considered authoritative.  The lack of such material is therefore very telling. If we find just a chocolate bar wrapper in the bin in the flat and one book placed neatly by the unmade bed, we don’t conclude that the flat is occupied, we assume that there is another explanation. That is the case here.

Jesus’ teaching on speaking in tongues and circumcision

John’s last explanation for the near-silence is that Paul often needed to write about issues that Jesus never taught on, as far as we know.  Speaking in tongues and circumcision are two examples John mentions.  Let’s take the tongues. Yes, there is nothing in the gospels on it (except the dubious ending of Mark tacked-on over a century later) and nothing in the Old Testament on it either. But Paul still managed to quote the Old Testament when teaching on it (1 Cor 14v21). This rather ruins the argument.  For Paul, it doesn’t have to be directly on topic for a quote or clear allusion to be made.  And the converse is true as well, in fact, Paul discusses circumcision quite a lot, but he doesn’t then quote the Old Testament material on circumcision. For Paul, the topic of the passage quoted and the topic under discussion can have little relation.

Remember too that when there is excellent material in the gospels that Paul could have used on ‘do not repay anyone evil for evil’, he does not use it and goes to the Old Testament instead. This makes it even worse.


In these two blogs, I have set up the problem and, I hope, shown how the suggested explanations for it are not satisfactory. This lack of material in Paul on the Jesus beyond Paul’s ‘died for our sins and rose again’ agenda can’t be ignored. We can’t say ‘walk along, there is nothing to see here’.  But what it all does mean I have not yet begun to discuss.

There are also the issues of A) how Paul may have heard traditions about Jesus from Peter and James, and B) how Paul uses Easter traditions in 1 Corinthians 15. These come up in John’s third blog. So there is more to discuss before trying to make sense of the main observation, but first I will let John respond to my thoughts thus far.

Over to you John, I’m looking forward to it.


John’s first blog is here:






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