Paul’s Story of Jesus

Paul’s Story of Jesus April 11, 2019

Mike Bird recently undertook the exercise of assembling Paul’s scattered references to the story of Jesus into a narrative whole, using the wording as found in his letters. The result is interesting, to say the least. Mike offers two versions of Paul’s “story of Jesus” created from a pastiche of specific excerpts from Paul’s letters. Here is one of them:

The gospel concerning his Son, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, who he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, a Son born of a woman, born under the law, descended from the seed of David, in order to redeem those who were under the law. The messiah became a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, with various commands, words, and his example. On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Then he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Indeed, before your eyes Jesus was publicly crucified by the rulers of this age. The Messiah, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed, crucified for our sins in accordance with the scriptures. He was buried, he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and after that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. And now we wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

There are numerous hints at more substantive knowledge of the Gospel tradition of many intriguing sorts. For instance, when Paul talks about Christians as a living temple, and that we have a tabernacle not made with human hands, there is so much more to explore than I had time to go into in my book chapter about the historicity of the temple saying in John, which was published in John, Jesus, and History volume 2. What do you think of this? It is helpful to the historian, and helpful as part of an effort to address mythicist misinformation that drives an exaggerated wedge between Paul’s letters and the Gospels.

This post also reminds me that I still need to catch up on long-overdue blogging about books that were sent to me for review. One such book is David Allen’s The Historical Character of Jesus: Canonical Insights from Outside the Gospels. I hope to get to that soon. In the meantime, see also the early version of David B. Capes’ reference article on “Jesus Tradition in Paul’s Letters” for the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus as well as James D. G. Dunn’s “Jesus Traditions in Paul” published in Studying the Historical Jesus (and available in the Google Books preview). Bob Cornwall reviewed Dunn’s (broader) book, Jesus According to the New TestamentF. F. Bruce’s article “Paul and the Historical Jesus” is available for free online. And don’t miss Gregory Jenks’ post about what Paul says about his own life.

Finally, an image that came my way via Facebook:

I think what it depicts is less the case today than was true in the past. But it might be useful as a humorous way into a discussion of the proportions of material in the New Testament  by and about Paul, even if the first thing you do with it is to problematize it.

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  • I think it’s helpful and interesting. It’s almost like a creed when it’s laid out like that.

    The counterbalance is that most of the things Paul says about Jesus are dictated by the circumstances of what he’s addressing in his letters. So, since he’s not telling a story of Jesus, but rather, “Here’s something I know about Jesus relevant to the topic under discussion,” we just need to be careful not to mistake this as necessarily highlighting what Paul thinks is most important about Jesus.

    • Matthew

      Paul was also rethinking much of his Jewish religious understandings in light of his belief that Jesus Christ was in fact Israel´s Messiah and was raised by God from the dead. I don´t think it was necessarily Paul´s objective to write something similar to what we find in the four Gospel accounts, but rather to develop his theology in the realm of real happenings within real communities of his day.

      • I agree, Matthew. I think a rather lot of Paul’s writing falls under the category of “making sense of what’s happening.”

  • John MacDonald

    As is well known, regarding the lord’s supper in Paul, mythicists argue such things as: this was not learned by Paul by human tradition, but through a vision, παραδίδωμι need not mean betrayed, but simply handed over (by God, presumably), etc.

    I don’t find the mythicist objection convincing. To me, and this is just me, it would be an amazing coincidence that Paul was aware of and thought important enough to mention a παραδίδωμι, and in Mark we also see something similar to this as one of the central elements of the story, but to Mark this was a “beytrayal” which was foreign to Paul’s sense of “handed over!” Where was Mark getting his material from? Why would Mark and Paul have such similar concepts? Surely the most parsimonious explanation for why we have such similar concepts in Mark and Paul is that they were talking about the same thing, not that the two concepts are just there by coincidence and just happen to mean completely different things!

    We see here the mythicist tactics: Paul uses a somewhat different word from Mark, so obviously they meant completely different things! For instance, there is a slight ambiguity in the use of the word “brother” in Galatians when compared to Mark, so obviously Paul and Mark meant different things, lol

    It’s as if mythicists are saying Mark had a copy of Paul and παραδίδωμι and was playing a linguistic/semantic joke manipulating Paul’s use of words, lol.

    • Bones

      Lol Mark is a political manifesto and has nothing to do with Paul.

      Mark’s context is also totally different being written just after the sack of Jerusalem.

      Paul also never met or studied under Jesus which put him at odds with the 12.

      • D.M.S.

        Paul did study under Jesus.

  • Bones

    So who was correct?

    Paul who never studied under the messiah and whose claim to authority is a vision?

    Or the 12 who did study under him?

    • KontraDiction

      Right? That vision claim always seemed so sketchy to me. Especially when he describes it two different ways – once where only he saw and everyone else heard, and once where only he heard and everyone else saw. Even the instructions he was given, when and by whom, vary from telling to telling.

      • Bones

        That ‘vision’ is Paul desperately trying to prove his authority to the 12.

        Pseudo clementines – Homilies has Peter claiming Paul was seeing demons!

        16. 1. And Peter said: “. . . 2. We know that there are many . . . who worship idols, commit adultery, and sin in every way, and yet they see true visions and dreams, and some of them have also apparitions of demons. For I maintain that the eyes of mortals cannot see the incorporeal form of the Father or Son, because it is illumined by exceeding great light. 3. Wherefore it is not because God envies, but because He pities, that He cannot be seen by man who has been turned into flesh. For he who sees God cannot live. 6. . . . For no one can see the incorporeal power not only of the Son, but not even of an angel. But if one sees an apparition, he should know that this is the apparition of an evil demon.

        17. 5. . . . For in the case of the pious man, the truth gushes up natural and pure in his mind, not worked tip through dreams, but granted to the good through intelligence. 18. 1. Thus to me also was the Son revealed by the Father. Wherefore I know what is the meaning of revelation, having learned it in my own case. For at the very time when the Lord said, `Who do they say that I am? ‘ and when I heard one saying one thing of Him, and another another, it came into my heart to say (and I know not, therefore, how I said it), `Thou art the Son of the living God.’ . . . 6. You see how the statements of wrath are made through visions and dreams, but the statements to a friend are made face to face, in outward appearance, and not through riddles and visions and dreams, as to an enemy.

        19.1. “If, then, our Jesus appeared to you in a vision, made Himself known to you, and spoke to you, it was as one who is enraged with an adversary; and this is the reason why it was through visions and dreams, or through revelations that were from without, that He spoke to you. But can any one be rendered fit for instruction through apparitions? 2. And if you will say, `It is possible,’ then I ask, `Why did our teacher abide and discourse a whole year to those who were awake?’ 3. And how are we to believe your word, when you tell us that He appeared to you? And how did He appear to you, when you entertain opinions contrary to His teaching? 4. But if you were seen and taught by Him, and became His apostle for a single hour, proclaim His utterances, interpret His sayings, love His apostles, contend not with me who companied with Him. For in direct opposition to me, who am a firm rock, the foundation of the Church, you now stand. 5. If you were not opposed to me, you would not accuse me, and revile the truth proclaimed by me, in order that I may not be believed when I state what I myself have heard with my own ears from the Lord, as if I were evidently a person that was condemned and in bad repute. 6. But if you say that I am condemned, you bring an accusation against God, who revealed the Christ to me, and you inveigh against Him who pronounced me blessed on account of the revelation. 7. But if, indeed, you really wish to work in the cause of truth, learn first of all from us what we have learned from Him, and, becoming a disciple of the truth, become a fellow-worker with us.”

    • D.M.S.

      Paul did study under the Messiah.

      • Bones


        • D.M.S.

          That’s exactly what scripture states how the lost of this world such as yourselves will react to God/Jesus truth.

          • Bones


  • Brien

    ‘…according to…’
    ‘…the Bable says…’
    Yet at no time has a god ever shown itself – only by men’s claims….

  • Brien
  • Jack Johnston

    Paul hijacked the Jesus movement and what we call Christianity is actually Paulinism which Paul admits had not been revealed to anyone until he came along.

    • KontraDiction

      That’s certainly what it looks like! This schism has become a real fascination for me. Do you have any good sources to explore this more?

      • Bones

        Check out the Ebionite movement.

        They have strong claims to the teachings of the original 12 and considered Paul a heretic and liar. Apparently when some bishop came to Jerusalem in the second century these were the only Christians left.

        ““Indeed, when in 160 Bishop Melito of Sardis went to Judea to discover what had become of the legendary Jerusalem Church, to his dismay he found not the descendants of the apostles, but instead a small group of […] Christians, who called themselves the Ebionites or ‘Poor Men’, [who] had their own Gospel of the Ebionites and also a Gospel of the Hebrews, a Gospel of the Twelve Apostles and a Gospel of the Nazarenes. All of these gospels differed significantly from the gospels of the New Testament.”
        “The Jesus Mysteries” by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (1999)”

        There’s also some (pseudo) writings by Peter (Pseudo-Clementines) which allegedly show the animosity between Peter and Paul which Paul alludes to in Galatians and denies Paul’s claims to authority and his visions.

        James was head of the Jerusalem church and is reported to have been a temple priest. Its also claimed his epistle is an attack on Pauline teaching. Another one who even in Paul’s epistles and the pro-Pauline Acts is shown as distrusting of Paul.

        There’s also a very persuasive argument that Revelation was written by an ebionite and the false prophet was Paul (eg the condemnation of churches which ate meat sacrificed to idols in Revelation 2- a Pauline teaching).

      • Bones