Was Paul Uninterested in the Historical Jesus?

Was Paul Uninterested in the Historical Jesus? June 8, 2021

Was Paul interested in the historical Jesus? One can answer “no” quite easily. The “historical Jesus”

Was Paul interested in the life and teaching of Jesus? When framed in those terms the answer needs to be different. The complaint of mythicists (those who deny that there was a historical Jesus) seems to be that Paul wrote letters and not a Gospel, which is clearly not a valid complaint and has no bearing whatsoever on the historicity of Jesus. Yet what Paul mentions in his letters when he refers to Jesus requires prior knowledge of a story. Jesus humbled himself (when, how, in what ways). Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus (what mind, what was he like, what did he do?). On the night he was handed over (by whom, what does that mean?) he took bread… He was crucified. He was born under Torah like all Jews. I give this command (not I, but the Lord). The mythicist approach to Paul doesn’t simplify the interpretation of Paul in the way that it claims. What it does is take the deduction that the Jesus depicted in the Gospels is an elaborated portrait of the same historical figure Paul is talking about, and put in place of this a different story that they fabricate without evidence, in which Jesus did various things but in the celestial realm and not on Earth. It is astonishing, and evidence of a lack of concern for rationality and evidence, that anyone embraces this.

One commenter on a recent post of mine about mythicism said that they expected Paul, if he knew about a historical Jesus, to discuss the fact that Jesus was circumcised in making his case for the requirement not being imposed on Gentile converts to Christianity. I responded by asking how that would have been relevant or helpful. Jesus was circumcised and observed Torah because he was Jewish – as Paul puts it, “born under the Law.” There was no doubt or debate about that. The same was true for Paul. The issue was that Torah required this, and so when addressing the issue of what was required of those who had not been born Jewish, Paul needed to address what Torah said. Despite the impression some have, the Torah was an authority for Jesus, and Jesus was viewed not as an authority who overturns scripture but as an authoritative teacher of scripture. On the other hand, in his focus on love fulfilling what the Law requires, Paul is echoing teaching that is attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, and also found in the Letter of James even though it has a different view on faith and works than Paul’s.


Of related interest:

Mike Bird asks whether there can be Christianity without Paul

In his house, out of his mind (Mark 3; Pentecost 2B)

Mark 3:20-35 Translation and Notes

Mark 4:26-34 Translation and Notes

Dale Allison on the Historical Jesus and Lots More–Don’t Miss this One!

Mike Bird on what it means to call Christ the “firstborn”

Archaeology of Passion Week (pt 1) – Kyle Keimer & Chris McKinny

Interview with N.T. Wright about his new Galatians commentary

More on that on the publisher’s website here:

Galatians: Commentaries for Christian Formation

The Spirit in the Life of Jesus

Are There Actually Five Letters in 2 Corinthians (so that it is 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 Corinthians?)

George Hunsinger on Philippians

Interpreting Paul: The Canonical Paul, Volume 2

Summary of Paul and his letters

“We do not lose hope” (2 Corinthians; Pentecost 3B—6B)

Jude, Jesus, and Angels

What is Christology?

Philo’s Moses as Christological Paradigm

The Trinitarian Gospel of Paul

Coins tell the story of ancient Sepphoris

AJR provides a summary of an important recent dissertation on religion in Galilee before and into the time of Jesus

There’s a new book on Jewish ChristianityM. David Litwa’s new book is also relevant: How the Gospels Became History.

Review of Modern and Ancient Literary Criticism of the Gospels

The Cross at time’s end: Atonement and the crossroads of history

Commentary on Matthew 11:25-30

Commentary on Matthew 11:20-24

Commentary on Matthew 12:1-14

Commentary on Matthew 12:15-21

Commentary on Matthew 12:22-37

Commentary on Matthew 12:38-45

Commentary on Matthew 12:46-50

Commentary on Matthew 13:1-23

The Parable of Hidden Leaven – Matthew 13:33

The Parable of the Sower – Matthew 13:1-23

The Parable of the Weeds – Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43

The Parable of a Hidden Treasure – Matthew 13:44

The Pearl of Great Price – Matthew 13:45-46

Opposition to Jesus from every direction in Mark 3

A Marxist philologist on the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum (in Spanish)

Bob Cornwall on 2 Corinthians 4-5

Mike Bird on the incarnation

First-Person Claims in Acts and in Ancient History

Our memory is better than experts have sometimes thought

Introducing Romans: a two-part talk

A Menu of Answers to Mythicists

Browse Our Archives