Why Paul Didn’t Write about the Historical Jesus – an Answer

Why Paul Didn’t Write about the Historical Jesus – an Answer September 22, 2018

Here is the first atheistic counterpoint piece from Ed Atkinson in an ongoing conversation between an atheist (ex-evangelical, I believe) and a Christian theologian in training. The first and second guest posts (find them here and 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, set the scene. Next, John Nelson, our Christian interlocutor, responded. This piece returns the salvo.

Please be warm in welcoming John and Ed here; even though you may vehemently disagree with their claims, as may be, please extend courtesy and politeness. Let’s aim for cordial discourse, as ever. It’s not about encamping in ideology but challenging ourselves and what we believe so that our end conclusions are as robust as they possibly can be. Big thanks to John and Ed for this conversation.

John, thanks for your response blog. You make some great points and the discussion is moving forward really well.

I have tried so far to hold back from giving my conclusion regarding what actually is happening with Paul’s near silence on the historical Jesus. Some see this as evidence that the historical Jesus is all myth, or maybe Jesus did do and say things the gospels record but Paul and his churches knew hardly any of it, and there are other options. So far I have just been arguing that this is a real problem that can’t be dismissed. Here I will begin to derive a tentative conclusion.

A point to highlight for John is that we are largely discussing the pre-Easter Jesus. It is clear in Paul that the Easter Jesus is important and he did share some knowledge of that Jesus with his readers. In all these blogs I have been talking about these problems regarding the pre-Easter Jesus. In his reply blog John did not seem to pick up on this distinction at all.

Mere Argument from Silence?

First I want to deal with John responses to my earlier two blogs here. A key issue is Argument from Silence. In my last blog I set out the conditions for when a silence can become evidence, I use the example of an unoccupied furnished flat. The lack of signs of occupation, such as no food or toiletries, enable us to conclude that the flat is unoccupied. Under the hypothesis ‘the flat is occupied’ the silence is extremely unlikely.

John gives a great example of a terrible argument from silence in Jesus research (which, to my alarm, John saw as similar to my contention). Apparently, some scholars envisage a ‘Q community’ responsible for the source ‘Q’ (For Q see note 1). The absence of material in Q on Jesus’ death and resurrection is clearly not good grounds to conclude that any Q community did not believe in these. Under the hypothesis ‘the Q community believed in the resurrection’ the silence in Q on the resurrection is NOT extremely unlikely.

Which is it here? Is the silence extremely unlikely or not?  I would say that under the hypothesis ‘Paul and his readers knew the deeds and teaching of Jesus (pre-Easter) and considered them authoritative’ then the near silence on them is extremely unlikely. My argument here is based on the way that Paul loves to quote stories and text, on this I note the Old Testament, Christian creeds and Greek literature as examples.

It is here that John pushes back. He agrees on the poetry reference in Paul, “the Greek poet Menander, in 1 Corinthians 15:33”. (See note 2, where I fess up to an error). The other reference I had in mind was Titus 1:12, “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This apparently comes from Epimenides of Phaestus.  Also, John doesn’t say why he excludes the seven or so Christian creeds that Paul quotes. These creeds and references to Greek literature are important evidence that Paul’s habit of quoting sources extends well beyond the Old Testament. But it is lynchpin of John’s argument that Paul’s quoting habit is just from the Old Testament:

Outside of the Jewish law, the only other reference I have found ‘cited’ by the apostle Paul is the Greek poet …. But the source is not ‘quoted’, and the piece of wisdom is simply included for rhetorical effect. It adds little to the case that we would expect more from Jesus.

The exact reason for each quote is immaterial. Whether rhetorical or to add divine sanction does not matter. The argument is that quoting is Paul’s constant style so if there are almost no quotes from Jesus then that is telling evidence and not mere argument from silence. John says how Paul was a Jewish Pharisee, someone trained in quoting, using and discussing the scriptures. I can go with that, but it does not undermine my argument at all when we see him using the technique more widely.

I will mention here that one of the seven church creeds scholars identified is actually the same text as the only actual words of Jesus that Paul’s letters quote: the saying at the Last Supper “This is my body, which is for you; do this…”. If that ascription as a creed is correct we are now down to zero direct quotes of Jesus by Paul. It is of course material about the Easter Jesus anyway, it deals with the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion and is set on the night before that event.

John also gives a reason for why Paul may have only used the Old Testament as authority in teaching:

‘..it was natural for him to cite the scriptures abundantly in his discourse. To suggest that Paul should have instead used Jesus’ “better” teaching may seem natural to an ex-Protestant, but would have been foreign to Paul’s Jewish outlook.’

This is fair to a degree, but didn’t Jewish rabbis quote each other? Also the very next Christian authors chronologically after the New Testament, like Clement of Rome, did use both gospel material and Paul himself as sources to use in their teaching along with the Old Testament.  Quoting Jesus is hardly a mere Protestant thing. I don’t see why a Jewish rabbi that Paul now believed to be pretty well God Himself (Philippians 2:6) should not be worth quoting as an authority more important than Christian creeds developed by the church.

Paul’s Gospel directly from Jesus in Heaven?

I noted in my first blog: 

A further problem is that Paul says how he gets his core message, his ‘gospel’, from direct revelation from Jesus in heaven (they never met on earth). He says it in his letter to the Galatians chapter 1 from verse 11: “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”  This does not exclude Paul getting additional material on Jesus by being told by those who knew Jesus, but it does seem to suggest that for Paul that is inferior.

John wants to soften my conclusion that Paul seemed to consider word of mouth information about Jesus as ‘inferior’. In responses here, John correctly notes firstly how Paul must have known something of Christianity due to his persecution of it, how he met Peter and James and that it was specifically the element of Gentile inclusion which was peculiar to Paul. These are fair points, but how do they undermine the conclusion that word of mouth was ‘inferior’?

I will dispute a fourth point John makes here. He thinks that Paul uses the term ‘the gospel’ elsewhere as universal to all Christians, but in Galatians it is Paul’s unique one. But Paul’s gospel in the key verses of Gal 1v11-2 is described as ‘the gospel’ in the universal sense throughout the passage concerned (Gal 1v7 – “the gospel of Christ”, and Gal2v5&7 – where it is stated that Paul’s gospel for the uncircumcised is the same as Peter’s to the circumcised).  This is important because Paul is saying how he did not get the gospel from Peter or James, but “by revelation from Jesus Christ.”  I admit that, however, we take this we have problems. There seem to be two options

  1. Paul is saying that he got the gospel wholesale from Jesus and then found later that it tallied with Peter and James’ version. This sounds weird to us, but Paul did believe in the supernatural and spiritual gifts like the ‘message of knowledge’ (see 1Cor12v8 and context) whereby God could impart knowledge direct to believers.
  2. Paul is saying that only one aspect of the gospel, that circumcision is not needed for Gentiles, is what he means by ‘the gospel I preached’, despite the English translation denying this. Maybe John can dig deeper into the Greek to make this one work.

For now, I still go with 1 which suggests Paul is talking about the Easter Jesus using largely (from an atheist’s viewpoint) material he dreamed up within himself. That fits well with information on the pre-Easter Jesus being largely missing from his letters because the gospel for Paul is all about Easter. Even if we go for 2 in the end, it still (like 1) retains the conclusion that getting material “by revelation from Jesus Christ” is the superior method for Paul and his readers.

My Tentative Conclusion

John gives good reasons to think that there was material circulating in the early church on Jesus’ words and deeds. I am persuaded. The nature of the synoptic gospels, which show use of sources, is good evidence and I would add the introduction in Luke which seems to speak of investigating these sources. John mentions too the way the letters report various apostles travelling about between communities and talking to each other. This all makes John “reluctant to see Paul’s epistles as a comprehensive representation of his knowledge regarding the historical Jesus”. Again, I can agree.

So where are we? We have:

  • My (valid) argument from silence concludes that there is strong evidence against the hypothesis: ‘Paul and his readers knew the deeds and teaching of Jesus (pre-Easter) and considered them authoritative’
  • Paul considers that getting material on Jesus direct from the horse’s mouth in heaven, so to speak, is superior to ‘receiving it from any man’, and that this argument will carry weight with his readers.
  • Meanwhile, there is material on Jesus circulating in the church.

This forces me to start to draw a tentative conclusion. It seems that there was a problem with knowing the authenticity and hence authority of the material about Jesus that was circulating in the church. With that idea things now make sense for me. It is why Paul could hardly use any of the material on the pre-Easter Jesus. It is why appealing to revelation from the heavenly Jesus himself as a source is a valid move.  It is why we see that only after there are gospels circulating in the church (after Paul’s time) that authors like Clement start quoting Jesus’ teaching. It fits perfectly with our observation that the gospels have contradictory material.  And to cap it all, it is why Paul quotes official church creeds when he needs to appeal to authority for teachings on Jesus and not to sayings or deeds of Jesus. As the creeds tend to be about the Easter Jesus, we see why Paul is able to talk authoritatively about the events surrounding Jesus at Easter but not before.

I now have some position to argue for. Yes, there was material on Jesus circulating in the early church, but there was a problem with knowing its authenticity, probably due to its diversity.

I have analysed John’s suggested list of allusions to Jesus in Paul’s letters to see how they fit with this conclusion. See the Annex on Allusions below. I found a great fit and also only one new data point regarding Paul knowing and using Jesus’ teachings. In the list, I did see some influence of Jesus on Paul in his thinking and in certain phrases.

So let’s finish up by reviewing the full list from my last blog on Paul’s wider knowledge of the historical pre-Easter Jesus:

  • Three references to Jesus’ teachings (now up to 4)
  • One quote from Jesus that seems a bit dubious (it may well be a church creed anyway and it is not pre-Easter)
  • Paul’s knowledge that Jesus was poor and humble in lifestyle
  • A possible connection regarding sharing meals with shunned people
  • And now some more evidence of general influence of Jesus on Paul

This fits my tentative conclusion really well. If we take Jesus as a real character, as virtually all scholars do, and that Paul spent time with Peter and James, as he said he had (Galatians 1v18 to 2v10), then it would be amazing if we saw no influence from Jesus on Paul. But it is still very striking that Paul is not able or willing to use more than a tiny smattering material from Jesus in his letters. Instead, he relies on church creeds. There really does seem to be an authenticity problem.

I’m keen to hear what John makes of this conclusion.


Annex on Allusions

Let’s see how my ideas fit with the passages John has given us that scholars say show Paul alluding to the historical Jesus and his teachings. There are 17, to compare with the 7 creeds quoted and more than 180 uses of the Old Testament.

As I expected the list includes Romans 12 v 17 “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” which is the verse that I earlier have used to indicate how Paul did not have quotable material from Jesus to use that his readers would find authoritative. In the gospels there is no phrase used that is anything like “Do not repay anyone evil for evil”, but Jesus does teach on this using other words, many are memorable like “turn to them the other cheek also”. Paul backs up his point with the Old Testament quotes instead. So Paul may even have got this anti-revenge teaching from the Old Testament.

Note too how Paul introduces the supposed allusion to Jesus. The passage goes “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil”. Why should we see the third ‘Do not’ as an allusion to Jesus’ teachings if the first two aren’t? It could well be that Jesus’ teaching is influencing Paul, but Paul is not purposefully alluding to a teaching of Jesus that we have in the gospels.

This pattern is there through many of the suggested allusions. In the next chapter we have (Rom 13v7) “Give to everyone what you owe them: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.” Why not use “Render unto Caesar” for the taxes point? Where are Jesus’ teachings that Paul is alluding to on those other issues? Again, this is just an intersection where teachings of Jesus and Paul coincide, Paul may well be influenced by Jesus, but he is not able to actually use gospel material from Jesus in the letter here.

Of the 17 suggested allusions, I put 9 in this category where Paul and the gospels overlap, there may be an influence and we can wonder why Paul didn’t quote Jesus: Rom 8:15-17/Gal 4:4-6/Abba; Rom 12:14/Lk 6:27-28/Mt 5:44; Rom 12:17/1 Thess 5:15/Mt 5:39/Lk 6:29; Rom 13:7/ Mark 12:17 pars; Rom 13:9/Mk 12:31 pars; Rom 14:14/Mk 7:15; 1 Thess 5:13/Mk 9:50.

A further 4 of the suggested allusions are just not convincing at all. In any two sets of moral teachings there are bound to be occasional overlaps in concepts or words used. The 4 are: not being ashamed, not judging people, being peaceable and a use of the same Old Testament passage, respectively – Rom 1:16/Mk 8:38/Lk 9.26; Rom 2:1/14.10/Lk 6:37/Mt 7:1-2; Rom 12:18/Mk 9.50; 1 Cor 2:7/Mt 13:35.

Three of the allusions do show the influence of Jesus’ teachings generally in the language Paul uses, but Paul is not alluding to any actual teaching we have recorded in the gospels: the idea of causing people to ‘stumble’, the important phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ and the idea ‘faith that can move mountains’, respectively – Rom 14:13/Mk 9:42 pars; Rom 14:17/kingdom of God; 1 Cor 13:2/Mt 17:20.

Finally, there is one really genuine allusion, the idea of the thief coming in the night as an analogy for Jesus’ return: 1 Thess 5:2,4/Mt 24:43/Lk 12:39. This is so specific, it is not a vague overlap. Note how Paul is clear that this is intended to be an allusion: “for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night”. The contrast to the others is stark.

Note how in none of the suggested allusions is there anything on what Jesus was known to have done, only on teachings. This supports the idea of an overlap of ideas rather than intended allusions to known material, which would have included a lot on Jesus’ deeds.

Another striking thing is the absence of even suggested allusions to teachings in John’s gospel. It is just the synoptic gospels. I am in danger of straying into an invalid argument from silence, all I can say is that there is no evidence at all that Paul was influenced by, or even knew of, that tradition.

Having reviewed this set, how does my idea stack up? My idea that there was material on Jesus circulating in the early church, but there was a problem with knowing its authenticity. It stacks up very well. We have only one more data point to add to the meagre set. We also have further evidence that while an influence of Jesus’ general teachings can be seen in parts of Paul’s message, Paul does not clearly allude to or quote actual known material from Jesus.

I’ll finally note that the points I made in my second blog, on how allusion cannot substitute for clear quotes, has not been responded to. Even if some of these are allusions and I’ve missed it, the near absence of clear references to Jesus’ pre-Easter deeds and teaching remains extremely significant. (See title “Allusions and code words?” in the second blog) .


  1. ‘Q’ is the name given to an inferred sayings document that most scholars think was the source of the sayings in Matthew and Luke which are absent in Mark. There is no similar body of narrative material shared by Matthew & Luke and absent in Mark.
  2. In previous blogs here I have been saying ‘Roman poets’. I was wrong and should have checked – they were both Greek and only one was a poet, which is embarrassing. I must not work from memory on these things! Meanwhile an apologist’s link on this is: https://carm.org/did-paul-quote-pagan-philosophers

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