Paul and the Historical Jesus

Historical JesusOne of the things that I get frustrated with is the claim that the Apostle Paul never spoke of the historical Jesus.  If this is true, it leaves wide open the claim that the early Christians saw Jesus not as a literal person but as a symbol for our own spiritual journey.

Now it is true that Paul does spend most of his time speaking of Jesus in His glorified state and His role in Heaven.  Paul’s Jesus is one who is not just locked in history but is ever present through the power of the Spirit.  But that does not mean that Paul denied a historical Jesus.  A couple of years ago, I wrote an article on this topic for the McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry.  In the article I focused on 1 Corinthians and discovered a number of types of evidence for Paul’s knowledge of the historical Jesus.  You can read the article here.  Aside from what we find in 1 Corinthians, there are other examples in the rest of Paul’s letters.  Romans 1:3 and 2 Timothy 2:8 describe Jesus as a descendant of David, Philippians 2:8, Romans 4:25, 5:6, 8, 1 Thessalonians 2:15, 4:14 indicate that Jesus was crucified, 1 Timothy 6:13 indicates that Jesus testified before Pontius Pilate and there are other examples (See Unmasking the Pagan Christ pp. 121-24).

The question is: why does Paul write comparatively little about the historical Jesus, if as the evidence demonstrates, he did know the story?  When we read Galatians 2, we can see that there is some tension between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles, especially Peter and James.  That does not mean that they were bitter enemies or that they rejected each others ministries.  But Paul’s style was much different than Peter and James.  Paul was an innovator who was willing to do whatever it took to get the Gospel to as many people as possible.  Peter and James were trying to hold the brand new Christian church together, and Paul’s enthusiasm did not always make that job easy.  So there was mutual respect and agreement but there was also some tension because of their different roles.  One of the things that Peter and James had was their personal knowledge of Jesus during His earthly life.  James was His half-brother and Peter was one of His closest disciples.  Paul could not compete with that (although we can assume that in Galatians 2 that Peter and James shared some of their stories with Paul), so Paul focused on what he knew: the risen Christ who paid for our sins on the cross.  Paul quoted Jesus only on specific issues but he believed that he was representing the spirit of Jesus in all that he did and taught.

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One thought on “Paul and the Historical Jesus”

  1. Really interesting article! But have you thought about that neither of the bible passages really describes Jesus life on earth? Yes, he was the descendant of David, but thats kinda a prerequirement for being the messiah. Now, Paulus certainly does not deny that Jesus walked as a human, but the comments I’ve heard about Paulus and his description of Jesus are about that he only mentions the Crucifixion and resurrection parts of his life, and they almost seem to be on a more spiritual realm than in the actual world.
    I have a Swedish bible so I cannot quote directly, but it gets really interesting when you read the part about Pilate where it at least in swedish says something like “… Jesus gave the true testimony during [the reign of?] Pontius Pilate.” which COULD inquire that Jesus never went to any sort of trial with Pilate but rather spread the True Word of Faith during the latters regime.
    In Thessalonians 2:15 it says that the “jews killed the lord JUST AS THEY KILLED THE PROPHETS and they have stalked us. They defy god and are enemies to the whole of humanity.” now I find this passage really interesting because it doesnt have to imply that the jews killed Jesus by conviction, but rather through lack of faith. And for those of us who have studied the old testament we know that this isnt the first time something of the like has happened, and that could explain “just as they killed the prophets”.
    Please let me hear your thoughts on the matter!

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