If all you had was Paul, what would you know about Jesus?

I've been trying to reflect on what it is that bothers me about so much that I hear in the speech of Christians. One friend always talks about Christ, as in "Christ taught this" or "Christ has done that" and yet very rarely, if ever says the name Jesus. Others talk about the 'gospel' this and the 'gospel' that and yet very rarely have anything to say about the kingdom of God as described by the gospel, or good news that Jesus preached. 

In the end, what I have been coming to realize is that many many people understand Jesus and the gospel by way of Paul rather than understanding Paul by way of Jesus. To be fair, Paul's letters are some of the earliest Christian documents we have and so should and do play a huge role in shaping the life of the church. What concerns me though is seeing Jesus interpreted through Pauline spectacles rather than vice versa. 

After all Paul, while having a solid and thorough theology of salvation by way of the Christ who was crucified and rose from the dead, seems to communicate almost nothing about the man, the life, or the teachings of Jesus.   

Here is a question worth pondering; if all we had were the letters attributed to Paul, what would we know about Jesus?

Concerning the life of Jesus we would know from Galatians 4:4 that "God sent forth His son, born of woman, made under Torah." Also, we would know from Romans 1:3 that He was Jewish and a decedent of David.  We would know that he had brothers from 1 Corintians 9:5 and then of course you have 1 Corinthians 15 from which we know that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, rose on the third day, and made many post resurrection appearances. And how he died, well this piece is of central importance and in 1 Corinthians 2:2 Paul writes "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." Honestly he knows Christ crucified and very little else is ever made known about Jesus. 

 Paul tells us nothing about the circumstances surrounding Jesus birth, nothing about the geographic location of his life or ministry, nothing about Mary Magdalene or any of the other associates of Jesus, nothing about the circumstances surrounding his last week or his death (other than the fact that he was crucified). We learn nothing from Paul about the actual life of this crucified Christ. Nothing about being a healer or a teacher or an exorcist or an apocalyptic prophet. Paul, who values and teaches baptism, says nothing of Jesus' baptism, the dove from heaven, or the voice of God nor does he ever mention John the Baptist. 

There is no mention of any context for any of the life, teachings, or ministry of Jesus. Nothing about the Jerusalem authorities, nothing of his critique of the Temple system, or any of the radical positions that make his Romans 13:1-7 views on submission to civil authorities seem so strange for the follower of Jesus. That position seems even stranger when you consider that he wrote "rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong" How could he say that if he knew those very authorities conspired against, abused, and executed Jesus. He continues "Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended."  Oh, and that wasn't true at all for Jesus by the way. 

Paul makes no mention of the passion account. For all of his interest in the sufferings of Christ he makes no mention of Jesus' desperate prayers in Gethsemane, his afflictions, his beatings, his crown of thorns, his thirst, or cries from the cross.

1 Timothy 6:13 (which many scholars would argue is pseudo-Pauline) is the only reference to any actual detail, simply a mention of  Pontius Pilate. Paul would generally not attribute the crucifixion of Christ to the Jews or to Pilate but the principalities and powers, the archai kai exousia, the demonic spirit of the age. 

He preached about a man who was raised from the dead and given the name that is above every name at which every knee in heaven and earth should bow and yet, almost no details amount who this man was, where this man lived, what he taught, what he did, or anything else. 

He also never references the teachings of Jesus to support his own teachings. Ephesians 2:17 has a vague reference that "he preached peace..." and in 1 Corintians 9:14 he writes "the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel" and this "the lord commanded" seems to be as close as we come to an actual reference as Jesus did say "the worker deserves his wages" in Luke 10:7. 
Paul does have a firm grim on the "Lord's supper" and pretty well cites the tradition of breaking bread and saying "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." (1 Corinthians 11:23-27) That is a quote, a reference, and also a very strong and central tradition for the Church. 

In Romans 12:14 Paul writes "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse" which makes no direct reference to the teachings of Jesus but does echo "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" from Matthew 5:44.  Later in Chapter 12 Paul continues "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink" (v. 20) which corresponds to Jesus teachings in Matthew 25. Of course it is also Proverbs 25:21-22.

There may be a few other references that can be debated about whether or not Paul is echoing Jesus such as Galatians 5:14 where he says the entire law is summed up in "love your neighbor as yourself." Hillel also made this conclusion just a few years before Jesus was born. Jesus would say that it is summed up in two commandments: love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18) and the Sh'ma from Deuteronomy 6, particularly love the Lord God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. Whether he echoes Jesus or not is beside the point. I am not trying to make the case that Paul was not Christian or that he significantly taught things that conflicted with the life and teachings of Jesus because that is not the case. What is the case is that Paul does not make reference to Jesus' teaching or life in any significant way. There are no miracles mentioned, no sermon on the mount or Lord's prayer, no great commission or the imminence of God's rule over the earth like Jesus' Kingdom of God gospel. 

It seems to me that either the life and teachings of the historical Jesus were either insignificant or unknown to Paul. His focus was on the post death and Resurrection Christ who is Lord and who speaks directly to him and through him. I love Paul and consider his letters authoritative for guidance and discipleship. I also think it is important to be sober about what it is they have to offer and where it is they remain silent. Paul, for me is to be read through the lenses of the person of Jesus and so understood christologically rather than submitting our understanding of Jesus to a Paul who seemed pretty unconcerned about his life or teachings. 

So as I reflect on these things it has become clear how we might find many Christians who speak of a cosmic Christ who saves their souls and yet seem unconcerned with the man and his life and emulating him. Emulating Jesus, following him and his example as a disciple seems to me the central focus of what I might call Christianity and yet what we often find when we refer to Christianity is a belief system that is concerned with intellectual ascent to theological declarations. I am not opposed to theological propositions about the work of God in Jesus for our salvation but I cannot except a Christianity that is unconcerned with emulating the one who loved outcasts, flipped tables of money changers, called out religious leadership for their crimes, and ultimately laid down his life in a state sanctioned execution.   

Paul's silence on Jesus has been emulated and amplified throughout the history of the Church. If we look at the Nicene Creed we see this Pauline kind of silence on Jesus. 
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. And I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Mind you the first version of this creed penned at the first Council of Nicea in 325 only said of Jesus that he "was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, on the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven" This version posted here which was further developed in the Council of Constantinople in 381 at least mentions the virgin Mary, crucifixion, and Pontius Pilate. 

So here is the timeline we get from either Paul or the creeds, In the beginning God created the world, then he sent His son who was born of women, even a virgin, and then he was killed by way of crucifixion. He will be back to judge the living and the dead. 

Can we really reduce the life and teachings of Jesus to a comma?! Can we just gloss over or completely ignore the Gospel of the Kingdom, the sermon on the mount, his commentary on the rich and the poor, the prayer that he taught, the religious leadership that he bested, the life that he lived, the suffering folks that he healed and the outcasts that he had table fellowship with? Are these things to be reduced to a comma in a creed? God forbid! 

Paul gives us so much about salvation and expectation but we must not make the mistake of missing the life and teachings of the one who called Paul. Paul is not Lord, Jesus is, and our understanding of Jesus must be the lens through which we understand Paul, and everything else for that matter.   


  1. I share your concern about many "Pauline" Christians who have a tendency to downplay discipleship. I think the answer is that most interpreters of Paul have missed the close connection between his writings and the content of the Gospels. If we approached Paul's letters with a foundation in Jesus' life and teaching from the Gospels, and concentrated on seeing the connections, we would see them more and more.

    For example, in Galatians, a popular book for those who focus on "justification by faith," Paul's main issues are false teachers who persuade some Galatians to follow the law of Moses. Paul's conflict with these Jewish leaders was very similar to Jesus' conflict with the scribes and Pharisees (the main conflict in fact that predominates throughout the life and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels). Some have shown that the phrase "faith in Jesus" used several times in Galatians can also be translated "faith of Jesus" as Paul contrasts this new faith (and teaching) that appeared with Jesus with the former works of the law of Moses. (In Gal. 3:23-24, when "faith came" is when "Christ came.") Another main theme in Galatians is the place of Gentiles (as former outcasts) among Jewish Christians. Or note references like: Gal. 4:6 to (Jesus') prayer that cries "Abba, Father;" 5:6 to "faith working through love," summarized in 5:14 as love your neighbor; 5:19-21 to works of the flesh, ethical evil including enmity, strife, anger, and selfishness, warning that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God; 6:1-2 and restoring a brother or sister overtaken in some such sin by coming to them in a spirit of gentleness, bearing their burdens, and thus fulfilling the law of Christ.


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