A Word in Edgewise

Home » Articles » Not-so-brief articles » Jesus Tradition in Paul’s Letters

Jesus Tradition in Paul’s Letters

This is an early version of an article published in Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus,  ed. Craig A. Evans, Routledge (2008)

Paul, Jesus Tradition in

In the NT letters attributed to Paul, the person and work of Christ are central.  Paul’s primary interests, as evidenced in his letters, are the cross and resurrection of Jesus (e.g., 1 Cor 1:18; 2:2; 15:3-8). Only a few references to the sayings and activities of Jesus prior to his crucifixion appear.  In this regard the Pauline corpus is not unlike other NT letters, the Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse.  These too contain few quotations of or allusions to Jesus’ teachings and deeds during his earthly ministry.  Primarily, the traditions associated with Jesus’ preaching, healing and disciple-making are recorded in the Gospels.

The centrality of the cross and resurrection plus the lack of known Jesus traditions in his letters have led interpreters to wide-ranging conclusions. First, some scholars think Paul had limited information regarding the earthly Jesus.  Since he was not an eyewitness and since he had limited access to those who knew Christ, his letters could not contain much in regard to Jesus’ sayings, miracles, activities, etc.  Those who hold this position situate Paul outside the first circle of disciples and emphasize that Paul’s access to the Jesus tradition came mainly through the Hellenistic communities.  Second, others conclude that Paul had limited interest in the Jesus of history. Paul’s own faith in Christ has been formed primarily through powerful religious experiences of the risen Lord (Gal 1:11-17; 2 Cor 3:18—4:5; 12:1-10; Phil 3:3-16; cf. Acts 9:1-9).  Accordingly, Paul’s focus lies in the crucified, exalted and coming Christ; what the earthly Jesus may have said or done holds limited relevance to him.  Third, others point out that too much is read into Paul’s silence on the Jesus tradition, especially in light of a similar silence in the other NT letters.  They argue that the paucitypaul-icon  of Jesus tradition in Paul’s letters does not mean that he had no access to or only limited interest in the earthly Jesus.  According to these interpreters, there are other, more plausible explanations for the few references.  We do not know, for example, what Paul may or may not have preached during his initial mission to any given city.  Likewise, we do not know whether he viewed the letter genre generally as an appropriate vehicle for transmitting the Jesus material.  Given the extent of orality in Mediterranean culture, it may well be that leaders like Paul preferred to preach Jesus rather than write about him. Nevertheless, Paul’s letters do contain traditional materials that provide insight into the gospel Paul preached and the churches he established.

Paul’s Access to the Jesus Tradition

Paul’s access to the Jesus tradition came from several sources.  First, prior to his conversion-call to be the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul persecuted the followers of Jesus and fought to stop the movement (Gal 1:11-14).  As one “zealous for the traditions of his fathers,” Paul’s persecution of Jesus’ immediate followers had some basis in beliefs and practices that went back to Jesus himself.  While Paul never explained his pre-conversion opposition to the Jesus movement, he did report that the idea of a crucified Messiah is offensive to the Jews (1 Cor 1:23).  Claims to Christ’s divinity and religious devotion directed to him may also have been construed as blasphemy. Second, Paul described his transformation in language of mystical revelations (e.g., Gal 1:15-17; 2 Cor 12:1-6).  These revelations caused him to reevaluate his understanding of Jesus and to join the community he had previously tried to destroy.  In connecting with Jesus’ followers, the apostle entered into the stream of tradition and reinterpreted his past and present experience in light of the beliefs and values of the Christian community.  He received teachings and then continued on to transmit them to various churches in his letters.  It is taken for granted that his missionary preaching would have also contained references to these early Jesus traditions. Finally, in a rare autobiographical moment Paul related an experience he had three years after his conversion-call. He traveled to Jerusalem to receive information from Peter (Gal 1:18), and for about 15 days he had immediate, personal contact with one of the twelve.  In subsequent visits he subjected his gospel to the scrutiny of the “pillar apostles” in Jerusalem and received their approval to carry his gospel to the Gentiles (Gal 2:1-9).

Paul’s Use of the Jesus Tradition

Scholars disagree regarding the extent of Jesus tradition in Paul’s letters.  Some allow only a few examples.  Others argue that hundreds of allusions to traditional materials show up in the authentic letters.  Likely the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Paul was  aware of traditions regarding Jesus’ Jewishness (Gal 4:4), his royal lineage (Rom 1:3-4), and his brother James (Gal 1:19).  Beyond these bare facts there are other traditional elements.

1 Corinthians 15:1-8.  Employing the language of tradition (paredōka = “I delivered”; parelabon = “I received”), Paul passed on to the Corinthians the centrality of Christ’s death and resurrection.  Paul inherited this tradition from the earliest churches that had already assigned atoning significance (“for our sins”) to his crucifixion.  Furthermore, these crucial events were understood by these early Jewish believers as being “according to the scriptures.”  Soon after the crucifixion the followers of Jesus searched the Hebrew Bible to comprehend these fateful events in God’s saving history.  They found that not only had these events not contradicted scripture but that Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection had formed a fitting climax to the covenant story.  Paul also received   accounts of resurrection appearances to Peter, James (the brother of Jesus) and “the twelve.” According to both intra- and extra-canonical gospels, these disciples figure prominently in the Jesus tradition.  Furthermore, the centrality of the cross and resurrection parallel other early Christian writings including the Gospels where Jesus’ passion comprises the central act of the story.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26. The earliest account of “the Lord’s supper” is recorded in Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians.  Paul “received” (parelabon) from the Lord this account that finds a prominent place in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 14:22-24; Matt 26:26-28; Luke 22:19-20).  Since Paul used traditional language, we may rule out that he received this as a direct revelation .  Instead we should likely understand this in two ways: (a) the account goes back to an event in the life of the earthly Jesus and (b) his   interpretation of the supper came “from the Lord” by means of revelation  (11:26).  The details of Paul’s account of the supper correspond closely to the NT Gospels.   Paul knew  that it took place at night, that Jesus took bread, gave thanks to God, broke it and gave it to his disciples.  The “words of institution” bear close verbal affinity with the Gospels as well.  The memorial atmosphere of the meal corresponds to the Lukan account.

Romans 8:15-17; Galatians 4:6-7.  Paul’s address to God as “Abba! Father!” likely originated with Jesus.  The similarities in Romans and Galatians suggest that Paul was  relying on traditional materials.  Both passages indicate that the “Abba! Father!” (a) characterized Christian prayer; (b) indicated the Spirit’s work; (c) demonstrated that believers possess a new status as “sons” and  “heirs.”  The presence of this Aramaic address to God in Greek-speaking churches is evidence of both its antiquity and authenticity within the Jesus tradition.  “Abba” is not a common prayer-address at the time and so it likely reflects Jesus’ own prayer practice and teaching.

Words of the Lord.  Most scholars allow that some of Paul’s ethical instructions depend on the sayings (logia) of Jesus.  Whether Paul had access to oral traditions or a sayings collection, as scholars reconstruct in “Q,” we do not know.  Nevertheless, there are parallels between some of the logia found in the Gospels and what we find in Paul’s paraenesis.  In 1 Cor 7:10, for example, Paul instructed the married not to separate and, if they did, not to marry .  He indicated these teachings came from “the Lord” and he contrasted them with his own counsel (7:12).  The words of the Lord for him carried  authority beyond his own.  Likely, Paul referred here to the dominical teaching later codified in Mark 10:11-12 (cf. Matt 5:32).  Similarly, Paul recalled the Lord’s command that permits financial support for those who preach the gospel.  This command is similar to the logia in Luke 10:7:  “for the worker is worthy of his wage.”

Allusions to Jesus’ sayings occur in Paul’s letters without referring to them as words or commands of the Lord.  For example, in writing of love’s supremacy (1 Cor 13:2) Paul echoed Jesus’ teaching that faith can move mountains (Matt 17:20).  Paul instructed the Romans to bless and not curse those who persecute them (Rom 12:14).  This has clear resonance with Jesus’ teaching regarding love of enemies (Luke 6:27-28 and Matt 5:44).  Paul’s reference to the day of the Lord coming as a thief in the night (1 Thess 5:2, 4) may well have originated in Jesus’ teachings regarding the unknown day and hour when the Son of Man returns (Matt 24:43; Luke 12:39).  Later in that same letter Paul’s admonition for the Thessalonians to live at peace with each other (1 Thess 5:13) finds a clear parallel in Jesus’ call to “live in peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).  Other, possible examples include:

Paul                                                    Gospels

Rom 12:17, 21                                    Luke 6:27-36; Matt 5:38-48

Rom 13:7                                            Mark 12:13-17

Rom 13:8-10                                       Mark 12:18-34; Matt 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-28

Rom 14:14                                          Mark 7:15; Matt 15;11

1 Thess 5:3                                          Luke 12:39ff.; 21:34

1 Thess 5:6                                          Mark 13:37; Matt 24:42; Luke 21:34, 36

The Kingdom of God.  The Gospel traditions portray Jesus as one who proclaims the presence and coming of “the kingdom of God” (alternatively, “the kingdom of heaven”).    Outside the Gospels Paul employed kingdom language more than any other NT writer.  The apostle described the kingdom as consisting of justice (righteousness), peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17).  He urged the Thessalonians to walk worthy of God who is calling them into his kingdom and glory (1 Thess 2:12). The gospel Paul preaches is, in fact, a word about the kingdom (1 Thess 2:9-13).  He warned the Corinthians that the kingdom is more than fine words and rhetoric; it consists of power (1 Cor 4:20).  The unrighteous and immoral, Paul wrote, will not “inherit” the kingdom (1 Cor 6:9; Gal 5:21; cf. Eph 5:5) neither will flesh and blood (1 Cor 15:50).  The kingdom figures ultimately in Paul’s understanding of the eschaton.  Following the parousia, the Son will deliver the kingdom over to God the Father after the subjection of all the powers to the Son so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor 5:20-28). In Col 1:12-13 Paul gives thanks to God for delivering believers from the domain of darkness and transferring them into the kingdom of his beloved Son.  For Paul, the rule of God is realized in the Lordship of Christ, who is the source of forgiveness and redemption.  As in the Gospels, there is an “already-not yet” aspect to Paul’s teaching of the kingdom.  Likely Paul’s ideas about the kingdom draw from the Jesus tradition.  Still the language of the kingdom is not as common in the letters as it is in the Gospels.  This has caused some scholars to question whether Paul’s essential message is congruent with Jesus’ teaching. Others find similarity in Paul’s teaching of the Spirit.  In the Gospels God’s rule is manifest through Jesus by the Spirit (Matt 12:28; cf. Luke 11:20).  For Paul God’s rule is manifest now in the Spirit of God whom he also calls “the Spirit of Christ” (Rom 8:9; 14:17).  The Spirit’s powerful presence constitutes a new reality or new creation (2 Cor 5:17) that for the apostle may well correlate with the presence of the kingdom (1 Cor 6:9-11; Gal 4:6-7).

The Law of Christ.  Many scholars believe that when Paul speaks of “the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2) he had in mind Jesus’ teaching on the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28-34 and par.).  The command to love God and love one’s neighbor is derived initially from the Hebrew scriptures (Deut 6:6-8; Lev 19:18) and yet becomes “the law of Christ” through the weight of his teaching and example.  Earlier in the letter Paul urged the Galatians to pursue freedom through service, acknowledging that the entire Law is fulfilled in loving one’s neighbor (Gal 5:13-14; Lev 19:18; cf Rom 13:8-10). Such service clearly includes bearing one another’s burden. It follows that “the law of Christ” may refer to Christ’s example as one who fulfills the law (Matt 5:17-20).

Imitation of Christ.  In Paul’s day the imitation of a worthy person was an important strategy in moral formation.  On a number of occasions Paul appealed to the example of Christ and urged others to imitation.  For example, he encouraged the Philippians to have the mind of Christ in humility and service (Phil 2:5-11).   Elsewhere he instructed the Romans to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and avoid self-gratification (Rom 13:14).  In the midst of Jewish-Gentile discord in the Roman church, Paul told them to welcome each other as Christ has welcomed them (Rom 15:7).  The apostle even urged the Corinthians to imitate him since he imitated Christ (1 Cor 11:1). Admonitions to imitate Christ depend ultimately on having authentic traditions regarding Christ’s life.  The traditions about how Christ lived would have provided a script for imitation.  When, for example,  Paul taught  the Romans to strive to please their neighbors, he appealed to Christ’s example: “for Christ did not seek to please himself” (Rom 15:3).  For Paul, Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross may have been principally in view, however, this does not preclude other accounts wherein he gave himself for others.

The Twelve.   The earliest historical reference to “the twelve” is found in 1 Cor 15:3-8.  Paul recounted the tradition that the risen Jesus appeared to an inner circle of disciples called “the twelve.”  He also recognized Peter’s (Cephas’) special role in the Jerusalem church (along with John; Gal 1:18; 2:9).  This is consistent with the Gospel tradition where (a) Jesus was concerned with restoring Israel (see, e.g., Matt 10:6; “go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”), (b) he chose “the twelve” by a prophetic act that reconstitutes Israel, and (c) he appointed Peter to a special leadership role in the new movement (e.g., Matt 16:13-20).  Paul reflected similar priorities in his own ministry. Although the risen Christ appointed Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles (Gal 1:16; 2:7-10), he took the gospel first to Jews (Rom 1:16). Furthermore, recent scholarly inquiry into the theology of Romans demonstrates that Romans 9-11 is crucial to the letter.  In these chapters Paul was occupied with the relationship of Israel to the Gentiles now that the Messiah has come.  Employing the image of an olive tree, he portrayed God’s inclusion of the nations into Israel through faith.  He was  even able to describe the church of believing Jews and Gentiles as “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16).

In the Gentile mission the relationship of Jews to Gentiles at the common table constitutes  a fundamental problem.  In Antioch Paul opposed Peter publicly for his hypocrisy when the latter withdrew from fellowship with the Gentiles.  Paul’s description of Gentiles as “sinners” (Gal 2:15) may well recall that opponents charged Jesus with being a friend of sinners (e.g., Mark 3:13-17; Luke 15).  That Jesus is known to have welcomed sinners may have inspired Paul to welcome Gentiles and advocate mutual welcoming among his churches (Romans 14-15).

Conclusion

The centrality of the cross and resurrection plus the lack of Jesus tradition in Paul’s letters has given risen to the Jesus-Paul debate, a question that has occupied scholarly interest since the nineteenth century.  Essentially, the question may be expressed this way: what is the relationship between Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God and Paul’s gospel of the crucified and risen Christ? On one end of the spectrum, some affirm that Paul’s gospel of the Son of God (e.g., Rom 1:3-4) represented a significant departure from Jesus’ imminent announcement of the Kingdom.  From this perspective Paul was an innovator who introduced foreign elements into the Jesus movement.   On the opposite end, others deny the claim and assert that Paul’s gospel was a legitimate development of the Kingdom message of Jesus.  While not denying that differences did exist between them, these interpreters explain the differences as necessitated by (a) the demands of the Gentile mission and (b) the new situation created by the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  Consensus on the Jesus-Paul question is unlikely without the introduction of new methods into future research.

At one time it was scholarly commonplace to interpret 2 Cor 5:16 as evidence that Paul had little interest in the life of Jesus.  It is now widely recognized that the phrase kata sarka (“according to the flesh”) is an adverbial modifier not a reference to the earthly life of the Messiah.  Paul’s point is to emphasize that the new creation inaugurated by the cross and resurrection has altered his perspective on everyone, especially the Messiah.

Bibliography

Allison, Dale C.  “The Pauline Epistles and the Synoptic Gospels: The Pattern of the Parallels,” NTS 28 (1982), 1-32.

Bultmann, Rudolph.  “The Primitive Christian Kerygma and the Historical Jesus.” In The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ: Essays on the New Question of the Historical Jesus, ed Carl E. Bratten and Roy A. Harrisville.  New York: Abingdon, 1964.

Davies, W.  D.  Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology.  Rev. ed.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980.

Dungan, David L.  The Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul.  Oxford: Blackwell, 1971.

Dunn, James D. G.  Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990.

Dunn, James D. G.  The Theology of Paul the Apostle.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Ellis, E. Earle.  The Making of the New Testament Documents. Leiden: Brill Academic, 2002.

Furnish, Victor Paul.  “The Jesus-Paul Debate: From Baur to Bultmann.”  Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 47 (1965) 343.

Hengel, Martin.  Between Jesus and Paul.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983.

Machen, J. Gresham. The Origin of Paul’s Religion.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947.

Wedderburn, A. J. M. and C. Wolff, ed.  Paul and Jesus.  JSNTSS 37; Sheffield: JSOT, 1989.

Wenham, David.  Paul and Jesus: The True Story.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

Wenham, David.  Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

William Wrede.  Paul.  London: Philip Green, 1907.


 

1 Comment

  1. Really enjoyed this read. Thank you for sharing this my friend.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: