Was There No Historical Jesus?

by Earl Doherty


From The Fourth R (Magazine of the Westar Institute and the Jesus Seminar) Jan-Feb. 1999:
Gregory C. Jenks: What Did Paul Know About Jesus?

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The Jesus Seminar spent more than a decade immersed in the hothouse of the Gospels, examining the authenticity of the sayings and acts attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. Since then, it has moved out onto a more wide-ranging landscape, the letters of the wandering apostle who some say was the true founder of Christianity as we know it, Paul of Tarsus. Now the Jesus Seminar scholars are asking, What can we know about Paul, and just how much is authentic in those epistles which have been judged by modern scholars to be genuine to him?

In the January-February 1999 issue of The Fourth R, Dr. Gregory Jenks, an Anglican (Episcopal) Rector in Brisbane, Australia, turns to a different question which needs to be answered first, before any dissection of the letters of Paul can hope to understand the picture he creates of the earliest period of the faith for which we have any surviving record. That question is: What did Paul know about Jesus? Though this article occupies only about seven pages of the magazine, it is a telling (if not quite complete) survey of the astounding gulf which stands between what the Gospels tells us about Jesus of Nazareth and what Paul fails to tell us. Jenks’ article is almost entirely a litany of silences, and yet he neglects to ask any of the obvious questions which should arise from this perplexing picture, and which might cast a different light on the origins of Christianity and the traditional figure who is supposed to have set everything in motion.

I will go through Dr. Jenks’ article, and ask those questions myself. (Along the way, we’ll drop in on Paul in his missionary travels and eavesdrop on a conversation he might have had with a group of new converts.) Afterwards, I will extend the survey beyond Paul himself to the rest of the epistles, and see to what extent Paul is representative of the entire corpus of early Christian correspondence, then conclude with the positive picture about the real nature of early Christianity which can be drawn from Paul and the other epistles.

Dr. Jenks restricts his survey to the seven epistles widely regarded as authentic to Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. He begins by noting that much debate has gone on for a long time over whether certain passages in the Pauline epistles “seem to cite, evoke or parallel material known from the canonical gospels.” He remarks: “Lists of possible ‘echoes’ of the Jesus tradition in Paul are common, ranging from a few items to several hundred! But what one person recognizes as an allusion to Jesus traditions known by Paul and his readers, another sees as simply a parallel phrase that need not presuppose any knowledge of the Jesus traditions”.

In examining the content of the letters for those Jesus traditions, Jenks takes as a “control sample” Robert Funk’s categorization of the sayings and acts of the Gospel Jesus judged by the Seminar to have a strong claim to authenticity (red and pink in their voting system). In his Gospel of Jesus According to the Jesus Seminar, Funk has arranged these by themes with a minimum of narrative framework, and Jenks goes through them category by category. I will highlight his observations in each, with some accompanying comments—then follow that with a more general discussion. (All words in quotes in the next section are from Jenks’ text, as are the headings.)

Comparing Jesus Traditions in the Gospels with Paul’s Letters

Prologue: Birth, childhood and family of Jesus

“Paul displays no interest in the childhood of Jesus, or in any other period of Jesus’ life.” Dr. Jenks fails to note that this is a startling state of affairs for which attempted explanations raise more problems than they solve. He claims that “the Jewishness of Jesus is assumed throughout Paul’s writings,” but the passages he points to in regard to “the birth of Jesus” (Galatians 4:4, Romans 1:3) are, as I will show later, compromised by other elements found within them, and admit to a different interpretation.

1. John the Baptist and Jesus

“Paul never alludes to the traditions about John the Baptist.” Jenks fails to note as well that, for all the importance Paul places on baptism (Romans 6:1-4, etc.), he never alludes to Jesus’ own baptism, or to traditions of the descending dove and God’s voice from heaven, elements which would have been right at home, as well as extremely useful, in his mystical view of this sacrament. Both Jesus’ baptism and the figure of the Baptist are inexplicable silences in Paul.

2. Jesus announces the good news

As for the “good news” which is the focus of Jesus’ ministry, “there is no use made of the kind of tradition preserved in the Beatitudes . . . no trace that Jesus was remembered as one who congratulates those who seem to have missed out on life’s blessings, but denounces those who are enjoying the good things of life now. . . . [T]here is nothing like the parables and aphorisms of Jesus about the present reality of God’s domain.” Considering that this kind of material is the residual substance of the ‘genuine’ historical Jesus being uncovered by critical circles like the Jesus Seminar, we must believe that Paul has buried the essence of Jesus’ earthly career so deep that he cannot even call on the very core of Jesus’ preaching mission. Later I will examine whether such a scenario is logically possible.

3. Disciples and discipleship

One of the most profound silences in Paul is on the matter of those who had known, followed, been chosen by Jesus himself during his ministry, and the lines of authority which should have formed on the basis of those connections, once the spread of the faith got started. Jenks skirts this silence, touching only on the lack in Paul of any sense of “Jesus’ calls for personal discipleship.” He does make the observation that claims to status supposedly based on a relationship to the earthly Jesus (a status no one on Paul’s epistolary horizon ever claims!) are dismissed by Paul with some disdain in Galatians 2:6-10, but this is a dismissal which invites the alternative conclusion that these men had no special status at all based on any connection to an historical Jesus. As for Paul’s reference to “the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5, the only such reference in the entire corpus of New Testament epistles), this is indeed “general”, so much so that whatever this shadowy group represented in the functioning of the Jerusalem sect, they may not have been “apostles” at all. (See my Supplementary Article No. 1: Apollos of Alexandria and the Early Christian Apostolate.)

Jenks also points out that Paul never makes mention of any of the women on the Gospel scene, from Mary Magdalene to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

4. Teaching with authority

“Paul makes virtually no appeal to Jesus as a teacher, or as an authoritative source of instruction. . . . Paul’s writings do not draw upon any of the classic parables and aphorisms of Jesus.” Could Paul have so disdained the authority of Jesus’ example and pronouncements on issues that were crucial to his own mission and convictions, such as the cleanness of foods, the continued applicability of the Jewish law, preaching to the gentiles, the need to love, to bless one’s enemies, to pay authorities their due, etc., etc., that he completely ignored and felt no interest in the Son of God’s earthly teachings?

Jenks points to three “words of the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:10, 9:14, 11:23f), without noting a prominent line of scholarly thought which views at least the first two of these as directives Paul thinks he has received from Christ in heaven through personal revelation; although Jenks does admit that “Paul invokes Christ as a divine authority figure, as the risen Lord, rather than as Jesus, the authoritative teacher of divine wisdom.”

5. Demons by the finger of God

“Paul makes no use of the tradition of Jesus as a healer and exorcist.” With the silence on Jesus as teacher and miracle-worker, to which we must add as apocalyptic prophet (which Jenks does not list), the three major pillars of Jesus’ Gospel ministry seem utterly unknown to Paul. Jenks also fails to point out that one of the Gospels’ most prominent of apocalyptic motifs, Jesus’ self-designation as the coming Son of Man (an anticipated end-time figure in some circles, dependent on Daniel 7) is never voiced by Paul. (Here and elsewhere I am admittedly calling attention to silences about Jesus traditions which Funk and the Seminar do not regard as authentic, and thus which lie outside the scope of Jenks’ examination, but I think they deserve to be thrown into the pot in this critique.)

6. Death of John the Baptist

Jenks returns to the Baptist with the observation that Paul shows no sign of the role John played in “stimulating Jesus’ own public activity.”

7. Love & forgiveness

Jenks claims that one authentic Jesus tradition that has survived in Paul’s writings “may be the idea of unconditional generosity to others, including love of one’s enemies.” It is unfortunate that in Paul’s exhortations along these lines (eg, Romans 12:14), he never points to Jesus as having said anything of the sort, making the claim unfounded at best, one of those “echoes” which may not be based on a Jesus tradition at all.

8. Jesus at the table

Jesus’ practice of table fellowship with all and sundry, even the unclean, was “a powerful symbol of God’s domain here and now.” Yet, “even on this issue, Paul never cites the example of Jesus’ own behavior to support his vehement denunciation of Peter and the Corinthians!” Jenks asks, “Was he unaware of such a tradition?” Such a question reveals the great conundrum that must be dealt with by those who face the silence in Paul head on. If the ‘answer’ is that Paul did not know these things, we have to ask—and we will—whether such an eventuality is feasible, indeed logically tenable. (That he did know all these Jesus traditions but never referred to them, is equally untenable.)

9. Celebration

Paul’s “Puritan” advice to his readers, in favor of “sexual abstinence, sobriety of public conduct, and a deference to the tender consciences of others,” does not square with the “party animal” image conveyed of Jesus in the Gospels.

10. Sabbath observance

Jesus could waive Sabbath requirements in the interests of overriding human needs, whereas Paul shows continuing observance of the Sabbath.

11. Kinship in the kingdom

While Jesus “subordinated natural kinship ties to the new relationships shared with disciples and companions,” Paul “relativizes human relationships” because he perceives that the End is near.

12. In parables

Again Jenks notes that there is no hint in Paul of the tradition that Jesus taught in parables, nor does Paul ever use the genre of parable himself.

13. Public and private piety

Paul’s emphasis on his trials and tribulations, and his personal spiritual disciplines, along with an exhortation to these for others, ignores Jesus’ admonition that such things should not be paraded in public. Jenks notes here that the Lord’s Prayer “would appear to have left no trace in the tradition that Paul knew.” If even this is missing from the landscape Paul moved in, where are we to find any echo of Jesus the rabbi?

14. Jesus & purity

Paul may have been ambivalent about the strict application of Jewish purity rules, but Jenks agrees that “Paul never cites Jesus even though the topic had such significance within early Christianity that he had to deal with it in both 1 Corinthians and Romans.”

15. Signs of God’s imperial rule

“There is never a hint in Paul that Jesus may have been remembered as a miracle worker, even though Paul does refer to the ‘power of signs and wonders’ that were characteristic of his own ministry in various places.” Such parallels between Jesus and Paul’s own activities should have made these aspects of Jesus’ ministry of great interest to Paul.

16. Five cures

“The tradition of Jesus as a healer . . . also plays no part in the Pauline tradition.”

17. Success, wealth & God’s domain

Jesus’ “detachment from success and status,” . . . with “wealth as a major hurdle for those seeking a share in God’s domain” is not consistently ascribed to by Paul, who “seems somewhat confused on these issues.”

18. Hospitality

Jenks finds a parallel between the early Jesus tradition that “generous hospitality is a hallmark of God’s domain,” and similar sentiments in Paul. He points out that Paul cites a ‘word of the Lord’ (1 Cor. 9:14) to the effect that “Christian workers should be supported by the faithful,” but, as noted above, those three “words of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians bear all the signs of being revelatory communications to Paul from Christ in heaven, an acknowledged feature of the early Christian prophetic movement.

19. Sight & light

On a group of characteristic sayings motifs found in Jesus’ Gospel preaching, Jenks notes that nothing in Paul reflects this characteristic material.

20. In Jerusalem

“Paul has nothing alluding to Jesus’ struggle with the Jerusalem authorities . . . (his) critique of the Temple, nor his radical threat to the whole system of religious brokerage that was centered upon it.” In other words, the entire context in which the evangelists place the passion story of the Gospels. Jenks notes that “Paul’s views on submission to the civil authorities (Rom. 13:1-7) run quite contrary to the teachings of Jesus,” but he fails to go a step further and observe that such views (including that the good man has nothing to fear from those in power) could hardly exist in Paul’s own mind, much less strike his readers as anything other than absurd, if in fact those very authorities were the ones who had conspired against, abused, and executed the innocent Jesus of Nazareth.

21. The passion

And so Dr. Jenks arrives at the one category where he perceives “a significant drawing upon the Jesus tradition in the writings of Paul.” He points to “the institution of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-26)” and mentions the “significant references to the death of Jesus elsewhere.” The former stands alone in Paul as anything resembling a Gospel incident, and I’ll address it later, but as for “that aspect of the Jesus tradition that had real importance to Paul,” namely the crucifixion, Jenks makes this powerful admission: “Even so, we do not get a detailed exposition of the circumstances of Jesus’ death or of its theological significance.”

This is a vast understatement. Indeed, Paul does not even tell us that Jesus was tried, let alone make the slightest reference to any detail of the Gospel passion account. Gethsemane alone should have appealed to him in a gut way, providing great emotional consolation, this appeal to God by Jesus which would have symbolized Paul’s own self-doubts and feelings of weakness. It is hard to believe that in discussing the failings of the Jews and his hopes for their ultimate salvation, that Paul would not have introduced the figure of Judas. As for the Roman Pilate, could he not have served Paul as an example of “the wisdom of the world” which could not understand “the wisdom of God”? In view of Paul’s fixation on the “sufferings of Christ”, could he have had no interest in, nor ever referred to, the details of Jesus’ afflictions, the scourging, the crown of thorns, the thirst? Would he never have visited Calvary, to throw himself upon the ground which bore the blood of his slain Lord— and told the world about it?

Here Jenks includes in Paul’s “understanding of the Passion,” Jesus’ “crucifixion by the Roman authorities.” This is a ‘reading into’ Paul on the basis of preconception, for Paul nowhere attributes responsibility for Jesus’ death to the Romans. Considering that 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16, with its reference to “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus,” is judged by many critical scholars to be an interpolation (mainly because it contains an obvious reference to the destruction of Jerusalem after Paul’s death), Paul in fact never attributes the death of Jesus to any human agency.

Epilogue: Pillars & Pioneers

If Paul is silent on the site and scene of Calvary, he is equally silent on the story of the empty tomb, the location of the event which guaranteed resurrection for all (Romans 6:5). As with Calvary, no one in Paul’s world, including himself, ever speaks of visiting the grave site. Jenks admits that Mark “seems to have created the empty tomb tradition,” and Paul’s references to the resurrection are notably without earthly context. In fact, Christ’s death and resurrection can be seen to fit into the same spiritual world context as the myths of the Graeco-Roman savior-god cults, the dominant religious expression of the age in regard to personal salvation, and of which Christianity was in many ways a Hellenistic-Jewish counterpart.

As for Paul’s list of “appearances” in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, Jenks alludes to the view of the Jesus Seminar and other progressive scholars that these were entirely of a ‘visionary’ or revelatory order, perhaps no more than an experience of emotional conviction on the part of various people, and do not at Paul’s stage represent bodily apparitions by a Jesus risen from his grave. I would add that Paul’s inclusion of his own ‘seeing’ with the rest implies that they were all of the same nature.

Failings and Fallacies

At a few points in his article, Dr. Jenks offers some explanations for the situation we find in the Pauline letters. Do these stand up to scrutiny, or do they have logical deficiencies which make them unacceptable?

One is that Paul “had little access to the earliest Jesus traditions,” even though his letters are closer in time to those traditions than any concrete surviving record. Yet why should Paul have had any less access than other Christian missionaries operating in the field? He had direct contacts with the Jerusalem apostles—or perhaps we should say that he possessed the potential for such contacts, for by his own admission in Galatians (1:16f) he took the trouble to visit them only once during the 17-year period following his conversion (and that only after three years), and even then he gives us no indication that he bothered to elicit information about Jesus during that two-week visit.

In any case, how are those Jesus traditions said to have survived and been perpetuated, if not by oral tradition, which theoretically could reach anyone, including Paul? Christianity was too quickly widespread to have relied on the personal presence of the few information-supplying apostles who bore the memories of Jesus from their own personal contact with him. If missionaries to all nations could carry and seed their new congregations with Jesus traditions, why not Paul? How did the communities of the evangelists, all of them located outside Palestine, come to possess such traditions and include them in their Gospels, if at an earlier stage Paul and his circles were deprived of them? Were the latter uniquely short-changed? Would these particular converts have accepted such a deprivation? Would this not have been a bone of contention surrounding Paul’s mission, especially where his rivals were concerned, if that mission lacked, as it apparently did, all traditions about the human, ministering Jesus?

It is often said that Paul, for whatever personal reasons imputed to him, either had no interest in the features of Jesus’ earthly life, or—somewhat perversely—refused to include them in his portfolio (perhaps, it is suggested, because he sought to avoid suffering in comparison to those who had known and followed Jesus in his earthly ministry). Jenks reflects this general view by his remark in No. 5, in connection with Paul’s silence on Jesus as healer and exorcist: “This would appear to be due to his consistent focus on the post-Easter Jesus, understood as Christ, Lord and Son. It is not that Paul would have regarded such actions as improbable, they simply were irrelevant to the portrait of Jesus that he worked with.”

Quite apart from the fact that Paul gives us not the slightest hint that he deliberately passed up collecting Jesus traditions, such an explanation does not work on a number of grounds. I have alluded above to one of them: that his audiences and congregations would hardly have accepted it. If a preacher comes into town talking of a man who was raised from the dead and was the Son of God and Redeemer of the world, those listeners are hardly liable to share in Paul’s disinterest in that human man. They would have demanded to know about him, and Paul could not reasonably have anticipated that they would not. Another is that Paul’s own interests would have been immensely served by including aspects of the human Jesus in his message. What other savior god of the day had recently been on earth, to minister on humanity’s own turf, giving guidance, compassion, forgiveness, demonstrating his power over the hostile spirits—which everyone in that day feared and sought protection against—by expelling them from the sick? What other deity had preached the most humane, innovative, comprehensive set of ethical teachings in human memory? What other deity had suffered and died on a site which anyone could visit? Were all these features “irrelevant”?

Does it make any sense that Paul would forego all this? What pathological reason could he possibly have had for doing so? And the human side of a man who has been turned into “Christ, Lord and Son”—is it too to be regarded as “irrelevant”? Can a god who has been on earth, performing his act of redemption there, be preached without including that human incarnation? Can such an elevation of a human being be proclaimed without a mountain of justification? The better part of Paul’s speaking tour would necessarily have been devoted to his reasons why this man, this crucified criminal, should be regarded in such a lofty, unprecedented—and blasphemous (to Jews)—fashion. He would have been attacked and ridiculed from all sides for such a thing. As part of that justification, he would inevitably have been drawn to the commendable, the unique, and above all the miraculous things Jesus had done in his life, the predictions he had made, the indications of divinity in his earthly ministry, and certainly the teachings—all of which, even before any Gospels were formulated, would quickly have developed as part of the apparatus of the Christian preaching technique. On all these scores, Paul could no more have shunted aside, excised from his mind and mission, the features of Jesus’ career any more than he would have denied himself his recourse to the scriptures.

This explanation also falters on the one contrast which Jenks points out: that in the area of the passion and Jesus’ crucifixion, Paul is anything but disinterested. Here we have a direct reasoning fallacy. If Jesus’ suffering and death is the one thing of concern to Paul, then this is the area where we should expect to find a wealth of Jesus traditions—at least some of those traditions. Here is where we should find details of the event itself. If the other aspects of Jesus’ life go missing because Paul finds them “irrelevant”, here is where we should be brought into the physical world of Jerusalem and Calvary, of the characters responsible for that death, the circumstances and features of that historic, sacrificial act. If we do not get such things even here, then they cannot be explained as missing in other places because Paul has no interest in those other areas of Jesus’ life.

If Paul is going to preach only the crucifixion and the resurrection, then here at least he has to have something to say about them. If he spends the day telling of Jesus’ death and rising, and the significance of these events, he cannot avoid questions about the physical setting, the historical circumstances. He cannot talk about the death and resurrection of Jesus and confine them in some rootless netherworld of spiritual significance with no link to a worldly time and place.

Or can he? In fact, that is precisely what he does.

An Imaginary Scene

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Paul steadfastly refused to gather or preach any information on any aspect of Jesus’ earthly life and teachings. We might envision something like the following scene (no irreverence intended) in some rich Greek’s house in the Diaspora, a mix of converts and interested friends and bystanders gathered about Paul on a warm summer evening. Their conversation might go something like this:

DEMETRIOS (the host and owner of the house): So, Paul, tell us more about Jesus the Savior. I have heard that he taught the people with great authority about the coming kingdom of God, and how we should all love one another.
PAUL: Yes, I have heard rumors to that effect, but I consider such things to be unimportant, and as it happens I am not familiar with any of his teachings.
DEMETRIOS: I see. But your mission is to gentiles like ourselves, is it not? Surely Jesus himself included gentiles in his own ministry and directed his apostles to go out and preach to them? I would certainly like to think that he did.
PAUL: I suppose that’s possible. I don’t have any first-hand information.
HERMES: You have performed signs and wonders for us, Paul, which convinces us that the Lord is indeed speaking through you. I understand that Jesus himself performed great feats over nature and once fed thousands with a few loaves of bread. My friend Ampliatus heard about that when he was in the east.
PAUL (clearing his throat): Oh, I don’t concern myself with such things, and you shouldn’t either. They’re quite insignificant, and you don’t need to know about them to believe in the risen Son of God.
JUNIAS: When I heard you would be here, Paul, I told my sick mother that perhaps you would come around to see her and expel the demon that is making her ill. I, too, have heard from a relative in Galilee that Jesus expelled demons and healed many people—
HERODIAN (interrupting in some agitation): Yes, the demons have been especially active in my own household. My brother has contracted a fever, and just last week the roof of my workshop collapsed for no reason—
PAUL (with a placating gesture): There is no doubt that evil spirits beset us on all sides, my friends, and we must have faith that God will deliver us from them. As to reports of healings by Jesus, perhaps he did, but then every wonder-worker in the country makes such claims, so perhaps we should not place too much importance on such things.
OLYMPAS: You have told us about the coming End, Paul, and I look forward to our promised deliverance from this sorry world, but I am greatly frighted by what may happen. Did Jesus reveal anything to his disciples about what things would be like when he comes back from heaven?
PAUL (somewhat miffed): Who knows? One can’t rely on what those so-called ‘men of repute’ in Jerusalem are spreading around anyway. After all, they’re only fishermen. Besides, as I have told you, I have information on the subject directly from Christ himself—
AGRIPPA (a Jew): Some of my Jewish friends have heard of your preaching, Paul, but when I invited them to join us at table, they said they could not break their purity regulations and eat with gentiles. Did Jesus follow such strict rules and refuse to eat with the unclean—(gesturing to the others) not that I subscribe to such rigid views myself.
PAUL (exasperated): I have no idea.
CRISPUS (looking a little pained): I have a Jewish friend, too, who is a follower of Christ. But he says that even the gentile has to be circumcised—(pained expressions all around)—and follow every aspect of the Jewish law if he wishes to become a member of your faith in Christ. Is that so? Did Jesus specify such a requirement?
PAUL: My friends, my friends, why all these foolish questions? What Jesus may have said or done in the course of his life is completely immaterial. I have already informed you of the only thing that matters, Christ’s own suffering and death, and his rising from the dead. These are the things that have brought us salvation!
DEMETRIOS (hastily, sensing some perplexity and unease among his guests): Yes, my friends, the Lord’s passion is surely what we should all be focusing on, and what he went through in his terrible ordeal. Tell us about that, Paul. Was he tortured and scourged before they crucified him?
PAUL (shrugging): I assume he was. The Romans do that to everyone they crucify.
GAIUS (spitting in disgust): Yes, and here they break the condemned man’s legs to make him die more painfully. I suppose they did that to Jesus, too?
PAUL: I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
ARCHIPPUS: Tell us what he said, Paul, when they put him up on the cross. Even now the authorities are persecuting new believers in Christ and I wonder if we’ll suffer their hatred, too, just as Christ did. Did he speak? Did he stand fast? Did he condemn them for what they did?
PAUL (curtly): I didn’t ask. But let me tell you about what the Lord revealed to me personally—
JULIA: Oh, how I envy you, Paul! You who have been to Jerusalem and could stand on the very spot where Jesus was crucified. That would give me the shivers. You must have felt his presence. Is that when he spoke to you?
PAUL: My dear lady, I’ve never been to Calvary. I couldn’t find the time when I went to see Peter and James. It’s only a little hill, after all.
PERSIS: But the tomb, Paul. Did you not see that? Are there still signs of the Lord’s resurrection? Do Jesus’ followers pray there every Easter Sunday?
PAUL (throwing up his hands): As to that, I couldn’t say. But one tomb is much like another, don’t you think? Why fill your heads with such paltry details? We should better focus on the eternal significance of these events—
DEMETRIOS (noting nervously that a couple of his guests had quietly slipped away): Well, I am sure we all agree that Paul has been very enlightening on the subject of Christ Jesus. Perhaps we should retire to the atrium for aperitifs and he can tell us more. . . .

A fantasy? In more ways than one.

Lacking a Motive

There are other, insurmountable problems in these sorts of explanations. If Paul had no interest in Jesus the teacher, in Jesus the miracle worker, in Jesus the apocalyptic prophet, what on earth led him to this man, and caused him to elevate him to such a cosmic level? If the scriptures are to be perceived as prophecying him, of having an influence on Paul’s conversion, what did they prophecy but his human, earthly experience? They certainly don’t prophecy him as the equivalent of the Greek Logos, they don’t describe him as the creating and sustaining power of the universe. If Paul absorbed Hellenistic philosophical influences (which scholarship in general has long busied itself in denying, since it doesn’t like the implications), what specifically led Paul to apply such things to a crucified criminal, to a man he had never met or personally experienced, a man whose earthly career contained nothing which proved to be of interest to him except the event of his death?

Was the event of that death somehow unique? Was Jesus of Nazareth the only man to be crucified by the Romans? Was there something different about that death from all others, its circumstances, its “noble” character (a term often bandied about)? Such uniqueness, if it were possible, could only have been in terms of its historic details—yet those details are precisely what is missing in Paul’s focus upon it. Paul provides us with no fuel to account for his launching of this humble, ignominiously executed rabbi into the orbit of cosmic divinity and world redemption.

If it be said that this astonishing elevation was accomplished elsewhere, perhaps by non-Jews in a place like Antioch, this merely removes the problem one step sideways. Who did it and why? They, too, would not have experienced this man, and any knowledge of him would hardly have been such as to lead in this overreactive direction. And what gentile delivered the sucker-punch which led Paul, a Jew born and bred, to be persuaded of this Jesus’ very equality with the God of Abraham?

If one surveys the Jesus traditions which Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar have gathered up as “authentic”, is there anything in them which could lead a reasonable person in the first century—or even an unreasonable person—to immediately turn such a figure, one executed as a political subversive, into the literal Son of God, throne-partner of the Deity himself and inheritor of all the divine titles, Lord and sustainer of the universe, pre-existent before the creation of the world, an agent in that creation, redeemer of the world’s sins and conqueror of the demon powers through his death, guarantor of eternal life through his resurrection from the grave—while at the same time burying all of his human data and characteristics in such a deep hole that they don’t emerge in the wider Christian record for almost a century? Simply to state the question is to show how ludicrous the proposition is.

The Wider Picture

The title of Dr. Jenks’ article is What Did Paul Know About Jesus?, and the explanations offered to account for the vast silence in Paul’s letters on the Jesus traditions of the Gospels are cast in terms of Paul himself, his circumstances, his motivations. Logically speaking, we should expect to find that outside of the epistles which proceed from Paul himself, the situation is entirely different. Yet we all know that this is not the case, and thus the whole point of Jenks’ exercise simply evaporates and becomes not a little fallacious.

For every other epistle writer in the New Testament corpus is similarly lacking in Jesus traditions. The pseudo-Pauline writers of Colossians, Ephesians and the Pastorals, the writers of 1 and 2 Peter, of 1 and 2 John, those who penned Hebrews, the epistles of James and Jude, none of them show any more interest in or “access to” Jesus traditions than does Paul. None of them display any knowledge of the childhood of Jesus or any other period of his life, none of them mention Jesus’ baptism or John the Baptist, none of them speak of Jesus’ disciples on earth or lines of authority or apostolic tradition going back to them, none of them describe their Jesus as a miracle-worker or apocalyptic prophet. None of them appeal to Jesus’ views in support of any of the critical issues of the day.

Not one of them mentions that he was a teacher, with innovative and authoritative “good news” about the kingdom of God, about rich and poor, the relaxing of the Jewish Law, loving friend and enemy alike, not one says that he spoke in parables, or that he taught about the coming End-time. Several epistles—notably the epistle of James—contain ethical admonitions which are often very like the ones found in Jesus’ mouth in the Gospels, but never are they attributed to such a figure. The pickings are so slim where reference to Jesus as any kind of source for Christian ethics is concerned, that only one occurrence out of several of the phrase “good and wholesome teachings” in 1 Timothy has attached to it the description: “those of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (A phrase which could be interpreted in any case as relating to spiritual channels, similar to those of personified Wisdom.) Not only have commentators noted that the wording in this particular spot (6:3) may be suspicious—it sounds like the phrase began as a marginal gloss—but at their first appearance (1:11), such teachings are assigned to the gospel entrusted to Paul, “which tells of the glory of God.” In Ephesians 2:17, a vague reference to Jesus delivering “good news” speaks only of a supposed End-time ‘doctrine’ from Isaiah, suggesting a Christ ‘speaking out of scripture’; the latter is a patent and common feature of early Christian expression, as in Hebrews (eg, 10:5). Elsewhere, there isn’t a whisper of Jesus the teacher.

The passion? The rest of the epistles, too, lack the details of this central Gospel event. 1 Peter (2:22), in seeking to describe the example provided by Christ’s suffering, can do nothing else but paraphrase elements from the Suffering Servant song of Isaiah 53. A couple of other references to the crucifixion of Christ are dependent on scriptural passages as well, or are associated with spirit world elements (eg, Col. 2:15). The epistle to the Hebrews places Jesus’ sacrifice (chapters 8 & 9) in a heavenly sanctuary, without a glance at Calvary—or, for that matter, at a Last Supper’s Eucharist, despite the writer’s fixation on the establishment of the new covenant.

The sole passing reference to Pilate in the New Testament epistles comes in 1 Timothy (6:13), a letter virtually all critical scholars assign to the early 2nd century, while some have called attention to the difficulties surrounding this particular reference within its context (see the Appendix of my Supplementary Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?) Elsewhere, not an echo of the details of the Gospel trial and crucifixion scene is to be heard. Did all of these writers, in documents spanning the eastern empire for a good part of a century after Paul, have no interest in Jesus’ earthly life? Did they all consider his actions on earth “irrelevant”? Were all these writings addressed to communities of believers who, like Paul’s, neither asked nor cared about Jesus the man, but only about the “Christ, Lord and Son”? Again, merely to ask such a question is to discredit the explanation.

The Positive Picture

In seeking only for signs of the Jesus traditions of the Gospels, scholars like Dr. Jenks find a largely empty landscape. But through their Gospel-colored glasses they miss the true features of the ground which Paul and other early apostles and writers were trodding. For the epistles offer well-marked signposts, clear vistas of what the early Christian movement constituted, how it got started, the nature of its Christ Jesus which they all worship while never equating with a recent historical man late of Galilee and Jerusalem.

Men such as Paul are motivated by the Spirit sent from God (2 Cor. 1:22 & 11:4, 1 Peter 1:12, Eph. 3:5), not by traditions going back to Jesus of Nazareth. Their letters are full of the Son who has, in the present time—meaning that of apostles like Paul—been “revealed” by God (1 Pet. 1:20, Heb. 9:26, Eph. 3:5, Rom. 16:25). The Son who is a secret, God’s mystery (Rom. 16:25, Eph. 3:5, Col. 1:26 & 2:2) kept hidden for long generations and ages, to be disclosed only now to inspired apostles such as Paul, inaugurating an age of faith in this Son and what he had done for salvation. Paul himself tells of the death of Christ not at the hands of Pilate or the Jews but of the demon spirits in a spirit-world setting (1 Cor. 2:8, cf. Col. 2:15, the Ascension of Isaiah 9; see Article No. 3: Who Crucified Jesus?).

The source of information about the Son? Romans 16:26 places it specifically in “the prophetic writings”. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul enunciates his gospel of Christ’s dying and rising (“receiving” it through revelation), and states directly that he learned it from scripture, for so the “kata tas graphas” can be interpreted. (See Supplementary Article No. 6: The Source of Paul's Gospel.) At the head of Romans, Paul speaks (1:2-3) of “God’s gospel of the Son” found in the prophets—part of that scriptural gospel, so he clearly spells out, being that the Son was “of David’s seed,” a bow to the pervasive prophecy of the expected Messiah’s derivation which Paul had to apply to his mythical Son. Another ‘prophecy’ which had to apply was the strongly messianic Isaiah 7:14, providing Paul’s “born of (a) woman” in Galatians 4:4, a passage containing other elements which specify God as the working agent and the Son only as a spirit. Both these passages (along with a few other minor references) are thoroughly examined in Section II of my Supplementary Article No. 8: Christ As “Man”: Does Paul Speak of Jesus as an Historical Person?

When we place such features into the dualistic (higher/lower world) Platonic philosophy of the time, and compare this with similar mystery cult concepts of savior gods operating in the spirit world of myth, we can arrive at an understanding of these handful of passages which seem to contain human-sounding language. In the face of the vast silence on the Gospel figure found throughout the epistles, and the descriptions of their faith movement these writers provide, which exclude at so many turns any room or role for a recent historical Jesus, such an interpretation of early Christianity’s Christ Jesus as an entirely spiritual figure allows everything to fall into place.

This leaves us with the one passage which is consistently claimed to represent a definite Gospel incident, 1 Corinthians 11:23-6, Paul recounting the words spoken by Jesus at what he calls “The Lord’s Supper”. I deal with this passage as well in Supplementary Article No. 6: The Source of Paul’s Gospel, in the section “Learning of a Sacred Meal”. The bottom line is that Paul opens his remarks with the statement that he had learned about this ‘event’ “from the Lord himself.” Although scholars have long put themselves through contortions to make the words seem to imply something else, they clearly tell us that he is speaking of a personal revelation. This would be a ridiculous claim on Paul’s part if the Supper and the words spoken there were an historical incident of common knowledge among Christians through oral tradition. (And how could it not be so, if believers like the Corinthians celibrate the eucharistic sacrament?) Rather, Paul is presenting a mythical scene along the same lines as those attached to the sacred meals of other mystery religions of the day, such as the meal of the Mithraic cult which bore strong resemblance to the Christian one.


Toward the end of his article, Dr. Jenks states that “Paul appears to have been captured by his religious experience of the living Jesus. This Christ became, for Paul, the focal point for the presence and action of God.” I couldn’t agree more. All we have to recognize and acknowledge is that this “living Jesus” was an entirely spiritual figure, like every other savior deity of the day, revealed through God’s Spirit and the sacred writings. Early apostles like Paul (and the Jerusalem group around Peter and James) were acting in accordance with the seething spirit of the time, which sought truth and salvation through religious experience: through direct revelation from the Deity, through visions and ascents to heaven in dreams, through inspired understanding of sacred texts, through personal calls to preach. God was working in the world, and one need only attune oneself to him. Christ Jesus was also an expression of the overriding philosophical concept of the age: that the ultimate, transcendent God made himself known and operated upon the world through an intermediary, spiritual channel, an emanation of himself, like the Greek Logos and Jewish personified Wisdom. In some parlance, this intermediary was called “the Son”.

Christianity, other Jewish apocalyptic and kingdom sects, an assortment of pagan cults and theosophies, all had their advocates tramping the byways of the empire offering brands of salvation and future exaltation for the individual believer. Only after Christianity had established itself, responding in some places to these inspired prophets, in others springing up in local, spontaneous fashion, did something happen in a kingdom-preaching community in Galilee now known as Q to develop an artificial founder figure, probably interreacting with another development, the composing of a piece of symbolic midrash about a character called Jesus of Nazareth who reflected the experiences and reform-minded teachings of the sectarian community of “Mark” and its belief in a divine Son. In that atmosphere of creative—and ultimately misunderstood— literary invention were born the “Jesus traditions” and the “sage of Galilee” which Dr. Jenks and others have been vainly seeking in the record of surviving correspondence from the earliest Christian apostles to their congregations in the faith.

(For a fuller, yet succinct, survey of my views on these matters, see the latter part of my article written for the Journal of Higher Criticism, reprinted on the Jesus Puzzle site: The Jesus Puzzle: Pieces in a Puzzle of Christian Origins. Other items which cover many of the elements of the present critique are my book reviews of Robert Funk’s Honest to Jesus and Burton Mack's Who Wrote the New Testament?)