What did Paul know about Jesus?

The aim of this article is to show that there is no evidence that the stories which were later to appear in the four Gospels, were circulating widely while Paul was writing and preaching.

A secondary aim is to show that Paul knew next to nothing about the Gospel stories, as he fails to mention them at crucial points and often seems to contradict them.

Paul is often called the second greatest Christian who ever lived and the greatest evangelist who ever lived. He helped to spread the Gospel over a wide area. His letters are the earliest Christian documents we have.

Paul's letters are pimary evidence. Primary evidence is very important to historians. For example, here is a coin from the time of Vespasian depicting the fall of Judea during the war between the Jews and Rome. Coin from Vespasian

Here is a coin from the time of Domitian. The letters 'Domitian' are clearly visible. Coin from Domitian

What does the primary evidence of Christianity tell us about Jesus? Should not the greatest Christian evangelist who ever lived have known something about Jesus?

The Problem

There are 13 letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament. Romans and 1 Corinthians are very long and were written to teach people about the Gospel. But in all of Paul's long letters there is almost nothing about the life of Jesus. Paul knew that Jesus had been crucified, but he never mentions any miracles, any parables, any exorcisms etc.

He never mentions the Lord's Prayer, the Transfiguration, the Sermon on the Mount, Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, the 3 Wise Men,Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents, Galilee, Nazareth, Pontius Pilate, Judas Iscariot, Gethsemane, Calvary, the Temptation by Satan etc etc. He never refers to Jesus as the 'Son of Man', one of Jesus's favourite ways of describing himself. 1 Timothy 6:13 mentions Pilate, but 1 Timothy is not by Paul.

According to the Gospels, the Pharisees were bitter enemies of Jesus, yet Paul makes no mention of this and regards his having been a Pharisee as a sign of his having tried to lead a righteous life.

What did Paul actually know about Jesus?

Did the Gospel stories exist before the Gospels were written?

Is it possible to teach people about the Gospel without mentioning Gospel stories? Why did Paul not mention the most well-loved Gospel stories?

Graham Stanton, (Professor of New Testament Studies in the University of London), in his book 'Gospel Truth', says that Paul's failure to refer more frequently to the actions and teaching of Jesus is 'baffling'. It is certainly baffling, if you believe that Paul knew about these Gospel stories and if you believe that these Gospel stories existed while Paul was writing. It is not baffling if Paul , for one reason or another, had never heard of these stories.

I shall try to give a solution to this problem. Even if my solution is wrong I feel that it is better than the Christian solution.

Rather curiously, some Christians think the silence of Paul, James, the author of Hebrews , and other works such as Barnabas and 1 Clement, is not a problem. I always find it strange to be told that the argument from silence is a weak argument, when the silence is the lack of Christian evidence. The silence is the silence of Christian writers. The silence is a Christian problem, not a skeptical problem.

It is rather like a defence witness saying that he has an alibi , but when it is pointed out to him that the earliest documents in the case make no mention of his alibi, he then claims that this is just 'an argument from silence.'.

A Christian Solution

The solution runs - Paul never mentions the gospel stories because the people he was writing to were so familiar with them that they went without saying. I think this is a silly solution. Have you ever heard a preacher decide not to mention a story about Jesus because his audience were familiar with it? 1 Corinthians 15 was written because the Corinthians doubted the Resurrection. Were the people who doubted the Resurrection also the people who knew the gospel stories off by heart? In Galatians 1:6-9, Paul chides the Galatians for following different gospels. Were the people who followed different gospels also the people who knew the gospel stories off by heart?

Nobody has ever even provided any evidence that the Romans and Colossians and Galatians etc were so familiar with the Gospel stories that Paul could take knowledge of them for granted. Indeed, the third Bishop of Rome , Clement, shows a very poor knowledge of the Gospel stories when he wrote 1 Clement.

If stories need not be mentioned because audiences are already familiar with them, why does Paul mention so many stories from the Old Testament? His audience must have already been familiar with them as, as for example in 1 Corinthians 10, he mentions many details from Old Testament stories in passing, expecting his audience to pick up the references. He does not allow the fact that his audience knew the stories to stop him mentioning them. Why does he allow the 'fact' that his audience knew the Gospel stories to stop him mentioning them?

Were the Gospel stories so well known by the churches Paul was preaching to that Christians took them for granted?

We know of early Christian writings that flatly contradict the Gospel stories. The Epistle of Barnabas (12:31-12:35) says that Jesus was not the son of David, in a contradiction of Matthew 1:1.

12:31 Since then men will say that Christ is the son of David, David himself prophesieth being afraid and understanding the error of sinners
12:32 The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on My right hand until I set thine enemies for a footstool under Thy feet.
12:33 And again thus saith Isaiah;
12:34 The Lord said unto my Christ the Lord, of whose right hand I will hold, that the nations should give ear before Him, and I will break down the strength of kings.
12:35 See how David calleth Him Lord, and calleth Him not Son.

What does Paul mention about Jesus?

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul mentions the Resurrection. This passage has an article devoted to it, so I shall not examine it here.

The one other place where Paul seems to mention a famous gospel passage is 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."

Perhaps Jesus did say those words, although it is interesting that John's Gospel, claiming to be an eye-witness, did not think it worth recording, and that those words may well have been missing from the original version of Luke's Gospel. (They are a footnote in the RSV) It is also interesting that the translators translate Paul as having written 'betrayal'. The Greek word used is also used by Paul in Romans 8:32 where God 'betrayed' Jesus and in Ephesians 5:2, where Jesus 'betrayed' himself. Naturally, the word is not translated 'betrayed' in those two places! It is simply an assumption by modern translators that 1 Corinthians 11 is referring to the betrayal of Jesus, so they translate it that way in that passage, but not in the others.

Other references to the historical Jesus

In 1 Cor. 7:10, Paul refers to the teaching on divorce - hardly the living heart of the gospel. 1 Cor. 9:14 might refer to Matthew 10:10, but it is hardly an exact match. Romans 12 gives lots of ethical teaching, but there is never even a hint by Paul, that Jesus may have taught similar, but not identical, things.

Romans 8:26 says that 'we do not know how to pray as we ought'. It seems that neither Paul, nor the entire Christian community in Rome, had heard of the Lord's Prayer. A famous passage in the Gospels has Jesus saying 'Abba'. Christians make much of this , saying that only the Son could use such an intimate term of the Father, even though Geza Vermes , in his book 'Jesus , the Jew', gives an example of a Jewish prayer, using the word 'Abba', in a way which many Christians say was impossible for Jews to do. Paul , in Galatians 4:6, uses 'Abba', and never hints that Jesus set an example of how to use the word.

In 1 Corinthians 6:2-3, Paul says 'Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!' Can Paul really have heard the teaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the mount 'Judge not, or you too will be judged'?

Matthew 26:19 says 'Therefore go and make disciples of all men, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.'. If Paul knew of this, why did he say 'For Christ did not send me to baptise'? (1 Corinthians 1:17).

In 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, Paul says that the 'rulers of the age' did not understand about Jesus, or else they would not have crucified him. By 'rulers of the age', Paul means demons. But in Mark's Gospel, demons are the only beings who recognize that Jesus was the Holy One of God! (Mark 1:24)

In Galatians 2:11-13, Paul describes how the early Christian Church leaders quarrelled with each other over the vital issue of whether or not to eat meals with Gentiles. Why did Paul never think of quoting Jesus's words about eating with sinners from Mark 2:16-17?

A solution

The most obvious solution is that Paul never mentions Gospel stories because he did not know them.

It is often stated that the gap between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels was far too short to allow legends and myths to develop. This is not true. We all know that rumours can spring up overnight, let alone over a period of 30 to 40 years. Furthermore, Paul's letters are insistent that there were many false teachings and false Gospels about Jesus and that many people had fallen for them. Of course, we only have his word for it that his teachings were correct while his enemies teachings were wrong. It seems that Paul's teachings were just one of many that happened to be circulating at that time, and his were the views that survived. And we all know that history is written by the winners.

But the early Christians were taught by the disciples!

It is a common Christian view that after Jesus's death, the disciples spread out and started teaching the gospel stories to people in the Middle East. This is not something that can be backed up from the Bible.

Paul insists that it was he, and not the apostles, who spread the gospel. Paul told Peter ,"to his face", that he was wrong. Paul and the Jerusalem apostles just did not get along, although they came to an uneasy truce. Paul accused them of insincerity and of putting in "false brethren" to spy on him. Paul makes clear that he was a Christian for three years before he felt any need to go to Jerusalem to visit Peter and even when he was there he hardly spoke to any of the other apostles. It would be fascinating to know what on earth Paul preached in those 3 years before he had met any of the disciples. All this is from Galatians 1.

Galatians 1 also says that Paul spent just 15 days in Jerusalem where he met only Peter and James, not one of the original disciples. If I was spending a fortnight in Jerusalem in about 39 AD, I would certainly want to speak to as many eyewitnesses of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as I could find, but it seems that the greatest evangelist in the history of the Christian Church couldn't be asked. How strange.

Paul insists so many times that what he is preaching comes not from man, but from God (presumably he means his many visions), that it is absurd to suggest that what he taught about Jesus was what the disciples taught about Jesus. He is clear that they taught him nothing except that Jesus was crucified and (as I shall show in another article), was seen in visions and dreams after his death.

Paul's letters insist that it was not the eyewitnesses of Jesus who went on missionary strategies, but people like Epaphras ( Colossians 1:7) ,Appollos (1 Cor. 16:12), Phoebe (Romans 16:1), Prisca and Aquila (Romans 16:3), Andronicus and Junias (Romans 16:7).

Paul makes clear in 2 Corinthians 12:12 that being an eyewitness of Jesus's life was not what singled out an apostle.

Acts 17:2 states clearly that Paul taught 'from the scriptures' and not from the evidence of eyewitnesses. Acts 18:23-28 states that Appollos , after he had been taught what was correct and what was not correct about Jesus, 'showed by the scriptures that the Christ was Jesus', not 'showed by eyewitness testimony that the Christ was Jesus'. Romans 1:1-4 states that the gospel came from the scriptures and never states that the gospel came from eyewitnesses. 1 Corinthians 15:3 states that Jesus was raised on the third day 'in accordance with the scriptures' and not in accordance with eyewitness testimony.


This article shows that there is no evidence that the Christianity spread by Paul was the same Christianity of the disciples in Jerusalem or was the same Christianity that lead to the production of the Gospels. Indeed, Paul had so little interest in what the disciples had to say about Jesus that he never mentions any person, who, according to Paul, saw Jesus while he was alive.

Indeed, Paul had so little interest in what the disciples had to say about Jesus that he couldn't be bothered to talk to most of them, even when he had made a special trip to Jerusalem.

Paul did not regard being a companion of Jesus as anything special. As far as he was concerned, the earthly life of Jesus had no interest and being a companion of Jesus did not mark one out as an apostle. How could this be if Jesus did all the things attributed to him in the Gospels?

I shall show in other articles that the branch of Christianity that led to the Gospels being written also did not come from eyewitnesses.

Christianity split into denominations and sects very quickly and the real, historical Jesus is forever lost to us.

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