What did Paul know about Jesus?


The aim of my article on Paul was to try to show that there is no evidence that the stories which were later to go into the four Gospels, were circulating when Paul was writing and preaching.

If anything the evidence is that Paul knew next to nothing of the traditional Gospel stories. I gave examples where he could have used them to hammer home what he was saying, but did not.

Feedback on this essay (Each reply separated by horizontal lines)

Quotes from the essay are in bold quotes . Responses that have been sent to me are in black. My replies are in blue.


13th November 1998

Hello - just a quick point. Have you read 'Jesus and the logic of history - New Studies in Biblical Theology No.3' - Paul Barnett - Apollos 1997 - ISBN 0-85111-512-8? Much of this book convincingly refutes exactly the points you are making and should be read before writing again on this subject.


15th July 1998

Hi Steven,

just been reading another of your essays: "What did Paul know about Jesus?". As usual, you argue the point succinctly and powerfully. Lots of good arguments here. I would be interested in seeing your refutation of the arguments presented by Glenn Miller on the topic (http://www.webcom.com/~ctt/muslix.html), of which you are no doubt aware. As usual, Glenn provides strong arguments, though I think you'd agree he suffers from an extreme case of verbosity :-).

I want to add a few comments of mine own.

I agree that the old argument that the churches that Paul was writing to already knew about the 'historical' Jesus is rather weak, although we cannot rule out some element of truth in it.

I also agree that much of the apologetic of the early church was centred around proving stuff about Jesus by appealing to the Jewish Scriptures. Obviously for the Jew the Scriptures were more conclusive than physical evidence. I can imagine that all the empty tomb arguments in the world would not have convinced a Jew of anything if you could not show that the event was consistent with their Scriptures.

Two results (at least!) stem from this observation. (1) The theological, rather than historical, focus of early Christian writings is not surprising. (2) I agree that the 'prophecies' that the NT writers dig up in support of Jesus sometimes stretch Western-mind credulity. However, the explanation that the 'prophecy' was made up in order to fit the known facts is far more likely than the alternative that the events were made up to fit the known prophecy. The classic case is the "Christ rose on the 3rd day in accordance with the scriptures". I agree that Hosea 6:2 is difficult (but maybe not impossible) to mesh with this event, but that merely underlines that the event was NOT made up in order to fit the prophecy! The early Christians used this verse and other OT passages to convince other Jews that Jesus was who they said he was - the Jews valued this 'evidence' (dodgy as we find it) more highly than other, more Western, lines of argument. Note that none of this is to say that no-one cared about the actual events of Jesus life - just that Jews generally did not appeal to 'evidence' when debating/encouraging/theologising/whatever if they could appeal instead to 'the scriptures', which formed a far more compelling argument. Of course, this became less of the case once Christianity pulled away from Judaism.

Yes, Paul was the "apostle to the Gentiles", but his readers are obviously *very* familiar with Judaism - they are almost certainly Gentiles who became Jewish converts who became Christian converts.

I suggest then that you are correct in saying that the early Christians argued primarily (but not exclusively) from 'the scriptures', but wrong in your conclusions from this.

Now I want to focus on the Gospels themselves. I think that there are obvious signs in the gospels of an historical Jesus, and often Paul does not mention these facts.

I take it that you are familiar with the 4-source hypothesis? Most Anti-Christian literature of the web agrees with it, so I'm assuming that you do too. If you don't, then I'm happy to discuss it. I think its reasonable to assume that any fact attested by *all* four sources (Mk,Q,M,L) almost certainly reflects history. Note that I don't mean that stories which appear in Matt, Mark and Luke count as three sources - they count as one - Mark's (One of the few :-) triumphs of modern scholarship is the almost universal acceptance of Markan priority, the exception usually from the fundamentalist fringe which still argue for Matthew). There aren't actually that many events that fulfill this very strong criteria - here are a few:

(1) Jesus calls himself the 'Son of Man' - *multiple* attestation from all sources. It also passes the 'double dissimilarity' criterion that seems to be popular now - that is, there is no evidence that the early church made it up and though it is a Jewish concept (Dan 7:14) it is not readily derivable from 1st century Judaism. It is also so unclear what Jesus actually meant by the title that a motive to invent it is impossible to find.

(2) 'the first shall be last and last shall be first' (and similar statements). So much of Jesus teaching either states this explicitly or implicitly in parables. Same arguments as for (1), plus this statement is so mundane that I just can't imagine any funny business...

(3) teaching in parables. All sources. Seems to have been quite distinctive of Jesus. No scholar I have read denies that Jesus taught in parables (other than those who deny he existed at all). Take a look at Jesus speaking in John's gospel. That's the early church style for Jesus. Quite different from the synoptics.

(4) Jesus mixes with 'sinners' and is critised for it.

(5) Jesus warns 'this generation' about impending trouble. Again, this is in all sources. Anti-Christian literature on the web tells us that these 'predictions' never came true, so why would the early church invent it?. Similarly, in Mark Jesus predicts about the temple that 'not one stone shall be left upon another', a prediction that did not come true - one wall of the temple still stands today. The temple was also primarily destroyed by fire, which Jesus doesn't mention, so it is unlikely that the post-70 church made this up (I agree that Luke and Matthew both betray signs of post-event fiddling). See Sanders "the Historical Figure of Jesus".

(6) Jesus was from Galilee. All sources. Is Isaiah 9:1 Messianic? Anti-Christian literature on the web assures us that it isn't, so why would the early church have Jesus come from Galilee, a home for thugs and simpletons, not Messiahs?

(7) Jesus was crucified as a criminal. The early church had lots of trouble convincing people that the Messiah could be crucified as a criminal. There is no motivation for inventing it (any mention of other crucified saviour-gods will be directed to Glenn Miller's devastating and complete rebuttal of the whole idea). All scholars (other than those who deny Jesus existed) put this top of the list of the mnost certain things we know about Jesus. Actually, this is only in one source (Mk), which in no way reduces the credibility of the crucifixion.

(8) He was a reputed exorcist (whatever that means). All sources. Not even denied by his contempory opponents.

(9) He was, in some way, connected with John the Baptist. Note that Luke and Matthew gloss over Jesus' baptism by John - its quite an embarresment to the early church. Luke spends the absolute minimum of space on it. Matthew has John authenticating Jesus first ("I should be baptised by you"). Both demonstrate the church's uncomfortability with the story. Obviously not invented. See Stanton's "Gospel Truth?" I also think that Stanton's argument that Jesus was thought of by some comtempories as a 'King' is a sound one.

(10) Jesus preached about 'the Kingdom of God' - in some way, he thought he was bringing it in. All sources, almost in everything Jesus says. Receives a little attention from the early church, but not a great deal.

Note that none of the facts above leads directly to any 'strong' conclusion about Jesus ie. being Messiah, Son of God, Saviour of the world etc. In fact, some almost discourage such a conclusion! They are decidedly *not* legends. Again, compare John's gospel, where almost everything Jesus says is a really 'big call' - this is how the early church speaks - not in parables and riddles. Or see Matthew's birth narratives or his additions to the passion narratives...its all spectacular stuff - stars, magi, flights to Egypt, people coming out of their graves etc. He also has some stuff about 'the church' - all about as subtle as a brick. This is how the early church adds to the historical Jesus stories.

Note now that Paul mentions *none* of the above except for Jesus' death, and (maybe) some allusion to Kingdom of God type motifs. Paul may not have known the stories. That is possible, but improbable, I think, but that it irrelevant for the currant discussion. It is not possible that he didn't know the stories because they did not exist.

The debate of "who 'invented' Christianity - Jesus or Paul?" will continue forever. What I have tried to show here is that arguments like "we know nothing about Jesus from Paul's letters therefore we know nothing about Jesus at all" just will not work. The whole thing is an argument from silence, and a poor one at that. Paul's letters are the earliest *datable* Christian literature. That does not mean that Q, M, L and Mark's sources did not exist at the same time - we just don't have those documents.

I have also suggested a plausible reason for the early church's relative disinterest (by Western standards) in the historical Jesus for apologetic and theological purposes. In their culture, scripture was a more powerful tool. Although we find such writing styles odd, once we understand Jewish culture we can accept Paul's epistles without jumping to extreme conclusions about what they have to say about the historical Jesus.

ps. although I bag John's Gospel quite a bit in my ramblings I do not mean to say that John is of less value from a Christian perspective than the others, just that one should be very careful about using it for history or apologetic.

I summarise the points I made in my reply.

1> I agree that the very early Church went in for theological, not historical, preaching. That is one of the main points of my pages.

2. The Jesus of Q (You accept Q) is a very different Jesus from the Jesus of the rest of Gospels and a very different Jesus from Paul's Jesus. There is no reference to disciples or Christ in Q, and no reference to the crucifixion stories. Perhaps Burton Mack is right in his book 'Q - The Lost Gospel' that the Gospels put together two very different Jesus's.

3. I also agree that the Jews were very big on reading scripture. I try to show that Old Testament texts became stories about Jesus.

4. Paul says he preached 'Christ crucified'. This is not an 'argument form silence'. This is what Paul says. I believe him. Paul shows hardly any interest in the historical Jesus.


Your conclusion section is based on rather scanty evidence. I'd suggest that you broaden from Romans and the letters to the Corinthians and have a gander at Galation 2,the Paul/Peter "conflict" that resulted in them shaking hands in fellowship. I think it's rather likely Paul's Gospel was entirely consistent with Peter's given the anticipation of problems and their happy non-appearance in this passage...


It is true,as you wrote, that we should not assume just because Paul does not write of any of Jesus' miracles, exorcisms or parables etc that the people he was writing to knew of them. But just as equally it should not be assumed that Paul did not write about them because he did not know of them.

"Is it possible to teach people about the Gospel without mentioning Gospel stories?"

Just because Paul did not mention events of Jesus' life in his letters does not mean he did not preach about them or know of them.

Paul and Peter (and the other apostles) may have had their disputes they were still preaching the same fundamental message: that Jesus Christ died to save mankind from their sins, that people should repent of their sins and live in union with Christ.

Personally, I believe that Paul received a vision(s) from God, that he believed what he taught, and most importantly that he had a relationship with Jesus Christ. Thus he knew Jesus and knew God's will. I do not believe Paul was writing for any selfish reason, as some suggest, but that he was writing to spread the message of the Gospel and lead people to repent of their sins and do as God wishes them to do. Therefore it doesn't matter to me that Paul does not involve the events of Jesus' life in his letters. To me his letters are true to the message of the cross and I believe that what he writes is also God's will. I wouldn't expect non-Christians to believe this, but it seems to me that we can only guess at why Paul did not write about any of Jesus' miracles, exorcisms or parables. We cannot assume Paul knew nothing of Jesus or his life from this.

I believe Paul knew a lot about Jesus because he had a relationship with the risen Christ.

People can know Jesus and can know God's will for themselves and others very well if they have a close relationship with Jesus.

I hope this has been enlightening and interesting for you,


I've just been reading your essay on Paul and have found it interesting. Whilst I respect Paul's teachings I do not regard them as highly as some christians do precisely because Paul was not part of the initial christian movement. However, I see no reason why a God powerful enough to raise the dead should not have the ability to inspire Paul to write the truth, and should not have sent him visions enough to be able to preach the good news without ever having met Jesus.

I think that the gospel message as preached in those early days was much simpler than that preached in sermons today. "repent of your sins and be baptised" needs little illustration from the gospels.

The reason I'm writing is because I take issue with the last paragraph before you start your "conclusions" which deals with mentions in the epistles of teaching things "from the scriptures" rather than from eye witness accounts. Quite frankly, this paragraph doesn't make much sense. "showed by the scriptures that the Christ was Jesus" - The christ being the greek word for the Messiah foretold in the Jewish scriptures. How else do you demonstrate that a prophesy in the scriptures has been fulfilled other than by using the scriptures? Similarly "raised on the 3rd day in accordance with the scriptures" is a statement that the action of Jesus being raised to life on the 3rd day was a fulfillment of scriptural prophesy.

These examples are not demonstrations of Paul's distrust of eyewitness accounts, as you describe, but rather examples of his emphasis on the fact that Jesus who was crucified was the same as the messiah described in the Jewish scriptures. The inclusion of these examples in your essay detract from rather than support the rest of your arguments.

However, I'd also like to say that I do enjoy reading your essays and your posts on uk.religion.christian. I used to read alt.religion.christian before I discovered uk.r.c and got very discouraged by the way discussions between athiests and christians used to colapse when militant athiests started being insulting and so did militant evangelists. Its nice to be able to have a sensible discussion.

My response - First of all, thank you for the nice comments and the friendly tone.

'raised to life on the 3rd was a fulfilment of scriptural prophecy'. Which particular scriptural prophecy would that be?

While the motivation for Paul or Apollos not calling eyewitnesses as support during their debates with the Jews (Acts 18) may have different interpretations, the fact remains that disputes were settled by looking at scriptures , and not by calling eyewitnesses.

You write - "How else do you demonstrate that a prophesy in the scriptures has been fulfilled other than by using the scriptures?" If the scriptural prophecies really were so clear cut, why were there disputes lasting for weeks (Acts 17) and you surely demonstrate that prophecies have been fulfilled by calling witnesses who saw them fulfilled.


Somebody wrote a detailed refutation of my Paul article, and then requested that his article be pulled from my page, so I have pulled his comments from this page, at his request.


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