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Other Options for Paul and Jesus

In my last post I started giving the principal options, as I see them, for why Paul did not mention more about the historical Jesus. Below are two other leading options. As I’ve indicated, there are probably others, and if some occur to you, feel free to comment!


Option Two: Paul knew more of the traditions of Jesus, but considered them irrelevant to his mission. This option relates closely to the one preceding, with a major difference. In this case, Paul did not himself teach his congregations many of the traditions about Jesus that he knew, nor did he refer to them extensively either in person or in writing — not because he had no occasion to (since he clearly did) but because he chose not to. Why would he choose not to? Perhaps because he considered the traditions about Jesus’ words and deeds to be irrelevant to his message of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Support for this view can come from a passage like 1 Cor 2:2, where Paul insists that the only thing that mattered to him during his entire stay among the Corinthians was “Christ, and him crucified” (cf. 1 Cor 15:3-5). That is to say, what Jesus said and did prior to his death was of little relevance; what mattered was that he died on the cross and that this brought about a right standing before God (as evidenced in his resurrection). If this in fact was Paul’s view, then he didn’t cite the words and deeds of Jesus simply because he didn’t think that they were important.


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Interview for The Skeptic Fence Show
Why Doesn’t Paul Say More About Jesus?



  1. Avatar
    rsNvt  May 16, 2014

    Forgive my ignorance, but don’t Paul’s letters predate the Gospels? So at least some of the actions of Jesus, and his teachings, could be part of the folklore of Jesus, created by the authors of the Gospels. Therefore these stories and teachings didn’t actually exist until after Paul’s ministry.

    Just a layman’s thought.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 17, 2014

      Yes, Paul is before the Gospels; but stories of Jesus were obviously in circulation from the outset, years before Paul started writing. (and a couple of years before he even converted)

      • Avatar
        willow  May 19, 2014

        Forgive me also my ignorance, Bart, if need be; but doesn’t rsNvt make a point? If I may further that point by suggesting the stories of Jesus, that made it into our Gospels, may very well have been embellished – not so much by the writers of the Gospels, perhaps, but more likely the tellers of the stories in transmitting them orally, one to another, prior to any written account.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 19, 2014

          Absolutely they were embellished — by their oral tradents and the early writers and the Gospel writers themselves!!

  2. Avatar
    dfandray  May 16, 2014

    How much to we really know about Paul’s total output in terms of letters and other writings? Is it not possible that Paul wrote volumes about Jesus in writings that were either lost or intentionally left out of the canon? Which also raises the question of how much we know about the editors who decided that these letters specifically were relevant enough to the faith to be included in the canon. As much as Paul liked to write, it seems that there could be a lot of material that was either lost or discarded. Paul might well have chosen or composed a different set of writings altogether if he had known that he was writing half of what was to become the New Testament.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 17, 2014

      Yes it’s possible. What we’re asking is why he doesn’t refer to Jesus’ life more in the writings of his that *do* survive, some of which are long and for which such information would have been relevant….

      • Avatar
        Ethereal  May 30, 2014

        I know you’ve mentioned earlier scholars from whom you have borrowed a bit & do a fine job of refining. Have ever read Thomas Jefferson in regards to Paul? Real keen for what was available in his time to make those observations whatya say?

    • gmatthews
      gmatthews  May 21, 2014

      To dfrandray’s comment: By the time canon was established and those works collected we have tons of extant writings by later church fathers. If they knew of other writings by Paul that were “almost good enough” for canon surely someone would have mentioned them. I think by the 5th century though, a lot of spurious Pauline writings were known also. I’d think if true Pauline writings are lost to us (and surely there must be some) they were lost very early and not later.

  3. Avatar
    toejam  May 16, 2014

    I suspect the answeris a combination of all three options.

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    BuckNash  May 16, 2014

    I believe it’s possible that Paul may have known a good deal more about Jesus’ life story and teachings than he indicates in his letters, but that, to a great extent, he considered both Jesus’ personal history and what he taught to his followers while he was alive to be “irrelevant.” He considered Jesus’ history and teachings to be “irrelevant because he believed there was so little time remaining before God would transform the world. Therefore, the only thing really important to the people who belonged to the “churches” at Corinth, Thessalonica, etc. was that they prepare themselves for this transformation. They did not need to know either Jesus’ personal history or his teaching in order to prepare.

  5. Avatar
    dfogarty1  May 16, 2014

    Isn’t it more plausible that Paul had no regard for the Jerusalem apostles and their teaching? Paul’s preaching immediately put him in the crosshairs of these apostles. Perhaps he never elaborated on the life of Jesus because his source of this information came from people with whom he did not agree. In fact he variously condemns the Jerusalem apostles, does he not? Perhaps he was jealous of the knowledge they had and rejected it in favor of his own interpretation of Jesus is theology.

    Or perhaps, he knew much more about the life of Jesus and spelled it out in writing as the do not survive. I’m thinking of the letter to the Leodecians.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 17, 2014

      He doesn’t condemn the Jerusalem apostles for their relationship to the historical Jesus, only for their views of Gentiles in the church.

  6. Avatar
    ktn3654  May 17, 2014

    It’s likely that whatever Paul did know about the life of Jesus, he learned through Peter and the other Jerusalem apostles. So whenever Paul cited anything Jesus said or did before the crucifixion, he could be regarded as effectively acknowledging his dependence on Peter and James. But clearly, he didn’t want to acknowledge that sort of dependence at all. I find it plausible that that’s the real reason he didn’t talk about the public ministry of Jesus more.

  7. Avatar
    alienvoodoo  May 17, 2014

    Maybe Paul says little about Jesus because he knew little…If Paul’s writings are the earliest of the New Testament documents we have, and the Gospels were written later, some much later, one can see how the story of Jesus came to be expanded upon. As the stories were told, retold, and shared among different communities, details and traditions began to take shape, filling in the gaps in the story so to say…It seems to me that early Christianity was not the result of the writings which we have now, but rather, those writings, especially the Gospels, are a result of those early, developing, and expanded beliefs. Just a thought…

  8. Avatar
    kidron  May 17, 2014

    Paul and Jesus both preached an apocalyptic message that God was about to intervene in human history, however they were motivated by very different reasons. Jesus saw God intervening to once again restore Israel to its former glory i.e. to end the Roman rule and the quisling Jewish government and to establish God’s kingdom here on earth, where Jesus would be the new king of Israel supported by Peter as his viceroy and the twelve as judges over the various tribes of Israel. This miraculous intervention besides the slaughter all evil doers also included the restoration of the ten lost tribes.

    Paul however, while expecting a divine intervention saw it as God establishing his kingdom in heaven in an afterlife. Jesus was somehow involved but primarily as the risen Christ now acting as the Son of Man prophesied by Daniel and coming in the clouds to welcome all those who were believers in his death and resurrection. Paul was happy enough with the Romans even admonishing his followers to bow to their rule. His belief was that rulers were established and maintained by God. Paul was not interested in a continuing earthly existence.

  9. Avatar
    maxhirez  May 17, 2014

    Why weren’t the patristic sources more concerned about this? They seem to share the “Option 2” view.

  10. Avatar
    Azeus  May 17, 2014

    If we accept Mark as priority gospel then this account is the only version we have access to which Paul could have had knowledge either oral or written. Paul’s encounter with Jesus is then needed to affirm the resurrection since the account of Mark ends with no one being told of it. Paul appears after several years in the desert to Peter and James with his affirmation of resurrection. He then preaches the word (some variant of Mark) and his affirmation for 14 years. He returns to Jerusalem and confirms his preachings as the proper word. The letters we believe were written by Paul are addressing those that had already received the variant of Mark and his affirmation. Paul had no reason in those letters to recount what his audience was already well aware of. He makes no mention of a virgin birth because the variant of Mark makes no mention of it. Paul himself provides proof of resurrection. Peter, James and their followers have no reason to dispute Paul since he offers a testimonial that Jesus lives. The perception that Paul is ignorant of many things is simply due to the purpose and the audience of the letters. Paul was ignorant of the other gospels because either he did not have access to them or they did not yet exist. It is possible that Paul’s account of his revelation contributed to the later resurrection stories. Marcion later attempts to consolidate those stories and gets shamed for using his eraser. Do you think an account like this is plausible?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 17, 2014

      Mark’s Gospel was almost certainly written after Paul.

      • Avatar
        Azeus  May 17, 2014

        Thank you,I should have used ‘Proto-Mark’ to describe what Paul had access to. Paul directs Luke to make a written account. The gospel of Luke then becomes the written account of Pauls preaching to the gentiles and proto Mark survives as the gospel of Mark preserved by the jewsish followers of Peter and James.

  11. Avatar
    fultonmn  May 17, 2014

    I wonder if perhaps Paul found that an emphasis on Jesus’ sayings and acts while he was alive might have tended to marginalize Paul somewhat, since there were still others around who had had direct access to these things. If the important issue is Jesus’ death and resurection–and what those things ought to mean to Christians–Paul is able to level the playing field and speak with as much authority as anyone else.

  12. Avatar
    laz  May 17, 2014

    There is not much about Jesus tradition in any of the NT outside the gospels is there?

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    Deaconess  May 17, 2014

    For some reason, as a young girl who was indoctrinated into the teachings of the Christian Church, I confess I always felt a certain intuitive resentment against Paul which I did not feel against any of the other Bible characters. I can only guess at the reasons…maybe his egotism or misogyny? I was also intimidated by him. I saw his genius but did not “feel the love.” Jennie

    • Avatar
      earthcorners  July 24, 2015

      I was always intimidated by Paul’s temper. He seemed to get mad and wish a curse on people who didn’t get with the program.

  14. Avatar
    JEffler  May 17, 2014

    Dr Ehrman,

    I have kind of always thought to myself, “well what if Paul did in fact teach a lot about Jesus’ sayings, but we just only have the limited amount of his writings that we do. I mean, if you wrote seven letters to your university addressing the dean, info on the school, students and it’s main goal. And we only have a limited amount of your wright kings who would really say, “Dr. Ehrman never taught about his studies on early Christianity, really. He only talks about the school, dean and it’s students.” In other words, I think he did talk a lot about Jesus we just only have some of his letters. What do you think?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 17, 2014

      Yes, that’s my Option #1; but if we say that he said a lot more in other letters, we would need some reason to think so.

  15. Avatar
    gavriel  May 17, 2014

    It looks to me as if option two is the best. Even if we assume that Paul wrote 3-4 times as many instructional letters, now lost, which is plausible, quoted Jesus traditions would still be a handful. But the source of these traditions would have to be earlier converts or the original audience. And if so, he would be a second-rate source of traditions, that would threaten his self-appointed status as an “apostle”. So he chose to excel in theology, a topic that was beyond the capacity of “the pillars”. His central dogma is not based on Jesus traditions, since it is a revision brought about after the execution of J., and consequently it is not backed up by sayings of Jesus.

    As of option three , it is hard to believe that the real Jesus traditions, being spread by other competing missionaries in the same world as Paul’s, would not occasionally come to his knowledge in his no doubt many encounters with other converts and collaborators. If not, one would have to assume that the gospel traditions were kept secret until the 70’ties.

  16. Avatar
    jhm  May 17, 2014

    Could Option 2 be explained both by Paul’s belief that some details were less important, and that these details were simultaneously considered very important by his corespondents at the same time as differences in these details were hotly contested by them? It would seem natural for Paul to avoid what he thought might be controversial in the service of making what he considered to be most important more acceptable to more audiences. This might presuppose that Paul had a sense of his words reaching a broader audience (in time and geography) than his specific addressees, but then again, his intended recipients might be of multiple minds as to the best sources of information about JC.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 17, 2014

    I can see why you have struggled with this problem for decades. Surely, Paul would want to know as much about Jesus as possible and would teach about him as much as possible. Maybe some of that stuff got lost or was not written down or was destroyed for some reason (not orthodox enough) or other? If not, then Paul has based all of his teaching on some personal experiences with a spiritual, angelic Jesus and that I think would be problematic in many ways To start, how does one know such experiences are reliable?

    • Avatar
      kidron  May 19, 2014

      I think that you have hit on the real reason that Paul writes very little about the historical Jesus. His whole message was based on his mythical Christ Jesus who was alive in Heaven. Those who claim that the whole Christian religion is based on a mythical Jesus have plenty of ammunition to support their belief in that most of the Christian theology is really based on Paul’s letters, which in turn is based on a mythical Christ Jesus. For Paul it seems that the only purpose for a historical Jesus was that he was killed and raised from the dead.

  18. Avatar
    dhjones1  May 17, 2014

    Professor, thank you for this series on Paul and the historical Jesus. I have read some of E. Pagels books and one of them addresses one of the Gnostic interpretation of Paul. My question to you is how would a Gnostic answer the question as to why Paul does not reference the life of Jesus?

  19. Avatar
    Richard Thrift  May 17, 2014

    Although the origin of letters like 1 & 2 Peter, James, Jude, etc, are unknown and, no doubt, were written much later than the authentic letters of Paul, how much do they quote or reflect on the life and words of Jesus? Trusting my memory, which I shouldn’t, I would hazard a guess and say surprisingly little. If that’s true, what does that say about the writer’s agenda and the recipients’ attitude toward the historical Jesus?

  20. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  May 17, 2014

    I’d go for option 3.

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