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What Did Paul Know About the Historical Jesus?

I have been approaching the relationship of Jesus and Paul from only one angle, to this point – viz., did they represent fundamentally the same religion or not? But there is a second, equally interesting question. How much did Paul actually know about the historical Jesus? In an earlier iteration of my Introduction to the NT class, this was what I had my students debate. I never could figure out a good way to word the resolution, but most of the time I gave it as this: “Resolved: Paul Knew Next To Nothing About the Historical Jesus.” The problem with that resolution is that it asserts a negative, so that the affirmative team is arguing for a negative resolution. Not good. But I couldn’t come up with anything I liked better, and so went with it.

Most students are surprised to find that if they simply make a list of what Paul says about Jesus between the time of his birth and the time of his death, they don’t need much more than a 3×5 card. I’ll devote a couple of posts to what it is Paul says about the historical Jesus, and then at least one post, possibly more, to the question of why he doesn’t say more.

I have taken the following discussion from my book Did Jesus Exist. So, what does Paul tell us about the historical man Jesus?

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More on Paul’s Knowledge of Jesus’ Life
Jesus and Paul Compared and Contrasted

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    fwhiting  May 8, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman: Apparently Paul didn’t believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, because if he did, he surely would have said so. Moreover, since he insisted that Jesus was a descendent of David, he must have believed that Joseph was Jesus’ father. So apparently Paul didn’t think that Jesus’ birth was in any way a miracle. How did the circumstances of his birth become such an important part of his story?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 9, 2014

      Other Christians thought it really mattered!

    • Avatar
      prairieian  May 12, 2014

      It seems to me that if Jesus was descended from David, that must be through his father by definition. I don’t believe descending through the mother mattered that much. If he descended through Joseph, then it rather gives rise to the question of his divinity at this stage of the game. If he was not descended through Joseph, that is via the Holy Spirit, then he cannot have been descended through David. Unless, I suppose, he was adopted as a son by Joseph in the Roman fashion – this seems improbable for a Jewish family.

      Another small conundrum.

    • Avatar
      Hayd2017  May 14, 2017

      Possibilities are that virgin births are common stories in historic “Messiahs”.

      1
      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  May 14, 2017

        I don’t think there is a list of “historic messiahs” before Jesus associated with virgin births. It was not said of messiah King David nor of Judas the Galilean in 6 CE whom followers thought he was the messiah. Do you have others in mind? What are you basing this on?

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 8, 2014

    How about “Resolved: Paul Knew Significant Historical Information about Jesus ” This gets it in the affirmative.

  3. Avatar
    JudithW.Coyle  May 9, 2014

    That is good!

  4. Avatar
    Scott F  May 9, 2014

    With regards to Judas and The Twelve, I sometimes wonder if the betrayal was attached to Jesus’ inner circle in order to justify the betrayal itself. How could the Son of God possibly be betrayed? It must have been one of his closest associates!

  5. Avatar
    willow  May 9, 2014

    A 3×5 card?!?!?! I couldn’t have imagined that! I’d have thought, had I given it any thought, at least three whole pages (8×11) of single-spaced text! o_O

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 9, 2014

    At what point in all this was Matthias supposedly added to make the number of disciples once again twelve?

  7. Avatar
    EricBrown  May 9, 2014

    “he appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve”

    Does this say anything about whether Cephas was part of this body known as “the twelve”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 9, 2014

      Not necessarily, although I wrote an article once arguing that Cephas was not one of the 12 because he was a different person from Peter!

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  May 10, 2014

        Did you believe that or were you just trying out the argument? Have you thought about whether the disciples were actually Jesus’ personally chosen 12 or whether they were placed in the narrative gospels because they were the most widely known preachers after Jesus’ death?

        • Avatar
          Rosekeister  May 10, 2014

          Can you post the article or maybe a summary of it?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 10, 2014

            Yup,it’s on my (very long) list!

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 10, 2014

          I *used* to believe it!

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  May 13, 2014

            I still think it can’t be totally dismissed though …

      • Avatar
        yes_hua  May 14, 2014

        I’ve always wondered that. Do you know where I could find that article?

  8. Avatar
    toddfrederick  May 9, 2014

    Slightly off topic (but not too much off) is when Paul talks of his vision(s) of the Risen Christ he also does so emphatically, that he is not “lying.”

    This issue of his visions still disturbs me. Paul obviously believed he had actual historical visions. Whether or not he did have them and if they were authentic, he says he is not lying, and bases “his gospel” on those visions.

    None of the scholars (and even non scholars) I have asked will comment much on these vision(s) of Paul. I don’t know why. I guess it is because we can’t prove that a vision actually happened, historically. But Paul says it did happen…either what he said happened or he was psychotic. I don’t know which !! Do you ? 😀

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 9, 2014

      I don’t think people who have hallucinations are psychotic. If they are, then one out of every eight of us is psychotic!!

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  May 10, 2014

        Ok…I was thinking of a “vision” that Paul describes, not a hallucination, but they may be the same. Paul indicates he communicated with the Risen Christ…in some way…and was given a “gospel” message apart from Jesus’ earthly followers. Did that happen or did it not happen? If it did that radically changes and expands what Jesus said and did. If the encounter (vision) of the risen Christ did not happen, then what Paul preached was wrong. That is what I am trying to determine if such is even possible to determine.

        Ps…I am at the point that I look at a word in the Bible and I realize I don’t have a clue what that word means now or 2000 years ago…example…1John, “Test the spirits that they are from God.” I don’t have a clue what John means by spirits or even the context of that statement.

        Paul is emphatic that he somehow spoke with the risen Christ. Either he did or did not…I don’t know.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 10, 2014

          Yes, believers would say he did. Non-believers would say it was a hallucination. Historians can’t show it one way or the other.

          • Avatar
            toddfrederick  May 10, 2014

            Yes…I do understand, especially regarding historians … yet I think that question is the key to understanding Paul. Just my opinion.

            I don’t have an answer…I don’t think we can ever know.

            Thank you for taking time to patiently and sincerely commenting on my question
            .

  9. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  May 11, 2014

    It also intrigues me the fact that Paul did not write more about Jesus’s life. I wonder what we can infer from that… Does that simply mean that Christianity was not yet a literary religion at that point? Or just the opposite, that there were already some written accounts in circulation and, therefore, he didn’t think it was necessary to write his own account?

    Thank you, Bart!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 12, 2014

      I don’t think there were any written Gospels that Paul knew of — although there may have been some floating around that he had never seen.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 13, 2015

        I’m pretty convinced, from my personal research, that Paul must have been familiar with an Aramaic or Hebrew Urgospel that he probably came in contact with when he visited the Jerusalem congregation. Said Urgospel would probably have contained am inchoate version of the gospel of Mark or Q or something like them. This Urgospel would probably have formed the skeletal outline of the gospel Paul would come to preach to the gentiles.

        1
        • Avatar
          Barryb  May 29, 2019

          I agree that this is the best explanation.

  10. Avatar
    adamsmark  May 12, 2014

    Another consideration would be what Paul knew before he had become a Christian. Not long after Jesus’ crucifixion, Paul opposed Christianity so violently that he tried to destroy it (Gal. 1:14). Evidently he believed the movement threatened Judaism and “the tradition of my fathers,” and that Christianity contained numerous objectionable beliefs, so objectionable as to merit destruction.

    Discerning what Paul might have known about Christianity, prior to his conversion, might help us to understand what he believed (or understood) about Jesus subsequently.

    Has there been much discussion, in academic circles, regarding what Paul knew about Christianity prior to his conversion? This seems an especially important subject, as it would place Paul’s knowledge closer to the original events.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 12, 2014

      A lot of people have wondered — but there’s not much evidence to go on. I talk about the issue in several places — including on the blog when I talk about Paul’s understanding of the saying of Torah, “Cursed is he who hangs on a tree.”

      • Avatar
        adamsmark  May 13, 2014

        It seems reasonable that Paul would have known considerably about the historical Jesus based on his interactions with Christians while he was persecuting the movement, and later from his interactions with James, Peter and John. Not only would he have heard narratives about Jesus, but he would have heard them from the earliest Christians. Granted, Paul says little in his letters, but that he could have significant contact with Christians associated with the faith’s origins and NOT have known about the historical Jesus seems highly improbable.

        Why doesn’t he say more? This question would be more relevant if we knew more about the extent of his writings. I can only imagine that we have only the barest sampling of his letters, not enough to make any firm statements about what he knew.

        But more to my original point, it seems possible that the pre-Christian Paul objected to more than the crucifixion of the messiah. He expresses in Galatians that he felt Christianity threatened the “traditions of this fathers” — did he see Jesus as one who undermined the law? It also seems possible that he objected to the message of salvation by faith, as Paul impresses to his readers that the very things that repelled him had become the core of his message. Also, his conflict with Peter pertained more to the law (i.e. the observance of the law) than the crucifixion.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  May 23, 2014

          In the first few years after Jesus’ death, it is most probable that most Jews who believed in Jesus believed he was the messiah who would restore Israel and usher in the Kingdom of God. The man they thought was the messiah was executed and, apparently, some thought he would return to finish the job. If these are what they believed, then they were still Jews, not Christians. It is very unlikely that they believed the messiah had anything to do with forgiving personal sin. For them, only God, in response to prayers, plus our repentance, could redeem a Jew from sin. So, 1. it is a mystery what it could have been that Paul objected to so strenuously and 2. there might have been believers in Jesus before Paul but they were not Christians. Unless you take the Gospels to be historical and think that Jesus actually taught that belief in him could save one from the wages of sin. It is a mystery how Paul could have made Jesus out to be the messiah he thought he was–that is, how Paul re-defined “messiah” or “christ” into the Christian meaning of Christ. All I can attribute it to would have been that he was so much more Hellenized than other Jews and was familiar with Greek Mystery Cults.

  11. Avatar
    Blackie  October 31, 2014

    For Jesus, thought that matrilineality matters most in determining who is Jewish and Mary’s lineage was Davidic as well as Joseph his adopted “earthly” father. So you can’t negate Mary’s importance in his Jewish lineage. Paul seems to know quite a bit about the family background of Jesus as you clearly point out. Paul is our earliest extant source or what is left of early sources(seeing not much). But we have to start the narrative somewhere and it begins for us with Paul and his writings(and how much was doctored) – although Paul personally didn’t know Jesus except by ” vision”. There is quite a bit unearthed here by your research and analysis. This link between Paul and Jesus are vital for the first steps towards definitive gentile Christianity.

  12. talmoore
    talmoore  October 13, 2015

    If Paul didn’t think Jesus actually existed (as scholars such as Richard Carrier and Robert Price propose) then none of Paul’s eschatology makes any sense what-so-ever. In several of Paul’s letters he addresses Christians who have come to doubt whether God can resurrect those fellow Christians who have “fallen asleep” (i.e. died), and Paul points them to Jesus as the “first fruits” of a flesh and blood human being who died and was resurrected as a spiritual being. Certainly, Paul’s use of Jesus as an example of a human being who was raised from the dead would make absolutely no sense if Paul didn’t believe that Jesus was a flesh and blood human being at some point. Ergo, this notion that Paul didn’t believe Jesus was a walking, breathing human being is flat out absurd.

    1
    • Avatar
      Barryb  May 29, 2019

      Good comment. You should be debating Carrier, the Cristians that debated him where ignorant and poor debaters. It was frustrating to see.

  13. Avatar
    jhague  April 19, 2017

    Since Paul so often says that he is not lying, does that lead us to believe that people were accusing him of lying?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 20, 2017

      That’s one option. Or that he simply doesn’t think people will believe him unless he swears to it.

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