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Why Doesn’t Paul Say More About Jesus?

To this point I have enumerated everything that Paul explicitly says about what Jesus said, did, and experienced during his earthly life. The driving question is the one that I turn to now and in the next post. Why didn’t Paul tell us *more*? I’ve long been fascinated by this question, and even though I’ve thought about it for well over thirty years, I’ve never decided on what I really think. There are just too many counter-arguments for every perspective that I’ve heard or thought of! In these two posts I want to lay out three of the main options. If you think of others that need to be aired, feel free to make a comment.

I have taken the following from my textbook The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.


Paul of course has a lot to say about the importance of Jesus, especially the importance of his death and resurrection and his imminent return from heaven. But in terms of historical information, what I’ve listed above [i.e., in the previous posts] is about all that we can glean from his letters. Imagine what we wouldn’t know about Jesus if these letters were our only sources of information. We hear nothing here of the details of Jesus’ birth or parents or early life, nothing of his baptism or temptation in the wilderness, nothing of his teaching about the coming Kingdom of God; we have no indication that he ever told a parable, that he ever healed anyone, cast out a demon, or raised the dead; we learn nothing of his transfiguration or triumphal entry, nothing of his cleansing of the Temple, nothing of his interrogation by the Sanhedrin or trial before Pilate, nothing of his being rejected in favor of Barabbas, of his being mocked, of his being flogged, etc. etc. etc. The historian who wants to know about the traditions concerning Jesus — or indeed, about the historical Jesus himself — will not be much helped by the surviving letters of Paul.

But what are we to make of this? Why does Paul not remind his congregations of what Jesus said and did? Does he think that these things are unimportant? Does he think that they are irrelevant? Does he assume that his readers already know them? Does he know them? How could he not know?


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Other Options for Paul and Jesus
More on Jesus’ Teachings in Paul



  1. Avatar
    adamsmark  May 14, 2014

    Similarly, it is noteworthy that some of the earliest (non-canonical) writings of the church are also largely devoid of narrative accounts of Jesus’ life. To what extent does this have bearing on the current study?

    To clarify, these writings (e.g. 1 Clement, Didache) show awareness of Christ’s teachings and aspects of his life — and an awareness of the canonical gospels — but do not (as far as I can recall) contain narratives of Jesus’ life.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 16, 2014

      Good point. I think the problem with Paul is that there are seven writings from him, and some of them are rather long and deal with issues where references to Jesus would be relevant. The Didache does include more about Jesus (e.g. the eucharistic prayers); 1 Clement has numerous citations of his teachings.

  2. Avatar
    EricBrown  May 14, 2014

    I don’t know what the other two options are going to be, but I wonder if your new insights to Paul’s Christology (that he was a pre-existing angel who was exalted far further after his earthly “service”) has ever been considered as an explanation. If he thinks, for example, the this pre-existing Angel was the mode whereby the Hebrew Scriptures were inspired (in some way the conduit), then his earthly sayings and teachings were simply repetitions of what was already “his word”. Paul spends a lot of ink citing Hebrew scripture as the word of the “Lord”, does he mean Jesus (perhaps the pre-incarnation angel version)?

  3. Avatar
    Matt7  May 14, 2014

    Maybe he was obsessed with establishing himself as a ‘true’ apostle, and felt inferior to the others when it came to knowledge of Jesus’ earthly life.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  May 15, 2014

    I was thinking recently about the fact that Paul never says anything about Jesus’ trials by the Sanhedrin or Pilate, even though he often speaks of Jesus’ death. Is it possible, or rather is there evidence to suggest, that the stories of Jesus’ trials were not known by Paul but were later elaborations about Jesus’ death? Perhaps Jesus was rather unceremoniously executed by the Romans as a troublemaker, but later disciples felt the need to embellish the details, to make them more worthy of a self-sacrificing Messiah (and to place more blame on the Jewish leaders?).

  5. Avatar
    mockferret  May 15, 2014

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’ve come to think of it this way: as far as Paul was concerned, Jesus was alive and well. Although he wasn’t physically present on the Earth for a short while, he could and did still interact with his followers through prayer, prophecy, and visions. Consequently, there was little point in establishing what Jesus said and did in his time on Earth, not because it was inherently unimportant, or that there was a qualitative difference between the earthly Jesus and the risen Jesus, but precisely because they *were* the same. Piecing together what someone said and did twenty or thirty years earlier surely would have seemed like a waste of time when you can just communicate with them directly right now. It may have been of academic interest, but Paul was an apocalypticist, and the end of the world was coming any moment now. There was simply no time to waste on historical research.

    Just my thoughts, anyway. I think it’s related to the Options 2 & 3 you provide in the book, but with a slightly different nuance to either of them.

  6. Avatar
    madmargie  May 15, 2014

    Personally I think Paul was way too obsessed with Jesus’ death and constantly tried to justify that with the belief that he was resurrected from the dead. That probably made sense in that culture. It must have seemed secondary for him to talk about Jesus’ teachings…especially when they didn’t seem all that important to Paul. The entire movement was expecting the end to come immanently anyhow and were just concerned with an afterlife of some sort.

  7. Avatar
    Arlyn  May 15, 2014

    Could it be that Paul was basically miserable with this life, making it all about getting a reset in the next? If Paul had little desire to paint this life as of much value, as an apocalyptic he may have avoided talking about Jesus life to keep the focus on his death and resurrection as it applied to the next.

    So, when he wrote to the churches, it is to have them also keep that focus. I think I see this in those who I communicate with. Those who are strongly Pauline, are focused on the next life and sometimes so to the detriment of the life they are living.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 15, 2014

    Can’t help wondering how many letters he may have written that *haven’t* survived…and whether there was any *reason* why some of his letters were carefully preserved and others not.

  9. Avatar
    jhague  May 15, 2014

    I think Paul did not mention Jesus because Paul’s focus was on his Christ figure, not the man Jesus. Paul’s religion was for Gentiles, not Jews. Jesus’ ministry was for Jews. Paul’s only attention to Jesus was to associate him to the Christ so that he could make it appear that the message he was preaching had antiquity through Judaism. Anything that Paul said that was also recorded as something Jesus said was probably not actually said by Jesus. An example is the Lord’s Supper. Paul claims that Jesus said the bread represents his body and the wine represents his blood. Jesus as a Jew would not say these things.

  10. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  May 16, 2014


    Could it be because Paul was also dealing with Gentiles and so his emphasis rotated around the death and resurrection of Jesus in order to show them that his God was a powerful God capable of such formidable miracle?
    Therefore, the life and ministry of Jesus wasn’t really what it took to convince Gentiles of anything?
    Gentiles would embraced a new god as long as he delivers, right?
    The only letter of Paul I read so far was 1 Corinthians (quite embarrassing for a member of your blog!) and I noticed that whenever Paul mentioned Jesus’s resurrection he emphasized precisely who made it happen.

    Thanks, Bart!

  11. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  May 16, 2014

    Great series of posts, by the way. Thanks a lot!

  12. Avatar
    SJB  May 16, 2014

    Sorry to go off subject but have you seen this article about the excavation of a First Century synagogue in Galilee?


    Is this something new or something that scholars have been aware of? It’s hard to tell from the article whether they’re just announcing it or if the news had been out for a while.


  13. Avatar
    Eric Rodvan  May 16, 2014

    Bart, I have a question… Was James the Brother of the Lord an apostle? I thought the actual Greek read like this “I saw none of the other Apostles, but I did see James the Lord’s Brother.” Could you do a post on this? Because if James was an apostle it makes the argument much more convincing.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 16, 2014

      Yes, James was considered to be an apostle.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  May 17, 2014

        But not one of the Twelve, was he?

        When I was growing up, my understanding was that he was the Apostle/disciple “James the Less.” I assume my Catholic school taught that. Of course, they also taught that he wasn’t really Jesus’s brother, but a cousin. What I’m assuming now is that Jesus’s brother (“James the Just”), “James the Greater,” and “James the Less” were three different men.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 17, 2014

          Disciples were ones who followed Jesus in his earthly life. Apostles were ones “sent” on a mission by Christ after his resurrection. So James was an apostle but not a disciple.

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  May 18, 2014

            But at least when I was young, *Catholics* always called “the Twelve” Apostles, not disciples. The only other person they ever referred to as an “Apostle” was Paul, the “Apostle to the Gentiles”; and I got the impression he was considered an “Apostle” in a less formal way.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 19, 2014

            Yes, it’s a common mistake! But in the NT Barnabas is called and apostle, and James, and others! Paul is never listed among the Disciples, though, and either are the others.

          • Avatar
            kidron  May 19, 2014

            So you think that James was not active along with Jesus during his lifetime? How unusual that someone who didn’t follow Jesus during his lifetime became the leading pillar of the movement in Jerusalem immediately after Jesus’ crucifixion.

            The writer of Acts went to particular lengths to write James out of the;early history. However, Paul kind of overwrites this subterfuge. I find that there is more historical evidence for the activities of James in the literature OUTSIDE the New Testament than for his brother Jesus.

            One can understand why the writer of Acts wanted to minimize James and his involvement with the Jesus movement. Paul had done his best to minimize the message of an imminent overthrow of the Roman rule and the establishment of a this world new nation of Israel. For Paul the gospel was all about the salvation of individuals who were believers in the resurrected Jesus in a heavenly kingdom. Whereas for James, like his brother Jesus the gospel was all about an earthly kingdom in place of the Roman and quisling Jewish rulers of the present age.

            One of the saddest development of Orthodox Christianity is the loss of the contribution of James in the early ‘church’ and Jewish history. Of course this too is understandable in that Orthodox Christian beliefs are all about personal salvation in some otherworldly kingdom of heaven.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  May 19, 2014

            Yes, James is a highly unusual case. But all the evidence points to the “fact” that he had a vision of Jesus after his death, and since he was a blood relation, that made him a very special apostle indeed.

          • Avatar
            MMahmud  January 2, 2016

            I think we ought to have a What We Know for early followers like Peter, James and Mary

  14. Avatar
    Stephen  February 15, 2015

    Could you please direct me to the passage where Paul mentions the disciples of Jesus. I am under the impression that Paul only knows of apostles.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2015

      1 Cor. 15:5 he mentions “the twelve,” which almost certainly means the twelve disciples. Why he thought they were still “twelve” at the time is a very intriguing question!

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