Sunday, 6 December 2015

Who authored the gospels?



Some people like to ask this question: who wrote the four gospels?

But that’s not one question, it’s four. Let’s start with one: the best question of all. What is the earliest evidence for who wrote any of these gospels?



Mark’s gospel

Mark’s gospel is dated to the first century and the authorship is credited to Mark. But how do we know that? It is Papias’ comments on how Mark came to write his gospel that give it away. Who was Papias? Born in the first century, he was a church leader in Asia.

In the second century he published a series of books of Jesus’ sayings, sadly now lost. Bits remain. In them, he explains Mark’s gospel as it as was told to him:

“Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of His followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter’s. Peter used to adapt his teachings to the occasion, without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard, and to make no misstatement about it.’” (Eusebius, History of the Church, III.39.)[i]

The fact that Papias didn’t wholeheartedly approve of the way Mark’s gospel is ordered gets a bit of attention. This doesn't seem to mean that Mark has no structure at all; but by contrast Papias says that Matthew wrote an ‘ordered arrangement’ of the material in his gospel. We know that Mark's gospel is structured very carefully, if you have eyes to see it. Either Papias couldn't see that, or he didn't like it. Papias was probably measuring Mark against the 'Matthew's gospel' that he knew, and preferred the order of events in this Matthew.[ii]

It is worth mentioning that there are critics who distrust Papias as a historian getting his facts straight about who wrote Mark, but they do so because they do trust Papias as a historian saying the contents of Mark are not in proper order. This is a really methodologically unsound criticism. How can Papias be a good enough historian to know what order the contents should be in, but at the same time not a good enough historian to say that Mark was the one responsible for that order?

There are several good reasons for finding this account, as recorded by Papias, credible:

  • Papias doesn’t try to credit the writing to an apostle. Naming a relatively obscure person – Mark – as the author is the sort of thing you wouldn’t do unless there was real substance to this. Mark’s name doesn’t give the gospel any great boost, it establishes it as second hand. In the second century, the fashion was to attribute newly written gospels to the name of an apostle or someone else with a big role in the New Testament. Mark’s name just doesn’t tick those boxes. The opportunity to pass the work off as written by an apostle isn’t seized. It signals authenticity in Mark’s name.
  • Papias’ criticism levelled at Mark (for not putting all the events in a clear chronological order) suggests that this is an honest account of the gospel’s origins. This isn’t some legend unreasonably praising it to the skies. Far from it.[iii]
  • The span of time between the writing of Mark and the presbyter's knowledge of how it was written isn’t going to be very great. It’s within the span of living memory.[iv]

The link with Peter, as Mark’s source, also has support which is important for the credibility of what Papias says:

  • With unintentional usefulness, episodes written elsewhere establish a link between Peter and Mark. Peter led a group meeting in the house of Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12).[v]
  • Peter is repeatedly the focal point of anecdotes in Mark’s gospel.[vi]
  • More than that, Mark’s gospel is structured with an inclusio making Peter the first and last disciple named (Mark 1:16, 16:7), a known literary device signalling that he is the source of Mark’s information.[vii]

These factors confront anyone who doubts what Papias wrote.

In the second century, church leader and author Irenaeus also wrote, “After [Peter’s] departure Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself delivered to us in writing what had been announced by Peter.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.1.1[viii]) Irenaeus probably got that from Papias. Apart from Papias, an early church writer called Clement corroborates Marks authorship of the gospel.[ix]

The evidence places the writing of Mark’s gospel squarely in the second half of the first century. That comes via Papias from the presbyter who was closer in time to when Mark was written.[x]

Or was Mark’s gospel really inspired by Paul?

By the way, an interesting thing about this: it’s been suggested to me by a sceptic that the biblical gospels are based on Paul’s teaching instead of that of Jesus’ disciples. But if that were so, then Paul is very conspicuous by his absence in Papias’ accounts of the writing of the gospels! Take a look: Papias says more about his sources of information, and – wait for this – Paul doesn’t get the slightest mention anywhere.

Papias interviewed people late in the first century about the sayings of Jesus, and names some of them. He wrote about it early in the second century. (His words are preserved in Eusebius, History of the Church, III.39).[xi] Papias interviewed people who knew the first century 'elders' (named by him as John and Aristion) who were still living and had known the disciples Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John and Matthew. Note: no Paul there.

Papias did the interviews to get as much as possible of the disciples' recollection of Jesus' teachings. (That these elders, still living, had known the disciples therefore puts Papias’ interviews in the late first century.[xii]) The point of his interviews is that these earlier disciples had direct access to Jesus' teachings, that was not possible for later Christians such as himself and the readers of his book. This does not make sense, by the way, unless Jesus was known to be a real person by Papias' contacts, and that Jesus lived when Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John and Matthew were alive.[xiii]

No mention of Paul, to return to the point. Papias’ chains of transmission do not include Paul, either for Jesus’ sayings or for the gospels. This undermines one of the modern conspiracy theories that Paul was behind it all. He doesn’t even figure in Papias’ picture. (In fact, the first person to try to tie Paul to a gospel – the gospel of Luke – comes later in the form of Irenaeus, but he’s not very convincing about it.) And Papias’ information was first century information.

Was Mark’s gospel originally anonymous?

Most expert biblical scholars will tell you that all the biblical gospels are anonymous, in a technical sense. Usually, the argument is that they were anonymous until Irenaeus gave them names towards the end of the second century.

As said, careful scholars mean ‘anonymous’ in a purely technical sense, which is that in the body of the text the author is anonymous in the same way that the actual authors are anonymous in the text of Harry Potter, Oliver Twist and To Kill A Mockingbird. (e.g. You don't see J. K. Rowling's name in the Harry Potter stories. The actual text of Harry Potter is technically anonymous. We know the author's name from the book cover and publicity.)

Many scholars like to go further and speculate that when the gospels were first circulated there was nothing attached to them equivalent to a book cover with an author's name on it. (This would typically be a tag attached to a scroll in ancient times, not a book cover). Some scholars go even further and assert that no-one originally knew who wrote any of the four gospels, and that names such as Mark were only added to them long afterwards. This sort of absolute anonymity is what the ordinary person would mean by 'anonymous', as distinct from the purely technical use of the word. So who is right?

Let’s go straight to Mark’s Gospel. Is it anonymous?  The argument arises (apart from other theories explained further below) by speculating as to what was on Mark's gospel before it got its formulaic "according to Mark". The argument for anonymity infers that there was a version before the "according to attribution Mark" attribution, and it assumes that this earlier version had no kind of author's attribution at all. No tag. Thus, on the basis of inference, speculation and assumptions, critics assert, as if it were a fact, that the gospels were anonymous in the sense that there was no tag on them. This is not a conclusion drawn from evidence, but from inference – scholars observe that since the first copies no longer exist, then it is fair game to infer what they were like. Some would say they probably had a tag. Others say they probably didn't have a tag. 

The argument for anonymity can easily give the weird impression of some intentionality - that the author's name was deliberately withheld from the start, that the early Christian community was in the dark about the origin of this gospel and every biblical gospel. It is a strange scenario. You might think it's like comparing it to when a writer of a complaint wants their name withheld, or to a generous donor who wishes to remain anonymous. But the argument for absolute anonymity is more extreme than that. Why assume all the writers of all the gospels would so wish it? It's a big assumption. When you try to image the scene, it starts to look very silly. I'll come to that.

By way of background, the words “according to Mark” are a formula (like “according to Matthew”, “according to Luke”, “according to John”), a formula that, it is inferred, became the norm in the second century rather than the first, and that this happened regardless of how the gospels authors’ were presented beforehand.[xiv] The inference is quite reasonable, although it is really an argument from silence, based on the observation that the church fathers don’t at first refer to them as "gospel according to..." until later. However, arguments from silence are hard to make stick. And a manuscript tradition of these supposed earlier versions is unattested by the church fathers and absent from ancient manuscripts. It remains an inference. Now it is not a wild suggestion to say that ‘Gospel according to…’ was added as a formula. But it is a more radical suggestion to say that the name ‘… Mark’ was added later, for example.

Of course in general, if the community in which it was written knows who wrote a book, then the mere absence of a name on a cover does not make it anonymous, at least not in the sense that ordinary people use the word. That’s just detail - the authorship is known in that community. Therefore, speculating that there were versions for every gospel without authors' names on scrolls does not in any case necessarily lead to a conclusion that they were anonymous. The theory of anonymity assumes more or less also that the original community was uninformed as to authorship.

This is where the scenario that many scholars assume starts to look a bit silly, if you think it through. In the close-knit world of the first Christians, it seems unlikely that a gospel would appear out of thin air without those around knowing who wrote it. It is rash to speak of the gospels as if they were produced anonymously by hermits unknown to anyone. First century Christianity was very much about community. There is no reason to suppose that the first recipients of the gospels happened to find the gospels miraculously without knowing who wrote them, as if they were dropped on the doormat in the night wrapped in unmarked brown paper by a masked individual wearing a hood. 

The balance of probabilities is that the Christian communities knew who amongst their members could read and write and who was spending all the hours God sends writing up a gospel. It would have been a talking point. In such communities, if you have something unusual for breakfast the whole community knows about it by lunchtime. It is easy to imagine the scribe being thanked before the community (eg in church). Deliberate anonymous writing within the church community - for something as substantial as a gospel - would have been unlikely to say the least, and one wonders what sort of society is imagined by people who suppose this. Complete anonymity is a pretty incredible idea when we’re talking about this. The only realistic question which could possibly be asked is whether the attribution of names has been preserved accurately, which name on which gospel.
Its no surprise that Papias knows. Papias just happens to provide our earliest surviving discussion of the subject.[xv] 



What about other academic theories that the gospels were anonymous?

Such theories usually circle around the fact that early church fathers cite passages corresponding with the gospels but none of them name them as contents of this or that named gospel until Irenaeus does in the second half of the second century (setting aside for the moment that we have at least got named gospels in Papias, and Justin Martyr – before Irenaeus wrote – picks out one gospel as ‘Peter’s Memoirs’, by which he is referring to Mark’s Gospel). 

The hasty conclusion that the gospels were anonymous on the basis of their not being named in their earliest citations by church fathers (eg Ignatius) is unscientific in a manner unfortunately typical of the humanities. In contrast, any scientist would introduce a control for comparison: for example, do the said church fathers normally name authors when citing books with famous author attributions? If the answer is yes, then the 'anonymous' gospels theory has more weight. If the answer is no, then the anonymous gospels theory can draw no support from the manner of early citations. In fact, in case after case, we find early church fathers quoting all manner of things without naming their source - they are inconsistent, but very often quote without citing sources. This humanities theory does not pass more scientific manners of testing. 

The same unscientific humanities-style fault can be found when scholars inspect Irenaeus' contribution. Many a humanities scholar will say that as Irenaeus was first to report the names of the four gospels as a group (forgetting for the moment about Papias), unlike earlier citations in Ignatius and Justin Martyr etc., then Irenaeus must have invented the four gospel authors names. Where is the scientific control element in this? In fact, Irenaeus names things in the manner of a cataloguist, which he very much does across the breadth of his work, especially in cataloguing heresies. The fact that he normally behaves as a cataloguist  - which provides a control element - does not mean that he invents the things he is cataloguing in the case of the gospels. He groups and orders information undoubtedly. In fact he names a number of apocryphal gospels too - are we to suppose that he invented their names also? Are we to assume that Irenaeus invented the name of every darned thing he catalogues except for those already named by a predecessor? Hardly. But humanities-style imaginations sometimes run riot when analysing the naming of gospels. 

About our witness Papias

We only have snippets of what Papias wrote, preserved by being quoted by other writers (e.g. Irenaeus, Eusebius, Apollinaris, Jerome and Andreas and half a dozen other church fathers discuss it[xvi]). The longest quotes from Papias are found in Eusebius’ History of the Church. Can we trust these quotes? There is no basis in evidence to dispute the accuracy of Eusebius’ quotes from Papias. Eusebius was no fan of Papias (because of Papiasmillennarian theology) so it is inconceivable that Eusebius fictitiously made Papias into an authority about any subject.


Also on the gospels:


Chinese Whispers? On the reliability of the accounts of Jesus' life & teachings




How could a historical Jesus prophesy that the Temple would be destroyed?



62AD: The year in which the Book of Acts was written? (This gives a date for when Luke's Gospel was written by.)

               



[i] Eusebius, The History of the Church, translated by G.A. Williamson, with an introduction by A. Louth (London, Penguin, 1989) 103-4..
[ii] Schoedel, W.R., “Papias” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 5, 140.
[iii] Barnett, P., The Birth of Christianity The First Twenty Years (Michigan/Cambridge, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005) 160-1.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Barnett, P., Finding the Historical Christ (Michigan/Cambridge, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009) 90.
[vii] Bauckham, R., The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Cambridge, Grove Books Ltd., 2008) 12.
[viii] Grant, R.M., Irenaeus of Lyons (London/New York, Routledge, 1997), 124.
[ix] Ehrman, B. D., The New Testament and other Early Christian Writings: A Reader, Second Edition (New York/Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004) 369.
[x] Barnett, P., The Birth of Christianity The First Twenty Years (Michigan/Cambridge, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005) 159.
[xi] See introduction in Grant, R.M., Irenaeus of Lyons (London/New York, Routledge, 1997), 35. Grant’s conclusion is that Papias supplied his information towards the end of the first century or soon after.
[xii] Wedderburn puts it that Papias was writing when the elders were still alive. Wedderburn, A.J.M. A History of the First Christians (London, T&T Clark International, 2004) 246 n.21.
[xiii] Jake O'Connell, "Papias' Testimony to the Existence of Jesus" in Shattering the Christ Myth, ed. James Patrick Holding, (Xulon Press, 2008) 73-86.
[xiv] When English translations say, “according to”, that is just our way of translating the original Greek word which is just KATA. “According to…” was probably put on the four gospels to preserve the names for each gospel as passed down to us.
[xv] You might ask: supposing Mark’s name was never on the gospel, in contrast why is it different for Paul whose name appears in his letters? Paul put his name precisely because they were letters from him to someone else. The gospels are not letters. The question is: what should be expected of a gospel? (not, ‘why does a gospel not look like a letter?’).
[xvi] Ehrman, B. D., The New Testament and other Early Christian Writings: A Reader, Second Edition (New York/Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004) 369.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Did Jesus Exist? 3b. Why didn’t St Paul say more about Jesus?





This page is a companion piece to Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus? That blog is about what Paul said about Jesus. This blog is different: mainly it addresses questions about whether Paul should have said more. (and whether he did!) (This page was originally part of the previous blog, but that was getting far too long for a blog, so I’ve split it into two blogs. Hopefully, this makes it easier to read).



As before, it’s worth saying that Paul talks about both a pre-resurrection Jesus on earth and a post-resurrection Jesus in heaven. And as before, this blog is only about the former, the Jesus on earth from birth to death. If you think about the details of Jesus' life that Paul gives (mentioned in the other blog), it is not a massive amount.



A ‘control’


First you have to be methodical, and that means you have to decide what you should reasonably expect to find. You have to compare how much Paul says about Jesus with how much he says about other things that are important to him. It’s like the ‘control’ in an experiment. People who ask me the question are usually using the gospels as a ‘control’. That is to say, they are comparing Paul’s letters with the gospels to decide whether his letters say enough. Making that comparison leads them to ask: why doesn’t Paul mention Nazareth? Why doesn’t he mention Galilee? You could read the gospels and make your own list; it might not make much difference what is on the list! The problem is the method here: Paul never wrote a gospel, so why on earth are we comparing his personal letters with a gospel? It’s an informative experiment – good to see the difference – but it doesn’t tell us what Paul should be expected to write.



We need a ‘control’ that gives a meaningful result: we have to decide whether telling anyone’s life stories is typical or unusual for Paul? Indeed, is Paul interested in telling life stories of any length, long or small? What if we find no sign of him ever liking to tell anyone’s story in his letters?


And once we have a control, we can see to what degree Paul behaves differently when he is writing about Jesus.


Our control experiment reveals that Paul doesn’t normally tell the details of people’s lives or reflect on the history of the places he has been. For a first century Jew who lived in Jerusalem, there are glaring omissions in Paul's letters. For example:


  • Paul writes that he himself was from a very traditional Jewish background, but he never names his parents.
  • Paul mentions that he has done missions and preached and taught and passed on traditions, but he never actually writes the content of his talks in any of the letters we have. We’d love to have one of his missionary talks to read: the best we can do is try to piece them together from bits and pieces that he does write.
  • Paul talks about Caesar's household but he never names a Roman emperor. In the time of the events he was referring to, the emperors were, in turn, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. But he never names them.
  • He speaks of his trips to Jerusalem, but he doesn't name its famous residents. He doesn't even name any of its high priests.
  • Paul says he chose to follow Pharisaism before he followed Jesus, but he doesn't name the most famous Jewish rabbis. Even famous names such as Hillel and Shammai don't get any mention in his letters.
  • Judea in Paul's day was under Roman occupation, and historian Josephus mentions the dreaded Roman poll tax which had triggered a Jewish rebellion around the time, more or less, that Paul would have been born. Even though Paul says to pay your taxes, he does so without a hint of the past disturbances resulting from that issue. 
  • Paul tells us that he has spent time in Jerusalem but – unlike Josephus - never mentions the incendiary acts of Pontius Pilate that stirred up his countrymen. He doesn't even name Pontius Pilate in the letters this blog uses. (The reference to Pilate in Timothy is a separate subject for another day). (And by the way, this silence is quite unlike second century Christians who repeatedly name Pontius Pilate in the manner of a creed, whereas Paul's letters don't do so.)  


Paul is like someone who sometimes says, "I don't like to talk about it." He’s not making much of an exception for Jesus, except that he does give information about Jesus’ life story. But let’s carry on with the ‘control’ because this is interesting.


More things Paul doesn't say

Take what Paul says about Peter. Hardly anything, except to describe an argument with him (Galatians 2). For someone who spent fifteen days with Peter, he tells us precious little about him. He never tells us about Peter’s parents or Peter’s job, or Peter’s age, appearance, health, education or background. He mentions in passing that Peter had a wife but doesn’t mention her name (1 Cor 9:5), and that Peter was a church leader in Jerusalem (with a claim about Peter having seen a resurrected Jesus, but that’s another story), and that’s about all, really. Oh, and he calls Peter by his Greek name Cephas. Not much to go on. It’s a shame if – like me – you would like to know more from Paul about Peter! And that was someone Paul actually spent time with! Come to that, Paul never mentions that he himself used to be called Saul. (Only Luke tells us that.)


Or what about Barnabas whom Paul actually spent time doing mission work with? Paul says next to nothing except that they both had to work for a living (1 Cor 9:6).


In other words, if you wanted to find a full blown biography of Jesus, Paul’s personal letters aren’t really the place you would look. Paul did not write letters like a reporter would write. He didn’t write stories about other people. People only really get a mention in Paul’s letters when he is telling his own life story and he mentions who helped him and who didn’t. He never tells us much about anyone - except Jesus. It’s a shame. People would love to know more about someone called Junia - it’s a woman’s name - as he calls her an apostle, but he doesn’t tell her story.


Fact: Paul gives us more information about the life story of Jesus than of anyone else he mentions, except about himself! The historian can make use of what he does tell us about Jesus (using Paul as a historian's 'secondary souce'), and about the people in the church (as a 'primary source'). As a primary source, Paul helps us to understand what other people said about Jesus  in the 30s,before he, Paul, personally took any interest in Jesus.


So our ‘control’ cautions us not to make sweeping judgments about Jesus from the fact that Paul doesn’t say more about Jesus’ life story. It also cautions us not to have expectations based on what we would wish rather than what Paul would wish. What he does say about Jesus is way more than what he says about anyone else, and there’s a thing.



Does Paul say more than we credit him for?


A strange one, this: I've seen it claimed that, from Paul's letters, you would never know about Jesus' personality, or any of Jesus' teachings, or even that Jesus had a ministry, or that Jesus had disciples, or that Jesus ever dealt with anyone other than apostles. But is that true? The following notes are about that.


The first thing to say is that those raising the question are making a comparison. They are comparing what Paul says with what we read about Jesus in the gospels. Regular readers will know that this series of blogs is not about using Paul to prove that the gospels are true. These blogs are just about gathering the data in Paul’s letters as stand-alone witness evidence. However, for the sake of readers who make the comparison with the gospels, this is for you!



1: Does Paul ever describe Jesus' personality?



If anyone were to say that Paul should have described the personality of Jesus, Paul does. This is not to prove whether Paul is talking about either the pre-resurrection Jesus or the post-resurrection Jesus, but it can't be said that such comments are altogether missing. So in Romans and 2 Corinthians, we find that Paul says this about Jesus' personality:



  • Jesus was not the sort of person who lives to please himself. And Jesus took the attitude of being a servant – and this was towards circumcised people (that is to say, Jews) (Romans 15:3, 8)
  • Jesus chose a life of poverty, and Paul describes Jesus as meek and gentle (2 Corinthians 8:9; 10:1)



So whether you choose to believe Paul is describing the pre-resurrection Christ, or the post-resurrection Christ (or both!), we can't say that the sort of comments that should be made about the personality of a real person are totally missing - they're not.

In addition, there are inferences that can be drawn that tell us more about Jesus’ attitudes. For example, before his conversion, Paul was a violent traditionalist, such was his brand of what he calls Judaism. That was when he persecuted the church. On his conversion, he renounced his past: as he put it himself, he was going over to the faith of the people he had persecuted. For him, going over to Peter's and James' side meant giving up his violent traditionalist agenda; and meeting them three years later kept him on his new course. This all happened in the 30s of the first century (I work out the dates from eyewitness data here
). This is so close to the time when Jesus was supposed to have lived that it has an extra significance: the short time makes most likely that the views of Peter and James would not have changed significantly from the views they believed Jesus held to only a handful of years before. Paul, in renouncing violent nationalism and joining the persecuted church, was doing what he believed was in line with the views and attitudes of Jesus.


2: Does Paul ever mention Jesus had a ministry?



If anyone were to say that Paul should have mentioned Jesus' ministry, Paul does. Again, this is not to prove whether Paul is talking about either the pre-resurrection Jesus or the post-resurrection Jesus, but it can't be said that such comments are altogether missing. So in Romans, we find that Paul says:

"Christ became a servant to the circumcised [the Jews] to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs" (
Romans 15:8)

So Paul says that Christ has served/ministered to Israelites. (as it happens, that is of course what the Jesus of the gospels spends most of his time doing). This doesn't say Christ has become a servant of Israelites and Gentiles, which is what you might expect it to say if it were about a post-resurrection Christ in heaven. In fact Gentiles only come into this statement with a secondary benefit: after Christ has served Jews, and after Christ has confirmed promises made to Israel's ancient fathers, only then do the Gentiles glorify God:

"Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy." (
Romans 15:8-9, ESV)

To be clear, this is a human Jesus ministering to fellow Israelites as a member of their race: "To them [the Jews] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Messiah" (Romans 9:5).

But when was Christ a servant to the Israelites? Paul says it was when Jesus arrived in the world as a descendant of King David and of David's father Jesse (as Paul says, 'the root of Jesse'
Romans 15:12).

So a pre-resurrection Jesus who had a ministry of service to Israelites is surely what Paul is writing about.

In short, whether you choose to believe Paul is describing the pre-resurrection Christ, or the post-resurrection Christ (or both!), we could not say that the sort of reference that should be made about the ministry of Jesus is totally absent - it's not.

Lastly, on the life and ministry of Jesus, Paul's awareness of Jesus' lived example needs to be heard where he tells Christians in Corinth to " Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." Paul's logic is that their lived experience should mirror his own lived experience which follows the example of Jesus' lived experience. Like follows like follows like. This only makes sense if Paul knew what experiences (of Jesus) he was modelling his life on, and that Paul and Jesus had comparable life experiences in comparable situations - in their ministry - which the Christians could imitate. Paul describes this example over and again, but this one specific mention is in 1 Corinthians 11:1. Repeatedly, Paul keeps describing how this means a life of sharing the gospel despite suffering for it, without retaliating when abused, and building a community of kindness and love, with an attitude of serving people rather than dominating over them. This clearly can be nothing but the example of Jesus that he considered himself to be following; this is how his words are intelligible. By the way, the word 'servant' - which is what Paul describes Jesus as - is the same word that the Jesus of the gospels uses himself when he tells his disciples to have a lowly attitude like servants  (e.g.
Mark 9:35; 10:43).

And curiously, on Jesus being a descendant of Jesse: in Luke's Acts, Paul is shown as making a speech which makes a similar point that Jesus came as a descendant of Jesse (
Acts 13:22-25).


If anyone should ask why Paul doesn't write the stories of the Galilee days, it is obvious that others in the early church were the eyewitness authorities on that, and Paul could not rival that: it would put him in the shadow of the eyewitnesses if he were to author such a thing. That was not something that would bother other authors, but it would bother Paul, whose relationship with the apostles was something of an issue. Why set yourself up for a comparison where you will come off worse? Paul only compares himself with the apostles where he can come off equal to them (except where he is making a dramatic point about himself being 'the least of the apostles', which is of course a way of including himself in their number, while being self-effacing).

3: Does Paul ever mention Jesus having disciples?


If anyone were to say that Paul should have mentioned Jesus having disciples, Paul does. In 1 Corinthians, we find that Paul says the post-resurrection Jesus was seen by 'the twelve' (1 Cor 15:5). Paul just assumes that the reader knows what he means by 'the twelve'.

By the way, the words 'the twelve' are used in the gospels to describe Jesus' disciples (e.g.
Mark 9:35
). It would be very odd if Paul's 'the twelve' meant something totally different (such as the twelve turnips!). Whatever you think 'the twelve' are, we can't say that the sort of reference that should be made about Jesus' disciples is totally missing - it's not.

4: Does Paul ever mention Jesus' teachings?


If anyone were to say that Paul should have mentioned Jesus' teachings, there is much to see here too. (Never mind that Paul never even actually wrote down his own sermons for posterity, let alone anyone else's.) People usually have in mind only the teachings of the Jesus of the biblical gospels when they raise this question.

There is more to see than you might expect. For comparison, in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, Paul starts off declaring stuff "in the word of the Lord". Whatever "in the word of the Lord" means, what Paul says next does actually align with the apocalyptic teaching of the gospels' Jesus. Thus:


1 Thess 4:15-16 = Matthew 24:31 (note the mention of the trumpet)


1 Thess 4:17 = Matthew 25:5-7 (note the mention of meeting Jesus)


1 Thess 5:3-7 = Matthew 24:42-43 (note the mention of the thief in the night)



In 1 Corinthians, repeatedly when Paul says he has a teaching from the Lord, it does actually align with the gospels' Jesus. So:



1 Cor 7:10-11 = Mark 10:9-12 (on marriage and divorce)


1 Cor 9:14 = Luke 10:7 (on labourers for the Lord being paid)



Whether you think Paul got this information before, during or after his revelations - and whatever explanation you hold for the alignment - we can't say that the sort of reference that should be made about Jesus' teaching is totally missing - it's not.

There is a general alignment too with a good deal of Jesus' ethical teaching, and it is striking that out of all the alternatives in Paul's world, this finds its way into his letters. So in Romans:



Romans 12:14 = Matthew 5:44


Romans 12:17 = Matthew 5:38-48


Romans 13:7 = Mark 12:17


Romans 13:8 = Mark 12:31


Romans 14:13 = Mark 9:42


Romans 14:14 = Mark 7:15


Romans 14:20 = Mark 7:19



One thing you may have noticed is that these are not haphazard scatterings of teachings in Paul’s letters. They come in packages such as 1 Thess 4-5 and Romans 12-14. They are known to Paul as chunks of teaching.  


Again, whether you think Paul got this information before, during or after his revelations - and whatever explanation you hold for the alignment - we can't say that teachings of the gospels' Jesus are totally absent - they're not.


For more on these things, see Paul Barnett's The Birth of Christianity, pages 120-126 (to which I am indebted for this summary of teachings).





Did Jesus Really Exist? 1. A little introduction

Did Jesus Exist? 2a. Did any writers mention Jesus at the time he was alive?

Did Jesus Exist? 2b. Were ancient authors silent about Jesus' existence?

Did Jesus Exist? 2c. Outside the Bible, does anyone else say Jesus existed?

Did Jesus Exist? 2d. What about these authors then, Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny?

Did Jesus Exist? 3a. What did St Paul know about the life story of Jesus?

You are here - Did Jesus Exist? 3b. Why didn’t St Paul say more about Jesus?

Did Jesus Exist? 3c. Did Peter and Paul talk about Jesus?

So when did St Paul persecute the church? (And when did Jesus die?)

Did Jesus Exist? 4a. So then: what about the people who were interested in Jesus before Paul was?

Did Jesus Exist? 4b. What did people know about the life story of Jesus before Paul came on the scene?

Did Jesus Exist? 5. Did Paul invent Jesus?