What did Paul know about the life and teachings of Jesus?

Jesus’ resurrection dominates Paul’s letters to the extent that some doubt he had any interest in the earthly life of Jesus at all.  But in fact, when one carefully examines Paul’s letters one can find a surprising amount of biographical detail about Jesus’ life and both explicit references and indirect allusions to the teachings of Jesus.  These details are often overlooked because Paul rarely makes them the focus of his argument and because they are not particularly easy to find – not handily grouped together but haphazardly spread across multiple letters.  In this post I will offer a brief outline of the details about Jesus’ life and teachings found in Paul.

The letters of Paul contain sufficient biographical detail to allow us to construct a brief outline of his life independently of the gospel accounts:

  1. Paul states Jesus was born of a woman[1], under the law (Galatians 4:4).
  2. He believed Jesus to be a descendant of David (Romans 1:3).
  3. He informs us that Jesus had brothers, one of whom he identifies by name as James as particularly prominent in the early church.  Paul recognised his brothers as apostles (1 Corinthians 9:5, Galatians 1:19).
  4. Paul knows that Jesus had twelve disciples (though he does not explicitly use that word) and knows that Peter and John were central to them (1 Corinthians 15:5, Galatians 1:18).
  5. He believes the Last Supper to have been a historical event that occurred on the night Jesus was betrayed (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
  6. Paul blames the Jews for the death of Jesus (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15).
  7. Paul repeatedly states that Jesus was crucified (Galatians 3:1, 1 Corinthians 1:23).
  8. He is familiar with tradition about Jesus’ burial (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

Furthermore, there are six explicit references to the teachings of Jesus in the Pauline epistles[2]:

1 Corinthians 7:10-11 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.  But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. Mark 10:11-12, Matthew 5:32, Luke 16:18
1 Corinthians 7:25 Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.
1 Corinthians 9:14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. Mark 6:8-9, Matthew 10:10, Luke 9:3, 10:7
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Mark 14:22-25, Matthew 26:26-29, Luke 22:14-20
1 Corinthians 14:37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.
1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Matthew 24:29-31

In addition to the six explicit references to the teachings of Jesus given above, Paul’s letters include many parallels to the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the gospels that he does not explicitly identify as such.  It is reasonably probable that he understood them to be original to Jesus but this cannot be proved with certainty.  Although there is an inevitable element of subjectivity in identifying these parallels, the following four are particularly strong:

Romans 12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Matthew 5:44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you
Romans 13:7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour. Matthew 22:21 Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Romans 14:13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. Mark 9:42 (see also Matthew 18:7 and Luke 17:1-2) If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.
1 Thessalonians 5:2 For you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. Matthew 24:43 (see also Luke 12:39) But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.

Paul’s inclusion of the above biographical details independently of and yet in agreement with the gospel tradition means that we can be more confident in their historicity on the grounds of multiple independent attestation.  Yet when one compares Paul’s letters with the gospels, it is evident that Paul only includes a relatively small amount of detail about Jesus and his teachings.  Indeed, many of the most memorable events described in the gospels are absent from the biographical outline constructed above.   In the Pauline letters there is no mention of the virgin birth, no parables and no Sermon on the Mount, no exorcisms, no healings and no miracles.  Skeptics often point to the absence of this Jesus tradition from Paul, our earliest written source, and take this to be evidence that later Christians invented much of content of the gospels.  However, though the absence of this tradition is notable, it does not necessarily mean that Paul was unfamiliar with it.  It is obvious that Paul did not write his letters in order to record as much of the tradition as possible for our convenience.  Rather, Paul mentions biographical details only when he thinks it is necessary and one must recognise their contingency.  Furthermore, it is important to observe as a matter of common sense that Paul certainly knew much more about Jesus than he left direct evidence for in his letters.  This means that it would be quite wrong to conclude that the absence of this tradition in Paul’s letters means that the tradition was unfamiliar to him, or that it is somehow unhistorical or a later invention of the church.   One cannot use the criterion of multiple independent attestation negatively.

The references to the teachings of Jesus demonstrate that Paul was familiar with tradition about Jesus’ teachings that he believed to be reliable enough to be regarded as authoritative on a wide variety of questions facing early Christianity, ranging from moral issues like divorce to questions about the nature of the general resurrection.  It is particularly significant that three of Paul’s references to the teachings of Jesus find direct parallels in the synoptic gospels, since this demonstrates that Paul had access to a common tradition that was not only respected by Paul but also by the gospel writers.

The letters of Paul therefore demonstrate that he was familiar with many aspects of the life and teachings of Jesus.   Given that Paul did not personally meet the earthly Jesus, it follows that he must have been taught this tradition by other Christians.  In this regard, Paul’s relationships with key figures in the early Church who knew Jesus personally, particularly Peter, James and John (Galatians 2:9), are an essential link.  Jesus tradition in Paul, if only once removed from eye witnesses, would be very valuable indeed.

1. Born of a woman appears to have been a Jewish idiom for a mortal “human being” (see Job 14:1, 15:14, 25:4)

2. Alison, Dale C, The Pauline Epistles and the Synoptic Gospels: The Pattern of the Parallels (1982), New Testament Studies, 28, pp 1-32


3 responses to “What did Paul know about the life and teachings of Jesus?

  1. There is some interesting information here. I especially like the parallel column approach. My only concern is that I am not convinced that we can take Paul and Matthew (or any of the other evangelists) as independent sources. Paul came first; he set down the points you mention; but he likely did not create the story.

    IMO, as an historian, I would say the way this most likely played out is that the points that Paul mentions were part of the Jesus narrative as he received it from Peter, or James the Just, or whomever. These points were repeated by others who learned from the Jerusalem Assembly (= ‘ekklesia’, as Paul describes it) and then reached the evangelists. Paul indicates, or at least implies, that members of the Jerusalem assembly came along to groups that Paul had started and confused the issues. This is what led to what has, unfortunately, become called the Synod of Jerusalem, where Paul and James came to a working agreement; an agreement that James and his followers did not completely honour. This is why Paul feels compelled to explain all of this to the Galatians.

    If you’re interested, I have a fairly extensive examination of Galatians and 1 Thessalonians up on my site. I’m also nine chapters into Mark. My perspective is that of someone trained to read texts as an historian. I’m doing what I did with Herodotus and Thucydides and Tacitus–in the original–as an undergrad. the site includes my translation of the Greek, with my commentary on what the text shows us as to how the beliefs in Jesus evolved over time. Don’t know if this will interest you or not.


    • Thank you for your feedback and your encouragement! I will certainly take a look at your site. Why are you not convinced that Paul and Matthew are independent sources?

  2. First of all, since I came across the site, I’ve had a bit more time to poke around, and I very much like what I see. The stuff you’re posting is both thoughtful and insightful.

    As for why I’m not sure about Paul and Matthew, well, that will take some explaining. And I can ramble on!

    What’s important is the ‘not sure’ part. First, let me be clear, I write from an historical perspective; I have to emphasize this. I am not writing either to prove or disprove the validity of Christianity. That is theology, and I am not engaged in that. Rather, my concern is Christianity as an historical phenomenon. Stuff like, where did it come from? and how did it get to where it is? That is very much something that can be studied.

    Second, I am not a biblical scholar, nor am I all that well-versed in the specific history of this part of the Middle East. I am much more familiar with, say, the Persian or Peloponnesian Wars, or the end of the Roman Republic, or the period 1240-1550. Finally, I will concede in the face of a better argument. I do not have an agenda, other than learning.

    So, with those caveats Given the state of the evidence–basically, there is none–for the period between Jesus’ death and the time Paul wrote, we have no idea what happened, or, truly, even how long that period was. The NT is not, and was never intended to be an historical document; it is the founding document of a religious belief, or a way of life. It does record some incidental historical information, but off-handedly and not always accurately. The reign of Herod the Great and the administration of Quirinius (Luke) did not overlap, so either Matthew or Luke (or both) miscalculated about Jesus’ birth. Notice that Mark does not mention it. Even so, the year of Jesus’ death is vague, depending more, IIRC, on sources writing decades later.

    Given the enormous variety of beliefs that are attributed to Jesus (e.g. all of the heresies denounced, Gnostic Christianity, etc), I believe it’s fairly safe to infer that Jesus may have been a lot of things to a lot of people. A wise person, a wonder-worker, possibly influenced (in my pet theory) by some Greek ideas. As such, a wide variety of people were able to find things to their liking in Jesus’ teaching.

    I think that Paul represents a pivot point (no kidding). Galatians is very important because he tells of meeting with James the Just, Peter, etc. What this represents, IMO, is the beginnings of the attempt to sort of round up the various beliefs and stories about Jesus in what we would call an orthodox position. Paul and James and the Jerusalem Assembly met and agreed to work together within some sort of framework.

    Now, after the death of James, but especially after the destruction of the Temple, the non-Jewish element among the Jesus followers took on more significance than it had. This means Paul. As Paul himself tells us, he did a lot of travelling, and sent his companions as needed. This indicates a fair bit of back-and-forth between the different communities was certainly possible, and was probably occurring.

    Enter Mark. My personal sense is that Mark wrote in reaction to the destruction of the Temple. Plus, by this point two full generations had come and gone, and many of those who knew Jesus personally were dead or very old. So Mark wrote to sort of gather as many threads together as he could. The extended metaphor I use is of Mark as a weaver, weaving all the threads together as best he could.

    Given a certain amount of intercommunication between different Jesus’ groups (reluctant to call them ‘churches’ at this point), I find it reasonable to believe that Mark would have become aware of at least some of Paul’s letters.

    There is not much dissent that Matthew used Mark as a source. If Matthew wrote 10-15 years later than Mark (which I think is about right), then the likelihood that Matthew knew about Paul increases. And it also is very possible that Matthew knew more about Paul than Mark did; hence the material in Matthew that’s not in Mark (Romans, 1 Thess as you show above).

    But regardless, Paul would have been a source for Mark; as such, some independence is lost. Then, if Matthew uses Mark, Matthew cannot be considered independent, at least not wholly so. And if, as is likely, Matthew knew more of Paul’s letters (e.g. 1 Thess and Romans), then the independence vanishes completely.

    Caveat: I don’t know much about the relationship of the content between 1 Cor and Romans and any of the evangelists, so I’m going solely on your chart above. After I finish Mark, I will do a Paul vs Mark comparison, then 1 Cor and Romans, and then Matthew. So, ask me the question in a year or two (or three), and I may have a different answer.

    This is a very long answer, but it’s a very difficult question. Unfortunately, it’s all speculation, and I’m willing to listen to different interpretations.

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