The New Testament epistles are the earliest sources for the historical Jesus, specifically the epistles written by Paul. So what value do they have when discussing the historical Jesus?

Here are 10 short references to the historical Jesus by Paul, followed by two of his longer references.

1. Jesus was Born of Woman

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4).

2. Jesus was a Descendant of David and Abraham

“…concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3; cf. Galatians 3:16).

3. Jesus had Brothers Including One Named James

“But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19; cf. 1 Corinthians 9:5).

4. Jesus had Disciples and Apostles

“..the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:5, cf. Galatians 1:19).

5. Jesus had a Humble Lifestyle

“…by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:1; cf. Philippians 2:5-11).

6. Jesus was Poor

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

7. Jesus Did Not Sin

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

8. Jesus Made a Confession before Pontius Pilate

“Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession” (1 Timothy 6:13).

9. Some of the Jews Instigated Jesus’ Death

“For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15).

10. Jesus Died by Crucifixion

“…but we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

The Last Supper

In 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Paul recounts Jesus’ final night with his disciples in some detail. Paul first mentions that this is a tradition that he received and is now delivering to the Corinthians (see here for a comparison of this account with Luke’s account). Paul says that Jesus was betrayed the same night of this final meal. Jesus took bread and wine and proclaimed that it represented his body and blood in the new covenant. Jesus also commanded his disciples to do this ritual in remembrance of him.

The Death, Burial, Resurrection and Appearances of Jesus

The most important passage from Paul on the historical Jesus is 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Once again, Paul uses “tradition” language similar to his account of the Last Supper. Many scholars believe that verses 3-5 are an early creed that Paul probably received several months or a few years after Jesus’ death. Paul states that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (15:3-4). Paul then systematically mentions that Jesus appeared to Peter (Cephas), the twelve disciples, five hundred people, James, and lastly himself.

Paul’s Jesus is the Historical Jesus

There is much more to be said about Paul’s contribution to the historical Jesus. But from these passages, we learn the following:

Jesus was born of a woman and was a descendant of David and Abraham. Jesus had two or more brothers, and one of them was named James. Jesus had disciples and apostles. Jesus lived a humble life and was poor. He never sinned and yet was betrayed. Jesus had a final meal with his followers where He took bread and wine and proclaimed that they were symbolic of his body and blood in the new covenant. Jesus made a confession before Pontius Pilate. Jesus died by crucifixion, which was at least partially instigated by some of the Jews. Jesus was buried and was believed to have been risen from the dead three days later. Many of his disciples had experiences of the risen Jesus, including Peter, James and Paul.

 

26 COMMENTS

  1. Isn’t it odd though that Paul never mentions even one of Jesus’ parables, sermons, or miracles? His silence on these issues is not proof that he did not know about them, but still, it is odd.

    FYI: Many Bible scholars doubt that Paul wrote First Timothy, therefore we cannot be certain that the story of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate was in circulation prior to the writing of the Gospels.

    • Thanks for the comment Gary! Perhaps, but my first thought would be that it’s only odd if we would expect him to mention Jesus’ parables or sermons. I am not so sure given the occasional nature of his letters, i.e. that he is writing to specific Christian communities who need guidance and have asked questions to him, etc. So Paul uses his letters to correct certain misconceptions and things like that.

      Also, I think Paul’s letters do reflect many of Jesus’ teachings. For example, giving to God what belongs to God (Mark 12:17 and Romans 12:1-2) and blessing those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44 and Romans 12:14) and others.

      With regards to miracles, Paul focuses on the greatest miracle of Jesus, His Resurrection. And I would say rightly so! But I see what you are getting at.

      Lastly, with regards to 1 Timothy, I am aware of this and is why I wrote a series here defending my view on it, which you can read here: https://clearlens.org/forgeries-new-testament-pastoral-epistles/.

      • Yes, it is certainly possible that Paul was so busy giving his own advice to the multiple churches that he didn’t have space in his letters to quote any of the sayings or admonitions of Jesus.

        But you would think that as often as Paul talked about “resurrection” that he would have mentioned some of the details of Jesus’ resurrection, not just a list of people Jesus appeared to. Why not mention the women finding the empty tomb? Joseph of Arimathea going to Pilate and asking for the body? Why not quote the Great Commission? Why not quote the story about Thomas where Jesus said “blessed are those who believe without seeing”. Those are powerful stories but Paul never mentions any of them. The only saying of Jesus that Paul quotes is a quote that sounds like a creed regarding the Lord’s Supper. The author of Luke (only) also has this creed. But who had it first, Paul or the author of Luke?

        But think about this: the author of the Gospel of Luke seems to know much more about the historical Jesus than Paul, yet everyone agrees that the author of Luke was not an eyewitness. It is as if the author of Luke obtained his information about the historical Jesus after Paul’s death. The author of Luke says that his gospel contains eyewitness testimony but he doesn’t say specifically that he himself interviewed eyewitnesses. It is entirely possible that the author of Luke sincerely BELIEVED that what he was recording was eyewitness testimony but what proof do we have that it was?

        • Fair points. I would distinguish between what Paul wrote and what he taught. Most of his letters are to churches that he himself started and had at least some time to teach and train them. So by the time he is writing his letters who knows what he had already taught them about Jesus? We see this in the 1 Corinthians 15 creed where Paul says that he had already delivered this tradition to them before writing this letter.

          I also think it’s important to see why Paul mentions the traditions when he does, like the Last Supper as you mentioned. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul tells them that they are improperly partaking of the Lord’s Supper by getting drunk among other things. So that’s why he brings up the tradition. Bringing it up has to do with the occasional nature of the letter in my opinion. And I don’t think we can say that since Paul doesn’t mention more traditions in his writing then he must not have known about Jesus at all or as much as others did.

          • True, but I hope you would agree that it is plausible that Paul did not know that:

            -Jesus was the VIRGIN BORN son of God (Paul never describes Jesus in this manner).

            -that Jesus was Yahweh, the creator of the universe. (No where in his true epistles does Paul ever refer to Jesus as the Creator of the universe.)

            Yes, Paul believed that Jesus was the Son of God, that he was divine, that he was worthy of our worship, that Jesus was the Messiah, that faith in Jesus is the only means of salvation and eternal life but Paul may have known nothing about a virgin birth, walking on water, turning water into wine, feeding five thousand, raising Lazarus from the dead, Joseph of Arimathea and his rock tomb, or any of the detailed appearance stories of a walking/talking corpse as told in the Gospels.

            And that is important: Paul’s silence is not proof that these stories are literary fiction, but his silence combined with the fact that most Bible scholars doubt the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels, calls into serious question the historicity of these stories.

          • Actually I would not agree that because Paul doesn’t mention something, therefore he plausibly did not know about it. I mean many Christians write a lot of books and may never mention the virgin birth in their writings , but that doesn’t mean they didn’t believe it. Especially because of my comments earlier on the nature and circumstances of his letters. I would say it’s possible that he didn’t know those things, but not necessarily probable. I also don’t think Paul’s lack of comments has anything to say about the historicity of the Gospels, which are completely separate documents.

    • Gary, I think you mistakenly believe Paul was writing a Gospel (modern idea-but biographical/narrative is more accurate) account. His letters were circular pastoral letters meant to address specific issues. We know from Acts that Paul and the other Apostles agreed that they were giving the same message.

  2. What I meant to say is this: If we could be certain that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts, and, if Paul’s letters contained references to many of the same details of Jesus’ life as are written in the Gospels, this would be excellent evidence for the historicity of these stories.

    But that is not the case.

    The overwhelming majority of scholars do not believe that eyewitnesses nor associates of eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels and Paul mentions very little about the historical Jesus in his letters. In addition, most scholars believe that the anonymous authors of the Gospels were writing in a genre of literature (Greco-Roman religious biographies) that allowed for extensive embellishments of the facts. Therefore, even though it is quite probable that Jesus existed, was an apocalyptic preacher, that he irritated the Jewish authorities, that he was arrested and crucified by the Romans, that he was buried, and that shortly after his death some of his followers believed that he had appeared to them in some fashion…the stories of turning water into wine, feeding five thousand, walking on water, raising people from the dead, earthquakes upon his death, and sightings of his literal walking/talking corpse may well be literary fiction. Probability tells us that these stories are not historical.

    • I appreciate your comments. To be honest, many people who comment on this site are not wanting to have a cordial conversation on these things.

      I do think that having the four Gospels is quite amazing evidence for someone of antiquity, even if Paul’s letters never existed. So the Gospels are strong enough on their own in establishing Jesus’s life and Paul’s letters are icing on the cake in my view. But we can agree to disagree on that.

      Now in regards to eyewitness testimony in the Gospels, so much could be said beyond the scope of my comments. I think you have to look at each Gospel and go through arguments for and against them. Obviously scholars are all over the place in historical Jesus studies and I find it interesting how much the different quests for the historical Jesus have changed over the years. All that to say scholarship changes all the time, so I don’t put all my marbles into what the majority of scholars may or may not say. Not saying you do that but instead I like to look at specific arguments for each one.

      Even if the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses themselves, as long as they got their information from eyewitness sources then that wouldn’t matter. This is exactly what Luke says he did. If this was true for the other Gospels as well then it wouldn’t matter as much who the author was, as long as the material originated with the eyewitnesses.

      Also, almost everyone agrees that we can learn some things about the historical Jesus from the Gospels, so apparently the Gospels are still good enough for many scholars to ascertain some details of Jesus’ life as you say.

      Regarding the idea that most scholars don’t believe the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, I am curious what specific arguments from these scholars persuade you that this is the case?

      • Probably the primary reason that the majority of scholars do not believe that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses or the associates of eyewitnesses is that two and possibly three of the later gospels borrow heavily from the first gospel, Mark. (Scholars are evenly divided on the question of whether John was dependent on Mark, but scholars are nearly unanimous that Matthew and Luke were heavily dependent on Mark.) Why would eyewitnesses borrow so heavily from a book which even Christians believe was not written by an eyewitness? The majority of scholars doubt that John Mark, the traveling companion of Peter, wrote the Gospel of Mark. One principle reason for this belief is that the author does not seem to know his Palestinian geography. I realize evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant scholars and apologists have harmonizations for this issue but the majority of scholars do not buy them.

        Scholars do not reject every statement of fact in the Gospels but neither do they accept as historical every statement of fact. The majority of scholars agree that Jesus lived, he was an apocalyptic preacher, he developed a reputation as a healer and miracle worker, he got on the wrong side of the Jewish authorities, he was arrested and crucified by the Romans, he was buried, and shortly after his death some of his followers believed that he appeared to them in some fashion.

        I accept as historical fact these majority scholar opinions about the historical Jesus just as I accept as fact the majority scholarly opinion that the authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses or associates of eyewitnesses.

        • Okay I understand where you are coming from now. I know that the Synoptic problem is very complicated for sure and there are no easy answers to it. I am personally interested in the specific arguments made by scholars on why they hold the views they do. For example, I don’t just dismiss Jesus mythicism because the majority of scholars find it to be obviously false. But to each his own.

          In regards to the Synoptics copying from one another [I would be on the side that John is mostly independent of the Synoptics, but we can save that for another day], let’s assume Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke copied from Mark. There’s no issue with Luke copying from Mark because he says as much in the first chapter of his Gospel as we discussed. So why would Matthew copy from Mark? One possible answer that I find convincing is that Peter is behind Mark’s Gospel and since Peter was one of Jesus’ inner circle, he would have likely known more than Matthew did.

          i know you said that most scholars don’t buy this, but Richard Bauckham is at least one credible scholar who believes that Peter was probably involved. He also has a interesting explanation for Mark’s topography here: http://richardbauckham.co.uk/uploads/Accessible/Denver.pdf. Although I’m sure you are already aware of this. Again, I recognize that a few paragraphs in a comment section hardly do justice to either of our viewpoints. But thanks for taking the time to engage!

          • I’ve read Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”. Are you aware that he does not believe that Matthew the tax collector wrote the Gospel According to Matthew or that John, son of Zebedee, wrote the Gospel According to John?

          • Yes, I am aware. Admittedly, the authorship of Matthew is the hardest to defend in my opinion. But it is my understanding that he thinks that the Gospel of John contains the eyewitness testimony of John the Elder. So in that case it wouldn’t matter that much which John wrote it.

        • Gary, do you find it curious that since the Gospels were written (no matter the dating-late or early) no other name has been attached to them than what we attach to them today? Hebrews is disputed, even till today, as to its author (I’m in the Apollos crowd), but until recently it has been widely accepted that the names attached have always been attached (with little to no dispute!).

  3. Do you see a problem that not only does the overwhelming majority of Bible scholars believe that neither eyewitnesses nor eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels (and this includes the vast majority of Roman Catholic scholars who very much believe in miracles and the bodily resurrection of Jesus) but the small minority of NT scholars who do believe that eyewitness and associates of eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels (this small minority consists almost entirely of evangelicals and fundamentalist Protestants) can’t even agree on who the two eyewitness authors were?

    • I find it interesting, sure. But to me the majority shows more of what is popular than what is necessarily right. So I try to examine the evidence as best I can and come to a conclusion, knowing that we are all biased people coming to the evidence. And I write on here about why I am convinced of certain arguments for the Gospels and for Jesus and so on.

      At the end of the day, my faith is not based on my belief in the traditional authorship of the Gospels. It is based on my personal experience with (who I perceive) to be the risen Jesus and who I am convinced was raised from the dead. And the more I study the evidence for Christianity and experience a relationship with God, the more convinced I become. Yes, I have doubts like most Christians. Last year, three of my family members passed away very close together and it really shook me to the core. But my faith in God came back stronger after coming through the experience of doubt, grief and depression.

      Also, my views have changed significantly over the years and will continue to change while I grow. I am human, stumbling through this life like everyone else. I enjoy writing about these things and sharing my viewpoint on this site. I see on your blog that you are passionate about these issues as well, albeit from the other side. But I can honestly tell you that I am taking the advice of your blog: “Study the evidence and come to your own conclusions.” I could not agree more and I appreciate your comments Gary.

      • I have found that feelings and perceptions about God tend to be more important to many Christians than objective evidence.

        I am very sorry for your losses. I do not want to push too hard. Your faith is obviously an important source of comfort for you. If you would like to discuss my opinion on the reliability of personal feelings and perceptions I will be happy to discuss that with you, but if not, I wish you the best.

        • Thank you for that. No, you are not pushing too hard at all! Continue! I’m just trying to be transparent on where I am coming from, in that I believe that evidence plays a significant part in my faith but I find that experience is important too. I’m interested in your thoughts.

  4. Good.

    William Lane Craig wrote in his book, “The Son Rises” (paraphrased): Even if there were zero objective evidence, the simplest Christian can know for certain that the Resurrection of Jesus is an historical fact simply by the testimony of the Holy Spirit in his or her heart.

    In other words, no matter how much evidence skeptics present demonstrating that the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts, that legends/rumors can develop within very short periods of time, that the Gospel authors were writing in a literary genre that allowed for extensive embellishment of the stories, etc., etc., it will not change the mind of someone who is absolutely certain that an invisible supernatural being lives inside his body and gives him secret wisdom and insight.

    I ask you to consider this, Carey: Can you be certain that the person you communicate with inside “your heart” is Jesus and not just…YOU?

    • Sorry for the delay. I have not read that book but I get the idea. I understand WLC’s point to be that a person in a remote jungle could be convinced of the truth of Christianity because of the witness of the Holy Spirit even if they never had access to evidence and arguments for Christianity. I generally agree with that statement. I think that’s what Christianity teaches, that the Holy Spirit confirms to a person that they know God (Romans 8:16) and gives them full assurance (1 Thessalonians 1:5). However I don’t think that means that one shouldn’t consider contrary evidence when presented, nor does it make the Christian immune to objections. For example, if it could be shown that Jesus wasn’t a real person then that make me stop believing that my experience was real. Because I admit that I could be wrong.

      Personally, I would say that I am not 100% certain in absolute sense, but I am highly confident in my beliefs. For me, my experience of the testimony of the Holy Spirit convinces me of the truth of Christianity, and the evidence for Christianity confirms that experience and also persuades me. They go hand-in-hand.

        • Sure. The primary experience was that of conversion. Before, I had no desire to read the Bible, know who Jesus is, pray, etc. When I did read the Bible, it was lifeless and boring to me. One day when I truly heard the Gospel explained, I was greatly convicted that I had sinned against God. I thought that I was a good person my whole life and was never expecting to have this conviction. So I called out to God to save me and immediately felt the burden being lifted off of me. From that moment on I was convinced that God had saved me through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I instantly began to desire to read the Bible and to know God through prayer. From then on the Bible was alive to me, and I began to live my life to follow the teachings of Jesus the best I could. Again, something that I never wanted before. That experience was very powerful for me.

          The more day-to-day experiences are that of being assured/convinced that Christianity is true, even in my darkest and hardest moments. A strong hope that God will not forsake me in the future. Neither of these are feelings as much as they are beliefs/convictions. Then there are others of course, like the fruit of the Spirit “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” that I didn’t have before either at all or in the same capacity. Those are a few examples.

          • I’ve read testimonies from Mormons, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims expressing the same intense experiences, feelings, and beliefs. Why do you think that is?

  5. Here is a youtube video in which people of many different faiths explain why their personal experiences, feelings, perceptions, and intuitions caused them to see the truth in…Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, Islam, evangelical Christianity, etc., etc..

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJMSU8Qj6Go

    Why are all the non-Christians in this video experiencing FALSE perceptions, feelings, and experiences but you can be certain that your perceptions, feelings, and experiences of Jesus Christ are true?

      • The simple answer is that it’s because I think that their beliefs behind their experiences are not grounded in truth, which I believe is found in Christianity. Experience must be interpreted and measured by truth. It’s not that my experience is more emotionally powerful than theirs but that it’s grounded in reality, while the others are not. I think many people can have an emotional experience that is very powerful to them and yet it not be grounded in truth. So I would ask them about the truth claims of the their beliefs, and then try to provide reasons why they should doubt the validity of their experiences.

        Acts 17:26-28 says “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” Since God is near to each of us in some sense, it’s possible that people can have a genuine experience of God but misinterpret it to be something different.

        Lastly, I don’t think we can say all religious experiences are the same. After all, I don’t know what it feels like to have “an explosion of energy shoot up my spine from behind” as it said in the video. I like WLC’s distinction between knowing and showing that Christianity is true. I can only speak to my experience as the reason why I know Christianity is true, along with the evidence that confirms my experience. But I am not using my personal experience to show others that Christianity is true. I use it to explain why I think it’s true. Then I provide reasons why they should believe in Jesus and may have the same experience that I did.

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