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.