Paul has been called the inventor of Christianity. He is our first and potentially most reliable source of information on the life of Jesus, but compare Paul’s writings with the gospels and you’ll find that Paul is a remarkably limited source.
Extract biographical information about Jesus from the gospels, and you would have a long list of stories and facts. But most of what we learn about Jesus from Paul comes solely from the well-known passage from 1 Corinthians 15 (“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance”).
Let’s assume this passage is authentic and pull from the seven reliably Pauline epistles all he says about Jesus to create the Gospel According to Paul:
Jesus died for our sins by crucifixion, was buried, and was raised from the dead three days later, according to prophecy. He was seen by many after the resurrection. He was a Jew, had brothers, and was a descendant of David. He was poor, meek, gentle, and selfless, and his mission was to both Jew and Gentile. He was betrayed, he defined a bread and wine ritual for his followers, and the Jews killed him. The End.
The Gospel of Paul is one brief paragraph. It arguably has the most important elements—death as a sacrifice for our sins and the resurrection—but very little else. No parables of the prodigal son, or the rich man and Lazarus, or the lost sheep, or the good Samaritan. In fact, no Jesus as teacher at all.
No driving evil spirits into pigs, or healing the invalid at Bethesda, or cleansing the lepers, or curing the blind or lame, or raising the dead, or other healing miracles. As far as Paul tells us, Jesus performed no miracles at all.
No virgin birth, no Sermon on the Mount, no feeding the 5000, no public ministry, no baptism, no cleansing the temple, no women followers, no triumphant Palm Sunday, no Judas as betrayer, no final words, and no Great Commission. Paul doesn’t even place Jesus within history—there’s nothing to connect Jesus with historical figures like Caesar Augustus, King Herod, or Pontius Pilate.
It’s possible that everyone Paul wrote his letters to already knew these omitted stories, but presumably they already knew about the crucifixion, and Paul mentions that thirteen times. And the resurrection, which Paul mentions fourteen times.
Perhaps most surprising is that Paul taught nothing about the Trinity, nor did he resolve questions behind the church’s many important heresies—whether Jesus had a spirit body or not (Docetism), if Jesus was on the same level as God (Arianism), and so on. The answers to these fundamental questions didn’t come from the lips of Jesus or even the pen of Paul but were decided centuries later by ordinary men, hardly the foundation you’d expect for the one, true religion.
Paul’s influence can’t be overstated, and yet he never met Jesus in person. He only claims to have seen Jesus in a vision, and his theology is very different from that of the gospels.
Sort the New Testament books in chronological order. Start with Paul, and see the story grow with time through Mark, then Matthew and Luke, and finally John. The story of Jesus reads like a legend that grew with the retelling.
Continue to chapter 21.
Image credit: Wikimedia (public domain)
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance”: 1 Corinthians 15:3–8.
Pauline epistles: Thirteen epistles (letters) in the New Testament claim to have been written by Paul, but most scholars consider only seven to be authentically Pauline.
Pseudepigraphy: A pseudepigraph is a document with a false attribution, usually someone influential or famous. For example, 2 Peter is an epistle that claims to have been written by Simon Peter (later St. Peter). He wrote, “We did not follow cleverly devised stories … but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Ironically, biblical scholars widely agree that this letter is a pseudepigraph.