One of the most interesting features of the NT is that Paul, the earliest Christian source we have, seems to know almost nothing about Jesus the man. He is completely obsessed by his death and resurrection, of course, and regularly talks about how Jesus has appeared to him. But we get no details about his life. This is particularly interesting given the way that non-evangelical Christians often stress the teachings and the actions of Jesus as being the foundation of their faith.So here’s the low down. Paul seems to know a few basic facts about Jesus, such as that he was Jewish, and he wasn’t rich. He also seems to know about the 12 disciples, and the fact that Jesus has brothers (all of which he reveals because he was struggling against their authority, and trying to claim his own). The author of Acts has Paul quote Jesus once: “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), but if this quote is of Jesus (let alone if the author is correct in giving it to Paul), then it isn’t recorded elsewhere – it isn’t in the gospels. Another similar quote appears in 2 Cor 12:8-9 where Paul quotes something that we don’t have another record of Jesus saying: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” – in this case a phrase which sounds unlike the Jesus presented in the gospels.
Then there are two teachings of Jesus that Paul seems to be aware of: Jesus’s prohibition on divorce, which appears in Mark 10:2-10 (and its parallels in Matt 19:3-12 and in abbreviated form in Luke 16:18). Paul seems to reference this in 1 Cor 7:10-11 where he says “I give this command (not I, but the Lord)…”. But even then he goes on to contradict Jesus, by saying that if an unbeliever leaves a believer, the believer isn’t bound to them any longer.
The second teaching is more vague. Paul suggests that it is okay for someone to be paid for their ministry. For example, in 1 Cor 9:14 (“The Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from it.”). Which may or may not reflect Jesus’s teaching in Luke 10:7 “The worker deserves his wages” (talking about the disciples’ evangelical efforts) and its possible parallel in Matt 10:10.
Which leaves us with only one unambiguous reference to the life and teachings of Jesus: the reference in 1 Cor 11:23-25 to the last supper. This is directly parallel to Matt 26:26-29, Mark 24:22-25 and Luke 22:19-20. In fact it is more parallel than that. It is almost word for word with the version in Luke. Which suggests that Paul (despite his insiting that the teaching came directly from Jesus, not through other people) might be finding that information in a literary source. Whatever the merits of that hypothesis, it doesn’t affect the general point – it is the only clear reference to something Jesus did or said during his ministry.
So, in summary
1 Cor 11:23-25 — The bread and wine, the only obvious parallel.
1 Cor 9:14 — Evangelists should receive material support for their work. A loose correspondence.
1 Cor 7:10-11 — Paul may be referring to Jesus’s teaching on divorce, but goes on to disagree.
2 Cor 12:8-9 — Paul quotes Jesus, but it doesn’t sound like Jesus, and the quote isn’t elsewhere.
Acs 20:35 — Luke quotes Paul quoting Jesus, but again we don’t have the quote elsewhere.
Gal 2:9 — Paul knows about the disciples Peter, John and James, and that (Gal 1:19) James was Jesus’s brother.
Gal 4:4 — Paul knows that Jesus is born of a woman under the law (i.e. was a Jew).
1 Cor 15:5 — Paul knows the ‘twelve’, but he doesn’t make it explicit if he associates them with Jesus’s disciples.
This lack of discussion in Paul has been often remarked upon. It just genuinely seems that Paul wasn’t interested in Jesus’s life or teaching, his miracles or his admonitions. Rather Paul focusses entirely on the Jesus he claims to know – the risen Christ. Some scholars have insisted that this isn’t a problem, for example Dunn says “Nevertheless, in letters not intended to provide biographical details, the number of allusions is probably enough to confirm both Paul’s knowledge of and interest in Jesus prior to his death and resurrection.” Jesus Remembered. Eerdmans, 2003. p 143. Which just seems ostrich-like denial to me.
The incarnation was a unique event in history where God spent time living among and teaching his creation, but Paul is content to never draw on that teaching or life? I say that’s odd.
So how do we resolve this? Well some have suggested this is evidence that Paul invented Jesus and he was a mythical figure who never really existed. But this doesn’t account for the fact that one of the few things Paul does say is that Jesus had brothers, of whom he names James and claims to have interacted with him. So that doesn’t wash for me.
I think it is most likely that Paul piggybacks onto the nascent Jesus movement. He takes some of the teachings that are circulating (such as the teaching about Jesus having been resurrected after his death, and the passover meal before it), and after a significant spiritual event (the Damascus road incident, but be aware that we only get that information from Acts, Paul is far far more conservative about what happened), he effectively deposits onto that movement his own spiritual innovation. He isn’t interested in Jesus’s teachings because he is only interested in himself and his own spiritual understanding and quest. It isn’t just Jesus, Paul never talks about anyone else’s teachings as significant, mentioning other teachers only when they explicitly teach the same thing as him, or when he’s in opposition to them.
This is my surmise, my hypothesis. I don’t claim we can evidence this in detail, but it seems to fit both what we know of Paul’s writings and what we know of the chronology of the first century spread in Christianity. If this is the case then it is true, as has been often remarked, that the world’s largest religion owes more to Paul than Jesus.