Why Didn’t Paul Quote Jesus?

Doesn’t the fact that Paul didn’t quote Jesus show that he wasn’t interested in Him as a real person but only as a means of promoting his new faith in a (metaphorically) “risen Christ”?

Christians have long assumed that Luke’s Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters were written to illustrate and apply the things Jesus taught through His words and deeds. Both Acts and the epistles of Paul are Jesus-centered and consistent with all that Jesus taught. Acts describes the emergence of the apostolic church and Paul explains the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ in ways that made them easily accessible to the diverse Gentile communities of the Roman Empire. In neither case would it have been practical for Luke or Paul to duplicate the detailed records of Jesus’ teaching and ministry that were cherished and carefully preserved by the church.

This argument that Paul must not have been concerned with Jesus as a real person because he didn’t quote Him is based on the underlying assumption that the Gospels’ description of Jesus isn’t accurate. Assuming that a miracle-working Jesus who claimed to be the Son of God with the authority to forgive sin could not really have existed, it offers an alternative explanation for how the Jesus tradition came into being. It claims that Paul created an entirely new religion about Jesus based on his own religious experience expressed in terms common to the religious and philosophical language of his day, transforming a popular teacher into a godlike mythological figure. It postulates that the whole Christian community eventually began to view Jesus in Paul’s mythologized way so that when the four Gospels were eventually written they didn’t contain accurate historical recollections of Jesus’ real life and deeds, but a collection of stories constructed around Paul’s imaginary Jesus.

To hold this view requires a number of closely related, highly questionable assumptions. A number of ATQs have been written that relate to the practical question of whether first-generation disciples and followers of Jesus would have been willing to view Him as worthy of worship and “resurrected from the dead” if His body remained decomposing in its tomb.1 But there are other reasons the idea that Paul invented Christianity doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a common reason given for questioning the accuracy of the Gospel accounts was that a semi-literate, primarily oral society wouldn’t be able to preserve an accurate group memory of an historic event like Jesus’ life and ministry. In recent decades, studies of how historical traditions are passed along in oral societies have demonstrated that group memory is capable of equaling or exceeding the accuracy of modern historians.

Orality studies have confirmed over and over again that [oral traditions] can, in fact, be examples of intentionally transmitted historical material. Indeed, as we have already shown, such studies frequently have confirmed that these traditions are capable of reliably transmitting historical material as well as (some would claim even better than) modern literate historians (The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, p. 390).

The gospel was important to the first Christians. Their identities and lives’ purposes depended on it, and they were willing to die for it. They based their lives on its underlying story, a narrative that formed the cognitive basis of their faith.

We know that the gospel, the “good news” (defined by Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 15:1-7), was attracting believers to the apostolic church at a rate that alarmed the Jewish leadership group to which Paul originally belonged. Paul doubtlessly knew what Christians believed even before he began persecuting them. He was a “special agent” specifically chosen to combat the new Christian sect. A man of his capacities would hardly have gone to the trouble of eradicating Christians if he didn’t know—and intensely oppose—what they believed.

Paul’s conversion occurred only two or three years after Christ’s ministry. Recent orality studies (studies of how group memories and traditions are preserved in predominantly oral cultures) have also shown that when a group considers a tradition worthy of preservation, it selects individuals to be the official representatives (tradents) of the tradition. These tradents are the experts entrusted with the responsibility to preserve and transmit the tradition. In the case of the early church, tradents listed by Paul himself in his epistles were apostles and eyewitnesses of Christ’s ministry. They included Peter, John the son of Zebedee, the rest of the Twelve, Jesus’ half brother James, Barnabas, Andronicus and Junia, and Silvanus. All of these eyewitnesses would never have allowed Paul to begin teaching something that changed or distorted the Jesus narrative.

When Paul’s allegiance suddenly switched to the group he had been persecuting (Acts 22), he spent three years adding knowledge to what he already knew. He then met with Peter and Jesus’ brother James, spending 15 days with Peter in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18-19). After 14 years of ministry to the Gentiles, he met with the Jerusalem elders and received their formal endorsement (Galatians 2:1-9).

Paul’s knowledge of Jesus’ story, as well as his ongoing endorsement by the key eyewitnesses of the apostolic church, indicate that Paul was a faithful adherent to the body of preserved knowledge, not someone who started a new Christian tradition that the apostolic church eventually came to accept. But even though there is overwhelming evidence that Paul was faithful to the accounts of Jesus’ life, stories, and parables that were preserved by the witnesses in the Christian community, why didn’t he refer to Jesus more often and use quotations from Jesus when they would have strengthened his case?

This is an interesting question, and it helps put things in perspective to consider that the author of the Gospel of Luke followed a similar pattern of seldom quoting Jesus in his Acts of the Apostles. An overwhelming majority of biblical scholars—whether conservative or liberal—acknowledge that both The Acts of the Apostles and The Gospel of Luke were written by the same author. Yet, in spite of the fact that the author of Acts was intimately acquainted with the events and teachings of Jesus, he seldom quoted Jesus directly in Acts.

The fact that the author of Luke—which contains hundreds of quotations of Jesus—included very few quotations from Jesus in Acts is interesting, but it hardly implies that he questioned the significance of Jesus’ ministry and teachings. Another thing to bear in mind is that letters can’t be considered completely representative of Paul’s spoken teaching. After all, he spent long periods of time establishing and training churches, and verbal teaching would be more likely to include even more allusions and partial quotations than brief epistles painfully written with the implements of his time.

Today, few Christians familiar with Jesus’ teachings quote chapter and verse in discussions of issues with other Christians. Familiar with Jesus’ teachings as well as principles from the Scriptures as a whole (including the Old Testament), they allude to general principles based on a common understanding. This was what Paul did.  Paul made dozens of allusions to the teaching of Jesus without quoting Him directly, just like Christians do today.2When Paul wrote his epistles, the Gospels hadn’t yet been written, but the stories, parables, and teachings that would be eventually written down on papyrus and parchment were already a treasured common possession of the apostolic Christian community. There still were hundreds of eyewitnesses of the events of Jesus’ life adding to and correcting the store of common knowledge and providing the contextual background for everything Paul and other Christian leaders said or wrote.3

In his epistles, Paul made frequent reference to Jesus as a real historical person (Romans 1:3; Romans 4:24-25; Romans 6:4-9; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 9:5; 11:23-25; 15:3-8; 2 Corinthians 4:14; 10:1; Galatians 1:1,19; 4:4; 6:12; Philippians 2:8; 3:18; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15; 4:14). Paul referred or alluded to the Jesus tradition on numerous occasions, a few examples being 1 Corinthians 7:10-11; 9:14; 11:23-26; and 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17. He even used “ the technical terms for handing on a tradition.” 4

As mentioned earlier, to accept the argument that Paul created an entirely new religion based on his subjective religious experience requires a willingness to ignore an overwhelming amount of evidence. Craig Evans expresses the only conclusion that can be reached when the Gospel accounts are read with minds open to the actual evidence:

Christian faith began with the resurrection of Jesus, whose death was interpreted (in Jewish terms) as atoning and saving and in fulfillment of prophecy. There was no disagreement on this point. All who believed in Jesus and were numbered among his followers concurred on these essential beliefs. There was no other “Christianity” that thought otherwise. The Gospels written in the first century, that is, the New Testament Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), narrate the discovery of the empty tomb and appearances of the risen Jesus to His followers. The resurrection of Jesus and its saving power become the central truth of Christian preaching and missionary activity, to which Peter and Paul give emphatic witness. There simply is no evidence of any other Christian movement in the first generation following Easter that preached something else (Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels, p. 191).

The fact that Paul didn’t quote Jesus frequently implies nothing about how important he considered Him to be.

  1. See the ATQ articles, Was Jesus Just a Wandering Philosopher? and Do the Gospels’ Miracles Make Them Legendary Accounts? Back To Article
  2. Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd provide a list of “distinctive parallels between Paul and Jesus” (The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, pp. 226-28). Back To Article
  3. “In the early Christian movement we may suppose that the authorized tradents of the tradition performed this role of controllers, but among them the eyewitnesses would surely have been the most important. We must re-mind ourselves, as we have quite often had occasion to do, that Vansina and other writers about oral tradition are describing processes of transmission over several generations, whereas in the case of the early church up to the writing of the Gospels we are considering the preservation of the testimony of the eyewitnesses during their own lifetimes. They are the obvious people to have controlled this in the interests of faithful preservation.

    “In favor of this role of the eyewitnesses, we should note that the early Christian movement, though geographically widely spread, was a network of close communication, in which individual communities were in frequent touch with others and in which many individual leaders traveled frequently and widely. I have provided detailed evidence of this elsewhere. First or secondhand contact with eyewitnesses would not have been unusual. (The community addressed in Hebrews had evidently received the gospel traditions directly from eyewitnesses: see 2:3-4.) Many Jewish Christians from many places would doubtless have continued the custom of visiting Jerusalem for the festivals and so would have had the opportunity to hear the traditions of the Twelve from members of the Twelve themselves while there were still some resident in Jerusalem. Individual eyewitnesses of importance, such as Peter or Thomas, would have had their own disciples, who (like Mark in Peter’s case) were familiar enough with their teacher’s rehearsal of Jesus traditions to be able to check, as well as to pass on, the traditions transmitted in that eyewitness’s name as they themselves traveled around” (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, p. 306). Back To Article

  4. “We have unequivocal evidence, in Paul’s letters, that the early Christian movement did practice the formal transmission of tradition. By ‘formal’ here I mean that there were specific practices employed to ensure that tradition was faithfully handed on from a qualified traditioner to others. The evidence is found in Paul’s use of the technical terms for handing on a tradition (paradidomi, 1 Cor 11:2, 23, corresponding to Hebrew masar)and receiving a tradition (paralambano, 1 Cor 15:1, 3; Gal 1:9; Col 2:6;1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6, corresponding to Hebrew gibbel)These Greek words were used for formal transmission of tradition in the Hellenistic schools and so would have been familiar in this sense to Paul’s Gentile readers. They also appeared in Jewish Greek usage (Josephus, Ant. 13.297; C. Ap.1.60; Mark 7:4, 13;Acts 6:14), corresponding to what we find in Hebrew in later rabbinic literature (e.g., m. ‘Avot 1.1). Paul also speaks of faithfully retaining or observing a tradition (katecho, 1 Cor 11:2; 15:2; krateo, 2Thess 2:15, which is used of Jewish tradition in Mark 7:3, 4, 8, corresponding to the Hebrew ‘ahaz)and uses, of course, the term ‘tradition’ itself (paradosis, 1 Cor 11:2; 2Thess 2:15; 3:6, used of Jewish tradition in Matt 15:2; Mark 7:5;Gal 1:14; Josephus, Ant. 13.297).

    “Paul uses this terminology to refer to a variety of kinds of tradition that he communicated to his churches when he established them. These certainly include ‘kerygmatic summaries’ of the gospel story and message (for which the best evidence is 1 Cor 15:1-8), ethical instruction, instructions for the ordering of the community and its worship, and also Jesus traditions (for which the best evidence is 1 Cor 11:23-25). It is obvious that Paul took over the technical terminology for tradition from the usage with which he would have been familiar as a Pharisaic teacher. But it is therefore important to note that there is sufficient evidence of this terminology in early Christian literature outside the Pauline letters to show that it was not peculiar to Paul or solely derived from Paul’s usage (Jude 3; Luke 1:2; Acts 16:4; Didache 4:13; Barnabas 19:11). The terminology is of considerable importance, for to ‘hand on’ a tradition is not just to tell it or speak it and to ‘receive’ a tradition is not just to hear it. Rather, handing on a tradition ‘means that one hands over something to somebody so that the latter possesses it,’while receiving a tradition ‘means that one receives something so that one possesses it.’ While this need not entail verbatim memorization, it does entail some process of teaching and learning so that what is communicated will be retained. Moreover, it is clear that the traditions Paul envisages require an authorized tradent to teach them, such as he considered himself to be. In one case where Paul speaks of traditions, he makes clear that his authority for transmitting at least some of them to his churches was not his apostolic status as such, but the fact that he himself had received them from competent authorities (1 Cor 15:3). He thus places himself in a chain of transmission (Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp. 264-65). Back To Article

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