The following is the first of three posts devoted to the question of the relationship between Paul the Apostle and Jesus of Nazareth.
It was only a hundred years ago that German scholar William Wrede contended that Paul should be considered “the real founder of Christianity”. In his eyes, Paul was the innovative theologian who transformed Christianity from the kingdom proclamation of a wandering Jewish Rabbi into a religion of saving facts, incarnation, death/resurrection, and redemption. Wrede’s statement, however provocative it is, represents a fault line within Christianity that persists today. In many sections of Christianity Jesus’ simple message of the kingdom, inclusion of the other, and aid to the poor is contrasted with the contentious and complex gospel of Paul (one may include the current emphasis on discipleship within this stark dichotomy). For many people, Jesus is the hip revolutionary, while Paul is that Bible-thumping Baptist preacher.
This contrast, however radical Wrede may put it, is not without some justification. For any cursory reader of the New Testament, a chasm may be observed to exist between the Jesus of the synoptic gospels of Matthew/Mark/Luke and the letters of Paul. For starters, while Paul states in Galatians that he received his Gospel from a revelation of Jesus Christ, the content of Paul’s teaching still seems to be different than that of the synoptic gospels. The Eucharistic words are the only instance where Paul quotes words spoken by Jesus in these texts. Jesus taught in a variety of expressions on numerous topics (parables, aphorisms, ethical teaching, kingdom teaching, and theological teaching) but neither the forms or content of Paul’s teaching seem to directly follow Jesus’ own thoughts.
However, the point which recognizes a few differences between Paul and the Jesus of Matthew/Mark/Luke is exacerbated in historical Jesus studies from the 18th century up to today. Under the plausible assumption that figures of history are exaggerated or sanitized in the memory of their followers, the preaching of the historical Jesus is then separated from later confessional statements said about him by his followers. Such is task of the historian if one wishes to discover what really happen. The conventions of historical study demand that “Jesus” be distinguished from “Christ”, the messianic title commonly ascribed to him in the early church. Difference is privileged while similarity is demoted to “inauthentic” status.
When read according to such historical conventions, the gospel texts themselves become archaeological sites for the true historian to scrutinize. As testimonies to a single historical reality the contents of the gospels are not read, but evaluated as evidence for Jesus’ teaching and actions. What emerges from this is a portrait of Jesus which may look, sound, and act like the Jesus of Matthew/Mark/Luke, but has very little to do with these texts and the faith confessions they contain.
So – can Jesus and Paul be reconciled? If so, how is this to be done? The following posts will attempt to answer these questions: (1) by looking at some ways in which these questions have been inadequately addressed, (2) by offering some provisional thoughts as to how this chasm might be bridged.
And now, for some hilarious Eddie Izzard on Paul (albeit with a rather serious f-bomb warning):
Click here to read part two!