So where are we now? Part one examined the broad issue of the historical Jesus and Paul, noting their differences and the ways those have been exploited to create present antithesis. Part two looked at three different attempts to overcome this divide between Jesus and Paul, with Johannes Weiss, Ernst Käsemann, and N.T. Wright broadly serving as representatives of different approaches to the historical Jesus and his relation to Paul. Each of these attempts is admirable, but flawed in their results or approach. So now I ask: Is there a different way to construe the relationship between Jesus and Paul? Can the two be reconciled?
If you might forgive what may appear to be theological hand-waving, the problem of Jesus and Paul is only an apparent problem exacerbated by the demands of historical study of Jesus. As rightly diagnosed by Francis Watson, “Concern with the historicity of Jesus only becomes problematic where the historical Jesus and the early church are seen as two separate and autonomous entities, divided rather than united by the Easter Event” (p. 348-9). Accordingly, the demand that our portrait of Jesus be stripped of all its “secondary” features poisons the comparison of Jesus and Paul from the start.
Rather than attempting to search behind the confession of the early church for the authentic historical Jesus, a better approach to historical study of Jesus would recognize that Jesus’ history (and any historical event for that matter) is only understood according to its subsequent effect within history. Like an earthquake without tremors, there can be no Jesus apart from his effect; an in-effective history can only pass into obscurity. This may or may not sound like common sense, but to understand Jesus one must look at how he has been received by those who came after him and their (dogmatic) confession. Who Jesus is in history is the very same Jesus who evokes the faith of the early church.
A historical inquiry of Jesus premised upon reception opens fresh pathways between Jesus and Paul which may not otherwise be so readily apparent.
1. This allows the evangelists’ portraits of Jesus to speak as witnesses of the historical Jesus. So when Jesus says that he has come “to give his life as a ransom for the many” (Mk. 10.45), this is not to be written off as a post-Easter, inauthentic, confession, but as a genuine impression of Jesus’ own teaching about his impending death. The same goes for Jesus’ controversies with Jewish leaders regarding the validity of the law, his bold forgiveness of sinners, his ability to conquer the powers of evil, or his low estimation of inherent human ability to extract themselves from sin (to name a few!). These are not post-Easter incursions into the Jesus history, but testimonies of his life as received by his early followers, all of which bear a striking resemblance to the Pauline doctrines or sin, redemption, grace, justification apart from works of the law, etc.
2. Similarly, if Jesus is to be understood by his reception, then the Gospel of John can no longer be overlooked in the quest for Jesus ‘as he really was’. This undermines the exclusive claim to normativity ascribed by historical Jesus scholars to the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John is another witness to a Jesus who, in opposition to Moses and his Law, brought grace and truth (Jn. 1:17), a Jesus who lays his life down for his sheep to take away the sin of the world. St. Paul would certainly endorse such a portrayal of Jesus.
3. Perhaps most significantly, this allows Paul himself to speak as an interpreter of the Jesus tradition—one which priorities Jesus’ death and resurrection as the definitive disclosure of Jesus’ identity. Paul knows Jesus as the one who came from heaven to be crucified and raised for us (Phil. 2) and understands his gospel to be an articulation of this saving event. The prioritization of Jesus’ passion could itself be a statement of the minor significance of Jesus’ teaching relative to that passion story. This is echoed by the basic plot outline of each of the four canonical gospels—Jesus’ life find its’ ultimate fulfillment in his death/resurrection. Paul does not write a gospel, a Paul who himself is an interpreter of the historical Jesus can indeed be said a disciple of his message.
Of course, this does not erase all problems in the question of the relationship between Jesus and Paul, but it does begin the conversation on a level footing to even allow Jesus and Paul to speak to each other with a similar theological voice.