You can find the craziest conspiracy theories on the internet. The earth is flat. 9/11 was an inside job. Saved by the Bell was a brainwashing tool by the Illuminati. Jay-Z is a time-traveling vampire. Or that Jesus never existed.
One tactic of the Jesus-mythers is that they say that Paul knew nothing of the historical Jesus. They claim that the Jesus of the gospels is nothing like the Jesus of Paul’s Epistles. There’s nothing about his birth, baptism, the Sermon on the Mount, his healings and exorcisms, his walking on water, feeding of the 5000, his cleansing of the temple, and so on. Paul only speaks about a ‘heavenly man’, seemingly unconnected to real history. (1 Corinthians 15:49)
Since Paul is the earliest Christian writer, he’s our most important source for the Christian faith. And since he speaks next to nothing about Jesus’ earthly life and teaching, maybe he’s not even real. Plus, Paul’s resurrection appearance was just a vision, not a physical appearance, making it sketchy. So does Paul really know “next to nothing” about Jesus’ life and ministry? Do these claims have any merit?
Well, no. They don’t. Against these claims, here I’m going to lay out that the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of Paul’s letters are, in fact, the same person. That Paul emphasized the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus doesn’t mean he didn’t believe Jesus was historical, or that he was unfamiliar with his life and teachings.
Paul thought Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood human being
1. Jesus is a descendant of Abraham and an Israelite. (Galatians 3:16, Romans 9:5)
2. Jesus is a descendant of David. (Romans 1:3)
3. He is born of a woman. (Galatians 4:4)
I’ll stop here and make some quick comments. Are we to believe that Paul, a Pharisee, didn’t believe in the historical Abraham or David? For Paul, Jesus clearly was a human being, descended from the patriarchs. Furthermore, we know that Paul doesn’t explicitly say Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. By why the phrase “born of a woman”? It’s possible that he was alluding to the belief that he humanly was only related to his mother.
4. Jesus lived under the Jewish Law (Galatians 4:4)
5. He welcomed people (Romans 15:5, 7)
6. He was humble and served others. (Philippians 2:7-8, 2 Corinthians 10:1, cf Matt. 11:29)
OK, let’s pause again for a second. Paul talks about himself being subject to the Jewish law at one time (Romans 7:22). What kind of ethereal, heavenly being is subject to Moses’ law? It’s hard to see how the Jesus-mythers can even make sense of this verse.
We also see Jesus welcoming and serving others is throughout the gospels. He ate and drank with sinners (Matthew 9:9-13) He welcomed Zacchaeus. He came to seek and save the lost. (Luke 19:1-9) He washed his disciples’ feet. (John 13:1-3) He said I am among you as him who serves. (Luke 22:37) So far, the Jesus of Paul and the gospels are one and the same.
Paul specifically refers to Jesus’ teaching
7. Jesus taught on divorce and remarriage. (1 Corinthians 7:10)
8. Jesus taught on supporting missions. (1 Corinthians 9:14)
9. He taught on the end of all things. (1 Thessalonians 4:15)
To the Corinthians, Paul gives his opinion on marriage and divorce but then makes a clear distinction between his thoughts and the Lord’s teaching. He says the Lord commands giving, referring to Luke 10:7. Paul talks about the end of the age according to ‘the word of the Lord’. His words sound similar to what we read in the Olivet Discourse in Mark 13.
Also, the claim that Paul knew nothing about Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon of the Mount falls apart here. Jesus included the subject of divorce and remarriage in the sermon, and we read it in Matthew 5:32. And we’ll see more references to the Sermon on the Mount in Paul’s teaching as we go on.
Jesus was connected to the real world
10. Jesus was abused and insulted (Romans 15:3)
Luke 22:63-65: “The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, “Prophesy! Who hit you?” And they said many other insulting things to him.”
11. Jesus had siblings (1 Cor 9:5), including a brother named James (Gal 1:19).
We hear about these siblings in Mark 3:21, Mark 6:3 and John 7:5. They weren’t really sold on their big brother’s ministry at first. We know that James became a believer based on a resurrection appearance. (1 Corinthians 15:7) And in the passage in Corinthians it seems the family followed suit.
12. Jesus had a disciple named Peter, who was married (1 Corinthians 9:5)
We read about the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law in Mark 1:30. Again, there’s a lot of connection with people in the real world – including physical family members. Does this idea that Jesus wasn’t even a real human being make any sense at all in light of these passages?
13. Jesus founded a memorial meal. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)
14. He was betrayed. (1 Corinthians 11:23)
15. He had twelve disciples, and Peter was their main spokesman. (1 Corinthians 15:5, Galatians 2:7-8, cf Mark 3:14, 8:27-30)
16. The Jews of Judea had him killed. (1 Thess 2.14-15)
17. He ministered primarily to Israel. (Romans 15:8)
18. He died by crucifixion (which implies execution at Roman hands for treason). (1 Corinthians 1:23)
19. He was buried, resurrected and appeared to his disciples. (1 Corinthians 15:3-6)
We read about the Last Supper in the Synoptics, and that Judas betrayed him and that he was found without fault when on trial. The Jewish leaders put him on trial. Pilate sentenced him to death. He died on the cross. He appeared to his followers three days later.
So far, nothing Paul is saying conflicts with the four gospels. All of these things pertain to what he believed was a real, historical figure. But let’s tackle more of the objections skeptics raise. They say that Paul knows next to nothing about the teachings of Jesus.
It’s true that we only see him referring to what the Lord said three times in his letters and we’ve already referred to those. (Four if you count 1 Timothy – and I would, but for the sake of argument I’m using only the uncontested letters of Paul).
But Paul also makes several clear allusions to the teaching of Jesus.
20. The Jews demanded a sign. (1 Corinthians 1:22)
Nowhere in the letters of Paul or even Acts where the Jews demanded a sign from Paul – but they did from Jesus. He said that they would not be given a sign, other than the sign of Jonah. (Matthew 12:38-40)
21. Tribute to whom due. (Romans 13:7)
Paul echoes Jesus’ teaching on rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:13-17).
22. Bless those who persecute you. (Romans 12:14, cf. Luke 6:28)
23. Faith can move mountains. (1 Corinthians 13:2, cf. Mark 11:23)
24. All foods are clean. (Romans 14:14, cf. Mark 7:18-19)
25. Love is the greatest commandment. (Romans 13:8-10, Mark 12:29-34)
26. Don’t worry. (Phillippians 4:6, Matthew 6:25)
27. Judge not. (Romans 14:4, Matthew 7:1-2)
Paul’s moral teaching and Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels are virtually identical. To say that Paul didn’t know anything about the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t fly. He draws from it throughout his writings, even if he doesn’t say he’s quoting Jesus. The gospels may have been in the process of being written and been passed on orally, but it seems as if Paul speaks of these traditions with the assumption that they were already familiar with the teachings.
Why is Paul silent about Jesus’ miracles? Why doesn’t he camp on the same subjects that we read about in the gospels?
For starters, the resurrection is a pretty big miracle, and it’s the most theological significant one.
Secondly, Paul’s purpose wasn’t to write a gospel. We read about the disciples not understanding that Jesus had to die and resurrect. (Mark 8:31-32, Luke 24:13-35) But if Jesus’ main purpose was to die and resurrect, then it’s understandable that Paul spends a lot of time unpacking the theological significance of this event. For Paul, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are the believer’s death, burial, and resurrection. (Romans 6:1-11) It is the believer’s key to freedom from sin and hope in this life. It’s the power that the Spirit brings that empowers them to live a new life as a member of the body of Christ. (Romans 8:2-13, Galatians 5:16-24)
Moreover, Paul’s letters were occasional. As agnostic NT scholar Bart Ehrman writes: “His letters are not meant to spell out everything that he knew or thought about God, Christ, the Spirit, the church, the human condition, and so forth. He addressed problems that his churches were facing.”
Finally, Paul does reference miracles – his own, as well as other believers. (Romans 15:19, 2 Corinthians 12:12, 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, 29, Galatians 3:5) I’ve seen some skeptics say Paul didn’t know that Jesus worked miracles. Could Paul believe that he and other believers had a power that his Lord didn’t? Yet we see that Luke records that Jesus gave his followers the power to do the same miraculous works that he did and that miracles continued through the church. (Luke 10:9, Acts 3:1-6)
Paul was very familiar with the life and teachings of Jesus
Paul’s message was no different than the disciples’ message. (1 Corinthians 15:9) He spent two weeks with Peter in Jerusalem, where he also met Jesus’ brother James. (Galatians 1:18-19) The Jerusalem leaders (Peter, James, John) approved of his gospel. (Galatians 2:9) He was formerly a persecutor. He would have heard the same proofs against Jesus over and over before he had his own experience of the risen Lord. Afterward, he had the means to question living men who knew Jesus, including his closest followers and brothers. For a time he even preached his gospel in Jerusalem, the city where Jesus was killed. (Romans 15:19)
That he was persecuting people for a belief in a heavenly, ethereal, non-historical Messiah and then getting zapped and having his own revelation that he developed in an elaborate, theological myth is nonsense. There’s a reason why historical Jesus scholars don’t take the theories of Jesus-mythers seriously.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.