The Claim: Paul says almost nothing about what Jesus said or did.
Unfortunately, Paul says hardly anything about Jesus’ life…Maybe Paul thought his readers already knew the story…But it’s possible Paul didn’t know it himself: remember, the gospels were not yet written. Or maybe he didn’t think it was even important. This lack of facts about Jesus in Paul’s letters makes historians wonder. Isn’t it a little odd that Paul, who wanted people to worship Jesus, says almost nothing about what Jesus actually said or did?
Richard Dawkins, Outgrowing God, Chapter 2: But is it true?
To break down some of the points in the above paragraph:
- “Paul says hardly anything about Jesus’ life…almost nothing about what Jesus actually said or did.”
- “It’s possible Paul didn’t know [about Jesus’ life] himself.”
- “Or maybe he didn’t think it was even important.”
Before addressing the question at the heading of the post, the underlying implication of Dawkins’s ideas is that Paul was, overall, uninformed about Jesus and unconcerned about the facts surrounding His character and that His life is something that needs further examination. To see if that is truly the case, there are 3 things that are crucial to this analysis:
- Paul’s apostolic authority
- Paul’s writings
- Paul’s eyewitness account regarding Jesus
Almost from the moment of his radical conversion to Christianity, Paul was faced with a very vocal group of religious people who were calling his apostleship into question, namely, the Judaizers. These were Jewish-Christians who, as far as harassment, naysaying and persecution goes, far exceeded the likes of Sanballat and Tobias in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah.
While the Judaizers believed in Jesus as the Messiah and his death and resurrection, the Judaizers added something to the completed work of Christ: They believed that salvation was obtained by grace and works. In other words, this legalistic sect taught that when Gentiles added the Law of Moses to salvation, then - and only then - was the work of Jesus complete. This is anathema to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ put forth in all of Paul’s writings and, indeed, the entire Word of God, as we see in Romans:
“But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22)
Logically, we can see that the Law itself testifies that it is unable to make anyone righteous before this Holy God. Because it reveals that no one can follow the law perfectly, the Law testifies that only Jesus makes you righteous, forgiven and free. Paul took the very thing the Judaizers were using to justify themselves and turns it on its head to expose their faulty doctrine.
Paul states the same truth in Romans 3:28,
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith [in Jesus Christ] apart from the works of the law.
And again in Galatians 2.16 and 3.11
“No one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.”
This refutation of the Judaizers and strict adherents to the Law of Moses led them to slandering and even stoning (Acts 14) Paul to silence him, discredit his testimony, and call the authenticity of his apostleship into question.
In 1 Corinthians 9, 2 Corinthians 11, Galatians 1,2 and 6, as well as numerous other places in scripture, Paul defends the legitimacy of his calling before his accusers. Specifically, in Galatians 1:1 he calls himself,
“Paul, an apostle-sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father.”
He further testifies that he was appointed by God to preach the gospel of Christ to Jew and Gentile alike (Acts 13.14-52).
He goes on to state in Galatians 1:11,
“Now I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel preached by me is not based on human thought. For I did not receive it from a human source and I was not taught it, but it came by revelation from Jesus Christ.”
There are three things to note:
- This gospel was preached by Paul, but it was not from Paul.
- This gospel did come from the mind of any man. Paul takes no credit as the author or originator.
- This gospel came by a divine revelation from Jesus Christ. God alone revealed the contents.
To say that you have been entrusted with speaking and writing the very word of Almighty God does not bode well, if, in fact, you have not. It is a dangerous statement to make, and one that borders on blasphemy. More than once in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 18.20, Jeremiah 2.8, and Malachi 2, to name a few), we read about priests and prophets alike who displeased and angered God by claiming to speak for Him, when the actual truth was they were speaking in direct opposition to Him.
There is another testimony that bears witness to Paul’s calling as an apostle. This is the greatest testimony of all, the testimony of Jesus Himself. In Acts 9.15 we read,
“But the Lord [speaking to Ananias, a disciple] said to him, ‘Go! For this man [Paul] is My chosen instrument to take My name to Gentiles, kings, and the Israelites.’”
Again, in Acts 26:16-18, we read the words of Jesus,
But get up and stand on your feet. For I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness of what you have seen and of what I will reveal to you. I will rescue you from the people and from the Gentiles. I now send you to them to open their eyes so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that by faith in Me they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified.
For all these reasons, we can correctly conclude that Paul had apostolic authority.
Paul’s writings were treated as the Word of God by the Apostle Peter, and he clearly equates the written works of Paul as being on par with, or equal to, that of Scripture. We see this in 2 Peter:
“He [Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” 2 Peter 3.16
Paul also believed his message and writings to be from the Holy Spirit, which we see in 1 Corinthians:
“If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 14.37
We also see this emphasis on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 1:10-24.
Paul’s Eyewitness Account Regarding Jesus
Have you ever been to a courtroom and had to give your testimony to the judge and jury regarding something you saw or witnessed? Have you ever given your testimony to anyone about something you didn’t actually witness or see? No? Are you sure about that?
Imagine you found something that linked someone to a certain place or an event that they said they didn’t know anything about. Now, you didn’t actually see them go there, but nevertheless, you knew with tremendous accuracy, the time, date and even the location where the “crime” occurred. Need an example? How about finding a torn ticket stub to a movie on your backyard lawn? Your fenced-in backyard lawn, to be clear. A ticket stub from a movie you or your husband have never seen. A movie this underaged son of yours was not supposed to see either.
Or, what about the time you heard nothing and saw absolutely nothing at all. But your dog did. And you knew from his restless, persistent, frantic pacing, accompanied by whining, that this was more than just a, “Squirrel!!!” manifestation in the flesh. No, something was off and it needed your immediate and undivided attention.
Does evidence of something always have to be seen with the eye? Have not countless verdicts throughout the ages been handed down in our courtrooms and elsewhere based on empirical evidence? Don’t we make decisions and draw conclusions daily based on empirical evidence?
Paul’s critics are quick point out that he did not actually see Jesus while He walked the earth. However, the words of Jesus more importantly, and then those of Paul, do not substantiate that claim, as we see in these verses:
I [Jesus] have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of Me. - Acts 26:16
Have I [Paul] not seen Jesus our Lord? - 1 Corinthians 9:1
Like Paul, I, too, am an eyewitness of this God I have never seen. Like the millions of others who have gone before, as well those now walking the circle of this earth, and like many of you reading these posts, we testify and speak of what we know and what we have seen (John 3:11), and we will continue to do so, by grace.
Paul says hardly anything about Jesus’s life.
Now, to address the matter at the heading of the post, let us examine two verses.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. 1 Corinthians 15.3-4
What you have just read is the Gospel, the complete work of God on behalf of sinful man. This verse contains news, and not just any news, but news of first importance, a preeminent announcement of great worth that deserves our full attention. God sent this herald to deliver a message of good news - the very definition of the word gospel - that would bring great joy to those who would listen.
What was that message? Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.
Can I confess something to you as a Christian? Sometimes when I read or hear that truth, I just pass right over it to the next thing without giving any serious thought to what I have just heard or read. Do I ever stop to think that death didn’t just “happen” to Jesus? The truth is, death is something He did. The distinction is huge. Happen implies no foreknowledge, planning or control. Did, on the other hand, denotes conscious action and willingness. Since God is the very essence of Life, dying was something He had to decide to do because it was not in His nature. If death was a thing that just “happened” to Jesus, then there would be no B.C. and A.D. to speak of, and there would be no good news for all mankind.
Jesus tells us that death was something He was going to do in the scriptures because it was essential for the salvation of sinful man. It was the essential work of God. We see this in many verses:
I have come down from heaven, not to do my will but to do the will of Him who sent me. - John 6:38
This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. - Matthew 26:28
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself to becoming obedient to death - death on a cross. - Philippians 2:8
He was buried, [and] that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. - 1 Corinthians 15:4
Why is He was buried so important? For the believer, we can know with confidence, just as Joseph of Arimathea did, that Jesus has already been to our certain grave. Did you hear what the true King said to that grave when He was passing through? Veni, Vidi, Vici!
To quote Jesus,
No one takes [My life] from Me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father. - John 10:18
He makes it very clear that it was a divine decision on the part of the Godhead to go to the cross and that He, God Himself, had the power to raise Himself from the dead and that “after making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3).
After examining these two verses, I would argue that Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves, because He knew our very survival depended upon it, and He said what we couldn’t say, but needed to hear Him proclaim for the sake of our life and eternity.
It is finished.
What if Paul’s focus centered more on who Jesus was than what Jesus did or said? This is not an issue, oversight, or problem in the least, and it in no way detracts from His miracles and teachings or His identity. If anything, focusing on who Jesus was enhances all of these things because it reveals to us the true quality and pure motivation behind His words and deeds.
What Paul is directing our attention to goes much deeper than sermons, actions, or the story of Jesus’s life. It goes to the one thing that God tells us repeatedly in scripture is the very measure of a man and the wellspring of his life: his heart. And in the heart of Jesus, we see the relentless, unabridged, sacrificial and unabbreviated love of God for sinners like me and like you. This is the foundation of all of Paul’s writings.
Is it possible that Paul did not know about the life of Jesus himself?
Growing up Jewish and having access to the Tanach (the combined Torah-Pentateuch or Law of Moses, Navi-Prophets, and Ketuvim-Writings), Paul would have been very acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures and what they said regarding the coming Messiah, specifically the multitude of prophecies about Him. As a Pharisee of Pharisees who was trained under Gamaliel, a well known and venerated doctor in Jewish Law, Paul, this fierce protector and defender of Judaism, would have been more educated and versed than the average citizen.
It has been said that by the time he was 21 he had earned the equivalent of 2 advanced degrees (R.C. Sproul). As one who was advanced beyond many of his peers of the same age, these historical documents, the current conversations taking place about the life and miracles of Jesus, and his own personal observations of the practices of believers in Christ, would have been privy to Paul. Later, after becoming a follower himself, Paul would develop relationships with those who had been close personal friends with Jesus and had been discipled directly by Him.
To summate, if anything, Paul knew more than most, not less, about this fully God, fully Man, Jesus Christ.
Maybe Paul didn’t think it was important
The only way to answer this statement is with questions.
- Was Saul’s life as a Pharisee one of peaceful and quiet meditation? (Acts 9.1-2, 26:9-11)
- Does personally dragging people who were followers of “The Way” out of houses to the high priest to be jailed and killed seem like the behavior of an indifferent and unconcerned person? (Acts 8.3)
- Does watching the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, (with approval, no less) sound like the heart of a man who is lukewarm about this belief system or event? (Acts 7.57-58, 8.1-4)
Does a willingness to great suffering after conversion for the sake of the Gospel sound like a man who doesn’t find Jesus that important? To be clear, Paul faced: forty stripes save one, five separate times, being beaten 3 times, stoned once, and was shipwrecked day and night. He was in constant peril of: waters, robbers, countrymen (his own), the heathen, the city, the wilderness, the sea, and false brothers, weariness and pain, hunger, thirst, cold, nakedness, and lack of necessities. Just a side note: in researching this topic, one website listed no less than 12 pages of scripture references detailing his sufferings.
This is how Paul responded to his sufferings:
That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made comfortable unto His death. - Philippians 3:10
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses [struggles, trials, hardships, inability to handle it apart from the power of God] so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. - 2 Corinthians 12:9b
Only someone who believed that what he was standing for was of utmost importance would endure this level of suffering - and Paul did.
We have no reason to questions Paul’s apostolic authority, the canonicty of his writings, or his knowledge of Jesus. His life and letters reveal a passion for the Gospel that testify to both his sincerity and commitment to the truth.