Is it odd that Paul writes little about Jesus's life?

This post presents additional information regarding Dawkins’s idea that it was odd that Paul writes little about Jesus’s life.

Some religions, both ancient and modern, require no historical basis, for they depend upon ideas rather than events. Christianity is not one of these. It has it roots in the Old Testament, where religion and history are inseparably joined as the expression of the purposeful activity of Israel’s God. Jesus Christ, the central personage of the Christian faith, came into the world ‘in the fullness of time’. In His own preaching and in that of His followers, it is strongly insisted that He came to fulfill the promises made by God to the fathers…Christianity is thus firmly yoked to history.

Everett F. Harrison. A Short Life of Christ . Kindle edition. (1968, p.11-12)

Jesus - not Paul! - as the Cornerstone

It has been argued by some that Paul is the true founder of Christianity and not Jesus Christ. Does Paul see himself in this way?

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we are given a clue as to how he views himself and his mission.

And what is Paul? Only [a] servant (the Greek word used here for servant is “Diakonos” and it means waiting-man, messenger, minister. attendant, or deacon). I planted a seed … but [it’s] only God who makes things grow. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder … For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. I Corinthians 3.5-6,10-11

It is clear from this passage that he views himself as a servant of Jesus. He is not laying a new foundation, religious system, or ideology, as some have claimed, but building on the same foundation that was already in existence before he, Paul, came on the scene. The foundation he used had been put there by God Himself.

In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul refers to a mystery that has now been explained as a direct result of the gospel and the cross of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3.6). The revelation is the reconciliation that has come to the Gentiles. They are now heirs of the covenant promises together with Israel:

“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of Hs household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. Ephesians 2:19-22

The focal point of both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles was the foundation that had been laid from eternity past, even before the foundation of the world. This foundation was the person and work of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1.19-20, Ephesians 1.3-6).

In verse 20 of Ephesians 2 Paul identifies Jesus as the chief cornerstone. The Expositor’s Greek Testament notes:

“[The designation as “chief cornerstone”] denotes the stone placed at the extreme corner, so as to bind the other stones in the building together–the most important stone in the structure, the one on which its stability depended. […] the point being that to Christ Himself and to none other the building owes its existence, its strength, and its increase. He Himself…is at once the ultimate foundation and the Head-stone of the Corner.” (The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 1903, p.300)

One commentator defined and explained the significance of the cornerstone this way:

[Cornerstone] literally means at the tip of the angle. It refers to the capstone or binding stone that holds the whole structure together …often the royal name was inscribed on it. In the East it was considered to be even more important than the foundation.” (Calvary Chapel pdf, February 25, 2018).

In examining the chain of events that occurred in history, it would be unreasonable to claim that Paul was the founder of Christianity because of his known track record as Saul of Tarsus coupled with the Day of Pentecost.

The Day of Pentecost

Pentecost is the Greek word for fifty. This observance is the New Testament counterpart of the Old Testament Jewish feast known as Feast of Weeks or Feast of Harvest. Several other Spring feast celebrations that came before Pentecost were: Passover (Sacrifice), Unleavened Bread (Burial). and the Feast of Firstfruits (Resurrection). To determine the exact Day of Pentecost (Holy Spirit indwelling), according to the Torah (Exodus chapters 23 and 24, Leviticus 16, Numbers 28, and Deuteronomy 16), you would count off 50 days from the first day of the Festival of Firstfruits, and that would give you the actual Day of Pentecost. An article on Christianity.com explains, “Since it was always 50 days after Firstfruits, and since 50 days equals seven weeks, it always came a ‘week of weeks’ later. Therefore, they either called it the Feast of Harvest or the Feast of Weeks.” More about Penecost can be found here .

The book of Acts tells us that the Day of Pentecost was the start of the Dispensation of Grace, the birth of the Christian church and the church age. (Acts 1:8 and Acts 2:1-4) Ten days prior to this celebration, Jesus had ascended into heaven and was seen by over 500 eyewitnesses (Luke 24:50-52, 1 Corinthians 15:6). On this Day of Pentecost, no less than 15 different people groups were represented (Acts 2:7-11). They were witnesses to the church’s miraculous and divine inception.

The apostle Peter delivered a heart-piercing message to his fellow Jews and those living in Jerusalem. Pieces of his sermon, many of which he took straight from the Ketuvim (Writings) and Nevi’im (Prophets) of the Tanakh (Hebrew Old Testament), were passages the majority of this crowd would have been completely familiar with, and yet they were still “cut to the heart”. (Acts 2:37) What they had been told in the past they were seeing fulfilled before their very eyes (Acts 2:33).

The result of Peter’s sermon was that 3000 people received his testimony about Jesus and were baptized (Acts 2.41). It didn’t stop there. Verse 47 of the same chapter tells us that the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. By Acts 4:4, the number had grown to around 5,000 men. By Acts 8, we see it had spread throughout Judea and Samaria because of intense persecution.

Paul’s Conversion and Ministry

Close to the same time period, we read about a man in Acts 8 named Saul who was present at the stoning of the first martyr, Stephen (Acts 7:54-60 - 8:1). This man approvingly looked on this murder that occured under false allegations. Afterwards, he took things even further, seeking to destroy the church, going into the homes of believers to drag off both men and women to have them put in prison. (Acts 8:3, 9:1-2)

In his autobiography as the former Saul of Tarsus, Paul tells us,

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. (Galatians 1.13)

I worked hard and killed men and women who believed as I believe today. I put them in chains and sent them to prison. The head religious leader and the leaders of the people can tell you this is true. I got letters from them to take to our Jewish brothers in the city of Damascus. I was going there to put the Christians in chains and bring them to Jerusalem where they would be beaten. (Acts 22:4-5)

Prior to his Damascus Road conversion, Saul regarded Christians and the Christian church as anathemas. He viewed them as idolatrous blasphemers who were perverting the Torah and was out to destroy the core teaching of the Shema and, indeed, all of Judaism: Monotheism, which is taught in Deuteronomy:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Sefer Devarim 6.4 - the Book of Deuteronomy 6:4)

To claim that Paul was the founder of the very institution he originally sought to obliterate is preposterous. The spread of the church and its revolutionary message regarding the deity of Christ were the catalysts that prompted Paul’s actions against it. His writings and the events that occured in history affirm what we have been told from the beginning. Jesus Christ is the true founder and chief cornerstone of our faith, as we read in Colossians:

He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy. - Colossians 1:18

Did Jesus and Paul teach different things?

The other claim that needs addressing is the critics’ accusations regarding the discrepancies between the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Paul on the same subject. The claim is that Jesus’s teachings and Paul’s teachings may appear topically similar, but in actuality are fundamentally different.

An important observation to note at the start is the mission of Jesus compared to the mission of Paul. In a conversation with a Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:24 Jesus tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In Acts 22.21, we read Then He said to [Paul], ‘Go! I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” Again, in Ephesians Paul declares, “This is why I, Paul, am a prisoner of Christ for you Gentiles (Ephesians 3:1).

We see from these verses that the audience of Jesus and the audience of Paul were different in many ways. Not the least of these is their religious background and the issues they were facing. Some issues were a direct result of their belief systems, while other problems stemmed from circumstances outside of their control. Whether pagan or principled, their (poly)theistic perspective influenced and governed every aspect of their thinking and their decision-making process. It impacted their concept of and behavior toward deity, their view of the family structure, the way their raised their children, the manner in which they governed their livelihood or their own personal conduct - and, therefore, the way that Jesus and Paul would frame the mission of the Gospel.

Jesus’s audience, in this context, was keenly aware of God’s historical interaction with them as a nation. Steeped in the Torah and the concept of monotheism from birth, their very identity and place within the community derived from that upbringing and practice.

Paul’s Greco-Roman audience, on the other hand, was from a paganistic, idolatrous, and polytheistic culture, a culture in which the religious practices played out very differently from that of Judaism.

Take the word temple , for example. That word had one meaning for devout Jews and quite another for Gentiles. To the Jewish people, it would be associated with God’s dwelling on earth, a place where the sacred articles and activities within were a constant reminder of the sinfulness of man and the holiness of the one true God. To Paul’s audience, however, the temple could have very well conjured up images of the goddesses Artemis and Aphrodite or the gods Pan and Dionysus and the practices of cult prostitution, fertility rites, raucous feasts and festivals within the temple itself.

In chapter 8 of his book, Did Paul Get Jesus Right? , David Wenham notes 3 additional differences between Jesus and Paul that had a bearing on their particular ministry (100-102).

  1. Jesus and Paul came from different backgrounds
  2. Jesus and Paul were teaching at different times
  3. Letters are different from preaching the gospel

Earlier in the same book, David Wenham makes the comparison between the instructions of Jesus from Luke 10:7 and Matthew 10:10 with the seemingly blatant misrepresentation and the resultant act of disobedience on the part of Paul to that command. In the above passages, Jesus tells His disciples, “The labourer is worthy of his pay/reward.” In other words, those who proclaim the gospel should get their living from the gospel (1 Corinthians 9.14). However, Paul’s letters reveal that Paul, a minister of the gospel, was a tentmaker and supported himself in this way. Wenham writes:

"Does this prove that Paul preferred his own opinions to those of Jesus? Paul would undoubtedly deny it and chapter 9 of the 1 Corinthians is his explanation:

  • He agrees that Jesus spoke of gospel-ministers being supported in their ministry.
  • He says that this was a right that he, Paul, could legitimately have claimed for himself.
  • He has chosen to forgo that right ‘rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.’

He goes on to say that he chose to ‘present the gospel free of charge,’ not taking up his rights, and he speaks of ‘making himself a slave of all’ to win them for Christ. "Paul probably considered that living off a wealthy patron in Corinth […] would have sent out exactly the wrong signal from a servant of Jesus who gave of himself freely. […] And Paul may also have calculated that being a tentmaker and leather worker would give him openings in the bazaar to talk to his fellow workers, customers and passers-by.” (Wenham 61-63)

Another example given by Wenham has to do with a disparity between the teachings of Jesus and the perceived omission of Paul.

"The most important theme of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels is the kingdom of God. ‘The kingdom of God has come near’, proclaims Jesus in Matthew, Mark and Luke”.

If Jesus spent a large portion of the synoptic gospels talking about this subject should not his apostle, his follower, do the same? And yet we see that does not appear to be the case.

At first sight Paul looks quite at odds with Jesus on this very fundamental matter. He refers to ‘the kingdom of God’ rather seldom in his letters, and this could seem to confirm that he is not even trying to pass on the teachings of Jesus. However, […] in his letter to the Romans he refers to the ‘good news of God, […] a righteousness from God being revealed’ […] and describes God bringing the promised day when things will be put right. (Romans 1.17-18, 3.21)…This is very close to what Jesus was saying in announcing the coming of the kingdom of God. (Wenham, 104-5)

It seems very likely that kingdom of God was one of those phrases that worked well in the Jewish context of Jesus, but less well out among the Gentiles of the Roman world. The language of ‘king’ and ‘kingdom’ may have been rather sensitive in the Roman world, since it could be used against Christians as evidence of their political subversiveness…Paul may well have wanted to avoid distracting misunderstandings of Jesus.” (Wenham)

In conclusion…

Far from reinterpreting, misrepresenting, or omitting entirely the teachings of Jesus, we see a scriptural engineer doing some of his finest work. Building upon a bridge whose foundation has already been laid for the purpose of connecting Jew and Gentile and, more importantly, fellow citizens to their Chief Cornerstone.