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Did Jesus Preach Paul’s Gospel?

(Note: This is an attempt at answering a possible exam question and is therefore sketchy in places)

Did Paul and Jesus teach the same thing? Is Paul a follower of Jesus, or the actual founder of Christianity? Many critical scholars hold a view that Paul taught a different gospel to Jesus. They claim that Paul’s teaching of salvation by faith in Christ apart from the Jewish law and available to all who believe, is at odds with the historical Jesus. Contemporary documentaries, books and articles are quick to cast Paul and Jesus as opposites: the Harvard heavyweight versus the homespun rabbi; the Witness versus the Word. In light of these concerns, what is the evidence for continuity between the teachings of Jesus and Paul?

1. Circumstantial support for continuity between Jesus and Paul

First, Paul himself claims to be a teacher in continuity with Jesus Christ. He opens his letter to the Galatians with: “Paul, an apostle – sent not from men nor by men, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father…” (Gal. 1:1) He is at pains to assert that his gospel came “through a revelation of Christ” (Gal. 1:12, 1:16b-17a). Paul’s apostleship denoted a responsibility to accurately share the teaching of Jesus (see also Eph 1:1, Rom 1:1).

Secondly, through Paul’s epistles, he employs the term “tradition” and “passed on” (or “handed over”) to indicate the continuity of his teaching to Jesus (see 1 Cor 11:2, 15:3, Phil 4:9, Col 2:7, 2 Thess 2:15, Rom 6:17). I personally find Paul’s words in 1 Thess. 4:2 to be the most persuasive: “For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.” By using these terms, Paul is indicating that his teaching is not an off-shoot of Jesus’s teaching, but continues from it. The inclusion of “we” in Paul’s statement highlights the consistency and ubiquity of Jesus’s teaching through him and others. In other words, Paul’s teaching has been peer-reviewed, and has the authority of the Lord.

Thirdly, Paul’s incidental information about Jesus in his letters are consistent with the four gospel accounts. Paul Barnett in Jesus and the Logic of History, pp57-58, summarises what Paul states about the historical Jesus, including that:

  • Jesus descended from Abraham (Gal 3:16) and David (Rom 1:3, 1 Cor 15:3)
  • Jesus was born of a woman (Gal 4:4) – indicating at least Paul’s awareness of the virgin birth
  • Jesus lived in poverty (2 Cor 8:9)
  • Jesus was “born under” Jewish law (Gal 4:4)
  • Jesus had a brother, James, and other unnamed siblings (Gal 1:19, 1 Cor 9:5)
  • Jesus was betrayed (1 Cor 11:23), cruelly treated (Rom 15:3), testified before Pilate (1 Tim 6:13), was killed (1 Thess 2:14-15), buried (1 Cor 15:4) and rose again on the third day (1 Cor 15:4-6)

2. Biblical support for the continuity between Jesus and Paul

We now look to examining the biblical teachings of Jesus and Paul directly – is there an irreconcilable divide?

First, Jesus taught salvation by grace through faith, in alignment with Paul’s central message (e.g. Rom 3:21-30). In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus addressed those who sought to justify themselves by telling a story where a despised tax collector ends up being justified before God by humbling himself before Him for mercy. In contrast, the implication is that the Pharisees are condemned. Jesus’s other parables highlight similar themes to Paul’s emphases, such as undeserved favour and welcome from the father (Luke 15:11-32) and  the crediting of wages not earned (Matt 20:1-16). Paul seems to take what Jesus teaches in story form and presents it propositionally, but at its heart there is continuity between the two.

Secondly, Jesus taught salvation based on his death and resurrection. All four gospels climax on the death and resurrection of Jesus, using the narrative form to self-consciously emphasise the centrality of the cross. Mark and Matthew’s gospel accounts show Jesus repeatedly explaining to his disciples that “the Son of Man came to die as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45), and that He would rise again three days later, according to Scripture. It is also instructive that in Luke 22:37, Jesus connects his impending death with the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53.

A common objection to the idea that Paul was in continuity with Jesus is the assertion that Jesus was primarily focused on the Kingdom of God, whereas Paul’s emphasis is on individual justification by faith. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes patently clear that Paul’s letters are replete with references to the Kingdom of God. For example, the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God (Eph 5:5), and neither is the Kingdom of God a matter of eating and drinking (Rom 14:17), or of talk but of power (1 Cor 4:20).

Other than the kingdom of God, Paul makes numerous quotations or allusions to the teachings of Christ. By doing so, he shows an intimate familiarity with Jesus’s teachings on divorce and remarriage (1 Cor 7:10f, Mk 10:2-12), His return like “a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2-5, Lk 12:39), His declaration of all foods being clean (Rom 14:14, Mk 7:15), His command to pay tribute to whom it is due (Rom 13:7, Mk 12:17), his injunction to love one’s enemies (Rom 12:14, 17; Lk 6:27-28) and many other areas. It is irresponsible to conclude that Paul opposed or corrupted Jesus’s teachings when he coheres with them on so many fronts.

3. Genuine differences between Jesus and Paul’s emphases

While I have tried to show continuity between Paul and Jesus, there are still distinct differences between them. For example, Paul has far more to say about the doctrine of the church and of eschatology. This difference in emphasis may be attributed to a number of reasons.

Jesus and Paul taught at different points in the salvation-historical era. Jesus’s audience were mainly Jews living prior to the cross and the arrival of the indwelling Holy Spirit. It is understandable therefore, that Jesus’s teachings are designed to answer and reframe Jewish expectations of what the Kingdom of God will look like (Mk 1:14-15, see also the Parables of the Sower, the Mustard Seed, and others). As a travelling preacher, Jesus’s teaching is heard and recorded in story form.

In contrast, Paul’s audience are a mix of Jews and Gentiles living post-cross and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s teaching comes from the context of his role as a missionary and church-planter addressing the pastoral concerns of the early church. As a result, he necessarily takes the teachings of Jesus and restates them for his specific audience. His emphasis on grace and eschatology may also be a result of his theology being refracted through the lens of his unique conversion. As S Kim explains in Dictionary of Paul an His Letters, “Damascus in seed form has everything Paul emphasises.”

4. Conclusion

Rumours of a divorce between Jesus’s and Paul’s teaching are untrue. A close reading of their teachings reveal differences in emphasis, but not differences in theology. Both Jesus and Paul attest to salvation by grace through faith, and both attest to the death and resurrection of the Son of Man.

(time: 1 hour)

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