The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 3/Section 2

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2.—Paul no Witness to the Historicity of Jesus.[edit]

We must, therefore, acquiesce in the view of Wrede and M. Brückner, which is also presented in the Christ-Myth, that Paul was not concerned with the earthly life of Jesus, and his idea of Christ was formed independently of an historical Jesus. “Of the ‘life’ of Jesus,” says Wrede, “one single event was of importance to him: the end of life, the death. For him, however, even this is not the moral action of a man; indeed, it is not an historical fact at all for him, but a superhistorical fact, an event of the super sensual world.”[1] Wrede therefore doubts whether the “disciple of Jesus” properly applies to Paul, if it is meant to express his historical relation to Jesus. “We need not repeat it: the life-work and living figure of Jesus are not reflected in the Pauline theology. There can be no doubt about this fact. He of whom Paul professed himself the disciple and servant was not the historical human being Jesus, but another.”

This admission on the part of so distinguished an expert as Wrede is naturally very unwelcome to liberal theologians. It has brought into play a large number of theological pens, eager to weaken Wrede's remarks, represent them as exaggerations, and make them harmless. “Attempts at reconciliation,” J. Weiss rightly calls these efforts in his work Paulus und Jesus, in which he emphatically opposes Wrede, and endeavours to find better arguments to prove the close connection between Paul and Jesus. Jülicher also has published a volume in the “Religionsgeschichtlichen Volksbücher,” entitled Paulus und Jesus (1907), to correct the heresy of Wrede. In this he has endeavoured, with more rhetoric than force, to explain the agreement and the difference between Jesus and his apostles, and to prove that Paul was not indifferent to the personality of Jesus. “The ‘Lord,’ the supreme master, was not shown to him by the apostles, but by God alone; but what the Lord had once taught, commanded, and instituted on earth could [sic] be learned by Paul only from men. The friendly co-operation of Paul with other Evangelists, such as Barnabas and Mark, who assuredly did not possess such remarkable exclusiveness, makes it impossible that the gospel-story should have remained substantially unknown to Paul.” Who can fail to recognise here the method which the liberal theologian regards as the only “scientific” method—namely, to assume precisely what has to be proved—the connection of Paul and the “primitive community” with an historical Jesus? It is, of course, more than improbable that, if Peter and Barnabas and all the others knew any details about Jesus, Paul should not have heard them. But the only fact in the matter is that the apostle's letters show no trace whatever of such knowledge. What is the value of an argument which tries to prove the historicity of the gospels by means of the Pauline Epistles, and the historical character of the Pauline references to Jesus by similar references in the gospels? We ask: Is there anything in the Pauline Epistles which compels us to infer from them the existence of an historical Jesus? Did the writer of these Epistles know anything in detail of the events which the gospels describe as historical? We cannot be put off with the assurance: Yes, he must have known of them; that is to say, if things fell out precisely as the New Testament writings say that they did—which is the thing to be proved.[2]

We do not, of course, mean that Paul ought to have taken all his ideas from the words of Jesus. But we ought to find the influence of the historical Jesus somewhere in the thoughts and words of Paul, especially as he often treats of things which are prominent in the teaching of Jesus. But that he never appeals to any distinctive acts of “the Lord,” that he never quotes the sayings of Jesus in the gospels as such, and never applies them, even where the words and conduct of Jesus would be most useful for strengthening his own views and deductions—for we must ignore what has been said in refutation of this statement—all this is for us a certain proof that Paul knew nothing of Jesus. We should like to have it explained how a man who has the authority of “the Lord” on his side in a heated conflict with his opponents (on the question of the law, for instance), and for whom the mere mention of it would suffice to silence his opponents, instead of doing so, uses the most complicated arguments from the Scriptures and the most determined dialectic, when he might have acted so much more simply. Why, for instance (Gal. iii, 31), does he not recall that Jesus also had discussed the Jewish laws about food, in order to convince Peter that he is wrong in avoiding the tables of the Gentiles? Why does he not mention that the Jews crucified Jesus on the Passover, the chief solemnity, and had thus themselves shown that the law was not absolutely valid? He has not himself seen the personal conduct of Jesus, like the disciples at Jerusalem. He knew his deeds and words only at second hand, and may therefore not have had them sufficiently vivid in his mind to quote them frequently. But certain leading features and fundamental principles of the life of Jesus such as the above, which affected his own propaganda, he ought to have known and used. If he knew of an historical Jesus, it remains the most insoluble of problems why he made no use of the knowledge.

Let us not be told that Paul's letters are “occasional papers,” and the apostle had no opportunity to speak more fully about Jesus. This phrase of Deissmann, “occasional papers,” is one of those with which theologians conceal from themselves and others the difficulty of the problem. These letters, swarming with dogmatic discussions of the most subtle character, are merely occasional papers, so that the apostle could not be expected to betray any acquaintance with the historical Jesus! It is the same sort of science as that which, in order to get out of a difficulty, would persuade us that Paul had spoken a good deal of Jesus in his oral discourses, and so did not return to the subject in his letters. This sort of “psychology” does not impose on us, and we find it nothing less than pitiful when Weinel sorrowfully confesses: “I myself once regarded the question in this false light” (namely, that there is little or nothing about Jesus in Paul); and then adds: “What Paul says about Jesus and his words is little when measured by the standard of a gospel, and little also if it is thought that a Paul ought to base all his thoughts on the words of Jesus. It is, however, not enough to find the existence of Jesus convincingly in the Pauline Epistles; the very words of Jesus are found in Paul at every important stage [!]; and there are not only quite a number of details which Paul knows and transmits [!], but all the prominent features of the preaching and nature of Jesus are preserved for us in Paul. There is, therefore, a great deal, if the Epistles are not approached with the old prejudice, and if we remember that they are all occasional papers and never have reason to speak expressly about Jesus” (p. 16).[3] This pronouncement is on the same high level as that of Feine, who says that Paul has “taken great pains to obtain a clear and comprehensive picture of the activity and personality of Jesus.”[4]

We must, therefore, regard the effort of theologians to disprove any statement that Jesus Christ is not an historical personality in Paul as a complete failure. Any attempt to find proof of the historical existence of Jesus in the Pauline Epistles is futile from the mere fact that the gospels are used to check the contents of the Epistles, although they are supposed to have been written after the Epistles. A proof could be found in the Epistles only if they unequivocally pointed to the Jesus of the gospels. As this is not the case, and the relevant passages have first to be interpreted by means of the gospels and explained in the same sense as they, it is absurd to quote the Pauline utterances on Christ as evidence for the gospel Jesus, and pretend that the historicity of Jesus is proved by the apostle. Such proof runs in a vicious circle, and is no proof at all. The frantic efforts of theologians to discover the historical Jesus in the Pauline Epistles merely show, if they show anything, the impossibility of quoting Paul as a witness to the historicity of Jesus.


  1. Paulus, pp. 85 and 95.
  2. In his pamphlet Hat Jesus gelebt? Jülicher seems to deny that there is any difficulty here at all, and appeals from those who deny Jesus to the “judicious historian,” who must, of course, be a theologian. It is true that he generally agrees with Wrede: “The nucleus of the gospel is for Paul the superhistorical element in the appearance and fate of Jesus and the superhuman in it.” “But,” he asks, “ought one to expect in him a lively interest in the details of the historical greatness and the human personality of Jesus?” Then we have the pronouncement of the “judicious historian.” “One can only explain the appeal of those who deny Jesus to Paul and his successors as witnesses against the historicity of Jesus by their complete inability to get from their own minds into that of a man who lived 1,900 years ago—that is to say, the inability to think, judge, and reason historically.” We reply: It is only the complete inability to put themselves in the frame of mind of a man who is convinced that God's son, the second God, wandered on earth in human form and died on the cross—only the complete obsession of theologians in the ancient way of thinking, which will not permit them to see the wood for the trees, and suffers them to say that such a man had no interest in the earthly life of the God. Steudel has said all that need be said on the matter on the occasion of the Berlin debate, and it is unnecessary to return to it. “When Paul says,” Jülicher continues, “that Jesus, after a poor human life, is taken from the circle of disciples to heaven by the death of a criminal, having given [?] them instructions in regard to the new Church, has he given up the personality of Jesus in favour of a mystic figure?” Who will gauge the depths of that sentence?
  3. See, on this, Krieck, Die neueste Orthodoxie und das Christusproblem, 1910, p. 47.
  4. Jesus Christus und Paulus, 1902, p. 229.