Did St Paul Get Jesus Right?
By David Wenham
3 Stars (out of 5)
It is generally acknowledged that Paul’s letters were written before the four canonical Gospels. If you read Paul after reading the Gospels it quickly becomes evident that you’ve journeyed into another world. Popular phrases like “Kingdom of God” almost disappear completely, and the parables of Jesus drop out of sight as does the person of Jesus in terms of his earthly life and ministry. And in their place come new phrases like “justification”, and concepts that take on whole new levels of prominence such as the divinity of Jesus and Jesus as the “Christ”.
This has led many people to conclude that St. Paul was the real founder of Christianity and that he invented basic Christian tenets such as the deity of Jesus.
In Did St Paul Get Jesus Right?, David Wenham attempts to make the case that Paul was not the founder of Christianity, that he was well acquainted with the oral tradition of Jesus, his teaching and his parables and that the concepts that Paul elaborates on in his letters were a part of that oral tradition before Paul’s conversion.
Some of Wenham’s arguments are:
- By tracing word usages such as “Abba”, an Aramaic word in a Greek letter written to a Gentile audience, Wenham shows that Paul was interacting with Jesus’ use of Abba during his Gethsemane prayer.
- When Paul says, “not I, but the Lord…” and then “not the Lord, but I…” in the context of marriage and divorce, Wenham believes that Paul is “quoting” – paraphrasing from the oral tradition – Jesus’ teaching on this subject.
- He suggests that Paul even implicitly interacts with Jesus’ parables such as when Paul employs the term “thief” in Thessalonians (recall Jesus’ parable of keeping watch because they do not know what time the thief is coming); and possibly when Paul speaks of his ministry as being a steward, he has in mind Jesus’ parable of the faithful steward.
- Paul commonly makes statements like, “you know very well…” and then launches into a discussion similar to something Jesus taught. (See parables above.)
One of the fundamental principles of Wenham’s argument is that Paul “applies [Jesus’] teaching flexibly and intelligently to new questions – as in his discussion of singleness in his letter to the Corinthians” (p.77). So in a sense we should not be surprised that what we find in the Gospels and in Paul differ on methods and emphasis: Paul lived and moved in a different context than Jesus.
Jesus’ ministry was to Israel, Paul’s to Gentiles. Paul’s ministry was post-resurrection while Jesus’ earthly ministry was not. Furthermore, we shouldn’t expect to ever find Paul quoting from the Gospel accounts of Jesus since chronologically, Paul’s letter’s come first.
For my own part, it seemed at times that Wenham was making a case out of nothing, grasping for “allusions” by Paul of something we might find of Jesus in the Gospels. But many of his suggestions were quite ponder-worthy and some even quite persuasive. One of the weaknesses of Did St Paul Get Jesus Right? is that it is not very heavily footnoted and his arguments are not critically developed to a level I would have preferred. But its weakness (in my opinion) also contributes to its strength: this book is written for everyone. It is a simple and clear introduction to a difficult subject.