Did St Paul Get Jesus Right? (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  June 7, 2011 — 10 Comments

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.

Conclusions:

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.

Derek Ouellette

Posts Twitter Facebook Google+

a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000259010675 Kyle Pitts

    I am not sure if I understand the premise and what it is debating. Too me, Paul never really authored anything but under strict guidance wrote what God wanted, in the verbal, plenary fashion.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      The debate is whether Paul invented Christianity and fundamental doctrines like the divinity of Jesus and his Messiahship or not. More and more scholarship is claiming that Paul did and this book has been written to debunk that assumption.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000259010675 Kyle Pitts

      I see, and it is simple to read and understand so its appeal and effectiveness will be widespread!

  • http://hiddenirony.wordpress.com James Palmer

    For me, I found the most convincing arguments that Paul was writing about a historical Jesus from N.T. Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God.”

    Although I’m guessing, as a huge Wright fan, Derek, that you’ve already read it. If not, you should – it’s a great book.

    “The Jesus Legend” by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy also do a good job of dispelling this myth.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      I have both Wright and Boyd’s books on my shelf right now, but haven’t made it around to reading either just yet. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • brad dickey

    D,

    I used to do a lot of head to head atheist/agnostic/cynic talking. Some on internet radio, a time or two in public, mostly in small discussion groups. (btw, internet radio had a surprisingly large audience, much more than the ten or twenty I was expecting.)

    One of the big topics was Paul contradicting Jesus. And the more I read up on it, the more it seemed Paul merely applied Jesus teachings in a practical way. An example is Gal 5:6 a summary of many parables, but perhaps none as en pointe as sheep and goats parable.

    If anyone is ever going to appeal to the crowds I mentioned above, then this sounds like a really good book to read in preparation.

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      That’s right Brad. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.whitehawkspiritcoaching.net Gavin

    Derek,

    Thanks again for daring to comment on/review an issue that really is a slippery slope theologically.

    As far as I’m concerned, Paul invented Paulinism, NOT Christianity. And if one is so oriented and bold, it is an interesting foray into the quest for “truth”, if one reads the seven undisputed letters of Paul chronologically (i.e., from I Thessalonians to Romans) in an effort to pinpoint Paul’s “early” theology to its apogee in Romans where one finds Paul at the top of his theological game.

    Hence, my “issue” with anyone who believes that Paul just wrote what “God told him to write”.

    No, Paul, as did every other writer in the Bible, wrote of his EXPERIENCES of God, NOT God’s DIRECT, LITERAL word.

    This is a task that’s simply impossible for us mortals. I am not, however, saying that Paul’s epistles are not INSPIRED, as are many other works of Christian authors.

    Paul wrote in a specific time and place and for a specific audience, about his experiences of God.

    To make Paul’s epistles “God’s Word”, is called Bibliolatry and is something we all need to be on guard against doing.

    Interestingly, Paul’s undisputed letters are a great source for verifying the “literal truth” of the 4 Gospels.

    For example, Paul seems to know nothing of a Virgin Birth, a betrayal by Judas Iscariot, a literal “resurrection” or an Ascension. Surely if these events had literally taken place, Paul would have known about them and written about them. However, he is silent.

    We are reminded, then, that the evangelists and Paul were writing very different genres of literature (i.e., gospels and epistles). And both must be allowed to speak for themselves, rather than we reading our meanings back into them (the difference between “exegesis” and “eisegesis”).

    Did Paul know at the time he was writing that his “letters” would come to be judged “God’s Word”? Of course not.

    This was a later accretion layered onto them by the Early Church Fathers when they were putting together the Canon of Christian Scripture in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries, in much the same way that the gospels are anonymous.

    The names of the 4 authors were added much later based on legend, etc. when the Christian Scriptures were being solidified by the men who were the “victors” in the Early Church. These same men also stated what constituted “orthodoxy” and what constituted “heresy” and rigidly enforced their definition of “orthodoxy” as even the most cursory study of Church History bears out.

    We do a great disservice to Paul and the other writers of the Christian Testament when we attempt to add things that simply aren’t there.

    Am I a biblical literalist, no, I am not. I’ve spent far too many years working within the discipline of Biblical scholarship to take what I consider to be the “easy way out”.

    Christ’s peace be with each of you.

  • http://www.natlewis.co.uk Nathanael Lewis

    Looks like it’s a ‘lite’ version of his earlier work – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Paul-Follower-Jesus-Founder-Christianity/dp/0802801242 which has lots of footnotes etc

    • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

      Thanks for pointing that out Nathanael. You are absolutely correct and he references over to that earlier work often.