Paul and the Earthly Life of Jesus

John Hemer, 19/10/2015

Something which puzzles many people is Paul’s almost total silence concerning the earthly life of Jesus. Apart from the fact that he was born of woman, born under the Law, (Gal. 4:4) i.e. that he was human (as opposed to some divine manifestation, common in Greek mythology) and that he was Jewish, descended from David according to the flesh (Rms. 1:3), Paul gives us no direct information about the life of Jesus. This has lead some scholars to conclude that Paul had no interest in, and possibly even no knowledge of the earthly Jesus, and this view has in turn given rise to the idea that Paul’s Jesus is purely a theological construction with no basis in any historical fact.


Imagine your parish has an open day. People of all faiths and none are invited to taste something of Catholicism, not necessarily to convert them but to build bridges and help people see what we all have in common. Your task is to give a short talk on Jesus. Where do you begin? Most of us, would probably start by talking about his care for the marginalized, the weak, the unfortunate. We may mention some of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps some of his parables. If you are trying to build bridges, you would probably not start with his death and resurrection. There is much in the life and teaching of Christ that non-Christians could relate to, even admire, but those two things will remain a sticking point and so would not be the first things to mention. Paul takes the opposite view. The distinctive thing about Jesus is precisely his death and resurrection and what they mean. His attitude is something like; “If you can’t accept these two things, then I am wasting my time saying anything else about Jesus.” The whole point of the Christian faith stands on falls on these two facts, or as Paul puts it himself; If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins (1 Cor. 15:17).


People on the edge of Christianity make a great deal these days of the so-called Gnostic Gospels, the various documents dating from the 2nd century and later which often claim to be collections of the teaching of Jesus, the best-known of these being the Gospel of Thomas. These documents contain some lovely teachings (also in some cases plainly wacky teachings) but teachings that could have been given by anyone, in any place or time. What is interesting about these supposedly Christian documents is that none recount the death of Jesus. The early church rejected all these documents. Any account of Jesus which excludes his death and resurrection is a misleading account.


Remember, too, that Paul is always writing to established churches, to people who have already been evangelized and to some extent catechized, who know the basics of the life of Christ. If you took any priest’s sermons for a whole year, would you able to reconstruct the life of Christ on the basis of them alone? Probably not. He assumes that people are familiar with the events in the gospels; his task is bring out the meaning of them. Paul is often doing something similar. In letters where Paul is dealing with specific problems (Corinthians and Galatians) the problems are never about what Jesus did. That is a matter of historical record and presumably people knew that much. The problems were about what the Christ-event means and how it affects people’s life and behaviour. So that’s what Paul focuses on.



How would you speak to an enquirer about why the death and resurrection of Jesus are the core of Christianity? Do you give the death and resurrection of Jesus enough attention in your own prayer and reflection?



© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.


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