Saul of Tarsus, later known as the apostle Paul, wrote the majority of what we now call the Christian New Testament. The life and writings of St. Paul has been the subject of many discussions over the centuries, particularly among scholarly circles in recent decades. One of the major questions revolves around Paul and Jesus. What did Paul know about his miracles, parentage, and life in general? Certainly there are letters written by (or dictated by) Paul that we do not have in the canonical Scriptures (see 1st Corinthians 6:9, etc.), and we are not always privy to what Paul told those whom he converted prior to writing his letters, along with several other variables. But perhaps the question is not necessarily about what Paul did not know, but what he actually did know. Clearly, he knew of Jesus as he is the subject of the Pauline letters. Whether he had ever seen Jesus prior to his crucifixion is a matter of debate, but it is possible that St. Paul glimpsed Jesus briefly in Jerusalem. If he had seen Jesus in person – even if it was briefly – he does not mention it in any of his letters. However, he did have a sort of conversion experience in which he likely saw the resurrected Jesus, and saw him more than once afterward (Acts 18:9; 23:11).
It would therefore be relevant to give a brief background on Paul before determining what he actually knew about Jesus. St. Paul was born to Jewish parents, trained under Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and was “circumcised on the eight day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5). With this in mind, what did Paul actually know about Jesus, aside from a theological standpoint? He is aware of Jesus was born of a woman and born a Jew (Galatians 4:4; some take this to refer to the virgin birth), descended from the Davidic line (Romans 1:3), that Jesus had brothers, naming James as one (1st Corinthians 9:5; Galatians 1:19), that Jesus had twelve disciples (1st Corinthians 15:5) and ministered to Jews (Romans 15:8). Paul is also aware of the last supper that Jesus had with his disciples the night he was betrayed (1st Corinthians 11:23; although the Greek word for “betrayed” can but does not have to mean “handed over”), as well as what Jesus said that fateful evening (11:23-25), and that Jesus died on a cross by crucifixion (1st Corinthians 2:2; Galatians 6:14, etc.).
St. Paul also seemingly betrays knowledge of some of the sayings of Jesus. For example, that Christians should not get divorced (1st Corinthians 7:11; cf. Mark 10:11-12) and that preachers should be paid (1st Corinthians 9:14; cf. Luke 10:7). He also notes that Christians should pay taxes (Romans 13:7; cf. Mark 12:17) and that the Law is fulfilled by loving their neighbors as themselves (Galatians 5:14; cf. Matthew 22:39-40). Also, some of Paul’s vocabulary is similar to that used by Jesus. In one of (if not the) earliest writings in the New Testament, Paul says that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (emphasis mine, 1st Thessalonians 5:2; cf. Matthew 24:42-44) and notes that “destruction will come on them suddenly, “as labor pains on a pregnant woman” (5:3; cf. Matthew 24:8). He also uses the phrase “love one another” (Romans 13:8; cf. John 13:34). We cannot be sure of what Paul did not know, but it is quite possible that he knew more than what is recorded in the canonical New Testament.
Consequently, this leads us to another question – that of St. Paul and Tradition. Along with the aforementioned items, in several places scholars believe that Paul uses early Christian creeds and hymns. He may have learned of these creeds and hymns in a variety of ways, but the prevalent theory is that he heard and learned the majority of these during his trips to Jerusalem as mentioned in Galatians. These creeds and hymns are very important to the study of early Christianity because they are able to give us a window into the earliest beliefs and notions held by the 1st century church prior to the involvement of Paul. Our first example comes from the first Pauline letter listed – Romans. According to Romans 1:3-4, “regarding his Son, who as to his early life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.” Some believe that this is an early creed, possibly used during baptism. Romans 10:9, “Jesus is Lord,” is also thought to be an early – if not the earliest – creed. 1st Corinthians 11:23-26 and 15:3-8 record two early church creeds. Paul actually uses the rabbinical technical terms of “received” and “passed on” in these two instances. The form is also creedal, and the second contains the Aramaic name of Peter which some take as a sign of early origin.
According to some scholars, Galatians 3:28 is also an early creed and it is thought to be spoke by converts during baptism (cf. 3:27). Also, Ephesians 5:14 is thought to be an early hymn, “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Another very important hymn can be found in Philippians 2:6-11, where Christ is revered as God. Colossians 1:15-20, though of uncertain Pauline origin, also contains a possible hymn to Christ. 1st Timothy 3:16 is also thought to be another early creed, which declares that “God appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.” Lastly, 2nd Timothy 2:8 refers to “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David,” which appears to be the opening and closing of the Romans 1 creed. Another creed is found in verses 11-13, and begins with “Here is a trustworthy saying.” While debate continues as to whether or not these are actual creeds and/or hymns, if we presuppose an early origin, it demonstrates several things about early Christianity.
First of all, it demonstrates a seemingly early belief in Jesus as God. It implies that the followers may have used a short list of witnesses to the resurrected Jesus (but excluded the women) in creedal formulas, recited creeds during baptism, was thought to be descended from the Davidic line and that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ has been present from the very start of Christianity. Both the question of Paul’s knowledge of Jesus and the question of Paul and tradition are truly fascinating and have been discusses by scholars and historians alike, but the implications for each topic will vary depending on the individual’s presuppositions. Certainly, Paul likely knew more than is recorded in his letters, and the creedal statements as well as the hymns were probably spread throughout the early Christian church – or some form of them. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of the early believers and allows us to re-examine what we know about early Christianity, pre-Pauline and post-Pauline.