False Starts in the Problem of Jesus and Paul, Pt 2

This is the second of three posts examining the possible relationship between Paul of Tarsus […]

Todd Brewer / 6.13.13

This is the second of three posts examining the possible relationship between Paul of Tarsus and the historical Jesus.

St.Paul-Icon-700pxThe previous post broadly outlined the problem of the historical Jesus and his relationship to Paul the apostle. I noted Paul’s apparent indifference toward Jesus’ message, the conceptual dissimilarity between Paul’s doctrine of justification and Jesus’ kingdom of God (to recall one example), and most importantly, the requirement of historical Jesus studies to separate Jesus’ words from later confessions about Jesus. Consequently, many have construed the relationship between Jesus and Paul in antithetical terms – one may choose either Paul or Jesus, but not both. So how have others tried to fix this problem? And how is their answer helpful or unhelpful?

When faced with Wilhelm Wrede’s alternatives of Paul or Jesus, Johannes Weiss tried to establish a historical connection between Paul and Jesus, such that Paul’s mission becomes a direct extension of Jesus’ ministry. On the basis of 2 Cor. 5:17, Weiss believes that Paul had a personal knowledge of Jesus and was actually present in Jerusalem during Jesus’ final days. He likely heard Jesus preach, and may have even witnessed Jesus’ Passion and crucifixion. Paul was also convinced of the narratives of Jesus told by the original 12 disciples. So for Weiss, the problem of Jesus and Paul is not a historical problem, since Paul’s message is derived from and even sanctioned by the historical Jesus. This solution is unsatisfactory on several levels. Though Jesus appeared to Paul on the Damascus road, 2 Cor. 5:17 doesn’t imply any kind of personal acquaintance. But even acknowledging such a direct historical connection between Jesus and Paul doesn’t account for the theological differences that emerge from historical study. If Paul was an adopted disciple of the historical Jesus, he doesn’t seem to be a very good one.

kasemannAnother notable attempt to bring Jesus and Paul closer together was made in the 1950’s by Ernst Käsemann. In response to the popular consensus founded by Wrede and codified by his teacher Rudolf Bultmann, Käsemann sought to show that, even after the portrait of Jesus has been thoroughly stripped of later Christian confessional statements, there is still a striking congruence between what is left of Jesus‘ teaching/actions and the Pauline gospel. (It should be said here that PZ wrote a compelling book following Käsemann’s line of inquiry). For Käsemann, unlike any contemporary rabbi the historical Jesus demonstrated a claim of authority to rival Moses (Matthew 5:21-48), lived in freedom from the law itself, and inaugurated a kingdom which forgave sins and freed this world from the dominion of evil. To mix metaphors, these pillars of the historical Jesus’ teaching provide the keystones of Pauline theology: Paul taught what Jesus did. The strength of Käsemann’s proposal is that it highlights genuine features of the Jesus tradition which are congruous with Pauline theology – especially in his instance of Jesus as an ‘evangelist’ rather than a preacher of law. But Käsemann’s portrait of Jesus is susceptible to the same radical historical criticism he employs. The extent that this historical Jesus sounds like a Pauline Christian may itself be the invention of later Christianity. Additionally, the persuasiveness of Käsemann’s argument is undermined by the scant, bare bones nature of his historical reconstruction.

More recently, the most prominent proponent of a unified Jesus and Paul has been Tom Wright, though his portrait of Jesus and Paul differs sharply from that of Käsemann. Jesus and Paul are united by their common belief in their belief in the restoration of Israel’s kingdom. Jesus understood himself to be Israel’s royal Messiah who proclaims the kingdom of God. Paul, now on the other side of Jesus’ resurrection, confesses this to be so while standing in a new social context defending Gentile inclusion. This congruence between Jesus and Paul presented by Wright is partially an effect of his somewhat circular historical methodology. According to Wright’s ‘critical realism’, material about Jesus is held to be authentic when it plausibly fits within 1st century Jewish/Christian historical context, a reconstructed historical context which is concerned with the restoration of Israel’s kingdom and the coming Messiah. Wright offers an impressive paradigm for historical Jesus study which could in theory bring Jesus and Paul closer together, yet in practice Wright’s reconstruction fails to do this. Like Weiss before him, there is a (self-fulfilling) historical reductionism at work and a disregard for the theological shaping of the Jesus tradition. Rather than freeing himself from the constraints of 19th century liberalism, Wright ironically has little regard for the church confessional statements about Jesus. The church’s gospels, as windows to the historical Jesus, disappear entirely, thereby effectively severing the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith.

This brief tour through Jesus/Paul studies has highlighted several attempts to navigate between Jesus and Paul, to create a unified Christianity. Though their solutions each have their problems, their common concern to find common ground is nevertheless quite laudable.

Next week, I will finally offer my own thoughts on bridging the divide between Jesus and Paul. Though it will not solve every problem, perhaps it will re-cast the debate toward more fruitful possibilities.

Click here to read the final part of this series!