Paul as a Disciple of Jesus: Part 3 of 3

So where are we now? Part one examined the broad issue of the historical Jesus […]

Todd Brewer / 6.20.13

So where are we now? Part one examined the broad issue of the historical Jesus and Paul, noting their differences and the ways those have been exploited to create present antithesis. Part two looked at three different attempts to overcome this divide between Jesus and Paul, with Johannes Weiss, Ernst Käsemann, and N.T. Wright broadly serving as representatives of different approaches to the historical Jesus and his relation to Paul. Each of these attempts is admirable, but flawed in their results or approach. So now I ask: Is there a different way to construe the relationship between Jesus and Paul? Can the two be reconciled?
If you might forgive what may appear to be theological hand-waving, the problem of Jesus and Paul is only an apparent problem exacerbated by the demands of historical study of Jesus. As rightly diagnosed by Francis Watson, “Concern with the historicity of Jesus only becomes problematic where the historical Jesus and the early church are seen as two separate and autonomous entities, divided rather than united by the Easter Event” (p. 348-9). Accordingly, the demand that our portrait of Jesus be stripped of all its “secondary” features poisons the comparison of Jesus and Paul from the start.

Rather than attempting to search behind the confession of the early church for the authentic historical Jesus, a better approach to historical study of Jesus would recognize that Jesus’ history (and any historical event for that matter) is only understood according to its subsequent effect within history. Like an earthquake without tremors, there can be no Jesus apart from his effect; an in-effective history can only pass into obscurity. This may or may not sound like common sense, but to understand Jesus one must look at how he has been received by those who came after him and their (dogmatic) confession. Who Jesus is in history is the very same Jesus who evokes the faith of the early church.

A historical inquiry of Jesus premised upon reception opens fresh pathways between Jesus and Paul which may not otherwise be so readily apparent.

1. This allows the evangelists’ portraits of Jesus to speak as witnesses of the historical Jesus. So when Jesus says that he has come “to give his life as a ransom for the many” (Mk. 10.45), this is not to be written off as a post-Easter, inauthentic, confession, but as a genuine impression of Jesus’ own teaching about his impending death. The same goes for Jesus’ controversies with Jewish leaders regarding the validity of the law, his bold forgiveness of sinners, his ability to conquer the powers of evil, or his low estimation of inherent human ability to extract themselves from sin (to name a few!). These are not post-Easter incursions into the Jesus history, but testimonies of his life as received by his early followers, all of which bear a striking resemblance to the Pauline doctrines or sin, redemption, grace, justification apart from works of the law, etc.

2. Similarly, if Jesus is to be understood by his reception, then the Gospel of John can no longer be overlooked in the quest for Jesus ‘as he really was’. This undermines the exclusive claim to normativity ascribed by historical Jesus scholars to the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John is another witness to a Jesus who, in opposition to Moses and his Law, brought grace and truth (Jn. 1:17), a Jesus who lays his life down for his sheep to take away the sin of the world. St. Paul would certainly endorse such a portrayal of Jesus.

3. Perhaps most significantly, this allows Paul himself to speak as an interpreter of the Jesus tradition—one which priorities Jesus’ death and resurrection as the definitive disclosure of Jesus’ identity. Paul knows Jesus as the one who came from heaven to be crucified and raised for us (Phil. 2) and understands his gospel to be an articulation of this saving event. The prioritization of Jesus’ passion could itself be a statement of the minor significance of Jesus’ teaching relative to that passion story. This is echoed by the basic plot outline of each of the four canonical gospels—Jesus’ life find its’ ultimate fulfillment in his death/resurrection. Paul does not write a gospel, a Paul who himself is an interpreter of the historical Jesus can indeed be said a disciple of his message.

Of course, this does not erase all problems in the question of the relationship between Jesus and Paul, but it does begin the conversation on a level footing to even allow Jesus and Paul to speak to each other with a similar theological voice.

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5 responses to “Paul as a Disciple of Jesus: Part 3 of 3”

  1. Luke Schrimsher says:

    Perhaps our perception of incongruence between Paul & Jesus would be reconciled if they were understood through the lens of their Hebrew roots. Jesus was/is the perfect law keeping/law giver and promised Messiah who came to fulfill and not abolish the Law or the Prophets, came “only for the lost sheep of Israel,” and was “a prophet like [Moses]” while Paul (supposedly) explained how Jesus’ “fulfill” effectively meant “abolished” and showed us that we could add to and take away from the perpetual Law of YHWH (even though doing so would make him a false prophet per Deut 13 and even though he “walk[ed] orderly, keeping the Law.”) What if “Moses and the Law” were actually in harmony with “grace and truth” and their seeming incongruency was just as misinterpreted as Jesus’ & Paul’s?

    • Todd Brewer says:

      Luke, Thanks for commenting. Looking for commonalities between Jesus and Paul according to their Jewish heritage is certainly a connection that can be made, but the important question then is: what kind of Jew were they, a question which cannot be so straightforwardly answered.

      You’re right to draw attention to Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as the “greater Moses” and fulfillment of the the Law (Mt. 5.17). But rather than an alternative to what I propose that cuts the Gordian knot, I think it more acutely highlights the “problem” fail to mention in the last paragraph, namely that an approach to the historical Jesus which examine’s Jesus reception immediately creates the problem of plurality of portraits. There may be similarity between various interpreters of Jesus (like Mark and Paul), but none of them say the exact same thing. A comparison between Mark 7 and Matthew 15 highlights this acutely.

      On the question of Jesus and Moses in Matthew, I think Κäsemann is on the right path when he notes Jesus’ claim to authority in the antitheses. Regardless of whether Jesus’ commands are genuinely antithetical to the Law (a separate question), he nevertheless claims to speak not as an interpreter of the law, but on his own authority as the law’s rival. (It’s also worth questioning what is meant by the apocalyptic language of 5.18). So, if Jesus is a “Greater Moses”, does this then replace Moses? This seems to be another way to deal with the issue of the validity of the law. There were early Christians who thought that following the law was a requirement for Christians, but these Ebionites had their own gospel and rejected Paul’s letters.

  2. Thanks for this series, Todd. The agreement between the Jesus of the gospel texts and the letters of Paul seems most evident to me in Jesus’ teachings which emphasize the universal human inability to keep the “law” and which seem to understand “righteousness” as coming through contrition and the passive reception of reconciliation with God as “gift” rather than seeing obedience to the law as earning God’s favor. This passive receipt of the “gift” apart from law-keeping is I think what Jesus calls “faith”. For example,the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector at the temple, along with the “blessed are the poor”, etc. Also, Jesus’ attack on the “teachers of the law” seems directed at their assumption that one earns God’s favor by meeting the law’s demands, rather than seeing the law as the just demand that produces an awareness of the need for the gift. This is clearly also Paul’s teaching in Romans, Galatians and elsewhere. I am also not aware of any miracle which Jesus claims was earned by the recipient through obedience to the law. Jesus does say “your faith has healed/saved you” but I think “faith” is synonymous in those contexts with belief in a naked, passive receipt of God’s gift apart from one’s personal “righteousness” measured by law-keeping.

    • Todd Brewer says:

      MC- That last bit about miracles and faith as opposed to obedience is brilliant. They see Jesus (the word), they respond in faith by coming forward, shouting, even debating with Jesus, and he heals without any preconditions of obedience or promises to rectify their life. Love it!

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