Given that historians look to those who are contemporaries of the events, Paul is an important resource for what historians can know about Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, the earliest documents we have for the life of Jesus are Paul’s letters. Paul was a very competent rabbi who was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin. Of his 13 books, critical scholars even accept six of them as being authentic in that we can be certain of the author and date of these writings. Of course, there are other scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson and Raymond Brown and others that think more than six of them are authored by Paul. I personally think a good case that Pauline authorship can be made for all of his letters. Anyway, of the 13 books, the six are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians and 1 Thessalonians. These letters provide a variety of historical details found in the Gospels. Both Christian and non-Christian scholars have come to have great respect for Paul. Allow me to mention a few comments here:
“Without knowing about first century Judaism, modern readers—even those committed to faith by reading him—are bound to misconstrue Paul’s writing…Paul is a trained Pharisee who became the apostle to the Gentiles.” –Alan Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), xi-xii
“Paul has left us an extremely precious document for Jewish students, the spiritual autobiography of a first-century Jew…Moreover, if we take Paul at his word—and I see no a priori reason not to—he was a member of the Pharisaic wing of first century Judaism.”–Daniel Boyarian, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 2.
“Paul was a scholar, an attendant of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, well-versed in the laws of Torah.”-Rabbi Jacob Emeden (1679-1776)–cited by Harvey Falk, Jesus the Pharisee (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 18.
Some of the historical details about the life of Jesus that Paul mentions are the following:
- Jesus’ Jewish ancestry (Gal 3:16)
- Jesus’ Davidic descent (Rom 1:3)
- Jesus’ virgin birth (Gal 4:4)
- Jesus’ life under the Jewish law (Gal 4:4)
- Jesus’ Brothers (1 Cor 9:5)
- Jesus’ 12 Disciples (1 Cor 15: 7)
- One of whom was named James (1 Cor 15: 7)
- That some had wives (1 Cor 9: 5)
- Paul knew Peter and James (Gal 1:18-2:16)
- Jesus’ poverty ( 2 Cor 8:9)
- Jesus’ humility ( Phil. 1:5-7)
- Jesus' Meekness and Gentleness (2 Cor. 10:1)
- Abuse by Others (Rom 15:3)
- Jesus’ teachings on divorce and remarriage (1 Cor. 7:10-11)
- Jesus' views on paying wages of ministers (1 Cor 9:14)
- Jesus' views on paying taxes ( Rom 13: 6-7)
- Jesus' views on the duty to love one’s neighbors (Rom 13: 9)
- Jesus' views on Jewish ceremonial uncleanliness ( Rom 14: 14)
- Jesus’ titles to deity ( Rom 1: 3-4; 10:9)
- On vigilance in view of Jesus’ second coming ( 1 Thess: 4: 15)
- On the Lord’s Supper ( 1 Cor. 11: 23-25)
- Jesus’ Sinless Life ( 2 Cor. 5:21)
- Jesus’ death on a cross ( Rom 4:24; 5:8; Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor 15: 3)
- Specifically by crucifixion ( Rom 6: 6; Gal 2:20)
- Jesus’ burial (1 Cor. 15: 4)
- Jesus’ resurrection on the “third day” (1 Cor.15:4)
- Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the apostles ( 1 Cor.15:5-8)
- And to other eyewitnesses (1 Cor 15:6); and
- Jesus’ position at God’s right hand ( Rom 8:34)
Paul also employs rabbinical terminology such as “delivering,” “receiving,” “passing on” “learning,” “guarding,” the traditional teaching within his letters. This can be observed in the following passages:.
Romans 16: 17: “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.”
1 Corinthians 11:23:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread.
I Corinthians 15: 3-8
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
1 Thessalonians 2:13:
For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.
2 Thessalonians 2:15:
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.
Paul’s Knowledge of Testimony and Witness
As Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Theology notes, the biblical concept of testimony or witness is closely allied with the conventional Old Testament legal sense of testimony given in a court of law. Its validity consists in certifiable, objective facts. In both Testaments, it appears as the primary standard for establishing and testing truth claims. Uncertifiable subjective claims, opinions, and beliefs, on the contrary, appear in Scripture as inadmissible testimony. Even the testimony of one witness is insufficient—for testimony to be acceptable, it must be established by two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15). It can also be observed that the emphasis on eyewitness testimony was carried on through the early church.
As Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy note in the book The Jesus Legend: A Case For the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition, Christianity cannot be understood apart from its first century Jewish context. The Sinai teaching that multiple witnesses was retained Mark 14:56,59; John 5:31-32; Heb 10:28) and also used for church discipline (Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1;1 Tim 5:19). Also, the principle of giving a true testimony and making a true confession are evident in the early church (Matt 10:18; Mark 6:11;13:9-13;Luke 1:1-2;9:5;21:12-13;22:71;John 1:7-8,15,19,32,34;3:26,28;5:32; Acts 1:8,22;3:15;5:32;10:37-41;13:31;22:15;18;23:11;26:16).
So given these issues and that Paul was a Pharisee, we can gather he was aware of the issues of bearing false witness. He wanted to get his facts straight. Also, to say that Paul would create a mythic Jesus that was later historicized in the Gospels is problematic. It is doubtful that Paul “invented” a mythic Jesus or Christianity because he was not even a believer until about two years or so after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and the events of Pentecost. Hence, the early church and the content of the Gospel were in existence before Paul become a follower of Jesus.
As David Wenham says:
“ Paul would have been horrified at the suggestion that he was the founder of Christianity. For him, the foundation of theology was Jesus; first, the Jesus whom he met on the Damascus road; second, the Jesus of the Christian tradition. He of course identified the two. Paul saw himself as the slave of Jesus Christ, not the founder of Christianity.” –Boyd/Eddy, The Jesus Legend, pg 232.
Handling a Silly Objection: “But Paul Never Met Jesus”
This past year, I was out doing some evangelism on a major college campus. An atheist approached me and started to talk with me about what we can and can’t know about Jesus. He wanted to make it clear that Christians shouldn’t be so quick to rely on Paul’s letters as sources for the life of Jesus. After all, Paul never met Jesus. Right? I found this to be silly and offered a response. I will share it here as well. As Louis Gottschalk says:
“Written and oral sources are divided into two kinds: primary and secondary. A primary source is the testimony of an eyewitness….A secondary source is the testimony source is the testimony of anyone who is not an eyewitness-that is, of one who was not present at the events of which he tells. A primary source must thus have been produced by a contemporary of the events it narrates. It does not, however, need to be original in the legal sense of the word original-that is, the very document (usually in a written draft) [autographa] whose contents are the subject of discussion-for quite often a later copy or a printed edition will do just as well; and in the case of the Greek and Roman classic seldom are any but later copies available.” (Understanding History, 53-54).
As we see, since Paul was a contemporary of Jesus, he can be considered as a primary source. He also claimed to have a personal encounter with Jesus (Acts 9:5-9).
There is no doubt that Paul was one of the finest teachers of his day. He was committed to give his readers historical knowledge about Jesus. Most importantly, we can observe that in several places that he was taught by the Lord Himself.