Why Doesn’t Paul Quote Jesus?
July 9, 2024

My title and the substance of the article are borrowed from a section of David Wenham’s excellent book, Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? I am appropriating ideas from the pages in his book which address the question, “Why Does Paul refer to Jesus’ Life and Ministry so Seldom?” I have restated the question and, though I am answering it with insights gleaned from Wenham, I am adding material to his and putting things into a rather different framework. As the derivative nature of this article makes clear, Wenham’s massive book on Paul’s relationship to Jesus is essential reading for anyone interested in the issue.

Of course, this raises a question: if his book is so good, why rehash what he has already said? In part because I want to draw attention to his book and recommend it, but also in part because I want to revise what he has written in three respects. First, I offer a revision in the area of theological presuppositions. Second, I want to suggest two relevant corrections on New Testament chronology. Third, I introduce an interesting possibility about Paul’s relationship with Jesus that is not usually taken into account. Within this revised framework, I will restate some of Wenham’s main points in my own words, with my own bias included.

First, and very briefly, I approach the Bible with the presupposition that it is God’s Word, without error. Though he describes himself as conservative, Wenham differs with me on the importance of presupposing an inerrant Scripture, so our approaches diverge.

Second, I have written in other essays that, following the New Testament chronology advanced by James Jordan,1 I am persuaded that the Gospel of Matthew was written as soon after Pentecost as Matthew was able to put his notes together in the form of a “Gospel.” Thus, the Gospel of Matthew would have been written—perhaps originally in Hebrew or Aramaic—not long after Pentecost in AD 30. It would have been enthusiastically and widely copied and distributed, though only among Jewish Christians, because for about the first ten years of the New Testament church, Jewish Christians were the only Christians there were.

Another correction in New Testament chronology concerns the conversion of the apostle Paul. On the basis of correlating Paul’s testimony in Galatians 1 and 2 with the book of Acts, Jordan argues persuasively that Paul was converted in AD 30. All the events recorded in Acts 1:1–9:22 would have occurred in AD 30.2

Both of these points are relevant to considering Paul’s relationship to Jesus, but there is a third issue, introduced by Stanley Porter’s book, When Paul Met Jesus: How an Idea Got Lost in History.3 Porter argues cogently that Paul met Jesus before the cross and resurrection. Since Porter does not see the Gospel of Matthew as the first Gospel written in AD 30, some of his arguments have less force for me, but his position is difficult to refute. After all, Paul/Saul as a sincere Pharisee would certainly have attended Jewish festivals when he could. He might have been studying with Gamaliel during the time of Jesus’ ministry. And he certainly was well-informed enough as a top-notch Pharisaic scholar to have heard of Jesus long before the cross. Porter concludes that Paul heard Jesus teach and knew very much about Him and His ministry long before Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus. I assume Porter is correct and recommend his book to anyone who doubts this possibility.

Now, with these things in mind, what shall we say to the question: Why doesn’t Paul quote Jesus?

1) Paul actually does quote Jesus in at least one place, but more than that he echoes his teachings, much more than is often recognized. Students of the Bible, even scholars, often miss an allusion or an echo because they approach the text with the presuppositions that Paul never met Jesus until the Damascus-road encounter and that the Gospels were written late, perhaps all of them after AD 70. Thus, Paul would not have had access to the testimony of Jesus in the Gospels, or at least no access for most of his writing career.

If we assume, rather, that Paul knew Jesus personally, heard Him teach, and read the Gospel of Matthew in the year it was “published,” then even slight verbal similarities take on a very different significance. We begin to see that Paul’s teaching often alludes to the life and teaching of Jesus. If, as I assume, the Gospel of Matthew was widely distributed in AD 30 and the Gospel of Mark was probably written, copied, and also widely distributed around AD 40, there were two Gospel available to churches before Paul began his missionary journeys.

2) The early date for the first two gospels means that what we know as Gospel accounts of Jesus in Matthew and Mark would have been introduced by Paul and other missionaries to the churches they founded. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark would have become central to congregational reading and fellowship from the beginning.

When Paul wrote his epistles, he could assume that the churches knew the stories of Jesus’ life and teaching. Allusions and echoes would have communicated to them because the stories of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark—and later Luke, about AD 50—would have been their favorite stories, read and rejoiced in over and over.

3) It was not the purpose of Paul’s epistles to introduce or expound the well-known life and teachings of Christ. Rather, his epistles are dealing with problems in the churches. Doctrinal problems stand out, but ethical problems predominate. In any event, the pressing needs of the particular churches is what prompted him to write each epistle. He was not a Bible college lecturer presenting courses about Jesus.

It is worth noting that Jesus’ disciples James—the brother of John and the first apostolic martyr who also wrote the epistle—Peter, and John (in his epistles) do not quote Jesus or remind their readers about His virgin birth, His teachings, or His miracles. They, too, all build upon the well-known stories in the Gospels that they knew their readers had fully embraced and cherished.

4) Context: Jesus ministered to Jews who were expecting the Messiah, but had very mistaken notions of what kind of person the Messiah might be and what kind of kingdom He would be building. Jesus’ kingdom message aims to rebuke false teaching and preach an “alternative Gospel” to the one that the Pharisees pushed. Paul ministered in a new and different context— after the death and resurrection of Jesus and the beginning of the Gentile mission.

Jesus’ last teaching to the disciples was during the 40-day period after His resurrection, opening their eyes to an entirely new and revolutionary approach to the entire “Old Testament” and to the Messiah and His kingdom. They would never read their Scriptures in the same way again. Of course, their new approach to the “Old Testament” also meant that they had to rethink all the teachings that Jesus had given them the three years He was with them. When, for example, the apostle Matthew reviewed his notes and put together his Gospel, he re-heard Jesus’ words with wholly new ears and took them in with a new heart. The readers of his Gospel, too, would understand Jesus’ teachings in the light of the cross and resurrection, giving them an insight into Jesus that the disciples never knew in the years before the resurrection.

When Paul and the other apostles began to write the books we call the “New Testament,” the churches to whom they wrote needed help with the practical problems they faced, so Paul and others addressed those problems, but in a new way. Paul taught them to see the issues in the light of the whole Scripture understood as Jesus had taught the disciples after the resurrection—Christ-centered Scriptural interpretation. Paul’s churches had the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, but both the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians needed to be taught how to understand the “Old Testament” and to apply it to their problems. They needed to hear Jesus expound the Scriptures as He did to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and as He did for the forty days He was with the disciples after the resurrection.

Thus, in his epistles, Paul—not to mention James, Peter, and John—presupposes what was written in the Gospels and often alludes to Gospel events and teaching in ways that his readers probably picked up, though he seldom refers directly to Jesus’ life and teaching. The early churches would have read the Gospel stories of Jesus over and over and would have had them in mind as they read letters from Paul.

Ralph Smith is a pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.

  1. James B. Jordan, Biblical Chronology, vol. 4, no. 12 and vol. 5, no. 1. Online at: ↩︎
  2. Ibid. ↩︎
  3. Stanley Porter, When Paul Met Jesus: How an Idea Got Lost in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). ↩︎
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