St. Paul and the Historical Jesus

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly general audience.

During his general audience on Oct. 8, Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on St. Paul, focusing on Paul’s relationship to the historical Jesus. Paul’s knowledge of Jesus and his proclamation of the risen Christ as God’s Son and our savior was grounded in the life and preaching of Jesus himself.

Dear brothers and sisters,

During my last couple of catecheses on St. Paul, I spoke about his encounter with the risen Christ, which changed his life in a profound way, and his relationship with the Twelve Apostles who were called by Jesus — particularly James, Cephas and John — as well as his relationship with the church of Jerusalem. The question that now remains revolves around what St. Paul knew about Jesus here on earth — his life, his teachings and his passion.

Knowing Jesus

Before we take up this question, it might be useful to keep in mind that St. Paul himself made a distinction between two ways of knowing Jesus, and more generally, two ways of knowing his person. As he wrote in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, “Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer” (2 Corinthians 5:16). To know “according to the flesh,” in a carnal way, means to merely know in an outward manner, using exterior criteria. We might have seen someone on various occasions; therefore, we are familiar with their features and various details regarding their behavior — how they speak, how they carry themselves, etc.

Nonetheless, we do not truly know someone if we know them in this way. We do not know the core of that person. We truly know someone only with the heart.

The Pharisees and Sadducees knew Jesus in an outward way. They were acquainted with his teachings and many other details regarding him, but they did not know him according to his truth.

There is an analogous distinction in some of Jesus’ words. After the Transfiguration, he asked the apostles: “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” The people know him, but superficially. They know different things about him, but they don’t truly know him. The Twelve Apostles, on the other hand, thanks to a friendship that involves the heart, had understood, at least in substance, and had begun to know who Jesus is.

Even today there are these two ways of knowing him. There are very learned people who know many details about Jesus as well as simple people who are not familiar with these details, but who know him according to his truth: “The heart speaks to the heart.”

In essence, Paul was speaking about knowing Jesus in this way — with the heart — and essentially knowing a person according to their truth, before knowing details about them.

Having said this, the question remains: What did Paul know concretely about Jesus’ life, words, passion and miracles?

It seems fairly certain that he never met Christ during his life here on earth. Yet, he surely knew some of the details about Christ’s life here on earth from the apostles and from others in the emerging Church.

In his letters, we find three ways in which he refers to Jesus prior to Easter.

Direct References

First of all, there are some explicit and direct references. Paul speaks about Jesus’ Davidic lineage (see Romans 1:3).

He knows about the existence of some of his “brothers,” that is, blood relatives (see 1 Corinthians 9:5; Galatians 1:19). He knew what happened at the Last Supper (see 1 Corinthians 11:23). He knew some other things that Jesus said, regarding, for example, the indissolubility of marriage (see 1 Corinthians 7:10 with Mark 10:11-12) and the need for the community to provide for those who proclaim the Gospel — just as any worker deserves his wage (see 1 Corinthians 9:14 with Luke 10:7).

Paul was familiar with the words that Jesus spoke at the Last Supper (see 1 Corinthians 11:24-25 with Luke 22:19-20), and he also was familiar with Jesus’ cross.

These are direct references to what Jesus said and facts about his life.

The Gospel Tradition

Secondly, in some of the phrases of Paul’s letters, we can see various allusions to the tradition found in the synoptic Gospels.

For example, the words we read in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, which tell us that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night” (see 1 Thessalonians 5:2), cannot be explained by referring to the Old Testament prophecies because the metaphor of the thief at night is found only in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. Therefore, it must have been taken directly from the synoptic tradition.

Likewise, when we read that God “chose the foolish of the world” (see 1 Corinthians 1:27-28), we hear a faithful echo of Jesus’ teachings on the simple and poor (see Matthew 5:3; 11:25; 19:30).

In addition, there are Jesus’ words during a moment of messianic rejoicing: “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to the childlike.”

From his experience as a missionary, Paul knows that these words are true, and that it is the childlike whose hearts are open to knowing Jesus. Also, his reference to Jesus’ obedience “to death” that is found in Philippians 2:8 cannot but recall Jesus’ total willingness to fulfill the Father’s will here on earth (see Mark 3:35; John 4:34).

Paul was, therefore, familiar with Jesus’ passion, his cross, and the way in which he lived the last moments of his life.

The cross of Jesus and the tradition regarding the events surrounding the cross are at the center of Paul’s kerygma (preaching).

Paul was also familiar with the Sermon on the Mount — another pillar in the life of Jesus — some elements of which he cites almost to the letter when he writes to the Romans: “Love one another. ... Bless those who persecute you. ... Live in peace with all. ... Overcome evil with good.”

In his letters, therefore, there is a faithful reflection of the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7).

Transposing Tradition

Finally, it is possible to find a third way in which Jesus’ words are present in Paul’s letters, as he transposes traditions that predate Easter to the situation after Easter. A typical case is the subject of the Kingdom of God. This is certainly at the center of the historical Jesus’ preaching (see Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43).

In Paul, we can see this theme transposed, because it is obvious after the Resurrection that Jesus in person, the risen One, is the Kingdom of God. Thus, the Kingdom of God reaches wherever Jesus reaches.

Out of necessity, the theme of the Kingdom of God, which foresaw the mystery of Jesus, was transformed into Christology.

Nevertheless, the same dispositions that Jesus required in order to enter into the Kingdom of God are exactly the same ones that Paul required vis-à-vis justification by faith: Both entrance into the Kingdom of God and justification require an attitude of great humility and willingness, free of presumptions, in order to accept God’s grace.

For example, the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (see Luke 18:9-14) teaches exactly what St. Paul teaches when he insists that we are obliged to avoid any boasting in our relationship with God.

In addition, Jesus’ teaching on the publicans and the prostitutes, who were more willing than the Pharisees to accept the Gospel (see Matthew 21:31; Luke 7:36-50), and his decision to share meals with them (see Matthew 9:10-13; Luke 15:1-2), are fully found in Paul’s teaching on God’s merciful love toward sinners (see Romans 5:8-10 and Ephesians 2:3-5).

Thus, the theme of the Kingdom of God is formulated in a new way, but is always faithful to the tradition of the historic Jesus.

Another example of transformation that is faithful to Jesus’ core teaching is found in the “titles” that refer to him.

Prior to Easter, Christ called himself the “Son of Man.” After Easter it is obvious that the Son of Man is also the Son of God. Therefore, the title that Paul prefers for describing Jesus is Kýrios (Lord) (see Philippians 2:9-11), which points to Jesus’ divinity.

With this title, the Lord Jesus appears in the full light of his resurrection.

On the Mount of Olives, during Jesus’ extreme anguish (see Mark 14:36), the disciples, before falling asleep, heard Jesus speak with the Father and call him Abbà (Father). This is a very informal expression, akin to our word “daddy,” that only children use for their father.

Up until that moment, it was unthinkable that a Jew would use such a word to address God. But Jesus, being a true son, spoke in this way during this hour of intimacy and said, “Abbà, Father.”

Surprisingly, in St. Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians, the word “Abbà,” which expresses the uniqueness of Jesus’ relationship as a son, appears on the lips of the baptized (see Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6) because they who have received the “Spirit of the Son” now carry this Spirit within them and can speak as Jesus and with Jesus as true sons to their Father.

They can say Abbà because they have become sons and daughters in the Son.

Freedom in Christ

Finally, I would like to speak about the saving dimension of Jesus’ death, which we find in that passage of the Gospel where “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (see Mark 10:45; Matthew 20:28).

Jesus’ words are faithfully expressed in Paul’s teaching on Jesus’ death as a ransom (see 1 Corinthians 6:20), as redemption (see Romans 3:24), as freedom (see Galatians 5:1) and as reconciliation (see Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

Here is the core of Paul’s theology, which is based on this saying of Jesus.

In conclusion, St. Paul did not think of Jesus as a historian would — as a person from the past. He certainly was familiar with the great tradition regarding Jesus’ life — his words, his death and his resurrection — but he did not treat them as something from the past, but as the reality of the living Jesus.

For Paul, Jesus’ words and actions do not belong to some historical period, to the past. Jesus lives and speaks with us today, and lives for us. This is the true way to get to know Jesus and to embrace the tradition regarding him.

We, too, should learn to know Jesus, not according to the flesh as a person of the past, but as Our Lord and brother, who is with us today and shows us how to live and how to die. Register translation