IV. The Role of Paul’s Contribution

What is the problem between Paul and Jesus for critical scholars in interpreting the NT?

Even if the previous conclusions regarding Acts of the Apostles are valid, critics have not been so welcoming to Paul following their journey from the Gospels’ picture of Jesus. Since the days of F. C. Baur (1792-1860), who argued that significant variations existed between Paul’s theology and the beliefs of the Jerusalem church, NT scholarship has been rather suspicious of any affirmations of continuity in the teachings of Jesus and the Apostle to the Gentiles. Scholars arguing along the same lines as William Wrede (1859-1906) have insisted that Paul’s “innovative” ideas, theological commitments, and pioneering mission work wrecked the original intentions Jesus had for his followers. Consequently, today’s Christianity would be better off without Paul’s emphases. If the critical scholars are right, then the search for theological coherence and synthesis even within the first two-thirds of the NT is vain.

David Wenham’s thorough and very helpful contribution in showing unity between Paul and Jesus.

In his Paul, Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), David Wenham finds such claims about Paul’s dissimilarity to Jesus unwarranted. On the contrary, he argues that Paul was not so much an innovator of Christianity as he was a follower of the Christ, who died and rose again on his behalf. Although his epistles make few explicit references to Jesus’ life and ministry, Paul provides plenty of theological connections that bear witness to his own awareness and embrace of the historical traditions of Jesus (11).

Despite the complicated and interrelated issues surrounding the comparative study of Paul and Jesus (e.g. Pauline authorship, the so-called “New Perspective[s]”, the Synoptic problem, various quest(s) for the historical Jesus), Wenham maintains that a survey of the NT material, based on cautious historical and textual-linguistic analyses, produces a much larger, cohesive portrait that is often forfeited for the details. He develops and substantiates his argument with several components.

First, Wenham hones in on the teachings of Paul and Jesus through a wide array of “tradition indicators,” verbal links, and similar-thought connections, paying special attention to the unifying theological elements between the two men (26-29). Both Paul and Jesus taught that (1) Jesus’ incarnation inaugurated the presence of God’s eschatological kingdom on earth, promised by the OT and to reach its consummation at his Parousia; (2) Jesus, God’s Son and the expected Davidic king, suffered “redemptively” on behalf of others through his cross-death; and (3) Jesus’ mission as Israel’s Messiah included the post-Easter celebration of God’s soteriological benefits encompassing the Gentiles, and thus the ingathering of an eschatological community zealous for fulfilling the Law through love wrought by the Spirit (chs. 2-7). Therefore, Wenham finds theological congruity between Paul and Jesus, a synthesis not hindered even by their differing expressions of these great truths.

Second, Wenham sets out to discover whether Paul was familiar with the complete “story” of Jesus, from his birth to his resurrection, or only Jesus’ teachings. The data shows that Paul knew something of Jesus’ birth and Davidic lineage (Rom 1:3; Gal 4:4), as Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel traditions portray (338-43). There is a good case he knew of his baptism and connected it with entrance into the Christian community (344-48). Moreover, Paul was well aware of the disciples’ ministry under Jesus, some of Jesus’ miraculous healings, his humble lifestyle, and the nature of the transfiguration event (350-63). Most familiar to Paul from these traditions, however, were the events surrounding the Passion and resurrection narratives, both of which played a large role in shaping Paul’s theology and mission (363-71). Paul’s letters, then, indicate a large dependence on at least a Gospel tradition, if not several. Jesus’ life and ministry, therefore, was for Paul “common knowledge” (371).

Lastly, Wenham summarizes his interconnected findings and draws all-encompassing conclusions in order to answer the question with which he began his quest: Did Paul found Christianity, or follow Jesus? The evidence of the Jesus tradition(s) in Paul’s teachings surely points to the latter. Many differences do remain between Paul and Jesus; and the very few explicit references to Jesus’ life and ministry could cause disbelief in any unity at all. This, however, makes perfect sense for Wenham since Paul ministered post-Easter, following the commencement of the Gentile mission and the birth of many churches struggling to understand and live out Jesus’ teachings (378-80). Paul, therefore, presupposes the Jesus traditions in his letters and writes “to clarify what was unclear or disputed” (405). For Wenham, Paul was faithful to explain the truth of Jesus in new contexts with which he was involved (409). Without question, this identifies Paul as he would like to be remembered, “a slave of Jesus Christ [Gal 1:10-11], not the founder of Christianity” (410).

What does this mean, then, for our understanding between the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s epistles in doing NT theology?

Wenham’s observations allow¬†students of the NT, therefore, to link closely the teachings of Paul with those of Jesus instead of pitting them against one another. The Gospels’ testimony concerning Jesus is primarily foundational and assumed among the believing communities, while Paul’s epistles then become primarily instructive for the outworking of Gospel-truth within those communities. The people need to understand the soteriological and ecclesiological implications of Jesus’ life, cross-death, resurrection, and glorification. The testimony of Jesus, therefore, continues to be passed on within the Christian communities as Paul consciously writes Scripture to expound the Jesus tradition, clarify what may have been disputed, or rebuke those undermining its message. For NT theology, then, Paul’s epistles are explanatory and exhortative.


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