There are places where Paul gives little slices from the life of Jesus, such as Romans 1:3 (“from the seed of David according to the flesh”), Galatians 4:4 (“born of a woman”), and I Corinthians 2:7-8 (“crucified the Lord”).
There are also spots when Paul refers to the actual words or teaching of Jesus (I Cor 11:23-25). Many scholars look for early evidence about Jesus in the Pauline Corpus, since the earliest epistle - I Thessalonians at 45 AD - predates the earliest Gospel - Mark at 65 AD - by about 20 years by most estimates.
Before mining these letters for what could be considered early attestation for Jesus, we must keep in mind what John P. Meier (among others) points out in the first volume of his seminal work, A Marginal Jew:
“letters did not aim generally at imparting initial knowledge about Jesus, which was rather presupposed – and recalled only when necessary. It is usually in the few cases where pressing problems … force Paul to repeat basic doctrine that he had imparted when he first preached the gospel to a given congregation that he has recourse to the words of Jesus and the events of his life”.
In short, we must first consider the nature of Paul’s letters.
It is clear that Paul assumes his readers are already familiar with a certain body of information about Jesus and feels free to make brief allusions and almost incidental references to Jesus. Meier says this
“argues for a certain fund of teachings from and about Jesus circulating among first-generation Pauline churches. It is surely significant … where Paul appeals to teachings from or about Jesus, we find parallel material in the Synoptics. It is likewise noteworthy that Paul carefully distinguishes (I Cor 7:10-13) between Jesus’ saying on divorce and Paul’s own application of that saying to a new situation”.
This clues us in to the fact that “Paul does not feel free to create teachings and put them in the mouth of Jesus”.
How much does Paul say about the historical Jesus? The answer to this question depends on whom you ask. For example, Victor Furnish
“recalls that at the beginning of the [20th] century Alfred Resch claimed to have found no fewer than 925 parallels with the Synoptic Gospels in nine Pauline letters” .
As a point of contrast, Furnish himself found only eight direct parallels (Rom 12:14, 17, 13:7, 14:13, 14; I Thess 5:2, 13, 15).
Needless to say, there are differences of opinion as to how valuable Paul is in this area. Even still, J.G. Dunn, in the article “Jesus Tradition in Paul” notes “[a]ll are agreed that Paul does cite or refer to dominical tradition at two points at least (I Cor 7:10; 9:14). All are agreed that there is a further group of passages in Paul which look very much as though they contain allusions to or echoes of Jesus tradition”.
One could indeed plot a graph of Pauline paraenesis containing echoes of the Jesus tradition, peaking at the two or three clear citations, broadening out to the small number which are widely regarded as containing allusions or echoes, and with a still larger base of possible allusions merging imperceptibly into the still larger mass of Pauline paranesis. Horizontal lines could then simply mark out the various “cut-off” points where different individuals have recognized more or less likely allusions to or echoes of the Jesus tradition.
SOURCES CITED IN ORDER:
John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume One: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 45.
David E. Aune The New Testament in Its Literary Environment and Stanley K. Stowers Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity from the excellent Library of Early Christianity series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press).
Meier, A Marginal Jew, 46.
Alfred Resch, Der Paulinismus und die Logia Jesu in ihrem gegenseitigen Verhältnis untersucht (TU 12; Leipzig: Hinirichs, 1904).
James D.G. Dunn, Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research, Ed., Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans (Boston: Brill, 1998), 160-161.
Victor P. Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1968), 53-54.
Dunn, Studying the Historical Jesus, 160-161.
Dunn, Studying the Historical Jesus, 161.