Was There No Historical Jesus?
Earl Doherty

200 Missing References to the Gospel Jesus in the New Testament Epistles



Following on the "Top 20" silences, we will return now to the very head of the epistolary corpus and the beginning of Paulís letter to the Romans. The opening verses of this epistle could well be ranked next in line, for they contain an important and telling insight into the source of Christian ideas about Godís Son, and an explanation for those Ďhumaní sounding features occasionally given to him.

ź 21. - Romans 1:1-4

The way Paul presents it, the scriptures prophesied the gospel of the Son which Paul carries, not the life or person of Jesus himself. This is an odd way of putting things, and yet it is extremely revealing, for it implies, once again, that between Godís foretelling of the gospel in the prophetic books, and the revelation of that gospel to Paul and others, no life of Jesus intervened. Instead, scripture, newly interpreted, tells of the Son whose existence and work has been previously unknown, and who operates in the higher spiritual realm. This will be supported by the later part of this passage (below).

Two additional silences here: the "gospel" is a product sent from God. No role for a preaching Jesus, as originator of the gospel about himself, is hinted at. This, and the "call" which in other places is clearly identified as being a call by God and not Jesus (see 1 Corinthians 1:1), not only supports the silence on any historical Jesus as the source of the Christian gospel, it negates Actsí legend of a direct call to Paul from the exalted Christ in a vision on the road to Damascus.

As the sentence is constructed, Paul is saying that his information about Jesus being "of the seed of David" comes from the gospel imbedded in scripture, and not from any historical record or tradition. The sacred writings contained many prophecies that the Christ/Messiah would be of Davidís line, and Paul would have had to find a way to apply them to his heavenly Son. When one considers that the second element of this statement, Christ being declared Son of God in power "according to the Spirit," was almost certainly derived from Psalm 2:7-8 and refers to a perceived heavenly event, one is led to take both these Ďgospelí elements as referring to information known about the Christ from scripture, and as referring to spiritual-world features. For an explanation of the term "according to the flesh" in such a context and how a spiritual Christ could be perceived as related to David, as well as for a fuller discussion of this entire passage, see Section II of Supplementary Article No. 8: Christ As "Man". This passage will also be extensively discussed in the Appendix.

ź 22. - Romans 1:16-17

Once again, Paul attributes the gospel to God, and its power to God. Even the gift of righteousness bestowed on the believer is assigned to God. There seems to be no impingement on Paulís consciousness of a recent historical Jesus and his role in producing and embodying the gospel and its effects.

ź ó Romans 1:19-20 - See "Top 20" #1

ź 23. - Romans 3:21-25

An involved but very revealing passage which weíll look at in two parts, containing important silences. Following this passage, in verse 26, "Godís justice" is specified as something which has been revealed (the verb phaneroo) "at the present time." Paul is saying that the present period is one of revelation, not the arrival of Jesus on earth and his saving acts. And rather than Jesus "bearing witness" or testifying to Godís justice, it is scripture that does so, a direct statement that this is where Paul and others have learned of it, not through the person and preaching of a human Jesus in recent history. Once again, the agency is God, not Jesus. The means is through faith: faith in the spiritual Christ, a newly-revealed figure. Here the focus remains on God as the performer of saving actions in the present time. It is God who does the act of redeeming, not Jesus. The NEBís words "in the person of" are not in the Greek, but reflect a desire to compensate for Paulís failure to make Jesus the direct agent of redemption. Christ is brought in only as Godís instrument of that redemption, the object of a required faith, and a redemption effected through further faith in his sacrificial death. All this language is compatible with Christ being an entirely spiritual figure who has now been revealed, and whose sacrifice took place in the spirit realm. (And anyone who doubts that "blood" could be spiritual and be shed in the upper heavenly world need only read Hebrews 8 - 9.)

This revelation of Christónot his presence on earthóis supported by the verb protithemi, one of whose meanings is "to set forth publicly" in the sense of "disclose to general knowledge." God is revealing Christ and what he has done, through scripture, to the likes of Paul, and has revealed the benefits to be drawn from Christís redemptive sacrifice. Note the exclusive pervasiveness of the idea of "faith" in regard to Jesus, faith in what scriptureóand Paulóhave revealed. There is nothing of history here.

[ For a discussion of that ubiquitous Pauline phrase "inóor throughóChrist," signifying a Christ who is an agency of salvation and a spiritual medium through which God reveals himself and does his work in the world, see Part Two of the Main Articles. See also the optional text under 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 (#55). ]

ź ó Romans 6:2-4 - See "Top 20" #11

ź 24. - Romans 6:17

Now, if this teaching that was handed on to the believer was in fact wholly or in part the product of Jesus, preached while he was on earth, why wouldnít Paul simply say so? Regardless of whether the believer knew where it came from, the natural thought and expression would surely have been: "the pattern of teaching given to us by Christ Jesus," or some such words. [Cf. 1 Timothy 6:3 - see Appendix: 1 Timothy 6:13 / (and 6:3).]

ź 25. - Romans 8:19-23

Early Christianity, along with most Jews, believed that the end, or transformation, of the world was near. As we saw in "Top 20" #16 (1 Cor. 10:11), this "two-age dualism" envisioned the present age of world history as about to change into the new age of Godís Kingdom, usually under apocalyptic circumstances. In this and other passages, we can see that Paulís outlook is focused on what is yet to come, not on what has just happened. Here, his expectation is in terms of the imminent revelation of the Spirit of God through believers; none of it is in relation to recent historical events in the person of a Jesus of Nazareth. If Jesusí recent act in history had effected this, Paulís expression should have been pulled into the past tense, such as: "creation has been freed from . . ." The whole universe is groaning, waiting. Where is the sense of any past fulfilment in the life and career of Jesus? Were some of the universeís pains not assuaged by his coming? Indeed, the universe is laboring to give birth, a birth not yet achieved. Paul seems to relegate Jesusí life to some pre-natal kick. "Up to the present," says Paul, has the universe labored, leaving no room for what should have been regarded as the pivot point of salvation history, the releasing moment of the worldís long labor: Christís very life and salvific act on Calvary. Paul gives no hint of such a thing.

One might also wonder why it did not occur to Paul to regard certain Gospel events as part of the Ďgroaning of the universe,í namely the earthquake at Jesusí crucifixion recorded in Matthew, or the three hours of darkness covering the earth recorded by all the Synoptics. Notably missing as well are Jesusí miracles, which were regarded by later Christians as part of the Ďsignsí leading up to the change of the ages. Paul, neither here nor anywhere else, has a word to say about Jesusí Gospel miracles, not even as auguring the approach of the new age.

Key silences here. When Paul does refer to present or immediately past events, the preparatory stage to this awaited freedom for the universe, what does he have in mind? Only the "giving of the Spirit," the act of God in revealing the gospel, which has enlisted men like Paul to preach Christ and herald the Kingdom. The recent career of Jesus himself, which at the very least should have been regarded as the Ďfirst installmentí of Godís actions in the present period, is nowhere in sight.

"We wait for God to make us his sons." How can Paul say he is waiting for God to do this? Had he not already done so, and much more, through the incarnation? Indeed, why would Paul not express the idea that it was Jesus himself and his deeds on earth which had set people free and made them sons of God? How can he not insert the recent life of Jesus of Nazareth into the picture of the unfolding of salvation history? The question of "need," or the readersí existing knowledge of such a thing, has nothing to do with it. Paulís vivid description of the present age cries out for the natural, unavoidable inclusion of the recent life of Jesus, and we do not get it. If, on the other hand, the sacrificial death of the spiritual Son of God was a timeless, mythical event which took place in the upper spiritual world, then it was not part of the present age that is about to pass away; it did not form part of the picture Paul is creating. Christ impinges on the present age only in Godís revelation of him, in the sending of the spirit of this Son regarded as an intermediary (cf. Galatians 4:6), in the taking effect of the benefits of redemption through Christ in this new age of faith.

ź 26. - Romans 8:24-25

Following on the previous passage, Paul again implies that the characteristic of the present age is one of faith, faith in something that will happen in the future. How could he not envision that the incarnation of the Son, witnessed by so many (even if not by himself personally), constituted a "seeing" of salvation and the events which brought this about? In fact, the witness to Jesusí physical resurrection, as recorded by all the post-Markan evangelists, was a "seeing" of the very thing Paul and his readers hope for: the physical resurrection of the dead. As was Jesusí miraculous reviving of more than one Lazarus, in full public "seeing"! This passage illustrates the void in Paulís mind about any fulfilment, or even witnessing, of Godís saving plan for humanity in the historical figure and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth.

ź 27. - Romans 8:26

Could Paul have been ignorant of the Lordís Prayer, taught to his disciples by Jesus? If not even this element of Jesusí preaching reached Paul by oral transmission, or if Paul made not even this degree of effort to learn what Jesus had said, how can he claim to be preaching this man, and how could he possibly satisfy the needs and demands of his listeners to know at least something about Jesusí own teachings? Paul simply could not ignore such basic data of Jesus' ministry, and thus the "explanation" offered by those who say he had no interest in Jesus' life cannot stand up to scrutiny. (See my book review of Robert Funk's Honest to Jesus for extensive discussion along these lines.)

Should not Paul have regarded the ministering Jesus as having "interceded" with God on humanityís behalf, a claim which Jesus himself makes more than once in the Gospels?

ź 28. - Romans 10:3-4

A profound silence on an historical Jesus reigns throughout chapters 10 and 11 of the epistle to the Romans, one that defies acceptable explanation. Paul is addressing the question of whether the Jews can expect an ultimate salvation from God, and it hinges on their faith in Christ. He begins chapter 10 this way:

Where is the sense of Jesusí historical ministry? God is the primary agency here, with Christ a present force under his direction, so Paul casts Christís activities in the present tense. Rather than "Christ brought righteousness" in recent history, it is now, through Godís revelation and the preaching of Paul, that he does so. Throughout these passages, in all the discussion about the Jewsí failure to believe and their misguided attempts at righteousness, there is a resounding silence about their failure to heed the person and message of Jesus himself, during his recent incarnation on earth. This will be continued in greater detail in the following two items (29 and 30).

ź ó Romans 10:9 - See "Top 20" #18

ź 29. - Romans 10:13-21

Continuing with his consideration of the Jewsí prospects for salvation through faith in Christ, Paul now addresses the question of what opportunities they have had to know Christ, and how they have responded to those opportunities. He asks a series of questions, prefaced by a quote from Joel (2:32 LXX) in which "Lord," unlike the original meaning, is taken to refer to Jesus the Messiah:

As Paul presents it in these verses, the Jewsí opportunity to know Christ is limited to hearing Christ preached by men like Paul, sent out as apostles on their beautiful feet (a quote from Isaiah 52:7). There is not a hint here of a very important opportunity which the Jewsóat least those of Galilee and Judea a generation earlieróhad enjoyed, namely the seeing and hearing of Christ himself, preaching in his own person. In highlighting the guilt of the Jews in not believing in Christ, would Paul have totally ignored their dramatic rejection of the incarnated Son on earth? He goes on: From this, too, it is clear that Paul is speaking solely of the preaching of commissioned apostles like himself. This cannot include Jesus. The genitive "of Christ" in verse 17 is an objective genitive, Christ being the object of the preaching. In Verse 18, Paul gives himself an opening to deliver the strongest answer, the most culpable reason for the Jewsí guilt and possible loss of salvation: they had heard the message from the lips of the Lord himself and had rejected it. But Paul fails to follow that opening. How could he not highlight his countrymenís spurning of the Son of God in the flesh? Instead, all he refers to are those apostles like himself who have "preached to the ends of the earth" (a bit of hyperbole on his part). Paul, throughout this entire passage, is not only silent on, he has made no room for an historical, preaching Jesus.

Paul goes on to quote three more passages from scripture:

Here Paul passes up the obvious contrast between Jew and gentile. In the first two quotations he highlights the shame of the Jews vs. the merit of the gentiles, but he fails to make the point that whereas the Jews had rejected the message even though delivered by Jesus himself, the gentiles had accepted it second-hand. And in Paulís final quote, the concept of Jesusí own hands, stretched out to his people during his ministry on earth, apparently did not occur to him.

[ C. K. Barrett (Epistle to the Romans, p.189) is one scholar who seems perturbed by the silence in Romans 10, for he tries by a dubious device to work Jesus into the picture. In the second of Paulís four questions quoted above (v.14-15), the phrase in Greek "hou ouk ekousan" is almost universally translated: "of whom they have not heard." Bauerís Lexicon gives this meaning, but occasionally commentators (Sanday, Cranfield) will maintain that akouo with the genitive means "to hear someone," that is, directly. The "unusual" meaning "to hear of" is permitted, some say, only in poetry. Well, perhaps we might hold that Paul is very close to poetry in these rhythmical, balanced questions, all of which are parallel in structure and begin with the same word.

At any rate, Barrett seizes on this view to stipulate that the "hou" in the second question should be translated "whom (not of whom) they have not heard," for, he says, "Christ must be heard either in his own person, or in the person of his preachers." Apart from wanting it both ways, Barrett fails to take into account that forcing Jesus into the mix here destroys Paulís finely-created chain, a chain which focuses entirely on the response to the apostolic message. This is why even those who maintain that the grammatical meaning is to "hear him" (not of him) nevertheless take Paulís idea as identifying the voice of Christ with that of the preachers. As Cranfield puts it (International Critical Commentary, Romans, p.534), Paulís thought is "of their hearing Christ speaking in the message of the preachers." Thus, Jesus is speaking to the Jews only by proxy. This still leaves unaddressed the larger question of why Paul fails to make a specific reference to Jesusí own ministry, but at least such an interpretation conforms to the passageís integrity as Paul presents it. Barrettís does not. When he wraps up his comment on this chapter by saying: "Through the Son, both in his incarnate person and by means of his apostles, God has pleaded with Israel, and met with nothing but rebuffs," Barrett is not only showing us what we should rightly expect to find there, he is letting what he cannot believe is missing override what is clearly not there in Paulís words. Besides, to maintain that Paul, in his picture of the unresponse of the Jews, would choose to limit Jesusí key role in that picture to an ambiguous two-letter (in the Greek) relative pronoun, seems little short of ludicrous. ]

ź 30. - Romans 11:1-6, 7-12, 20

As part of his criticism of the Jewsí failure to respond to apostles like himself, Paul refers to Elijahís words in 1 Kings (19:10):

This was a largely unfounded accusation popular among some Jewish sectarian circles. Paul may have subscribed to it, but it is surely a telling silence that he does not add to this supposed record the ultimate atrocity of the killing of the Son of God himself. Then: Such mild language (cf. 1 Peter 2:8, the Jews who "stumble when they disbelieve the word": NEB) hardly seems to encompass the sin of deicide. Rather, it confirms the view that the Jewsí guilt, in Paulís mind, is limited to their failure to heed the preaching apostles, to respond to the call to have faith in the spiritual Son, revealed by God, which Paul and others are delivering.

ź 31. - Romans 12:3

Chapters 12 and 13 of the epistle to the Romans (next five items) are a treatise on Christian ethics. Several of their admonitions bear a strong resemblance to teachings of Jesus as found in the Gospels. Yet not only are these not attributed to him, there is no mention even of the fact that Jesus was a teacher, that he was the very foundation of Christian ethics. Not only that, there seems little evidence in Paulís mind that anything has proceeded from Jesus, whether teachings or personal gifts. In 12:3, he says:

This does not sound like a man who has personally experienced a call by Jesus himself, either on the road to Damascus or anywhere else. Nor does it sound like one who possesses any sense of a Son who had lived an incarnated life during which he bestowed so much on his followers, and on the world, in the way of gifts, teachings and example. Paul goes on (v.4-5) to speak of himself and his readers as "limbs and organs, united with Christ, forming one body," a highly mystical concept which better fits a Christ who in Paulís mind is a cosmic, mythological figure inhabiting the heavenly world, to whom believersóin keeping with the philosophical outlook of the age, as reflected in the Greek mystery cultsócould be united in spiritual ways.

ź 32. - Romans 12:14

One of those elements of Christian ethics which bears resemblance to Jesusí Gospel teachings is this:

Matthew, in his Sermon on the Mount (5:44), has Jesus say: "Love your enemies, and pray for your persecutors." There are those who say that this admonition was a revolutionary one for the ancient world, and even the invention of Jesus himself. If so, it would seem natural that Paul would say so, that he would attribute such an innovative ethic to the man who had come up with it, to the man he has supposedly devoted his life to preaching.

ź 33. - Romans 12:17-18

This encapsules Jesusí other innovative admonition, as embodied in Matthew 5:38-39: "You have learned that they were told, ĎAn eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.í But what I tell you is this: Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left." In his study of Ephesians, E. L. Mitton argues that this ethical principle is "the spirit of Christ" embodied in his whole career on earth. Was Paul unaware of this? How can we explain Paulís astounding failure to quote a reference to Jesusí words which for two millennia have been held up as the quintessential Christian teaching (even if rarely followed): turn the other cheek? As for being at peace with all men, what of Matthew 5:24 with its admonition to "make peace with your brother"?

Paul even goes on (v.19-20) to make quotations to support his admonitions. What are they? They are Old Testament texts, verses from Deuteronomy and Proverbs. These include feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, but Paul gives not a hint of Jesusí thoughts and directives on these very things.

[ Can an argument like J. P. Holdingís "there was no need" for an explicit reference to Jesus possibly hold water here? Paul obviously has a "need" to back up his admonitions with some sacred support. Why would he choose ancient, anonymous writings to provide this when he has the very words of the Son of God himself during a recent earthly ministry? Any claim that Paul could have been ignorant of such key teachings, that he would have been conducting a ministry of his own to preach Jesus Christ without knowing the most fundamental things about Jesusí career on earth and the ethics he taught, is simply too ludicrous to countenance. (Letís keep a conclusion like this in mind when we get to the Appendix, with its discussion of a handful of allusions in the epistles to things which may sound like references to a presence or event "in flesh," but which can be interpreted otherwise: as derived from scripture, and as fitting into the higher-world mythological thinking of the age.) ]

ź ó Romans 13:3-4 - See "Top 20" #14

ź 34. - Romans 13:7

One could hardly get a closer sentiment to one of Jesusí most famous sayings, as recorded in Mark 12:17, Matthew 22:21, and Luke 20:25: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesarís, and to God the things that are Godís." Even modern fiction writers have used this beautifully balanced dictum to portray Jesus as a politically correct maneuverer and one who could think on his feet. If Paul was familiar with it (and how could he not be, if anything of oral transmission had reached him?), is there any conceivable reason why he would not have referred to such a saying by Jesus to support his argument? (See the similar silence in 1 Peter 2:13).

ź 35. - Romans 13:8-9

In the Gospels, Jesus more than once (e.g., Mt. 22:39) quotes the "Love thy neighbor" commandment from Leviticus when asked for his opinion on the greatest commandment of them all. Paul twice (here and in Galatians 5:14) can express himself exactly as Jesus did and speak of the whole Law being "summed up" in the one rule, yet he shows no sign that he realizes he is doing so. Further directives on love in the epistles (e.g., James 2:8) similarly lack even a sideways glance at Jesusí sentiments on the subject.

ź 36. - Romans 13:11-12

Following on Romans 8:19-23 (#25), Paul continues in the same vein about the expectant state of the world, and the present period of history leading up to the time of salvation:

Day is near? There has been no dawn of any kind with the incarnation of the Son of God? Jesusí recent presence on earth had failed to dispel any of nightís darkness? Even salvation itself is something which lies entirely in the future, and the only point of reference for it in the past is not Christís act of redemption itself, but the moment when Christians first believed in Christ. How can Paul use the word salvation and not introduce Jesusí own act?

This is not a post-messianic world, it is not post-Jesus. Paul and his apostolic colleagues have embarked on a mission that is entirely forward-looking. In Paulís mind, the factor which began it was not the life of Jesus, but the call by God, the revealed gospel, the long-hidden secret now disclosed: Christ himself, Godís agent of salvation, the Son who will arrive for the first time at the imminent End, to bring night to a close and launch a new day.

ź 37. - Romans 14:13

Paul evidently felt no need to point out that Jesus himself had said: "Judge not, that you be not judged," as Matthew records in his Sermon on the Mount (7:1; cf. Lk. 6:37). That sermon also has things to say about how to treat a brother (5:22, 7:3-5) on which Paul is equally silent.

ź 38. - Romans 14:14

Here Paul also seems unaware of Jesusí pronouncements on the cleanness of foods. This was a burning issue within the early Christian movement. Was the new sect to continue to apply the strict dietary laws urged by the Pharisees, with their obsessive concerns over the purity of certain foods? If ever there were a moment amid an emotional argument when Paul would have seized on Jesusí own declared position for support, this passage in Romans is surely it. His silence can only indicate that he is truly ignorant of such scenes as those recorded in Mark 7 where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy and tells the people: "Nothing that goes into a man from outside can defile him." The evangelist drives home the point by concluding, "Thus he declared all foods clean."

The same silence during a discussion about foods occurs in 1 Timothy 4:4. And the early 2nd century epistle of Barnabas devotes an entire chapter (10) to an attempt to discredit the Jewish dietary restrictions, yet not even here, not even this late, does a Christian writer who knows his traditional scriptures inside and out refer to Jesusí own words on the subject.

ź 39. - Romans 15:3-4

Paul here draws on Psalm 69:9 to characterizeónot Jesusí life, as G. A. Wells puts it (Historical Evidence for Jesus, p.36), but his exemplary sacrifice for the greater good, and his rejection by the world (in the preaching movement) in parallel to the rejection experienced by the Christian believer. Wells points out that Paul, had he possessed any Gospel information on Jesus, might have drawn on Jesusí own saying, as in Mark 8:34: "If any man come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Instead, the voice of Christ, and with it knowledge about him, comes directly from the scriptures, a feature of early Christian thought we will encounter many times.

E. B. Cranfield (International Critical Commentary, Romans, p.732) admits that "it has struck many people as very surprising that at this point Paul should, instead of citing an example or examples from the history of Christís earthly life, simply quote the Old Testament." Cranfield tries to rationalize this, but the real insight lies in verse 4. Not that Paul is reflecting his conviction that "Christ is the true meaning of the law and the prophets," as Cranfield declares, but that these sacred writings are the sole source of information about him, and the primary witness on which believers place their hopes, rather than on memories and traditions of Christís recent words and deeds. This focus on passages from scripture rather than the record of Jesusí own life, whether oral or written, is a prominent feature of the epistles (see especially 2 Peter 1:19), and would be a bizarre choice in the context of a movement begun by a life which should still be vivid and alive in the minds of the members.

ź ó Romans 16:25-27 - See "Top 20" #2

To File No. 4: 1 & 2 Corinthians

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