Monday, September 5

Why St Paul the Apostle made so few reference to the Gospel in his letters.


St Paul was born in the ancient city of Tarsus which was the  capital in antiquity of a region known as Cilicia in south-central Turkey.
What I aim to discuss in this paper is why St Pauls letters, which make up nearly 50% of the New Testament, have few reference to the gospels.  By way of example the reference below is the sum total of his input as in Corinthians 15:3-8.  
Paul – A zealous Pharisee prior to his conversion
Paul was a Roman citizen who studied under Gamaliel in Acts 22:3.
He was a tentmakeradvanced in Judaism.  Galatians 1: 11-14. His familiarity in both Greek and Roman culture was evident in his letters as was his status as a Pharisee well versed in mosaic law. In the process of my research it also became apparent to me it was possible the respective paths of Jesus and Paul could have crossed given proximity in their ages, but this was not persued as it was not crucial to my enquiry. 
The traditional view Gospel details were already well known I found unconvincing. Surely Paul would want to make the link and confirm the sayings or parables of Jesus if he deemed such affirmation was relevant. Similarly all of the apostles who experienced the vision of the resurrected Christ would have not severed ties and communicated any new information relevant to Paul.    
Instead my research led me to an answer that stares us in the face. This is evident in the momentous event recorded in the last of the synoptic Gospels namely Luke: Acts. Here we find direct evidence Paul reaffirmed the earlier tacit agreements with the apostles.    
What this demonstrated to me is Paul’s lack on any detail in his letters was because that was all that was agreed upon by the apostles. Whilst there can be no doubt a growing oral gospel would emerge later neither Paul nor the apostles saw any reason to expand upon the simple good news account confirmed in the texts. 

The background of Jesus
In contrast Jesus’s background remains a mystery. There is very little known of his early life and even where he was brought up which is assumed to be Nazareth.  Even that is subject to some controversy as the reliable Jewish historian Flavius Josephe in his  summary of galilee he makes no mention to Nazareth in the list since it was established much later.  There is no historical record of Jesus directly connected with a sect such as the Nazarene / Essenes that might explain this. Only the contact  with John the Baptist and his disciples.
What we can say is Jesus as  a committed Jewish male  would have made every effort to attend the pilgrim festivals which were held each year (Passover, Hanukah and Succoth), meaning he conceivably could have visited frequently either before or during his 3 years public ministry. That would have afforded the opportunity for Paul to become aware of his sayings and teachings but we have no way of knowing for sure if any such exchanges took place.   
Why St Paul made so few references in his letters to the gospels and to the sayings of Jesus or to his teachings.
What is revealed by St Paul in his letters is his oft repeated idea of his mystical “in Christ” union which formed a new but integral feature of his teachings, as a consequence of Paul’s revelation on the road to Damascus. Although Pauline theology remains somewhat vague as to how such a transformation actually takes place it may well be simply a function of a new idea which takes root from his revelation but is not reliant specifically on a past ministry. Hence there seems no need to document or indeed preach a too detailed account of Christ’s earthly existence. Moreover in my view one might logically assume Paul had tacit approval by the other apostles who had experienced the vision of the “Risen Christ”. They were emboldened by this event which no doubt was the catalyst for them to go out and establish the fledgling Christian communities and to spread the " good news" in the format under which they all had agreed.  
What subsequently transpired, which is hardly surprising, is the inclusion of an increasing role of converted gentiles in the fledgling churches established by Paul began to rise of many issues evident in his letters. I now return to the momentous event recorded in the last of the synoptic Gospels namely in Luke: Acts. Here we find direct evidence Paul finally came to a common consensus. We learn  Paul revisited Jerusalem “after 14 years” to “set before them the Gospel I proclaim among the Gentiles. In order to make sure I was not running in vain” Galatians 2: 2.
Many years previously in the Acts of the Apostles there is reference to arguments with Peter which caused them to go in separate ways. But such differences seems most likely to be confined to the form and the extent or otherwise converted gentiles were to become Christians in the new order.
What we can gather from this momentous meeting is that Paul formed a consensus with those present. Under 1 Cor15:11 they were in effect all on the same page. A natural corollary to such a conclusion however is to ask the question why then were the Gospel Accounts subsequently  penned in such detail.
In attempting to answer this question one can at least agree on a few rather obvious factors inherent in examining the respective synoptic narratives. What we can say in summary is there is a contrast in purpose due to the changing audience to which they were primarily directed. The oldest as in Mark which was theological in nature and depicts an isolated Christ on the Cross. In Matthew which restates most of the material presented in Mark we have Jesus now surrounded by others, suggesting a much wider audience. These accounts rather obviously arose from a longstanding oral tradition which in itself was during a period of marked Christian diversity suggesting a changing purpose.   
But in Luke we have significant departure from the first two with much more detail but many exclusions evident for instance in the nativity depictions.   
What we can discern from this is they were written to evolving audiences, to existing Christian communities to answer questions and help unite different factions that inevitably arise over time. But the question remains if consensus was reached why then was Luke: Acts written in such great detail?
Once again an answer stands out starkly from the text itself, as the following facts give rise to a remarkable conclusion:
Luke appears to be the same person who accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys, as in 2 Tim 4:11.
The reason for the huge amount of detail and comprehensive  summary of all of the events In the Acts of the Apostles could have been to assist Paul due to stand trial before Caesar. Paul incidentally was determined to stand trial as a Jew rather than claim he belonged to another sect outside Judaism which would have rendered him of no interest to the Roman authorities.  
His trial was over alleged heresy in relation to the Law of Moses and that he defiled the Temple by stirring up trouble amongst  his followers which lacked respect to the Temple. At that time Roman law recognised the Jewish law so to be found guilty of one was to be held treasonable to Rome.

Bear in mind the author Luke talks about bringing clarity to the events that had been recorded previously and addresses his Gospel initially to just one person who remains unknown but conceivably might be a Roman official. 
The above points underpin the need to iron out inconsistencies in terms of what was evolving in the oral tradition evident in the  prior synoptic gospels of Mark and Matthew.

Hence all of the forgoing adds weight to the idea Paul’s decision not to include in his letters any detail on the gospels had some validity as it likely to muddy the waters on what was increasingly becoming a gentile audience. Notwithstanding he remained a Jew, and no doubt upheld the practices of Judaism, whilst asserting certain traditions were not necessary for incoming Gentiles.        
Why St Paul made so few references in his letters to the gospels or elaborated  on them in any detail in my view is because consensus was reached on what to preach on a “resurrected Christ’ which rendered the detailed gospel accounts unnecessary.  

The purpose why Luke: Acts was written which was to support Paul in his trail before Caesar, but as to why the others were retained to become later canonized to form the New testament is way beyond the scope of this brief paper.
But what we can say is what we have today is a New Testament which is a moving feast of the propensity to adapt the events surrounding Christ’s ministry from the original unsigned manuscripts. Early Christianity was certainly far more diverse than we can image today with subsequent amendments stretching centuries on to reflect an intended audience and diversity of ideas at that time.  In fact to lesser or greater manner that is what underpins the sacred texts of all religions of the world.  
But for Christianity, I think in humility, we must accept the fact that we simply don’t know a great deal about Christ’s early life and even what he meant by the messianic kingdom yet to come which remains largely unrealized. Paul suggested that we can live a life free from the bondage of the law in a spirt of kindness which might embrace us as a mysterious holy spirit, the rest remains a mystery.  


susan said...

Hi Lindsay,
I'm familiar enough with the New Testament to appreciate your analysis of the Books of Matthew, Mark and Luke in regard to St. Paul's connection with Jesus during his lifetime. My understanding and reading about these matters in my adulthood has been quite scant, a fact that makes it impossible for me to have an opinion about whether or not the two ever met - although, from what you've written here that does seem to have been quite possible.
The major meeting, of course, was during that fateful journey to Damascus. That was always one of the most dramatic and stunning tales to hear after the heartrending story of the Crucifixion.. not counting the Resurrection and Jesus's Transfiguration, that is.
I find it very interesting to consider that while the major religions have been losing sway over large numbers of people I've read reports that more people are coming to believe in a complex afterlife based on the spirit of kindness and continued spiritual growth. It's all a deep mystery and a beautiful one.
All the best

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Susan,
I agree we are seeing a contraction in the major religions but at the same time renewed interest in spiritual meaning. For what started out as a repudiation of “beliefs” gave way to the understanding biblical stories were expressions of metaphors relevant for that time. Hence hope and faith are not confined by the celling of ordinary language.
Best wishes