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Did the apostle Paul know the Gospels?

  • May 4, 2020
  • By Ben van Noort
Did the apostle Paul know the Gospels?

Did the Apostle Paul Know the Gospels?

What do you think? Have you ever heard about this? No? Why not? Or do you think that the apostles, being inspired by the Spirit, did not need Gospel books at all?

Paul Knew Little of Jesus’ Teachings?
Well, maybe it is time to become informed. Here is a modern quote about the subject:
“The largest consensus [among theological scholars] still maintains that Paul knew or cared little about the ministry of Jesus apart from his death and resurrection, though the theological corollaries of that conclusion are less often pursued.”
James D. G. Dunn, “Jesus Tradition in Paul” in Studying the Historical Jesus (Brill: Leiden-New York-Köln, 1994) 155

In his article professor Dunn gives his utmost of knowledge to show that Paul should have known something about Jesus’s teachings. He gives ten quotes from the Letters of Paul with striking reference points to the Gospels, followed by allusions with comparable thoughts. So yes, Paul knew something about Jesus’s teachings.

Delicate Subject
Why all this scrutiny? Well, current theology needs to be very accurate regarding this delicate subject. We have to face the truth that theologians presuppose an oral tradition prior to the Gospels, and that the books were written after the year 65 AD (Mark’s Gospel) and after 70 AD (the other Gospels) according to them. Moreover it is generally taken that around the year 64 AD Peter and Paul died in Rome[1], which would mean that they never saw the publications of the four Gospels. Hmmmm, is that so?

Paul, in The First Letter to Timothy
So, having the Gospels, we are much better informed than Peter and Paul? Aren’t we? In the article of professor Dunn is no mentioning of the following statement of Paul 3If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing,” (1 Timothy 6:3-4 RSV). Why did professor Dunn not refer to this quote of Paul?

The reason is that the so called pastoral letters (to Timothy and Titus) are not taken seriously as from Paul in New Testament theology. This was different in the old Church, everybody accepted them as Pauline. So in the Church of the first ages there was no question whether Paul knew the Gospels. There was in all the churches since the time of Paul, for everybody to control, a vast set of  “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

Things Are Not Always What They Seem
There has never been a change of new or better or more Sound Words of Jesus. Otherwise, we would have known that. So, yes, there has always been and remained that vast set of Words of Jesus. Yes, Paul was familiar with the Gospels, just as we. Is it that simple? It is not simple, it is just true. It was the only possibility for Paul to build the Christian Communities of which is spoken in the book of Acts and in his letters.

Jesus and His Grace
We have the words of Jesus on our table. Let’s do something with them, but at first: Let them do something with us. Listening to his words is listening to Jesus, and his grace.

[1] There is a serious letter from Clemens written in the year 95 AD to the church of Corinth in which is said that the two great pillars died in Rome under the great persecution by Nero in 64 AD.


By Ben van Noort, May 4, 2020