How close can we get to the historical Jesus? The standard answer is, we can go back as far as St. Paul, but no further.
The Gospels are the primary source of information about Jesus, of course. The Gospels are biographies, even if they also have an evangelistic thrust.
Paul provides much less historical information than the Gospels. He alludes to some of Jesus’ teaching: explicitly so in 1Co. 7:10 (cf. Mark 10:11-12) and 1Co. 9:14 (cf. Luke 10:7), and elsewhere without mentioning Jesus as his source.1 But Paul doesn’t dwell much on the events of Jesus life, aside from the crucifixion and the resurrection.
Still, Paul’s letters are considered to be the earliest documents in the New Testament. Such historical details as we can glean from his letters2 get us within about 25 years of Jesus’ death.
I think we can go one step further back, if we are willing to give credence to second-hand testimony. And I think the testimony is credible: second-hand information is an extraordinary asset, given that the events took place 2,000 years ago!
I refer to an overlooked link to the historical Jesus: James, the Lord’s brother. Paul refers to James in Gal. 1:19, 2:9, and 1Co. 15:7. The first two passages make it clear that Paul had met James:
- Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (Gal. 1:18-19)
- Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem … and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. (Gal. 2:1,9)
Regrettably, Paul doesn’t supply any details about the meeting recorded in Galatians 1, and we know only the official business that was transacted at the meeting recorded in Galatians 2. It would be wonderful to know what conversation took place informally.
But even with such limited information, I think we can legitimately support two historical details about Jesus’ life from these references to James.
(a) Jesus’ existence:
First, that Jesus actually existed. It may seem absurd that we have to justify something so basic as Jesus’ existence, but people call it into question from time to time. This post was prompted by a very good, five-part series by Michael Pahl on the historicity of Jesus. (Hat tip, Chris.)
If I were going to make out a case for Jesus’ existence, I would point beyond Paul to James:
- James is identified as Jesus’ brother.
- James became the head of the church in Jerusalem. (This is an established historical fact. In addition to the information provided by Paul — see the Galatians texts above — see also Acts 15 and 21:17-18.)
Since James was Jesus’ brother, he wasn’t relying on someone else’s knowledge of Jesus’ existence. Why would he devote his life to the leadership of a Christian church, if he knew full well that the figure at the centre of that religion never existed?
At that time, Jesus’ contemporaries were still alive. (They had to be, because James himself was a contemporary of Jesus!) If James invented Jesus, and invented his relationship with Jesus, he would have been exposed as a fraud by those who were in a position to know better.
(b) Jesus’ resurrection:
James’s testimony (second-hand, via Paul) to the Lord’s resurrection is also very significant. Paul preserves it for us among the resurrection appearances he catalogues in 1 Corinthians 15:
… that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (vss. 5-8)
It is reasonable to assume that Paul received an account of the event directly from James himself. Surely this is one of the things they would have discussed when they met! Paul would have shared the story of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to him, and James would have reciprocated with his own story.
Our confidence in the resurrection rests, to a great extent, on the story of the appearance to Paul. The Gospel accounts are secondary (and problematic for other reasons that I won’t enter into here). But Paul provides first-hand testimony in 1Co. 9:1, 1Co. 15:8 and (perhaps) Gal. 1:15-16.
Moreover, the testimony comes from one who started out as an enemy of the Church, and who reversed the direction of his life in response to the event. Clearly Paul was persuaded that the resurrection had really happened. And the conviction wasn’t a matter of wishful thinking (as it might have been for those who were disciples prior to the crucifixion).
Even so, a sceptic might dismiss Paul’s testimony if we could not corroborate it elsewhere. And here, Paul’s references to Cephas (i.e. Peter) and James strike me as highly significant. Paul knew both of these men personally, and I think the references count as second-hand testimony to the historicity of the resurrection.
In my view, James should be regarded as an important link to the historical Jesus. We need take only two very small steps to travel from Jesus to Jesus’ eldest brother, James, to James’s colleague, Paul.
(And of course I can make a parallel argument with respect to Peter, universally acknowledged as one of Jesus’ disciples, and known personally to Paul.)
Paul’s references to James support only two points in our reconstruction of the historical Jesus: (1) that Jesus existed; (2) that Jesus was raised from the dead. But what crucial facts they are! The weight of the Christian faith rests, to a considerable extent, on these two great pillars.
1Particularly in the sections of his letters devoted to ethical teaching, according to James Dunn (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, p. 68): e.g., Ro. 12:14, 13:9, 16:19, 1Co. 9:4; 13:2, Gal. 5:14, Php. 4:6, 1Th. 5:2,13,15.
Dunn concludes, “This suggests … that the traditions which Paul passed on when he first established a new church (1Co. 11:2; 2Th. 2:15; 3:6) included a fair amount of tradition about Jesus, though whether in fragmentary form or already gathered in various topical collections we cannot say.”
2James Dunn (Jesus Remembered, p. 143) refers to an analysis by Paul Barnett, who “lists fifteen details gleaned from Paul” in Jesus and the Logic of History:
- descent from Abraham;
- direct descent from David;
- “born of a woman”;
- lived in poverty;
- born and lived under the law;
- a brother called James;
- a humble life style;
- ministered primarily to Jews;
- instituted a memorial meal before his betrayal;
- cruelly treated at that time;
- and 15. — Dunn says only, “two other items gleaned from the Pastorals”.
Note also the reference to the meekness and gentleness of Christ in 2Co. 10:1 — a description of Jesus’ temperament that corresponds to Mt. 11:29.