Pauline Studies

Keck on Why Paul Wrote So Little about Jesus’ Public Ministry

We are still celebrating “Easter Season” and so I thought I would offer a post on just how important the resurrection was for Paul. Specifically, I would like to spotlight what seems to be a throw-away paragraph in Leander Keck’s insightful book, Christ’s First Theologian: The Shape of Paul’s Thought (Baylor University Press, 2015).

First, some background. Keck points out that Paul did not write much about Jesus’ public teaching. While there have been some excellent studies that show connections between sayings of Jesus in the Gospels and lines in Paul, such parallels hardly dominate the Apostle’s letters.

In fact, I might add to this that Paul says very little about key events in the life of Jesus. Episodes like the Baptism of Jesus, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Transfiguration, and the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem receive no mention at all. The only episode of Jesus’ life that Paul talks about is the Last Supper (1 Cor 11:23-26).

Why does Paul talk so little about Jesus’ public ministry? The standard answer is that Paul assumed his readers had already been instructed in the basic story of Jesus’ life and had already been introduced to his teachings. Yet even if that were the case, it still seems odd that Paul does not say more about such things. Might we be able to say more?

Along these lines, Keck has an interesting suggestion.

Throughout his book, Keck highlights the way Paul’s outlook was likely shaped by his identity as a Pharisee. I find his overall focus on this very helpful. The Pharisees, he observes, were apparently heavily influenced by Jewish apocalyptic traditions, which looked forward to a coming new age–a new creation/new world, what the rabbis would later call the ‘olam haba’–in which, among other things, God’s people would be liberated and the dead would rise from their graves.

Such hopes are on display in the book of Daniel, one of the quintessentially “apocalyptic” books in the Bible. For example, in Daniel 12 we read:

. . . at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end.

Daniel 12:1-4

Here we clearly see not only the hope for the resurrection on the display, but also the idea that the righteous will be in some sense glorified–divinized!

Note that, according to Daniel, this is all linked to “the time of the end” (Dan 12:4).

The book of Acts mentions that the Pharisees were distinguished from the Sadducees by their belief in the resurrection of the dead.

Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.

Acts 23:6–8

Josephus gives us similar reports of the Pharisees’ beliefs (cf. Antiquities of the Jews, 18.12–15).

Suffice it to say, Paul clearly believed that what he was expecting as a Pharisee–what was to take place at the “time of the end”–had already occurred in Jesus.

Brant Pitre, John Kincaid, and I talk much more about Paul’s apocalyptic outlook in chapter 2 of our book, Paul, A New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline Theology (Eerdmans, 2019). But what I want to focus on here is Keck’s takeaway for all of this and how it explains the way Paul writes.

According to Keck, for Paul, belief in the resurrection of Jesus marked the key turning point. For the Apostle, recognizing that resurrection had happened to Jesus meant that the new age had dawned.

So why does Paul speak so little about Jesus’ teachings? He writes:

Since it is the link between Jesus’ resurrection and the new aeon that makes Jesus significant, we can understand also why Paul’s letters show little interest in Jesus’ teachings. Paul focuses instead on the consequences of there having been precisely this Jesus-event. Otherwise, Paul would have been induced to show that Jesus was a superior teacher, a a better lawgiver, a more penetrating theologian, a wise guide to life. But then Paul would have ceased to be an ex post facto thinker and would instead have undertaken to establish on comparative grounds, the superiority of Jesus’ ideas by showing that they were better than those of Moses or Plato. Such efforts would have meant relying on the criteria of this age, precisely what Paul refuses to do in 2 Corinthians 5:16.

Keck, Christ’s First Theologian, pp. 99-100.

By extension, I think this might also help explain why Paul does not speak about the major events of Jesus’ life. For Paul, the resurrection is central. To “go back” would be to shift emphasis away from that key event. Yes, he talks about Jesus’ death, but this is necessary–it is what makes resurrection possible!

Anyways, I am still ruminating on this, but I thought it was interesting enough to point out here during this Easter season.

2 comments

  1. Thanks. A topic of real interest to me and important for all Christians and others.

    I don’t think we have the issue fully figured out yet. Tough to “get” a related matter also: why Paul stayed so briefly and seldom in Jerusalem. And spent so little time with Jesus’ direct disciples, and almost brags about it… to emphasize how HIS grasp of mysteries was by direct revelation.

    He clearly shared an apocalyptic perspective with many contemporary Jews of various sects. He connected it with the “appearing” (not “return”) of Jesus, and expected it in his own lifetime, or thereabouts.

    Other than mainly Barnabas and the period in Antioch, shared with Peter some also, he may not have heard much detail, especially if he had little interest anyway…. His views took on universal scope, mystical in nature, allegorical in interpretation of Hebrew Scripture; and again, seemingly as a trumping of authority over other apostles, he focused on receiving his own revelation… and spoke in tongues “more than” others.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful piece, which illuminates Paul’s teachings in a new way for me. It makes me think back to Paul’s involvement in the stoning of St. Stephen — by holding the coats of the men who committed the murder, Paul was as responsible for his martyrdom as they were. After such a heinous act (and his other persecutions of Christians, which Christ Himself confronted him about at Damascus), I can understand why the salvific significance of Christ’s resurrection from the dead would have become the focus of his life and teachings.

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