David Wenham, Did St. Paul Get Jesus Right? The Gospel According to Paul (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2010). (Amazon.com)
In 2011 I read Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited and it helped me connect the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus to that of Paul. In 2012 I had a similar experience while reading Daniel Kirk’s Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? A Narrative Approach to Pauline Christianity. If I were to teach a class on the topic of how Paul relates to Jesus, these two books would be required reading. Now, in 2013, I have found another book that does a good job addressing the criticism that Paul invented a Christianity that has nothing to do with Jesus, or that Jesus would not have recognized: David Wenham’s Did St. Paul Get Jesus Right? The Gospel According to Paul.
Wenham’s book is aimed for a popular audience. In the preface he addresses some of the sensational responses by the media as concerns Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the discovery of the Gospel of Judas, and other alternative Christianities that capture public imagination.
Message of the Book
This book argues that Pauline Christianity is faithful to the person of Jesus, to his message, and to the earliest traditions about him. Wenham is diligent to connect the Pauline Epistles to underlying Jesus traditions, showing that the Jesus who appears in narrative form in the Gospels is presupposed by Paul, and that Paul knew these traditions. Contra those who argue that Paul created a Christianity that has nothing to do with the real Jesus, Wenham presents a Paul who was careful to innovate within the evolving Jesus tradition.
Summary of the Content
This book is eleven chapters long, each chapter serving as a short essay on something related to Pauline Christianity. In Chapter 1: What is the Question and Why is it Important? Wenham establishes why this subject matters. He provides a short introduction to Jesus, then to Paul, then he summarizes the accusation against Paul that his Christianity has nothing or little to do with Jesus. Wenham’s thesis statement is as follows (Kindle Location: 126-134):
This short book is an attempt, by someone who has been interested in the question for a long time, to show that Paul did not invent Christianity or change the religion of Jesus, but that he got Jesus right.
This chapter ends with a summary of the forthcoming chapters.
Chapter 2: Can We Use the New Testament as Evidence? is where Wenham shows that he won’t be arguing his position by begging the question that the Bible is true because it is the Bible. Rather, Wenham aims to establish (Kindle Location:147-153), “…a serious historical case on the basis of serious historical evidence.” Wenham defends the usefulness of ancient documents for reliable investigation of the past. He compares the reliability of New Testament documents to other first century historians or the preservation of other ancient documents via their manuscript tradition. In other words, the NT does give a useful picture of early Christian belief about Jesus, by Paul, and even from Jesus.
Chapter 3: How Paul Got Jesus…or How Jesus Got Paul: The Evidence of Paul’s Conversion investigates the Pauline and Lukan portrayals of Paul as a persecutor of early Christians, who was a respectable Pharisee, who claims to have had an extraordinary conversion experience. Wenham is careful to show that Paul desired to align his understanding of the person of Jesus with that of the Jerusalem Church.
Chapter 4: Was Jesus Interested in the Real Jesus? Evidence from Corinth on the Crucifixion and Resurrection investigates Paul’s reception of traditions about Jesus’ crucifixion, about the Passover/Communion tradition (i.e. 1 Cor. 11), about Jesus’ resurrection (i.e. 1 Cor. 15), and how the earlier date of this letter helps us understand Paul’s relationship to Jesus’ early disciples.
As to why Paul doesn’t write a lot about the “life of Jesus” like the Gospels Wenham presents Paul as a “trouble-shooter” addressing communities who were already aware of the traditions that would be included in the Gospels, assuming their relevance, and addressing the struggles of local congregations with the Jesus tradition in the background, informing his words.
Chapter 5: Sex, Apostleship, and Love: More Evidence from Corinth and Beyond presents Paul’s struggle to apply Jesus’ teachings on divorce and remarriage to his Corinthian context as useful paradigm for understanding how Paul understood his apostleship in relation to Jesus’ teachings.
Chapter 6: “Abba”, and What Happens When We Die: Evidence from Galatia and Thessalonica discusses the unique use of the Aramaic “Abba” in conversation with a Greek speaking audience as evidence of Paul’s awareness of some of Jesus’ teachings. Wenham compares Paul’s vision of the parousia with the language attributed to Jesus in the Gospels (including Dan. 7 imagery, “thief” language, “falling asleep” and the Thessalonian misunderstanding of Jesus’ teachings about his return and the death of disciples.
Chapter 7: Was Paul the Inventor of Christian Doctrines? wrestles with whether language about the atonement and incarnation should be rooted in Paul the innovator, or if earlier traditions (e.g., Phil. 2) informed Paul. He does a very good job of presenting Paul’s controversy as having to do with Jewish-Gentile relations rather than things like atonement or incarnation, ideas he gives almost no effort toward defending, but rather assumes to some degree.
Chapter 8: Did Paul and Jesus Really Agree? surveys the differences and similarities between Jesus and Paul. This chapter is helpful, because Wenham isn’t trying to ignore where Paul may be different from Jesus, but rather he wants this distinction framed correctly and accurately.
Chapter 9: Is Paul Behind the New Testament Gospels? addresses the claim that similarities between Jesus and Paul in the Gospels exist because the Evangelists were influenced by Paul. Wenham shows that while there may be some connections, the evidence points away from this, especially the Gospel of Matthew.
Chapter 10: But Paul Was Certainly a Controversialist emphasizes that Paul was controversial, but as mentioned above, he was controversial in areas different from what modern critics assert. Chapter 11: So Did Paul Get Jesus Right? summarizes Wenham’s argument and, of course, reaffirms his thesis statement that Paul did understand Jesus’ message correctly.
Wenham has studied this subject for years now. This is a popular summary of his scholarship. It is very readable. It presents complex arguments with simplicity. For those who cannot see the connection between Paul and Jesus, or who believe Paul invented a Christianity completely disconnected from Jesus, this book, along with the aforementioned books are worth your time.