Review: Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?

Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity, David Wenham. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1995 (print on demand).

Summary: A study of the relationship of Pauline thought to the teachings of Jesus by a comprehensive effort to compare them on a number of major themes.

One of the more discussed questions in Pauline studies is whether Paul may be considered the real “founder” of Christianity as we know it. For one thing, Paul rarely quotes Jesus, and aside from the death and resurrection of Jesus, seems to have little interest in the ministry of Jesus. On the face of it, his teaching seems to have different concerns, everything from justification by grace through faith, the inclusion of the Gentiles, and the ordering of life in churches.

This work was brought to my attention when I reviewed Who Created Christianity, a festschrift honoring Wenham’s work. That work was not possible without this one, and I found it sufficiently interesting to dig into the work that began it all, published by Wenham back in 1995. Wenham’s project in this work was nothing less than a comprehensive comparison of the teaching of Jesus and the thought of Paul. His method, which he outlines in the first chapter is to set the teaching of Jesus and Paul side by side in six major areas in chapters two through seven. He considers that of Jesus first, and then that of Paul. This in itself reveals many areas of consonance as well as divergence. The second part of each chapter is even more important. Wenham looks for connection between Jesus and Paul, and whether this can be argued to go back to the teaching of Jesus. These may be one of the following: formal tradition indicators, where Paul indicates he is drawing upon the words of the Lord, such as in teaching on divorce in 1 Cor 7:10; references to things known by his readers that would have come from Jesus, as in 1 Thes. 5:1-2; verbal and formal similarities, such as Paul’s “yes, yes” or “no, no” in 2 Cor. 17-18, and similarities of thought.

Wenham deals with the question of correlates not demonstrating relationship. His own approach is one in which, if the accumulated evidence shows a number of highly probable or plausible connections, then it may be argued that there is a likelihood of dependence of Paul on the Jesus tradition.

In chapters two through seven, Wenham applies this method to the following:

  • The Kingdom of God
  • Who is Jesus?
  • Why the Crucifixion
  • Jesus and the Community
  • Living in Love
  • The Future Coming of the Lord

Chapter 8 takes a slightly different approach, surveying the life and ministry of Jesus, considering what Paul might have known of his birth, baptism and temptation, ministry, miracles, and lifestyle, transfiguration, passion, resurrection and exaltation.

Finally, Wenham draws together his conclusions in chapter 9, some of which I will highlight. While Paul doesn’t use kingdom language very often, he teaches that new creation, a new situation has come in Christ. Jesus speaks of himself as the Son of Man and Paul of him as the new Adam, and also uses the “Abba” language distinctive to Jesus. At the last supper, Jesus sees his suffering as redemptive and bringing in his coming kingdom and Paul sees the redemption of sinful humanity, and a strong connection in Paul’s writing about the last supper. Jesus speaks of the destruction of the temple and the community and mission of the twelve. Paul sees the new temple composed of Jews and those incorporated into the church through the Gentile mission. There is a common thread of the primacy of the law of love and a vision of the last things. Wenham also sees difference but contends that the pre-passion and resurrection setting of Jesus in a Jewish world, and the post-Pentecost, Gentile setting of Paul’s thought accounts for differences. He shows how Paul’s thought is a development rather than departure from the teaching of Jesus. He also has some intriguing ideas in a concluding note about Paul’s gospel sources in relation to the Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Q sources of synoptic scholarship.

While taking nothing away from Paul’s importance to the Gentile mission in the urbanized Roman empire, Wenham contends that “Paul would have been horrified at the suggestion that he was the founder of Christianity” (p. 409). Rather, he would consider himself a follower, indeed a “slave” of the one he encountered on the Damascus road.

This is not only a wonderful contribution to Pauline studies but also to biblical theology, in considering the continuity, indeed the origins of our Christology across the gospel. I suspect there are those who would be more skeptical of Wenham’s connections and conclusions, giving less credence to dependence upon Jesus. But what Wenham does accomplish is the removal of the wedge some would drive between Jesus and Paul, while doing full justice to the biblical material. So much of Pauline studies has been dominated by the “New Perspective” discussion which may lead to overlooking Wenham. Amid discussions that may threaten to eclipse Jesus, this work both honors Paul and exalts Christ.

2 thoughts on “Review: Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: January 2022 | Bob on Books

  2. Pingback: Der heilige Paulus und seine Missionsreisen (Rw(Missionswissenschaft)) – Praktische Religionswissenschaft in Bochum

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