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.

Review: Who Created Christianity?

Who Created Christianity?, Craig A. Evans and Aaron W. White, editors. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020.

Summary: A festschrift in honor of David Wenham focused around the centerpiece of Wenham’s theology, the relationship between Jesus and Paul and Wenham’s insistence that Paul was not the founder of Christianity but a disciple of Jesus.

In 1995, David Wenham, a British theologian who has taught at Wycliffe Hall and Trinity College, Bristol, published Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?, a groundbreaking work. He contended that Paul was significantly informed and influenced by the Jesus tradition, demonstrating parallels between Paul’s writing and what became the gospels. Much of critical scholarship at this time (and still) contended that Paul significantly re-shaped the Jesus tradition from what was a particular sect of Judaism to the faith that spread through the Gentile world and stood apart from Jesus and his earliest followers.

Defending and extending this work was an important aspect of Wenham’s scholarship, and the research he mentored with his graduate students. In this work, a number of those former students as well as an international group of scholars contribute works in his honor, pointing to ways biblical scholars have built on his signal insights.

David Wenham contributes a foreword to the work that serves as a review of his scholarly career and concludes that scholars like himself negotiate a path between parallelmania and parallelphobia, the challenge of seeing strong parallels between the teaching of Jesus and Paul. Aaron W. White’s preface adds biographical information on David Wenham and explains the organization of the work. Stanley E. Porter then introduces the history of the discussion of the continuities and discontinuities between Jesus and Paul, from the early Fathers to the present, noting the fluctuation between continuity and discontinuity..

The remainder of the work is organized in six sections. In “Jesus, Paul, and Gospel Origins,” N. T. Wright, somewhat provocatively argues that if not the founder of Christianity, Paul did invent “Christian theology,” the work of thinking deeply about God, the world, Israel, the Messiah, what it means to be human, and the future. Graham Twelftree considers the origins of Paul’s gospels: scripture, the Jesus traditions, and revelation. Stanley E. Porter advances the intriguing hypothesis that Paul may well have met Jesus and heard some of the teaching of Jesus and knew of the reports surrounding his life. Rainer Riesner explores the handing along of the Jesus tradition and its use by Paul, whose writings are the earliest in the New Testament corpus. Christoph W. Stenschke examines the continuities between the ministries of Jesus and Paul (including miracles, opposition, suffering, Jerusalem and the temple) and developments. Joan Taylor makes the striking proposal that the author of the “we” passages in Acts, was a woman, likely Thecla (I did not find this persuasive). Editor Aaron W. White concludes this section with an exploration of Paul’s use of possessives (‘my” and “our”) in speaking of the gospel.

Part Two on “Jesus, Paul and Oral Traditions” consists of two articles. Bruce Chilton explores the reliance of Paul on the oral traditions of Matthew’s “little apocalypse” in the writing of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 and the role Silas may have played in conveying “the word of the Lord.” Armin D. Baum considers the numerous parallels between 1 and 2 Thessalonians and contends on the basis of other documents in antiquity that Paul, using pre-formed material to materials and produced these parallels himself. Part Three explores “Themes in Jesus and Pauline Studies” Alister McGrath begins with a sparkling essay on metanoia and the transforming of the believing mind. Peter Turnhill turns to those who do not believe, particularly, those of Israel and how Paul wrestled with this in his apologetic. Craig Evans explores to what degree there is a connection between Paul on food and Jesus on what defiles and how this impacted Peter. He concludes that on food, Paul was not a “founder,” given the precedents set both by Jesus and Peter. “Women According to Jesus and Paul” consists of two studies of women in Paul. Sarah Harris considers how women are remembered in the gospels and Paul. Erin M. Heim focuses on Junia (who was in Christ before Paul, and thought by some to be the Joanna of Luke 8:2-3. and Phoebe, and more briefly on the other named women of Romans.

Part Five explore “Paul and The Synoptics.” Michael F. Bird observes twelve convergences between Matthew and Paul (not readily thought to converge on anything). Charles Nathan Ridlehoover considers the allusions to the Lord’s prayer in Colossians 1:9-14, as well as allusions elsewhere to much of the material in the Sermon on the Mount. Craig Blomberg considers Wenham’s case for a pre-Markan eschatological discourse to which Paul had access. Steve Walton considers Luke, who wrote on Jesus and Paul, and the parallels Luke draws between them. Part Six turns things around and looks at “Jesus in the Paulines.” Each chapter considers a specific text and its dependence on the Jesus tradition. John Nolland looks at “every sin that a person commits is outside the body” in 1 Corinthians 6:18b. Peter Davids examines 1 Corinthians 5 and the contention that “Jesus is Lord.” Greg Beale considers Colossians 1-2 in terms of the temple and anti-temple in Colossae. Finally, Holly Beers closes out the collection on a high note on Colossians 1:24 on the puzzling statement about “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions,” drawing on allusions to Isaiah’s Servant and the Servants in Second Temple Judaism.

The collection surveys the field of studies concerning Jesus and Paul quite ably. Stanley Porters proposal of Paul’s possible content with Jesus in Jerusalem before the crucifixion was something I’d not considered but makes sense from Paul’s own biography and the Acts accounts. The basic case of the parallels between the Jesus tradition and Paul showing both his dependence, and as Wright argues, his creative appropriation stirred me to think about how I read Paul in light of that tradition, rather than in the stand alone fashion I often do. The articles on women remind me of how we have often overlooked their importance in both the ministries of Jesus and Paul.

It is easy to take a pass on festschrifts but this is worth a look as an introduction to an important aspect of David Wenham’s work as well as the important questions of how the gospels and Pauline materials connect. The stellar line-up of scholars who write are a mark of the esteem with which Wenham is held and an indication of the scholarly work one will find in this volume.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: From Good News to Gospels

From Good News to Gospels

From Good News to Gospels David Wenham (Foreword by Donald A. Hagner). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018.

Summary: Explores the role of oral tradition as a source for the written gospels.

Depending on the gospel and the scholar, anywhere between roughly 30 and 60 years elapsed between the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the accounts of the mission and message of Jesus we know as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Most scholars propose that Mark was the earliest of the gospels and that Mark’s material served as one of the sources for Matthew and Luke. At the same time these gospels share material not in Mark, often posited to originate in “Q” (short for Quelle, German for “source.”). There is also material unique to Matthew (“M”), and Luke (“L”). Most have considered these “literary sources,” that is written and circulated, but all we have are the canonical gospels. Q, M, and L exist only hypothetically.

David Wenham argues that serious consideration needs to be given to oral sources. The cultures in which the gospels arose were oral cultures and the possibility of accurate transmission is far greater than often credited. He contends that significant portions of Jesus life, teaching, as well as passion were proclaimed as early believers pursued the mission of Jesus. Wenham notes the emphasis on teaching, learning, remembering, and witness in Acts, as well as the four gospels, all having to do with the faithful transmission of the accounts of Jesus.

Wenham then turns to the writings of Paul, the earliest written documents. 1 Corinthians 15: 1-3 provides the clearest evidence of Paul’s reliance on what were probably oral traditions in speaking of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 is another example, as he speaks of what he received regarding the Lord’s supper. He goes on to note a number of passages including the “thief in the night” of 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and other teaching about the Lord’s return, teaching on non-retaliation in Romans 12:14-19 that echoes the Sermon on the Mount, “love fulfilling the law” in Romans 13:8-10 echoing the great commandment, and a number of others.

He also discusses the places where Matthew and Luke record material that is in Mark but seem to be drawing on another source that overlaps Mark. Traditionally, this is the hypothetical “Q” but Wenham argues that oral tradition is an equally plausible explanation. He also focuses on two incidents of oral tradition in the gospels and also in Paul’s writing, the references to the labor being worth his hire, and the discussions of “the thief in the night” and the surrounding material. Wenham argues that these are strong examples pointing to oral traditions around the mission and return of Jesus. He then considers how extensive this oral tradition is and notes that Paul’s writings show evidence of the whole story of Jesus–his ancestry, birth, ministry, last night, death, resurrection, and commission to evangelize the nations.

Wenham then concludes with some fascinating proposals, that the hypothetical Q might be oral tradition rather than a lost written document, and that Matthew and Luke may have drawn not only upon Mark, but perhaps upon oral material that pre-dated Mark. Rather than drawing on a couple of hypothetical literary sources, these writers may well have drawn upon widely circulated oral traditions, instead of or in addition to these.

Aside from offering a possible explanation as to why we have not found any manuscript evidence of hypothetical Q, L, or M, the primary contribution this makes is to help us see an alternate route to how oral traditions preached and taught became the written gospels (though there is little here about John), and how oral traditions may offer a good explanation for the connections between the gospels and Paul’s letters. I suspect if Wenham’s proposal gains traction, many will continue to find Q, L, and M helpful for delineating the departures of Matthew and Luke from Mark but that, increasingly, these may be posited as oral traditions rather than literary sources. There is a parsimony and explanatory power to Wenham’s proposal in this slim volume that is worth far more study.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.