What Did Paul Know about the ‘Historical’ Jesus?
Some have made the claim that the apostle Paul wasn’t interested in the ‘historical’ Jesus. As far as they are concerned, Paul was more interested in the ‘theological’ Christ of his redemptive narrative. Regularly referenced to support this claim are Paul’s own words in 2 Corinthians 5:16:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.
This of course potentially is a huge blow for Christians who root their faith in real history. After all, part of the common Christian confession is (according to The Apostles’ Creed) Jesus the Messiah “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” That places the significance of Jesus’s life and ministry within a particular geographical and historical setting.
And yet, as we read Paul’s letters it becomes apparent that while he did not repeat the details of story he was certainly aware of the life of the ‘historical’ Jesus of Nazareth. An outline of the life of Christ is discernible from Paul’s letters and looks something like what you find below:
[Jesus] was born as a human (Rom. 9:5) to a woman and under the law, that is, as a Jew (Gal. 4:4), that he descended from David’s line (Rom. 1:3; 15:12); although he was not like Adam (Rom. 5:15), that he had brothers, including one named James (1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 1:19), that he had a meal the night he was betrayed (1 Cor. 11:23-25), that he was crucified and died on a cross (Phil. 2:8, 1 Cor. 1:23, 8:11; 15:3; Rom. 4:25; 5:6, 8; 1 Thess. 2:15; 4:14, etc.), was buried (1 Cor. 15:4), and was raised three days later (1 Cor. 15:4; Rom. 4:25; 8:34; 1 Thess. 4:14, etc.), and that afterwards he was seen by Peter, the disciples and others (1 Cor. 15:5-7). -(Michael F. Bird, Introducing Paul, 54-55)
So what did Paul mean by “Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer”? The ESV Study Bible is helpful at this point. Its note on 2 Cor. 5:16 states:
Regard no one according to the flesh, that is, according to worldly standards and values that derive from living as if one’s present physical life is all that matters. Before Paul’s conversion, he once regarded Christ according to the flesh, i.e., Paul considered Christ to be a false messiah (according to Jewish standards), viewing his suffering and death as the curse of God (see Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13).
From this Michael F. Bird concludes, “A crucial point to take away is that in Paul’s letters there is no indication that he played off the ‘Christ of Faith’ agains the ‘Jesus of History’. The fulcrum of his Christology is the identification of the crucified Jesus with the risen and exalted Lord.” (Bird, Introducing Paul, 55)