Jesus and Paul Compared and Contrasted


reblogged from Dr Ehrman’s Blog 

I have been talking about the relationship of Jesus’ proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God to Paul’s preaching about the importance of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  In the previous post I argued that the fundamental concerns, interests, perspectives, and theologies  of these two were different.   In this post I’d like to give, in summary fashion, what strikes me as very similar and very different about their two messages.

Again, in my view it is way too much to say that Paul is the “Founder of Christianity”: that assumes that he is the one who personally came up with the idea of the importance of the death and resurrection of Jesus for salvation, whereas almost certainly this view had been around for a couple of years before he came onto the scene.  And it is probably too much even to say that he was the “Co-founder of Christianity,” for much the same reason.

But it is safe to say that of all the early Christian thinkers and missionaries, Paul is the one we know best as the one who forcefully advocated this Christian message, in contradistinction to the message of Jesus.  In the writings of Paul more clearly than almost anywhere else in the NT we see that the message *of* Jesus has become the message *about* Jesus: that is, the message that was preached by Jesus during his life was transformed into a message about the importance of his death.

In any event, Jesus and Paul do share similarities as well as differences.  Here is a rough summary:

Similarities of Jesus and Paul:

  • Both Jesus and Paul were born and raised Jewish, and neither one of them saw himself as departing from the truth of Judaism and the Jewish God.  They both understood that they were proclaiming the “true” form of Judaism.  Neither of them thought they were staring a “new religion.”
  • Both Jesus and Paul proclaimed an apocalyptic message rooted in the categories of Jewish apocalypticism, which understood that the current age was ruled by the forces of evil, but a new age was coming in which God would destroy the forces of evil and bring in a utopian kingdom here on earth.
  • Both Jesus and Paul thought that this climactic moment of all human history was soon to come, it was right around the corner, it would be here within their own generation.
  • Both Jesus and Paul dismissed what they saw as the Pharisaic concern for the scrupulous observance of the Jewish Law as a way to obtain a right standing before God.
  • Both Jesus and Paul taught the ultimate need of faith and saw the love one’s neighbor as the summing up and fulfilling of the law, as the most important thing the followers of God could do.

So, there are a lot of similarities, at a very fundamental level.  But there are also very important and key differences.

Differences Between Jesus and Paul:

  • Jesus taught that the coming cosmic judge of the earth who would destroy the forces of evil and bring in God’s good kingdom was a figure that he called the Son of Man, someone other than himself, who could come on the clouds of heaven in a mighty act of judgment.   Paul taught that Jesus himself was the coming cosmic judge of the earth who would destroy the forces of evil and bring in God’s good kingdom, who would come on the clouds of heaven in a mighty act of judgment.
  • Jesus taught that to escape judgment, a person must keep the central teachings of the Law as he himself interpreted them.   Paul taught that reliance on the observance of the Law in no sense would bring salvation; to escape the coming judgment a person must, instead, believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus
  • Jesus taught that “faith” involves trusting God, as a good parent, to bring his future kingdom to his people; Paul taught that “faith” involves trusting in the past death and resurrection of Jesus.  It wasn’t only faith in God but faith in the death and resurrection of Christ.
  • For Jesus, his own importance lay in his proclamation of the coming of the end and his correct interpretation of the Law.  For Paul, Jesus’ importance had nothing to do with Jesus’ own teachings (which Paul hardly ever quotes) but strictly in his death and resurrection.
  • For Jesus, people could begin to experience what life would be like in the future kingdom if they would accept his teachings and begin to implement his understanding of the Jewish law in their lives.    For Paul, people could begin to experience life in the kingdom when they “died with Christ” by being baptized and thus overcame the power of sin.

So, are Jesus and Paul more alike or more different?  People come to different conclusions, looking at the same evidence.    I’m afraid there is no right answer, even though many people are quite vociferous in their support of one position or the other.


Categories: Bible, Biblical scholarship

13 replies

  1. I guess the final paragraph wraps it all up; people come to different conclusions, because I think when you read the letters of Paul as a whole they continue to highlight the teachings of Jesus. The parts about Jesus’ death and resurrection do not make up the whole of Paul’s letters even though it is highlighted often. To me it’s also a reminder that Paul was deeply convinced about what he saw in his vision and wanted to really share his deep convictions with others. At least he wasn’t violent about it, throughout his journey he became very humbled by his experiences, both positive and negative ones.

    1 Timothy 1:14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

    15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.

    But, like Bart Ehrman said, I’ve come to a different conclusion.


    • fair enough – but scholars tend to think 1 Timothy is not by Paul. Ehrman describes it as a ‘forgery’. I think he is right.


    • Oh yeah I’ve come across that before. I do not have enough knowledge to agree or disagree with that but I find wisdom in that letter which shouldn’t be dismissed. Lately I’ve been appreciating wisdom found in various cultures; each has a unique perspective on life, whether it is Christianity, Islam or even Buddhism (some of the ignorant comments I made as anon27 are over, at least I hope they will be). The statement about God being patient with us, even the worst of sinners, I would say is a universal truth about God, otherwise I would be worried.

      There are other examples of Paul showing his humility particularly in the letter to Corinthians. I believe that is usually considered authentic.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. 1 & 2 Corinthians are considered authentic by the vast majority of scholars i think. But Paul could be an arrogant dude sometimes too don’t you think? See 2 Corinthians..


    • lol I agree, he seemed a bit too passionate at times (perhaps one of the reasons he and Barnabas went separate ways). Whether you believe 2 Peter is authentic or not, even that author had to highlight the nature of Paul’s writings:
      2 Peter 3:15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16 He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

      I think Paul himself highlights somewhere that his writing can seem a bit eccentric or difficult to understand for some people (I can’t remember the passage but something along those lines).


    • I think Paul is confused and self-contradictory about the law, its status and value. And virtually all critical scholars in the world think 2 Peter is a forgery. Many learned people in the early church had serious doubts about its authenticity too.

      The real Peter fell out with Paul – see Galatians.


    • Fair enough, yet another conclusion looking at the same evidence as Bart Ehrman says above.
      And I’m aware of the fall out although the final outcome is uncertain. We don’t know if they spoke again or reconciled because they were both killed around the same time.


  3. I think it is time we discuss these constant claims that the majority of scholars support Erhman’s view on all matters critical.

    “[Erhman] fails to mention that of all the ATS [Association of Theological Schools]-accredited seminaries in the United States, the top ten largest seminaries are all evangelical. These seminaries represent thousands and thousands of students, and hundreds and hundreds of professors. If virtually all seminary professors agree with Ehrman, then who are these professors teaching at the ten largest US seminaries? Apparently the only schools that count in Ehrman’s analysis of modern seminaries are the ones that already agree with him. It is not so difficult to prove your views are mainstream when you get to decide what is mainstream.**”


    • Paulus, ‘largest’ doesn’t = scholarly excellence.

      I notice how you slyly change the terms of the comment thus:

      ‘the majority of scholars support Ehrman’s view on all matters critical.’

      btw neither myself nor Bart have ever said this. Its a straw man.

      then you say:

      ‘If virtually all seminary professors agree with Ehrman’

      note the sly change from ‘majority’ to ‘virtually all’? lol

      and you leave out the important qualifier (how convenient):

      he refers to critical scholars not fundamentalists. How many of the ‘thousands and thousands of students, and hundreds and hundreds of professors’ at evangelical seminaries are card carrying fundies like you Paulus? In the US i find it hard to conceive of many (or any?!) that are not.

      fundamentalism is contra biblical scholarship Paulus. I know, I used to be one.


    • I think that is the point- you infer that those professors are not critical scholars. But such an achronistic position only works if you get to define who and who isn’t a critical scholar, based on your own bias and pre-drawn conclusions. As the page states, apparently the only schools that count in your opinion are those that agree with you conclusion. It is not difficult, therefore, to state that your ideas are mainstream or accepted by almost all scholars, if you get to define what is mainstream or who qualifies as a scholar.

      I would add that the same is true in Australia- the liberal critical schools are the least influencial and smallest in numbers; so if anything, they would be a minority in the world of scholarship.


    • As an example, here I highlight Australian scholars I know of who are published and respected in their fields of research, and who present at SBL and ETS or have in the past

      Mike Bird- ridley college
      Peter O’Brien- ridley college
      Colin Kruse- melbourne school of theology
      Graham goldsworthy- retired anglican/ moore college
      Graham cole- Trinity evangelical divinity school
      Mark thompson- moore college
      Peter ridell- melbourne school of theology formally from SOAS
      Leon morris- deceased
      Brian rosner- ridley college
      Scott harrower- ridley college
      Paul barnett- moore college
      Peter bolt- moore college

      all are evangelical. I do not know a single liberal critical scholar of any calibre or influence in academia from australia


  4. Reading my comments again more than a year later… Man I was so cool!

    But looking back at a particular thing that Paul Williams wrote, I have noticed also a bit of self-contradictions when it comes to interpreting the law by Paul in his letters. Personally I think Paul did an amazing job for the ministry of God especially to the non-Jewish Gentiles, however he was still a human being who could have made mistakes like the rest of us.
    In these instances, Jesus’ words should have more authority than that of Paul’s.

    I don’t believe he was a deceiver though, the Romans were fed up with him just as much as the Jews were.


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