The Importance of Jesus Tradition in Understanding Paul

Kathy Ehrensperger writes

I consider it a necessary and fruitful enterprise to explore the significance of such research results that demonstrate Paul’s embeddedness in Judaism when dealing with the issue of the relation between Jesus and Paul, or, to put it another way, of the relation of the Jesus traditions as remembered in the Gospels and the Jesus as remembered by Paul and his team in the Pauline Letters.

So thrilled to read this in her essay “At the Table: Common Ground between Paul and the Historical Jesus.” I have earlier voiced the opinion that Paul’s theology be thought of first and foremost as influenced by and indebted to Jesus traditions (since the Gospels were written after most/all of Paul’s Letters). I think that the recent push to read Paul within Second Temple Judaism broadly will be misguided insofar as it ignores this foundational hermeneutical task in understanding his thought. So in some respects, Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which sees Pauline theology as a brand of Second Temple Judaism richly rethought around Jesus Messiah, is a step in the right direction. Ehrensperger’s essay in Jesus Research volume two continues by pointing out the rich agreement between Jesus tradition in the Gospels and 1 Corinthians on the subject of table fellowship / meals.

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Implicit Claim of Deity in Jesus’ Covenant-Making

This is what Moses spoke to Israel at Sinai in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament). Ἰδοὺ τὸ αἷμα τῆς διαθήκης, ἧς διέθετο κύριος πρὸς ὑμᾶς περὶ πάντων τῶν λόγων τούτων. (“Behold, the blood of the covenant, which the LORD has decreed with you concerning all these words.” Note: “the blood of the covenant… the LORD…”)

This is what Jesus speaks to the disciples during the Last Supper (Mark 14:24): τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ αἷμά μου τῆς διαθήκης τὸ ἐκχυννόμενον ὑπὲρ πολλῶν. (“This is my blood of the covenant that is poured out for many.”)

Several things are taking place here. (1) Moses offers the blood of an animal at the inauguration of the Mosaic Covenant, which is between Israel and God, while Jesus offers his own blood between himself (!) and his Jewish followers. (2) Given the parallel wording of the accounts, it would be negligent to see the literary agreement as occurring fortuitously. Mark intends to communicate that Jesus was in fact establishing a covenant by means of his own blood. (3) Jesus covenants directly with his followers. While the divine identity is strongly implied for any first century Jewish reader, in our own present day the truth is drowned out by historical critics who scoff at the idea that Jesus “of Nazareth” had a self-understanding that included divinity. It remains that Jesus’ audience would have understood that Jesus was functioning in the place of God who makes covenants. There is an implicit claim to deity in Jesus’ covenant-making. (4) By identifying himself with God, Jesus, who gives his own blood, becomes God who dies for the forgiveness of sins. (Though this part comes from Matthew’s Gospel.) (5) The new covenant of Jesus is marked, then, by the forgiveness of sins.

This is first-century Jewish thinking. Not simply the stuff of fourth-century Gentile councils.