Do Jesus and Paul Disagree?

Although almost every commentary on the book of Romans praises it as a masterpiece of Christian theology, there are several recent responses to Paul and Pauline theology which push back against this dominance in the formation of Christian theology. If you google “Jesus vs. Paul” you can find quite a few websites devoted to driving a wedge between Jesus and Paul, some in favor of Jesus, others in favor of Paul.

Some argue Paul ruined the (more pure) religion created by Jesus. For example, Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne published a book calling Christians to follow Jesus. Red Letter Christians focused on the Sermon on the Mount as central to Christian ethics. Their mission is “to take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.”

Others favor Paul, arguing Paul as the “real founder” of the Christian church. Jesus is more or less ignored in systematic theology, especially from the Reformed perspective. Sometimes Jewish scholars point out that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who was misunderstood by Paul. Historians who have no theological axe to grind often observe Christianity as we know it is derived from Paul and his letters.

apostleBut there are other more radical views. In 1986, Hyam Maccoby, for example, wrote a book entitled The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. His thesis is simple: Paul was a radically Hellenized Jew who recycled the mystery cults and Gnosticism into what we call Christianity today. He lied about being a Pharisee and was generally ignorant of what the Hebrew actually taught. Pamela Eisenbaum argues the opposite, in her 2009 Paul as not a Christian. For Eisenbaum, Paul was “unambiguously Jewish—ethnically, culturally, religiously, morally and theologically” (9). Paul was a Jewish teacher and Pharisee who came to believe Jesus was messiah. That belief by itself is not heretical (from a Jewish perspective), even if he was wrong.

Similarly, Dispensationalism is sometimes accused of ignoring Jesus since classic Dispensationalism dismissed the Sermon on the Mount as “future kingdom ethics” and over-emphasized Paul and his letters. For most classic dispensationalists the Sermon on the Mount is the charter for the future millennial kingdom and there is resistance to using the Sermon as a “core” for Christian ethics. This view has nearly died out even among modern dispensationalists, but the division between Jesus and Paul persists for many Christians.

Although “Jesus Only” sounds pious, the fact is Jesus does not fully explain what he is going to do on the cross nor does he present anything like a “systematic theology” of who he is as related to the Father. All Christians after Jesus struggle to understand who Jesus was and how he fits into the overall plan of God.

It is my view that Paul was a faithful interpreter of Jesus who was inspired by God to write the book of Romans. Paul does claim to be called by God to a particular ministry, bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world. Why would a pagan Roman care about a crucified Jewish teacher who claimed to be a messiah, whatever that is?

Paul’s theology and ethics do not differ from Jesus as much as is often assumed. Romans 12 seems to know and use the same tradition Matthew used in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). Paul did not reject the ethics of Jesus and substitute his own! Paul can therefore be considered a faithful interpreter of what Jesus did on the cross. He understood the story of the Hebrew Bible as believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise to deal with the problem of sin.

To what extent do “red letter Christians” have a point? Has Paul’s theology about Jesus “gone too far”? Or is it later theology which has twisted the more simple religion of Jesus?

22 thoughts on “Do Jesus and Paul Disagree?

  1. While “Jesus Only” Christians may have a point, it is an extremely limited one. I agree that often times Christians can over-complicate the gospel or idolize teachers, their own points of view, or even their own denominations. However, by saying that the sermon on the Mount and that” the teachings during Jesus ministry are more important than the rest of the New Testament, “Jesus Only” Christians commit the same error. As 2 Timothy 3:15 states, “All Scripture is God breathed.” In addition, 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 speaks to the issue of dividing based on following different teachers:
    “My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (11-13)
    As displayed by these passages of Scripture, all passages are God’s word, whether they were spoken by Jesus or inspired by God and sent in letters to various first century churches. When we accept God’s word, we cannot pick and choose which part of His word to accept. When we pick some scripture and discredit other parts, we are creating our own religion and not truly furthering the cause of Christ.

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  2. I don’t at all believe that you either have to support Jesus or Paul but cannot support them both. While you mention that Jesus is more or less ignored in systematic theology, I see that not as a theology that is actively going against the teachings of Jesus but more something that fails to mention it. Paul’s theology isn’t radically against Jesus in any way and therefore it doesn’t really matter as much if it isn’t exactly the same as the teachings of Jesus. Jesus and Paul both have some pretty great things to say but they don’t say anything that contradicts each other so there is no point in saying that you can only follow one or the other. There is no harm in following the teachings of both at the same time. I think Jesus only Christians, while indeed, it is pious, are far to narrow minded in their thinking. Jesus touched the life and mind of Paul to deliver incredible, life changing messages and it would be foolish to dismiss them because they aren’t the same things that Jesus talked about. In fact, it would be extremely pointless to have Paul preach on the same things as Jesus. What if the Bible were just repeats of the same thing? Different people have valuable lessons that are as different as the people to which they were given.

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    • I agree. Jesus would not have appointed Paul if he did not trust Paul would bring the exact same message. Sometimes, I believe too much analyzing and questioning of a concept can make people miss the main point which is clearly stated in front of them. I believe Jesus chose Paul to convey His message a certain way to accurately teach Jesus and the Word of God to people clearly.

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  3. After reading this blog and the comments left, I’d have to agree with what Adam Shultz has to say. There is no reason why we cannot follow or believe both the words and teaching of Paul and Jesus. We (Christians) know that What God teaches and says is the ultimate truth and we are to follow Him, but Jesus uses certain people to reach others. In this cases, we are talking about Paul. God chose him, a wicked and anti-Christ follower and completely changed who he was and what he believed in (Acts 9). Paul went from persecuting those who followed and loved Jesus to proclaiming His name and serving Him. What a radical change (Philippians 3:8)! I personally think we should follow both Jesus and Paul’s teachings and grow from them. I believe they go hand in hand. If we chose to follow only one perspective or teaching, then what is the point of the other? I do also think that as Christians we tend to get caught up in little and perhaps not so important details when it comes to figuring out and understanding the Bible. While it is important to know the Bible and learn from it, we need to be careful to not get caught up in the little things and cause huge problems from them. This argument or discussion on “Jesus only” or “Pauline Theology” could very well be one of those smaller issues or misunderstandings that cause people (both Christians and non-Christians) to fear what the Bible has to say because it “contradicts” itself. My final response to this blog and to what everyone commented would be that God uses others to further His Kingdom, for His glory and we should not take that lightly and question whether or not we are to follow one or the other.

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  4. 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.
    2 Peter 3:15-16

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  5. Thinking on this a little more deeply, given all the other demands of the day, I’m inclined to believe that how we read either Paul or the gospel records of Jesus’ words, we need to be cognizant of whether or not our stance on either reflects a Christian anti-Jewish bias, as reflected in the writings Marcion and later Church fathers. I find Paul incredibly difficult to read outside a Jewish matrix (to borrow from Crossan because it’s helpful) and tend to agree with Pamela Eisenbaum on this point. Jesus affirms the Law to the point that not a single sarif be changed. Paul does away with the Law entirely. How can this be reconciled unless we are missing some very important historical and Jewish/Pharisaic nuance in a complex and polytheistic culture?

    I’m very pleased to read people’s thoughts and I’m attempting to study along as best I can with Longenecker, Jewett, and Thiselton (as well as all those academics on the historical side).

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  6. It seems like this article might surface a question that I’ve been thinking about…

    What is more theologically accurate, to read the Gospel through the lenses of Paul’s writings, or to read Paul’s writings through the lenses of the gospel?

    The lens in which we view the Bible shouldn’t be subjected to only a portion of the Scripture; rather, we should view the Bible through a lens that incorporates the entirety of the text. If we exclude Paul from the way we exegete the Bible and only look through the “red letter Christian” lens, then we’ll fail to understand correct doctrine and God’s ministry to the gentile. If we exclude Jesus’ teachings and deem them as, “future kingdom ethics” then we won’t get a full understanding of Christian Ethics.

    I rarely see Dispensationalists casting aside Jesus’ teachings. I tend to see an ignorant stigma from outside perspectives who falsely accuse Dispensationalists of only focusing on Pauline Literature and ignoring Jesus’ ethics. It’s like we’re being accused of ripping out Matthew – John from the Bible and throwing it into a fire while we dance around singing chants to our savior Paul.

    I will say that to correctly exegete any passage of Scripture we need to understand that Jesus’ teaching doesn’t contridict Paul. And that Paul is not trying to steal Jesus’ thunder, but rather he is trying to be an advocate of the Messiah to a larger audience.

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    • I think that classic dispensationalism (pre 1960s) would have ignored Matthew, especially the sermon on the mount (follow that link for some quotes from early dispensationalists who relegated the Sermon to the ethics of the future kingdom). Many dispensationalists I know would not teach on prayer using the Lord’s prayer, for example. You are right, however, this is not the case for dispensationalists in your lifetime. Things have changed, as Bob Dylan once said.

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  7. Another verse that supports your conclusion is 2 Peter 3:16 which says, “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 other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”

    This verse supports that all Scriptures are God word. Even the ones written by Paul since Peter considered his letters as hard to read as the rest of scriptures.

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  8. I would say that Paul’s theology does not disagree with Jesus’. I would say that their theology would line up more than be differentiate from one another. I would say that their theology would line up. Romans is an essential book to the Christian faith and it would not be that way if it was not parallel to Jesus’ theology. Jesus and Paul discuss similar things. Paul knows of Jesus’ teaching and what he did in His ministry on earth. Paul only builds on what Jesus already taught in the gospels and during his ministry. Paul works closely with disciples and learns more about Jesus ministry and adds to what Jesus already teaches so I would not say that Paul’s theology has gone “too far”

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  9. “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ’Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do’” (Acts 9:3-6, NIV). This portion of scripture describes how Jesus got the attention of Paul, who was once called Saul, and led him to sharing the Gospel. I do not think Jesus would pick someone to convey God’s message to Christians, if later down the line he would distort the Words of God. I understand not every human is perfect, but I believe when someone is directly appointed by God, especially for writing portions of the Bible, the person has gained a stronger spirit to be led by. I do not know for sure, but I trust my God in speaking to the hearts of the right people to complete His work in accordance of how He desires it.

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  10. Paul’s theology does not go against Jesus’ theology. I do not believe that a person should only follow Jesus or only follow Paul. Romans 1:9 says “God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son . . .” In this statement Paul is telling the Romans that he is serving God by preaching the Gospel. He is telling the Romans about Jesus using his [Paul’s] own words. There is no pastor alive right now that will do an entire sermon that is just quoting scripture, so why on earth should we expect Paul to only quote Jesus’ words to the Romans? Paul has interpreted the gospel put it into his own words in order to communicate the importance of it to the Romans. Also, Christians understand that scripture is God breathed, and the letter to the Romans is part of scripture. God would not have inspired Paul to say things that are contradictory to Jesus, and if the things that Paul were saying did not come from God they would not have been part of scripture. Paul was trying to interpret the good news of Jesus Christ and God was there to help him out. I believe that people should look at the gospel and the writings of Paul in the same way: God inspired text.

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  11. I do not believe that Paul’s theology goes against the teachings of Jesus and the theology of the Gospels at all. Paul’s words and beliefs go hand in hand with what Jesus taught and was ministering to many, the words of Jesus who appointed him in the first place. In Paul’s letters, he was making the gospel more clear to fellow Christians, Jews and Gentiles alike. Yes, the red letter Christians have a point in the fact that we do tend to overemphasize Paul and his words, but ultimately, each word was inspired and were the exact words that the Spirit intended for him to write.

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  12. While reading and trying not to sound redundant like I am conforming to all the beliefs of my classmates, I do agree with most of them that I don’t believe that Paul’s theology has gone too far or that we have to choose to follow one or the other (Paul or Jesus). I would say that being raised in a Dispensational church, I had come to believe that the sermon on the mount was applicable today and also for eschatological times as well. I do think that Paul was the founder of the “christian church” and that because he mentions that he is only a “servant” of the Lord (Romans 1:1) clearly Paul is not more important than Jesus, and as Douglas Moo states pg 32 from the same first verse in Romans; that Paul is saying his authority comes from Christ Jesus therefore aligning his message with that of Christ. The argument has been made that we should follow the teachings and letters of Paul more closely because he specifically was writing to the gentiles and Jesus’s ministry while on Earth was specifically for the Jews. But God’s plan from the beginning was for salvation for all-mankind therefore we should not throw out the Sermon on the mount or any of Jesus’s teachings.

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  13. I believe that Paul and Jesus had very similar theologies. Growing up in a church that did not focus on dispensations as much as others, I had always assumed that since all of scripture was said to be inspired by God (2 Tim 3:16) and that was the end of it. Since coming to learn more about the different Dispensations, I think that we need to account for the fact that Jesus was preaching (for the most part) directly to the Jews. Since Paul states that he is called as the apostle to the Gentiles, his approach will naturally be slightly different. I believe that Jesus’ sermon on the mount was specialized towards Jews, who would know the law, so that Jesus could expand from there. Paul’s teaching goes towards people who not only did not know the law, but most likely would not care about it either. Naturally, Paul changed his tactics a bit. Another thing that was called to my attention recently as I learned about the dispensations is that some theologians put Jesus and Paul in completely different dispensations, pitting Law versus Grace. If God uses different means of communication in each dispensation, wouldn’t it be expected that Paul would use a different approach?

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  14. Even putting aside all claims of revelation, It’s arrogant to say that we somehow know Jesus better than St. Paul, who actually lived his life in the same place and time as Jesus, and knew people who knew Jesus personally.

    It’s a lot like the philosophers who have said that Aristotle misunderstood Plato. For me, it seems clear that I should trust the one who studied under Plato for years over scholars 2500 years removed.

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  15. If for one moment we question that the books of the bible are not 100% the “WORD OF GOD” from Gen-Rev we have fallen into the trap of the devil. because if we question one verse and “seemly” prove that is not inspired by God. Then it leave the door wide open to question another verse then another …and so on…..! So if we question one verse then our salvation comes in question then our faith then heaven and hell and then God himself! I am persuaded that it is ALL true! “thy word have i hid in my heart” no man nor an angel from heaven could pry this truth out of my heart! Jesus is the Mighty God and is coming for a church that has made themselves ready.

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  16. Be careful, from my point of view Paul did not see Jesus but the devil or an evil spirit. Paul is the most perfect deception that makes us doubt even JESUS (God In Flesh). Open your eyes people.

    The scriptures are sacred, but is it all the bible called scriptures? You have the Law (torah) and the prophets. Besides that there are lots of controversies. Then you have the 12 apostles appointed by Jesus himself, and Jesus came to fullfill the Law and the prophets. Jesus never talked about a 13th apostle.

    And if “saved by grace through faith” sounds appealing it is because that’s what it is supposed to be: APPEALING, like everything from the world. Much more appealing than “to live you must be willing to loose your life” – said by Jesus. Search Jesus vs Paul and find the contradictions. There are even books writen about that. Trust the Torah, the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles.

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