Stanley E. Porter, When Paul Met Jesus

Porter, Stanley E. When Paul Met Jesus: How an Idea Got Lost in History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 435 pp. Pb; $34.   Link to Cambridge

Did Paul meet Jesus before his experience in the Road to Damascus? Second Corinthians 5:16 is usually read as if Paul denied knowing Jesus prior to the dramatic event on the Damascus Road. When confronted by the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul asks “who are you, Lord?” This too is taken as an indication Paul did not recognize Jesus and is used as evidence Paul did not know Jesus prior to his conversion. But there have been a few scholars in the early twentieth century who suggested Paul may have seen Jesus in Jerusalem prior to the crucifixion and perhaps even heard Jesus teach at some point.

When Paul met JesusIn this monograph Stanley Porter attempts to revive the idea that Paul met Jesus by examining the relevant texts in the Pauline epistles as well as the book of Acts. Beginning with William Ramsay, Johannes Weiss, and J. H. Moulton, Porter suggests it is at least plausible to understand some of the texts used to show Paul did not know Jesus as meaning the opposite; he did recognize Jesus on the road to Damascus and he had heard Jesus teaching in person (chapter 1).

Although he admits he has not surveyed every work on the life of Paul (a nearly impossible task these days), Porter claims to have found only one recent scholar who is open to the possibility Paul heard Jesus teach at some point before the crucifixion (Tim Gombis, in Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed). Even works with a vested interest in connecting Jesus and Paul dismiss the possibility Paul knew Jesus prior to his conversion. Porter cites David Wenham who wrote a popular book on Jesus and Paul. Wenham simply states “Paul did not have firsthand experience of Jesus’ ministry (cited by Porter, 175).

So what happened? Porter lays the blame for the common assumption Paul did not know Jesus at the feet of F. C. Baur, followed by William Wrede and most significantly Rudolf Bultmann. As Porter says, “The short answer is Rudolf Bultmann and the long answer is the general history of Pauline scholarship” since Baur (45). There are several assumptions which make the possibility Paul knew Jesus less likely. First, Baur reduced the Pauline canon to Romans, 1-2 Corinthians and Galatians. Second, he assumed Acts altered history in order to make the contrast between Paul and Peter more clear. This led to the third assumption, Peter and Paul represented the two sides of the early church which eventually resulted into the synthesis of the next generation of Christianity. Bultmann argued Jesus’ teaching was irrelevant (and unknowable), and Pauline theology does not really depend on Jesus. Porter interacts at length with Bultmann’s 2 Corinthians commentary since the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:16 is critically important for the thesis he wants to defend in this monograph, that Paul not only knew the teaching of Jesus, but had heard Jesus teach, perhaps on several occasions, and may have interacted with Jesus during his earthly ministry.

As a result of the influence of Baur, Wrede, and Bultmann, most scholars reject the idea Paul knew Jesus or do not even raise the question. For many, there is a gap between the teaching of Jesus and the theology of Paul. Porter cites James Dunn, “Paul’s influence in determining the beginnings of Christianity was almost as great as that of Jesus” (Porter, 71).

With respect to method, Porter realizes many scholars reduce the number of authentic epistles and often reject the Pastoral Epistles, but there is little in the disputed epistles which supports his case. He fully accepts the book of Acts as evidence for the details of Paul’s life and prefers to date the book as early as A.D. 63 (an early date even for conservative Acts scholars). Scholarship on Pauline chronology often favors the epistles and Porter sees no problem using both as sources this study.

His third chapter surveys the data in Acts and the Pauline epistles, including the three reports of Paul’s conversion in Acts, focusing especially on the phrase “Who are you Lord?” For Porter, both Jesus’ statement and Paul’s response imply recognition, that is, Paul saw Jesus and recognized him because he knew him before the encounter (94). Porter gently suggests the phrase “I am Jesus” is similar to a Johannine “I am” saying, so Jesus is using a Christological formula to identify himself (the human Jesus) with the God (92).

Turning to the Epistles, Porter begins with 1 Corinthians 9:1, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” Porter offers a detailed exegesis of this passage, comparing it to 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 to argue that Paul had seen Jesus just as the other apostles had. With respect to 2 Corinthians 5:16, Porter interacts at length with Bultmann’s highly influential commentary. Bultmann understood this verse to say Paul did not know Jesus before the Damascus road encounter, that he did not know Jesus “according to the flesh.” Porter offers a detailed exegesis of eleven key points in this verse and concludes it is plausible the verse indicates Paul once knew Jesus only as a human, but now (after the resurrection) Paul knows Jesus as the resurrected Lord. He is careful to suggest this as a possible reading of the text, but along with 1 Corinthians 9:1 and the book of Acts, there is a strong possibility Paul had known Jesus prior to his conversion experience.

In chapter 4 Porter develops some of the implications of Paul knowing Jesus before the resurrection. This would imply all had firsthand knowledge of Jesus’ teaching because he had heard it for himself at some point in the ministry of Jesus. To support this, Porter examines five passages in Paul’s letter which seem to reflect the teaching of Jesus: Romans 12:92-21 (loving, blessing, cursing); Romans13:8 and Galatians 5:14 (loving one’s neighbor); 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 (on divorce); 1 Corinthians 9:14 and 1 Timothy 5:18 (paying ministers of the Gospel); 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 (the Lord’s return).

After examining these passages in detail, Porter concludes Paul had firsthand knowledge of the teaching of Jesus corresponding to three phases of Jesus’ ministry. Romans 12:9-21 alludes to the Sermon on the Mount (which Porter argues was a single sermon preached in Galilee). Loving one’s neighbor alludes to Jesus’ encounter with a lawyer during Luke’s travel narrative on the road to Jerusalem who asked him how he might inherit eternal life.  1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 alludes to the Olivet Discourse, part of Jesus’ teaching to the disciples in Jerusalem. Although Porter does not offer details, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 is perhaps a better example of a possible allusion to the Olivet Discourse. Obeying the government in Romans 13 may allude to Jesus’ saying to “give unto Caesar.”

I have several questions about this section of Porter’s argument. First, acquaintance with the teaching of Jesus does not necessarily mean firsthand knowledge. If Romans12:9-11 does allude to the Sermon on the Mount, it is not necessary for Paul himself to have heard Jesus teach the words himself. The writer of the Didache also alludes to the Sermon, but no one would assume that author personally heard Jesus teach. Although it is not necessary to argue Paul had a copy of Q with him wherever he traveled, it is just as plausible he knew of some sayings sources often attributed to Q. This would account for material in Paul’s letters which would later be used by Matthew and Luke.

A second and related issue concerns the method used for demonstrating Paul had firsthand knowledge of Jesus’ teaching. Porter must walk a fine line between verbal parallels with the Gospels and general allusions. If Paul heard Jesus teach in Galilee and wrote his recollection of that teaching in Romans some twenty or more years later, it would be remarkable if the words he used were exactly the same as the Gospel of Matthew. Porter recognizes this as a problem for the vocabulary for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7 (148-50), eventually concluding Paul offers a paraphrase of what Jesus said.

This raises a third concern. Sometimes a common Jewish source is a simpler solution than Paul heard Jesus teach. For example, that both Jesus’ and Paul’s summary the of Law as “love your neighbor” is not remarkable at all since this was a well-known summary of the Law in Second Temple Judaism based on Leviticus 19:18. That a Jewish lawyer would respond to Jesus in this way is not a surprise. In addition, it is possible to find parallels to Romans 12:9-21 in Jewish wisdom literature.

Finally, sometimes Porter makes a suggestion which goes well beyond the evidence. He very tentatively suggests Paul was the “the lawyer who asked the question” in Luke 10:25-28 (147). Similarly, that Paul “overheard Jesus’ words regarding the worker being worthy of his/her wages” (159) seems to go beyond the evidence or that Paul overheard the Olivet Discourse and “heard enough” of Jesus at that point (167). All of these are of course possibilities, but move into the area of speculation which cannot be supported by evidence.

In his conclusion, Porter cites A.M. Pope who asked what benefit to our understanding of Paul if it can be proven Paul knew the life and teaching of the human Jesus. Aside from historical curiosity, the connection between Jesus and Paul would serve to further strengthen Pauline studies which place Paul in a Jewish context. The wedge driven between Jesus and Paul ought to be removed, but so too the wedge between Judaism, Jesus and Paul.

Conclusion. This is a fascinating book which makes a bold claim and supports that claim with detailed evidence and careful argumentation. Porter makes his case that it is at least plausible Paul knew the teaching of Jesus prior to the crucifixion and that he had personally seen Jesus on occasion.


NB: Thanks to Cambridge for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

12 thoughts on “Stanley E. Porter, When Paul Met Jesus

  1. Thanks… Interesting! One thought occurs: If Paul did see Jesus on occasion, and remained around Jerusalem in the time of the crucifixion and just following, as his knowledge of very early “Christians” seems to indicate is quite possible, then he must not have been very impressed with the storied “resurrection appearance” accounts (assuming they happened as recorded, which I think is very questionable). What it took to convince Paul that Jesus remained “alive” was his own esoteric (trance-like?) experience.

    • I thought this book would interest you!

      I am sure he was in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, and as a young teacher of the Law, it would be impossible for him NOT to know about Jesus and the reason for his execution. I do take Acts seriously (as you know), so his approval of Stephen’s stoning is an indication he was quite upset with the claim Jesus was raised from the dead (and therefore not the messiah).

      I think the situation is analogous to this modern scenario: When Rob Bell publishes a new book, all the evangelical Bible college and seminary kids know about it and are arguing about what he said, posting blogs and etc. If Paul was a young scholar-in-training, he would have undoubtedly argued about (or with) followers of Jesus and been acquainted with this teaching. But was Paul following Jesus around Galilee discussing points of Law with him? To me, that is possible, attractive, and virtually un-knowable.

      • I’m sure Porter deals with this, but a couple of statements of Paul would seem to indicate he did NOT know Peter or James, etc. personally (or didn’t consider them important in his post-conversion knowledge and growth). One is his claim to not consult anyone in Jerusalem EXCEPT those two, quite briefly and only after 3 years (or more?). Another is the claim that he was unknown by sight to, if I recall the wording, “the believers in Judea” (or similar wording). Thus, were his persecutions perhaps mainly outside Judea and Jerusalem, as maybe in pattern with his interests in working mischief in Damascus?

        Another issue: If Paul was a skeptic and/or opponent when Jesus was teaching, was silence re. that really the best way to handle it in the Gospels? Especially so by Luke, who certainly, in Acts, promotes Paul and delves into his history (though with plenty of “literary license” and/or flawed sourcing, in the view of most specialists comparing Paul and Acts, and myself). One MIGHT argue that Matt. or Mark were uninformed re. Paul’s presence/interest/opposition directly with Jesus, but not Luke, if it were reality!

  2. Too bad Paul never had occasion to state simply that he had seen the pre-resurrection Jesus. Maybe it’s in one of those letters lost to antiquity, along with the “ending” of Mark’s gospel that reveals the risen Son of Man. In which case, one might argue that Paul’s experience truly is our experience. All we’ll ever only experience as ‘moderns” is the post-resurrection Jesus, and Mark’s promise that, despite all lack of proof or confirmation, Jesus is waiting for us in Galilee. There’s wisdom in such mystery.

  3. Sorry to dredge up the past – but I just saw this on your 4 Sept 2019 link.

    Do you reckon what Paul learned from Stephen in Acts 7 might answer a few of the questions in terms of what Paul knew of Jesus? Preaching through that section and then getting to Saul at the end, I couldn’t help but note how many links there were to Pauline theology in Stephen’s speech. This may well be something that is thoroughly discussed in Acts and Pauline scholarship but I haven’t come across it as yet. Any thoughts?

  4. ” I couldn’t help but note how many links there were to Pauline theology in Stephen’s speech.”

    Great observation. This would be discussed in more middle-to-right scholarship on Paul and Acts. One factor is many scholars doing academic in Paul bracket out Acts as a reliable source of background because of the (for them) Acts is written much later than Paul (some as late as AD 125) and the book is theologically influenced by the success of the Pauline Mission (but does not necessarily know the letters of Paul.

    For me, it is entirely possible Paul heard Stephen and therefore was not only be influenced himself by the speech, but could also inform Luke of the content of the speech.

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