In chronological order, Paul is the first person whose writings ended up in the Christian canon. He also, though a contemporary of Christ, was not a follower while Jesus was alive, which means anything Paul knows comes from second-hand sources. In other words, what Paul says about Christ is a good indication of what was widely accepted in the years immediately after Jesus’ death.
So what does Paul say about Jesus’ life? For the sake of the argument, I’ll include all letters traditionally attributed to Paul and note where some disputes occur regarding authorship (and therefore dating).
- 1 Thessalonians (c. 52 C.E.): Jesus, the son of God, was raised from the dead (1:10). “The Jews” killed him (2:15). He “died and rose” (4:14). Jesus died for us (5:10).
- 2 Thessalonians (c. 53 C.E., if written by Paul): Nothing.
- 1 Corinthians (c. 54 C.E.): Jesus was the son of God (1:9). Jesus was crucified (2:2). Paul saw him (9:1). “On the night he was betrayed,” Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper (11:23-25). Jesus died for our sins, was buried and rose “on the third day” (15:3-4). He appeared to Peter, his disciples, more than 500 people at once, James and all of his followers, and finally to Paul (15:5-7).
- 2 Corinthians (likely multiple letters between 53-57 C.E.): Jesus died (4:10), but God raised him back to life (4:14). Jesus was poor (8:9).
- Galatians (c. 55 C.E.): God raised Jesus from the dead (1:1). Jesus was crucified publicly (3:2).
- Romans (c. 56 C.E.): Jesus’ resurrection was a public identification of his divine sonship (1:4). The Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead (8:11). Jesus died, was raised and now sits at God’s right hand (8:34).
- Philippians (c. 62 C.E.): Nothing.
- Ephesians (late 50s-early 60s, if written by Paul): Nothing.
- Colossians (late 50s-early 60s, if written by Paul): Nothing.
- Philemon (early 60s): Nothing.
- Pastoral Epistles (early-mid 60s, if written by Paul): “Jesus came into the world to save sinners” was a common phrase (1 Tim. 1:15). Jesus testified before Pontius Pilate (1 Tim. 6:14). Jesus was descended from David (2 Tim. 2:8).
To summarize, among the undisputed letters of Paul, who was killed before the first gospel was written, here’s what we know about the physical life of Jesus:
He was the son of God. He lived in poverty. At some point, he was betrayed, and on the night of the betrayal, he shared a meal with his disciples through the continual partaking of which he urged them to remember him. He then was publicly crucified and buried, but the Holy Spirit resurrected him three days later. He then appeared to hundreds of witnesses, lastly to Paul, and he now sits at God’s right hand.
The letters to Timothy, which most scholars believe are not Pauline (2 Timothy has a few more defenders than the other two), add two more details: the trial before Pilate and Jesus’ Davidic ancestry – which make more sense, given Paul’s silence on them in the previous seven to nine letters, if these three are actually written between 80-100 C.E., after the completion of the Synoptic Gospels, which include such details.
So the Last Supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the appearances and, by inference, the ascension (he has to get to the right hand of God somehow, right?) are all part of the known story of Jesus when Paul writes his letters 20-30 years after Christ’s death. But the virgin birth is not.
Arguing from silence is a tricky business. Paul clearly could have known about the virgin birth and simply did not find it worth mentioning or particularly important to his theology. But that seems unlikely. Such a miraculous event would seem to buttress a host of Paul’s theological arguments. The position that makes the most sense is that Paul simply didn’t know of such a story.
Regardless of which is true – whether Paul didn’t know about the virgin birth or whether he didn’t think it important enough to mention – Paul’s silence should cause us to think about how much weight we place on the story in our own theology.