5-11 Paul and Christ

Paul's Use of the Gospels

The ultimate aim of our calling to the Truth is a relationship with the Father and His Son. Yet the idea of having a relationship with unseen beings is difficult. And yet it is utterly essential. Paul gives a fine example of how we really can develop a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor. 3:22 speaks of three groups in the Corinth ecclesia, following Paul, Peter and Apollos. Yet in 1 Cor. 1:12 someone says " I am of Christ" . This seems to be Paul himself- so Christ-centred was he, that he wanted no part in ecclesial politics nor in the possibility of leading a faction. His Christ-centredness was a phenomenal achievement. One of the secrets of Paul's spiritual success was that he consciously modelled himself on the examples of faithful men that had gone before. These included Moses and John the Baptist. If we appreciate the extent to which Paul did this, it will be evident that he would have tried to assimilate the example of Jesus his Lord into his very being. Whenever we break bread, as we take that bread and wine, we are physically symbolizing our resolve to assimilate the personality, the spirit, of the Lord Jesus Christ, deep into our body and spirit. Israel labouring all night to eat that bitter Passover lamb are our prototype in this. The extent to which Paul succeeded in doing this becomes apparent when we analyse his writings from the perspective of how far they allude to the words of the Lord Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. To do this, I read through the Gospels, looking for connections with Paul's letters; I then read through his letters, looking for links with the Gospels.  

Perhaps I need to say something about the business of 'links' between passages. It seems to me that some have gone too far in seeing such links; e.g. the last twenty sentences which you spoke will have some 'links' with the last 20 sentences which I have spoken. But this doesn't mean that you are 'alluding' to my words; because you don't know what my last 20 sentences were. Similarity of language doesn't necessarily imply a conscious connection between it. And yet we must balance this against the fact that all Scripture is ultimately recorded by the same Spirit of God. There are many designed connections between passages, many of which hinge around a play on words, or a connection between just one word in one passage and one word in another passage. Many of  Paul's expositions in Hebrews and Romans quote the Old Testament in such a way.  

Conscious Links With The Gospels

I have recognized a connection between the Gospels and Paul's letters on the following criteria:

1. It is apparent that often the Bible and the Lord Jesus use words which are unusual; words which only occur two or three times in the whole Bible, and which could have been replaced by a commoner word. If, for example, the Lord Jesus uses a word which occurs in only one other place, it seems likely that there is an allusion being made to His words. Obviously one needs to look at the context to confirm whether this is the case.

2. Sometimes there is explicit allusion to the words of Christ; e.g. " the Lord (Jesus) hath ordained that they which preach the Gospel should live of the Gospel" (1 Cor. 9:14) is referring to His command of Mt. 10:10. He may make an allusion to the Lord's words without directly quoting them. Thus Paul's comment that as often as we take the bread and wine we " shew the Lord's death till he come" (1 Cor. 11:24) is surely an allusion, but not a quotation, to the Lord's comment that He would not take the cup again until He returns (Mk. 14:25). Likewise " I beseech you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ" is surely a reference to the Lord's description of Himself as being, there and then, " meek and lowly of heart" (Mt. 11:29; 2 Cor. 10:1). Paul's point is that as the Lord was in His life, so He is now, in His heavenly glory.

3. There are sometimes phrases, involving up to 6 words,  which are taken straight out of the Gospel records. It is putting too much down to chance to suggest that this is just an accidental similarity. Invariably the context supports the feeling that an intended allusion is being made. 

However it should also be noticed that Paul sometimes consciously alludes to ideas within the Lord’s teaching, and yet does so in a way that is not verbally similar. Thus Jesus only rarely speaks of ‘the ecclesia’; rather does He speak of the flock, family and vineyard of God. Yet Paul translates as it were into more theological vocabulary what Jesus had expressed in images and parables.  

Unconscious Links

However, there are other cases where a word or short phrase is used which appears to link back to the Gospels (as in 1 and 2 above), and yet the context does not seem to support the suggestion that there is an intended allusion. A few examples will make the point:

-  " Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" is rooted in the Lord's words that He came to call sinners and to seek and save the lost (Mt. 9:13; 18:11; 1 Tim. 1:15). Godliness having the promise of life both now and in the future is a reflection of Christ's teaching that the life of self denial would have its present as well as future rewards (1 Tim. 4:8; Mk. 10:29).

- Paul spoke of how we must go through tribulation to enter the Kingdom. Perhaps he was alluding to the Lord’s parable of the sower, where He taught that when, and not “if” tribulation arises (Mt. 13:21). Paul knew that it must come because of the way the Lord had worded the interpretation of the parable.

- " The great shepherd of the sheep" is a repetition of " the good shepherd that giveth his life for the sheep" - the greatest shepherd there could have been (Heb. 13:20 cp. Jn. 10:11,17).

- " Why make ye this ado and weep?" (Mk. 5:39) is unconsciously alluded to by Paul in Acts 21:13: " What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart?" . If this is a conscious allusion, it seems out of context. But as an unconscious allusion, it makes sense.

- The way Paul shook off the dust of his feet against those who rejected his preaching was surely an almost unconscious reflection of the attitude which the Lord had enjoined upon his men; but there is no evidence that Paul was given the same commission (Acts 13:51 cp. Mt. 10:14).

- " Think not that I am come to destroy (" to make void" , Darby's Translation) the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil" (Mt. 5:17) has some kind of unconscious, hard to define link with Rom. 3:31:" Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law" . The Greek words for " destroy" and " make void" are different; yet the similarity of phrasing and reasoning is so similar. I can't pass this off as chance, yet neither can I say there is a conscious allusion here. There is, therefore, what I will call an 'unconscious link' here.

- " Shall not uncircumcision (i.e. the Gentiles)...judge thee (first century Israel), who...dost transgress the law?" (Rom. 2:27) is an odd way of putting it. How can believing Gentiles " judge" first century Jews who refused to believe? Surely there must be some connection with Mt. 12:41, which speaks of Gentiles such as the men of Nineveh rising " in judgment with this generation (first century Israel), and shall condemn it: because they repented..." . Again, I can't say there is a conscious allusion being made here. But the similarity is too great to just shrug off.

- “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food” (1 Cor. 3:2; Heb. 5:12-14) surely alludes to Jn. 16:12, although it doesn’t verbally quote it: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now”.  

Of course, it may be that there is a conscious connection in these places, it's just that I can't see it that clearly. But I would suggest that the mind of Paul was so saturated with the Gospel records that he was using ideas and sometimes language from them without realizing it. There are many other examples of unconscious allusion between the Bible writers. Even the Lord Jesus seems to have made 'unconscious' allusions, in the sense of making allusions without any semantic purpose. This is especially apparent in some of the links between His parables and the Proverbs. " So shall thy barns be filled with plenty" (Prov. 3:10) is alluded to by him, apparently unconsciously in the sense of being without semantic import, in the parable of the barns. Peter likewise was full of unconscious allusions to the Lord’s life and words in the Gospels. Consider how he says to Cornelius: “I am he whom ye seek: what is the cause wherefore ye are come?” (Acts 10:21). He is combining allusions to Mt. 26:50 and Jn. 18:4-6, but without any apparent meaning. The similarities are too great to pass off as co-incidence. The events in the garden were so permanently imprinted in his subconscious that they just came out. 

This idea of unconscious allusion shouldn't be so hard to understand with some reflection. If I'm with a North American for some time, I start to speak with an American accent. Children unconsciously come out with the phrases and expressions which they hear their parents use daily. Or take a read through the later writings of Robert Roberts. There was a man who truly loved his Bible and knew it well. All the time he is writing in the language of the King James version of the Bible. You can read a page of his writing and jot down next to almost every sentence the verses to which he is alluding. He often does so out of context; it's just that the word was so much in his mind that it came out in whatever he wrote. Or analyse the language of elderly believers who have been reading the King James version of the Bible all their lives. They may speak about our first principle doctrines as " those things which are most surely believed among us" . This is taking Lk. 1:1 a bit out of context, but that phrase is so apt that we use it to talk about basic doctrines, e.g. that the Kingdom will be on earth. Or we describe the warm handshake after a brother is baptized as " the right hand of fellowship" - using Gal. 2:9 out of context (notice it speaks there of " the right hands of fellowship" !). There's no harm in doing this, as long as we are aware of the fact that we aren't always using passages strictly in context. It's surely the inevitable outcome of a Bible-centred way of thinking. Or consider the prayers of Bible-minded brethren. Often they are packed with incidental allusions to Bible verses in their favourite version. The following list shows how very often Paul was consciously alluding to the Gospels; if he made so many conscious allusions, it's only to be expected that he makes many unconscious ones too. And take David. When he writes in Ps. 110 of how Yahweh said unto my Lord…he is quoting the very phrase used by Abigail years before, when they weren’t even married (1 Sam. 25:30). He was unconsciously alluding to the words of his wife before they were married, even years later. It is of course true that context plays a vital part in Biblical interpretation. But this can lead us to overlook the fact that many New Testament quotations of the Old Testament- many of those in the early chapters of Matthew, for example- are picking up words and phrases from one context and applying them to another. Paul himself did this when he quoted the words of the poet Aratus “We are all the offspring of Zeus” about our all being the offspring of the one true God.  

The point has been made that the NT writers hardly ever directly quote the Gospels as they do, e.g., the prophets; but they allude to them. And the conclusion has been powerfully drawn: " To live continuously cannot be done by quoting. To match every circumstance of our daily lives with an appropriate extract from a memorized saying of Jesus is neither possible nor desirable. Our learning in his life should be such as the Apostles' was: one which sees his actions, hears his words and reads the records of his thoughts, and makes them our own. So that as time advances we walk more naturally with his steadfast tread...speak normally in tones and phrases which remind others of what Jesus said and the way He said it..." .

Paul As Rabbi

Many of Paul’s allusions, both to the words of the Lord and indeed to the Old Testament Scriptures, may appear to be merely incidental and out of context. We have suggested that this may have been a reflection of how his mind was so saturated with Scripture and the words of his Lord. But there is another additional possibility. Paul was trained as a rabbi, and would have been used to the rabbinic way of writing. The rabbis made Midrashim, or commentary / interpretation, on the Old Testament Scriptures. They believed that every single word of God was worthy of extended commentary. Because many of their readers virtually knew the text of Scripture by heart, they often give no more than a word or at most a few words from a Scriptural quotation, intending the reader to recite the rest of the passage silently to themselves; and then the rabbi immediately added his comment. Indeed, a case can be made that the whole New Testament is a form of Midrash on the Old Testament, re-interpreting it in the light of Christ. Paul so often employs the same literary devices found in the rabbinic Midrashim (1):

- al tiqra [read not thus, but thus- Gal. 3:16 is a classic example]

- tartei mashma [the word has another meaning]

- muqdan umeuhar [noting the earlier and later]

- and the habit of repointing the original Hebrew text to provide a word relevant in the context of which he is writing. This explains why some of his quotations appear to be neither from the Masoretic nor Septuagint texts. It may also help explain why some of his quotations / allusions to the words of the Lord may not be strictly literal quotations from the text of the Gospels.  

Paul’s frequent “What then shall we say to this?” occurs at least 5 times in Romans alone (Rom. 4:1; 6:1; 7:7; 9:14,30)- and this is the classic phrase used by Jewish teachers at the end of presenting their argument to their students. Seeing then that Paul writes in a rabbinic way, as if He is giving a stream of Midrash on earlier, familiar writings [e.g. the words of Jesus or the Old Testament], we should be looking for how he may quote or allude to just a word or two from the Lord, and weave an interpretation around them. This means that many of the ‘unconscious’ allusions listed may not in fact be unconscious- it’s simply that I’ve not perceived the interpretation which Paul is giving them within the context. There’s homework enough for the enthusiast. 


(1) See John Bowker, The Targums and Rabbinic Literature: An Introduction to Jewish Interpretation of Scripture (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1969).

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