Do Paul’s letters report or allude the historical Jesus’s ethical conduct?

  • Our Question

    Throughout Paul’s epistles, do we see him reporting, referring, or alluding to various sayings and teachings of Jesus regarding how we should ethically conduct ourselves? (And secondarily, do these sayings and teachings correspond to content we independently find in the Gospels?)

“Yes, after all…
  • Examples of Paul’s reporting Jesus’s conduct can be listed

    There is a significant list of examples in Paul's letters where we see him explicitly reporting on Jesus's ethical teachings.

    For example,…

    • … “[Jesus was] born under the Law [living as a Jew]” (Gal 4:4)1
    • …“[Have] this [selfless] attitude… which was also in… Jesus”2 (Phil 2:5)
    • … “Christ did not please Himself” (Rom 15:3)
    • … “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor 10:1)3
    • …Character sketches of Jesus:4
    1. Romans 15:8-9 — “Christ has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers”
    2. Philippians 2:5 — “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.”
    3. 2 Corinthians 10:1 -- the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am meek when face to face with you”
    4. James Dunn: “the expression of love for Paul is Christ dying for sinners (Rom. 5.8). Thus we might legitimately infer that Paul intends the 'hymn to love' and the 'fruit of the Spirit' (I Cor.13.4-7; Gal.5.22) as 'character sketches' of Christ.” [Jesus and the Spirit, 321.] These sketches would then describe Jesus as having these properties:

      1 Corinthians 13:4-7 — “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
      Galatians 5:22-23 — “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

  • Paul alludes to previous teachings on ethical conduct of Jesus

    Paul expects early Christian readers of his letters to remember how Jesus lived (presumably from having already been taught it in some detail).

    • Paul tells them to “imitate” Christ’s ethical behavior.1
    • Paul explicitly says they received “teaching” on Jesus’s conduct.2
    1. 1 Thessalonians 1:6 — became imitators of us and of the Lord
      1 Corinthains 11:1 — Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
      Romans 13:14 — But put on the Lord Jesus Christ
      Galatians 3:27 — clothed yourselves with Christ.
      Philippians 2:5f — Have this [humble/obedient] attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,
      • None-Pauline: Heb 2:18-3:2; 12:3-4, 1 Pet 2:21 .
    2. Colossians 2:6-7 — Therefore as you have received [the tradition of] Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him,… just as you were taught
      Ephesians 4:20 — But you did not learn Christ in this way,
      Romans 6:17 — you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed.
      Regarding the phrase “form of teaching” (typos didaches) in Rom 6:17:

      James Dunn: “But typos in Paul’s letters almost always has a personal reference — a particular individual (or individuals) providing a pattern of conduct.” [Dunn here cites, Rom. 5.14; Phil. 3.17; I Thess. 1.7; 2 Thess. 3.9; also I Tim. 4.12; Tit. 2.7; 1 Pet. 5.3; Ignatius. Magn. 6.2; otherwise only 1 Cor 10.6.] “And talk of converts being handed over to the typos makes better sense both of the reference was to a person (cf. Phil. 3.17; 2 Thess. 3.9) and if the person was Christ (the handing over to the new Lord named in baptism). The clear implication is that the information provided regarding Jesus’ conduct and the character of his mission gave new con­verts a pattern for their own conduct.” [Beginning from Jerusalem, 104.]