An Argument for Trusting Paul Over the Gospels

Mar 18

I believe there is a movement today that emphasizes the Gospels found in the Bible to the point that it minimizes the writings of the Apostles in the NT (which is mostly Paul) and the rest of Scripture (i.e. Old Testament). I think this movement has been around for awhile now in the “liberal” mainstream church, and is also in the emergent church. If you look at these movements, however, you will find that they really emphasize only certain portions of the Gospels (and completely avoid much of Jesus’ teachings in the synoptics and almost all of John). In my previous church, I definitely saw this. The attitude was, “Yeah, Paul did say that, but how does that line up with what Jesus said here about not judging, etc.?”

While I find it silly to pit one against the other, I’d like to lay out a reasonable argument for trusting Paul more than the Gospels, rather than the other way around. Again, let me repeat, I don’t think we should trust one more than the other–I think they are equally trustworthy, but I am doing this to make a point. So here are the reasons for trusting Paul over the Gospels:

  1. The letters of Paul were written earlier than the Gospels. We should be aware that as time goes by, the possibility of something losing its truth becomes greater. The earliest views of Jesus should be trusted over the later views, which have more possibility of being invented ideas, rather than truths.
  2. Paul’s words are his own words. Jesus’ words in the Gospels were written down by other people, not by Jesus himself. How can we trust that they are what Jesus really said or what He was trying to say? With Paul’s words, we have first-hand teachings.
  3. The Gospels sometimes frame Jesus’ teachings, so that in one gospel, Jesus’ teaching seems to mean one thing, and then in another, the same teaching has a different meaning. Even if Jesus did say these things, can we trust that the writers of the Gospels are framing Jesus’ words as He intended them? Are we sure they are being used in context?
  4. Luke wasn’t even a disciple of Jesus, so he didn’t even hear Jesus’ words first-hand. We don’t know who wrote Matthew. And we are petty sure that Mark was a student of Peter, so he wasn’t a follower of Jesus either. So Luke and Mark aren’t even second-hand accounts. At best, they are third-hand. There is debate as to who wrote John. It may have been written by one of Jesus’ disciples. But even so, it was written very late–probably 90 AD or so.
  5. Paul’s teachings are much more systematical and well-argued. It’s pretty clear what he’s trying to say as he goes into long explanations so as to not be misunderstood. With Jesus’ words in the Gospels, He’s constantly throwing out one-liners that can be interpreted in many different ways. Or He’s telling stories without explanations. Paul’s words are more concrete, and can be better trusted for matters of theology and doctrine.
  6. Paul was constantly warning the church that others were telling a Gospel different than his (based on works, not grace) after he left them. If there’s anything that contradicts Paul in the Gospels, shouldn’t we consider Paul’s warnings? Especially if those parts of the Gospels seem to make salvation based on works (how you live your life).
  7. Jesus didn’t speak Greek (the language of the NT), but Paul did. So the Gospel writers are taking Jesus’ words originally spoken in Aramaic and translating them into Greek. There’s always the risk of a loss of meaning or misinterpretation of meaning when you translate.

Like I said, I don’t agree that we can trust Paul’s words more than Jesus’ in the Gospels, but my point is to cast doubt on people who seem to minimize Paul over Jesus’ words. Is that justifiable? I think from a textual criticism point of view, absolutely not. I think it’s more logical/sensible to cast doubt on the Gospels.

It definitely feels uncomfortable to dismiss the Gospels like this. Shouldn’t we feel equally uncomfortable with those who would do the reverse by minimizing other parts of Scripture?

16 comments

  1. I don’t think that God would allow Jesus’s words to be twisted. I don’t think that His Word would contain potentially invalid information. However, in the opposite case, how can trust Paul? Any Joe Schmoe could do what he did.

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  2. Interesting points. I have a lot of questions about this but I will wait and ask you at home. (1 Cor 14:35)

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    • You’ll have to wait until after we have our baptism service for the dead tonight. By the way, I noticed you don’t have your head covered right now.

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  3. Alice /

    I think it is pretty amazing that you challenge of the credibility of the gospels.
    Why didn’t Jesus physically write any part of the bible? Didn’t God speak through the writers of the Bible(including the gospels)? So why can’t there just be one account wrote through God? And why hasn’t anyone else more recently been able to write, add to the bible? Thank you for prompting thought on this subject.

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    • Hey Alice, I’m not really challenging the credibility of the gospels; I’m doing so tongue-in-cheek. That being said, most of what I wrote here that critiques the Gospels is actually true, but there is still very good reason to trust them to be accurate and truthful. I would be writing a whole new post to address it in this comment though–maybe we can talk about this in our next Thursday night Bible study? I think it would be a great conversation! Yes, I do believe that God spoke through the writers of the Gospels, just like the rest of Scripture. As to why there haven’t been additions to the Bible since it was compiled–that’s a great question too! Let’s talk about all of this at Bible study–I think we’ll be having a great discussion!!!

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  4. Interesting read. I’m probably a bit more on the side of look at the Gospels first, but I think for different reasons–I was just raised with the idea that because the Gospels are the story of Jesus, they hold a special place. I would never think of pitting them against Paul’s letters or in any way seeing his letters as unimportant.

    I find it irritating (and that’s probably too mild a word) any time someone tries to use Sacred Scripture to justify a decidedly un-Scriptural attitude. I guess that’s nothing new. Satan himself did that when he was tempting Jesus in the desert. Not exactly something I’d like to emulate.

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    • Nanda, very important to remember! Satan himself likes to use Scripture to distort truth, so we shouldn’t trust people just because they use Scripture. We should ask ourselves, “Are they using Scripture appropriately? Does Scripture really say what they are convinced it says?”

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      • Tim:

        We should ask ourselves, “Are they using Scripture appropriately? Does Scripture really say what they are convinced it says?”

        Aah, but to be able to do that, we’d have to actually read Scripture ourselves…

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  5. Hey Tim! Haven’t spoken to you in quite some time. I hope all is well with you and yours! I really enjoy your blog. Even when I disagree with you, you always have some interesting points. I have to admit, I’m having trouble with this post. The last time I heard this particular argument, I believe was in “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris. I’m sure at one point or another I’ve also heard Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens make the same or similar statements. However, they are using the same argument to dismantle Christianity as a whole. I am a bit more liberal than you (understatement alert); and on some level, almost all Christianity is “buffet style” at this point. So, I guess my question is: Are you advocating a more liberal theology, as in the bible is less divinely inspired and more subject to human colored lenses (Crossan,Tillich, etc)? Or will there be a follow-up detailing your reasons for a more literal, and inerrant scripture (Every Baptist ever)?
    Look Forward to Hearing from you!
    Sam

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    • Sam–long time no see! I hope you’re doing well too! Glad you enjoy my ramblings–don’t worry, sometimes I look back at what I’ve written and don’t even agree with my own self…

      Read my reply back to Alice in this post to better clarify that I’m not trying to discredit the Gospels. My only point with this article is to acknowledge that many people do indeed try to discredit the Bible–and many try to contrast the teachings of Paul and the teachings of Jesus in order to discredit the Bible. I think those who try to do this have weak reasons for doing so. In addition, I am surprised that when they do so, the Gospels seem to win out over Paul’s writings every time. My point is that if you are going to pit one against the other, I think it makes more sense for Paul to win (because of the reasons I’ve stated in this post).

      I do think the Bible is subject to human-colored lenses because it was written by humans. But I also believe that these people were inspired by God as they wrote, and that God’s purposefully had them write these things so that humanity would have a basis for our faith in God. But just because I think the Bible is subject to human-colored lenses doesn’t mean I think they were wrong in their writings. It means they wrote as they saw it, and God directed the whole thing. It’s very similar to the doctrine of Jesus being both human and God. We want to say He was one or the other, because it is so hard to wrap our minds around him being both. Maybe I should take your advice and my next post should address how I view the Bible a little more indepth?

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    • Sam–you mentioned Crossan.

      John Dominic Crossan is co-chairman of the Jesus seminar. He told Time magazine that after the crucifixion Jesus’ corpse was probably laid in a shallow grave, barely covered with dirt and eaten by wild dogs—and that the subsequent resurrection story was merely a result of wishful thinking.

      Contrast this with what Paul said about the resurrection. WHO DO YOU THINK IS RIGHT?

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  6. One more…

    8. Jesus was speaking to people technically still under the Law because most of his teachings were given before he fulfilled the Law.

    A few months ago someone in our church did a series on the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians so this reminds me of something that is relatively fresh on my mind. Paul pointed out in chapter 1 that the Corinthians were causing divisions amongst themselves because they were devoting themselves to the persona or Apollos, Cephas, Paul, or *gasp* Christ. This excluding or minimizing the teachings of important leaders was something that the Corinthians did. Even those who claimed to be following only Christ were in the wrong.

    I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. This just sprung to my mind, so I had to share.

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    • Drew, I’ve been having similar thoughts lately too about reading the Gospels in the context of people still under the Law. I’ve been debating blogging about it, but I haven’t found the right angle yet. Part of the reason is that it’s a new concept for me, and I’m not sure how to explain outwardly what I’m thinking on the inside. BTW, Joel reminded me of #7, so I guess I should give credit where credit is due. Now I just need two more good arguments from someone to make it a perfect 10…

      I LOVE the insight into 1 Corinthians 1. Makes total sense to me how when we emphasize one person/theology over another, we run great risk of turning our faith into a caricature of the real thing. And it’s good to remember that this kind of thing has been happening for a long time now–it’s not a new phenomenon.

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    • Excellent point, Drew. There is a big push these days to champion the idea of “Jesus” and discount Paul and the rest of the canon of scripture–which of course is the whole point under discussion here. What people miss in doing this is even Jesus was introduced a huge God-ordained context that is not only relevant, but sacred. Who Jesus is to us is completely dependent on this context. The moment we divorce Jesus from that entire context, we will get a distorted Jesus. And that is what is happening.
      Usually Jesus starts looking an awful lot like the Emergent theologian who defines him. That’s scary.

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