Jesus and Paul: Paul as interpreter of Jesus from Harnack to Kümmel

Written by J. W. Fraser Reviewed By Colin Brown

Biblical studies have now reached the point at which no major reappraisal of any major theme can be undertaken without first giving a history of the subject. To some this will sound like having talks about talks. It can be counterproductive to give a first-year student a history of exegesis, when he is dying to get into the subject itself. But when it is done well—as it is here—the student is not only given a new insight into the message of the Bible; he is also made to see the point of critical study.

This book is not, as the sub-title might suggest, a descriptive catalogue of who said what. The opening chapter sketches the views of the major interpreters, noting the psychological and liberal schools, the history-of-religions school, eschatological interpretation, salvation history and the existentialists. But the remaining chapters are devoted to the crucial points of interpretation, each of which is examined in the light of modern scholarship from Harnack onwards.

Dr Fraser argues that many of the themes and ideas in Paul which are commonly regarded as having their roots in Hellenism actually have their origins in the OT, Judaism and Jesus himself. The bulk of the book is devoted to a defence of this thesis.

Did Paul actually know Jesus? 2 Corinthians 5:16 is ambiguous. Dr Fraser believes that Paul did not know Jesus in the flesh, but that he knew the risen glorified Jesus who called him into his service. His conversion experience gave him a new understanding of Christ, himself and the world. But Paul was not the radical innovator who invented christology and transformed Jesus’ simple proclamation of the kingdom into the gospel of redemption. Paul handed on what he received from the church and which the church received from Jesus himself. In the frameworks of eschatology and liturgy Paul was in a horizontal and vertical relation at the same time. ‘He could not have been linked with the Lord apart from the church, or with the church apart from the Lord and his Spirit’ (p. 84). Kērygma and didachē are inseparable. What Paul did was to restate and apply them in the light of his own experience and reflection.

The author accuses form criticism of breeding a new kind of literalism which works by looking at what is received and getting stuck in the time when the documents were written. Dr Fraser sees many parallels between Paul and Jesus in their teaching on eschatology, worship, christology, the church, the service of others and the world. This is not because they represent the common theology of the Christian community. It is because the teaching of Paul goes back to that of the historical Jesus. The latter chapters of the book examine the law, the Gentiles, the gospel, and Jesus’ understanding of his mission, death and the messianic titles.

Christianity was not the creation of Paul. It was not a case of the preacher becoming the one preached. For the preaching of Jesus was not (as Harnack argued) confined to the proclamation of the loving Father and his kingdom; it was about a Father known only to himself and revealed by himself in the Son’s life and death. Paul’s proclamation centred on the cross and resurrection. But Paul was not concerned (as Bultmann argued) simply with the facts they presented; for him they presupposed the history that lay behind them. This study is not only a very fruitful way of getting into the mind of Paul; it throws new light on many familiar passages in both Paul and the Gospels.

Colin Brown

Trinity College, Bristol, England