Scholars working in the early twentieth century knew very well that there is a virtual lack of continuity between the Pauline tradition and the Synoptic tradition. In short, Paul is completely unaware of the Jesus tradition as represented in the master narrative of the synoptic gospels. The discussion of this lack of continuity between Jesus and Paul goes back at least to 1858 (Scott, "Jesus and Paul," 331). Rudolf Bultmann, perhaps the most influential New Testament scholar of the twentieth century, summarized Paul's knowledge of Jesus in this way: "His letters barely show traces of Palestinian tradition concerning the history and preaching of Jesus. All that is important for him in the story of Jesus is the fact that Jesus was born a Jew and lived under the law (Gal. 4:4) and that he had been crucified (Gal. 3:1; I Cor. 2:2; Phil. 2:5ff., etc."; Theology, vol. 1.188). To be sure, Paul knows an oral tradition of sayings of Jesus. He cites three explicit sayings that have parallels attributed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels (1 Cor 7:10-11; 9:14; 11:23-26), as well as two sayings that do not have parallels in the synoptic gospels (1 Cor 14:37; 1 Thess 4:15-17). First Corinthians 7:25 seems to suggest that Paul was aware of a number of Jesus sayings, but knew no saying that addressed the issue of "virgins," suggesting he may even have had a list. There are at least eight "echoes" of Jesus sayings known from the synoptic gospels in the Pauline letters that everyone would acknowledge, and a larger number of disputed "echoes" (Hedrick Wisdom, 25-29).
Earlier discussion of the continuity, or lack thereof, between Jesus and Paul focused on the question of who was the founder of Christianity, Jesus or Paul. If Paul had only a smattering knowledge of the teachings of Jesus, then it would appear that Christianity ultimately is founded on Paul and his idea of the resurrected Christ, rather than on what Jesus, the Galilean teacher, said and did.
In this brief essay, however, I am concerned with Paul's knowledge of the synoptic master narrative; that is to say, the story of the career of Jesus as it is shared between the synoptic gospels. Knowing an oral tradition of a few Jesus sayings is not the same as knowing the later master narrative of Jesus shared between the synoptic gospels. The current theory about gospel origins is that all three writers used oral tradition, while Matthew and Luke independently used two written sources, Mark and Q. Hence Paul could have known some of the same oral sayings that are used in the synoptic gospels without having known their later narrative about Jesus.
What is the evidence that Paul could have known the synoptic master narrative about Jesus in some incipient oral form? What is at stake in the answer to this question is how much information from the shared synoptic narratives may be assumed to be extant in Paul's day. For example, should we assume that Paul knows the synoptic tradition of the baptism of Jesus by John, the Baptizer? The question is important because Jesus' baptism by John is today regarded as a certain historical event in the life of Jesus, even though Paul gives no indication that he knows of it.
Paul does practice baptism as a community rite, but it was not a major focus for him, and he even specifically denied that it was a part of his commission from Christ (1 Cor 1:13-17; i.e., the resurrected Christ; not the Palestinian man). He regarded the significance of the rite as a mystical participation in the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:27; compare 1 Cor 10:2; 12:13), and not something done in obedience to the commission of Jesus (cf. Matt 28:18-20). Baptism seems to be part of the community lore he inherited, such as the practice of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 11:20-34), a rite Paul appears to modify in focus and practice.
There are four reference points for dating how early the shared synoptic master narrative about Jesus may have been known: (a) Second Peter (1:16-18), whose date is usually given as early second century, appears to know the story of the transfiguration (Matt 17:2-5). (b) The earliest manuscript evidence for the baptism of Jesus is second/third century: P64, having the text of Matt 3:13-17, is dated around 200; P4 and P75, having the text of Luke 3: 21-22, are dated third century; P104, dated second century, has fragments of the Gospel of Matthew. (c) P52, early second century, is a fragment of the Gospel of John. (d) The bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp (Letter to the Philippians), who was martyred middle second century, probably knew the written gospels of Matthew and Luke (Koester, Ancient Gospels, 14-20). Hence the earliest that a general knowledge of the synoptic story about Jesus may reasonably be argued is early second century. Why, then, should we think that a Palestinian tradition of the baptism of Jesus by John is "historically certain" (Hartman, "Baptism," ABD, 1.584)? No evidence of the baptism story is attested before early second century. The Church's embarrassment at having to admit that the Christ had once been a follower of John is the primary argument for regarding the baptism as historical.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University