There are striking differences between the synoptic gospel narratives about Jesus and the undisputed Pauline letters. One of the most curious is between Jesus and Paul on the Kingdom of God. Mark, the earliest gospel, summarizes the quintessential message of Jesus as follows: He proclaimed the gospel of God saying, “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom (Basileia) of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15; cf. Matt 4:17). While Paul, on the other hand, mentions the kingdom of God only seven times in the seven undisputed letters attributed to him (Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 4:20; 6:9-10; 15:24, 50; Gal 5:21; 1 Thess 2:12). To judge from his letters Paul does not rely much on the teachings of Jesus, and it is questionable whether he even knew much about what Jesus taught. There are three explicit references by Paul to traditions and sayings of Jesus that have parallels in the synoptic gospels, and two references that do not have parallels in the synoptic gospels. It has also been argued that some of Paul’s statements echo sayings of Jesus or the risen Lord, but what is or is not an echo is debatable. What is more surprising is that the authority of the risen Lord (Christ) seems to have carried more weight with Paul than sayings of the historical man (Jesus, 2 Cor 5:16).1
For Paul the kingdom of God appears to have been a certain kind of experience (with an aspect of futurity, 1 Cor 15:24) into which one is called (1Thess 2:12). It is characterized by righteousness, peace, joy, and divine power (Rom 14:17, 1 Cor 4:20), rather than physical sensations like eating and drinking, and talking, for people who revel in fleshly sensations do not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10; 15:50; Gal 5:21).2
In Rom 14:17 Paul takes advantage of the issues in a squabble between factions in the gathering of Jesus followers at Rome (Rom 14:1-23) to specify what does not characterize the kingdom. What does not characterize the kingdom of God is precisely the two issues he names as the cause of their squabble: eating and drinking (Rom 14:2-3, 6, 15, 17, 20, 21, 23):
For the kingdom of God is not characterized by eating and drinking but by righteousness, peace, and joy (Rom 14:17, my translation).3
But saying that the kingdom of God is not characterized by eating and drinking contradicts a statement attributed to Jesus at the final Passover meal with his disciples:
Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God (Mark 14:25, RSV).
Paul’s statement contradicts with the ancient theme of the eschatological banquet to be celebrated by the people of God at the end of time:
On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined… (Isa 25:6-8, RSV).
I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 8:11, my translation)
Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God (Luke 14:15; 16-24, RSV).
Blessed is the one who will eat with me in the kingdom of the heavens (Gos. Sav. 1:3, my translation).4
In our day this kind of language is generally regarded as figurative for the obvious reason that eating and drinking are physical delights, but who knows what expectations the authors of these texts, or their ancient readers, had with respect to the eschatological banquet. How should one regard this disagreement between Paul and the ancient traditions? Was it simply carelessness or an oversight on Paul’s part, and hence inadvertent? Or did Paul deliberately contradict the earlier traditions? If he did it deliberately, perhaps it was because he regarded the end-time experience of the people of God as spiritual and not physical, as he insists in 1 Cor 15:50: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” How do you regard the contradiction?
Missouri State University
1Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus. Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (Cascade, 2014), 27-29. For the difference between the resurrected Lord and Jesus the historical man, see pages 25-26.
2Divine power is the power of God, the power of the Spirit, the power of Christ—that is to say spiritual power: for example, Rom 15:13, 19; I Cor 2:4-5; 2 Cor 4:7; 2 Cor 12:12; Gal 3:5; Phil 3:10.
3He makes a similar statement in 1 Cor 4:20, also related to something going on in the Corinthian gathering of saints (1 Cor 4:19-20).
4Hedrick and P. A. Mirecki, eds. Gospel of the Savior. A New Ancient Gospel (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1999). The manuscript dates from the fourth to the seventh centuries (p. 15), but the original composition is likely the latter half of the second century CE (p. 23). This date has recently been challenged and others argue that the manuscript dates from the 5th/6th century. See my defense of the original dating, which gives all the pertinent bibliography: “Dating The Gospel of the Savior: Response to Peter Nagel and Pierluigi Piovanelli,” Apocrypha. Revue international des littératures apocryphes: International Journal of Apocryphal Literature, 24 (2013), 223-36.