Pauline reflections at the General Audience
At the General
Audience in St Peter's Square on Wednesday, 8 October , the Holy
Father commented on St Paul's relationship to the so-called "historical"
or earthly Jesus. The following is a translation of the Pope's
Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and
In the last Catecheses
on St Paul, I spoke of his encounter with the Risen Christ that
profoundly changed his life and then of his relationship with the Twelve
Apostles called by Jesus — especially his relationship with
James, Cephas and John — and of his relationship with the Church in
The question remains as
to what St Paul knew about the earthly Jesus, about his life, his
teachings, his Passion. Before entering into this topic, it might be
useful to bear in mind that St Paul himself distinguishes between two
ways of knowing Jesus, and more generally, two ways of knowing a person.
He writes in his Second
Letter to the Corinthians: "from now on, therefore, we regard no one
from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a
human point of view, we regard him thus no longer" (5:16).
Knowing "from a human
point of view", in the manner of the flesh, means knowing solely in an
external way, by means of external criteria: one may have seen a person
various times and hence be familiar with his features and various
characteristics of his behaviour: how he speaks, how he moves, etc.
Although one may know someone in this way, nevertheless one does not
really know him, one does not know the essence of the person.
Only with the heart does
one truly know a person. Indeed, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were
externally acquainted with Jesus, they learned his teaching and knew
many details about him but they did not know him in his truth. There is
a similar distinction in one of Jesus' sayings.
Transfiguration he asked the Apostles: "who do men say that the Son of
man is?", and: "who do you say that I am?".
The people know him, but
superficially; they know various things about him, but they do not
really know him. On the other hand, the Twelve, thanks to the friendship
that calls the heart into question, have at least understood in
substance and begun to discover who Jesus is.
This different manner of
knowing still exists today: there are learned people who know many
details about Jesus and simple people who have no knowledge of these
details but have known him in his truth: "Heart speaks to heart".
And Paul wants to say
that to know Jesus essentially in this way, with the heart, is to know
the person essentially in his truth; and then, a little later, to get to
know him better.
Having said this the
question still remains: what did St Paul know about Jesus' practical
life, his words, his Passion and his miracles? It seems certain that he
did not meet him during his earthly life.
Through the Apostles and
the nascent Church Paul certainly must have come to know the details of
Jesus' earthly life. In his Letters, we may find three forms of
reference to the pre-Paschal Jesus.
What Paul knew of
In the first place,
there are explicit and direct references. Paul speaks of the Jesus'
Davidic genealogy (cf. Rm 1:3), he knows of the existence of his
"brethren" or kin (1 Cor 9:5; Gal 1:19), he knows the sequence of events
of the Last Supper (cf. 1 Cor 11:23) and he knows other things that
Jesus said, for example on the indissolubility of marriage (cf. 1 Cor
7:10 with Mk 10:11-12), on the need for those who proclaim the gospel to
be supported by the community since the labourer deserves his wages (cf.
1 Cor 9:14, with Lk 10:7).
Paul knows the words
that Jesus spoke at the Last Supper (cf. 1 Cor 11:24-25, with Lk
22:19-2o), and also knows Jesus' Cross. These are direct references to
words and events of Jesus' life.
In the second place, we
can glimpse in a few sentences of the Pauline Letters various allusions
to the tradition attested to in the Synoptic Gospels.
For example, the words we read in the
First Letter to the Thessalonians which say that "the day of the Lord
will come like a thief in the night" (5:2), could not be explained with
a reference to the Old Testament prophesies, since the comparison with
the nocturnal thief is only found in the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke,
hence it is indeed taken from the Synoptic tradition.
Thus, when we read: "God
chose what is foolish in the world..." (1 Cor 1:27-28), one hears the
faithful echo of Jesus' teaching on the simple and the poor (cf. Mt 5:3;
Then there are the words
that Jesus spoke at the messianic jubilee: "I thank you, Father, Lord of
Heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and
learned and revealed them to babes".
Paul knows — from his
missionary experience — how true these words are, that is, that the
hearts of the simple are open to knowledge of Jesus.
Even the reference to
Jesus' obedience "unto death", which we read in Philippians 2:8, can
only recall the earthly Jesus' unreserved readiness to do his Father's
will (cf. Mk 3:35; Jn 4:34).
Paul is thus acquainted
with Jesus' Passion, his Cross, the way in which he lived the last
moments of his life. The Cross of Jesus and the tradition concerning
this event of the Cross lies at the heart of the Pauline kerygma.
Another pillar of Jesus'
life known to St Paul is the "Sermon on the Mount", from which he cited
certain elements almost literally when writing to the Romans: "love one
another.... Bless those who persecute you.... Live in harmony with one
another... overcome evil with good...". Therefore in his Letters the
Sermon on the Mount is faithfully reflected (cf. Mt 5-7).
Lastly, it is possible
to individuate a third manner in which Jesus' words are present in St
Paul's Letters: it is when he brings about a form of transposition of
the pre-Paschal tradition to the situation after Easter.
A typical case is the
theme of the Kingdom of God. It was certainly at the heart of the
historical Jesus' preaching (cf. Mt 3:2; Mk 1:15; Lk 4:43).
It is possible to note
in Paul a transposition of this subject because, after the Resurrection,
it is obvious that Jesus in person, the Risen One, is the Kingdom of
The Kingdom therefore arrives where
Jesus is arriving. Thus the theme of the Kingdom of God, in which Jesus'
mystery was anticipated, is transformed into Christology.
Yet, the same attitudes
that Jesus requested for entering the Kingdom of God apply precisely to
Paul with regard to justification through faith: both entry into the
Kingdom and justification demand an approach of deep humility and
openness, free from presumptions, in order to accept God's grace.
Merciful love for
For example, the parable
of the Pharisee and the publican (cf. Lk 18:914), imparts a teaching
that is found exactly as it is in Paul, when he insists on the proper
exclusion of any boasting to God. Even Jesus' sentences on publicans and
prostitutes, who were more willing to accept the Gospel than the
Pharisees (cf. Mt 21:31; Lk 7:36-50,) and his decision to share meals
with them (cf. Mt 9:10-13; Lk 15:1-2) are fully confirmed in Paul's
teaching on God's merciful love for sinners (cf. Rm 5:8-10; and also Eph
Thus the theme of the
Kingdom of God is reproposed in a new form, but always in full fidelity
to the tradition of the historical Jesus.
Another example of the
faithful transformation of the doctrinal nucleus imparted by Jesus is
found in the "titles" he uses. Before Easter he described himself as the
Son of man; after Easter it becomes obvious that the Son of man is also
the Son of God. Therefore Paul's favourite title to describe Jesus is
"Lord" (cf. Phil 2:9-11), which suggests Jesus' divinity.
The Lord Jesus, with
this title, appears in the full light of the Resurrection. On the Mount
of Olives, at the moment of Jesus' extreme anguish, (cf. Mk 14:36), the
disciples, before falling asleep, had heard him talking to the Father
and calling him "Abbà
This is a very familiar
word equivalent to our "daddy", used only by children in talking to
their father. Until that time it had been unthinkable for a Jew to use
such a word in order to address God; but Jesus, being a true Son, at
that moment of intimacy used this form and said: "Abba, Father".
Surprisingly, in St
Paul's Letters to the Romans and to the Galatians, this word "Abba",
that expresses the exclusivity of Jesus' sonship, appears on the lips of
the baptized (cf. Rm 8:15; Gal 4:6) because they have received the
"Spirit of the Son". They now carry this Spirit within them and can
speak like Jesus and with Jesus as true children to their Father; they
can say "Abba" because they have become sons in the Son.
And finally, I would
like to mention the saving dimension of Jesus' death that we find in the
Gospel saying, according to which: "the Son of Man came not to be served
but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45; Mt
A faithful reflection of
these words of Jesus appears in the Pauline teaching on the death of
Jesus as having been bought at a price (cf. 1 Cor 6:20), as redemption
(cf. Rm 3:24), as liberation (cf. Gal 5:1), and as reconciliation (cf.
Rm 5:10; 2 Cor 5:18-20). This is the centre of Pauline theology that is
founded on these words of Jesus.
To conclude, St Paul did
not think of Jesus in historical terms, as a person of the past. He
certainly knew the great tradition of the life, words, death and
Resurrection of Jesus, but does not treat all this as something from the
past; he presents it as the reality of the living Jesus.
For Paul, Jesus' words
and actions do not belong to the historical period, to the past. Jesus
is alive now, he speaks to us now and lives for us. This is the true way
to know Jesus and to understand the tradition about him. We must also
learn to know Jesus not from the human point of view, as a person of the
past, but as our Lord and Brother, who is with us today and shows us how
to live and how to die.