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Were the Gospels Influenced By Paul’s Letters?


Because the letters of Paul come after the gospels in the chronology of the New Testament canon, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that when Paul penned his letters, he had no knowledge of the gospel stories.  His letters/epistles were probably written around 51 to 62 CE (Common Era).  Meanwhile, the gospels were written from about 70-72 (Mark) to around the end of the first century (John).  Thus, to reiterate, Paul knew nothing of the gospels.

On learning this, we might feel bad for Paul.  We might imagine it hard to embrace the Christian faith without the prelude of the nativity stories to pave the way.  Again, these crafty, engaging stories did not enter the Christian record until the ninth decade of the first century.  And here is Paul writing in the sixth and early seventh decade!  Again, we might feel for Paul that he was deprived of so much of the Christian story.

Paul had never heard of the angel Gabriel, sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph of the house of David.  The virgin’s name was Mary (Luke 1:26-27).  Paul knew nothing of any virgin birth claims for Mary, the mother of Jesus.

He had never heard of the angel of the Lord, exclaiming, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11).  He knew noting of the shepherds saying to each other: Let’s go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place (Luke 2:15).

Paul had never heard of what I call “the best of Jesus,” from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), the pinnacle expression of Jesus’ teaching.  Imagine, being one of the principle founders of the Christian faith and, yet, never having heard of the Good Samaritan or the prodigal son!  You know nothing of the feeding of the five thousand or the transfiguration.  Amazing!

As Paul embarked on his missionary outreach to the Gentiles in the Diaspora and wider Roman Empire, there were only two sources for his understanding of Jesus.  The first source was his mystical experiences of enlightenment of the risen Christ, such as his Damascus Road experience (most scholars assume Paul had multiple mystical experiences of the living Christ).  The second source was the Apostles–James, Peter, John, and other followers of Jesus who had known him in the flesh.  At best, we can only conjecture how much Paul might have learned from either of these sources.  In this sense, we will be venturing into the realm of speculation as we move forward.

In my personal study of Paul, I think the gospel writers might well, indeed, have been influenced by Paul–in his genuine letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon).  Certainly, it is difficult to know to what extent.  Still, although the influence may have been minimal, I find it hard to believe there was not some influence.  In support of this claim, let’s compare the gospels to Paul in some key biblical texts.

Comparison of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 and in Luke’s gospel.  In thinking about the Lord’s Supper in Paul and in the gospels, we might be baffled at Paul’s knowledge of this sacred meal in 1 Corinthians 11.  There were no gospels at the time of his writing.  Yet, he has detailed information about the Lord’s Supper and how it is instituted.  How could this be?

Paul says he learned about the Lord’s Supper “from the Lord,” suggesting it was Jesus himself who originated the tradition of sharing the bread and the cup, a sign of both his death and the new covenant.  In this way, the Lord’s Supper tradition would have been circulated in the Jesus movement early on.  When we compare Paul’s version of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 with the version in Luke’s gospel, we note significant similarities.

In both versions, Jesus takes a loaf of bread, gives thanks, breaks the bread and says, in 1 Corinthians 11: “This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  Compare this to Luke where Jesus says: “This is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  A nearly identical message.  The same is true with their words about the cup and its connection to the “new covenant in my blood.”

We can only speculate if Luke had 1 Corinthians in front of him when he wrote, but it sure seems that way.  Perhaps it could be argued that the oral tradition kept the Lord’s Supper narrative alive until the time of the gospel writings.  However, wouldn’t it make more sense that the gospel writers had Paul’s letters (at least some of them) available to them?

Comparison of texts from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) to Romans 12:9-21 and 13:8-10.

Romans 12:9, 11:  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good … .  Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.

Matthew 5:14a, 16:  You are the light of the world.  … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

To let your light shine before others (Matthew) is to not lag in zeal and to be ardent in spirit (Romans).  They bear notable similarities.  And notice, again, in the following passages, how the similarities overflow:

Romans 12:14:  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

Matthew 5:44:  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

In much the same way, note the emphasis against “an eye for an eye,” and the affirmation for “turning the other cheek”:

Romans 12:16a-17a:  Live in harmony with one another … .  Do not repay anyone evil for evil.

Matthew 5:39:  … Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

And check out these teachings on love and its connection to the law:

Romans 13:8-10:  Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments … are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Matthew 7:12:  In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

In each of the examples, we can see how the gospel writer could have been influenced by what Paul is saying in Romans 12-13.  Interestingly, the pericope (section of scripture) in Romans 12 is entitled, Marks of the True Christian.  The “true Christian” is exactly what we see from Matthew in these lofty hillside teachings of Jesus.


The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired United Church of Christ minister.  He had long term pastorates in San Diego County and in Miami Lakes, Florida.  His service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama in the late sixties spurred his commitment to social-justice ministries and to a spirit of ecumenism as a local church pastor.  He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In and his just published book: The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida.


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