Paul and the mysterious Jesus quote

I picked up on a discussion the other day about Paul’s relationship to the Gospels. The original questioner observed that there was a notorious issue with Paul’s lack of reference to the Gospel accounts in his letters and sermons.  The usual assumption for this is that Paul wrote first with the Gospels coming much later so that he did not have the access to them.  However, the questioner wanted to know why, if Luke wrote both the 3rd Gospel and Acts why didn’t he make more of the Gospel narrative in his second work.

To me, the answer to those questions has always seemed obvious and bluntly provides greater support for at least some of the Gospel accounts being written down when Paul wrote his letters. Remember that Paul writes under pressure, parchment costs money, there’s his scribe’s time and there are the other challenges Paul is facing from opposition, persecution and imprisonment. Why waste time re-writing things already available to your recipients. The absence of lots of Jesus stories and quotes points to sources for them already being available and for Paul’s audience being able to join the dots between what he says and the accounts alluded to. Similarly, why would Luke repeat things he has already covered?

In the discussion, someone raised the example of Acts 20:35 where Paul preaching quotes Jesus as saying

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

 Now, if that is a direct word for word quote, we seem to have a problem. We have no Gospel evidence of Jesus uttering those words. This leads people to argue depending on their tradition either that Luke/Paul have messed up here and misquoted Jesus, that the quotes are all invented anyway so it doesn’t matter or that the Gospel writers do not claim to capture everything Jesus said and did, so Paul may have had access to an additional source.  The latter is a reasonable assumption.

However, I’m not convinced it is necessary to assume that Paul is bringing in an extra source. Rather, the problem seems to be with our assumption that the only way to accurately quote someone is word for word. However, that’s not the only way we report speech. If Paul was giving an indirect rather than direct quote then it is possible he was referring to something we already have in the Gospels. In which case we have an obvious candidate. In Luke 6:37-38 Jesus says:

37 “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

Notice how in this passage Jesus emphasises the open handed generosity of the believer with mercy, forgiveness and material resources. Rather than demanding, grasping and holding tight we should get on with trusting God and sharing these good things pouring out love and compassion.  Those that do this will receive back much more than they ever give.  It is truly more blessed to give than to receive. 

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