If St. Paul’s Letters Are Older Than the Gospels, Why Does He Leave a Lot Out?

View of Pages From 'Codex Pauli'(Catholic News Service photo/courtesy of Benedictine Abbey of St. Paul Outside the Walls)
View of Pages From ‘Codex Pauli’
(Catholic News Service photo/courtesy of Benedictine Abbey of St. Paul Outside the Walls)

Question: Most Bible scholars agree that Paul’s letters are the oldest portion of the New Testament, i.e., these were written before the Gospels. Why then, does Paul not mention the virgin birth, not mention any miracles, not mention the empty tomb? Why does Paul cite a spiritual resurrection but not speak of a physical resurrection? If Judas committed suicide, then why does Paul state in I Corinthians 15:5 that Christ appeared to 12 Apostles?

Raymond Brown, a renowned New Testament scholar, answers this very question in the first chapter of his book “An Introduction to the New Testament.”┬áThe early Christians were slow in writing down the stories of Jesus’ life because they believed that Jesus would be returning soon, so they saw no need to write the Gospels. It was no accident then, that Paul’s letters — which addressed immediate, pressing problems or controversies — turned out to be the first Christian writings we have. Because he was writing to specific audiences with particular issues in mind, it resulted in a less-than-systematic portrayal of Jesus’ life. For example, when writing to a church that he had founded, if there were no current controversies about the virgin birth or Jesus’ miracles, he wouldn’t have felt the need to address them. To give an example on the flip side, Paul only mentions the Eucharist once in all of his letters, and it was only because the church at Corinth was experiencing abuses at the Eucharistic meal.

Paul, who we must remember never met the living Jesus and was only writing what he had heard about him orally, penned his letters in the 50s of the first century. Because the Gospels hadn’t yet been written, it stands to chance that Paul simply hadn’t heard all of the many details offered in those Gospels. It was only after the most famous eyewitnesses to Jesus died (Peter, Paul, James), probably around the mid-60s, that the Gospels began to be written down, offering a much more systematic and chronological account of Jesus’s birth, life, and physical death and resurrection. This timing also explains why there might be some discrepancies between what Paul wrote concerning Christ appearing to the Twelve and what Matthew claimed was Judas’ end, suicide.