Common wisdom (or perhaps I should say "wisdom") in the world of New Testament scholarship is that, if one is very conservative, one dates all the Gospels between A.D. 60 and 100. Not earlier. Up until then the only record of Jesus' teachings is said to have been an oral tradition, and when we Westerners hear "oral tradition," we usually assume that this means (which perhaps many NT scholars mean it to mean) "something a lot sketchier and more minimal than what we have in the texts of the Gospels."
Near-universal scholarly consensus--not merely among those who are "very conservative" scholars--is that the Apostle Paul died no later than A.D. 68 in the Neronian persecution of the Christians.
What does it say, then, about the common wisdom if we find the Apostle Paul making casual allusions to what certainly appear to be passages in the Gospels, and making those allusions as though he expects his readers to recognize them and accept them as authoritative?
It says that the common wisdom may well be wrong. It raises significantly the probability that at least a synoptic Gospel or Gospels containing the passages Paul alludes to were written significantly earlier than the common wisdom holds. Or at least that we need radically to beef up our notion of "oral tradition." Remember that whatever Paul was alluding to had to have had time to be disseminated to his readers, many of them far from Jerusalem. This is important. If he was alluding to documents, he was alluding to documents written sufficiently long before the date of his own writing that copies of them or accurate reports of them would have reached his readers already and that they would have accepted these copies or reports as true reports of the events of Jesus' life and teachings.
Herewith, a few examples of these Pauline allusions:
--I Corinthians 9:14: "Even so the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel." The Lord ordained? Where? Here, in Matthew 10:9-10: "Provide neither gold nor silver, nor brass in your purses, nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat." Or here, in Luke 10:4ff, "Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes...and in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire." I Corinthians is dated sometime between A.D. 54 and 57.
--I Corinthians 6:2: "Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world?" Why should the Corinthians have been expected to know this? Plausibly, because of Matthew 19:28, "...[W]hen the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (or the parallel passage in Luke 22:30).
--I Corinthians 13:2: "...and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing." Why would anybody think that faith might remove mountains? Perhaps because Jesus said so. Matthew 17:20, "For verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you." (See also Mark 11:23.)
Let me point out at this point that this sort of allusion without exact quotation is perfectly normal in writings of this kind (for that matter, it is common in preaching and in literature today). Justin Martyr, for example, makes similarly free allusions not only to the Gospels but also to the Septuagint.
--I Corinthians 11:23-26, one of the most famous passages in Scripture:
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, "Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me." After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, "This cup is the new testament in my blood; this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come.
The parallel wording to Luke 22:19-21 is striking:
And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, "This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me." Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. But behold the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table...."In addition to the almost exactly similar wording to Luke's account of the Institution of the Eucharist, we have the allusion to Christ's betrayal (as of course all the narratives of the Passion in the Gospels tell that this happened in the night of Jesus' betrayal). And just a few verses earlier in both Luke and Matthew Jesus mentions his return: "For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God."
It is only fair to note that many commentators take it that Paul received his information about the Last Supper as a direct revelation from God--this as an interpretation of Paul's phrase "I received of the Lord." However, the verbal parallels to Luke's gospel, specifically, are very striking in this passage. It seems unlikely that Jesus would have made a revelation to Paul that specifically made it appear that Paul was alluding to Luke's gospel rather than to the others. Even if Paul did receive a direct revelation from God about the Last Supper, he could have put that revelation into detailed verbal form for the Corinthians by citing the account Luke had researched and provided. It's also possible that some commentators are influenced by the assumption that no written Gospels were available to Paul at this early date and that therefore he must have received this account entirely as a special revelation. But actually, the wording of the passage suggests that Luke or something much like Luke was known to Paul.
These allusions are significant evidence for Paul's familiarity with either the actual text of some of the Gospels, particularly Matthew and Luke, or else to extremely detailed "traditions" that amounted to at least partial texts of those Gospels in substantially the same verbal form as what we have.
Since Luke was a companion of Paul's (see, for example, Acts 16:10-17 and 20:5-15, among other "we" passages in Acts), it makes perfect sense to imagine that Paul actually was present while Luke was composing his Gospel and may have read portions of it "in draft," as it were, and the reference in II Corinthians 8:18 to "the brother whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches" may be a reference to Luke and to his actual work in writing down the "good news." And once again, Paul's references imply an expectation of familiarity on the part of his audience, which would be well-explained by the availability of Luke's Gospel to the Corinthians prior to the writing of I Corinthians.
It may seem like shooting fish in a barrel to quote Richard Dawkins on such a topic, but the following quotation illustrates a fairly common attitude toward the relationship between the Pauline epistles and the Gospels:
“[T]he gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life.” The God Delusion (2008 edition, p. 118)
St. Paul is an embarrassment to the skeptic of the historicity of the Gospels, and the more radical a skeptic one is, the more of an embarrassment Paul is. For the historicity of Paul is indubitable. Even the bogus complaint that we have no letters written by Jesus (as if that were a requirement for accepting the historicity of anyone) does not apply to Paul. And the brief creed at the beginning of I Corinthians 15 has been used extensively and vigorously by Christian apologists to argue for the early date of the basic claims of Christianity. It's helpful, if not positively necessary, for someone in Dawkins's position to pooh-pooh the extent to which the Pauline epistles confirm the Gospels.
From Dawkins's statement one would get the distinct impression that the Pauline epistles are somehow airily theological in a fashion that precludes their having any significant connection with even the basic events of Jesus' life as reported in the Gospels, much less the texts of the Gospels themselves. Although the epistles are indeed theological and hence are different in genre from the Gospels, they are clearly based on a firmly historical religion. The implication that Paul's writings are unconnected with the actual events of Jesus' life is ludicrous, especially as regards the crucifixion and resurrection. Paul's allusions to the cross alone are numerous (e.g., I Corinthians 1:17-18, 2:23, Galatians 3:1).
There are other aspects of Christ's life, too, of which Paul shows knowledge: 2 Corinthians 8:9, "...though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor" is a clear allusion to Jesus' manner of life--e.g., Luke 9:58, "The Son of man hath not where to lay his head." I Timothy 6:13 mentions Jesus' trial before Pontius Pilate. And, of course, the passage already discussed from I Corinthians 11 shows knowledge of the events of Maundy Thursday--the institution of the Eucharist and the betrayal.
The argument at the beginning, however, shows more than Paul's familiarity with various events in Jesus' life. A detailed examination gives us non-negligible evidence for Paul's familiarity and his readers' familiarity with at least one of the synoptic Gospels--most probably Luke and plausibly Matthew as well. That conclusion would be very inconvenient indeed for common "wisdom" even among New Testament scholars, and still more so for apologists for atheism such as Dawkins.
Note: The examples in this post come from Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, The Epistles of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 5th ed. (London: John Murray, 1882) and were provided to me by Esteemed Husband.