Was Paul a Liar when He quotes Jesus in Acts 20:35?

One of the most popular posts on the CADRE Comments site is a short piece I wrote in February 2006 entitled Where did Jesus say, “It is better to give than receive”? This single post usually receives between 100 and 300 views each month. Since I first posted it, almost none of the more than 2000 visitors have posted a comment…until now. Anonymous (*sigh*) wrote:

Unfortunately, the Gospels do not report that Jesus ever said this expression. Only Paul, who never met Jesus at all, says that Jesus said these words. But Paul is not recorded anywhere in the Gospels as being a direct witness to anything Jesus said or did before the resurrection. In other words, Paul either made this up or is reporting what he heard from someone else. This is called hearsay.

But is Paul to be trusted? No he has been caught lying many times. For example, he claimed Christ abolished the Law (Romans 6:14, 7:4, Ephesians 2:15-16). Yet the Gospels say that Christ did not come to abolish the law at all (Matthew 5:17-20, 19:17, 28:20, Luke 16:17).

Paul says that it is ok to lie as the ends justify the means. "I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, that I might gain them that are without law. ... I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel's sake" (1 Cor. 9.19-23).
So, Anonymous (*sigh* -- I hate it when people don’t use their names in comments) believes that Paul’s quotation of Jesus (which I will reference as the “give/receive phrase”) should not be trusted for two reasons. First, Anonymous asserts that Paul was not an eyewitness to the saying because he did not meet Jesus and therefore his quotation of Jesus is hearsay. Second, he claims that the give/receive phrase is not reliable because Paul is a liar.

Did Paul Personally Witness Jesus say "It is better to give than receive"?

Based on the evidence available, I don’t disagree with Anonymous’ first claim, i.e., that Paul did not personally witness Jesus say the give/receive phrase. After all, it is clear from the Biblical account that Paul was not a follower of Jesus prior to his experience on the Road to Damascus, and so, assuming Jesus said the give/receive phrase prior to his crucifixion and subsequent resurrection, it is most probable that Paul is relating a quote from Jesus that he did not personally witness.

A. Possibly before Jesus' was crucified?

Having said the foregoing, Anonymous overstates his case. It is not necessarily the case that Paul never heard Jesus say those words personally. First, Paul was born a Jew who lived in the area of Jerusalem during the time that Jesus preached. Isn’t it possible that Paul heard Jesus speak during the time that Jesus came to Jerusalem during the week prior to his crucifixion? If so, isn’t it also possible that Jesus used the phrase during that week in the hearing of Paul? Alternatively, isn’t it possible that Paul who was a Pharisee might have been among the Pharisees who at one time or another confronted Jesus and tried to trap him? And if so, isn’t it possible that Paul could have heard Jesus use the give/receive phrase during one of those times? Keep in mind that I am not saying that I have any positive evidence demonstrating that Paul was actually present during either of those events. The point is that it is possible that Paul did hear Jesus use the give/receive phrase sometime prior to his ascension, so Anonymous’ assertion as an absolute statement is not necessarily accurate.

B. What about receiving the phrase from the Risen, Glorified Christ?

I am also sure based upon Anonymous’ language (he said, “Only Paul, who never met Jesus at all”) that he doesn’t agree that Jesus actually rose from the dead. I, as a practicing Christian who has examined and found the claims of Christianity to be both credible and probable, accept the accounts of the four Gospels that Jesus did bodily rise from the dead. Luke reports that Paul encountered the living Christ who spoke to him (the other’s travelling with Paul at the time hearing the voice of Jesus) on the Road to Damascus. So, I believe Anonymous is wrong in saying that Paul never met Jesus at all. But for purposes of this post, it’s important to note that this appearance on the Road to Damascus was not the only time that Jesus spoke to Paul. For example, in Acts 22:17-21, Paul recounts some additional words spoken to him by Jesus shortly after his conversion. This suggests that Paul had more words spoken to him by the risen Jesus than are contained in the New Testament. Note that neither Paul nor any of the other Epistle authors ever say that all of the words the resurrected Jesus spoke to Paul are set forth in Acts or Paul’s Epistles. Thus, it remains possible that Paul heard the give/receive phrase directly from Jesus after his resurrection.

Is it Hearsay? If so, so what?

While I don’t agree that Anonymous is necessarily correct, as I stated earlier, I believe it is likely that he is correct that Paul is not relating something he personally heard, but rather he is relating something that he was told Jesus said. Anonymous contends that such a situation makes Paul’s statement hearsay. To which I say, so what? Does that mean that he we are required to believe Jesus didn’t say the give/receive phrase? That is obviously what Anonymous would have us believe.

Anonymous’ conclusion suffers from several problems. For one, Anonymous shows that he completely misunderstands that doctrine of hearsay and its use with respect to this quote. Hearsay is a legal doctrine that prevents a statement made out of court to be admitted into evidence as proof of the matter asserted. If we were to apply the hearsay standard, note that the doctrine is designed to prevent the use of an out of court statement to prove the truth of the matter asserted. What is the matter asserted by the quote? The matter is that it is better to give than to receive. Paul isn’t using the give/receive phrase to prove that Jesus said it; rather he uses it to support the idea that it is better to give than to receive. So, does the hearsay doctrine apply to this quote? No, it doesn’t.

More importantly, the hearsay doctrine does not apply to this statement because this is not a courtroom; this is an historical investigation. There are lots of things that have been reported as being which are historically accepted which have not been said in court. History is littered with statements that people reportedly said, but the person reporting the saying did not personally witness the statement. For example, it is readily acknowledged that the Greek orator Demosthenes said, “Nothing is so easy as to deceive oneself; for what we wish, we readily believe.” What is the source of this quote? It appears that the source is unknown. Yet, there is really no disagreement historically that Demosthenes said this despite the absence of direct eyewitness testimony to his having said it. I am convinced that if I were to look I would find a lot of examples of statements made by historic figures that are known only because they were reported by a historian who lived well after the time the statement was made, but which statements are considered historically reliable.

Thus, while I generally agree that it is probable that Paul did not personally hear Jesus use the give/receive phrase, I am not certain I can take the absolutist position that Paul did not hear it. But even if he didn’t hear Jesus say it, it does not mean that Paul isn’t reporting an accurate statement by Jesus that he learned through his conversations with the Apostles on his two trips to meet with them after his conversion. (Galatians 1:18-19 and 2:4-10) In fact, during the second meeting, it is likely that he heard Jesus’ give/receive phrase from Peter, John and James because they spoke to him about remembering the poor (Galatians 2:10) – a natural place for them to share Jesus’ words that it is better to give than receive.

Is Paul reliable or is he a liar?

So, the question then becomes whether Paul is reliable. Anonymous’ second argument is that he is not reliable; rather, he is a liar.

A. Did Paul contradict Jesus on the law not being abolished?

He supports this conclusion first by saying that Paul contradicts Jesus when he says that “Christ abolished the Law” whereas Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law. Is that a contradiction? Well, using Anonymous’ paraphrase it is, but fortunately Christians don’t rely upon Anonymous’ version of the scripture. Here are the verses sourced by Anonymous in support of his argument about what Jesus said:

Matthew 5:17-20 - "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 19:17 – “Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved."
Matthew 28:19-20 – “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
Luke 16:17 - But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.
Here are the verses Anonymous cites in support of his version of what Paul said:

Romans 6:14 - For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
Romans 7:4 - For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.
Ephesians 2:14-16 - For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.
Okay, so Jesus said that he had come to fulfill the law. This has almost universally been understood means that the law requires certain behavior to be sin-free and able to enter into the Kingdom of God. However, we cannot fulfill the requirements of the law so we are all condemned under the law. Jesus, by living the perfect sin-free life, was not guilty before God and not deserving of death. Yet, he died on the cross to pay the penalty that comes with sin. Thus, Jesus fulfilled the law on our behalf. Does that mean that the law went away? No, because without God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ everyone would be judged under the law. Does this mean that Christians are not bound to the law? No, the law is binding on Christians, too; but those who accept the forgiveness offered by Jesus who paid the price for everyone will be forgiven of their violations of the law. It really is that simple.

So, with that understanding, where has Paul contradicted Jesus? I contend that there is nothing in what Anonymous cites which cannot be read consistent with Jesus’ sayings. Paul is saying that the law which was delivered to us to point out our sin is no longer our master because of God’s grace delivered through Jesus. The Ephesians verses, rather than contradicting the understanding above, actually clarify it. According to Jameson, Fausset and Brown’s commentary on these verses:

Christ has in, or by, His crucified flesh, abolished [the wall of enmity that separated Jew from Gentile and both from God], so far as its condemning and enmity-creating power is concerned ( Col 2:14 ), substituting for it the law of love, which is the everlasting spirit of the law, and which flows from the realization in the soul of His love in His death for us. Translate what follows, "that He might make the two (Jews and Gentiles) into one new man." Not that He might merely reconcile the two to each other, but incorporate the two, reconciled in Him to God, into one new man; the old man to which both belonged, the enemy of God, having been slain in His flesh on the cross. Observe, too, ONE new man; we are all in God's sight but one in Christ, as we are but one in Adam [ALFORD].
B. Did Paul say it was okay to lie to preach the Gospel?

Related to this is Anonymous second assertion that Paul said it is okay to lie to others to preach Christ in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. I don’t think these verses require a belief that Paul lied to the people to whom he was bringing the Gospel as Anonymous apparently assumes. As noted by Bob Deffinbaugh in his article When a Right May Be Wrong (1 Cor. 9:1-23):
It is vitally important for you to understand that in verses 19-23 Paul is not teaching: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Paul is not speaking about the sins of others with which he is willing to participate. Paul is talking about accommodating himself to the weaknesses of the lost, by surrendering any liberties which might prove offensive to them and thus hinder his preaching of the gospel. One might be invited to make a gospel presentation in a retirement home. One could go with drums, guitars, and an electronic keyboard. But it is possible that an organ or piano accompaniment would be received more readily. Why insist on your rights, when practicing them might needlessly alienate someone who is lost, keeping them from hearing the gospel? Paul is willing to sacrifice the free exercise of any liberty if doing so will further the gospel. Never will Paul think of committing a sin in order to identify with the lost. One does not need to win an alcoholic to Christ by getting drunk with him, or to convert a drug addict by getting high with him. It is one thing to commit a sin in the name of furthering the gospel; it is quite another to sacrifice a liberty for the sake of the gospel.
John Piper adds an interpretation which further clarifies the fact that Paul is not speaking about lying to bring people into the kingdom in his sermon Becoming All Things to All Men to Save Some:
As a Christian, I am not "under law" (v. 20)—that is, I am not bound to earn my salvation by the law, nor am I bound to live by the ceremonial, dietary, separation laws of the Old Testament (for example, circumcision, holy days, no ham and catfish, no mixed fibers, no meat offered to idols, and so on). I am free to go to the home of an animist and humanist and eat whatever they put before me in order to win them for Christ (1 Corinthians 10:27).

As a Christian I am nevertheless not without God's law (v. 21). In 1 Corinthians 7:19 Paul says, "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God." This is a remarkable verse! It says that circumcision, which was a commandment of God in the Old Testament is negligible for Christians, but the commandments of God are not negligible. This is why we distinguish between the ceremonial law and the moral law. As Christians we submit to the moral law of God. We are not without the law of God, as Paul says.

Which is defined for us in verse 21 as "the law of Christ." We are under the law of Christ. This is the law of love. In Galatians 6:2 Paul says, "Bear one another's burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ." The law of Christ is the law that fulfills all laws: Galatians 5:14, "The whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" This is called in James 2:8 the "royal law" and "the law of liberty" (1:25; 2:12). It's the law that free people submit to gladly because they are led by the Holy Spirit. That's what Paul means when he says in Galatians 5:18, "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law." Instead, you bear the fruit of love, and so submit gladly to the law of Christ, the law of love.

And What Does It Look Like?

In freedom, for love's sake, you try to overcome unnecessary, alienating differences that cut you off from unbelievers. In freedom, for love's sake, you learn the Maninka language and translate the Bible. In freedom, for love's sake, you eat dinner together the way they eat dinner. In freedom, for love's sake, you dress pretty much like the middle class American natives. In freedom, for love's sake, you get into their politics and their sports and their businesses.

And all the while you keep a vigilant watch over your heart to see if you are in the law of Christ.

No, I don’t agree that Anonymous has shown Paul to be a liar or not credible. Rather, Anonymous has shown a knack to read the Epistle in a shallow fashion and ignore the depth and richness of the teachings that lie behind and within the words that he quotes. In fact, in some cases, the verses he cites actually support the conclusion that Paul is being consistent with Jesus.


So, has Anonymous shown Paul to be a liar or that Jesus didn’t say “it is better to give than receive?” Not at all. Rather, Anonymous has shown that in his case Demosthenes was right: “Nothing is so easy as to deceive oneself; for what we wish, we readily believe.”


Helmutt Koester argues that Paul probably possessed a saying source similar to the Gospel of Thomas, at least the synoptic elements in Thomas. Of course the doesn't suggest that it was the actual Gospel of Thomas but he just uses that as an example of a saying source.

Where Paul would have gotten that is not hard to think of, he several people who had been around the beginning of Jesus' movement: Priscilla and Aquila, Andronicus and Junia, maybe others.
the assertions that Paul lied are ideological. The idea that appealing rhetorically to the audience is the same as lying is just basically stupid.
JB Chappell said…
Paul *seems* to me to have been dishonest on at least on one occasion. This was in regard to the decision of the Jerusalem Council, as recorded in Acts 15 & Galatians 2. (I'm not including the text in question due to character limits, sorry).

First, let’s note that, according to Paul, nothing was added to his message. This seems obviously mistaken. He left Jerusalem with a four-fold abstention decree that he did not have previously. Furthermore, one cannot say that he was already preaching what the decree(s) taught, because one item in particular Paul clearly disagreed with.

And this item was the abstention from meat sacrificed to idols. In 1 Corinthians 9:20-23, for example, he does not rebuke the Corinthians who felt free to eat such meat. Nor does he even bother to mention the decision of the Jerusalem Council. Rather, he appeals to the “weaker brethren” doctrine, which seems obviously subversive – both because it undermines what “the Pillars” decreed and because it portrays them as “weaker”.

That Paul was not teaching the decree(s) given to him is made obvious when he later returns to Jerusalem, and the decision is again brought up.

[See Acts 21].

So, the folks in Jerusalem were concerned enough about Paul’s ethical doctrines that they essentially gave him a litmus test. And, rather than own up to his teaching and defend it, he simply went along with the test and let the folks in Jerusalem believe that he was a faithful Jew preaching things in accordance with the Council of Jersualem – which he clearly wasn’t.

Now, if that isn’t bad enough, he turns on Peter for doing exactly the same thing.:

Galatians 2

11 "When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, 'You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?'"

So, let’s see… when with the Jerusalem folk, Peter acts one way, but when away from them he acts another… that is wrong why? Doesn’t Paul do exactly the same thing later on, when he returns to Jerusalem? Furthermore, isn’t Paul the one preaching to the Corinthians to practice “when in Rome…” when around the “weaker brethren”? How, exactly, has Peter acted in a way different than Paul himself? The problem seems exacerbated by the fact that Barnabas apparently leaves because of this incident (although Acts portrays this differently), but Paul still refuses to admit any wrongdoing.

Granted, being a hypocrite does not make one a liar. But, I think there is some dishonesty with the way Paul went about his business. Does that mean that we cannot believe what he transcribes? Absolutely not! Who among us has not been dishonest? Does that mean that none of us can reliably transmit information? Obviously not. Josephus was a traitor for crying out loud, yet historians depend on him as a source for a lot during this period in history.
Anonymous said…
Good point, JB. I don't agree with everything Paul said, but all in all, he was a warrior for God and Jesus.
Joel said…
@JB Chappell @JBsptfn This is a misunderstanding of Paul that Christianity developed as it separated from Judaism (Christianity started out as a sect of Judaism) Read about the martyrdom of James in Eusebius and you'll see that Jews that accepted Christ still kept Passover at the temple. It would take me too long to answer all objections to the idea that the law applies just as much to Jews and Gentiles (of course things people do out of ignorance are not counted as much against them and maybe not counted at all) but I suggest you look into this as a start: https://messianicpublications.com/

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