I continue from the previous post with Bart Ehrman’s post and the query raised about its argument. Ehrman continues:
There is a second reason for thinking that Paul is not the one who invented the idea that Jesus’ death was some kind of atoning sacrifice for sins. That’s because Paul explicitly tells us that he learned it from others.
Those of you who are Bible Quiz Whizzes may be thinking about a passage in Galatians where Paul seems to say the opposite, that he didn’t get his gospel message from anyone before him but straight from Jesus himself (when he appeared to Paul at his conversion). I’ll deal with that shortly since I don’t think it says what people often claim it says.
The key passage is 1 Corinthians 15:3-6. Here Paul is reminding the Corinthian Christians what he preached to them when he brought to them the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Pay careful attention to how he introduces his comments:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scripture, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep….”
Note: he indicates that he “passed on” this message of Jesus’ death and resurrection as he himself had “received” it. Now, you might think that this means that he received it straight from Jesus when Jesus appeared to him a couple of years after his resurrection. There are three reasons for thinking that this is not what he means.
Ehrman’s sentence I have bolded is false. “Pay careful attention to how [Paul] introduces his comments” indeed! Paul does not tell us “explicitly” (as Ehrman claims) that he learned of the death and resurrection of Jesus from others. Paul makes no such explicit statement and Ehrman acknowledges this fact in the very following sentences when he prepares his readers to listen to three reasons for thinking Paul somehow implicitly (not explicitly) means that he must mean that he learned of the gospel from others. If Paul told us explicitly that he learned things from others there would be no need to compile three reasons to persuade us that that is what he meant.
There are several other errors and problems in the ensuing paragraphs but time constraints prompt me to bypass those for now and skip directly to his last point, (B):
What does Paul mean in his letter to the Galatians when he says that he did not receive his gospel from humans but direct from God through a revelation of Jesus? Does he mean that he was the one (through direct divine inspiration) who came up with the idea that it was the death and resurrection of Jesus, rather than, say, Jesus’ life and teachings, that brings salvation? And if so, doesn’t that mean that Paul himself would be the founder and creator of Christianity, since Christianity is not the religion of Jesus himself, but the religion about Jesus, rooted in faith in his death and resurrection?
It may seem like that’s the case, but it’s not. Not at all. Belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection were around before Paul and that Paul inherited this belief from Christians who were before him. But then what would Paul mean when he explicitly says in Galatians 1:11-12
“For I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me – that it is not a human affair; for I neither received it from a human nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ”?
That sure sounds like he is saying that his gospel message came straight from Jesus, not from humans, right? Yes, right, it does sound that way. But it’s important to know – and not just to assume – what Paul means by his “gospel” in this passage. He doesn’t mean what you might at first think he means.
Paul begins his letter to the Galatians with a rebuke. Uncharacteristically, he does not start the letter by thanking God for the congregation. On the contrary, he’s angry and he tells them so. He says that he is “astonished” that the Galatians are “deserting” the one who “called” them in order to turn to a “different gospel.” He goes on to say that if anyone preaches a “different gospel” from the one that he preached when he converted them to the faith – even if it’s an “angel from heaven” – that one stands under God’s curse. The gospel that Paul first proclaimed to them is the only true gospel and any other gospel is not a gospel at all.
To understand what he means it is important to know what the historical situation is that Paul is addressing in the letter to the Galatians. The situation becomes pretty clear in the context of his comments. Paul had established this church (or these churches) among gentiles (pagans) in central Asia Minor (modern Turkey). After he left the region to start churches elsewhere, other Christian missionaries arrived who taught the Christians in Galatia a different version of the faith.
According to these others, faith founded on Jesus was a fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures (on this Paul agreed). Jesus was the Jewish messiah sent from the Jewish God to the Jewish people in fulfilment of the Jewish law. Thus, for these other missionaries, to believe in Jesus required a person to be a Jew. Yes, gentiles could join the people of God and find salvation through Jesus. But to join the people of God – they had to join the people of God! The people of God were the Jewish people. God had given his people a sign to show that they were distinct from all other people on earth. This is way back in the Old Testament where God tells the father of the Jews, Abraham, that everyone who belongs to the covenant community needs to be circumcised (see Genesis 17). Jews are circumcised. Those who convert to Judaism need to be circumcised. Belonging to the people of God means being circumcised. The Christian believers in Galatia need to be circumcised. When God gave the covenant of circumcision to Abraham, he called it an “eternal covenant.” It wasn’t a temporary measure. It was permanent. And God had not changed is mind. So say Paul’s opponents.
Paul writes his letter to the Galatians in shock, disbelief, and white hot anger. This is NOT, this is DECIDEDLY NOT, what he had taught the Galatians when he converted them. Paul’s view was that the death and resurrection of Christ was absolutely the goal to which God’s plan of salvation had been moving from the days of Abraham. But the point of Jesus’ death was that it brought salvation to all people, Jew and Gentile. Salvation could not come by keeping the law of God, starting with circumcision. If the Law could make someone right with God, then there would have been no reason for Christ to have died. A person could just get circumcised and join the Jewish people. But salvation didn’t work that way. Salvation came only through Jesus’ death and resurrection. And since it came apart from the law, a person could participate in it apart from the law.
This was the “gospel” that Paul preached. When Paul indicates that a salvation came completely “apart from the works of the Law,” he is not saying that salvation comes apart from doing any good deeds — the way Martin Luther and most Protestants since his day have read Paul (until the last 50 years). Luther read “works of the Law” as “doing good works” – that is “earning one’s salvation. But that’s taking Paul out of context. Paul instead is saying that no one needs to do the demands of the Jewish law (such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, kosher food) to be right with God. One needs only faith in Christ. As he says most clearly in Galatians (in a message he remembers having forcefully delivered to Peter, Jesus’ disciple), “We ourselves (i.e., he and Peter), who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, who know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” (Gal. 2:15-16).
When Paul speaks of the gospel that he preached to the Galatians, this was it. This is what he learned directly from a revelation of Jesus. He did not learn merely that the death and resurrection of Jesus brought salvation. This is what other Christians before Paul were saying; that was the belief held by those Paul had been persecuting. What Paul came to realize when he “saw the light” – that is, when Christ appeared to him after his resurrection – was that this message of salvation was for gentiles as well as Jews. And it was to go to gentiles without them first having to become Jews. The salvation of Christ was for all people, Jew and gentile, and was not tied to observing the practices prescribed in the Jewish law. Paul was the one who first realized this (he claims). His mission to the gentile lands was part of God’s plan of salvation. God now was working to save not only the Jews, but also the gentiles.
Being pressed for time I hand over the reply to Earl Doherty. Ehrman has assured us that he in fact read Doherty’s book, Jesus, Neither God Nor Man, but I know what it is like to be so busy that one forgets what one read only a very few years ago. Rather than simply repeat the argument that Doherty targeted in his 2009 publication I would have preferred Ehrman had explained why he continues to repeat the argument after reading (as he assures us he did) Doherty’s criticisms of it:
20 Hyam Maccoby (Paul and Hellenism, p.92) says: “In any case, the expressions paralambanein and paradidonai are not necessarily derived from the Hebrew qibel and masar [the ‘transmitting’ and ‘receiving’ of tradition in Jewish parlance]. As Albert Schweitzer pointed out, these expressions were used in the mystery religions to signify the reception and communication of the revelation received. Schweitzer rejected this derivation [i.e., Paul from the mystery religions] because, in his view, Paul ‘did not live in a world of Hellenistic conceptions’. But this is a view that can be seriously questioned.” Indeed it can, and it is being questioned in this book as well. Maccoby’s quote from Schweitzer is in the latter’s Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, ET 1956, p.266. Unfortunately, Schweitzer did not cite specific sources.
Does Paul never refer to apostolic tradition, to receiving information about Jesus from others? The Greek verb “paralambano’, is used in three key passages in his letters. It means to “receive,” to “take over” something passed on to oneself, usually relating to information or instruction. However, it was a verb also used in the Greek mysteries and in religious experiences generally, to refer to the reception of a revelation from a god.’20 Paul himself applies it in both ways in a crucial passage in Galatians 1:11-12:
For I neither received it [i.e., the gospel Paul preaches] from (any) man, nor was I taught it, but [understood: I received it] through a revelation of Jesus Christ. [NASB]
In this one sentence, Paul uses paralambano in both meanings: receiving something from other men, and receiving something by revelation. In the second thought, the verb is understood, but it cannot be anything other than the “received” verb used previously; the “taught” verb would be in contradiction to the idea of revelation.
Here Paul makes a clear and passionate statement that the gospel he preaches about the Christ has come to him through personal revelation, not through human channels, not from other apostles. The details of that gospel are not spelled out here, but what is he referring to? The attempt is regularly made to assign to this passage a more limited “gospel” than the one he outlines in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. But is this tenable?
In the opening chapter of Galatians, Paul rails against other apostles, or people within the Galatian community, who have come in behind Paul and led some members into following “a different gospel.” Here he does not clarify what that difference was, or what aspect of his message was being challenged, but he lays a curse on anyone, even if he were an angel from heaven, who preaches a gospel at variance with his own. While this would seem to encompass serious dimensions of his teaching, if not its entirety, later in the letter he makes it clear what the central issue was in regard to this occasion:
I tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all…any man who receives circumcision is compelled to keep the whole Law….It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh, so they can avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ, who are trying to compel you to be circumcised. [5:2-3, 6:12]
In chapter 1, then, it is likely that Paul is incensed at those who are urging the necessity for circumcision on the males of the Galatians community, although such “Judaizers,” mention of whom one encounters elsewhere in the epistles, were usually known to urge the adoption (or reinstatement) of other Jewish traditions as well. But after his initial outburst (1:6-9), Paul broadens the scope of his argument in an attempt to justify the value of his gospel in general and his own integrity in formulating it, giving his readers some of his own historical background, first as a persecutor of the faith and then as a convert and apostle. He is not currying favor with anyone, he says, but seeking only God’s approval, serving Christ.21 Paul goes on to emphasize that he got his gospel from no one else by pointing out that he would have had little opportunity to do so. This is why he goes to the trouble of telling the Galatians that after his conversion he did not “go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me” (1:17) but went off to Arabia for three years. Then when he did go to Jerusalem, he makes the further point that while he was there he saw none of the apostles except for Peter and James, and he swears that this is the truth. None of this information and swearing would be necessary or relevant were he not seeking to strengthen his claim that he did not get his gospel about Jesus from other men, in this case from the Jerusalem group. He would hardly need to defend himself against deriving it from Peter and James if all he were referring to was freedom for gentiles from circumcision and the Law—something they were not likely to be advocating.
Thus, when he makes his declaration in 1:11-12 that the gospel the Galatians heard him preach was not “received” from any man, nor taught to him, but rather received through a revelation from (or of) Jesus Christ, he should no longer be regarded as speaking solely of the issue of circumcision. The “gospel you heard me preach” would have encompassed much more than his policy on gentiles being exempt from that aspect of the Law. He is defending the specific issue at hand by defending the integrity of his entire gospel, as one which came directly from heaven and not from other men. Paul would hardly be saying that the gospel the Galatians heard him preach about freedom from circumcision is something he received from heaven, while the rest of his gospel content had in fact been received from men. He would make no such sweeping statement if he did not intend it to apply to the entirety of his preaching message, which included his theology of the death and resurrection of Christ and its derivation from scripture. Regardless of the specific debate going on in Galatia, Paul is now defending and playing up the source of his gospel as a whole. He is proud of his personal revelation from heaven and makes no bones about it.”21
In fact, no one was likely to be challenging Paul on the issue of freedom from circumcision and the Law and accusing him of getting his preaching on that score from anyone else, especially Peter and James. Thus there would have been no need for Paul to object so adamantly to a non-existent accusation. His declaration clearly applies to his entire gospel.
As such, Galatians 1:11-12 must determine how we read the statement he makes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4:
For I delivered to you…what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he was raised on the third day, according to the scriptures. [NASB]
Here we have a statement of Paul’s fundamental gospel about the Christ. In Galatians 1:11-12 he has declared that he received his gospel from no man, but through revelation. Unless we assume that he is blatantly contradicting himself, logic dictates that Paul’s “received” in 1 Corinthians 15:3 must mean “received through revelation.” And where has Paul derived his information about Christ’s death and resurrection? He tells us twice in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “according to the scriptures” (kata tas graphas). While scholars have always taken this to mean “in fulfillment of the scriptures”—despite the fact that such an idea Paul nowhere discusses—the Greek preposition kata can also render the meaning behind the phrase “as we learn from the scriptures.”22
22 For example, “According to the newspaper this morning, the President went to Chicago.” The President is not fulfilling the newspaper account, that account is informing the reader of the President’s actions. Just as scripture informed Paul about the Christ and his activities.This is also an indicator of the nature of ‘revelation’ in the early Christian movement. In most cases, we need not envision anything as dramatic as visions or voices accompanied by bright lights and other special effects. A simple inner conviction and perhaps a sense of some spiritual presence during meditation or perusing scripture was likely all that was needed. (I am reminded of the scene in the film Amadeus, in which the mediocre composer Salieri is at his harpsichord composing his latest mediocre opera, and when he comes up with a melody he feels is particularly worthy—i.e., less banal than his usual output—he turns to a nearby crucifix and says “Thank-you.” I think that may be not much less than the usual kind of ‘revelation’ early Christians seem to bandy about; we need merely substitute a copy of the Hebrew bible for an 18th century harpsichord.)
It may be objected that Paul would be making a false claim here in implying (as he seems to do in Galatians 1:16 as well) that it was he who ‘discovered’ Christ and his redeeming acts in scripture, since others had been apostles before him and were presumably (as he says in 15:11) teaching the same thing. But we cannot lay too great a burden on Paul’s faithfulness to meticulous accuracy. He is pleading his case in the face of challenges. While he was part of a broad movement which imagined God had revealed the Son and his role in salvation, he is naturally at pains to place the focus on himself as the prime, superior expression of that movement and its interpretation from scripture—basically the one who has gotten it right. And to some extent, he may have been justified, having brought a sophistication to that revelation from God which no one else had achieved. The survival of his name and work where many other apostles of the Christ went into oblivion would indicate that.
If Christ dying for sin and rising from death is a revealed gospel, extracted from scripture, it would seem that both the death and resurrection are articles of faith, not of historical witness. Paul is not likely to declare that he knows of these things through revelation if they were common knowledge about historical events passed on through oral tradition. (JNGNM, pp. 44-46)
If other apostles were not preaching a gospel of sacrificial atonement through the death of Jesus what sort of Christ did they preach? One suggestion was proposed by P.L. Couchoud:
- The War of the Heavenly Christs: John’s Sacrificed Lamb versus Paul’s Crucified God
- The Christ of John’s Revelation — Nemesis of Paul’s crucified Christ