Did Paul receive the gospel the same way the other apostles did?

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by Neil Godfrey

Not long ago I skimmed through an online discussion over whether or not Paul learned about the gospel of Jesus from other apostles like Peter and James, or whether he relied entirely on direct revelation from the spiritual Lord.

One side pointed to the letter to the Galatians where Paul said that he was not impressed with the status of “pillars” in the Jerusalem church like Peter, James and John, and insisted that all he knew about the gospel he knew because he was taught it by (the heavenly) Jesus Christ himself. So Galatians 1:11-12, 15-17

11 And I make known to you, brethren, the good news that were proclaimed by me, that it is not according to man,

12 for neither did I from man receive it, nor was I taught [it], but through a revelation of Jesus Christ, . . .

15 and when God was well pleased — having separated me from the womb of my mother, and having called [me] through His grace —

16 to reveal His Son in me, that I might proclaim him good news among the nations, immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood,

17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem unto those who were apostles before me, but I went away to Arabia

They also pointed to 1 Corinthians 11:23ff where Paul said that he learned about the Last Supper ritual from Jesus himself:

23 For I — I received from the Lord that which also I did deliver to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was delivered up, took bread,

24 and having given thanks, he brake, and said, `Take ye, eat ye, this is my body, that for you is being broken; this do ye — to the remembrance of me.’

But then the other side of the discussion responded by saying that by pointing to those scriptures to decide the point people were being a bit naughty by only selecting verses that supported their view and were overlooking others that would place these verses in a different context and change the whole direction of the debate.

The passage this side pointed to in order to demonstrate that Paul really did indeed hear the message of Jesus from other apostles like Peter was this in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4

1 And I make known to you, brethren, the good news that I proclaimed to you, which also ye did receive, in which also ye have stood,

2 through which also ye are being saved, in what words I proclaimed good news to you, if ye hold fast, except ye did believe in vain,

3 for I delivered to you first, what also I did receive, that Christ died for our sins, according to the Writings,

4 and that he was buried, and that he hath risen on the third day, according to the Writings,

And then follows the list of eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ:

5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve,

6 afterwards he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain till now, and certain also did fall asleep;

7 afterwards he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

8 And last of all — as to the untimely birth — he appeared also to me,

9 for I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I did persecute the assembly of God, . . .

It is plain that the list of eyewitnesses was not part of what was delivered to Paul by Peter or others since the list includes his own name. The good news that he received and preached was the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. More specifically, Paul says that the good news was the event of Christ’s death and resurrection “according to the Scriptures/Writings”.

The argument was that it was clear that Paul here is indicating that he received the good news by oral tradition via other human messengers. Therefore, the other passages where Paul said he received the message from Jesus should be interpreted as meaning that he received it from Jesus through these humanoid persons.

I had to leave the debate behind at that point, but looking back I wonder how it continued.

I would presume that those who introduced the green scriptures above pointed out that the red scriptures did not anywhere indicate from whom Paul received the message. (To call it a “tradition” is really a bit mischievous. “Tradition” implies it comes by a human chain in the first place so pre-judges the outcome of the debate.)

So if we have passages where Paul says that what he received about Jesus he received from Jesus himself, and one passage that says he received something about Jesus without explicitly saying from whom he received the message, what are we to conclude? Should we assume from the silence of the third instance that he meant something quite different from what he had explicitly stated in the other two instances?

Interestingly, if we move away from Paul altogether on this point, and have a look at who else received this same message and how they received it, we encounter, I think, a clarification.

Paul was not the only one to “receive” this message about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Note in particular that the message consists of three facets:

  1. suffering/death,
  2. resurrection,
  3. and according to the Scriptures.

The twelve eleven disciples and two others also “received” this same three-fold message. And note from whom they received it.

The Gospel of Luke describes Jesus himself delivering the same gospel to the two travellers on the road to Emmaus and to his disciples after his resurrection: Luke 24

25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. . . .

44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

So Paul says he received the gospel and other related information from the resurrected Jesus himself.

He also says he received the specific gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus according to the scriptures. It was something he received, but he does not specify from whom he received it. Do we assume that he received this from any source other than the one he specifies elsewhere as his source?

Interestingly, we find the same three-faceted message in Luke’s gospel being received by the disciples. And they themselves are receiving it from the resurrected Jesus.

Paul includes himself among the eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus. As an eyewitness he is not one whit behind any of the other apostles who saw the resurrected Jesus, he says in the blue scriptures above. (Except that he was a bad sinner and the least worthy, thus exalting himself through the last shall be first principle, etc.)

And if his experience as an eyewitness of the resurrection was all one and the same with the experiences of the others, then why should we think that when he says he received the gospel message of “the death and resurrection of Christ according to the Scriptures” that he received this any differently from the way the others had also presumably received it?

(Of course, in this post I am making many assumptions that do conflict with other suggestions I have proposed about gospel provenance etc, but allow me some slack. One has to step inside the framework of those with whom one is debating to establish communication in the first place.)

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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “Did Paul receive the gospel the same way the other apostles did?”

  1. In the Luke extract what does it mean by the phrase “while I was still with you” in verse 44? Does this not indicate that this is not a physical Jesus talking to the disciples? If he was in a physical form then he was still with them. As he declares implicitly that he is not still with them then he was not a physical being addressing them in real time but a revelation in some non-physical form or other.

    Furthermore, in the meeting on the road to Emmaus, he is described as being in “a different form”. I’ve have never seen any apologetic as to what this might mean but I assume that it indicates that he did not show up out of nowhere in a physical form.

    All of which begs the question “what resurrection”?

    1. Interesting observation. I think there are numerous indications that visions of some sort were central to many early Christian sects. Hurtado has suggested that visions were the basis of the resurrection stories, and DeConick sees the Gospel of John in a dialogue with other Christians who stressed the centrality of visionary experiences.

      Many have seen the transfiguration scene as some sort of proto “resurrection” vision that had been moved to a new location in the Gospel of Mark.

      Justin Martyr has Jesus revealing all the things about the new religion after his resurrection to his twelve (sic) disciples.

      Whether the revelations came through visions or ‘inspired’ readings of scriptures, the canonical gospels managed to find a way to build them into a narrative setting.

  2. Was I perchance involved in the discussion?

    One possible source for Paul’s knowledge that I almost never see discussed is the victims of his persecution. I think that history shows that persecutors often have very distorted views of their victims’ beliefs. Did Paul use torture? Did he use informants? Was he only persecuting members of the Jesus cult or did he suppress other groups that the authorities viewed as heretical? Did Paul make clear distinctions between the various heretical groups. It is impossible to know what stories Paul may have heard or how much they corresponded to what any specific group actually believed.

    After Paul’s conversion experience, whatever it may have been, I think Paul would have assumed that all the stories he once thought false were in fact true. I also think he would have viewed them all as part of his revelation from God even though they originated with his victims. The other part of his revelation would have been the conclusions he drew about the theological significance of those stories.

    The standard assumption is that Paul was converted by the message that was proclaimed by the original followers of Jesus. However, Paul says that he didn’t even meet with Peter and James until he had been preaching his gospel for three years. How can we know what, if any, continuity there was between Paul’s message and what any specific Messianic cult had believed prior to Paul’s “Damascus road” experience?

    1. Vinny, that is definitely worth mentioning. Paul certainly had some idea of what Christianity was about, though it is likely that there were misconceptions. Paul seems to think in his letters that Christ crucified is the stumbling block in Zion that keeps Jews from true faith. Conceivably the the thought in Paul’s mind is Deut. 21:23, where those exposed on cruciforms are cursed, so the notion of the Messiah on such an apparatus is in it’s self blasphemous. That Christians did not feel obligated to observe popular pious observances or thought Christ death provided atonement for sin may have also been factors. They may have even misconstrued that Christians did not observe the Law of Moses (though given Paul’s difficulty with James, this was probably not true). If Paul had anxieties about his own maintaining of the Law, the message of Christ providing salvation out-side its maintenance may have been seductive to him.

      On the differences between Paul and the other Christians, I think they have been overstated by some. Paul when discussing issues between himself and the Jerusalem church, seems to focus on the issue of keeping kosher. I don’t get the impression they were more serious disagreements, though it is possible that some letters wouldn’t be preserved, like if James told Christians to slam the door in Paul face or something. The Lukan branch of the movement was keen to have everybody on the same page as opposed to those element that were willing to have Paul and James part paths.

      In all though I find it very unlikely that all Paul knew about Christianity he got from a vision. I’m not sure he would mistake the here say of others for a “revelation”. I also doubt that multiple people would all get a message of Christ died for our sins, according to the Writings, and that he was buried, and that he hath risen on the third day, according to the Writings, independently of one another. Paul and Peter did not have identical visionary revelations. If this was part of Paul’s revelation, it was there because he heard it from someone else. Judging from Paul’s conflict with the Galatians, it would seem that Paul’s revelation was freedom from the Law because of Christ. The other Gospel they are turning to seems to involve obedience to the Law. The former seems to be a subtle twist on what was Christian doctrine, an expansion of its principle. If this was a a misconception held by opponents of the movement, I’m not sure Paul would say he got his gospel from the Pharisees.

    2. Hi Vinny — maybe you were, I only skimmed quickly so don’t recall 🙂

      I personally choose to stay clear of Paul’s claims to being a persecutor. I may be being overly cautious, but there are things I don’t understand in relation to this. What authority could one like Paul have to go out and physically persecute Christians within the borders of the first century Roman empire? There seems to be something amiss here that I don’t understand.

        1. Thanks. Unfortunately, perhaps, I have to reserve my judgment on this one. One might say Eisenman has a more sanguine view of Acts as a historical document, of the value of Epiphanius as a source for historical events in the first century, than I do.

      1. I don’t know whether it’s possible to do anything regarding the issue beyond identifying some of the possibilities. The standard historicist response of course is “Why would Paul lie about it?”

      2. Neil: “What authority could one like Paul have to go out and physically persecute Christians within the borders of the first century Roman empire? There seems to be something amiss here that I don’t understand”.

        Don’t read the gospel’s into Paul 😉 No historical Jesus means the NT story about Paul physically persecuting flesh and blood followers of a recently crucified one should not be read literally….

        Perhaps Paul’s actions might make more sense if one substitutes the word *intellectually* for the word *physically*. The point that Paul is making, surely, is that there were others prior to his own vision who had some type of theology/spirituality or OT interpretations, whatever. Followers, believers, of a crucified one. The drama of physically persecuting them is just that, literary drama. An intellectual battle is not so attractive as part of an origin story as an exciting cloak and dagger physical encounter. 😉

        And if it’s an intellectual battle that had been going on – then perhaps even Paul himself was not some stranger to the fold – but within it already. Heresy, if that was what Paul was about, ie taking things in a new direction, is an in-house activity. A heretic is going to have enough trouble getting others within the fold to listen to his new insights, vision. An outsider coming in and trying to usurp a leadership role would be given short shift and told to go of and start his own movement.

        And of course, as things turn out – it would be the ‘persecuted’ ones, the ones who Paul is ‘attacking’, who are the ones, some at least, who end up changing their ideas and following Paul and his ideas – and not the other way around. 😉 Storytelling likes twists in it’s tall tales…

        So, another way to look at this persecuting element in Paul’s story. It keeps the gist of Paul’s story without going the route that might throw out Paul’s persecuting story on the basis that Paul was the originator of the whole ball of wax – therefore there were not others prior to his time who also had a dog in the fight.

        And another way to say – we don’t have to take it all literally…

        1. maryhelena:

          The folks at History Hunters accept the idea that Paul was a Herodian and suggest the Jamesian party would have had their use of him for his connections with royalty and ability to collect funds for the Jesus movement and impending war with Rome.

          1. John:

            I don’t know anything about History Hunters – just Googled them – historyhuntersinternational.org – is this the folks you are referring to?

            As for Paul (or whoever is writing under that name) being a Herodian – well, I’d go along with that up to a point – the point being that Herodian blood is not, in a Jewish context, something that one would be proud of having! Sure, Herod the Great went about mixing Herodian and Hasmonean bloodlines – so, if ‘Paul’ is of any interest to those early Christians, methinks he had better have had a pretty good drop of Hasmonean blood in his veins to offset the unwelcome Herodian infusion. Even then he would always be not wholly Jewish in the eyes of the purebreds….:-)

            Oh, that makes me think – that thorn in his flesh – a mix of Hasmonean blood and that Herodian blood of the most vile and contemptible murderer of the last Hasmonean King of the Jews. Poor Paul – that would be a real thorn in the flesh that he could do nothing about – ah, unless he had a vision where such things did not matter and all are one in some mystical or philosophical sense…

            1. maryhelena:

              Yes, that’s the correct site. There’s another one that’s called that, too, but it’s .com, not .org, and it confused me at first. The one I like is .org.

              I want to add that I like your comments about the Slavonic Josephus. This is the only website I have commented on in ten years, as I’m a bit reclusive (where did the time go?), but everyone here seems civil and pretty much on the page and it’s fun to read everyone’s interesting comments.

              1. John: “This is the only website I have commented on in ten years, as I’m a bit reclusive (where did the time go?), but everyone here seems civil and pretty much on the page and it’s fun to read everyone’s interesting comments.”

                The best biblioblog on the internet. 😉

  3. Paul (or whoever) could say whatever they liked about how they received ideas about Jesus. It could have come from the “same way” the other apostles received them, whether by oral tradtions AND revelations, but the key place to look at the “truth” of his message is what “Jewish Christians” thought about it.

    James 3:14-15 (RSV): “[I]f you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This wisdom is not such as comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.”

    2 Cor. 11:21-12:1 (RSV): “But whatever anyone dares to boast of … I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one … I must boast; there is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.”

    Off the top of my head I can’t think of every source that indicates the Ebionites rejected Paul (besides James’ letter, possibly the Clementine literature, al-Jabbar, and Paul himself). Paul tends to be very defensive about accusations of lying and his status as an apostle, and many times asserts that he is telling the truth and not lying. Since I agree with Eisenman that the Dead Sea Scrolls are Jamesian and the “Spouter of Lies” is Paul, that’s another possible source of the friction between Paul and “Jewish Christians.” Let Paul’s letters (and Acts) say whatever they say, but there is evidence that those in a better position to “know” Jesus did not agree with him. Whatever he “received” was not well received by them.

  4. I had to look up the word sanguine. 🙂 He does consider “every” source, but not without a grain of salt, and describes the gospels and Acts as “Characterized by mythologization, story telling and appeals to Roman credulity” and having “more the nature of Hellenistic romance than of history books” (JBJ p. 26). That sounds like the theme of your latest posts and your opinion in general.

    I regret having to cite him so often, but he’s an original and useful voice on a lot of the questions you ask.

  5. I think that the list of appearances in First Corinthians reports three periods in the development of teachings about the mystical Jesus Christ.

    The first period comprised mystical visions experienced by Simon Peter and by his first twelve converts on the top of Mount Hermon. This experience required a real climb up and down the mountain. Progress in this first period was very slow. The total time that passed until Peter accomplished his first twelve conversiions might have amounted to many months or even a few years.

    In the second period, progress was much faster, because 500 people were converted. Perhaps a decision was made that a proper vision did not require a climb to the top of Mount Hermon. This second period likewise lasted many months or even a few years.

    In the third period, new converts themselves did not experience the mystical vision, but they believed what they were told by the previous converts who did experience the vision personally. This change was related to the conversion of James into the religion. I speculate that he was a person of great authority, popularity or wealth and that he agreed to join the religion only on the condition that his personal experience of the mystical vision would be the last.

    Paul somehow managed to make himself into the one exception to that new rule, because his own experience was recognized as valid. The subsequence troubles that the religion had with Paul confirmed the wisdom of the rule that no more such experiences should be recognized as valid.

  6. Following up my Comment #5, the thought occurs to me that perhaps the Christian leadership accepted Paul’s belated mystical vision as valid just because he previously had conducted persecutions of Christians. That previous status made him a uniquely convincing and therefore valuable witness of the mystical vision, and so an exception was made for him even though he arrived after the deadline.

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