I have been discussing at some length the rise of Jewish apocalyptic ways of thinking. I decided to do so not only because it’s so interesting and important on its own terms (which it is, at least for me) but also because I wanted to talk about the apostle Paul’s understanding of salvation (how do you get it?) and I realized that I couldn’t do that without talking about apocalypticism.

My reason for talking about Paul’s view of salvation was because I wanted to ask if he had the same as Jesus. A rather important issue and actually controversial. But I realized I couldn’t discuss either without discussing Jewish apocalyptic thought. Hence the thread. You don’t need to have read all the preceding posts to make sense of this one and the ones to come; but if you end up wondering more about some of the things I talk about, the posts are there in case you want to check them out.

I have not dealt with the theological views of Paul and Jesus in relation to one another for a very long time on the blog (eight years ago!) (although recently I did talk about the equally interesting question of how much Paul actually knew about the life of Jesus). When I did so all that time ago, it all started in response to a question. And here it is!


There is no doubt that Paul had visions of Jesus. And as we all agree the gospels (and Acts for that matter) were written AFTER Paul and certainly influenced BY Paul. In one way or another they reflect his way of thinking (to a certain degree).

Wouldn’t it be possible that the story of visions started with Paul only and was incorporated into the gospels because… well, how could it be that Jesus appeared to Paul and not to his disciples?

I find it suspicious that there are such deep discrepancies in the different accounts of Jesus post-resurrection appearances….

In other words: Couldn’t Paul be the sole starting point of this vision thing?


This question gets to the heart of a very big issue: what was Paul’s role in the development of early Christianity. Is he responsible for starting it? Was he the first to claim that Jesus had appeared after his death, as the risen Lord of life? Is Paul the real founder of Christianity? Should we call it Paulianity?

Maybe I’ll devote a post or two to that question, as it is completely fundamental to understanding the beginnings of the Christian religion. In this post I’ll deal with the question this reader has asked directly; my answer will, of course, be related to the larger issue.

So my basic view is that Paul could not have been the sole source for the idea that Jesus was raised from the dead. I have a very big reason for thinking that he was not, and a subsidiary reason for it. There are probably lots of other reasons, but these two stand out in my mind.

As to the big reason. Paul does not give us a lot of information about his life – just snippets here and there. Virtually the only passages that say anything about his life prior to being a follower of Jesus are Philippians 3 and Galatians 1. It is quite clear from these passages that Paul started out life as a highly religious and zealous Jew who followed in the path of the Pharisees and who was well advanced in understanding and pursuing the “righteousness” that came from following the law in accordance with the “traditions of the elders” (that is, the Pharisaic teachers of his day).

Moreover, it is perfectly clear that when he heard about the Christian movement, he was incensed by it, and that he actively engaged in violent persecutions against it. Paul does not tell us what exactly he found to be so blasphemous about the claims that the followers of Jesus were making about him, after his death; but it is not too hard to infer at least one key point. The Christians were calling Jesus the messiah. That would have seemed ludicrous to almost any Jew (and in fact *did* seem ludicrous to most Jews) since Jesus was just the *opposite* of what the messiah was supposed to be.

There were different expectations of what the messiah would be like among Jews in the first century. Probably the majority understood that he would be the future king of Israel who would overthrow the enemies of God (say, the Romans) and establish God’s kingdom on earth. Others thought that he would be a cosmic judge sent from God to establish the kingdom after destroying the forces of evil in the world. Others thought that he would be a mighty priest who would rule the people of God through the correct interpretation of the Torah. Whatever the expectation of this Jew or that, there was one thing in common held among them: the messiah would be a figure of grandeur and power who would be empowered by God to overthrow his enemies and set up a kingdom on earth.

And was that who Jesus was? Just the opposite. Jesus did not destroy the enemies of God. He was unceremoniously squashed by them. He was a lower-class nobody who was arrested, tried, tortured, humiliated, and then subjected to the most excruciating and painful form of execution used by the Romans. To call such a weak and pathetic figure the messiah was to mock God and his purposes. Jesus was just the opposite of the messiah.

But the Christians were saying that *despite* his horrible and humiliating death, Jesus really was the messiah, as shown by the fact that he had been raised from the dead. Paul found this view blasphemous. And so he persecuted them.

I’ve painted this sketch to make my major point. Paul could not have invented the resurrection appearances of Jesus himself, before others had done so, precisely because he was persecuting the Christians for their faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. They necessarily were saying that Jesus rose from the dead before Paul ever heard about them. He came to believe in the resurrection after the resurrection belief had been in circulation for already a couple of years. If it hadn’t been, he would have had no one to persecute.

So Paul could not have been the one who came up with the idea that Jesus was raised, based on a vision that he had – prior to the claims of others to have had visions.

My subsidiary reason for thinking so is that we have multiple, independent attestation of “visions” of Jesus by his followers soon after his death (not three years later): Mark, M, L, John, and … Paul! Even Paul, when he discusses the resurrection visions, claims that he was the last and least (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Now Paul was not one to shy away from flashing his credentials whenever he could (reread Galatians 1-2!). If he had been the first to see Jesus, he would have said so loud and clear. He claims he was the last. And the Gospel sources all tell of appearances to Mary and the disciples first.

Without those resurrection visions, Christianity would not have started. If Christianity had not started, Paul could not have persecuted it. So the visions of Jesus happened before Paul; they weren’t invented because he said he had one.