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Paul’s Importance in Early Christianity?

I’d like to say a bit more about Paul in relationship to the beginning of Christianity. Yesterday I argued that Paul could not have invented the idea of the resurrection. I should point out that Paul himself – who was always proud of the “revelation” of the truth given to him and his part in disseminating it (see Galatians 1-2) – admits in 1 Cor. 15:3-5 that he “received” from others the view that Christ died for sins and rose from the dead, before appearing “first” to Cephas and then others. I should stress, this language of “receiving” and “passing on” has long been understood as a standard way of indicating how tradition was transmitted from one person to another. Paul did not “receive” this information from his visionary encounter with Jesus (Jesus didn’t tell him: first I appeared to Cephas then to… and then to… and then finally to you!). Paul received this core of the Gospel message from those who were Christians before him.

People today often think of Paul as the second-founder of Christianity, after Jesus. Or even as the founder of Christianity. In my view that is assigning way too much importance to Paul. I don’t know how much Paul himself came up with (based, in his view, on his encounter with Jesus). But he did *not* come up with the idea that Jesus’ death brought salvation and that he had then been raised from the dead. That part he “received” from others.


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Paul’s Gospel Message
Did Paul Invent the Resurrection?



  1. Avatar
    toejam  April 25, 2014

    Bart said: “Paul did not “receive” this information from his visionary encounter with Jesus (Jesus didn’t tell him: first I appeared to Cephas then to… and then to… and then finally to you!). Paul received this core of the Gospel message from those who were Christians before him.”

    Of course, mythicists from the Wells/Doherty/Carrier school will point out that Paul never states that he “received” that info from the Christians before him. Earlier, in 1Cor 11:23, he states that he “received from the Lord”. So isn’t it just as likely that the “received” reference in 1Cor 15, is of the same sort – i.e. “from the Lord”, i.e. one of his personal revelations?

    I’m not a mythicist, but I’m not totally convinced that “receiving” in 1Cor 15 is necessarily from the Christians before him.

  2. Avatar
    toddfrederick  April 25, 2014

    I am very interested in the current posts since I am interested in how early Christianity developed and changed through the centuries, and the fate of the early church in Jerusalem. To this end James Tabor suggested to me and to others the reading of Hugh J Schonfield’s book “The History of Jewish Christianity: From the First to the Twentieth Century” ©1938. What are your thoughts on this book, if you read it?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 25, 2014

      I’m afraid the only book of Schonfield’s I read was The Passover Plot. A very different book indeed!

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 25, 2014

    Ooops! I had missed the absence of the concept of the atonement in Paul’s speeches in the book of Acts. Thanks for educating me.

  4. Avatar
    AmenRa  April 25, 2014

    I want to challenge you on the point on whether Paul received his information about Jesus from the apostolic leadership before his arrival in I Corinthians 15.

    My reading of this passage suggest that Paul’s knowledge of Jesus originates from the Tanakh. He uses the phrase “according to the Scripture.” This suggest that Paul’s Christology is derived from the illuminated re reading of the Old Testament.

    What say ye Dr. Ehrman?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 25, 2014

      Yes, Paul certainly thought that Jesus death and resurrection fulfilled Scripture — but he does not say that this is where he got the *idea* that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought salvation, as I read him.

  5. Avatar
    ottomobile  April 25, 2014

    I found this to be a very informative post as it touches on something I’ve often wondered about, just how central was Paul to the spread of early Christianity? As you point out, the epistles mention other people out spreading the word, and there was an active Christian community in Rome prior to Paul going there himself. H

    Any chance the proximity of Paul’s churches to Constantinople played a part in his letters becoming canon?
    Do you have a sense of how Christianity spread to North Africa?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 25, 2014

      Paul’s churches weren’t *that* close to Constantinople (closer than the writings of otehrs of his time, for example). AS to north AFrica, we have no reliable specific information.

  6. Avatar
    Stefan Kristensen  April 25, 2014

    Excellent post. I agree that too much weight is being put on Paul’s importance in his own day, and this makes sense because he is dominant in the NT writings and because the Fathers also glorified his person and his letters dogmatically.
    I also agree that Paul did not come up with the core Christian beliefs about Christ as you also argue here. But you write that in 1 Cor 15,3 Paul says that he “received” his information on Christ from other Christians, in that the verb used (paralambano) is normally used for the passing on of information between people. So that Paul’s not claiming here that he received this information about Christ from his visionary experience with Christ. But doesn’t Paul previously in the same letter, 1 Cor 11,23, explicitly say that he in fact “received from the Lord” the information concerning the Last Supper which he had in turn passed on to the Corinthians using the same verb? Also in Gal 1,23 he uses the same verb, that he’d “received” from his visionary experience the things he’d been teaching the Galatians.

    So how can you be so sure, that in 15,3 Paul is not also referring to information regarding Christ that he’d received directly from Christ? What is the difference between his receiving through revelation in Gal 1,23, “received from the Lord” in 1 Cor 11,23 and “received” in 15,3?

  7. Avatar
    madmargie  April 25, 2014

    I understand that salvation theology seemed to be very important to the early church but that apparently was not the message Jesus brought about God’s Kingdom. Why do you think salvation theology won out over the message of the kingdom?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 25, 2014

      Probably because the kingdom never came! Maybe I’ll devote a post to this!

      • Avatar
        doug  April 26, 2014

        As to the Kingdom not coming, since the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God was a central, major teaching of Jesus, any direct reaction by early Christian leaders to it not coming would be interesting to hear about. I can understand how early Christians might sweep some inaccurate details under the rug, but it would seem like the failure of a central teaching of Jesus would get some explanation by early Christian leaders (maybe like, “we thought the Kingdom was coming soon, but we misinterpreted Jesus”).

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  April 28, 2014

          Yes, this is a (very) big issue in the study of early Christianity. My view: rather than saying “Jesus got that bit wrong,” his followers started changinge what exactly he allegedly said so that he came no longer to proclaim the imminent arrival of the kingdom (already in LUke; stronger in John; strongest in Gospel of Thomas). The tradition becomes de-apocalypticized.

  8. Avatar
    jhm  April 25, 2014

    I would love to read a chapter-length treatment on the book of James, using your various methods of exegesis.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 25, 2014

      Ah, that would be a lot of work! I do devote a substantial discussion to James in my scholarly book Forgery and Counterforgery; and I have a lower-level discussion in my textbook on the New Testament. But i don’t plan on doing anything further in the foreseeable….

      • Avatar
        Elisabeth Strout  April 27, 2014

        Given that James never mentions the death or resurrection of Christ, nor atonement or any such Christian doctrine, do you think it’s safe to say he didn’t believe in the resurrection or atonement through it?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  April 28, 2014

          No, I don’t think so. It’s safe to say that in this particular writing he had something else he wanted to talk about. More than that — who can say?

  9. Avatar
    jhague  April 25, 2014

    When you say that Paul is opposed by other Christians, is it more appropriate to say that he is opposed by Jewish Christians or Jesus Movement Jews?

  10. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  April 25, 2014

    Bart, but isn’t Paul then contradicting himself? Either he’s telling the truth in 1 Cor or in Gal … It can’t be both!?

    “Paul admits in 1 Cor. 15:3-5 that he “received” from others the view that Christ died for sins and rose from the dead, before appearing “first” to Cephas and then others. ”

    “Gal 1: 11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”

  11. Avatar
    Hank_Z  April 26, 2014

    You wrote, “…the majority of Christians saw Paul as the great apostle, and so they not only collected a few of his letters (has anyone ever wondered why we have only seven of them now? Surely he wrote *dozens*!! What happened to the others? Why weren’t they preserved?)”

    We have exactly zero letters from Paul written during roughly his first 20 years of preaching the gospel. He was founding churches during these years, so it would seem reasonable he would have had plenty of reasons to write letters to the churches he had founded. Seems to be more than coincidence.

    Question: Your best guess on why 100% of Paul’s letters in the New Testament were written during the last 15 years or so of his life?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 28, 2014

      I don’t have a best guess, just speculations that need to be thought out a bunch more!

  12. Avatar
    mjardeen  April 26, 2014

    “James (another forgery), is widely understood to be directed either against Paul or against a Pauline theology.”

    This is something I would like to hear more about.

  13. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  April 27, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    Is Paul (or his epistles) mentioned in writings such as the Nag Hammadi library? I now understand that he had adversaries during his life time, but were his views and influence embraced by later unorthodox circles of Christianity?

    Thank you so much, as always.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 28, 2014

      Yes, there is in fact a “Prayer of the Apostle Paul” as one of the tractates in the library. For a scholarly discussion of Paul among Gnostics, see Elaine Pagels book The Gnostic Paul.

  14. Avatar
    Eric Rodvan  April 28, 2014

    Bart, perhaps Paul was quoting from the Ascension of Isaiah? The Ascension of Isaiah in it’s first edition is traditionally dated in the late first century to early second century, but it seems Paul knows of the Ascension of Isaiah.

    In his (first?) letter to Corinth, Paul quotes this passage of a scripture found nowhere in the Old Testament.

    “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the heart of man imagined,
    what God has prepared for those who love him”

    Some scholars say Paul is quoting a botched version of Isaiah 64:4, but the sequence is more like the passage in the Ascension of Isaiah.

    Isaiah 64:4 “For from days of old they have not heard or perceived by ear, Nor has the eye seen a God besides You, Who acts in behalf of the one who waits for Him.”

    Paul mentions in this order:
    For those that love God

    Isaiah mentions:
    God who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

    Apparently the Ascension of Isaiah in it’s Slavonic/Latin version (11:34) has that verse in from 1 Corinthians verbatim.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 28, 2014

      I know some scholars date the Ascension of Isaiah early,but I myself don’t think there’s any way it could have been composed before the middle part of the second century. I talk about this a bit in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.

  15. gmatthews
    gmatthews  May 1, 2014

    On your comment that we only have 7 of Paul’s true letters:

    In Books and Readers in the Early Church by Harry Gamble he goes to great length discussing the dissemination of early Christian works and in particular Paul’s letters. Given how Gamble describes the distribution of Christian works and the network for this distribution it would seem phenomenal, to me at least, that we don’t have more of Paul’s letters.

  16. Avatar
    VirtualAlex  May 1, 2014

    // Christianity came to be centered not just on Jesus, but also on Paul. But in Paul’s own day, it wasn’t that way at all…..//

    And that’s where it went off the rails, becoming a legalistic religion of “how many impossible things can you believe before breakfast in order to get out of hell?”

  17. Avatar
    madmargie  May 2, 2014

    “Probably because the kingdom never came! Maybe I’ll devote a post to this!”

    But Jesus is quoted as saying God’s Kingdom had already arrived but folks just didn’t see it.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 2, 2014

      When dealing with the historical Jesus, the question is not only what is he *recorded* to have said in the Gospels (are you quoting the Gospel of Thomas, by the way?), but what he actually said, based on a historical study of his sayings. Jesus appears to have preached not that the kingdom had arrived, but on the contrary, that it was soon to arrive. I may talk more about that on the blog.

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