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Paul’s Own (and Only) Gospel

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.   In my previous post, I showed that the 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…

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Paul, Jesus, and the Messiah
Were Jesus’ Followers Crazy? Was He? Mailbag June 4, 2016

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    willow  June 6, 2016

    You have me so busy reading, that I’ve no time to post! Having recently completed Misquoting Jesus, I join your wife in saying that it’s certainly a favorite! A treasure, to be sure.

    Regarding Paul and his “revelations”, “visions”, that gave rise to so much of what he believed and preached, would you agree that though he did not “invent” or “start” Christianity, he ultimately determined what “Christianity”, particularly as we know it, would be?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2016

      He certainly brought about a change in Xty, though I don’t think his form of Xty is like it is practiced today.

  2. Avatar
    HA  June 6, 2016

    Then doesn’t this mean that Paul is still the founder of Christianity as we know it today, since he made it open to gentiles? Does it also mean that the disciples weren’t accepting of gentiles unless they became followers of the Jewish law? If so, Paul may still be seen to be the founder of the faith as it is.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2016

      To the extent that one doesn’t have to be a Jew to be a Christian, yes. But I’d say his version of Xty is very different from what you find today.

  3. Avatar
    Eric  June 6, 2016

    If it’s true that he was the first to expound this theology (that Jesus’ death and Resurrection were for all, Jews and Gentiles), then I’d call that pretty foundational to the Christianity that thrived and survived since.

    In that sense, Paul would be “the founder”.

  4. Avatar
    Hormiga  June 6, 2016

    Just a random thought, but I wonder if there might have been an element of practicality in Paul’s position. “Believe in Jesus” seems like an easier sell than “Get circumcised and believe in Jesus.”

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 6, 2016

    You are by far and away the most productive person I have ever known. How in the world are you able to put out all of this really interesting stuff day after day after day … ?

    Maybe you can clarify what has changed the last “50 years.” Are you saying that Paul taught the theology of being free of the Jewish laws about circumcision and diet rules and that Martin Luther interpreted this as meaning that doing good deeds does not matter and only faith matters and then over the last 50 years people reinterpreted it all back to being free from Jewish laws rather than being free from the need to do good deeds?

  6. Avatar
    Stephen  June 6, 2016

    Well well another mythicist trope comes a cropper, the claim being that Paul knows only the revelations of the visionary Jesus.

    Prof Ehrman, an unrelated question. Do you know of any contemporary critical scholars who seriously question the Pauline authorship of the letter to Philemon? I cam across an offhand allusion to such in my reading but with no details.

    thanks

  7. Avatar
    tcroberts02  June 6, 2016

    Paul says, as does the Nicene Creed, that Jesus died and rose on the third day following “in accordance with the scriptures”. To which “scriptures” is Paul referring, and are those the same ones being referenced in the Nicene Creed?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2016

      I wish we knew! It is often thought that it is such texts as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22:1. But we really don’t know.

  8. Avatar
    llamensdor  June 6, 2016

    The “salvation” of all nations was always part of the Jewish ethic. The Jews were not only chosen BY God, they chose God as well — that’s why it was a covenant — a contract. The Jews were to be a nation of priests, a holy nation, tasked (in part) to bringing non-Jews into the covenant. The nations (gentiles) were not required to accept all the rules that the Jews had (theoretically) accepted; they were to agree to the so-called code of Noah. But then, you knew that. Right?

  9. Avatar
    JR  June 7, 2016

    Will you be saying anything more about Paul and his view of the law? He seems a bit schizophrenic in his view of whether it is good or bad. Also do you think Romans 7 is about a non believing jew, a christian or an other??

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2016

      Yup! I think in Romans 7 he is explaining why the law is a problem for anyone: it gives demands but not the power to meet them. That can only come some other way.

  10. Avatar
    brandon284  June 7, 2016

    Hi Dr. Ehrman. You’ve stated in several comments that you think Christianity would look vastly different than Christianity in Paul’s day. Could you explain? I find this incredibly interesting!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2016

      Sure — go into your local Catholic church, or Baptist church, or any other church. Notice what happens. Then read 1 Corinthians 12!

      • Avatar
        brandon284  June 9, 2016

        Ok gotcha. I am familiar having attended most denominations. Just read 1 Corinthians 12. I suppose a Pentecostal church would be closest to Paul’s recognition?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 11, 2016

          But think about the differences: church building, pews, hymnals, bulletins, set order of worship, pastor, choir, organ, etc. etc. etc.

  11. Avatar
    ravensmp  June 8, 2016

    Another great post!
    Dear Bart, Do you think that incident of council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 where Paul and the apostles agree with each other on not to make gentiles follow the laws of Moses is not historical?I think acts of apostles is not historically reliable, however I do not know if Acts 15 goes back to historical Paul.. what do you think?
    As you might already know, there is something called Noahide Laws in Judaism now days. These laws are based on genesis 9, where
    God says to the all nations not to eat a live animal, do not commit murder. I do not know if the idea of these laws go back to times of Paul, however, in acts 15 verse 19 it seems like Paul is talking about these laws, actually I think he says that gentiles should abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood . What do you think of these verses? If Paul thought, like you said, salvation only comes from belief in death and resurrection of Jesus not following the laws, he must have thought that not eating a live animal or food, or any other things wouldn’t bring salvation, and also salvation does not come from keeping these Noahide laws right?( I think noahide laws are not “Jewish Laws” however these are still Torah based). If that’s the case why does Paul say these things? Paul did not want gentiles to become Jewish, and I think that was the main difference between his opponents. However, gentiles “could” be made righteous without becoming Jewish already in the first place by keeping noahide laws.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2016

      I think it is the same conference that Paul refers to in Galatians 2, and that Luke has altered the proceedings a bit….

      • Avatar
        Judi  June 9, 2016

        Did Luke actually follow Jesus? Or was he one of Paul’s exclusively.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 11, 2016

          The tradition is that he followed only Paul. But I don’t think he knew him myself.

  12. Avatar
    bobnaumann  June 8, 2016

    Bart, I know this is off the subject, but what can you tell me about the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton? NASA has recently awarded them a million dollar grant to study what effect would the discovery of life forms on other worlds have on the major religions. The principle investigator is Lucas Mix, an Episcopal Priest who has a PhD in evolutionary biology from Harard.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 8, 2016

      Ah, good for them. It was established while I was in Princeton, working at the seminary. It was designed to be a kind of think-tank, scholars’ institute for experts working on the relationship of science and theology. Sounds like they are succeeding!

  13. Avatar
    Judi  June 9, 2016

    I see Paul so differently, a genius, and loving to be in the center. I also think he knew what he was doing or he would have had no reason to return to James , shave his head ( and admittance to the sin he committed ) and get Baptized by James. He had not been Baptized prior to his meeting James , and proclaimed he did not need to , so if you join them you can destroy them from within. I do however believe in Revelations no matter how others categorize that phenomenon , for if you see a future event and it comes true, and it happens repeatedly then there must be some truth and not illness.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  June 11, 2016

      But “seeing” future events has no necessary connection to a god giving a gift or revelation. It happens in other religious traditions besides Christianity. Maybe it’s just some strange time-warp, parallel universe type thing and particular people who are sensitive to them.

  14. Avatar
    Theonedue  June 18, 2016

    Bart, do you believe that the accounts of the apostles thinking they were seeing a spirit or phantasmal apparition in Luke and John is an apologetic development to verify that the resurrection of Jesus was not a spiritual one, but a physical one (with all the excessive touching in the texts, it seems that is what it’s for)?

    Do you think it is a historical possibility that the apostles, if they had hallucinations of Jesus, originally thought his resurrected body was solely a phantom or spiritual body?

  15. Avatar
    john76  October 28, 2019

    Another reason to think Paul would have been well informed about Jesus apart from scripture and revelation is that Paul had two relatives who were apostles of note in the Jesus movement prior to his conversiobn: “Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.”
    — Romans 16:7 KJV

  16. Avatar
    kpo0327  February 15, 2020

    Dr Ehrman,

    What do you believe Paul means with his words found in Galatians 2:2?

    Is he looking for a private confirmation from the other Apostles regarding his practices with the Gentiles and circumcision so that he knows less his mission is in vain?

    Is this phase used elsewhere besides here and Philippians?

    https://biblia.com/bible/nasb95/galatians/2/2
    Thank you!
    Kevin

    • Bart
      Bart  February 16, 2020

      I”m not sure which phrase you mean. It would be easier if you would quote it for me? And yes, he wanted to talk to the leaders to make sure they were on board with his mission and would support it.

  17. Avatar
    micclan@ozemail.com.au  April 30, 2020

    If I get the gist of this post, Paul was arguing most specifically against the Law concerning Jewish customs, rituals and Identify status and not against the moral/justice content of the Law as the basis for salvation in Galatians. Right/wrong?
    What about Ephesians where grace through faith alone, not works is specifically repeated as the basis of salvation? Even though more likely Deutero-Pauline, Ephesians would have been written at least by a close follower/comrade of Paul.
    Many think Paul is a huge worry in regard to his social distance from the source, Jesus. Paul is always talking/creating abstract Philosophy about Jesus, while Jesus talks in simple moral parables about the way to the kingdom. Paul is always having “encounters/yarns” with the risen Christ where the Jerusalem apostles lived and walked with Jesus. When the author of James is responding to Paul’s philosophy of faith alone with the argument that faith without works is dead, the Jewish identity eligibility seems not to be on the radar. Was Paul’s very early revelation about the Eucharist more theology creation and always distant from the Didache’s thanksgiving and remembrance meal? Paul wrote, others couldn’t.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 1, 2020

      I don’t think I’d put it that way. Paul did not think morality was the *basis* of salvation. Salvation came only through the death and resurrection of Jesus. BUT once one became a believer and was baptzied, they would have the Spirit of God within them that would enable them to lead the moral life God chose.

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