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The Core of Paul’s Gospel

A lot of people (at least in my experience) think that Paul is the one who should be considered the “founder” of Christianity – that he is the one who took Jesus’ simple preaching about the coming kingdom of God and altered and expanded it into a complicated doctrine of sin and redemption, being the first of Jesus’ followers to maintain that it was the death and resurrection of Jesus that brought about salvation.   In my previous post I tried to show that this can’t be the case, because Paul was persecuting Christians already before he had converted, and these were certainly people who believed in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

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 passage in my next post, since I don’t think it says what people often claim it says.  But first….

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Were Jesus’ Followers Crazy? Was He? Mailbag June 4, 2016
Was Paul the Founder of Christianity?



  1. Avatar
    Todd  June 2, 2016

    Very good !! I had not considered that his statement in Corinthians could be a creed or statement of early Christian faith. It is quite clear that he handed down pre-existing beliefs in the new churches.

    Before I finished reading today’s post I was planning to respond with a “what about…?” Paul’s statement in Galations, but you beat me to the punch. I will await tomorrow’s post on that !!

    (Sometime I would also like your thoughts on the Didiche, presumably an early training document for new Christians).

    Thank you for this post. It is very helpful to me in my understanding of Paul’s message.

  2. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  June 2, 2016

    To me this question is like “who discovered America?” We now know that Scandinavians were here before Columbus, but we don’t celebrate Scandinavian Day. We still (or some of us) celebrate Columbus Day. The ancients might have known the world wasn’t flat, but Columbus was the one who showed it to the world with certainty. It seems to me that Paul might have received the teaching that Jesus died in atonement of sins, but Paul was the only one whose writings still survive. We don’t know that anyone else rationalized this out the way he did. The ones who came before him were practicing an exclusive Christ myth Judeocentric religion and their beliefs do not survive in writing. For all we know they had a complicated belief system from which Paul cherry picked a few choice ideas. Paul was the one who opened up the Christ myth to the rest of the world and we have only his word for how that happened.

  3. Avatar
    jhague  June 2, 2016

    In your opinion, how did Paul persecute other Christians before his conversion?

  4. Avatar
    rburos  June 2, 2016

    As an historian you are touching on something I find fascinating yet frustrating–how this religion of the Book got started before any writings we have available to us today. What exactly were the oral traditions in circulation before Paul’s letters? Even as a beginner I see these problems with Judas. In the gospels Jesus is going to put all twelve on thrones, Paul has Jesus appearing to the twelve, yet Judas betrays Jesus and dies before any of this could happen.

    I’m sorry I haven’t read your book yet on this, but is there literature where scholars discuss this pre-literary oral tradition and its affect on Paul/gospel traditions? How might it have really affected Paul, as I don’t believe in visions?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2016

      I deal with the issue a bit in How Jesus Became God. But I’m not sure what you mean about not believing in visions. Visions happen all the time, millions every day. The only question is whether they are veridical or not (whether something is really there or if the person is seeing things. People do!)

      • Avatar
        jhague  June 3, 2016

        Maybe he means that the claimed visions are dreams so it’s not really there. Paul may have dreamed about going to the third heaven but he didn’t really go any where.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  June 5, 2016

        Or maybe he doesn’t believe *Paul’s claims* of having had visions!

  5. Avatar
    john76  June 2, 2016

    Paul quotes the Corinthian Creed and writes: “That Christ died for our sins IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE SCRIPTURES. And 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.” What “SCRIPTURES” is Paul referring to here? Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 would fit nicely here – or would you have another suggestion?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2016

      Yes, I wish we knew what he had in mind. Right: later Christians turned to passages such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22:1 and the other psalms that talk about an innocent person suffering even to death. Who knows if that’s what Paul (or the person who came up with the creed) had in mind!

      • Avatar
        john76  June 3, 2016

        The beginning, atonement part of the Corinthian creed which says “Christ died for our sins IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE SCRIPTURES,” seems to match up nicely with Isaiah 53:5 that says “with his stripes we are healed.”

        • Avatar
          john76  June 3, 2016

          Paul records no narrative details of Jesus’ death except “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” Maybe the reason for this is that there were no known narrative details of the passion when Paul was writing. Mark records that all the disciples fled when Jesus was arrested. Maybe the followers of Jesus stayed away during the events of the crucifixion because they were worried about getting arrested too. Maybe Paul said “according to scriptures” because the first followers of Jesus just assumed he must have been fulfilling scriptures in his final day. Maybe Mark saw this and so crafted his passion narrative to reflect Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.

      • Avatar
        Rogers  June 4, 2016

        Isaiah 53 figures prominently in the Acts 8 Philip/Ethiopian eunuch story, but it looks as though Isaiah 53 gets some kind of reference from every NT gospel. So perhaps this may have been the cornerstone OT scriptures that the suffering servant concept got built on top of by the earliest Christians. Taken in isolation, it does seem to align very well with the core imagery that Christianity began to portray around Jesus. One can scarecly blame later Christians for thinking it’s a set of verses tailor written for them. Plus, Christians have that well-known apologetic concept that such phrophetic passages from the OT have a dual fullfillment – one for the times they were written and a latter as pertaining to the eventual appearance of Jesus. (In this view God is evidently regarded as smart enough to weave history in such a way that these OT passages can get recycled – i.e., history doesn’t necessarily repeat, but it does tend to rhyme.)

        • Bart
          Bart  June 4, 2016

          Yes, the big problem — long recognized — is that even though Isa 53 gets alluded to a lot in the NT, the portions that get mentioned are *never* the ones that indicate the Servant suffered for others! Hard to figure that one out….

  6. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  June 2, 2016


    Paul does state very clearly that he got his Gospel form others before him in this passage of 1 Corinthians, but even in Galatians this seems very clear to me. Regardless of whom Paul thinks he got his Gospel from, it already existed before him. In Galatians 2 Paul explicitly says that he presented to the apostles the gospel he preaches to the Gentiles and there is no mention of debates or opposition. On the contrary, Paul states that not only was he recognized as someone entrusted to preach the gospel but also that the apostles added nothing and all he was asked to do was to continue to remember the poor. Paul was being endorsed by the apostles. Again, that is not compatible with a situation where Paul is the one trying to convince them of a theology that they didn’t already believe. And, finally, when Paul accuses Peter of hypocrisy, he is precisely saying that Peter is doing something contrary of what he (Peter) preaches. So Peter must have preached what Paul emphasizes: salvation is a matter of believing in the death and resurrection of Christ and not by following the law. Right?


    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2016


      The only nuance I would provide is that Paul did think that his gospel (the good news) that gentiles too could be followers of Jesus without keeping the Jewish law came straight to him from Jesus, as I’ll try to explain in a post soon!

      • Avatar
        jhague  June 3, 2016

        Today we think of someone who claims to have received a message from a dead person, whether through a vision/dream or some other avenue, as probably having some kind of problem such as a mental issue. Why should we think any different of Paul?

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  June 3, 2016

      Except that, as Bart explains elsewhere, it wasn’t (as Christians today believe) that believing in him meant you were free from the wages of your sins. What Bart writes is that “salvation,” in Paul, meant “the deliverance Jesus’ followers would experience when the rest of the world was destroyed at the second coming.”

      As for the earlier part of your post, I don’t think we are justified in reading Paul’s negotiations with the Jerusalem Council as history.

  7. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  June 2, 2016

    Bart, you helped recently by pointing out to me that Paul did not mean by “salvation” what Christians mean today–that is, release from the wages of sin through belief in the sacrificial death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You wrote that he meant was “the deliverance Jesus’ followers would experience when the rest of the world was destroyed at the second coming.” Certainly, THAT kind of salvation is almost implied by his death and resurrection, given Jewish beliefs about the dead rising, etc. I’d have to re-read Paul to confirm all this for myself.

    Still, all that is within and would not be seen as blasphemous within the Jewish context of the day. Would you agree that what WOULD have seemed heretical would have been believing not just that the risen Christ was the first fruit but that one had to believe that, believe in him as such, if one is to be saved?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2016

      That, and the idea that a crucified man in any sense could be God’s messiah.

      • Avatar
        Rogers  June 4, 2016

        Of course, one of your books, Bart, points out that “a crucified man” was a stumbling block for Paul himself because any man that was executed by being hung on a tree fell directly under God’s curse per an OT scripture.

        Is that the problem that Paul went to Arabia for three years to grapple with? Trying to get past this OT scriptural obstacle, so to speak? No doubt the literal implications of such scriptures held a great deal of power in the mind of a Pharisee such as Paul. So he had to work out some kind of solution to this dilemma that would be suitable to a rigorous pharisaical mindset…

        • Bart
          Bart  June 4, 2016

          When Paul says he went to Arabia he doesn’t indicate that it was in order to grapple with any problems. He almost certainly means the Nabataean community, and he may have gone there to evangelize them.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  June 3, 2016

      I had missed that nuance in your explanation of Paul’s view of salvation. I surprise myself sometimes with what I miss when I’m reading. Does Paul tell us what he thought would become of those who were not saved? Would they live forever in torment or would they cease to exist?

  8. AoSS
    AoSS  June 2, 2016

    I am a fan of both yours and Robert M Price (can’t wait for the debate in October, already bought a VIP ticket), and have been curious about 1 Corinthians 15:3-6 for a while now.
    It seems like most scholars take this as being genuine, but Dr. Price does make some arguments that I find convincing that it is a later interpolation (1 Cor 15:3-11).
    I have not yet been convinced either way on the issue, but I do think that there are good reasons to suspect that it could possibly be an interpolation.
    I can’t wait to see how you address Galatians and am curious of if you have heard of Dr. Price’s arguments?
    If not, here is an article about it:

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2016

      Yeah, I’m afraid I find that completely unconvincing!

      • AoSS
        AoSS  June 3, 2016

        Do you know of any good responses to Dr. Price’s article?
        I have seen WLC’s, but that is really poor.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 4, 2016

          I don’t know of any NT scholars who thought they needed to respond. But you could write him and ask.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  June 3, 2016

      Where can I get more info. about the Price debate? Will it be streamed live?

  9. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  June 2, 2016

    Yes, that seems right to me. I would like to know if what Jesus said to Paul in the vision that Paul got of him on the road to Damascus is true, or was it made up by Luke or by the organized church to prop up what they wanted people to believe.

  10. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  June 2, 2016

    Is there any evidence, other than the narratives in Acts, that Paul’s persecution of followers of Jesus involved any threat of bodily harm? When he says he persecuted the church, could he be exaggerating? Skilled rhetorician that he was, could his “persecution” have been no more than seeking out opportunities to debate them vigorously and obnoxiously, perhaps more like some of the fundamentalists who presume to knock down straw-man “claims that Bart Ehrman will make when he presents his case,” than going around with arrest warrants to serve against anyone who preached that Jesus had been raised from the dead?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2016

      Yup, there’s evidence in Paul himself in 2 Cor. 11. He doesn’t seem to be exaggerating — he rather seems to be distressed by the guilt about it.

  11. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  June 2, 2016

    To which of the other early variants of Christianity does this creed apply just as well as to the proto-orthodox? If it applies to most just as well, then Paul could have been the founder of the proto-orthodox variant of Christianity.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2016

      This brief creed would probably apply to most early Christian groups, with the exception of communities such as the one behind the Gospel of Thomas, which claimed it was Jesus’ *teachings* that brought salvation, not his death and resurrection. I may answer the question more fully in a weekly readers’ mailbag.

  12. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  June 2, 2016

    hello Bart

    Many times you said that the messiah that jews were expecting was not to be killed by his enemy he was rather king figure who will crash his enemies , but in this post you agree with Paul that the messiah will die for the sins as scriptures said , which scriptures ? if jews scriptures foretold that the messiah will die for the sins of the people and be raised from the dead then why they have rejected jesus because he seems to fulful the scriptures


    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2016

      Yes, I wish we knew what he had in mind. Later Christians turned to passages such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22:1 and the other psalms that talk about an innocent person suffering even to death.

    • AoSS
      AoSS  June 3, 2016

      There are two [main] different ideas about this.
      1) Appealing to the scriptures is done post hoc. Jesus died and they needed to reconcile it, so they reinterpreted scriptures in a way not done before to justify it.
      2) There really were some interpretations of scripture, even if unpopular or relatively unknown, where the Messiah would die for people’s sin.

      This is, of course, presupposing that the Scriptures in question are Jewish scriptures. While this is what most would assume, I do think that it is very likely that there existed “Christian” writings before Paul and that he may have considered them “Scripture”.

  13. Avatar
    marcrm68  June 2, 2016

    I was impressed when I read your critique of I Corinthians 15:3-6 in Did Jesus Exist… Others use this same verse to argue for a pre-Christian suffering, dying messiah idea circulating through Judea at the time. But how do you square this one passage with all the other crazy stuff that Paul is saying? The passage may be the very earliest Christian creed, I am with you on that. That Christ died for our sins does not really necessarily mean that the earliest Christians thought that they had to accept Jesus as their savior to gain eternal life. I don’t really know what it meant, I’m not that smart. I have a gut feeling that Paul is not sane. The line in the passage that really intrigues me is Cephas and the twelve.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2016

      I don’t question Paul’s sanity myself. But he clearly was living in a different age from ours with a completely different understanding of the world! (See tomorrow’s post on a related topic)

      • Avatar
        jhague  June 3, 2016

        I understand that Paul lived in a different age with a different understanding of the world but it seems that most of the people that came in contact with Paul had issues with him. Maybe they were the sane ones! Even Jesus’ closest follower who by today’s standards appear to be delusional had issues with Paul.
        Paul claims to be a strict Jew, does a 180 on his religious beliefs, claims that his message is from a dead man through dreams and believes that he went on trips to cosmic heavens.
        Would most people in the first century think this sounds a little crazy?

      • Avatar
        marcrm68  June 3, 2016

        I imagine Paul as the guy I worked with who was schizophrenic…my own personal perspective… He really believed in the visions that he saw, and was telling everybody about them. Marty could have started a religion in antiquity! In todays world, he is just another nut job… And this goes straight to your point that it was indeed another age, where people were ripe for crazy ideas. Paul’s letters are the earliest evidence that we have. How do we know that all the later writings weren’t based on Paul’s delusions? How do we know that Paul didn’t grasp onto some fledgling Jewish belief that was taking off at the time, and made the rest up…or had visions that he truly believed? I suppose we never will… But we should keep in mind that anything Paul says might be a delusion…including Cephas and the twelve…

  14. talmoore
    talmoore  June 2, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, the profession from 1 Cor 15:3-5 is tough to deconstruct, because it appears to be based on Isaiah 53, but whether it’s the LXX or the Hebrew Isaiah is the question. Now Isaiah 53 in the Hebrew has three different words for trangressions, sins and iniquities; the first (transgression) is pesh’a, which can also mean an infraction or criminal act, while the second (sin) is khedte, which means something more akin to sin or to pollute, and the last (iniquity) is ‘awon, which means something like petulence or ill-manner. All three carry the implication of violating a rule.

    Now the LXX (Isa. 53:5) translates the Hebrew pesh’a (“trangression”) as anomias, which I assume means literally without laws or lawless. And the LXX translates both the Hebrew khedte (“sin”) and ‘awon (“iniquity”) as amartias (which I’m guessing has something to do with a lack of witnesses? My Greek is not so good). Anyway, Paul uses the latter Greek word, amartion, in 1 Cor 15:3, which suggests he means either sins or iniquities, or khedte or ‘awon. So Paul is probably referencing the line “he was crushed because of our iniquities (amartias)”. The word in the Hebrew translated as crushed is m’doka, which means literally to put down, or figuratively to defeat. Meanwhile, the Hebrew/Aramaic for died is “met”, which has the same initial as m’doka.

    Moreover, I should point out that we have two three-line verses, which looks suspiciously like the three-line apothegms that Jesus is wont to use.

    So knowing this would it be possible to reconstruct the original profession in the semitic (Aramaic or Hebrew)? Let’s see.
    הוא מת מעוונותינו
    He died from our sins/iniquities
    כמו שכתוב
    As written
    And was interred
    והוא התעורר בשלישי
    And he was risen up/woken up on the third [day]
    כמו שכתוב
    As written
    And appeared/was seen

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2016

      Yes, of course, Paul and his readers would know the passage in the Greek translation.

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 2, 2016

    The issue of early creeds is covered quite well in your “How Jesus Became God”‘ book and was very helpful to understand.

    I have recently been reading some odd things:

    1. The Book of Mormon which describes Jesus appearing to Mormons in America.

    2. Some information about Jesus going to Japan during the “lost years” and then returning to Israel where His brother was crucified and Jesus then returned to Japan where he died and was buried in Aomori at the age of 106.

    3. A book entitled “Jesus in India” which describes Jesus during the “lost years” being educated by gurus in India,

    If you add to these three, stories in the extra-canonical Gospels, then there sure is a lot of mythology floating around making it harder than ever to separate myth from history even using historical criteria. It certainly makes you wonder about a lot of it…..

  16. Avatar
    Scott  June 2, 2016

    Given the state of creedal development represented here and a Christian presence substantial enough outside Judea to warrant Paul’s zeal and anti-Christian activity, is it possible that Jesus was crucified several years before ce 30? Or is it possible that Jesus’ followers had already “colonized” the Greek-speaking world before the resurrection and were receptive to a quick conversion from Jewish sect to new religion?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2016

      The earliest date would be 27 CE, since that’s when Pontius Pilate became governor.

  17. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  June 2, 2016

    Did Paul find the teachings of Jesus during his earthly ministry irrelevant? In my view, and I may be off base, focusing on the death and resurrection of Jesus as the core message of Christian faith seems to ignore or at least render the teachings of Jesus himself irrelevant. Is there any any indication that Paul knew of Jesus is earthly teachings? Or did the stories develop orally after Paul’s theology was formed? Also, since there was a Christian church already extant while Paul was persecuting it did they also render the teachings of Jesus irrelevant by making Jesus’s death and resurrection of the central doctrine of Christianity?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2016

      I have a discussion of just htese issues in my book The New Testament: A Historical Introduction…., in a chapter called “Did the Tradition Miscarry?” Fascinating questions with a range of possible answers!

  18. Avatar
    Jim  June 2, 2016

    I don’t have the ability to read this passage in Corinthians in Greek, so I wouldn’t be able to detect any nuances even if they bit me on my posterior.

    What I wonder about is whether the “in accordance with the scriptures” lines could have been Paul’s own personal insertions into what he received and was passing along?

    It would seem to me that in those early years, whoever ferreted out from the OT writings that Jesus “died for our sins, was buried and raised on the third day”, must have had to have been one scholarly-smart cookie. It also must have been reasonably difficult for any common folk to be able to access scrolls at a local synagogue in order to locate and identify potential scriptures supporting these creedal claims.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2016

      Yes, I wish we knew what passages Paul (or the author of the creed) had in mind. Later Christians turned to passages such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22:1 and the other psalms that talk about an innocent person suffering even to death. Jews and Christians would have known the Scriptures from hearing them read, repeatedly, during their worship services.

  19. Avatar
    GregAnderson  June 2, 2016

    Side note re: Paul, Romans, and the name Junia: apparently there really *was* a masculine name Junius, in Roman times.

    “It’s a bit like reading snippets of people’s emails,” says MOLA archaeologist Sophie Jackson, who supervised the excavation of the Bloomberg site. “My personal favorite was one that reads simply: ‘You will give this to Junius, the cooper, opposite the house of Catullus …’ That’s all that was legible, but it really captured my imagination: Some wealthy man named Catullus with a big landmark house and Junius the cooper, living across the street …”

    This is from a report of the discovery of a trove of 405 ancient Roman writing tablets unearthed during the construction of the new European headquarters for Bloomberg LP in the City of London.


    It doesn’t excuse modern translators changing the name Junia to Junius but … sadly removes an argument against the practice.

  20. Avatar
    JSTMaria  June 3, 2016

    Hello again!

    “Christ died for our sins….” according to which Scriptures specifically? Do you know? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2016

      Yes, I wish we knew what he had in mind. Later Christians turned to passages such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22:1 and the other psalms that talk about an innocent person suffering even to death.

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