A Message Of Divine Origin

A Message Of Divine Origin October 5, 2015

It is interesting to reflect on something that Paul says in his letter to the Galatians. He emphasized that his message, his gospel, is not of human origin.

What is his gospel? He doesn’t tell us in so many words, and although we may be able to deduce what it is from his letters, I think this is worth noting, and not considered often enough.

His gospel, the message he proclaimed, is something he says emphatically was of divine origin. And that is something he never had written down.

His letters, on the other hand, he does not claim to be of divine rather than human origin.

And so what we have from Paul are his own writings, and what he insisted was not merely his own creation he did not write down.

How might this, if taken seriously, change the way some Christians approach the Bible?

Envelope to the Galatians

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  • Cecil Bagpuss

    Ah, the statement so beloved of mythicists. If Paul’s gospel was of divine origin, then perhaps his knowledge of Jesus’ existence was from the same source. The implications are interesting. When Paul persecuted the first believers, it was not because he regarded Jesus as a failed messiah or because he doubted the resurrection, but because he denied Jesus’ very existence!

    Paul’s own encounter with Jesus proved that such a being actually existed. This explains why Paul must go to such lengths to argue that Jesus existed, and why he has so little opportunity to discuss the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

    The “stumbling-block” is not the cross but the alleged existence of a celestial being.

    • Is this a real argument about Paul’s experience? Or are you making a tongue-in-cheek suggestion.

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        It was tongue-in-cheek.

  • John MacDonald

    I think Paul outlines his GOSPEL in the letter to the Corinthians. He writes “Now I make known to you, brethren, THE GOSPEL which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you AS OF FIRST IMPORTANCE what I also received, that Christ died for our sins ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES,…and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day ACCORDING TO THE SCRIPTURES,… (1 Cor 15:1-4).”
    The passage above seems to mean either that (I) Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection fulfilled scripture (such as the implicit piercing of hands and feet Psalm 22:16b), or (II) Paul learned of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection by reading scripture. Or both. Whether (I) or (II) or both is correct, the qualification “according to the scripture” makes it problematic to ascribe Paul’s thoughts on the death, burial, and resurrection to the historical Jesus. This follows from the general principle of biblical hermeneutics that we set aside ascribing theologically motivated passages to the historical Jesus because the author may have had reason to invent them.

    • This is really irrelevant to the question of the historical Jesus, since a historical person is that person’s life, and the question of where they were buried, however interesting, is at best an appendix to that.

      I wonder whether Paul really did proclaim precisely what he mentions here – that Jesus died, was buried, and appeared.

      • John MacDonald

        My only point was that when making claims about the historical Jesus we can’t argue, for instance, that the historical Jesus was crucified based only on the writings of Paul, because for Paul the claim of Jesus’ crucifixion served a theological purpose (see 1 Cor 15:1-4) – and theologically motivated passages are generally set aside when reconstructing the historical Jesus. I tend to think Paul did proclaim what he mentions in 1 Cor 15:1-4 because it agrees with him elsewhere when he says “2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).”

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          What makes you think that if there is a reason for “setting aside” stories like the infancy narrative, it would also be a reason for setting aside the crucifixion? The failure to distinguish between the crucifixion and the other stories is the root of the problem.

          Why did people tell stories about Jesus? My answer is that Jesus was a real historical person who attracted followers. After Jesus was crucified, his followers came to believe that his death served some theological purpose. That was the beginning of the process. Since Jesus’ death was believed to have served a divine purpose, it would be natural for other events in his life to be seen in the same light. It would also be natural for fictional events to be created which would fit the same pattern.

          Now, you can try to extrapolate the process of fabricating stories back to the crucifixion itself, but if you do that, then you need to provide an alternative account of how the process began. That is what Carrier tries to do in his monumentally fatuous book. Carrier tries to replace a simple historical event with a mountain of incoherent speculation about dying and rising gods, demons in outer space, cargo cults, Luddites, aliens at Roswell, alternate realities in the sky, mystery religions etc.

          I think I shall stick to the traditional explanation.

          • John MacDonald

            Hi Cecil. I have little interest in Carrier, who does not touch on what is essential. I don’t feel mythicism is defensible. Paul clearly says he met Jesus’ brother. On the other hand, historical minimalism is a viable position. ****************************** In Galatians, Paul says his gospel is of divine, not human origins. In 1 Corinthians, as I said, Paul says his gospel is that: Jesus died, was buried, and was raised ACCORDING TO SCRIPTURE. For Paul this either means that Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection fulfilled scripture (such as the implicit piercing of hands and feet Psalm 22:16b), or that Paul learned of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection through an allegorical reading of Hebrew scripture (or both). Combining Galatians and 1 Corinthians, then, Paul’s understanding of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is completely theological, with no recourse necessary to profane history. Paul believed Christ was killed, buried, and raised, but Paul was adamant that his source for this knowledge was revelation. From the point of view of doing responsible history (as opposed to speculative history), if someone says they have some historical “facts,” and then claims that his source for these “facts” is that God “revealed” them to him, we could not use him or his “facts” as reliable. Beyond this, “facts” that have a primarily theological purpose are not admissible into a responsible reconstruction of the historical Jesus because the early church may have had reason to invent them. This is why the approximately 30 miracles, including the resurrection, are excluded from responsible accounts of the historical Jesus. If we don’t do this in the method of “responsible history,” we get “speculative history” like the work of N. T. Wright and William Lane Craig.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Paul says that Christ died according to Scripture. This can be interpreted in either of two ways. So all we have to do is to decide which interpretation is more plausible. This may involve a certain amount of speculation, but let’s have a go.

            You have conceded that Paul met Jesus’ brother. That is a useful piece of background knowledge. Let’s see how our two interpretations of “according to Scripture” fare in light of our background knowledge.

            Scenario 1: Jesus died by crucifixion. This fact was known to Jesus’ brother James and others including Cephas. The death was interpreted as the fulfilment of God’s plan. Paul heard about Jesus’ death through non-supernatural means and came to accept the theological interpretation of the event. He then started to preach this message himself. Those to whom Paul preached were able to confirm what he was saying since James and Cephas were well-known figures in the early church.

            Scenario 2: Jesus did not actually die by crucifixion but Paul believed that he did on the basis of an inspired reading of Scripture. Perhaps Jesus was still alive or perhaps he died after being run over by a camel. Either way, Paul went around telling people something that wasn’t true. This was a rather rash thing to do, because the people to whom Paul preached had some contact with the church of which Jesus’ own brother was a member. In spite of this, Paul seems to have got away with peddling an obvious falsehood.

            I may be overstepping the limits of what responsible historical investigation can achieve, but I’ll go for Scenario 1.

          • John MacDonald

            The problem is that Paul says he only knew of Christ’s death through revelation.

          • Where precisely does he say that?

          • John MacDonald

            Sorry. Your right. I phrased that badly. Paul seems to emphasize in Galatians that he received the gospel (the atoning death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, also cf. 1 Cor 15:1-4) from a divine source, and that is what he wants to emphasize. It would seem to be an odd thing for him to emphasize if the gospel was something he could have just learned from anybody. Why would Paul emphasize a divine origin for this information when, if this was common knowledge, he should have learned about the story of the atoning crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Christ from the Christians he was persecuting before he had his conversion experience? Maybe the original Christian faith was more along the lines of the pious teachings we find in the Didache, and Paul transformed it into the notion of Christ dying for our sins (on Christ dying for our sins, see 1 Cor 15:1-4). Maybe Paul was the first to turn Jesus’ death into a theological event of cosmic importance.

          • John MacDonald

            Paul says in 1 Cor 15:1-4 that Christ died “FOR OUR SINS, according to scripture.” Attaching “Christ died” to the “FOR OUR SINS” might have been the revelatory novelty that Paul brought to Christianity.

          • Gary

            I don’t care one way or the other, but your reference to 1 Cor 15:3-4, “he was buried and raised in accordance with scriptures”… My NRSV commentary says, “Paul quotes an early creed”. Reminds me of Bart Ehrman saying effectively, “He also used so-called pre-Pauline creed from Romans 1:3-4 to say Jesus was flesh, and was appointed at his resurrection, not a pre-existing angel. “Who was descended from the seed of David according to the flesh, who was APPOINTED Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his RESURRECTION from the dead”.” So maybe oral creeds were floating around, maybe based upon “Q”, I don’t know…but a little too much wine, a little oral creed mixture, and you have Paul’s theology, or John’s Revelation (which was a “vision” too).

          • John MacDonald

            The problem is that if Paul explains his gospel by quoting an early creed that would be available to anybody, why would he emphasize in Galatians he received his Gospel through divine revelation? And why wouldn’t Paul have already learned this supposed core gospel of the Christian faith from the Christians he was persecuting before his conversion experience?

          • Gary

            “The problem is that if Paul explains his gospel by quoting an early creed”…
            But that’s what he did in Rom 1:3-4, at least according to Ehrman.

            “why would he emphasize in Galatians he received his Gospel through divine revelation?”

            Wine? How should I know? A case of over analyzing?

          • John MacDonald


          • John MacDonald

            Keep in mind that it is a paralogism to conclude from the fact that Paul expresses something in the form of a creed that the creed pre-dates Paul. Paul could have created the creed, or someone from one of Paul’s churches could have created the creed.

          • Gary

            🙂 “paralogism”? That’s beyond me. I don’t even know what that is! Just as a reminder, Ehrman calls Rom 1:3-4 a “Pre-Pauline” creed. I assume that means it occurred before Paul. Beats me. Need to argue with Bart, not me.

          • John MacDonald

            A paralogism is a conclusion that seems reasonable at first glance, but brings with it some unsupported assumptions.

          • Gakusei Don

            // why wouldn’t Paul have already learned this supposed core gospel of the Christian faith from the Christians he was persecuting before his conversion experience?

            John MacDonald, I think Paul did. If you read Gal 1.23, Paul writes that the churches in Christ in Judea said that Paul, who “persecuted us in times past”, was “now preaching the faith which once he destroyed”. That to me was the idea that Christ was crucified and rose again. That is the basic gospel message, which seems to be “the gospel to the circumcised” (Gal 2:7, see below).

            Paul’s gospel, OTOH, was to the **gentiles**. It was the gospel to the Gentiles that Paul received “from no man”. See from Gal 1:15: God calls on Paul “that he might preach Christ to the gentiles”. See also Gal 2:7, where he writes “the gospel of the uncircumcision was **committed unto me**, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter.”

            So Paul understand the basic gospel from the Judean churches, but as part of his conversion call from God (i.e. “from no man”), becomes the first to decide that Christ’s resurrection has implications for the Gentiles.

          • John MacDonald

            I think it’s clear that all of this depends on what we identify Paul’s gospel as (a starting point seems to be “Christ died for our sins, was buried, and was raised according to scripture” in 1 Cor), and how we reconcile Paul’s source for his gospel (revelation from God, in Galatians) with what his gospel is. It is very difficult to speculate what the original Christian gospel was before Paul changed it, because it is reasonable to assume Paul’s theology influenced the gospel message of the other New Testament writers. So it’s difficult to say if we can reliably use Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John to determine the gospel message before Paul, since they may all be “Pauline.” James Tabor in “Paul and Jesus (2012)” speculates the original gospel may be something like we find in the Didache, simply pious teaching devoid of the Christology. I tend to think that the gospel Paul thought he received from God was quite different from what the original Christians were preaching. I think the historical Jesus was crucified, but that Paul added that this death was one where Jesus universally died for our sin . This would have allowed Paul to go to the gentiles with the message of the gospel. Paul seems emphatic that the source of his gospel is God, not man, so Paul must have thought God revealed something to him that the Christians he was persecuting previously could not have shared with him. And as I said, 1 Cor says this gospel was “according to scripture,” so Paul may have “learned” that Jesus died for our sins because it was revealed to him in an allegorical reading of the suffering of Isaiah’s servant, who “bears our sins”, who was given over “because of their sins” (Is. 53:4, 6, 11, 12 LXX).

          • This ignores the fact that Paul emphatically says that whether it was other apostles or Paul himself, this is what they preach. And so what he received must, in context, be traditional information passed on in the normal way. The fact that Paul persecuted the group, and went from opposing to proclaiming their message, likewise indicates that he knew what they stood for before his change of mind. And so Galatians can only be emphasizing that he had a call experience which means his message does not depend for its authority on the Jerusalem apostles, with whom he had a previous agreement but whose ongoing agreement he was unsure of.

            The only way to read these passages the way mythicists do is to take them out of context, and ignore other things that Paul writes in the very same letters.

          • John MacDonald

            There clearly would have been a great deal of agreement between Paul and Peter. And yet there were some issues they definitely disagreed about. If we leave aside the later harmonizing account in Acts and focus on the letters, this is what we learn:

            In Galatians 2, Paul records a conflict he had with Peter. In doing so, he mentions that “certain men came from James” and that after their arrival, Peter separated himself from eating with the Gentiles.

            “When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.”

            Galatians 2:11-13

            Everything up to this point in Galatians seems to suggest that James and Paul were of one accord on the gospel for which Paul is contending in the letter. But here, it sounds almost as if James himself has about-faced. And yet, Paul does not have anything to say against James— only against Peter and Barnabas and the other Jews who joined Peter.

            Presumably Paul had something in his Gospel that promoted inclusion with the gentiles that the Jerusalem bunch were lacking in their gospel.

          • Mark

            Which of the things Paul says can’t be explained if the whole content of what the ‘risen Christ’ said to him is “They’re right; you’re wrong; stop persecuting them; preach my arrival among the nations”? This is consistent with his having a gospel /commission/ message-to-spread that is ‘not from a human source’. The appearance itself is taken as validating the ‘resurrection’, of course, as part of what he teaches.

            If it didn’t contain a thought like “they’re right; you’re wrong”, how does he know it was bad to persecute them? If it did contain “they’re right, you’re wrong”, it doesn’t need to include the propositions on account of which they’re right. He can move from rejecting a body of proposition to accepting it, without the propositions being itemized.

            It seems plain to me that he does know most of what he knows from ‘the Christians he was persecuting before his conversion experience’. It is over-reading to suggests that he thinks otherwise. The later visit to Jerusalem and the comparing of notes can hardly be explained on any other picture, can it? What theological propositions are we supposed to imagine the risen King Jesus to explain to him? The suggestion that the risen Jesus said “and by the way James saw me, and a few days later …” is more than a little strange…