Apostle Paul’s Reception of Revelation and Tradition 

From Paul’s own testimony and the testimony of the book of Acts, we learn that Paul received direct revelations from Jesus Christ.

Most important of these is his conversion experience on the way to Damascus to persecute Christians. It was the overwhelming experience Paul and Acts say Paul had of Jesus that caused his conversion from persecutor of the early Church to its arguably greatest proponent. Paul also tells us about several of his other revelations,

“I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.” (2 Cor. 12:1-3)

“Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say,  or because of these surpassingly great revelations” (2 Cor. 12:6-7).

In Galatians Paul states that he received the gospel through revelation from Jesus,

“For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12).

According to another verse in Galatians,

“Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain” (2:1-2).

Here Paul tells us that he apparently received much via revelation through visions given to him by Jesus. Through them he received much of the Gospel that he then preached to others. This is not man’s Gospel, says Paul, but the Gospel from Jesus himself.

Unfortunately, we do not get more details about Paul’s revelations. We just know that Paul believed he received them and that this motivated his behavior. Moreover, Paul also depended on tradition inherited from Christians before him. Most important here is the early creed Paul cites in First Corinthians speaking of Jesus resurrection appearances to several individuals and groups,

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” (15:3-5).

Oral tradition being handed on by Paul is clearly indicated in terms such as “receive” and “deliver.” This is an important snippet of information for scholars reconstructing the earliest events of the Christian religion and its origin. It affirms the resurrection appearances to various people, leading many to take these resurrection appearances seriously. At least seriously enough that it is now recognized that the earliest disciples had experiences of the risen Jesus they believed indicated he had been raised from the dead [1].

Another tradition Paul inherits is his account of the Last Supper,

“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:23-26).

Again we find the terms “received” and “passed on” indicating Paul passing on early oral tradition. It becomes clear that Paul is dependent on both revelation and oral tradition for receiving his information. It is also important to acknowledge that Paul also very likely received information about Jesus when he visited Peter and James, the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:18). Further, Paul’s dependence on oral tradition suggests that he did not create from whole cloth matters of the Christian faith, as sometimes claimed by critics.

References

  1. Bultmann, Rudolf. 1953. “The New Testament and Mythology.” In Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, edited by Hans-Werner Bartsch. p. 38; Fuller, Reginald. 1965. The Foundations of New Testament Christology. Scribner. p. 142; Ludemann, Gerd., and èOzen, Alf. 1995. What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 80; Sanders, E. P. 1995. The Historical Figure of Jesus. Penguin UK; Johnson, Luke Timothy. 1997. The Real Jesus. New York: HarperCollins. p. 136; Funk, Robert. 1998. The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus. Harper San Francisco. p. 466; Ehrman, Bart. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. p. 230-231; Lapide, Pinchas. 2002. The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers; Michael Licona quoted by Sean McDowell in Did the Apostles Really Die as Martyrs for their Faith? (2013). Available.

3 comments

  1. I have found your site very helpful. I am someone who is finding it tough to keep my faith. I feel the need to engage with atheist content and it leaves me very upset because I can follow their logic easily. The whole narrative of the new testament can seem so flimsy sometimes, however I still understand the importance of a message like the one being portrayed in it. How confidant are you in it’s veracity?

    • Your grappling with these questions shows that you are thoughtful and want to work out things for yourself. That’s good.
      I would say two things. If you are struggling with your Christian faith, don’t jump too quickly into atheism. There are many, many religious and philosophical worldviews out there to investigate, some of which offer thoughtful ideas and answers to important questions. There are also Christians who are and have been in your position who have tried to reason through these topics, so seek their work out. I could recommend sources should you wish. It takes time, but it is doable and worth it in the end.

      Regarding the New Testament, it depends what we’re talking about. If it is the Gospels, I deem them reliable in their basic details (the Markan formula in general, the general outline of Jesus’ ministry, his entry into Jerusalem, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection), problematic in several areas, and less reliable on some secondary details. But the Gospels are just one part of the New Testament. We could discuss Paul and the other letters should you wish.

      • I’m sorry I didn’t respond. I never got a notice that you answered. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the idea that because the language that Paul uses to describe the Damascus encounter is similar to how he described other non physical encounters ( by using words like revelation) means that we can’t trust that the Damascus encounter was in fact a physical encounter with Jesus? I got this from a YouTuber Matthew Hartke.

Let me know your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s