Sunday, January 24, 2016

Paul: A Second, Independent Witness to the Gospel

Caravaggio: Conversion on the Way to Damascus

January 25th is an important day, marking the conversion of St. Paul. Everybody knows that Saul of Tarsus mercilessly persecuted the fledgling Christian religion. He watched the cloaks of the Jews who stoned Stephen. And, everyone knows that he was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus.

What fewer read is that St. Paul was never instructed by a human being in the Christian faith!
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea; they only heard it said, "He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me. 
(Galatians 1:15-24 RSV)
Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up by revelation; and I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain.
(Galatians 2:1-2 RSV)

In other words, it was at least 14 years (17 if the three in Arabia are added, rather than included) before St. Paul got his divinely revealed gospel checked out by Peter, James and John! St. Paul's gospel is therefore an independent second witness to the original apostolic tradition.

St. Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles, although he often found himself embroiled in disputes between Jewish and Gentile Christians. He wrote most of the New Testament, but his style was not always the clearest. [Clarification: Paul wrote most of the books of the New Testament, if you go with the traditional attribution of Hebrews to Paul, which has fallen into disfavor among scholars.] St. Peter felt compelled to write prophetically: "There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures." (2 Peter 3:16-17 RSV) Indeed, Martin Luther would base many of his errors on fundamental misunderstandings of the Epistle of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Romans.

St. Paul had planned to go to on a missionary trip to Spain. However, was executed in Rome under Nero, tradition has it, by beheading. [Thanks to comments for clarifications.]


  1. A minor correction, either to your error or to you omission of some of the facts. Paul was acquitted in that case in which he appealed to Caesar, and he was released. Later he was swept up in a separate round-up of Christians in Rome and was beheaded.

    1. Yes, I telescoped the facts at the end, and yours is the better telling of the account.

  2. Not to be a quibbling jerk but I wouldn't say "he wrote most of the New Testament." By my count he wrote 28% of it. A lot, but not most. Here's what I get for words: Gospels: 82,590, 46%, Acts: 24,229, 14%, Paul's letters: 50,190 28%, Other stuff (James to Revelation): 22,012, 12%.


    It's useful (though annoying) to read the skeptics, who basically claim that far from being an independent source, Paul was THE source, and the NT was, so to speak, just artistic embellishment. Obviously, I reject that. And so I think your basic point is a good one.

    1. If Paul wrote Hebrews, he wrote most of the books in the New Testament ;-) Paul's epistles do indeed predate the gospels, with Galatians probably being the oldest book. I don't think the critics pass the straight face test on this one, as, of course, neither do you.

    2. Let me rephrase that to avoid offense. As of course, you, too, brother, also disbelieve critics' claims that Paul was the mastermind behind the gospels. To elaborate, clearly there is a single source behind the synoptic gospels. At least it is clear to me. We read 30 minutes of a chronological Bible each day. Laid out side by side, it's pretty clear. Not that this is a problem for the Bear. The synoptics each have a different emphasis. I can't imagine St. Paul, who was such a towering figure even before he wrote a word, could have somehow penned a proto-gospel without his name being attached. I haven't even heard of an apocryphal Gospel of Paul, although there probably is one somewhere. Also, the gospels and St. Paul's epistles seem quite dissimilar in many ways. Paul was a theologian. I just don't see him coming up with parables. I don't see the same hand behind both. Not to mention that if it were the case, Paul would have had to have made up the story about meeting with Peter, James and John to have what he was preaching approved, and much else besides. No, I have every confidence in St. Paul. He suffered much, and I don't think he would have done so for a lie.


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