In C.S. Lewis’ classic book, Mere Christianity, he concludes that based on the claims that Jesus makes about himself in the Gospels, he is either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. The first time I heard Lewis’ famous line I was compelled by his argument—until a few years later when I heard an additional “L” proposed by a critic: legend.
Jesus did not write Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, or any other known document for that matter; therefore, we should remember that the claims that Jesus makes in the Gospels are attributed to him by others. I believe Jesus is Lord, and although good arguments can be made in favor of the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels, it could also be argued that the early Church put divine claims in Jesus’ mouth. In the technical sense it is possible that the authors of the Gospels turned Jesus into a legend.
But what about Paul of Tarsus?
Paul not only claims to be an eyewitness of the resurrected Jesus, but his writings are also the earliest documents in the New Testament.
According to our best research, Paul of Tarsus was executed by Nero around 63 A.D.; which means that he planted all of his churches and wrote all of his letters prior to the publication of the first written Gospel narrative.
In the Book of Acts, the author portrays Paul [Saul] as being an enemy of Christianity and describes his attacks upon the early Church in multiple accounts (cf. Acts 8:1-4; 9:1-30; 22:1-21; 26:9-18).
However, in Galatians, one of Paul’s first letters written around 51 A.D., he makes his own claims and shares autobiographical information that informs our understanding of early Christianity. He says,
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being (Gal 1:11-16 NRSV)
Perhaps what is most interesting about what Paul shares is his background as a persecutor of the “church of God.” Unlike Peter, Paul did not follow Jesus during his earthly ministry; in fact, Paul persecuted the followers of Jesus because, according to him, their movement was doing harm to Judaism. Furthermore, Paul claims that he experienced a 180 degree turn in life when he witnessed the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus.
Likewise, in 1 Corinthians, a letter that Paul wrote approximately three to four years after Galatians, he includes multiple claims that he witnessed the resurrected Jesus (Cf. 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8). Of Paul’s claims, 1 Corinthians 15 is the most substantial.
The majority of biblical scholars believe that 1 Cor. 15:3b-5 is an ancient creed that Paul incorporates into his letter. In all likelihood the creed dates back to Peter and the first eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus . He says,
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
The Greek word Paul uses that is translated “handed on to you,” is a technical word that was used throughout the ancient world indicating the passing on of sacred tradition. In other words, Paul is tipping his hat and telling us that he is passing on sacred tradition that was at one point in time passed on to him.
From reading Galatians we know that Paul and Peter (Cephas) spent time together in Jerusalem within the first few years after Paul’s conversion (Galatians 1:18). It’s very possible that when Peter and Paul were together, Peter shared some of his experiences with Jesus and passed on the sacred tradition about Jesus’ resurrection appearances.
Additionally, in 1 Corinthians 15:6-8 Paul claims,
6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Here Paul claims that the resurrected Jesus appeared to a mass group of people and some of those witnesses were still alive at the time Paul was writing 1 Corinthians (i.e. 54-55 A.D.). Then Paul states that Jesus appeared to his brother, James (who I will talk about in my next post!), and then to all the apostles. Finally, Paul makes a claim that the resurrected Jesus appeared to him as well.
Skeptics could look at the Gospels and claim that the authors put words into Jesus’ mouth in order to turn him into a legend; but what about Paul? His writings are among the earliest documents in the New Testament and he personally claims to be an eyewitness of the resurrected Jesus in more than one of his letters.
So, we’re left with a major decision to make—was Paul a liar, a lunatic, or legit?
Did Paul leave behind his incredibly committed former way of life in Judaism to deceive people into following Jesus only to be executed?
Was Paul mentally unhealthy, but convincing enough to spread the message of Jesus throughout Asia Minor and catalyze a major movement?
Or did Paul spend the rest of his life proclaiming the liberating message of the death and resurrection of Jesus because he legitimately had a life-changing experience on the road to Damascus?
It’s a question we must each answer for ourselves.
I hope this post was helpful and caused you to think more deeply about Jesus’ resurrection. Join me next time as I discuss James, the younger brother of Jesus, and why his story matters when we talk about Easter.
Grace and Peace,