The Damascus Road Revelation and Paul’s Gospel

We have been pursuing the idea that the event of the resurrection of Jesus, set in its historical context of the acts, teaching, death of Jesus, contemporary ideas about the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age, and the resurrection appearances themselves, contains the core gospel at the origin of Christianity. Today we consider some New Testament texts that refer to resurrection appearances. Since in this series so far we are not presupposing Christianity’s truth but examining the evidence for this conclusion, I will proceed with some historical caution. Hence we will give the highest priority to testimony from sources historians consider as having the most direct access to the appearances of the resurrected Jesus.

All New Testament writings presuppose or explicitly refer to the resurrection of Jesus. The Four Gospels narrate Jesus’ appearances to his original disciples, to the women who visited the tomb, and to Peter, John, and the others. And Acts presents the preaching and testimony of Peter and Paul concerning the resurrection. A good case can be made that these accounts derive from the people who actually experienced the appearances first hand. But Paul’s testimony is unique. He records, in his own words in letters written by him, his direct experience of the resurrected Lord. Someone might argue that the narrations in the Gospels or Acts or Hebrews are indirect, second or third-hand, and therefore could differ from the original witnesses’ testimony. No such argument can be made about Paul’s testimony in 1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, and Philippians. In this case, we must choose to believe Paul or not believe him. There is no issue of corruption in transmission.

Paul teaches about the significance of the resurrection of Jesus in many places (For example, Phil 3:10-11, 20-21; 1 Thess 1:9b-10; 4:13-8; Rom 1:1-4; 4:18-25; 6:1-10; 8:9-11, 22-26; 10:9-10; 14:7-9; and 2 Cor 4:7-15) . But he refers to his own experience of the risen Jesus three times, twice in 1 Corinthians and once in Galatians:

1 Cor 9:1

“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?”

1 Cor 15:3-8

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.”

Galatians 1:11-17

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.”

The topic we are considering is so huge that many books could be written on it. Sadly, I have time and space to make only one point. The two references to “revelation” in Galatians 1:11-17 (quoted above), considered along with the other two texts also quoted above, clearly refer to the appearance of the resurrected Christ to Paul (cf. Acts 9, 22, and 24). In verse 12, Paul says he received his gospel by revelation.  In verses 13-16, he elaborates on this revelation, its context, and its results. Before this revelation, Paul thought he should persecute the church and be zealous for the traditions of his fathers. But God intervened and graciously revealed “his Son in me”. Paul’s experience of the resurrected Jesus as an act of divine grace and as God’s choice to have mercy on a sinner and an enemy (cf. Rom 5:1), definitively shaped his understanding of the gospel. For Paul, the good news proclaims that God’s grace and mercy do not depend on our works of righteousness. And, if we don’t have to win God’s grace and avoid God’s wrath by scrupulously keeping the Law, God’s people can be opened to the Gentiles by faith in Jesus!

Further elaboration of the meaning and implications of the resurrection would lead us deep into the field of Christology. My point so far in this series on the resurrection is to show that the resurrection is not merely a brute fact, a miracle whose meaning is exhausted by its unusual nature. Given its context in the life of Jesus, the religious thought of the day, and in the lives of those to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared, we can see how Jesus’ resurrection implied a religious revolution that has in fact changed the world.

Next time we must ask whether or not Jesus Christ really rose from the dead and whether or not we can make a rational judgment and a responsible decision to affirm that “He is risen.”

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2 thoughts on “The Damascus Road Revelation and Paul’s Gospel

  1. nokareon

    To continue a little down the road of the Devil’s Advocate in light of the fact that you raised Galatians 1:11-17, there is a reading of the Apostle Paul that sees him as being at odds with other early Christian church figureheads like Peter and James and in fact preaching a different gospel. Scholars who view Paul in this way would point to Galatians 1:11-12 as Paul’s way of distancing himself from the teaching of the Jerusalem apostles or even trying to trump them in some ways. Oftentimes, these readers would interpret Paul as some sort of more radical early church figure whose message could find no purchase in and around Jerusalem and Antioch due to Paul’s message being too much of a radical break with Judaism. Furthermore, they might see in Paul’s emphasis that he did not confirm his understanding of the gospel with other Apostles initially in v. 17 as reason to doubt the reliability of his list of appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. I suppose they would say concerning 1 Cor. 15:3 that Paul “received” the formula of appearances in some sort of ecstatic vision rather than Peter and James—and, of course, they would express scepticism and disdain to such ecstatic visions.

    Might not Paul’s emphasis on these direct “revelations,” which in Acts are characterized as a dazzling vision that only Paul could see, be seen as a tendency towards a sort of hysteria or hallucination? After all, Paul once describes a vision as being caught up to the third heaven, which seems on par with the esoteric and sometimes bizarre visions of John, Ezekiel, Daniel, and others. Or, alternatively, might Paul’s particular concern in Galatians and elsewhere that he was taught the gospel by God rather than other disciples show a sort of division and competition between figureheads of the church (especially Peter, Paul, and James)?

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  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    Okay. I know that such objections have been made, and I will soon respond to a variety of objections once I get the central affirmative argument complete. Right now I am merely interested in the modest thesis I stated at the end of this post. I think there is a good answer to the objection you as the Devil’s advocate raise. For sure Paul will not have anyone dismissing his apostolic authority as inferior to James, Peter, and John. But chapter 2 of Galatians, he states clearly that James, Peter and John gave him and Barnabas “the right hand of fellowship” and agreed that they should preach to the Jews and Paul and Barnabas to the Gentiles. The disagreement in the last half of chapter 2 is over whether Gentiles must observe the Law in certain respects to be Christians. There is no disagreement whatsoever about the fact or nature of the resurrection.

    If critics want to read between the lines, they imagine all sorts of conflicts. Historians should not allow their creative imaginations to overwhelm the plan meaning of the text. When they do this, I think it is legitimate to question why they are going to such lengths to subvert the text. I am suspicious of their suspicion. The discussion must end at some point and everyone must decide and take the risk.

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