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Beginnings (1)

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No one was more surprised than Paul when he became a believer, unless it was the people in the churches he had been persecuting. One may call this change a conversion, though Paul describes it in other ways. 

2 Corinthians 4:6   For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.   
Philippians 3:7  
Yet whatever gains I had [as one who was blameless under the Jewish law], these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 

Thus it would be misleading to suggest that he abandoned a dissolute and godless life of self-indulgence for one of piety and virtue; it would be more accurate to say that his loyalty to God as revealed in the Jewish Law, or Torah, gave way to a loyalty to God as manifested in Jesus Christ.

It may come as a surprise to some readers if we go further and recognize that for Paul this change was in some way connected with a resurrection appearance, or revelation, of Jesus Christ; surprising, because it seems to say too little, and perhaps too much, about his so-called conversion. Too little, because the familiar blinding light, the fall to the ground, and the voice from heaven are missing in Paul’s own accounts; and too much, because some may be wondering, “Did not all the resurrection appearances end long before Paul became a believer?”  Thus it is no easy task for even a seasoned student of Paul to turn to the letters and to rely exclusively upon them as primary sources.  Yet if we are to give the apostle a chance to be heard on his own terms we need to give heed to what he says, especially on a subject as difficult and important as the beginnings of his Christian life. So we begin our discussion of the resurrection experience, as Paul tells it.


All quoted passages are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), except as noted.


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The methodological justification for exclusive reliance on the letters as primary sources is argued in Letters Based Chronology (1) and pages following.

The Resurrection Appearance to Paul

The texts are few, but important; important because of their early date, written perhaps thirty-five to forty years before the earliest gospel accounts of resurrection appearances (Matthew 28; Luke 24); and important because they are the only firsthand accounts coming down to us.



Refer to Jesus Traditions: Sources (1), and Resurrection Narratives, for additional background information.


1 Corinthians 15:3-8    3For 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, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
1 Corinthians 9:1   Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my work in the Lord?
Galatians 1:11-12, 15-16   11For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. . . .  15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being. 

These are the crucial texts, but, since Paul does not elaborate on the experience, we must depend, at least in part, upon “Before” and “After” pictures.


This is the crown jewel of the resurrection reports, probably coming to Paul orally in relatively fixed traditional form by the 30’s, or less than a decade from the time when Jesus had died.

Before the Resurrection Appearance

The texts below tell us a number of things about what we may call Paul’s pre-Christian life.

Galatians 1:13-14   13You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.
Philippians 3:4-6   4. . . If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 


bulletPaul was Jewish (even though descended from the tribe of Benjamin), born and reared in a pious and observant family of the diaspora (or dispersion).
bulletHe was a Pharisee, devoted to a particularly systematic and detailed study and observance of Torah, which in the view of this sect included not only the Biblical text but also the network of traditional interpretations, handed down orally from rabbi to disciple for generations; in this enterprise he claims to have excelled.
bulletHe was also a persecutor of the church, seeking to suppress a movement which was suspected of subverting the primacy of Torah in favor of loyalty to a crucified teacher who was hailed by his followers as Messiah, or Christ, to use the Greek equivalent.
bulletIt is also possible, though of course uncertain, that at this time, before he became a Christian apostle, Paul was an active missionary, seeking to make converts to Judaism from among the gentile population.

In the first century of our era, more Jews lived outside of, than within, Palestine.




The term Messiah in the Judaism of this period probably referred to an ideal Jewish king, descended from David.

This theory is based upon one possible reading of Galatians 5:11, “. . . if I still preach circumcision . . . .”

After the Resurrection Appearance

We may conclude that, after the appearance of Christ to him,

bulletPaul was now a believer (the name Christian is probably not yet in use), and had received baptism (implied in Romans 6:3).
bulletHe knew that he had been appointed as an apostle to the gentiles (Galatians 1:16). Though there is some speculation that this vocation to the gentiles developed later in his career, the letters provide no evidence of such a development.
bulletHe was now, more than likely, already engaged in proclaiming his gospel to gentiles in Arabia and Damascus (see below, next page).









If we may summarize the resurrection appearance as Paul reports it: 
     (1) It was an experience of seeing the risen Lord; that is, this was a resurrection appearance, as much as any of the other appearances referred to in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8. 
     (2) It was spiritual and inward, a revelation of Jesus Christ. This immaterial quality seems to be related to the fact that these texts make no mention of an empty tomb. The tomb may or may not have been empty, but the belief in the resurrection arose from having met the risen Jesus, not from having viewed an empty tomb. 
The resurrection appearance as revelation seems to be implied in Galatians 1:11-12, 15-16.
     (3) It was an objective experience, in that it had a matter-of-fact quality which differentiated it from a trance or vision, such as the one mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:1-7.
This point is made by John Knox (1987:101-2).

     (4) The resurrection appearance validated Paul’s call as an apostle, a claim which does not seem ever to have been in question so far as his apostolic peers were concerned. In a similar way, the experience formed the basis for his gospel.



Galatians 1:11-12.     

This summary is not intended to suggest that we have reached some kind of biographical bedrock, but rather is it intended to provide a relatively reliable point of departure for further inquiry.  See Acts as a Source (3), for a discussion of how Paul’s resurrection experience was viewed by an author writing some three or four decades later.

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Revised: December 15, 2004


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