“Gospel of Paul? This guy’s lost his mind!”
Yeah, I can hear you now. Okay, I admit it, Paul didn’t have a gospel in the same way Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had a gospel. Paul did indeed have good news for us, though. In 1st Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul sums up his “gospel” that he says he received from others. Paul does this summary in a list form: Christ died for our sins, he was buried, he was raised on the third day, and he appeared to individuals and groups, the last being Paul on the road to Damascus. This list is the content of Paul’s gospel. Essentially, it agrees with the 4 gospels–Jesus the Messiah died, was buried, was resurrected and then appeared to witnesses. From a historical point of view, though, Paul’s gospel just might be a stronger foundation to start building a historical case from.
Galatians 1:11-2:10 tells us a bit about Paul’s biography and how he received his gospel. Paul is writing to the Galatians because they have believed a false gospel, and Paul wants to encourage them to believe the true gospel–the one which Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 15.
So, if Galatians tells us how Paul received his gospel, when was Galatians written? Many more conservative scholars believe Galatians could have been written as early as the 40s AD. The more liberal scholars believe it could have been the mid-50s. Just for argument’s sake we’ll take the later date and suppose Galatians was written at 55.
Suppose Paul wrote Galatians in 55 immediately after his second trip to Jerusalem. 14 years before that, Paul says, he made his first trip to Jerusalem to “compare preaching notes” with Peter and James, since Paul himself didn’t know Jesus. This meeting would be in 41. For 3 years before this, Paul is in Arabia and Damascus being prepared by God for ministry. Paul receives his gospel sometime in this 3-year period, since he has already been preaching and comparing preaching notes with Peter and James 3 years later. So, Paul probably received his gospel anywhere from 38-41 AD.
If we stop and think of the bigger picture, this is a gold mine from a historical point of view. Here we have someone within 5-10 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus preaching about it and then recording the content that he preached. In any other historical case, this kind of “closeness” to the time of the actual events would be more than acceptable.
Let’s put Paul’s proximity to the historical events into perspective: a similar situation would be for you to write a book about the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. Chances are, most of us could accurately tell the story of how we found out about the attacks. It would not be hard to do, because we are not very far removed from the historical events. Not only that, but if some of us tried to spread lies about the attacks, for example, that they didn’t happen, there would be plenty of people there to stop us because there are plenty of people still alive that remember them.
The same is true in Paul’s case. If, as some liberal scholars have tried to say, Paul made up the resurrection, or Paul invented much of what Christians believe, there would have been plenty of people there to say “Hey, wait, that didn’t happen like that!”. There could have been people criticizing Paul within days for making up the outrageous claim that Jesus’ grave was empty. Only we do not have that. In fact, Matthew tells us that the authorities tried to come up with other explanations for the empty tomb, because everyone, even the critics, agreed the tomb was empty.
The reason we don’t have contemporaries of Paul calling him a liar is because he isn’t one. He wrote within a few years of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and he spoke the truth. In any other historical case this evidence would be more than enough to demonstrate the accuracy of the writings. Shouldn’t it be more than enough in this case, too?