Given Paul’s letters are the earliest records we have for Jesus, he is a very important component to the birth of the early Jesus movement.
Well known New Testament scholar Dr. Bart Ehrman writes the following regarding Paul’s experience:
It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection” -Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, (Third Edition New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 276.
Even New Testament scholar Dale Allison even says that Paul converted from a persecutor of the church to one of its greatest promoters because of an experience he perceived was of the risen Jesus appearing to him.–see Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 263-268.
Some Background on Paul
The undisputed letters of Paul that can be used to give us an understanding about who he was and what his mission was are in Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. The rest of the letters yield very little about the life of Paul. From Paul’s Letters, we can gather that:
1. The man’s name was Paul: A Greek name.
2. He had a Jewish name, Saul. Remember, having two names was not uncommon for Jews who lived outside Palestine in the first century.
3. Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in Southwestern Asia Minor.
4. He came from a family of Pharisees of the tribe of Benjamin and was named for the tribe’s most illustrious member, King Saul.
5. Paul studied under the famous teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22: 3), the grandson of Hillel. Hillel is known as the Academy of Hillel, founded by a Jewish sage called Hillel the Elder. The House of Hillel was a school of Jewish law and thought that was very well known in the 1st century B.C.E. Jerusalem.
6. Since Paul’s letters show familiarity with rabbinic methods for interpretation of Scripture and popular Hellenistic philosophy to a degree, this makes it likely that he received a formal education in both areas. Hence, Paul’s exegesis of the Old Testament shows evidence of his rabbinic training.
7. Paul was probably, as an adult, a resident of Damascus.
8. In many places, Paul discusses his Jewish identity. He says “ I am a Jew” (Acts 22;3) “I am a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6), and “I am a prisoner for the sake of the hope of Israel” (Acts 28:20). -see Marion Soard’s The Apostle Paul: An Introduction to his Writings and Teaching (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1987), 10-11.
Paul was an active persecutor of the early Christian movement:
The language Paul uses in his pre-revelatory encounter with the risen Lord shows how much how antagonistic he was towards the messianic movement. In Gal. 1:13-15, Paul uses terms such as “persecute” and “destroy” to describe his efforts to put an end to the spread of the early faith.
Paul and Bearing False Witness
One the most pertinent texts about not bearing false witness to the resurrection of Jesus is the following:
“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised.” - 1 Cor. 15: 13-15.
Being that Paul was raised on the Torah, he knew the consequences of bearing false witness. H. Douglas Buckwalter says the following about the use of testimony in the Bible:
The biblical concept of testimony or witness is closely allied with the conventional Old Testament legal sense of testimony given in a court of law. Linguistically, the biblical term principally derives from the Hebrew yaad, ud, anah and Greek marturein word groups; conceptually, it broadly influences the thought patterns, truth claims, and theology of nearly all of Scripture.
Its validity consists in certifiable, objective facts. In both Testaments, it appears as the primary standard for establishing and testing truth claims. Uncertifiable subjective claims, opinions, and beliefs, on the contrary, appear in Scripture as inadmissible testimony. Even the testimony of one witness is insufficientfor testimony to be acceptable, it must be established by two or three witnesses ( Deut 19:15 ).-see H. Douglas Buckwalter , “Testimony” featured in Walter Elwell, Bakers Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1996).
As Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy note in the book The Jesus Legend: A Case For the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition, Christianity cannot be understood apart from it’s first century Jewish context. The Sinai teaching that multiple witnesses was retained Mark 14:56,59; John 5:31-32; Heb 10:28) and also used for church discipline (Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1;1 Tim 5:19). Also, the principle of giving a true testimony and making a true confession are evident in the early church (Matt 10:18; Mark 6:11;13:9-13;Luke 1:1-2;9:5;21:12-13;22:71;John 1:7-8,15,19,32,34;3:26,28;5:32; Acts 1:8,22;3:15;5:32;10:37-41;13:31;22:15;18;23:11;26:16).
So given these issues and that Paul was a Pharisee, we can gather he was aware of the issues of bearing false witness. He wanted to get his facts straight. And to say that Paul would create a mythic Jesus that was later historicized in the Gospels is problematic.
As James Warner Wallace points out in his latest book people lie or have an ulterior motive for three reasons:
1.Financial Gain: In this case, we don’t see any evidence for this. The NT shows the disciples/apostles being chased from location to location, leaving their home and families and abandoning their property and what they owned.
2. Sexual or Relational Desire: The NT does not say much about their “love lives.” There are Scriptures that speak to sexual purity and chastity.
3. Pursuit of Power:
While Christianity became a state sponsored religion in the 4th century and the Popes became powerful both politically and religiously, there is no evidence (pre 70 AD), for the early disciples pursuing power as they proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus. Just look at Paul’s testimony here:
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” – 2 Cor. 11: 23-27
Why does this matter?
In my opinion, the false testimonies hypotheses isn’t even on the table anymore. Therefore, I can see why most skeptics like to punt to psychological explanations for the resurrection of Jesus. Most scholars concede that Paul and others at least thought they saw the risen Jesus. They just disagree about what they actually saw. We can provide answers to these objections as well.