Recently I was looking at some of the exchange of a debate between skeptic Richard Carrier and Marc Goodacre. Carrier said the one of the first places to start looking at the evidence for Jesus is Paul’s Letters. After all, they are the earliest documents we have for the life of Jesus. I have written elsewhere about the importance of Paul. The discussion began to center on the creed of 1Cor. 15: 3-5 and Galatians 1: 11-12. In relation as to how Paul “received” his information about the Gospel, is there a contradiction here? Let’s take a look at this:
When we come to Galatians 1:11-12, Paul defends his ministry by discussing the manner of how he received the Gospel:
“ For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:11-12).
Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 15: 3-5:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”
So what is the truth? Paul says in Galatians that he received it by divine revelation. But what about the creed in 1 Corinthians 15? How do we respond to this? First, while we always need to look at the context of where the word “recieved” is used, in both 1 Cor. 15:3 and Galatians 1:12, the word “received” (“παραλαμβάνω”) means to receive something transmitted from someone else, which could be by an oral transmission or from others from whom the tradition proceeds. In other words, according to Paul, he did not create the Gospel story. It was something he received from another source.
So in this case, what is helpful here is to differentiate between essence and form. The essence of the gospel, that Jesus of Nazareth was truly the Son of God, was revealed to Paul (he received it) on the life changing moment on the Damascus road. Paul realized that the Christians that he had been persecuting had been right all along about Jesus being the Messiah.
As far as the form the gospel, this includes the historical undergirding of certain events, certain phraseology used to express the new truth and doubtless many other things that were passed onto Paul by those other than him (see Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction To The New Testament Survey, pg 220).
Remember, Paul also employs oral tradition terminology such as “delivering,” “receiving,” “passing on” “learning,” “guarding,” the traditional teaching within his letters in the following places:
Romans 16: 17: “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.”
1 Corinthians 11:23:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread.
The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
1 Thessalonians 2:13:
For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.
2 Thessalonians 2:15:
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.
Paul’s usage of the rabbinic terminology “passed on” and “received” is seen in the creed of 1 Cor. 15:3-5. This entails that Paul received this information from someone else at an even earlier date. The majority of scholars who comment think that Paul probably received this information about three years after his conversion, which probably occurred from one to four years after the crucifixion. At that time, Paul visited Jerusalem to speak with Peter and James, each of whom are included in the list of Jesus’ appearances (1 Cor. 15:5, 7; Gal. 1:18–19).This places it at roughly A.D. 32–38. Even the co-founder Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan, writes:
“Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.” The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” (Crossan, J.D. & Jonathan L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, 2001, 254).
In the end the supposed contradiction between Galatians 1:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8 is not a huge challenge. A little further study shows that they are not contradictory, but complementary.