Paul’s letters are dated between AD 40 and 65. These are the earliest records we have for the life of Jesus. Therefore, to jump to the Gospels as the earliest records to the life of Jesus is a tactical mistake. While he did not follow Jesus from the beginning, Paul is still considered an apostle, though “abnormally born” and “the least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9). His turning to Jesus happened though a dramatic revelatory encounter (Acts 9: 1-7). His first years as a follower of Jesus in Arabia remain a mystery. Three years later he went to Jerusalem to visit; this is where he saw Peter and James. Paul’s account of his calling in Galatians 1:15-16 is similar to what Jeremiah’s says about his own calling:
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. (Gal 1:15-17)
The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. (Jer.1: 4-5).
A Possible Contradiction in Paul’s Conversion?
Even though it is clear that there is an early record about the creed of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, we now must ask if this implies a contradiction with Galatians 1: 11-12. When we come to Galatians 1:11-12, Paul defends his ministry by discussing the manner of how he received the Gospel. We can compare the two texts here:
For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal 1:11-12).
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. (1 Cor. 15:3-8).
So what is the truth here? Paul says in Galatians:1-11-12 that there is absolutely no human mediation or tradition involved— he received the Gospel by divine revelation. But what about the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 which seems to indicate that there is an element of human mediation or tradition? How do we respond to this? First, 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. Carson, Moo, and Morris provide a possible solution:
The word used here, [παραλαμβάνω (parelabon) ] I passed on [paralamano, “receive”], corresponds or language that the rabbis used to describe their transmission of traditions. When Paul seems to be asserting is that the elements of his gospel teaching, such as the truth of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-5), were handed down to him by other people. Some have found a contradiction in these claims of Paul, but a resolution is not hard to find. We need to distinguish between essence and form. The essence of the gospel, that Jesus of Nazareth was truly the Son of God, was revealed to Paul in one life changing moment on the Damascus road. The form of the gospel, however, including the historical undergirding of the gospel events, certain phraseology used to express the new truth, and doubtless many other things, were passed on to Paul by those before him.
D. A. Carson, D. J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction To The New Testament; First Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2002), 220.