February 24, 2005

Galatians II: Paul's alibi

(This blog post makes use of the BWGRKL font for some Greek text, available for download from BibleWorks at no charge.)

I grew up reading a lot of mystery novels, especially Agatha Christia. Many of her stories had a common plot twist in them. At some point in the novel, Hercule Poirot confronts the prime suspect in the murder. This person always appears as though he has something to hide. However, it is soon revealed that what he is hiding is not guilt in the crime. He has an alibi for that, but it turns out that for him to reveal it would be personally embarrassing - so much so, in fact, that he would rather face the music for a murder he didn't commit than admit that he was (for example) in the arms of his lover at the time.

Apparently Paul's opponents were trying to undermine its authority by spreading false accusations about him. His apostleship wasn't authentic. It was "second-rate," because he never met Christ. His Gospel was different from that of the "true" Apostles in Jerusalem. Or he had ulterior motives (an accusation I will examine later). Paul responds to this by establishing his own alibi.

The origin of Paul's Gospel

But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: and profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother. Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not. Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; and was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ: But they had heard only, That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed. And they glorified God in me. (Gal. 1:11-21)

In defending his Gospel, Paul says four things about it. First, it was not from man. In other words, it was not a human invention. Second, Paul elaborates, it was not received from man. That is, no human institution handed it down to him. Third, Paul was not taught by man. He did not receive the Gospel sitting in Sunday school or from the Apostles in Jerusalem. Finally, on the contary, it was received by revelation. Paul got his doctrine directly from Christ himself.

But one could well ask him, "This is all fine, Paul, but where's the proof?" So Paul begins to construct his alibi with three proofs of the Gospel's divine origin.

First proof: Paul's former life

Paul was formerly a practitioner of Judaism. Writing to the Philippians, he said that he was

[c]ircumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. (Phil. 3:5-6)

By birth Paul was a Benjamite. Because Saul, the first king of Israel (of whom Paul was a namesake), had been a member of the tribe of Benjamin, Paul's pedigree was a prestigious one.

By education Paul was a Pharisee, a member of a religious party whose name meant "separated one." He was affiliated with the spiritual leadership of Israel. He was also educated by Gamaliel, one of the most famous Pharisees of all, the grandson of the great rabbi Hillel and the president of the Sanhedrin. For a Pharisee to be able to name Gamaliel as his teacher would be the equivalent of a physicist having his dissertation supervised by Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking.

By zeal Paul was unparalleled. He writes that he "profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers" (Gal. 1:14). He applied his zeal: writing that "beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it" (Gal. 1:13). Elsewhere in his letters he elaborates. He was in hearty agreement with the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1). He "made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison" (Acts 8:3). He "breath[ed] out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord" (Acts 9:1) and "persecuted this way unto the death" (Acts 22:4). Finally, he cast his vote against them when they were being put to death; he "compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, [he] persecuted them even unto strange cities" (Acts 26:10-11).

Paul's first proof of his Gospel's divine origin is that he had not been born or educated into Christianity. He was so fanatical about his own tradition that he was incapable of having his mind changed!

Second proof: Paul's conversion

But Paul isn't finished yet. He says that he was set apart from his mother's womb (Gal. 1:15) - as Daniel says, God

doeth according to his will in the army of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth:
and none can stay his hand,
or say unto him, What doest thou? (Dan. 4:35)

In fact, Paul didn't stand a chance. Being on the way to Damascus to do even more damage to the Church wasn't going to thwart God's plans for him. God called Paul "by his grace" (Gal. 1:15), not because Paul deserved it. Quite the opposite, in fact.

On the contrary, it was because "it pleased God." Paul often speaks of God's pleasure in saving souls. For example, consider Eph. 1:5,9, in which salvation is said to be "according to the good pleasure of his will" - or, as the NASB renders it, "the kind intention of His will." God is not obligated to save sinners. He does it because it gives him pleasure.

Paul's second proof of his Gospel's divine origin is his conversion: accomplished at God's initiative, in God's time, for God's purpose, which was to use Paul to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. He became a Christian because of what God had done for him, and not because some man had persuaded him.

Third proof: Paul's whereabouts

Paul writes: "[I]mmediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me" (Gal. 1:16-17). His first thought was not to rush immediately to Jerusalem, contact the Twelve, and make an appointment to do lunch. Instead, he "went into Arabia" (17). In those days, "Arabia" meant not the Saudi penninsula as we would understand it today, but the kingdom of Nabatea, which extended from there up to the area south of Damascus. Nabatea's capital, incidentally, was Petra - that amazing and mysterious city in present-day Jordan that was hewn out of the cliff faces.

What Paul did in Arabia isn't stated. Some people have theorized that he was evangelizing amongst the Gentiles that lived there. Others suggest that he was on a "retreat" to reflect and contemplate his conversion. Still more say that he was being taught his doctrine directly by revelation of Christ (as though he was making up for the three years of teaching the other Apostles received at Christ's feet!).

But that doesn't really matter. What is important at this point is not to work out a detailed diary of Paul's personal life, but to establish an alibi for the divine origin of his Gospel. Paul was in Arabia, and therefore he was not in Jerusalem.

Next, Paul says, he "returned again unto Damascus" (17). Luke speaks about Paul's time in Damascus in Acts 9:19-23. However, it is of note that Luke doesn't mention Paul's time in Arabia. He gives the impression that Paul was in Damascus continually for a few days. Keep in mind that Paul and Luke have different purposes for writing, however. They are not trying to collaborate on Paul's life story; rather, they are both describing different aspects of Paul's conversion and ministry. Luke is narrating an account of Paul's early life as a new believer, in particular the reactions of the local Christians and Jews to his new faith. Paul, on the other hand, is explaining to the Galatians that he was in Damascus, and therefore he was not in Jerusalem.

Then, "after three years [he] went up to Jerusalem" (18). Well, finally! Now he's had a chance to talk with the Apostles and receive teaching from them, right? Not quite. He went up "to see Peter" (18) - literally, the Greek word here, i`store,w (historeo), means to pay a visit, to get to know, to meet face-to-face. It doesn't mean he was there to sit under the teaching of Peter and the Apostles. But it would be interesting to know what they discussed. It probably wasn't just a social call; no doubt they had much to discuss. We could speculate, for example, that Peter filled in Paul on details of Christ's life and ministry that he hadn't known. And no doubt they could have swapped stories about God's grace, since both Peter and Paul had done Christ a great disservice in their past. In any case, he says he "abode with him fifteen days" (18). Two weeks. Not a very long visit!

Also, Paul says, "other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother" (19). Again, Luke has something to say of this visit (Acts 10:26-28) - and again, though the details appear different on the surface, Luke is again describing Paul's early life while Paul is explaining that he never received teaching from the Apostles.

Finally, after this visit he went "into the regions of Syria and Cilicia" (21), up near the northern corner of the Mediterranean, where Turkey meets Asia. Luke adds:

And [Paul] was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem. And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him. Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus. (Acts 9:29-30)

Paul's third proof of his Gospel's divine origin is his whereabouts after his conversion. He was never around the Apostles to receive his Gospel from them, and he never got to Jerusalem for three years. When he finally did get there, he saw only Peter and James, and he was only there to get to know them, then he was whisked away to Tarsus after only two weeks.

The significance of Paul's alibi to us

The Gospel comes from God. All of Paul's proofs were intended to underscore the fact that he got his teaching from God and not from men. Therefore, it has authority. If Paul is merely one more voice in the marketplace of ideas, he has no more authority than anyone else, much less the right to bring down curses upon anyone who disagrees with him (cf. Gal. 1:8-9).

The Judaizers are not alone in trying to undermine Paul's authority. Many individuals and movements throughout history have attempted to discredit the divine origin of Paul's teaching in spite of Galatians.

The Ebionites were a heretical sect of Judaistic Christians from the second century. Amongst other Christological errors, they claimed that God selected Jesus as Messiah because he kept the Jewish Law perfectly. They rejected the Scriptures of the New Testament, with the exception of a vetted version of Matthew's Gospel. Their canon also included a writing titled the Ascents of James, in which it is asserted that Paul was a Gentile who wanted to marry the high priest's daughter, so he converted to Judaism. However, the high priest rejected him, so he became bitter and began railing against the Law and circumcision.

The Deists of the 17th and 18th centuries sometimes claimed that the ethical religion of Jesus had been corrupted by his followers. For example, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, published his own edition of the Bible in which he cut away the supposed pure religion of Jesus from the corruptions of the Biblical authors - a process which, in a letter to fellow Deist John Adams, he likened to recovering the "diamonds in a dunghill."1 Jefferson was especially convinced that Paul was the villain of the Christian story, having turned the simple religion of Jesus into a religion about Jesus.

About fifteen years ago, former Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong wrote a book titled Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: a screed in which he defends every fashionable notion of liberal Biblical criticism of the last hundred years. He writes:

Paul's career as a missionary does not seem to have begun earlier than the late 40s. No evidence points to any direct knowledge of the earthly Jesus on the part of this man. What he knew of Jesus he seems to have gotten through the oral tradition at the feet of itinerant preachers, from the various apostles, or from disciples of the apostles. John son of Zebedee, mark, and Luke all appear in the letters of Paul as names of those with whom he had more than just a casual relationship (Gal. 2:9; Col. 4:14; Philem. v. 23; Col. 4:10).2

Paul was a limited man captured by the worldview and circumstances of a vastly different time. It is the height of foolishness to try to claim eternal truth fro is culturally conditioned and time-limited words. Paul's words are not the Words of God. They are the words of Paul - a vast difference. Those who try to elevate Paul's words into being what they cannot be will finally discard Paul's words in the dustbins of antiquity.3 (emphasis in original)

Then in the midst of this, he argues that Paul was a repressed homosexual who persecuted Christians to prove his masculinity to his fellow Jews. (Like Madonna, some people will say or do anything to get some press.)

But all these heretical claims run against the one who swore, "behold, before God, I lie not" (Gal. 1:20). While we might say, "I swear," and take it lightly, a devout Jew who dared invoke the name of Yahweh meant it.

And if the Gospel does come from God, then this means that what happened to Paul on the Damascus road can and will happen again. Paul declared that the Gospel was "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth" (Rom. 1:16). We see the power of God at work all through the Acts, which says over and over again that the Word of God spread and the disciples increased. And since the Gospel is power, that makes our job as evangelists simpler! Paul says:

I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. . . . And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. (1 Cor. 2:1-5)

When we proclaim the gospel to our friends or co-workers or on campus, we don't have to worry ourselves over the right arguments or the best means of persuasion. This is not to say we should settle for a slipshod presentation, but God's Gospel does not need slick packaging to improve it. We need only speak the plain truth. The truth of the Gospel speaks for itself, and the power of God does the rest.


1 Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 12 October 1813, "The Code of Jesus," From Revolution to Reconstruction, 6 March 2003, 23 February 2005 <http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/P/tj3/writings/brf/jefl222.htm>.

2 John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (New York: HarperSanFrancisco - HarperCollins, 1991) 100.

3 Spong, 104.


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