Today is the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles who were so crucial to the beginnings of the Church, and whose writings (preserved in the New Testament documents) and example still echo through the ages to us today.
It has become fashionable for some scholars to suggest that Paul preached a different gospel, a “Gospel According to Paul”, if you will. Some have even suggested that Paul “invented” Christianity!
Reality and history, however, offer us the truth.
In Galatians 1, Paul gives us a timeline following his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (cf. Acts 9, 22, 26; c. 33 or 34 AD):
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.
Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.
– Galatians 1:11-20
As Galatians 1 notes, three years after his supernatural encounter with the ascended Lord, Paul visited Peter in Jerusalem (c. 36 or 37 AD). James, the relative of the Lord, who became the Bishop of Jerusalem following Peter’s departure from the city, was there too. Paul’s purpose was not, as Dr Gary Habermas says, to casually “shoot the breeze” with these Apostles, but rather to do a historical investigation of sorts. In fact, Paul uses the Greek word historesai to indicate this. What Paul was essentially doing was ensuring that the Gospel – and the Jesus – that he was preaching lined up with the message preached by the Apostles who knew Christ best, who had walked and ministered with him on earth. Paul, of course, did not meet Jesus until he had already ascended into heaven.
In fact, many scholars believe that the ancient Christian creed that Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 was in all likelihood learned from Peter and James during Paul’s visit to Jerusalem, narrated in Galatians 1. Imagine being a fly on the wall at those meetings, able to listen in on those conversations!
Paul made himself accountable to the established leader of the Church on earth, Peter (cf. Matthew 16:13-20). He didn’t go “rogue”, feeling free to operate as an evangelist without the express permission of the leaders of the Ecclesia. Paul was also concerned about accuracy in his preaching about Jesus – another reason to visit those who had known Jesus, and his mighty deeds, best while the Lord was ministering on Earth.
As Paul himself stated in Galatians 1:6-9, speaking to those who had begun to drift from the truth of Christ:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!”
No, Paul was not the “inventor” of Christianity, but was (like all Christians should aspire to be) a witness of the real Jesus who truly lived, died, and was resurrected in human history.