20 Gospel of Paul: Paul’s Version Doesn’t Match the Gospels

Paul has been called the inventor of Christianity. He is our first and potentially most reliable source of information on the life of Jesus, but compare Paul’s writings with the gospels and you’ll find that Paul is a remarkably limited source.

Extract biographical information about Jesus from the gospels, and you would have a long list of stories and facts. But most of what we learn about Jesus from Paul comes solely from the well-known passage from 1 Corinthians 15 (“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance”).

Let’s assume this passage is authentic and pull from the seven reliably Pauline epistles all he says about Jesus to create the Gospel According to Paul:

Jesus died for our sins by crucifixion, was buried, and was raised from the dead three days later, according to prophecy. He was seen by many after the resurrection. He was a Jew, had brothers, and was a descendant of David. He was poor, meek, gentle, and selfless, and his mission was to both Jew and Gentile. He was betrayed, he defined a bread and wine ritual for his followers, and the Jews killed him. The End.

The Gospel of Paul is one brief paragraph. It arguably has the most important elements—death as a sacrifice for our sins and the resurrection—but very little else. No parables of the prodigal son, or the rich man and Lazarus, or the lost sheep, or the good Samaritan. In fact, no Jesus as teacher at all.

No driving evil spirits into pigs, or healing the invalid at Bethesda, or cleansing the lepers, or curing the blind or lame, or raising the dead, or other healing miracles. As far as Paul tells us, Jesus performed no miracles at all.

No virgin birth, no Sermon on the Mount, no feeding the 5000, no public ministry, no baptism, no cleansing the temple, no women followers, no triumphant Palm Sunday, no Judas as betrayer, no final words, and no Great Commission. Paul doesn’t even place Jesus within history—there’s nothing to connect Jesus with historical figures like Caesar Augustus, King Herod, or Pontius Pilate.

It’s possible that everyone Paul wrote his letters to already knew these omitted stories, but presumably they already knew about the crucifixion, and Paul mentions that thirteen times. And the resurrection, which Paul mentions fourteen times.

Perhaps most surprising is that Paul taught nothing about the Trinity, nor did he resolve questions behind the church’s many important heresies—whether Jesus had a spirit body or not (Docetism), if Jesus was on the same level as God (Arianism), and so on. The answers to these fundamental questions didn’t come from the lips of Jesus or even the pen of Paul but were decided centuries later by ordinary men, hardly the foundation you’d expect for the one, true religion.

Paul’s influence can’t be overstated, and yet he never met Jesus in person. He only claims to have seen Jesus in a vision, and his theology is very different from that of the gospels.

Sort the New Testament books in chronological order. Start with Paul, and see the story grow with time through Mark, then Matthew and Luke, and finally John. The story of Jesus reads like a legend that grew with the retelling.

Continue to chapter 21.

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“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance”: 1 Corinthians 15:3–8.

Pauline epistles: Thirteen epistles (letters) in the New Testament claim to have been written by Paul, but most scholars consider only seven to be authentically Pauline.

Pseudepigraphy: A pseudepigraph is a document with a false attribution, usually someone influential or famous. For example, 2 Peter is an epistle that claims to have been written by Simon Peter (later St. Peter). He wrote, “We did not follow cleverly devised stories … but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Ironically, biblical scholars widely agree that this letter is a pseudepigraph.

11 Paul’s Famous Creed: Is 1 Corinthians 15 History?

Bodmer papyrus

The gospel of Mark was the earliest gospel, written in roughly 70 CE, but Paul wrote his first epistle to the church in Corinth more than a decade earlier. This passage makes the earliest claim of the resurrection of Jesus.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have [died].

Claims about the dating of this important passage vary widely. Some argue that it preceded Paul’s letter. They say it appears to be in a different style, as if it were a creedal statement believers would have recited. One example familiar to modern Christians is the Apostle’s Creed. That is, though Paul wrote this epistle about thirty years after the crucifixion, this fragment had been an oral creed since just a few years after Jesus’ death. They cite this as evidence that belief in the resurrection was years earlier than Paul’s writing.

This popular claim fails under inspection. If the passage is a creed, then it’s not evidence for the resurrection. A creed is a faith statement, a statement of what people believe, not why others should believe it. It even sounds like one. There is no mention of date or location, like a newspaper article would have, and the passage states “Christ died for our sins” as dogma (beliefs not subject to debate), without evidence.

The different style Christians point to might instead suggest that a copyist inserted it decades after Paul wrote the original.

The gap from the authorship of this epistle to our oldest copy is about 150 years. That means a lot of opportunity for hanky-panky as scribes copied and recopied the letter, especially during the early turbulent years of the new religion of Christianity when dogma was still being decided. We can only guess what changes were made.

There are other reasons to question this passage as evidence for Christianity. Jesus “raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” is a reference to the book of Jonah (“Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights”), but the resurrection can’t be “according” to this scripture when the author of Jonah wasn’t making a prophecy. And this “prophecy” fails since Jesus was dead for only two nights, from Friday evening to Sunday morning.

Finally, each gospel makes clear that women were the first to see the risen Jesus, but Paul ignores them in his chronological list of witnesses.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and a supernatural claim like the resurrection is certainly extraordinary. Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 passage at best says that the resurrection was an early Christian belief, but it is poor evidence that the resurrection was a historical event.

Continue to chapter 12.

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Corinthians: Most of Paul’s epistles were written to churches in different cities or regions. 1 and 2 Corinthians were written to the church in Corinth. Ephesians was to the church in Ephesus, Philippians to the church in Philippi, and so on for the churches in Rome, Galatia, Colossae, and Thessalonica.

Epistle: An epistle is a letter. All the New Testament books besides Acts, Revelation, and the four gospels are epistles.

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance”: 1 Corinthians 15:3–8.

The gap from the authorship of this epistle to our oldest copy is about 150 years: The earliest manuscript of this passage is Papyrus 46, dated to around 200 ce.

“raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”: 1 Corinthians 15:4.

“Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights”: Jonah 1:17.