I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached was 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 teach 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 to you is no lie.
Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: ‘The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they praised God because of me.
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If the bible is literally true and inerrant, we have to take these words of Paul’s completely at face value. If it is not inerrant, we have to seek to understand Paul the man as well as the teaching he has left in his epistles.
Suppose the bible is inerrant.
“I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached was 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.”
Paul is claiming that his knowledge of the good news of Jesus was given to him directly by divine revelation. Furthermore, he takes pains to support the claim with evidence, telling us, “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.” He then says “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 to you is no lie.”
According to this account, it was at least three years before Paul spoke to Cephas and James, the Lord’s brother.
We can check the details of this account of how Paul received his commission to preach about Jesus against the account of his conversion in Acts 9: 1 – 31, summarised below.
On the road to Damascus, Paul saw a vision and heard a voice that he was sure was Jesus. The experience left him blind. Within a few days he was in Damascus, and was miraculously healed and then baptised by Ananias, one of the local Christians. Paul started to preach the gospel immediately, and did so in Damascus for many days, until death threats forced him to flee. He then went to Jerusalem. Barnabas introduced him to the apostles. Paul talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews. When the Jews sought to kill him, the Christians in Jerusalem packed him off to Tarsus, via Caesarea. Some time later, Barnabas fetched Paul from Tarsus and they went to Antioch, where they worked for a whole year.
There is no mention of Arabia in this account. Also, far from avoiding Jerusalem and the apostles, Paul visited them relatively early in his ministry.
There is another account in Acts (Acts 26: 4 – 23). The key verses for comparison are verses 19 – 20. “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and all Judea and then to the Gentiles I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds.” This confirms that Paul preached in Jerusalem early in his ministry, and again says nothing about Arabia.
To me, the two accounts seem troublingly different. Even if they don’t demonstrate conclusively that the bible is not inerrant, they certainly don’t support the idea that it is.
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It’s late now, and I must post the analysis as it is. I shall continue to study this passage tomorrow, or during the next few days.
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I want to follow where Jesus leads so that I can grow closer to him and to you. Please help me to understand the truth of what I am reading.
In Jesus’ name, Amen