The apostle Paul is widely considered by many to be the most important Christian to ever live. As many as fourteen books of the Bible are attributed to him.1 His influence on both the spread of Christianity and its doctrines has been profound. This is especially noteworthy because Paul was not an eyewitness to Jesus and yet his writings on the teachings of Jesus, written at least twenty years after the crucifixion, are the earliest we have.
Paul started out as Saul of Tarsus. He was a Pharisee who zealously persecuted members of early Christianity. Acts 9 tells the story of his vision of the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, his subsequent blindness and healing, and a complete conversion to Christianity. He went from persecuting Christians to becoming its greatest advocate on the basis of a divine intervention.
Many atheists have demanded nothing less than an unambiguous miracle in order to believe. Yet, time and again the supernatural is rationalized away as doubts creep in. Most modern Christians, who like Paul are not eyewitnesses of Jesus, have doubts. Did Paul have these kinds of doubts too?
First let us examine what Paul had to say about the resurrection of Jesus. He writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers at once (most of whom remain alive until now, but some have fallen asleep), 7 then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me also. (REV)
This passage is considered by biblical scholars to be a very early Christian creed, originating in the early years after the crucifixion. Eric Chabot explains:
The majority of scholars who comment think that Paul probably received this information about three years after his conversion, which probably occurred from one to four years after the crucifixion. While we can’t be dogmatic about this, we do know at that time, Paul visited Jerusalem to speak with Peter and James, each of whom are included in the list of Jesus’ appearances (1 Cor. 15:5, 7; Gal. 1:18–19). This places it at roughly A.D. 32–38.
Paul may very well have visited Jerusalem to interview Peter and James, eyewitnesses to Jesus. Many scholars suspect that the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 came out of that meeting. Could it be that Paul had doubts about the resurrection and needed to have personal confirmation from eyewitnesses?
Paul’s influence is so heavily weighted on Christianity that we sometimes forget that he was human and would have had doubts, just as we do. It is because of those doubts that we have, preserved in the letter to the Corinthians, early eyewitness testimony. It is arguably the strongest historical evidence we have in favor of belief in Jesus. So perhaps our greatest debt to Paul is not the large body of work, but those small doubts that led him to seek out answers. In the words of Jesus (emphasis added):
7 “Keep asking, and it will be given to you; keep seeking, and you will find; keep knocking, and it will be opened to you! 8 For everyone who keeps asking receives, and the one who keeps seeking finds, and to the one who keeps knocking it will be opened. (REV)
1 The authorship of a number of the books commonly attributed to Paul is contested by biblical scholars.