Paul’s Testimony to Jesus
He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy. (Galatians 1:23 NKJV)
There is nothing like a dramatic reversal.
Paul started out against the followers of Jesus, and as the above quote indicates, it wasn’t just a mild disagreement expressed over coffee one morning! Yet he decided to join them, and even became the foremost preacher to non-Jewish people. Why did he change his view? The answer to this question provides powerful evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
To begin, consider Paul’s background. Paul was Jewish, “a Hebrew of the Hebrews” who belonged to the tribe of Benjamin and adhered to the strict views of the Pharisees (Philippians 3:5). Paul was born in Tarsus but raised in Jerusalem, where he was taught by the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3); accordingly, his letters display considerable knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures. Now, with all this in mind, we turn to what Paul believed, taught, and reported concerning Jesus.
First and foremost, Paul makes it unmistakably clear that Jesus was a real human. He refers to Him repeatedly as a man (Romans 5:15–18; I Corinthians 15:21–22, 47),¹ and this is the natural meaning of the numerous statements about Christ dying or being crucified (Rom. 5:8; I Cor. 1:23). Paul declares that Jesus was “born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). Finally, he knew of “the brothers of the Lord” (I Cor. 9:5), and reports speaking with “James, the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19), which means Jesus had family. I seek to flesh out this point because some scholars who should know better allege that Paul only believed Jesus was metaphorical or a spiritual being who never existed in the real world as a man.²
Paul does not, however, believe Jesus was just a man. Indeed, Paul indicates that Jesus Christ is deity in the flesh. Paul continually refers to Jesus as “Lord” (I Thessalonians 1:1, 3). Also, he calls Him “Son of God” (Gal. 2:20), “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:24), and “the image of God” (II Cor. 4:4). Paul further says that even before Christ was born a man, He was “in the form of God” (Phil. 2:6).
Paul’s conviction that Jesus was more than a man is remarkable, and indeed, difficult for skeptics to explain. During Jesus’ life on earth, Paul had probably never met Him. If you had never met someone who was executed as a criminal, what could possibly cause you to change your belief to the point of considering that person divine? Many skeptics assume that Paul simply changed beliefs, that Paul’s conversion was just another (irrational) conversion. But this belief, considered in light of Paul’s monotheistic Jewish background and his active persecution of Jesus’ followers, provides evidence of a much different conclusion.
According to Paul, something convinced him that Jesus was no mere, dead human. The deciding factor was that he saw Jesus alive after His execution. Here are his words:
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (I Corinthians 15:3–9)
This is one of the most important passages in Paul’s letters. Several things should be noted about it before we continue. First, it has no significant manuscript differences; it can’t be challenged as an altered text. Second, it is from a letter overwhelmingly considered authentic; even secular scholars reject the rare, insubstantial arguments claiming the letter was forged. Third, almost all scholars conclude that I Corinthians was written in the mid A.D. 50s; this report comes within three decades of Jesus’ death.
Here we see why this evidence is so extraordinary. Some skeptics allege that Jesus was only said to have appeared to followers — people predisposed to believe in Him. Yet Paul persecuted Jesus’ followers (as he says again in this passage), which means he obviously didn’t want to see Jesus. But Jesus wanted Paul to see Him. This forever changed the course of Paul’s life; later, he gladly endured persecution himself for Christ.
Also, Paul passed along earlier testimony from others. Especially important is the appearance to over 500. Though bigger than any post-resurrection appearance in the gospels, this report is almost certainly earlier than the writing of the gospels. Since one of the earliest reports involves such a large number, this demolishes the claim that later reports of Jesus’ appearances resulted from gradual addition and embellishment.
Paul’ testimony is no mere “God changed my life” testimony. God did change Paul’s life — dramatically — but Paul never rested his case on that. He saw firsthand that Jesus lived, and this drove him to the conclusion that Jesus was the promised Messiah, whose death provided forgiveness of sins and whose resurrection conquered death.
- I have not attempted to be exhaustive in referencing things Paul said multiple times, as that would overcrowd this article with verse references.
- Robert Funk, Roy Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Scribner, 1996), p. 7: “For Paul, the Christ was to be understood as a dying/rising lord, symbolized in baptism (buried with him, raised with him), of the type he knew from the hellenistic mystery religions. In Paul’s theological scheme, Jesus the man played no essential role.” In case it’s not obvious, these statements run roughshod over what Paul said, the early history of the Christian church, and the nature of mystery religions.