The historical Paul

I’ve been chatting with my good friend Dwayne who has been a part of practically every post I’ve put up on this blog since its beginning. Dwayne follows a few people that I’d like follow more closely but don’t because, well, Dwayne keeps up with them. Bart Ehrman is one. Sam Harris is another. They both recently came together on Harris’ podcast “Waking Up with Same Harris” (Episode 125). The episodes posted summary:

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks to Bart Ehrman about his experience of being a born-again Christian, his academic training in New Testament scholarship, his loss of faith, the most convincing argument in defense of Christianity, the status of miracles, the composition of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus, the nature of heaven and hell, the book of Revelation, the End Times, self-contradictions in the Bible, the concept of a messiah, whether Jesus actually existed, Christianity as a cult of human sacrifice, the conversion of Constantine, and other topics.

Quite a bit to cover. I wanted to zero in on Paul’s conversion because its relevance has partly to do with facts whose historicity aren’t in dispute: Paul’s existence as a Christian apostle and his account in the NT of having encountered the risen Jesus. But leaves us with something to explain, and I thought Dwayne’s note to me was worth sharing.

Sam Harris asked the right question of Ehrman after talking about Paul’s conversion: How did Paul relate to the Apostles/Disciples of Jesus? Ehrman mentions that things were more contentious than people think. But Ehrman left out important facts we glean from Paul’s accepted letters which we would do well to ponder.

(1) Paul is convinced he experienced the risen Jesus on the way to Damascus, the same Jesus that the disciples knew and lived with. Recall that three years after his conversion, Paul stays with Peter (to whom the risen Jesus also appeared, says Paul) for fifteen days. Paul also talks to Jesus’ brother James. Paul leaves this meeting and doesn’t meet up with Peter again for another fifteen years.

(2) Paul also claims he was taught the gospel from Jesus, not from men.

We know that Peter and James believed Paul’s story. They are convinced Paul did experience the Jesus they knew. But we must ask: What can explain their being convinced of this? What could have convinced Jesus’ own disciples that Paul had indeed encountered the risen Jesus they had lived with? Peter heard something from Paul that did the convincing? That something Paul shared that removed Peter’s doubts. Who knows what this was? But imagine you’re Peter meeting the arch-enemy of Christians, a man who has been persecuting Christians and now claims to have met the risen Jesus. You are one of Jesus’ Twelve disciples and a leader of the emerging Church. You certainly are going to ask Paul some hard questions. It’s going to take some convincing for you to welcome this terrorist into fellowship.

Point is, Peter’s acceptance of Paul and his gospel as authentic, given who Paul was known to be, has to be credibly explained – not just that Paul had an inexplicable, incommunicable experience or a “crisis of conscience,” but that Peter and James were convinced by Paul that his experience was an encounter of the same Jesus they followed. Somebody would have to give me a completely naturalistic explanation of Paul’s conversion that explains how Peter and others were convinced Paul had indeed experienced the risen Jesus they knew in order for me to have doubts about the resurrection.

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