Paul, the Apostle: Eyewitness or Epileptic?

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Paul, the Apostle: Eyewitness or Epileptic?

Surprise! Welcome to an article founded on a false dilemma! It’s obvious that even if Saul of Tarsus (Paul hereafter) just so happened to be an epileptic, he could also have been an eye-witness, right? There is no logical malady between being both an eyewitness and an epileptic. It’s a false dilemma. However, this is the argument leveled against the veracity of Paul’s experience concerning Jesus of Nazareth due to the recorded account of his so-called “Damascus Road experience”[1] and how it parallels the experience of those with epilepsy. But let’s forget about that for a moment. Let’s forget about the Damascus road story. Without that story, what do we know about this man from historical scholarship outside of the Bible? Here is what we know:

  1. His name was Paulos (Paul) in Greek and Saulos Tarseus (Saul of Tarsus) in Hebrew[2]
  2. He was born between 5BCE – 5CE in Tarsus, Cilcia, Roman Empire[3] [4]
  3. He was born into a devout Jewish family, from the Israelite tribe of Benjamin[5]
  4. He was sent to Jerusalem as a youth (age 15) to receive education under the School of Gamaliel, one of the most well known Rabbi’s in all of history, where he studied Judaism, classical literature, philosophy, and ethics[6]
  5. He studied under Gamaliel for at least 5-6 years[7]
  6. He became a Pharisee, fluent in both Hebrew, Greek, and Koine Greek[8]

What about from the Bible itself?

  1. Paul was the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6)
  2. Paul was a Hebrew of Hebrews (Philippians 3:5)
  3. Paul’s family was, historically, religiously pious, attached to Pharisaic traditions for generations (2 Timothy 2:3; Philippians 3:5-6)
  4. Paul lived in Jerusalem as a youth (Acts 26:4)
  5. Paul studied under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3)
  6. Paul became a persecutor of followers of Jesus (Galatians 1:13-14; Philippians 3:6, Acts 8:1-3)
  7. Paul was a voting member of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin (Acts 26:10-11)
    1. Paul therefore heard Peter’s account of Jesus from Acts 5:27-42
  8. Paul consented the stoning of Stephen, which only the Sanhedrin can consign someone to death (Acts 22:20)
  9. Paul, professionally, was a Pharisee and, later, a tent-maker (Acts 18:1-3)
  10. Paul was one of the most advanced Jewish thinkers and teachers, beyond even his contemporaries; a Rabbi of Rabbis (Galatians 1:13-14)
  11. Paul converted from Judaism to Christianity around 33CE-36CE[9]

There are a few details that I want to focus on related to the information gleaned about Paul above. The first is the fact that Paul was both a Pharisee and, from all historical accounts likely, a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish Council during the life of Paul. Let’s begin by discussing what it means that Paul was a Pharisee first.

WHAT IS A PHARISEE?

The Pharisees derive their name from the Ancient Greek word Pharisaios and the Aramaic Perisa or Perisayya. Both of these words literally mean “set apart, or separated.” They relate, therefore, to the Hebrew word Parus or Perusim. During the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were both a Jewish political party and a social class. Though they had a position of power, much of that reigning control was given over to the Roman Procurators after the invasion of Jerusalem by the Romans. However, nonetheless, the ruling council for the Jewish people still remained as the Sanhedrin of 71 members derived from both the sect of the Pharisees and the sect of the Sadducees. The Pharisees received the backing and good-will of the common people. They were an eclectic and democratic ruling class.[10] Not only this, the Pharasaic interpretation of Jewish laws is recorded by the Babylonian Talmud as being of Mosaic authority (on the authority of Moses).[11] The Pharisees were a group of legal experts concerning the Jewish law found in the Torah.[12] They were the law-makers, law-keepers, and law-enforcers for the Jewish people; what Jews could do and what Jews could not do was overseen by this group of lawyers; the Pharisees; the Rabbis of Rabbis. It is estimated that in the second temple period, there were around 6,000 total Pharisees. For a Pharisee, strict adherence to every piece of the Law (of Moses and interpreted by other Pharisees) was absolutely required. If a Pharisee was found forgoing obedience in even one area, he would be stripped of his title.

WHAT IS THE SANHEDRIN?

Sanhedrin literally means “sitting together” in Hebrew and is most closely associated with what would be known as an “assembly” or a “council.”[13] For our modern understanding, this is, quite literally, what a court (like the Supreme Court) looks like today. The Sanhedrin was formed based on the command of God to Moses and the Israelites to establish courts of judges that had complete rule over the people in both the laws they established and the laws that they enforced.[14] This assembly was made up of up to 71 men appointed from every city within the land of Israel. During the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin was split into a Lesser Sanhedrin and a Great Sanhedrin. The difference between these two is that the Lesser was a Sanhedrin within a city, and each city could have their own court of up to 23 men from the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Great was the Supreme Court of 71 men that would take appeals from cases decided by the Lesser, or even take special cases such as declarations of war, treason, and uprisings within the Jewish community. If there is no qualifier made, the term “Sanhedrin” almost always refers to the Greater Sanhedrin in both Jewish and Biblical literature. In all, the Sanhedrin was the Supreme Court during the time of Jesus which was made up only of the highest class of Pharisee and Sadducee; the highest scholars of Judaism; and the most zealous to both obey and enforce the law. No common Pharisee could become a member of the Sanhedrin, and surely no Pharisee who would not put into practice what he believed.

PAUL, THE MOST PROLIFIC PHARISEE

            What we can conclude about Paul from both the Biblical and Historical literature is that during his lifetime, there were only few like him. That is to say, Paul was one of the most rigid law-makers, law-keepers, and law-enforcers. We have already seen in Galatians 1:13-14 that Paul excelled in Pharasaism beyond the majority of his contemporaries. His knowledge of the Torah and Babylonian Talmud, his strict adherence to their commands, and his willingness to put everything he learned into practice in order to keep Jewish rule, reign, and peace is unparalleled during his lifetime. As an aside, it is more than likely that Paul himself was married. The Babylonian Talmud literally instructed Jewish Pharisees, “…a man is considered incomplete if he is not married, as his soul is only one part of a larger whole that remains to be unified.”[15] We can say with confidence that the only men of the Sanhedrin that came close to Paul’s devotion and commitment were Gamaliel and other elders within the Sanhedrin. Paul was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the few Great Pharisees, Great Rabbis, and, eventually, Great Members of the 71 man Great Sanhedrin.

IMPLICATIONS

            You might be wondering, “what is the point of all of this?” That is a good question. Let’s go back to what we know about Paul so far. Though the date of Paul’s birth is not crystal clear, the majority of Jewish, Christian, and Secular scholars believe that Paul was born in 5CE (or 5AD). Unanimously agreed upon by scholars also is that Paul would have began rigorous religious instruction in Jerusalem under the chief Pharisee Rabbi Gamaliel at age 15, or around 20CE. This instruction would have taken place in the School of Gamaliel which would have likely met near the Hall of Hewn Stones (Sanhedrin Court) near the temple in Jerusalem. Paul would have studied, like any other good Jewish boy, for 5-6 years under his Rabbi, and then released into a sort of apprenticeship within the field that his education qualified him for. We know, from later history, that Paul became a Pharisee, Rabbi, and, eventually, member of the Sanhedrin. So by 26CE, and at age 21, Paul would have completed his religious instruction and began apprenticeship, and then moved on to his professional religious life as a Pharisee and acting member of the Great Sanhedrin. However, we also know that Paul converted from Judaism to Christianity around 34CE, at age 29, because of an experience he had while on the Damascus road to imprison followers of Jesus. This means that Paul both had to learn his profession as Pharisee and Sanhedrin member and practice it all within 8 years, age 21-29, 26CE-34CE, from the completion of his religious instruction. Furthermore, we know that in order to professionally practice Pharasaism, and to be a working member of the Sanhedrin, one’s main residence must be in Jerusalem, where the Sanhedrin court met daily. However, we also know that Paul was a travelling Pharisee sent out by the Great Sanhedrin to destroy the followers of Jesus and their supposed uprising against the Jewish rule and law.[16] Not only was Paul stationed in Jerusalem between 26CE and 34CE, he was also sent out to all of the places where followers of Jesus were known to be practicing their new religion.

JESUS, THE PROLIFIC NAZARENE

            Let’s spend some time talking about Jesus for just a moment here. While Paul is, truly, one of the most remarkable, and admittedly mysterious, men in the Bible, often only known for his dramatic Damascus road experience, we cannot forget that this Damascus road experience centered on the fact that Paul apparently met Jesus the Nazarene, post-mortem, during that experience. Everything Paul had worked for and given his time to ended after this. Now, mind you, Saul had this experience while he was on the road to Damascus in order to possibly enforce capital punishment upon, and definitely arrest, followers of this Nazarene Jesus.[17] Paul was not interested in Jesus, Paul was not searching for Jesus, and Paul, surely, was not interested in throwing off Judaism to follow a dead-man who was assigned the most severe punishment from Rome; crucifixion. Paul was interested in crushing this budding sect of Jews and Gentiles that had become followers of Jesus because this newfound religion was causing strife within the Jewish community, including the Pharisees and Sanhedrin.

What do we know about this Jesus that Paul apparently met on the Damascus road? Here are a few things:

  1. Jesus was born around 4BCE-2BCE to a Virgin named Mary and her betrothed husband Joseph[18] [19] [20] [21]
  2. Jesus entered into the Synagogue in Jerusalem at a young age to interact with Jewish Rabbis, leaders, and teachers, often to both instruct and learn from them[22]
  3. Jesus spent most of his professional life as a carpenter, following in the footsteps of his earthly father Joseph[23]
  4. Jesus had an active public ministry of from either 27CE-30CE to 30CE or 33CE[24] [25]
  5. Jesus was confronted by, and interacted with, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Sanhedrin more than any other religious authorities during his public ministry[26]
  6. Jesus died around 30CE-33CE, at age 33 or age 36[27]

Within the past decade, this person, Jesus the Nazarene, has become, once again, the hot topic up for debate. A debate about whether or not what Jesus said is true? No. A debate about whether or not Jesus actually performed miracles? No. Rather, the debate topic has centered on whether or not this Jesus figure ever existed at all. That’s right, many today believe that Jesus, who is called “the Christ” to the Christians, never even existed. These individuals typically work under the auspicious title “Jesus Mythicists.” In other words, they believe that Jesus was nothing more than a fanciful myth created by fanciful people that needed a fanciful solution to their fanciful lack of purpose and meaning. World-renowned scholars like Dr. William Lane Craig[28] (a Christian) and Dr. Bart Ehrman[29] (an atheist) have all but laid to rest the Jesus Mythicist theory. That is to say, there is more than enough conclusive evidence from history (outside of the Bible) that Jesus, in fact, actually existed as a man living in Palestine from 3BCE-2BCE to ~30-33CE. That’s no mere conjecture; it is historical fact.

What we can rightfully, and historically, conclude about Jesus’ life, ministry, and death is that Jesus, conservatively, was born in 3BCE, lived and worked within the region of Judea, Galilee, and Jerusalem as a carpenter, began his public ministry in 27CE, interacted with Pharisees and the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, and then died, in Jerusalem, at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and on the authority of the Sanhedrin, in 30CE. There is no reason for us to think that Jesus, after interacting with the Synagogue, Sanhedrin, and Pharisees as a youth would have stopped doing so throughout his professional life as a carpenter. In fact, all of the historical data leads us to infer that Jesus regularly went to the Synagogue, interacted with Pharisees, and had run-ins with the Sanhedrin. After all, the Biblical data is clear that Jesus was a practicing Jew, considered a Rabbi, and completely faultless when it came to following the Law of Moses. For Jesus to not have practiced Judaism as per the law would contradict everything known about Jesus and, yes, the very process of historical analysis.

JESUS AND PAUL

            Now that we have done a survey of both the life of Paul and the life of Jesus, what can we conclude about these two men?

  1. Birth
    1. Jesus was born in 3BCE
    2. Paul was born in 5CE
      1. Jesus was 8 years old when Paul was born
    3. Religious Practice
      1. Paul was sent to Jerusalem to undergo religious instruction near the Hall of Hewn Stones, which is near the Temple, for 5-6 years at age 15-21
        1. Paul was in school in Jerusalem from 20CE – 26CE
      2. Paul began practicing as a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin in 26CE-34CE
        1. One of the most prolific Pharisees, not just a regular Jew
      3. Jesus began his public ministry in 27CE undergoing over 77 interactions with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Sanhedrin
    4. Death
      1. Jesus was crucified in 30CE by the accusation of the Sanhedrin comprised of prolific Pharisees
      2. Paul would have been a budding active member of the Sanhedrin, and a well-known Rabbi, by 30CE

With this, and other historical pieces of data that you may have already considered in this article, we can conclude that Jesus, the prolific Nazarene, and Paul, the prolific Pharisee, were contemporaries. An inductive syllogistic argument might look like this:

  1. If Paul was a practicing, prolific, Pharisee, and an active member of the Sanhedrin, during the time of Jesus’ public ministry, then Paul, more than likely, met Jesus, heard Jesus speak, watched Jesus work, witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, or all of the above
  2. Paul was a practicing, prolific, Pharisee, and an active member of the Sanhedrin during the time of Jesus’ public ministry
  3. Therefore, Paul, more than likely, met Jesus, heard Jesus speak, watched Jesus work, witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, or all of the above

One of the most common objections to the letters of Paul found in the New Testament is that there is no reasonable way Paul could have possibly known what Jesus said and taught since his only experience with Jesus was on the Damascus road, and the text does not reveal much about what Jesus taught to Paul during that experience. We do know that within what appears to be less than an hour, Paul is completely transformed by having met Jesus the Nazarene in a flash of light on the way to imprison followers of this Nazarene for their faith.  More than that, though, many ask, how did Paul know everything that he did about Jesus and why was it he, and not, say, Peter, James, or John, that wrote most of what came to be known as the New Testament Holy Scriptures? Christian believers, lay and academic, have wondered about this same thing; how a random Jew who had one experience with Jesus was thereby given the authority to both write Scripture and exercise authority over communities Paul had nothing to do with.[30] That seems farfetched. And I believe it is.

Paul, having been a great Rabbi and great Pharisee in Jerusalem during Jesus’ public ministry, was an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life, even before the Damascus road experience that assigns him the title “epileptic.” But Paul was more than this. Paul was a lawyer that must have a strong case prepared against a particular belief he wanted to condemn it. It being historically verified that this was the faith of the followers of Jesus’ teaching, Paul would have had to prepare a thorough case for why Jesus’ teachings were incompatible with the standard Jewish teaching of the day that he was more than proficient in. This means that Paul knew the teachings of Jesus prior to ever believing the teachings of Jesus to be true. And thus, Paul’s teaching about Jesus in the New Testament can be seen as both the testimony of a believer, and the testimony of a non-believer (since it would be silly to assume that Paul did not rely on what he knew of Jesus’ prior to his conversion to develop the theology of Jesus found written in his letters). This includes Jesus’ teachings, Jesus’ actions, and Jesus’ crucifixion. Then, as if one untimely born, Paul was met by the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus as he was voyaging to destroy the Church of Jesus. His accusations of followers of Jesus must have been accepted by the Sanhedrin, since in Acts 9:1-3 they gave Paul the authority to arrest, imprison, and even enlist capital punishment upon, the followers of this Way of Jesus. Paul was a firsthand, bonafide, eyewitness to the life, teachings, actions, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene.

If Jesus mythicists were not sufficiently debunked already, we can conclusively say that the eyewitness testimony of Paul is another nail in the proverbial coffin for them. What has been accomplished in this study is that we have shown Paul to be an eyewitness to the life, teachings, actions, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene. It therefore follows that everything Paul wrote about Jesus in his letters was not simply the result of non-falsifiable revelation, but rather an informed, well founded, eyewitness account of what Jesus taught and did before Paul was even a follower of this Jesus himself. We have provided further evidence that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed and that Jesus of Nazareth both said, and did, what is recorded in the New Testament, by making the case that Paul was an eyewitness to the life, teaching, action, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Himself. Though Paul may have been an epileptic[31] on the road to Damascus, we can be sure that Paul’s account of Jesus prior to this experience were not centered on supernatural revelation[32], but rather on the eyewitness experience of the real Jesus, in real time, at a real place in human history. Any doubt about Jesus’ life, death, teaching, actions, crucifixion, and resurrection can be sufficiently answered by the words of Paul, in the letters of Paul, and through the eyes of one of the most prolific eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life in history: Paul, the Apostle.

[1] Acts 9:3-5

[2] “‘Saint Paul, the Apostle.’ Encyclopedia Britannica Academic Edition.”

[3] “In the Footsteps of Paul.” Public Broadcasting Service (PBS); Calvin J. Roetzel, Paul: The Man and the Myth, Columbia, S.C. : University of South Carolina Press, 1998

[4] Michael L. White, From Jesus to Christianity, Harper Collins, 2007, San Francisco CA

[5] Ernest G. Wright, Great People of the Bible and How They Lived, The Reader’s Digest Association, 1974, Pleasantville, NY

[6] Quency E. Wallace, The Early life and Background of Paul the Apostle, The American Journal of Biblical Theology

[7] Risto Santala, Paul’s Childhood and Education

[8] Frederick Fyvie Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p. 43, 1977

[9] Geoffrey William Bromiley, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 689, 1979; Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity, p. 21, Intervarsity Press; Richard L. Niswonger, New Testament History, p. 200, Zondervan Publishing Company

[10] Leo Schwartz, Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People

[11] Babylonian Talmud, Ber. 48b; Shab. 14b; Yoma 80a; Yeb. 16a; Nazir 53a; Hul. 137b

[12] The Torah is often called the Law of Moses and comprises Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; much of the Pharasaic tradition regarding the Mosaic law is recorded in the Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud

[13] Greek Lexicon :: G4892

[14] Exodus 18:21-22, Numbers 11:16-17, Numbers 11:24-25, Deuteronomy 1:15-18, Deuteronomy 17:9-12

[15] Babylonian Talmud, Yebomoth 62b

[16] Acts 9:1-3; Acts 26:10-12

[17] Acts 9:1-3

[18] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, p. 407, Yale University Press 1991

[19] Rahner 2004, p. 732

[20] Sanders 1993, pp. 10-11

[21] Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, p. 319, Hendrickson Publishers

[22] Luke 2:41-52

[23] Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3

[24] Andreas J. Kostenberger and L. Scott Kellum, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 140, 2009

[25] Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times, pp. 19-21, 2002

[26] There are over 77 clear, and hundreds of unclear, references to Jesus interacting with the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin in the New Testament; a good list can be found at https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Pharisees,-attitudes-to-Jesus-Christ

[27] Virtually all scholars agree to the age of Jesus, and the date, when he died

[28] William Lane Craig, Rediscovering the Historical Jesus, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/rediscovering-the-historical-jesus-evidence-for-jesus

[29] Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 2012

[30] Many of Paul’s letters and instructions were written to Christian churches that Paul had not planted, and Christian people that Paul did not lead to follow Jesus. For example, Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia in Chapter 2 details Paul’s rebuke of Peter, Jesus’ best friend and chief disciple. Paul had nothing to do with the spiritual life of Peter and yet, miraculously, was able to rightfully exercise authority over him.

[31] I do not believe that he was, this is just a rhetorical device.

[32] I do affirm, however, that the Damascus road experience was not a vision, but rather Paul encountering the Risen Christ in bodily form. The purpose of this study is to center on the other experiences Paul may have had with Jesus rather than simply the supernatural.

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