Galatians 1:11–12 (ESV) For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
At the beginning of Galatians, Paul offers his own testimony of how he encountered the grace of God. Although he does not recount the story as we know it from Acts 9, Paul is describing his initial encounter with God as an apocalyptic experience. By this I mean God dramatically broke into history and revealed something to Paul which altered his understanding of God had what God is doing in the world through Jesus.
First, Paul’s claim is that he was not evangelized by other apostles. Although there is a case to be made for Paul having heard the preaching of Jesus before the crucifixion, based on his persecution of the early Christ-followers it is clear he did not believe Jesus was the Messiah before meeting him on the road to Damascus. Although Stanley Porter has recently argued Paul did know Jesus, there is no hint in either Acts or the letters that he heard Jesus teach or was he present at the execution.
In fact, Acts describes Paul as a bitter opponent of the gospel. Paul makes a similar statement in Galatians 1:13. Paul likely began to oppose the preaching of Stephen in the Greek-speaking Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:1-8:1). As a Hellenistic Jew from the Diaspora Paul have fellowshipped at this synagogue, but as a Pharisee he would have been shocked and offended by Stephen’s claim Jesus was the messiah, God had raised him from the dead, and he was going to return soon to render judgment. (Although we do not have Stephen’s speeches before his final one prior to being stoned, it seems likely he would say the same sorts of things Peter and John did in Acts 2-3.)
Second, Paul did not learn his gospel from the other apostles. After his encounter with Jesus, Paul did not submit to a period of discipleship in order to learn the basics of the Gospel nor did he associate himself with the Apostles in Jerusalem. In Galatians Paul claims not encounter the Apostles until after he was given a revelation from Jesus.
This, the origin of Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles is a revelation from Jesus (Galatians 1:12). The noun ἀποκάλυψις appears in Paul’s letters thirteen times, and as might be expected, the word has the connotation of God’s decisive actions in history to bring salvation into the world. This is in fact the title of the final book of the New Testament, the “Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Paul claims that he received this Law-free gospel for the Gentiles through revelation in Ephesians 3:1-6 as well. What Paul experienced on the Road to Damascus was like the prophetic calling of Isaiah or Ezekiel. In fact, Paul is the “light to the Gentiles,” a possible allusion to the suffering servant Isaiah 49:6 and he quotes Isaiah 6 when he arrives in Rome as fulfilled in his mission.
This revelation stands in contrast to receiving a gospel from other humans. Rather than being informed by others of a “Law-free Gospel” for the Gentiles, God revealed it to him through Jesus. In Galatians 1-2, Paul will offer evidence for the claim that his gospel does not come from humans, but from God.
This fierce claim of independence from the Twelve in Jerusalem and the original followers of Jesus is disturbing to some readers. Although Paul claims to be an outsider from the first followers of Christ, he says his authority comes from the highest level: God called him through a dramatic unveiling of Jesus, the Son of God. What are the ramifications of this claim for reading Paul’s letters? Does his claim of independence affect the way we understand his relationship with the other Christ followers in Jerusalem?