Tabor basically argues that in 1 Cor 15 Paul discusses having received the gospel and that most interpreters get it wrong by assuming that there is some form of oral tradition underlying the phrase "received" in this particular context. He admits that the word normally carries that connotation but that the interpretation of 1 Cor 15 is to be understood in light of Gal 1:12 where Paul denies the human origins of his gospel. From this exegetical strategy, Tabor can claim that Paul is not interested in the historical Jesus and is only interested in the "fantasy" (his word) Christ that Paul himself has created. The following quote elucidates his thesis well:
If Paul is right, then so be it. But if he is wrong, then what a left turn was taken away from the historical Jesus. I say reader beware.
I believe that Tabor's exegesis does not fully take into account the context of the two passages he relies upon and I believe that he has certainly stretched too far in an effort to dismiss Paul, his letters, and his theology. (There is more to his argument, specifically 1 Cor 11:23 and 1 Thes 4:15, both of which I may return to in the future sometime.)
The way that I have always understood the apparent "conflict" between Gal 1:12 and 1 Cor 15:3 is that in each Paul is driven by different motivations and, therefore, Paul highlights different aspects of his reception of the gospel in each context.
In Gal 1 Paul is clearly defending his apostolic authority over against his enemies. To do so he found it rhetorically effective to highlight that it was directly through Jesus that he received a revelation of Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul was arguing that he did not make up what he preached and that it was not of human origins, but that instead it was impressed upon him by divine means. I imagine that Tabor would generally agree with me up to this point.
The difference, however, I have with Tabor is that the phrase "through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal 1:12) could refer not to the passing of information but to the manifestation of the Savior himself. In other words, Christ did not reveal facts to Paul per se, instead Jesus was the revelation itself (James Dunn, Galatians, 53-54). Paul is not arguing that the pedigree of his message is what gives him authority; no, it is the content of his message (Jesus Christ) that gives his apostleship its authority. Dunn (54) and David Garland (1 Corinthians, 683-84) both argue that what Paul received on the road to Damascus was not a litany of facts about Jesus' life, but instead the proper interpretation of these facts.
Further, these facts likely did not come to Paul via the pillars in Jerusalem directly, as Tabor claims is the common opinion of "conservative Christians." In Gal 1:17 Paul explicitly denies the Jerusalem connection, instead revealing that he spent his formative years as a young Christ-follower in Arabia and Damascus. It was not until three years had passed that Paul's first post-Damascus contact with Peter and James occurred (Gal 1:18-19) and Paul would not go back to visit Jerusalem for some fourteen years (Gal 2:1), thus revealing the weakness of the connection between Paul and the pillars of Jerusalem. However, 1 Cor 15:3 leaves one with the impression that Paul is talking about oral tradition, human oral tradition. There are several reasons for this:
- Paul establishes the human link in the first part of v. 3 by indicating that it was he who passed this knowledge to the Corinthians, thus in the second part of v.3 it is hard to imagine that he has suddenly switched to a divine passing on of tradition;
- In this passage Paul is arguing for the validity of the resurrection and, thus, it would be important for him to highlight as many human connections to those who saw Jesus physically resurrected as possible (1 Cor 15:5-8) -- which would seem to necessitate some contact with these people (and/or their associates) for them to have told Paul of their interaction with the physically-resurrected Jesus; and
- The content of the message that Paul received, as revealed in 1 Cor 15, is a matter of facts -- Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and he appeared to many, including Peter, James, quite a few others, and (last of all) to Paul (vv.3-8) -- and seems to be the very sort of thing that scholars like Gerhardsson (in The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition) claim was passed on in the early church, aka the kerygma.
It appears that the content of the gospel, aka the kerygma, of the pillars and Paul was remarkably the same, even if their application of it was different at times (Gal 2:11-21). If so, then reader of Paul has no need to beware.