The Gospel according to the Apostle Paul
Paul lays out his gospel in his first letter to the Corinthians chapter 15, when he reminds his brothers of what he had preached to them previously: Christ died for our sins, that He was buried, and resurrected, and that the resurrected Jesus appeared to various people including Paul himself. When we consider the εύαγγέλιον of Paul do we find any difference to the εύαγγέλιον of the synoptics or of John?
Mark is first to identify his narrative as the ‘gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (MK1:1); yet, the word ‘εύαγγέλιον’, is predominantly Pauline, with sixty of the seventy-six occurrences in the NT found in his writings. Where both Mark and Matthew associated the gospel with the ‘Kingdom of God’, Pauline use of that term is considerably less; however, this does not mean the Kingdom is without significance to Paul.
The gospel of Paul is the glad tidings and the core kerygma of the Christian faith; it is centred on the person and works of Jesus Christ and His death, resurrection, and the renewal of creation that these events heralded. Perhaps, it is fair to say that where the focus of the gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John was the life of Jesus, for Paul it was the death of Jesus; for Paul, Christ not only declares the good news, He is the good news.
Does the term ‘the gospel’ belong to Paul?
Garroway is clear that the use of the word εύαγγέλιον was elevated in Hellenistic writing by Paul; where it had not been in common usage before, it began to appear more frequently in early Christian texts and Gnostic texts: other examples of its usage are found in the Apocryphal texts. Recognising Mason’s work, Garroway acknowledged that perhaps Paul was even first to coin the term. Mason wrote of the gospel that it may not be the name of the general message, rather the name Paul gave to his own unique understanding around the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Garroway writes ‘Paul’s letters show him proclaiming [the gospel] as his personal mandate: he is given this gospel directly by the risen Christ’. 1 Cor 1:17, Paul indicates that his commission was foremost to preach the gospel.
Certainly, there is significant use of proprietary language through Paul’s epistles indicating that Paul felt more than just a close affinity, but perhaps even an ownership over it: ‘our gospel’ (1 Thess 1:5); ‘I became your father in Jesus Christ through the gospel.’ (1 Cor 4:15) and most significantly in the letter to the Galatians, where he speaks of being entrusted with the gospel, (Gal 2:7) and how he proclaimed it, presented it, and defended it in Jerusalem.
As Dunn points out, the letter to the Galatians was ultimately written to remind the people of the Church there not to turn away from his gospel, or for that gospel to be understood as anything else other than, presumably, what Paul had preached; Paul’s main concern is the ‘truth of the gospel’, and this remained a point of consistency throughout all his epistles.
It seems that Paul takes more a responsibility for the preaching of the gospel than he does assume ownership of it; he readily attributes the same gospel he preaches as the same ‘gospel of God’ (Rom 1:1) and the ‘gospel of his son’ (Rom 1:9).
The Literary Genre
Recent scholarship has taken an interest in the term ‘gospel’ to examine whether they fit into a certain literary genre of the Greco-Romans known as βίοι.
Using form criticism, introduced into biblical scholarship by Gunkel and applied to the synoptics by Bultmann and Schmid, it became clear that the synoptics did feature some criteria found in βίοi: namely the exploration of the protagonist’s life according to origins, actions, and education.
In that sense, we do find a certain limited βιοςin the Pauline text, although it is pieced together from the various epistles, and not laid out in a manner such as John or the synoptics; we do learn that Jesus was ‘born of a woman’ and that He indeed was a Jew ‘born under the law’: both of these are found in Gal 4:4; although there is very little focus on the origins of Jesus found in the Pauline corpus. Paul spends no time on the education of Jesus, and does not focus on any of the ‘signs’ found in Johannine writing. The messiahship of Jesus is almost axiomatic for Paul who freely employed the term Christ to Jesus.
The actions of Jesus, written about by Paul, that are shared in the other gospels, are limited to the events of the cross. Paul’s focus is what the cross meant for salvation and he looked to the Parousia without defining when that would be. As Dunn succinctly puts it: ‘in short, Paul tells us next to nothing about the life and ministry of Jesus apart from the climactic finale’.
Again, the focus of the gospel for Paul was not the life of Jesus. Paul’s assumed role, or indeed commissioned role, was primarily to be a Pastor and Missionary. The gospel for Paul was not the relaying of the person of Christ, more so the work of Christ, and even beyond this, what that work achieved. The people to whom he wrote had an understanding or foreknowledge of Jesus, which Paul was aware of, so he spent little time going over the events of the past. The Gospel from a Pauline point of view was not intended as a biography.
In a literary sense, what can a gospel be?
The definitions below assist us in determining what the gospel meant to Paul; however, it must be made clear that the idea of gospel as a literary genre is not what Paul intended of his gospel: the gospel for Paul is used in the sense of ‘message’ or ‘good news’. For the form in which that good news message takes, it is helpful to establish what form a gospel can take. Attempts by scholars to identify what a gospel is, has led to four possible definitions:
i) Re-elaboration of prophetic biographies.
ii) Aretalogies: narration of supernatural events placed in a biographical context.
iii) Christology in the form of narration.
As previously discussed, Paul’s message was not biographical; the other definitions do however go some length to establish how Paul used his gospel. Regarding the first definition, Paul is clear in his letter to the Romans, that his message is not new but a re-elaboration: Romans 1:1 speaks of the ‘gospel of God’ the gospel ‘promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures’; in Galatians 3:8 we find: ‘And the Scripture foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham’. The message that Paul exhorts is not new nor is it a radical departure from the OT; these of course are the scriptures that Paul would have pored over in his Pharisaic education. He knew them well and sought to build on them. Dunn writes that in the letters to the Galatians and to the Romans, ‘three texts stand at the heart of [Paul’s] exposition of the gospel’: Gen 15.6, Lev 18.5 and Hab 2.4.
Paul often uses the formula ‘as it is written’ as an appeal to scripture as the basis of his gospel. Therefore, his gospel becomes aligned with the gospel of God, and the gospel of Christ. In that sense, the gospel that Paul preached did not undergo a ‘conversion’ as he did on the road to Damascus.
Regarding aretalogy, this becomes the starting point for the gospel for Paul. Dormeyer, while studying the link between gospel as a literary genre and the theological concept of gospel, which incidentally he concluded are largely unconnected, pointed out that the focus of Paul’s message is the ‘paschal kerygma’. This takes us back to 1 Cor 15, where Paul states his proclamation clearly: that the good news begins with the death, and resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore, Paul proclaims a mystical union with Christ as the basis of his soteriology; Paul often uses the phrase ‘in Christ’. Schweitzer’s exploration of Paul’s mysticism is well known but the idea had been visited before in scholarship. The ‘in Christ’ language is so prevalent that this could also be considered the central message of Paul; where scholarship moved away from the mystical exploration conducted by Schweitzer a new place was found for the theme. The one body concept from 1 Cor 12 was applied to the Church and to Christian fellowship, another term for those baptised in the Holy Spirit across the globe. Unger’s Biblical Dictionary writes:
This ‘in Christ’ position wrought by the giving of the Holy Spirit subsequent to the ascension of Christ makes real in the believer all that Christ purchased for him on the cross. Thus, Paul becomes the expositor theologically of the finished work of Christ on the cross.
Both the Christ mysticism and the ‘in Christ’ language lead onto the third definition from above. Dunn even goes as far to suggest that the ‘imagery of participation in Christ’ is in many ways an extension of Paul’s Christology; it is the ‘essential presupposition that is required to make sense’ of the events of the cross: the saving action of God in and through the Son. Col 1:14 tells us of our inherited redemption from God as we are transferred to the Kingdom of his beloved son. This passage also clarifies Paul’s standing on the synoptic gospel proclamations of the Kingdom of God: it also holds a significance in his good news. God’s purpose for salvation is, of course, mirrored in Paul’s letters, but his understanding of the work of Christ is developed by his understanding of the Holy Spirit or as Wright puts it: The One God of Israel, Freshly Revealed.
The Holy Spirit and Paul
In Romans 8, Paul exhorts a spiritual union between Christ and the believer; those God predestined for salvation he called, those called will be justified and glorified according to Paul(Rom 8:30). Thus, part of the uniqueness of the gospel for Paul is the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the calling, which has always been intended as a means of regeneration for God’s people. As Wright points out;
Jesus and the spirit do not replace God the creator; somehow God the creator, already there at the heart of Jewish monotheism, is also alongside the two new elements.
The gospel proclamation and the Holy Spirit are therefore linked: Paul says that the call is applied through his gospel, to obtain the glory of Jesus (2 Thess 2:14). The gospel then for Paul is also an efficacious outworking of God’s salvation. Although the external call can be ignored by some, it cannot be ignored by those that have the Holy Spirit at work in them.
The gospel calling, given by Paul, is that a sinner must come to Christ for salvation. All people sinned (Rom 3:23), the penalty for sin is death, (Rom 6:23), Christ died to pay the penalty for sin (Rom 5:8). In Christ and through the Holy spirit, we died too and are therefore dead to sin.
There coexist many possible meanings for the term gospel, as Vironda argues, if we consider the content of the message and to whom it is addressed. Is it being used in relation to the Church proclamation of salvation, or to the proclamation about Jesus or the proclamation brought by Jesus?  The gospel for Paul appears to be each of these. The OT, which Paul consistently appealed to, and the synoptics along with John, all looked to the cross. Paul picks up from that point in history to develop the message further. The death, resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit that followed, initiated the period in which the people ‘in Christ’ experienced the accomplished work of Christ. This is the gospel according to Paul, as laid out in 1st Cor 15.
Basta, Pasquale, ‘the Gospel as Literary Genre and Form of Language, The Biblical Annals (11.3) 2021
Martin Davie, New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic 2nd Edition, (London:IVP, 2016)
Dormeyer, Detlev ‘The compositional metaphor ‘Gospel of Jesus Christ,the Son of God’ MK1.1. The theological and literary task in Mark’s Jesus Biography, New Testament Studies, 33.3 (1987)
Dunn, James D.G, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998)
Garroway, Joshua D., The beginning of the Gospel: Paul, Phillipi, and the origins of Christianity, (Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan,2018)
Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology: Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (London: IVP, 2020)
Unger, Merril F., Unger’s Biblical Dictionary, (Chicago:Moody Press, 1960)
Vlach, Michael J., ‘The Kingdom of God in Paul’s Epistles’, The Master’s Seminary Journal, 26.1 (Spring 2015)
Wright, N.T, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, (London:Fortress Press, 2013)
 James D.G Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998) 164  Michael J. Vlach, ‘The Kingdom of God in Paul’s Epistles’, The Master’s Seminary Journal, 26.1 (Spring 2015) 59-74  Martin Davie, New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic 2nd Edition, (London:IVP, 2016) 584  Joshua D. Garroway, The beginning of the Gospel: Paul, Phillipi, and the origins of Christianity, (Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan,2018) 21  Garroway, The Beginning of the Gospel 22  Garroway, The Beginning of the Gospel, 21  Garroway, The Beginning of the Gospel, 23  James D.G Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 165  Pasquale Basta, ‘the Gospel as Literary Genre and Form of Language, The Biblical Annals (11.3) 2021 441-458  Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 184  Pasquale Basta, ‘the Gospel as Literary Genre and Form of Language’, 444  Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 169  Dunn, The theology of Paul the Apostle, 171  Detlev Dormeyer, ‘The compositional metaphor ‘Gospel of Jesus Christ,the Son of God’ MK1.1. The theological and literary task in Mark’s Jesus Biography, New Testament Studies, 33.3 (1987) 452-468  Merril F Unger, Unger’s Biblical Dictionary, (Chicago:Moody Press, 1960) 840  Dunn, The theology of the Apostle Paul, 390  N.T Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, (London:Fortress Press, 2013) 609  Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 616  Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (London: IVP, 2020) 842  Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 844  Basta, Gospel as Literary Genre and Form of Language, 443  Merril F Unger, Unger’s Biblical Dictionary, 839