In this post-Easter week, we look at Paul’s discussion of the resurrection, in 1 Corinthians 15.
One of the common objections to the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is the long timeframe between the event (around 30 AD) and the four written gospels which testify to it (Mark is likely the earliest, in the 60s AD). Now of course, this 40-year gap is still within living memory, meaning the accounts could have been challenged by those who were around at the time if the gospel writers were simply making up stories. (If you publish made up stories about the late 1970s, there will be plenty of people around to correct you!)
More than that, in a mostly non-literate culture, the gospels weren’t primary; they reflected a long tradition of material about Jesus and his resurrection that was circulating by word of mouth. Unlike in our text-based culture, in the first century, writing these traditions down was a secondary task.
But still: there’s a gap between what’s often seen as our earliest historical evidence (Mark’s gospel) and the event itself, which can lead people to doubt the reliability of the resurrection accounts.
Except that there is an earlier historical source, that’s often overlooked. Let’s read it now.
Paul starts out by stressing the centrality of this message for the Christian faith – an issue we’ll come back to later in the week, as Paul comes back to it later in the chapter:1 Corinthians 15:1-2 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
And what is the content of this gospel that saves us? Paul continues:1 Corinthians 15:3-7 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles…
The content of the gospel, according to Paul’s summary, is this:
- In fulfilment of Israel’s story, the Messiah died for the sins of his people;
- He was buried – confirmation of his death.
- He was resurrected on the third day (again, in fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures);
- He confirmed this by appearing to many witnesses on numerous different occasions.
Here we have the essence of the Christian faith – centering on the veracity of the resurrection – given in written form, in one of Paul’s letters:
- It’s a letter that even sceptical historians agree was authentically from Paul. (That is, it’s not one of the letters where sceptics dispute the authorship, like Ephesians or 2 Thessalonians.)
- It’s a letter that even sceptics are happy to date at around 54-55 AD. (This is largely based on Paul’s arrival in Corinth being not long after Claudius’s expulsion of the Jews from Rome, mentioned in Acts 18:1-2, and the proconsulship of Galio mentioned in Acts 18:12).
We’re getting much closer to the event itself – a matter of 25 years. But what’s even more interesting is that Paul is quoting an established tradition. He’s using the language of authoritative tradition that he “received” and “passed down.” The wording itself is formal and balanced, like a creed (and unlike Paul’s usual patterns of speaking). Again, critical scholars mostly see this as an early creed, not Paul’s invention. So this fragment of tradition being quoted dates before the letter – before the mid 50s AD. But how much before?
Here’s where it gets intriguing. Where might Paul have received this? We get a strong clue from one of Paul’s other undisputed letters – the letter to the Galatians (late 40s / early 50s). In this, Paul records his own conversion story. He went from persecutor of the early church in the first few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, to believer, after a vision of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. And within three years of this event, he records the following:Galatians 1:18-19 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.
Here we have the earliest meeting of Paul with the key witnesses mentioned in this creed; one of the few times they are recorded as meeting. This is the most likely source from which he “received” what he passes on in 1 Corinthians.
Further, the word translated “to get acquainted” has connotations of research and investigation. This wasn’t just a catch-up for coffee; it was an investigation of the foundations of his faith, and the eyewitness testimony of Peter.
To sum up: In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, then, we have a tradition about Jesus’ resurrection that is at the very least significantly earlier than the mid 50s AD, and quite likely dates back to Paul’s first meeting with Peter, a mere three years or so after the event. This has led the (critical) scholar C.H. Dodd to conclude:Anyone who should maintain that the primitive Christian Gospel was fundamentally different from that which we have found in Paul must bear the burden of proof. (Apostolic Preaching, p. 16.)
These five verses form some of the strongest evidence – even in the assessment of sceptics – for the fact that shortly after Jesus’ death, there were those who claimed to have seen him alive. Not forty years after the event. But probably only a handful.
(More? See Gary Habermas, “Tracing Jesus’ resurrection to its earliest eyewitness accounts,” in William Lane Craig, God is Great, God is Good, pp.202-16.)
Paul then adds his own testimony, describing how he came late-to-the-party as a result of a vision:1 Corinthians 15:8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
And how he went from persecutor of the church to believer:1 Corinthians 15:9-10 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
His point is that he – and the other eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus – are united on this foundation: the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s the issue on which the Christian faith stands or falls.
(In the next part of the chapter, Paul goes on to apply this to an issue in the Corinthian church: a denial of our own, future resurrection. More tomorrow.)
To think about
What is your own faith based on? Feelings? Events in your life? Belief in tradition? Or does it rest on the demonstrable, historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection?
How do you seek to demonstrate the truth of the Christian message? A key part of our proclamation ought to be the reliability of the testimony about our resurrected saviour. Because if it’s not true, then we’re wasting our time – as Paul will tell us tomorrow.