For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
1 Corinthians 15:3-8
This passage is the earliest witness in the New Testament to the Resurrection. I'll be examining it one piece at a time. Skeptics, of course, regard the Resurrection as a myth or a legend, a story that simply developed over time as people told stories about a charismatic Jewish peasant preacher named Yeshua. But of course nobody today could believe such nonsense . . . could they?
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is universally recognized as an authentic letter of Paul, written to the church in Corinth around 55-57 AD. This passage from Paul is recognized as having the form of an early church creed. It’s stylized as a creed and uses some early expressions such as Peter’s Aramaic name (Cephas) and “the Twelve.” Paul tells his readers that he had delivered this creed to them that he had previously received, the contents of which consist of a number of historical claims. The words Paul uses are important – he uses two technical rabbinic terms for receiving and handing on of sacred tradition1. He wasn’t merely passing on gossip that he’d heard. The accepted date for Paul’s previous visit to Corinth was 51 AD. So when Paul says he had delivered this message to the Corinthians, he was referring to something he had done on his previous visit. But when did he receive it? Obviously prior to that. It’s also significant that he says this was “of first importance.” James D.G. Dunn notes that “he assuredly does not imply that the tradition became important to him only at some subsequent date. More likely he indicates the importance of the tradition to himself from the start; that was why he made sure to pass it on to the Corinthians when they first believed.”2
Thus it appears that this creed was received by Paul very early after his remarkable conversion, which occurred on his way to Damascus in about 33-34 AD, within just a couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s possible he received it in Damascus, or he may have received it on his visit with the apostles which he mentions in Gal. 1:18, which would have been no later than 37 AD. But this creed would have already been in circulation before that. Thus Dunn writes, “this tradition, we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’ death [emphasis original].”3 Even liberal New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann says, “We can assume that all the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus.”4 N.T. Wright agrees, saying this creed was likely formulated with 2-3 years of the crucifixion.5
If all of this is true, and there’s no good reason to doubt it, then these historical claims simply cannot be dismissed as myths and legends that developed over decades or even centuries as some skeptics claim. Many skeptics point to supposed late dates for the writing of the Gospels to bolster the myth argument, but those arguments are irrelevant (besides being generally mistaken). The historic core of the events surrounding the first Easter can be traced back to within months of the death of Jesus by crucifixion on that Good Friday almost 2000 years ago.
It’s interesting that the creed which Paul delivered so carefully to the Corinthians was not a statement of doctrine, dogma, moral teachings, or esoteric religious philosophy. It was rather a set of very specific historical claims. The only item in it that could be called doctrine is the phrase “for our sins.” This is significant. The foundational claims of Christianity do not have to do with doctrine, dogma, or a philosophical system. They have to do with specific claims of specific historic events. Why is this important? Historic truth claims are true or false. It’s not a question of whether they are true for some people but not for others. And if the historic truths of Christianity can be shown to be true, then Christianity is true, and it’s true for everybody.
It’s also worth mentioning that these claims were quite literally a matter of life and death. Paul had persecuted the church and had been present for the execution of believers, giving his approval. After his amazing conversion, he put his own life on the line repeatedly to proclaim this very message around the Roman Empire, ultimately giving his life for it in martyrdom in Rome. Skeptics may say there were lots of miracle stories, although you will not find any miracle story attested like this one. And you will not find another miracle story for which so many eyewitnesses were willing to give their lives in order to testify to the truth of what they had seen. This was not merely idle gossip or tall tales, but a life-transforming message that survived against all odds to continue to be preached today.
As Paul said in his sermon to the people of Athens in Acts 17,
Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.
Interesting that in the crowd that heard Paul that day, some scoffed, some said, “we’d like to hear more about this,” and some believed. These are the same responses that you still see today whenever this message is preached. In 2000 years, nothing has changed! One of my favorite things about that sermon of Paul’s is that one of those who believed on the same day was Dionysius the Areopagite. This was a member of the Athenian ruling judicial council, a leader of the city and probably a man learned in law, arguments, and evidence. That message changed his life that day, just like it continues to change lives the world over.
1N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 319n13.
2James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 855.
4Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. London:SCM, 1998. Cited in Dunn, 855n129.