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
Paul begins here to lay out what exactly it was that was of “first importance.” Three historical events are given here: that Christ died, was buried, and was raised on the third day. Paul also uses the expression “according to the Scriptures” twice. Finally, he states that Jesus died “for our sins.” N.T. Wright points out that Paul probably doesn’t have any specific proof-texts in mind, but the Scriptural revelation as a whole. The themes of redemption and atonement are, of course, prominent themes in the Old Testament. Jesus’ death is shown in the New Testament as being prefigured in the Passover, and in the Old Testament sacrificial system. Paul may have meant that Jesus’ Resurrection was prefigured in the Scriptures (Jesus himself referred to it as the “sign of the prophet Jonah”), or perhaps even that the Resurrection on the third day was prefigured. Some have seen this in Hosea 6:1-2: “Come, let us return to the LORD. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us. He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him.” Some messianic passages in the Old Testament were originally predicated of the nation of Judah. This is the clearest passage in the OT that looks like a resurrection on the third day.
Christ Died For Our Sins
The death of Jesus by crucifixion is, of course, recorded in all four Gospels. Some critics have alleged that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross, that he just fainted and then later revived. This is sometimes known as the “swoon” theory, and is an attempt to explain how the disciples came to believe that Jesus was alive after his death (or apparent death as the theory goes). However, this idea is utterly implausible for several reasons. First, Roman centurions were very experienced in executing people, and knew how to tell when someone was dead. We have testimony from John’s Gospel that indicates that the soldiers took Jesus to be dead. In order to hasten death for the two criminals executed beside Jesus, the soldiers broke their legs with a heavy mallet. This would result in death in short order, since crucifixion victims must push up on their legs in order to take a breath. Lacking the ability to do that, they would die of asphyxiation quite quickly. But when the soldiers came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead and didn’t break his legs. Furthermore, John records that one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear to double-check that he was dead.
According to John, “one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe” (John 19:33-34). This is a remarkable statement. First, the fact that this is given not one but two attestations as to its veracity (“the man who saw it has given his testimony which is true and he knows it’s true”). This sounds almost like an oath in a court of law. Second, what the eyewitness saw was blood and water flowing out of Jesus’ side. Apparently this was unexpected and unusual which is why he commented on it and reinforced the comment with an oath as to its veracity. But it’s also consistent with the mode of death. According to Dr. Alexander Metherell (M.D.), “Even before he died . . . the hypovolemic shock would have caused a sustained rapid heart rate that would have contributed to heart failure, resulting in the collection of fluid in the membrane around the heart, called a pericardial effusion, as well as around the lungs, which is called a pleural effusion.” This unexpected event was noteworthy to John. It’s consistent with Jesus’ medical condition at the time of his death. It also proves that he was, in fact, dead.
He Was Buried
All four of the Gospels record the burial of Jesus in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea who was a member of the Sandhedrin, the ruling council that condemned Jesus to death. Matthew and John both indicate that Joseph was a follower of Jesus, with John adding that he was a “closet disciple” for fear of the other Jews. It seems highly unlikely that this was a legend or an invention of the early Christians. There would have been no reason to invent a member of the council that condemned Jesus to come forward and to be the person who gave Jesus an honorable burial in his own family tomb. And while the Gospels include different details in the post-Resurrection narratives, all four include Joseph’s involvement in the burial. For these reasons the late Cambridge University NT scholar John A.T. Robinson said, “the honorable burial of Jesus is one of the earliest and best-attested facts that we have about the historical Jesus” (Strobel, 210).
Skeptics object that there is no other historical record of such an individual, and no clear identification of a city called Arimathea. However, there are many other references to Joseph in non-canonical literature. Some of it is clearly legendary, but the city of Ramah, which was the birthplace of the prophet Samuel, is called Armathaim in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (1 Sam. 2:2). This may well have been the city where Joseph was from. For the early Christians to have invented and named a specific individual from a specific group if that person did not exist would be a curious move, given that the information could be checked out.
He Was Raised on the Third Day
Some skeptics argue that Paul did not believe in a physical resurrection, but a spiritual one. Thus Paul doesn’t specifically mention the fact that the tomb was discovered empty as the Gospels indicate. These skeptics sometimes point to 1 Cor. 15:42-44 as evidence for this contention: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”
Paul makes a number of contrasts between the present body and the resurrected body, including that the present body is “natural” while the resurrection body is “spiritual.” This is taken to mean “physical” and “ghost-like" by the skeptic. However, this is a mistake. Paul uses the exact same contrast with the exact same words (“natural” and “spiritual”) at the beginning of the letter. In 1 Cor. 2:14-15 Paul writes, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one.” When he speaks of the “natural” man and he who is “spiritual,” he doesn’t mean one with a physical body and one who is a ghost! Rather, he’s talking about the orientation of the person, whether towards the earthly (natural) realm or towards the heavenly (spiritual) realm. This skeptical theory is rather bizarre for another reason. Skeptics normally assert that the belief in the Resurrection was a process of accumulating myth. Yet according to the skeptics’ theory here, the earliest belief (in 1 Cor. 15) is more mythologized than the later versions which appear in the Gospels where Jesus is physically resurrected!
There is also the point that if Paul thought the Resurrection was spiritual and didn’t involved Jesus’ body coming back to life, what was significant about the third day? Why the delay? A spiritual resurrection wouldn’t require a waiting period of three days. Presumably Jesus would have gone to heaven spiritually immediately upon his death. But Paul says he was raised on the third day, the same day that the tomb was discovered empty by some of Jesus’ women followers according to all of the Gospel reports. This story is also a very unlikely invention, as women were not considered to be reliable witnesses in Jewish culture. In fact Paul’s list of appearances in 1 Cor. 15 fails to mention any of the appearances to the women reported in the Gospels. This can be explained in one of two ways. Either the story of the women was invented later and inserted into the Gospel accounts (highly unlikely), or the early church creed left out the appearances to the women in part due to the cultural stigma against having women as witnesses, and in part because creeds only record information which is deemed essential. This explanation makes much more sense of the evidence.