In previous posts (one; two), I explored the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus in the context of the Jewish Messianic expectations and the prevailing concepts regarding resurrection in the first century world. Over the course of the next few blog entries in this series, I want to consider some of the circumstantial historiographical evidence for the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, friends and foes, starting with that early Creedal summary given in 1 Corinthians 15. What information can be learn from this early creed? Embedded below is one of the best videos on this subject, which provides a succinct yet informative summary of the importance, significance and evidential value of this passage regarding the resurrection.
What does 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 say?
“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, 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, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
The vast majority of New Testament scholars affirm that this passage is an old creed that goes back as early as Paul’s fact-finding mission in Jerusalem around 36A.D., when he spent a couple of weeks with James and Peter (Galatians 1). Paul is writing 1 Corinthians between 50 and 60 A.D., which is early in and of itself, the preserved creed takes as far back as no more than 2 or 3 years removed from the crucifixion event. The creed, therefore, must date back further still. Thus, it dates to within a short window of time following Christ’s death – such a short time span and personal contact makes the concept of the development of legendary accounts highly improbable. The fact that Paul mentions in his letter to the Galatian church his meeting with Peter and James, both of whom are mentioned specifically in the creed, gives this testimony extra weight.
Among the facts which have convinced scholars as to the creedal nature of this text are the following:
1. The creed comprises a summary that corresponds line by line with what the gospels teach.
2. Paul introduces it with the words ‘received’ and ‘delivered’, which are technical rabbinic terms indicating he’s passing along holy tradition.
3. The writing is highly stylised with non-Pauline characteristics
4. The original text uses Cephas for Peter, which is his Aramaic name. The Aramaic itself could in fact indicate a very early origin.
5. The creed uses several other primitive phrases that Paul would not customarily use, such as ‘the Twelve’, ‘the third day’, ‘he was raised’, etc.
6. The use of certain words is similar to Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew means of narration.
Facts such as those stated above have led Joachim Jeremias, an eminent scholar, to refer to this creed as ‘the earliest tradition of all’, and Ulrich Wilckens to conclude that the creed ‘indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity.’ Moreover, the Jewish New Testament scholar Pinchas Lapide affirms that the evidence in support of the creed is so strong that it ‘may be considered as a statement of eyewitnesses.’