The resurrection of Christ is the climax of the Bible. God entered into history and defeated death. It doesn’t get more miraculous than that! The Christian faith depends on this event. If Christ is not resurrected then all you are left with is a watered-down Christianity that simply follows the moral teachings of a man named Jesus. Christ’s resurrection is the foundation of our faith and must be defended with passion.
The resurrection is a historical event that is well documented in history. In fact, if it was not a miracle there would be no debating that it really happened. This is because all of the evidence points towards it really happening. Skeptics, critics, and atheists have been trying to come up with an alternate theory to explain the resurrection for years, but without much luck. Over the centuries, many theories have been presented to try to place doubt on this well-documented, historical event. These theories range from the disciples stealing the body, to Jesus not really dying on the cross, and even to the disciples hallucinating the resurrection appearances. One of these theories is the legend theory. It says, “Jesus was a remarkable man, but just a man. As witnesses to his life died off, his message, and his legend grew until people believed that he physically rose from the grave. At this later time, the Gospels were written, Christianity became popular, and the rest is history.”
The legend theory is the theory that most uninformed people who are not Christian would subscribe to. They believe that the resurrection is simply a legend or a myth that grew over time. However, Christians have a powerful weapon to use in tearing apart this theory! In fact, it is so powerful, that educated atheists no longer use the legend theory. Today you only find the legend theory on websites where uneducated skeptics still try to use it. There is an ancient creed hidden in First Corinthians that gives us a lot of insight into when the resurrection of Christ was first proclaimed by his followers. Studying this passage will show you that the resurrection was most certainly not a myth that developed over time. Here is the passage:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8 RSV)
Most Christians would never guess that these lines might be the most important lines ever written by the apostle Paul. At least from an apologetic standpoint, when it comes to defending our faith, they are the most important. All of the evidence that one needs to show that the resurrection was preached within a couple of years after the death of Jesus is found in these sacred words. Hidden in these six verses of First Corinthians is an ancient creed that goes all the way back to the apostles in Jerusalem. It verifies that the resurrection of Jesus is not a legend which built up over time, but instead was believed and preached by the early Christians just months after the tomb was found empty. Identifying these verses as a creed might be difficult for the casual reader, but its importance should not be difficult to understand. If we can prove that this creed goes back to the original eyewitnesses, it defeats any attack that Christianity grew as a myth or a legend. Read those verses again and notice that all of the main features of the Gospel are present. If those points were being preached right after Jesus died then the legend or myth theory becomes unusable.
How do we know it is a creed?
Before we date this ancient creed we need to be able to show that it really is a creed Lucky for us, two thousand years later, there are still several clues identifying this as an early Christian creed. First of all, the most obvious clue is that Paul says he DELIVERED to them what he had RECEIVED. Then he proceeds to write the message that was delivered. The message that was delivered had to have been important because of the words that Paul chose to use. According to Fuller, the words “received” (Greek “parelabon”) and “delivered” (Greek “paredoka”) are the Greek equivalents of the technical rabbinic terms “qibbel min” and “masar le” which are the terms for the passing on of a sacred tradition.1 The Greek shows that what Paul delivered to the Corinthians was something extremely sacred. He would not have used these words if the following information was not considered a sacred tradition. Paul then proceeds to write what he had delivered to them. This is not the only place where Paul uses traditional material in his epistles. First Corinthians 11 contains a similar example using the same words for “received” and “delivered.” This gives more evidence that Paul knew what these words conveyed. Jeremias and other scholars concur that these are rabbinic terms for the presentation and receipt of sacred tradition. This would seem probable since Paul most likely had both classical Greek and traditional rabbinic education. Paul, more so than most early Christians, would have understood how to use these words.2 According to this language, Paul was repeating something important that he had received from another source.
The second clue that this Scripture is a creed is the word “that,” which is repeated three times. This indicates a streamlined formulaic pattern of creedal information. Scholars have noted that “hoti” meaning “that” or “kai hoti” meaning “and that” function as quotation marks to link all of the sections.3 Another grammatical clue comes from the verb, “was buried” (Greek “etaphe.”) This verb is absent throughout the rest of Paul’s writing which implies that he was quoting or passing on something from someone else. This is a subtle sign of the traditional nature of the creedal formula used by the apostle in verses 3-5. The verb “appeared” serves as another small clue to the traditional nature of Paul’s creed. This expression was used in early Christian confessional material to describe the appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples.4
Gary Habermas gives a list of non-Pauline words in the creed that he claims, and others concur, are indicators that it is from another source. Paul does not use these phrases anywhere else. Since the phrases all appear within these couple of lines they must have been written earlier, by another author, then Paul RECEIVED it, and DELIVERED it to the Corinthians. These include the phrases, “for our sins,” “according to the scriptures,” “he was raised,” “third day,” “he was seen,” and “the twelve.”5 It is hard to believe that Paul would introduce all of these new phrases at one time! Jeremias, adequately discussed this matter and concluded that the amount of non-Pauline vocabulary and syntax in verses 3 thru 5 is so great that Paul is very unlikely to have been the original author of the creed.
Jeremias also makes the case that the form Paul uses is rhythmic and flowing. The form is called, “parallelismus membroroum,” a term which was coined by Robert Lowth in 1788. This is a chief rhetorical device of Biblical poetry in Hebrew. It consists of two long lines, similar in length and structure, each followed by a short line, both of which are similar in length and structure. This back and forth form made it easier to recite the creed as a group, and to commit the creed to memory. This use of parallelismus membroroum implies that it was something that would be memorized by the people to whom it was given.6 Based on all of this evidence and more, most scholars concur that this is a creed.
This creed shows us that some time after the death of Jesus someone wrote down the most important points of the faith. It was written in creedal form to make it easy to recite and memorize. It was then given to new converts to memorize and pass on. It ensured that the new converts knew the basics: Jesus died for our sins, was buried, was raised from the dead on the third day, then appeared to many witnesses who could still be interrogated. Now that we know for sure that this is a creed can we determine when it was written?
Dating the Creed
Now we have to establish when Paul received this creed. To do this, we have to start at the date that Paul wrote First Corinthians and go backwards in time from there. Paul wrote First Corinthians while he was in Ephesus when he was informed of problems in Corinth. First Corinthians was not the first letter that he wrote to the Corinthians. In chapter 5, he says that he has written them a previous letter, but that letter has been lost to history. As far as dating this epistle, in chapter 16, Paul clearly states that he is writing from Ephesus during the spring. Since Paul references sending Timothy to Corinth, it could not have been written during his first missionary journey. According to Acts, he was in Ephesus for three years during his second missionary journey. According to Thiselton, “If Paul left Corinth in September of 51 after a ministry of a little more than eighteen months, either two and a half years, (if 1 Corinthians dates from spring of 54) or perhaps three and a half years (if 1 Corinthians dates from spring of 55) constitutes the probable period of development, expansion, and time for the emergence of the problems which Paul addresses in our epistle.”7 Based on this evidence, we know that First Corinthians was written in either 54 or 55 AD. In fact, even the liberal co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, says 1 Corinthians was, “Written from Ephesus in the winter of 53-54.”8 Therefore, the first written, surviving proclamation that Jesus was resurrected was written only 22 to 25 years after the death of Jesus!
We could stop right here and our point would already be made! 22 to 25 years is not nearly enough time for a legend of a man rising from the grave to develop! This would be unheard of in ancient history. Legends about Alexander the Great took centuries to develop. It is hard to believe that a legend of Jesus rising from the grave could develop before Paul wrote First Corinthians 22-25 years after Jesus died. That is strong evidence against the theory, but can we trace the creed back even further?
Paul says that he gave the Corinthians that which he had received. Obviously, this means that the creed existed before the epistle’s writing in 54 or 55 AD. So when would Paul have given the Corinthians this creed? It had to have been during his second missionary journey when he founded the Corinthian church. We know that he left Corinth after he was brought before the proconsul, Gallio. We also know that proconsuls only served for one full year. Here, archaeology helps us out. An inscription gives us important archaeological evidence that the one year when Gallio was proconsul was from the summer of 51 to the summer of 52. Ferguson says, “The importance of this information is that it gives the one fixed date for an absolute chronology of Paul’s life and one of the few relatively certain dates in New Testament history.”9 We know from Acts that Paul was in Corinth for 18 months which means that he would have been there between 50 and 51. This is agreed on almost unanimously in the scholarly world. One exception is Dixon Slingerland, who attempts to make the date range a little wider. He makes a contribution, but only gives another possibility that has far less certainty than what we find in the Gallio inscription.10 This means that Paul gave the Corinthians this creed in 50 AD, somewhere between 17 to 20 years after the death of Jesus! But can we trace the creed even further than that? After all, since we know that Paul didn’t write it, someone had to have given the creed to Paul so he could pass it on to the Corinthians!
It does not make any sense for Paul to have received this creed on his missionary journeys. After all, he was traveling to places where the name of Jesus was not even known. Where else would he have received it? It would not have been during his years in Tarsus. Antioch is a possibility brought up by a few scholars, but it is dismissed by most. That leaves only Jerusalem and Damascus as places where Paul visited that remain possibilities, but either place would date the creed at an extremely early date, a date amazingly close to the actual resurrection, a date that would make liberal scholars cringe!
Paul made two early trips to Jerusalem. However, the second trip is ruled out because Paul says in Galatians 2:6 that the second meeting in Jerusalem, “Added nothing to the message.” This leaves only the first Jerusalem meeting. An important clue that verifies this meeting is given in Galatians 1:18-19 which states, “Then after three years [after his conversion] I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.” This makes the first trip to Jerusalem the likely point of deliverance. Depending on whether you subscribe to the 30 AD or 33 AD date for the crucifixion, the meeting between Paul, Peter and James had to have been in the mid thirties. Additionally, Peter and James happen to be the two people mentioned by name in the creed. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
This trip to Jerusalem was a dangerous trip for Paul to make just a few years after turning his back on his former duties. It is safe to assume that he did not risk going to Jerusalem to talk to Peter about the weather! He went there to compare notes and to make sure that they were on the same page. This is the only time the creed could have been given to Paul that really makes sense. More evidence that Paul received the creed at this time comes from the fact that the creed contains a number of items which indicate Semitic origin. This means the creed dates to 38 AD at the very latest. It is also no stretch to assume that Peter did not formulate the creed while Paul was visiting Jerusalem. It’s not like they sat down and wrote the creed while having lunch. The creed had to have already been in circulation in Jerusalem placing its date of origin even earlier. Each point in the creed had to be accepted before the creed itself could be formed. You can see how close this is getting to the actual resurrection.
The majority of scholars subscribe to a Jerusalem receipt of the creed during Paul’s meeting with Peter; however, there is another substantial group of scholars who take it even further! They take it all the way to Damascus, which was the location of the conversion of Paul. This group believes that Paul was given this creed right after his conversion on the road to Damascus. William Lane Craig, a leading proponent of a Damascus receipt says, “It is difficult to imagine Paul’s not receiving at least the contents of this formula soon after his conversion.”11 Since the creed shows Hellenistic influence, in addition to its Semitic influence, it is possible that Paul received it for preaching purposes in a Greek-speaking environment. Damascus has that influence. Craig combines the Jerusalem and Damascus theories together by correctly saying that the creed could have originated in Jerusalem, then moved with Christian converts to Damascus, taking on a Hellenized form which was given to Paul, possibly just a few days after his conversion. This argument is persuasive in that it synthesizes the Jewish and Hellenistic influences found in the creed.12
An increasing number of exceptionally influential scholars have recently concluded that at least the teaching of the resurrection, and perhaps even the specific formulation of the pre-Pauline creedal tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, dates to 30 AD. In other words, THERE WAS NEVER A TIME WHEN THE MESSAGE OF JESUS’ RESURRECTION WAS NOT PART OF THE EARLIEST APOSTOLIC PROCLAMATION. No less a scholar than James D. G. Dunn even states regarding this crucial text: “This tradition, we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’ death.”13
During my research, it was interesting to discover that there are not many objections to the implications of this creed. Uninformed atheists on websites still use the theory that the resurrection was a myth that grew over time, but more informed skeptics have accepted that the resurrection was preached directly following the death of Jesus and that the creed proves it. Renowned atheist, Michael Martin concedes, “It is correct that the Resurrection was proclaimed by the early Christians.”14 The non-Christian, yet New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, writes, “Historians, of course have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. For it is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution.”15 In speaking about the Corinthian creed, Gerd Ludemann concedes, “We can assume that all the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus.”16
One objection has been stated that the passage does not fit well into New Testament history because Paul refers to Cephas (Peter) as if he was not among the disciples, listing the disciples separately. This is just a misinterpretation of what Paul said. Paul is clearly referring to two separate resurrection appearances which is why Cephas or Peter is listed separately from the disciples in the creed. The creed is saying that Jesus made an appearance to Peter, but later appeared to all of the disciples.
Another objection states that the creed is wrong because it lists “the twelve” after the death of Judas. However, according to Acts, Judas was quickly replaced so the twelve was intact just weeks after the death of Jesus. Since Acts says that the disciples nominated someone who was also a witness to the resurrection, and who had been there since the beginning, it makes sense that Matthias was also a witness who could be included in, “the twelve,” as it pertains to the appearances. Finally, it has been argued that this could not have been an early creed since it leaves out the appearance to the women. However, in my opinion, this is not only a weak objection, but the objection itself strengthens the validity of the creed. Since testimony from women was worthless in Jerusalem, it makes sense that it was left out of a creed that was given to new converts in Jerusalem. Years later, when the Gospels were written, the authors were only concerned with accuracy for future readers. However, in the creed it was not inaccurate reporting to simply omit the appearance that Jesus made to the women. After all, the creed does not claim that every appearance is listed.
What are the implications of dating this creed back to the apostles? Well, if we could not refute it, the legend theory would be the strongest argument against the resurrection of Christ. These verses keep us from wasting our time refuting this theory. As Christians, if this theory is presented to us, all we have to do is cite this creed and it proves the resurrection was no legend. It forces skeptics to move on to cases that are much harder to make, such as the disciples suffered from hallucinations, or they fabricated a lie. In an age where the Bible has come under more and more critical scrutiny, and the historical Jesus is being dissected by more and more skeptics, it is nice to know that we have this early historical testimony of the basic beliefs of Christianity.
In this creed, Paul presents evidence that the Lord appeared to 500 people. Paul was not one of the 500 who were present at the appearance, but he clearly knew some of them since in 54 AD he claims that most of them are still living. This is a clear invitation to the recipients of this creed to investigate the claims, interrogate the eye-witnesses, and decide for themselves. Paul would not have invited the Corinthians to interview these 500 people if there were not really people who saw Jesus still walking around Jerusalem! In addition to the 500, Paul gives his own testimony of seeing Jesus, and Paul presents the testimony of Peter and James. Since Paul met with Peter and James, and they are mentioned in the creed, the creed is like a signed deposition from those men confirming that they saw Jesus. Thanks to these verses in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we can make the following claim, Christians believed in and preached the resurrection of Jesus Christ just months after the crucifixion.
It is a historical fact that Jesus rose from the grave and it is up to us to spread the word! If this post has given you a more confident faith please take a moment to scroll to the bottom of this page and subscribe to my blog. Thank you for supporting this site.
1) Reginald H. Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 10.
2) Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (New York: Scribners, 1966), 102-103.
3) Jerome Murphy-O’Conner, “Tradition and Redaction in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7” Catholic Bible Quarterly 43 (1981): 582-589
4) Raymond F. Collins and Daniel J. Harrington, First Corinthians (Collegeville: Liturgical press, 1999), 531.
5) Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin: College Press, 1996), 153-154.
6) Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (New York: Scribners, 1966), 102-103.
7) Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: a commentary on the Greek text (Grand Rapids: Ewm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 32.
8) John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 427.
9) Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 586.
10) Dixon Slingerland, “Acts 18:1-18, the Gallio Inscription, and Absolute Pauline Chronology,” JBL 110 (1991) 439-49.
11) William Lane Craig, Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1989), 18.
12) Craig 19.
13) Gary Habermas, “Tracing Jesus’ Resurrection to its Earliest Eyewitness Accounts,” God is Great, God is Good (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 212.
14) Michael Martin, The Case against Christianity, (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1991), 90.
15) Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford: OUP, 2001), 231.
16) Gerd Ludemann, Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1995), 38.