Authenticating the Resurrection of Jesus: The Corinthian Creed

Today’s first reading from 1 Corinthians 15 contains one of the first “creeds” of the early Church. As Saint Paul writes,

“For I handed on 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;
that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.
After that, he appeared to more
than five hundred brothers at once,
most of whom are still living,
though some have fallen asleep.
After that he appeared to James,
then to all the Apostles.
Last of all, as to one born abnormally,
he appeared to me.”

– 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

In an interview with Lee Strobel for the book The Case for Christ, scholar Gary Habermas showed that Saint Paul is, in fact, quoting a very early creed of the Church. First, Paul uses the terms translated “received” and “handed on”, technical rabbinical language for the passing on of sacred tradition. The text is also in stylized format, using parallelism, presumably to aid memorization. The use of the Aramaic version of Peter’s name, “Cephas” is likely a sign of its primitive date. The creed also uses phrases that are uncommon in Paul’s writings: “the Twelve”; “he was raised”; “the third day”. Habermas noted that scholar “Ulrich Wilkens says that it ‘indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity'” (Strobel, The Case for Christ, p. 230).

Habermas, among others, would contend that this creed could have been composed within mere months after the resurrection of Jesus. He notes that no credible scholar disputes Pauline authorship of 1 Corinthians, which was likely written between 55-57 AD. But Paul says in 15:3 that he passed the creed on to the Corinthian Church at some point in the past, predating his visit there in 51 AD. That places the composition of the creed no later than within 20 years of the original Easter event.

But Habermas – and others – think the creed goes back even further: between 32-38 AD, when Paul received it, in all likelihood in Jerusalem. Three years after Paul’s conversion, he travelled to Jerusalem to interview the Apostles Peter and James (whose feast day we celebrate today). Habermas draws our attention to the fact that, when Paul described this trip in Galatians 1:18-19, he uses the Greek word historeo, which indicates a thorough investigation of the facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection was being made. So, in all likelihood, this creed was delivered to Paul by the eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus, Peter and James.

Of course, the creed goes on to enumerate other Easter eyewitnesses, including an appearance of the Risen Christ to over 500 people at once – “most of whom are still living” at the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Paul is virtually daring any skeptics to interview these people.

The 1 Corinthians creed authenticates the resurrection of Christ in many ways, not the least of which is this: its incredibly early, eyewitness testimony precludes any possibility of legendary accretion. The fact is, the resurrection is a fact.


11 replies
  1. thom waters
    thom waters says:

    A creed is simply a statement of what was or is believed. To say that something was or is believed makes no statement about it being an actual “fact”. You might want it to be so, but that doesn’t make it so. It is believed that Jesus was born of a virgin. Does that make it a “fact”? Hardly. The possibility that something was believed and formulated “early” doesn’t change this relationship between “belief” and “fact”. There is a good reason why Christianity and all religions are called “faiths”. Belief is ultimately a matter of faith, not “facts”, especially when your “facts” aren’t actually facts at all.

    Thanks.

  2. thom waters
    thom waters says:

    Cale,

    That’s a good question. However, by the nature of the Christian claim it is a question that you must answer first. When you state, “The fact is, the Resurrection is a fact,” it follows that the ball is in your court to define what you mean. When you refer to creeds, whether they be the one that Paul refers to or others like the Apostolic and Nicene Creeds, you are actually dealing with things believed. So when you refer to things like the virgin birth, Jesus being raised from the dead, Jesus sitting at the right hand of God, and others, it actually becomes incumbent upon the person making the claims to define the terms.

    At the very least, proving your belief to be a fact is the challenge you accept. Believing it to be so and declaring it as such doesn’t make it so. You’ll have to do better than that especially when dealing with something that violates the laws of nature as we know them whether a virgin birth or a man raised from the dead.

    At this point you have to be quite careful. You must be willing to distinguish between evidence that you feel points to the truth of a claim while still resisting the urge to turn that into what you believe to be a fact. Simply wanting it to be so falls short of the mark it would appear.

    Thanks

  3. thom waters
    thom waters says:

    Cale,

    In the scheme of things an internet conversation of this type lacks the necessary priority that other matters do. Still, I was wondering if you’ve given any further thought to delineating the difference between belief and fact, and what you mean by “fact” in your faith and apologetics?

    Calling the Resurrection of Jesus a “fact” is still most provoking.

    Thanks.

  4. Mike
    Mike says:

    Christianity’s central historical claim is that Jesus rose from the dead. Anyone wishing to refute this claim would seem to have two options: He would either have to show that the historical records containing this claim (primarily the Gospels and 1 Corinthians) are unreliable or, failing that, he would have to show that the authors or the witnesses cited in those records were confused, mistaken or outright liars.

    In 2003 Dr. Tom Wright published an 800+ page book, “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” in which he took on every reasonable objection ever made to either the authenticity of the text or the credibility of the authors and witnesses and soundly refuted all of them.

    Yes, Wright is an Anglican clergyman, but don’t be swayed by that, as he is also a world class first century historian who is held in high esteem by his academic colleagues. His academic reputation is on the line in this book.

    Anyone who thinks the resurrection must be a fairy tale owes it to himself to read Wright’s book. After that, if he still wants to dispute the historicity of the resurrection he will need to come up with an argument that Wright hasn’t already destroyed.

    Good luck.

  5. thom waters
    thom waters says:

    Mike and Cale,

    Sorry that I am tardy in responding to Mike’s response. Obligations of varying sorts pulled me away, and I actually had forgotten about the remarks I had made on this site.

    To refer to the Gospels and I Corinthians as historical writings seems to reveal a well-founded tendenz more than anything else. Perhaps they are more appropriately understood as theological treatises than historical records.

    To elaborate. If you accept the accounts in Matthew and John as historically accurate, then we would offer that the women are the first to whom the Risen Jesus reveals himself. However, according to Paul in the I Corinthian letter to which you refer, the Risen Jesus first reveals himself to Peter. Paul is evidently not aware of any so-called appearances to any women. Nowhere in his listing of appearances does he mention any such appearances to women. The explanation for this can’t simply be the convenient apologetic that Paul would have been embarassed by listing these. Luke, a traveling companion of Paul’s, makes no mention of such appearances either. It seems credible to suggest that neither of them was aware of such stories. Historically speaking, to whom does the Risen Jesus first appear? Based on these historical accounts and records, what would be the answer? This is a critical question in the formulation of the Resurrection Story and its historical reliability.

    This is just the beginning of my argument, but I will be interested in learning your position. It has the potential for opening up a much broader discussion on the historical nature of the Resurrection. Despite Dr. Wright’s work and the work of Habermas, Craig, N.T. Wright, and others, the case is hardly closed and the evidence far from overwhelming on the side of the Resurrection Hypothesis.

    Thanks.

  6. thom waters
    thom waters says:

    Cale,

    After reading the above link I suspect that you accept Paul’s account of the appearances to be correct. Although there seems to be room to argue against Paul’s listing of the appearances as part of the early creed, there seems to be no room to argue against Peter as the first to whom Jesus appears after the Resurrection. Therefore, by process of elimination, I take it that your position agrees with this, and we can now eliminate the accounts in Matthew and John as unhistorical when they tell the stories of the Risen Jesus first appearing to the women. We might conjecture that Matthew and John included such stories simply to enhance the story without consideration as to what might have been thought of as “embarassing”. Certainly this embarassment factor is more a modern day apologetic than a genuine concern of those writing these stories. We can safely conclude, it would appear, that some parts of these gospel accounts are unhistorical. It certainly throws a new light on the stories and what we might reasonably conclude concerning them and what parts to believe. Thanks.

  7. Nathan
    Nathan says:

    I am not entirely sure what this site is about, i read the about seioctn, but was still confused with all the big words! I found this on a google search, but wanted to put in a few words.I just wanted to say that mormons in general to me* don’t seem hesitant to reflect on sacrificial details, as much as we rejoice in the ressurection, being the miraculous and main part of the atonement. And i also feel, that if someone seems skiddish, as i have been in certain settings, that it is because i feel that his sacrifice and suffering are almost personal. When one gains a testimony, they learn things for themselves, and it takes on a meaning that is sacred and not neccesarily conversational We (and i mean my interpretation) is that we don’t wear crosses because it puts more emphasis on his death and suffereing that any other part of the atonement. If one part was to be celebrated, i think it should be his rebirth and miracles, the miracles he taught and the miracles that make it possible for us to repent.I hope you don’t think i am trying to put anyone down, i just felt like i could offer a little light?.?Also, as for the differences in sacrament meetings, i wanted to say that each individual meeting is prepared and planned by very different individuals, who are all trying to follow what they think is best. I don’t they that they always neccesarily choose the best, but i think they have good intentions. I also think its important to remeber that we don’t go to church for the people or the callings or the agenda, as much as to focus on the messages and be obedient to our father in heavan using sunday as a time to refelct and renew. maybe your service didn’t talk about easter, but can you remeber what they did talk about?

  8. Vitaly
    Vitaly says:

    and for those of us who missed the diiocsssun? Surely you could toss us a bone of some sorts. Give us something to nibble on. I mean it’s not like I’m asking for anything out of the ordinary here. Taido giving an opinion on a contemporary Christian book in his blog? Oh .what a stretch! Seriously, I would like to hear a brief review of the evening or at least a quick rundown of the questions of your own’ portion of the diiocsssun.

  9. gary
    gary says:

    Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

    But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus’ death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60’s, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

    How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

    I challenge Christians to list the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

    If you can’t list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole…or…the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?

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