Monday, February 23, 2009

1 Corinthians 15:3-8

(This is an essay I wrote for my MA in theology. It should be noted that there is not an original thought in it, and it is significantly dependent on the works of William Lane Craig; many of my references are his, and I just looked them up to make sure he got the quote right.)

In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul exhorts the fledgling Corinthian church to hold fast "to the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved." He then identifies this gospel with a creed which the vast majority of scholars date to the AD 30s, within about five years of Jesus’ crucifixion. This creed cites that Jesus was killed to atone for our sins, that his corpse was buried, and that he then rose from the dead. He then appeared to various individuals and groups of people. In this essay, I intend to examine this creed by defending its identification as such, the evidence which has convinced most scholars to date it so early, and its content, and the resulting significance for accepting the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection.

Exegetical evidence for recognizing 1 Cor. 15:3-8 as a creed
"That this confession is an early Christian, pre-Pauline creed is recognized by virtually all critical scholars across a very wide theological spectrum."[1] Some of the reasons given for holding this view are that, first, Paul introduces it as information with which his original audience was already familiar. Second, Paul describes this creed as that which he himself had received (paralambanein) and delivered (paradidonai). These are technical rabbinical terms employed in reference to the passing on of oral tradition.[2] Third, the language is organized stylistically, which is a mnemonic device used in order to facilitate memorization. This is demonstrated by the repetition of phrases such as, "and that" and "according to the Scriptures."[3] Fourth, the language is decidedly non-Pauline, which demonstrates that it probably did not originate with Paul. Non-Pauline phrases include "according to the Scriptures" (kata tas grafas, whereas Paul’s statement to this effect is always kathos gegraptai), as well as "for our sins," "he has been raised," "the third day," "he was seen," etc.[4] Fourth, this passage appears to have been translated into Greek from an Aramaic original, as evidenced by the fact that many of the non-Pauline phrases mentioned above are Semitic in character, as is the parallelism, and the use of Peter’s Aramaic name, Cephas.[5] "These [and other] considerations have persuaded virtually all New Testament scholars that vs. 3-7 do contain a pre-Pauline formula."[6]

The exact content of this creed is a more disputed issue among scholarship. Most would maintain that the creed ends in the middle of verse 6 after the statement that Jesus appeared to the 500 brethren, since the latter half of this verse is typically Pauline, and seems to be a break in the sentence structure. However, there are good exegetical grounds for seeing this, not as the cessation of Paul’s use of the creed, but merely as a parenthetical addition made by Paul, and that the creed continues in verse 7. This is evidenced by the fact that this latter verse contains the statement that Jesus appeared to all of the apostles; but one of Paul’s purposes in 1 Corinthians is to defend his own apostleship (1 Cor. 1:1; 9:1-6). Since verse 8 clearly indicates that he was not present at this appearance, it would serve no purpose for Paul to describe it as having been witnessed by "all the apostles" unless this phrase does not originate with Paul.[7]

Thus the creed would appear to consist of the following statement, minus the parenthetical comments in red font:

(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,
And then to the Twelve,
Then he appeared to more than 500 brethren at one time,
(most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep)
Then he appeared to James
And then to all the apostles.
(Then, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me also.)[8]

The origin and date of the creed
Unfortunately, it would extend this essay beyond reason to discuss why scholars date 1 Corinthians in the mid-AD 50s, as well as why the timeline of Paul’s life detailed in Acts and corroborated in his letters is considered to be fundamentally historically reliable. We must accede to the judgment of the scholarly consensus on these issues in order to set our sights on a more particular target: when did Paul receive this creed? This then lends itself to two more questions: with whom does this creed originate? And when?

Paul’s conversion to Christianity in Damascus is dated at between three to five years after Jesus’ crucifixion, and he visited Jerusalem to confer with the apostle Peter and Jesus’ brother James three years after that (Gal. 1:18-19). The Aramaic character of the creed indicates that it originated when the church was still primarily made up of Jews rather than Gentiles who would have needed it to be in the "trade language" of Greek. Thus, most scholars date Paul’s reception of this creed to within this early period, i.e., three to eight years after the crucifixion.[9]

The particular event which most scholars lean towards is Paul’s visit to Jerusalem three years after his conversion. One of the reasons for dating his reception of the creed to this event is that it would accord well with the prominent place given to Peter and James in the creed, since Paul’s trip to Jerusalem was specifically in order to meet with these two. I don’t find this convincing because it would appear to belie the whole nature of the creed predating Paul; in other words, if Peter and James are mentioned in the creed because Paul met with them at this point, then it would imply that Paul was the one constructing the creed. But we’ve already seen that it’s very unlikely that Paul is the author.

More convincing is the argument of Paul’s description of this trip as historesai. This is another technical rabbinical term used to "designate fact-finding missions to well-known cities and other points of interest with a view toward acquiring first-hand information about them. Accordingly, it implies that Paul’s visit to Cephas and Jerusalem was for the purpose of gaining information about the faith from first-hand witnesses."[10] In fact, we could reasonably conclude this even without any direct exegetical evidence; if Paul traveled to Jerusalem and met with Peter and James there, "we may presume that they did not spend all their time talking about the weather."[11]

Another suggestion is that Paul received this creed immediately after his conversion in Damascus. However, the Aramaisms would suggest that this creed originated in the Jerusalem church, and there may not have been sufficient time for it to have been transferred to the Damascus church during the then-ongoing persecution. Thus, if we must date Paul’s reception of the creed to this early period, Paul’s historesai to Jerusalem, about five to eight years after Jesus’ crucifixion, would appear to be the best candidate, and this is the view that most scholars hold.

This raises the question of who the creed actually comes from. Insofar as Paul received the creed from Peter and James, who are listed therein as having experienced individual appearances of Jesus after his death (not to mention the fact that Peter would have been included in the appearances to the Twelve and to all the apostles), this would constitute eyewitness approval of these statements, if not direct eyewitness statements. Gary Habermas noted this very point in a debate with Antony Flew, that "we have two separate appearances, to the twelve and to the apostles. So that’s in the creed, it’s eyewitness testimony, and it dates back to the time of the Crucifixion."

Most critical theologians who address the issue hold that Paul was given this material by Peter and James in Jerusalem. They were eyewitnesses and both are listed in the creed in 1 Corinthians 15. Now if they gave the creed to Paul, then that is a step earlier than the date of AD 33 to AD 38, which is when Paul received it. If they gave it to him, they knew it even earlier. And then the facts that make up the creed before it is stylized have to be even earlier. So we have three stages, the facts themselves, the disciples’ formulation of it, and Paul’s receiving of it. We do have the eyewitness material here because it was the eyewitnesses, in all likelihood, who gave it to Paul, number one. Second, in 1 Corinthians 15:11, 14, and 15, right after the creed, Paul states that these same eyewitnesses were also proclaiming this message that Jesus was raised. So we do have the eyewitness reports.[12]

It seems to me that we cannot make the claim that the creed was authored or formalized by eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection appearances; however, we can say that it was at least approved of by eyewitnesses. This fact has been recognized by the consensus of scholarship. We are told of this creed that, "This account meets all the demands of historical reliability that could possibly be made of such a text,"[13] and, "The passage therefore preserves uniquely early and verifiable testimony. It meets every reasonable demand of historical reliability."[14] The time needed from the beliefs of the early church to be formulated as a creed and then to Paul’s reception of it brings us back directly to the time of the crucifixion, and thus the beliefs must correspond to the actual events. "No longer can it by charged that there is no demonstrable early, eyewitness testimony for the resurrection ... for this creed provides just such evidential data concerning the facts of the gospel, which are the very center of the Christian faith. It links the events themselves with those who actually participated in time and space."[15]

Content of the creed
In what follows, I will go over the creed line by line, to determine exactly what is being said.

That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures -- Here we not only have a statement corroborating Jesus’ death, but also an interpretation of it, in which it is seen as an atonement for our sins. This is significant because the early date of the creed doesn’t allow sufficient time for this interpretation to develop from the brute fact of Jesus’ death itself. It might be suggested that this interpretation can be accounted for in the further statement that this is "according to the Scriptures," i.e., that the followers of Jesus found this interpretation in the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. However, this actually further emphasizes the difficulty: the Jews were not expecting a Messiah who would die, much less one who would do so in order to atone for their sins, but rather a political Messiah who would free them from the yoke of their oppressors (in this case, the Romans); and this expectation is largely based on the Old Testament prophecies about the conquering Messiah. While there are prophecies about an "atoning" Messiah, even John Crossan, one of the more radical scholars, admits that it would take at least five to ten years for the early Christians to interpret Old Testament texts in such a way after Jesus’ death.[16] This is dangerously close to too little time, not to mention the fact that most scholars see Crossan’s view as hopelessly optimistic.[17]

While there are plenty of OT passages which predict that the Messiah would suffer, there aren’t any which state unequivocally that he would die. The fact that the early Christians interpreted these passages as referring to Jesus’ death, then, is extremely significant, especially since the OT passage that the Messiah would not be abandoned to the grave or experience decay (Ps. 16:10) was universally understood as meaning that the Messiah would never die.

And that he was buried -- This importance of this statement lies primarily in what it implies for the one following. In itself, it provides us with a very early belief that Jesus’ corpse was interred.

And that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures -- Here we have what is, quite simply, one of the most significant statements in ancient history. The length of time between the events and the beliefs completely repudiates any attempt to assign belief in Jesus’ resurrection to legendary or mythological development. Moreover, as has already been stated, the ancient Jews simply did not believe in a dying Messiah, much less a rising one. While the resurrection of the dead is a Jewish category of thought, the resurrection of Jesus contradicts it in two central respects: the Jewish belief was in a universal resurrection which took place at the end of time, whereas Jesus’ resurrection was an isolated event which took place within history. This has led most scholars, even Crossan, to admit that there is insufficient material in the Old Testament to interpret in terms of a messianic resurrection.[18] Thus, we are faced with what C. F. D. Moule, a scholar from Oxford University, has called, a belief which nothing, in terms of prior historical influences, can account for -- apart from the resurrection itself.[19]

This statement also affirms that Jesus’ resurrection was "according to the Scriptures." This is probably in reference to the prophecy in Psalm 16:10 that the Messiah would not be abandoned to the grave nor would he see decay. However, as has already been stated, this prophecy in itself is insufficient to account for belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since it was universally believed to mean that the Messiah would never die in the first place.

When tied to the preceding statement, that Jesus’ corpse was buried, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead has great import in that it strongly implies what the gospels state explicitly: his tomb was left empty. In ancient Judaism there was a continuity between the body interred and the body raised. To speak of a resurrection while the body still lay in the tomb was an incoherent concept, and required the passage of nearly two millennia before it would occur to anyone.[20]

Nevertheless, it is frequently held among scholars that, whatever the resurrection was, it had nothing to do with Jesus’ physical body. One of the arguments given for this is that, since Paul clearly views Jesus’ resurrection as the "first fruits" of the general resurrection at the end of the world (1 Cor. 15:20), whatever conclusions he draws about the latter must apply to the former. Thus, when Paul says later in chapter 15 that "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," (v. 42-44), we are to take this to mean that the resurrection body is being contrasted with our present physical bodies in the sense that the former is not physical in nature. Therefore, it’s not the same body that is interred, and this would then apply to Jesus’ body as well.

I have two responses to this: first, if it is sown a natural body and raised a spiritual body, there is clearly a continuity between the body interred and the body raised. If this means that the physical body is transformed into a non-physical body, so be it; but this can’t be used to maintain that the resurrection body has nothing in common with our earthly, physical bodies. Second, in this very same letter, Paul uses exactly the same vocabulary to contrast the natural man with the spiritual man (1 Cor. 2:14-15); but here the contrast is clearly between a man under the domination of sinful human nature and the man who has submitted himself to God’s Holy Spirit. In other words, it’s a contrast in orientation, not of substance or materiality.[21] One of the central tenets of exegesis is to interpret the unclear in light of the clear. Thus, we should interpret Paul’s statements in chapter 15 in light of his statements in chapter 2: the resurrection body is a real, tangible, physical body that is no longer under the control of sin and corruption and mortality. Similarly, when Paul states that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable," (1 Cor. 15:50), we need to recognize that the phrase "flesh and blood" is an idiom which Paul uses in reference to sinful human nature (Gal. 1:16; Eph. 6:12), and should not be understood as stating that the resurrection body will be a non-physical entity. Likewise, by saying that the perishable won’t inherit the imperishable, he’s simply saying that our resurrection bodies won’t be prone to death and corruption like our earthly bodies are.

And that he appeared to Cephas -- "Cephas" is the Aramaic name for Peter. The only other account we have of this appearance is in Luke 24:34, but no details are given.

And then to the Twelve -- This is a name given to the original twelve apostles which Jesus chose. At first, there would seem to be a problem, since Judas Iscariot had already committed suicide by the time of this appearance, and Matthias had not replaced him yet. However, when choosing a replacement, it was specifically required that he be someone who had "been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us" (Acts 1:21). So the Twelve were not alone when Jesus appeared to them; there were others present as well, who had been with the apostles "the whole time." An apostle was anyone who had witnessed the entirety of Jesus’ ministry. It was from this pool of people that Judas’ successor was chosen.

Historically, the appearance to the Twelve is one of the best attested appearances of Jesus. "We have independent narratives of this event in Luke and in John. Both of them locate it in the upper room in Jerusalem. Then you have it attested by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. So the appearance to the Twelve, it seems to me, is very well attested -- even the location of it, which I regard as a secondary detail and not so important."[22] Among critical NT scholars, multiple, independent attestation of a historical event is one of the key criterion for establishing authenticity. That is precisely what we have here. Very few events in ancient history have as much evidence in their favor as Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the Twelve.

Then he appeared to more than 500 brethren at one time -- This statement hits us like a ton of bricks. Jesus appeared to over 500 people at one time. Just in case there was any doubt that an appearance to over twelve people rules out the possibility of hallucination, we are given an example that outdoes this fifty-fold. This appearance completely repudiates any attempt to deny Jesus’ resurrection.

Because of this, the only option open to detractors of Christianity is to deny the historicity of this appearance. It has been suggested, for example, that since there aren’t any explicit references to this appearance in the gospels (although Jesus’ appearance on the Galilean hillside in Matt. 28:16-20 has been suggested), this event didn’t happen.[23] The reasoning behind this objection seems bizarre, though: since an event isn’t corroborated in our later sources, but is only mentioned in our earliest and most reliable source, we should presume it didn’t happen? Are we really supposed to take this seriously?

(most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep) -- This is an interpolation by the apostle Paul. While it’s not a part of the creed itself, and thus can only be dated to the time when 1 Corinthians was written in the mid-AD 50s, this statement further compounds our amazement at the claim that Jesus appeared to 500 people at one time -- Paul tells his original audience that most of these people are still alive to be questioned! Most scholars recognize that Paul is essentially challenging his readers to verify that this event occurred by checking with the people who experienced it.

Then he appeared to James -- While there are several people named James in the NT, even radical scholars concede that this refers to Jesus’ brother James.[24] During Jesus’ life, his family did not support him or his actions (Mark 3:30-5; John 7:1-5), but not long after his crucifixion we suddenly find his mother and brothers worshipping him along with the apostles (Acts 1:14). Flavius Josephus reports in about AD 93 that he was eventually stoned to death for his belief that his brother was Israel’s Messiah and had risen from the dead.[25] The inexplicability of James’ conversion has eluded all attempts of explanation -- unless his brother really did rise from the dead, and James saw him.

And then to all the apostles -- This is probably not referring to the Twelve, since they’ve already been mentioned in the creed by a different name, but to the larger group of those who had witnessed Jesus’ entire ministry. It’s unknown how many people this referred to. Perhaps this is the group of seventy that Jesus appointed and sent out to the Galilean countryside (Luke 10:1), but this is just speculation.

(Then, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me also.) -- This is an addendum to the creed made by Paul which relates that he experienced an appearance of Jesus as well. It has been argued by some that, since Paul’s experience as related in the book of Acts was not a physical apparition, and since he is here putting it on the same level as the other resurrection appearances of Jesus, that all of these appearances should be regarded as non-physical in nature (this is obviously another argument that Jesus’ resurrection didn’t have anything to do with his corpse).[26] My response to this is, first, even a scholar as radical as Crossan admits that, "Paul needs in 1 Cor. 15 to equate his own experience with that of the preceding apostles. To equate, that is, its validity and legitimacy, but not necessarily its mode or manner. ... Paul’s own entranced revelation should not be ... the model for all the others."[27] As has already been mentioned, one of Paul’s main goals in writing 1 Corinthians is to defend his own apostleship. Thus, he includes his experience with the others, not to relate theirs to his but to relate his to theirs.

Second, it is simply false to say that the several accounts of Paul’s experience in Acts relate it as non-physical. While it certainly differs from the other resurrection appearances in that it’s description seems to be more of a "heavenly vision," the people with Paul saw a light and heard a voice, but they were not able to understand what was being said (Acts 9:3-8; 22:6-11; 26:12-18). So Paul’s experience was not something that happened "only to him," but was witnessed by several other people as well.

The significance of this statement by itself is that Paul is describing to us an appearance he personally experienced of the risen Jesus, one that was witnessed (but not comprehended) by others. This experience convinced him to join the fledgling church he had hitherto persecuted.

He was a rabbi, a Pharisee, a respected Jewish leader. He hated the Christian heresy and did everything in his power to stamp it out. He was even responsible for the execution of Christian believers. Then suddenly he gave up everything. He left his position as a respected Jewish leader and became a Christian missionary: he entered a life of poverty, labor, and suffering. He was whipped, beaten, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked three times, in constant danger, deprivation, and anxiety. Finally, he made the ultimate sacrifice and was martyred for his faith at Rome. And it was all because on that day outside Damascus, he saw "Jesus our Lord."[28]

R. T. France, a NT scholar from Oxford, states that

Ancient historians have sometimes commented that the degree of scepticism with which New Testament scholars approach their sources is far greater than would be thought justified in any other branch of ancient history. Indeed many ancient historians would count themselves fortunate to have four such responsible accounts, written within a generation or two of the events, and preserved in such a wealth of early manuscript evidence as to be, from the point of view of textual criticism, virtually uncontested in all but detail. Beyond that point, the decision as to how far a scholar is willing to accept the record they offer is likely to be influenced more by his openness to a ‘supernaturalist’ world-view than by strictly historical considerations.[29]

I have appealed throughout this essay to the consensus of scholarship. It needs to be pointed out here that very few of these scholars believe that Jesus really did rise from the dead. Most of them come to the table with the presupposition that miracles can’t happen, not to mention their overly skeptical stance of their sources. And yet, with all of this, they have found themselves compelled by the nature of the evidence to acknowledge that 1 Corinthians 15:3ff relates an ancient creed that dates back to immediately after the events it purports to relate. Moreover, they freely admit that they are completely impotent to explain the historical evidence without recourse to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.[30] Their unwillingness to accept this, therefore, is not based on any lack of historical evidence, but rather on their belief that such things couldn’t really happen. This strikes me as an intellectually irresponsible concession to the spirit of the age; in fact, it seems to be a view held by blind faith. They should be reminded that, "Any interpretation of reality not in accord with the facts about reality is just a fairy tale which no rational person should believe."[31]


[1] Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996), 153.
[2] Joachim Jeremias, Die Abendmahlsworte Jesu, 4th ed. (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967), 95-8; cited in William Lane Craig, Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mullen, 1989), 2-3. Specifically, Jeremias claims that paralambanein and paradidonai correspond to the Hebrew phrases qaval min and masar qa respectively. The significance of this is that oral tradition was memorized and passed on in a word-for-word fashion.
[3] Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1966), 102-3.
[4] Ibid., 101.
[5] Ibid., 102-3.
[6] Craig, Assessing the NT Evidence, 3.
[7] Peter Stuhlmacher, Das paulinische Evangelilum, FRLANT 95 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1968), 268-9; cited in Craig, Assessing the NT Evidence, 5-6.
[8] Personal translation.
[9] Habermas, Historical Jesus, 154.
[10] Craig, Assessing the NT Evidence, 17.
[11] C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments, 3rd ed. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1967), 26.
[12] Gary R. Habermas and Antony G. N. Flew, Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?: The Resurrection Debate, Terry L. Miethe, ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 54, 83.
[13] Hans von Campenhausen, "The Events of Easter and the Empty Tomb," in Tradition and Life in the Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 44.
[14] Archibald M. Hunter, Jesus, 100. Quoted in Habermas, Historical Jesus, 156.
[15] Habermas, Historical Jesus, 157.
[16] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), 145.
[17] See several quotes given in William Lane Craig, "Opening Address," in Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan, Paul Copan, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 31.
[18] John Dominic Crossan, Four Other Gospels (Minneapolis: Winston, 1985), 174.
[19] C. F. D. Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament, Studies in Biblical Theology, 2nd series, no. 1 (Naperville, Ill.: Alec R. Allenson, 1967), 3, 13.
[20] Raymond E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York: Paulist, 1973), 70, n. 121.
[21] See Craig’s excellent discussion of this in Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?, 51-2.
[22] Craig, in Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?, 55.
[23] Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 90. Martin is not a NT scholar.
[24] Helmut Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), 73.
[25] Josephus, Antiquities 20:200.
[26] Gerd Lüdemann, "Second Rebuttal" in Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig and Gerd Lüdemann, Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli, eds. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 60-1.
[27] Crossan, Jesus, 169.
[28] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 283.
[29] R. T. France, "The Gospels as Historical Sources for Jesus, the Founder of Christianity," in Truth 1 (1985): 86.
[30] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 280.
[31] Craig, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?, 32.

1 comment:

jncraton said...

Thanks for this post. I really appreciate the quality of your writing and the well researched support for these ideas.