(1 Cor. 15:3b-5) Was this an early Christian statement of faith?

CLAIM: Scholars claim that this excerpt from 1 Corinthians 15 is actually a very early Christian statement of faith. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: Yes! There are multiple reasons for affirming that this section of 1 Corinthians (15:3b-5) is an incredibly early Christian declaration:

First, Paul uses the language of “delivered” and “received.” This is technical language that Pharisees used for transmitting sacred tradition. Paul was trained as a Pharisee (Phil. 3:5), and so he uses the language of Pharisaic transmission (Gal. 1:14). Michael Licona writes, “Mark and Josephus report that a zeal for tradition was standard for Pharisees, a group to which Paul had belonged.”[1] At the very least, Paul is claiming that he is passing on a message about Christ that was not unique to him. Otherwise, he never would have written this.[2]

Second, a number of expressions in this passage do not occur in Paul’s writing. The expressions: “According to the Scriptures… (kata tas grafas versus Paul’s typical kathos gegraptai),” “for our sins,” “he has been raised,” “the third day,” and “he was seen” are all expressions not typical of Paul. Licona writes,

The phrase ‘according to the Scriptures’ is absent elsewhere in the Pauline corpus and the New Testament, where we read (“it is written”).

With a lone exception in Galatians 1:4 (“for our sins”) is absent elsewhere in Paul (and the rest of the New Testament), who prefers the singular ‘sin.’

On the third day’ is only here in Paul. In Paul, the term ‘appeared to’ or ‘was seen’ is found only in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 and 1 Timothy 3:16. ‘The Twelve’ is only here in Paul. Elsewhere he uses ‘the apostles.’[3]

Third, we see parallelism through this section. Paul repeats the expressions “and that…” and “according to the Scriptures…” multiple times in this short section. This might not be easy to see when it is written out in our Bibles. But, if we rewrite 1 Corinthians 15 in a stanza, it becomes clear:

3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received,

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

4 and that He was buried,

and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

6 After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;

7 then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles;

The structure of the language implies that this was a declaration or a statement of faith for the early Christians. For a more modern example, consider the Declaration of Independence. This also has a similar literary structure, and it was written for the same purpose: to lay out the basic beliefs of the seceding colonies (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life…”). This short statement of faith from 1 Corinthians 15 outlined the basic beliefs and facts of the newly formed Christian faith—written in a structured stanza.

Fourth, Paul uses Peter’s Aramaic name—not his Greek name. The use of “Cephas” (instead of Peter) supports an early origin, rather than a later dating.

Some scholars hold that this was actually the first Christian creed, which was verbally transmitted throughout the early Christian community.[4] This stanza was short and easily committed to memory, so it would have quickly spread throughout the Christian community. However, this could just as easily have been written down, as it could have been memorized. There is simply no evidence either way.

Why do scholars date 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 so early after the Resurrection?

Before we consider the evidence for an early dating of 1 Corinthians 15, we should point out that even skeptical scholars date this passage incredibly early. Habermas writes, “Even radical scholars like Gerd Lüdemann think that ‘the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion… no later than three years after the death of Jesus.’”[5] Consider a number of skeptical historians regarding the dating of this section in 1 Corinthians:

Gerd Lüdemann (atheistic professor of NT at Göttingen): “The testimony of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is the earliest text in the New Testament to make concrete mention of the death, resurrection, and appearances of the risen Christ. Here Paul uses traditions which he knows from an earlier period. As 1 Corinthians is usually dated around 50 A.D., we may note, first, that the traditions which he mentions must be even older… It is hard to say what the relationship is between the event itself and the development and description of it. Because of the extraordinary nature of the event in question we may suppose that it was also reported immediately after the appearance of Jesus. How could it be conceivable that an event took place and was only related, shall we say, ten years later?”[6]

Gerd Lüdemann (atheistic professor of NT at Göttingen): “The elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years… the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor. 15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE.”[7]

Michael Goulder (atheistic NT scholar at the University of Birmingham): “[1 Corinthians 15:3ff] goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.”[8]

Roy W. Hoover (founder of the Jesus Seminar): “The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.”[9]

John Dominic Crossan (atheistic NT scholar): “Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that ‘I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.’ The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he ‘went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days.’”[10]

In Galatians, Paul writes, “Three years later, I went to Jerusalem to get to know Peter, and I stayed with him for fifteen days. 19The only other apostle I met at that time was James, the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:18-19 NLT). If you read the context, Paul says that he went up to Jerusalem three years after his conversion. Since Paul was converted roughly two years after Jesus was crucified, he must have gone to Jerusalem only five years after the resurrection occurred.

What was Paul doing in Jerusalem with Peter and James for those two full weeks? Was he seeing the sites in Jerusalem or visiting the Temple with friends? Not likely. He must have been drilling Peter and James with questions about the historical Jesus and his resurrection. Paul never saw Jesus’ earthly ministry the way that these men did. It makes sense that he would have asked a lot of questions about the historical Jesus in the short time that he was with them. In fact, Paul uses the Greek word historesai (Gal. 1:18) to describe the intent of this trip to Jerusalem. This word refers to investigative studies and historical research. Licona writes, “The term may mean ‘to get information from,’ or ‘to inquire into a thing, to learn by inquiry.”[11]

This must have been where Paul “received” details about the historical Jesus, whom he knew only through personal revelation—not historical research (Gal. 1:12; 1 Cor. 15:3). Paul received the message of the gospel directly from Jesus (Gal. 1:12), but he received additional historical details about the gospel from investigating the other witnesses (1 Cor. 15:3). Since we can date this event to five years after the resurrection, this dates this statement of faith before this time. We don’t know how early it was, but we do know that it couldn’t have been very late.

[1] Licona, Mike. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. 224.

[2] Gordon Fee writes, “The Hebrew words are qiḇḇēl/māsar, which appear in rabbinical literature. For example, the Mishnah states, “Moses received the Law from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets committed it to the men of the Great Synagogue” (m. Abot 1:1).” G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 548). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[3] Licona, Mike. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. 224-225.

[4] Habermas writes, “In short, these creeds were communicated verbally years before they were written and hence they preserve some of the earliest reports concerning Jesus from about 30-50 A.D. Therefore, in a real sense, the creeds preserve pre-New Testament material, and are our earliest sources for the life of Jesus.” Habermas, Gary R. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Joplin, MO: College Pub., 1996. 143.

[5] Gary Habermas, “Tracing Jesus’ Resurrection to Its Earliest Eyewitness Accounts.” From Craig, William Lane., and Chad V. Meister. God Is Great, God Is Good: Why Believing in God Is Reasonable and Responsible. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009. 212.

[6] Gerd Lüdemann and Alf Özen, What Really Happened to Jesus: a Historical Approach to the Resurrection (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 9, 15.

[7] Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus (Fortress Press, 1994), 171-72.

[8] Michael Goulder, “The Baseless Fabric of a Vision” Resurrection Reconsidered. Oxford. 1996. 48.

[9] Roy W. Hoover, The Acts of Jesus, (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1998), 466.

[10] John Dominic Crossan, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 254.

[11] Licona, Mike. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. 230.