Easter’s earliest creed
Published: 8 April 2007 (GMT+10)
The bodily Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is the heart and soul of Christianity. The earliest Christians boldly proclaimed the Resurrection as the central tenet of the faith and ultimate proof of Jesus’ deity. Without the Resurrection, Christianity is dead. The apostle Paul stated it succinctly, ‘And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! (1 Corinthians 15:17)’
As with the brutal crucifixion, the Resurrection of our Saviour is rooted in the real history of Genesis. The apostle Paul confirms the historicity of Genesis in 1 Corinthians 15:21–22 ‘For since by [a] man came death, by man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.’
Paul obviously believed in a real Adam and a real historical Fall in the Garden of Eden. Because of Adam’s wilful rebellion against his Creator, death and sin entered the world. Building his case for the Resurrection on the sure foundation of Genesis, Paul makes a clear distinction (and contrast) between Adam and the Lord Jesus Christ. Adam brought death, but Christ brought life. Paul continues in v. 47, ‘The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven.’ In other words, Adam was created by God, while Jesus Christ is the Creator of all things, with power over life and death.
Today, skeptics often ridicule the Resurrection as a product of fanciful myth, wishful thinking and legendary development. However, the Resurrection is a real historical event supported by extremely early, highly reliable eyewitness evidence. The earliest, most historically reliable evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection is documented in the first official creed of the early church.
Contents of the creed
The earliest creed records the sacrificial death, burial, Resurrection, and post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ. It is very specific and full of eyewitness testimony. 1 Corinthians 15:3–8 states:
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, And that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, And that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
Author of the creed
The apostle Paul was the first to put the early creed in writing. Paul, aka Saul (Sha’ul) of Tarsus, had been a devout follower of Pharisaic Judaism before accepting Jesus as Messiah. As a Pharisee, tutored by the famed Rabban Gamaliel, Paul was an expert in Jewish tradition and Old Testament Scriptures (Acts 22:3). He was a man of considerable social and religious clout in the Jewish community.
When Christianity began to spread rapidly after the death and Resurrection of Christ, Paul zealously persecuted its earliest followers. In Acts, Luke records Paul consenting to the beating, imprisonment, and execution of early Christians. However, while traveling to Damascus to imprison more Christians, Paul had a spectacular encounter with the risen Christ (Acts 9:1–8). Within days, Paul was baptized and began preaching that Jesus Christ was the Son of God who rose from the dead. Many of the earliest Christians were skeptical and feared Paul, questioning his motives (Acts 9:21,26). Paul had suddenly forsaken a life of relative luxury to spread a faith which he had brutally persecuted and wilfully rejected. With nothing to gain politically, economically, or socially, Paul would become one of the greatest missionaries of all time. In the end, Paul went to his death preaching Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
Date of the creed
Many scholars believe that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians around AD 55, or about twenty-two years after the death and Resurrection of Christ. JAT Robinson, the liberal New Testament scholar, conducted an in-depth study in which he found strong historical, textual, and logical evidence for the entire New Testament having been composed between AD 40–65.1 In particular, Acts ends while Paul is still in prison. As a result, 1 Corinthians may have been written even earlier.
However, a wide range of scholars believes the earliest Christian creed was formulated and taught less than five years after the death and Resurrection. Ulrich Wilckens writes that it, ‘indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity.’2 Joachim Jeremias states that it is ‘the earliest tradition of all.’3 Gerd Lüdemann, an arch-skeptic, maintains that ‘the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years…’4 Michael Goulder, an anti-christian, thinks it ‘goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.’5 Thomas Sheehan believes the creed ‘probably goes back to…within two to four years of the crucifixion.’6
Two New Testament scholars date the creed even earlier. Walter Kasper believes the creed may have been in use less than one year after the crucifixion.7 Likewise, James D.G. Dunn wrote that the 1 Corinthians 15 creed was formalized and taught within months of Jesus’ death and Resurrection.8 Historically speaking, the creed was formulated, distributed, and written so extremely early that talk of myth or legend lacks any credibility whatsoever.
An official creed
It possesses all the characteristics of an official creed.9 First, Paul uses the words ‘delivered’ and ‘received’, which are technical rabbinic terms indicating that he is passing along a holy tradition. Second, the grammatical structure and style are indicative of a creed. Third, the original text uses Cephas, which is the Hebrew/Aramaic name for Peter. The use of such language is evidence of an extremely early origin. Fourth, Paul uses unconventional phrases such as ‘he was raised’, ‘the third day’, and ‘the twelve.’ These phrases go back to the earliest, most primitive stage of historical Christianity. Fifth, the stylized content and specific wording are similar to Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew means of narration.
Historical reliability of the creed
German historian Hans von Campenhausen says, ‘This account meets all the demands of historical reliability that could possibly be made of such a text.’10 Pinchas Lapide, one of the few Jewish New Testament scholars, considers the creed to be so reliable that it may be considered as a statement of eyewitnesses.11
The creed is built upon the eyewitness testimony of the earliest believers, as well as Peter, James, and Paul. It is highly likely that Paul confirmed the content of the creed when he met with Peter and James in Jerusalem a few years after his conversion to Christianity. Paul documents his trip in Galatians 1:18–19 where he uses a very significant Greek word—historeo (‘ιστορέω). It means that Paul’s visit to Jerusalem was a historical investigation.11 Paul visited Jerusalem to carefully examine the eyewitness accounts of Peter and James. This lends tremendous credibility to the creed’s historicity.
Reference to the 500 witnesses
The creed states that Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people at one time after his death. The gospels don’t document this appearance. None of the other New Testament epistles mention this event. No first-century secular historians mention it either. Skeptics often point to this lack of corroboration as evidence that the event never really occurred. However, the skeptics are committing the fallacy of arguing from silence. It is unreasonable to expect every contemporary writer to document every single historical event. More importantly, the creed is very early, historically reliable, and specific. It invites testing, mentions two former skeptics, and most of its contents are corroborated by other historically reliable sources.
Critics also argue that the gospels relate an evolutionary development of post-Resurrection appearances. They argue that from the Gospel of Mark through the Gospel of John, the appearances grow in number and scope. As more time elapses, history is distorted by myth and legend. However, the 1 Corinthians 15 creed, which documents the greatest number of appearances, predates the gospels.
It is crucial to note Paul’s temporal proximity to these witnesses. In the creed, he writes that the majority of the five hundred are still living. Either Paul knew these individuals or had a source that did. Dr Gary Habermas sums it up the best:
Now, stop and think about it: you would never include this phrase unless you were absolutely confident that these folks would confirm that they really did see Jesus alive. I mean, Paul was virtually inviting people to check it out for themselves!10
The 1 Corinthians 15 creed provides extremely early and historically reliable evidence for the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is far too early for the development of legend, and it is rooted in eyewitness testimony. And it specifically cites two former skeptics, James and Paul, who eventually paid the ultimate price for their faith in a Saviour they once rejected.
1 Corinthians 15:45 says, ‘The first man Adam became a living being. The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.’ As the last Adam, Christ conquered sin and death, which Adam had brought into the world. Christ’s Resurrection was the turning point of history and the hope of eternal life for those who place their trust in Him as their Lord and Saviour.
Leading apologist William Lane Craig argues cogently that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the best explanation for a number of historical facts, e.g. the burial, empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief (see his debate with apostate Bart Ehrman (PDF)). James Patrick Holding, founder of Tekton Apologetics Ministries, explains as many as 17 factors that meant Christianity could not have succeeded in the ancient world, unless it was backed up with irrefutable proof of the Resurrection (The Impossible Faith: Or, How Not to Start an Ancient Religion).
Sir Lionel Luckhoo, the famous British attorney whose amazing 245 consecutive murder acquittals earned him a place in The Guinness Book of World Records, subjected the historical accounts of the Resurrection to his own legal analysis. After years of careful study, he declared:
I say unequivocally that the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt.12
This incredible cosmic event undermines the entire philosophy of naturalism/materialism13 which is the foundation-stone of today’s evolutionary reasoning. And it confirms Jesus Christ, the second Adam, to be the Lord of space, time and history—the Genesis Creator-God He (and the entire Bible) claim Him to be. As such, the history of the universe He clearly taught and believed (such as a real Adam and Eve, an actual Noahic Flood, and a young world14) is validated at the same time, in the most powerful way imaginable.
- Robinson, John A.T., Redating the New Testament, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2000. Return to Text.
- Wilckens, Ulrich, Resurrection: Biblical Testimony to the Resurrection: An Historical Examination and Explanation, p. 2, St. Andrew, Edinburgh, 1977. Return to Text.
- Jeremias, Joachim, Easter: The Earliest Tradition and the Earliest Interpretation, New Testament Theology, p.306, trans. John Bowden, Scribner’s, NY, 1971. Return to Text.
- Lüdemann, Gerd,The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 38, trans. John Bowden, Fortress, Minneapolis,,1994. Return to Text.
- Goulder, Michael, The Baseless Fabric of a Vision, in Gavin D’Costa, editor, Resurrection Reconsidered, p.48, Oneworld, Oxford, 1996. Return to Text.
- Sheehan, Thomas, The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God became Christianity (New York: Random House, 1986), 118; cf. 110–111. Return to Text.
- Kaspar, Walter. Jesus the Christ, new ed., p. 25, trans. V. Green, Paulist, Mahweh, 1976. Return to Text.
- Dunn, James D.G. Jesus Remembered, p. 55, Eerdmans, 2003. Return to Text.
- Strobel, L. The Case for Christ, p. 229, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1998. Return to Text.
- Strobel, Ref.9, p. 232. Return to Text.
- Strobel, Ref. 9, p. 231. Return to Text.
- Clifford, R. The Case for the Empty Tomb, p. 112, Albatross, 1990. Return to Text.
- The idea that matter, energy and the physical laws represent all of reality. Return to Text.
- Jesus taught repeatedly that people were there from the beginning of creation (e.g. Mark 10:6–8, thus not millions of years later, towards the end of some interminably long creative process—evolutionary or otherwise. See But from the beginning of … the institution of marriage?). Return to Text.