1 Corinthians 15:3–8 An early creed after Jesus’ Death and Resurrection?
Part II of a series on Jesus’ resurrection
I recently finished a series on whether Jesus was the Messiah. The intention of these articles was to inform the prior probability of Jesus’ resurrection.
This next series moves on to the resurrection. This article looks at 1 Corinthians 15 — the earliest account of what Christians believed about Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Dating of the creed
Dated by Bart Ehrman to the mid-50s CE (1), most scholars think 1 Corinthians includes a creed composed before the time of Paul. It’s impossible to set a specific date for the creed — but most scholars date it up to 3-5 years after Jesus’ death. Bart Ehrman, an atheist New Testament scholar, sums up the data:
So this is very ancient tradition about Jesus. Does it go back even to before the time when Paul himself joined the movement around 33 CE, some three years after Jesus died? If so, it would be very ancient indeed! (1)
Most scholars agree that the creed is in verses 3–5:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:3–5, NIV)
Ehrman argues the creed ends at “Cephas” — the beginning of verse 5 (1). However, there is good reason to think it continues till “the Twelve” — end of verse 5.
Scholars identify earlier traditions by finding phrases not commonly used by the author (1). Antony Thiselton’s 1000+ page commentary of 1 Corinthians points out Paul rarely refers to “the Twelve” (2). He preferred to use the term apostles. So it is likely this phrase reflects an earlier tradition (2).
He was buried
According to NT Wright, the purpose of mentioning Jesus’ burial was to show:
Jesus was really and truly dead…second, to indicate that when Paul speaks of resurrection in the next phrase it is to be assumed, as anyone telling or hearing a story of someone being raised from the dead would assume in either the pagan or the Jewish world, that this referred to the body being raised to new life, leaving an empty tomb behind it. (3)
Did Paul know about the empty tomb?
However, 1 Corinthians 15 does not mention Jesus’ tomb being empty. According to Bart Ehrman, this may be significant:
There we are told simply ‘that he was buried’-not that he was buried by anyone in particular…this should give us pause…My hunch is that it is because he knew nothing about a burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea, or the way in which Jesus was buried. (1)
However, many scholars think this only reflects 1) it was obvious to first-century Jews that the tomb was empty and 2) the concise wording of creeds:
…the mention here of ‘buried, then raised’ no more needs to be amplified in that way than one would need to amplify the statement ‘I walked down the street’ with the qualification ‘on my feet’. (3)
In the first-century, there were many accounts of visions in both Jewish and Greco-Roman literature. These types of visions were distinct from resurrections.
Mere visions of some ghost or angel (cf. e.g., 2 Macc 3:24–26) do not fit the Jewish sense of “resurrection,” the resurrection’s centrality in apostolic proclamation, or public opposition. Ghost visions were not controversial, and confirmed no eschatological threat. (4)
Raised on the third day according to the Scriptures
Where does it say in the Hebrew Bible that the Messiah would be raised on the third day? It is less likely this verse refers to a specific passage than a collection of texts.
Paul is not proof-texting; he does not envisage one or two, or even half a dozen, isolated passages about a death for sinners. He is referring to the entire biblical narrative as the story which has reached its climax in the Messiah. (3)
The third day is a common theme in the Hebrew Bible — related to life and restoration as recognised in rabbinic literature (e.g. Bereishit Rabbah 56:1).
I’ve discussed many of these references in an earlier article. A famous example is the restoration of Israel in Hosea 6:
Come, let us turn back to the LORD:
He attacked, and He can heal us;
He wounded, and He can bind us up.
In two days He will make us whole again;
On the third day He will raise us up,
And we shall be whole by His favor.
(Hosea 6:1–2, Jewish Publication Society (JPS), 1985)
Seen by/appeared to?
The next section of the creed states several people claimed to see the resurrected Jesus. The Greek word, ophthe, used in these verses can be translated as either ‘seen by’ or ‘appeared’.
Some scholars have argued that these appearances were visions or spiritual experiences. NT Wright points out word use alone cannot determine Paul’s intention (3). We need to read how he used ophthe.
Bart Ehrman acknowledges Paul is speaking about people who believed they had seen the risen Jesus:
…he is assuming, with his readers, that Jesus really was raised…since Jesus was raised bodily from the dead…The resurrection for Paul is not a spiritual matter unrelated to the body…(1, p137)
Influential Bible scholar Rudolph Bultmann, insisted “an historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable”. Yet even he concluded 1 Corinthians 15:1–8 was speaking about actual physical appearances:
an attempt to make the resurrection of Christ credible as a historical fact against all his better judgment. (cited in (2))
According to Keener (4), Paul’s list of witnesses likely “constituted an invitation to consult them if one wished (and had funds for travel).” He points to similar examples of appeals to public knowledge in Josephus (Against Apion 1.50–52; Life of Flavius Josephus 359–62), and Cicero (Against Verres 1.5.15; 18.104.22.168).
This section of the creed names specific eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection — Cephas (Peter) and Jesus’ closest disciples — within a few years of Jesus’ death.
When Paul spoke of the Twelve seeing Jesus after his resurrection — this is a reference to Jesus’s closest disciples. Of course, by then, Judas had betrayed him. So this referred to the eleven remaining disciples or included Matthias, who later replaced Judas.
This is not uncommon. For example, Dale Allison (5) shows Octavian and Mark Antony continued to refer to themselves as the triumvirate even after Marcus Aemilius Lepidus had been overthrown.
1 Corinthians 15:6–8
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (NIV)
There is disagreement among scholars whether these verses are part of the earlier creed or included later by Paul. At the latest, these verses reflect Christian belief 15–25 years after Jesus’ death. Most likely, some aspects were much earlier.
The Five Hundred
Who were the five hundred people Jesus appeared to? Some scholars argue this is a reference to Luke’s account of Pentecost (Acts 2). The problem is that Acts 2 is about the Holy Spirit, not Jesus:
The suggestion does as much violence to Luke’s account of Pentecost as it does to Paul’s account of a resurrection appearance which he expressly distinguishes from other types of Christian experience. Experience of the Spirit and seeing the risen Jesus are never, in early Christian writings, assimilated to one another. (3)
Thiselton and Wright point to Matthew 28:16–20 as one possible occasion — though Matthew only mentions the eleven. But it is unclear whether the appearances to 500 people were in one event or several.
Some scholars assume Paul saw a vision — in the sense of a divine apparition. They point to passages such as 2 Corinthians 12:1 as evidence. However, Keener draws several contrasts between the Acts narratives on Paul’s conversion and later visions. He argues Paul is speaking in 1 Corinthians 15 about a specific incident — his conversion:
…the revelation in 2 Cor 12:2–4 was a secret one, in contrast to his conversion, and belonged to a larger series of visions as a believer in Jesus (12:1; Acts 26:16). Paul himself speaks of meeting Christ (1 Cor 15:8) in a manner distinct from his later visions (2 Cor 12:1). (6)
According to Keener (6), theophanies of the Hebrew Bible, are the best background to understand Paul’s conversion (Acts 9, 22, 26). Much like the Hebrew prophets and leaders of the past, God met Paul face-to-face and commissioned him to be an apostle. John’s Gospel would later state that when Moses, and other saints of the Hebrew Bible, saw the face of God they saw Jesus (John 1:18; John 8:58; 12:41).
The ‘man’ who speaks with Abraham and Sarah
There are many examples of appearances of God in the Hebrew Bible that are physical. We only have space for one example (Genesis 18–19), the Lord visiting Abraham and Sarah:
- There were three ‘men’ in the narrative who came down to meet with Abraham and ate a meal together (18:2–9) — not something you’d expect to do with a ghostly apparition!
- The Lord [Yahweh] (18:13, 18:17, 18:20, 18:22, 18:26) spoke with Abraham in verses 9–32 delivering news of Isaac’s birth and that Sodom would be destroyed.
- Later the other two ‘men’ are identified as angels (19:1).
I think Keener is right. Paul described meeting God physically. In a similar way, “Moses would speak to the Lord (Yahweh) face-to-face as a man speaks with his friend.” (Exodus 33:11) This appearance gave Paul the right to be an apostle. Even if ‘last of all’.
Most scholars agree James is the brother of Jesus (2). Like Paul, he is contrasted with the rest of the apostles as he became a follower of Jesus after witnessing his resurrection (2).
Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:7–8, NIV)
Paul makes clear in Galatians he considered James an apostle (Galatians 1:19). The book of Acts also portrays James as a central figure, along with Peter, in the early church (e.g. Acts 15:13). It is hard to account for his influence in the early church except that James had seen the risen Jesus (3)
Most scholars agree 1 Corinthians 15:3–5 is an early creed. Composed before Paul’s conversion — immediately after Jesus’ death or up to five years later. These verses affirm Jesus was physically raised from the dead — for that is what resurrection meant to most first-century Jews.
There is more debate about whether the early creed included all, or some parts of verses 6–8. At the latest, they reflect Christian belief 15–25 years after Jesus’ death. These verses show that Paul and James also saw Jesus after his resurrection — along with 500 others.
1 Corinthians 15: 3–8 shows belief in Jesus’ physical resurrection was a central feature of the early church from the beginning.
- Bart Ehrman. How Jesus Became God. Bravo Ltd.
- Anthony Thiselton. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. William B Eerdmans Publishing Company.
3. NT Wright. Resurrection of the Son of God. SPCK Publishing.
4. Craig Keener. 1–2 Corinthians. Cambridge University Press.
5. Dale Allison. The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History. T&T Clark.
6. Craig Keener. Acts. Cambridge University Press.