As historians evaluate the sources available for the resurrection of Jesus, a critical question is the dating of the sources. In relation to early testimony, historian David Hacket Fisher says, “An historian must not merely provide good relevant evidence but the best relevant evidence. And the best relevant evidence, all things being equal, is evidence which is most nearly immediate to the event itself.” (1) One key in examining the early sources for the life of Christ is to take into account the Jewish culture in which they were birthed. As Paul Barnett notes, “The milieu of early Christianity in which Paul’s letters and the Gospels were written was ‘rabbinic.’” (2)
Given the emphasis on education in the synagogue, the home, and the elementary school, it is not surprising that it was possible for the Jewish people to recount large quantities of material that was even far greater than the Gospels themselves. Jesus was a called a “Rabbi” (Matt. 8:19; 9:11; 12:38; Mk. 4:38; 5:35; 9:17; 10:17, 20; 12:14, 19, 32; Lk. 19:39; Jn. 1:38; 3:2), which means “master” or “teacher.” There are several terms that can be seen that as part of the rabbinic terminology of that day. His disciples had “come” to him, “followed after” him, “learned from” him, “taken his yoke upon” them (Mt. 11:28-30; Mk 1). (3)
Therefore, it appears that the Gospel was first spread in the form of oral creeds and hymns (Luke 24:34; Acts 2:22-24, 30-32; 3:13-15; 4:10-12; 5:29-32; 10:39-41; 13:37-39; Rom. 1:3-4; 4:25; 10:9; 1 Cor. 11:23ff.;15:3-8; Phil. 26-11; 1 Tim.2:6; 3:16; 6:13; 2 Tim. 2:8;1 Peter 3:18; 1 John 4:2). There was tremendous care in ‘delivering’ the traditions that had been received. Jesus’ use of parallelism, rhythm and rhyme, alliterations, and assonance enabled Jesus’ words not only ‘memorizable’ but easy to preserve. (4) Even Paul, a very competent rabbi was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin. It can be observed that the New Testament authors employ oral tradition terminology such as “delivering,” “receiving,” “passing on” “learning,” “guarding,” the traditional teaching. Just look at the following passages:
Romans 16: 17: “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.”
1 Corinthians 11:23: “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread.”
Philippians 4:9: “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
2 Thessalonians 2:15: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.”
1 Corinthians 15: 3-7: The Earliest Account
Paul applies this terminology in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7 which is one of the earliest records for the historical content of the Gospel – the death and resurrection of Jesus. The late Orthodox Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide was so impressed by the creed of 1 Cor. 15, that he concluded that this “formula of faith may be considered as a statement of eyewitnesses.” (5)
Paul’s usage of the rabbinic terminology “passed on” and “received” is seen in the creed of 1 Cor. 15:3-8:
“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 Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers 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.”
There is an interesting parallel to Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 15:3-8 in the works of Josephus. Josephus says the following about the Pharisees.
“I want to explain here that the Pharisees passed on to the people certain ordinances from a succession of fathers, which are not written down in the law of Moses. For this reason the party of the Sadducees dismisses these ordinances, averaging that one need only recognize the written ordinances, whereas those from the tradition of the fathers need not be observed.” (6)
As Richard Bauckham notes, “the important point for our purposes is that Josephus uses the language of “passing on” tradition for the transmission from one teacher to another and also for the transmission from the Pharisees to the people.”(7) Bauckham notes in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony that the Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events. Bauckham has followed the work of Samuel Byrskog in arguing that while the Gospels though in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted.
Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy).” In other words, Byrskog defines “autopsy,” as a visual means of gathering data about a certain object and can include means that are either direct (being an eyewitness) or indirect (access to eyewitnesses).
Byrskog also claims that such autopsy is arguably used by Paul (1 Cor.9:1; 15:5–8; Gal. 1:16), Luke (Acts 1:21–22; 10:39–41) and John (19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1–4). While the word “received” (a rabbinical term) can also be used in the New Testament of receiving a message or body of instruction or doctrine (1 Cor.11:23; 15:1, 3; Gal. 1:9, 12 [2x], Col 2:6; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6), it also means means “to receive from another.” This entails that Paul received this information from someone else at an even earlier date. 1 Corinthians is dated 50-55 A.D. Since Jesus was crucified in 30-33 A.D. the letter is only 20-25 years after the death of Jesus. But the actual creed here in 1 Cor. 15 was received by Paul much earlier than 55 A.D.
As Gary Habermas notes, “Even critical scholars usually agree that it has an exceptionally early origin.” Ulrich Wilckens declares that this creed “indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity.” (8) Joachim Jeremias calls it “the earliest tradition of all.” (9) Even the non-Christian scholar Gerd Ludemann says that “I do insist that the discovery of pre-Pauline confessional foundations is one of the great achievements in the New Testament scholarship.” (10)
The majority of scholars who comment think that Paul probably received this information about three years after his conversion, which probably occurred from one to four years after the crucifixion. At that time, Paul visited Jerusalem to speak with Peter and James, each of whom are included in the list of Jesus’ appearances (1 Cor. 15:5, 7; Gal. 1:18–19).This places it at roughly A.D. 32–38. Even the co-founder Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan, writes:
“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” (11).
This comment by Crossan makes sense because within the creed Paul calls Peter by his Aramic name, Cephas. Hence, if this tradition originated in the Aramaic language, the two locations that people spoke Aramaic were Galilee and Judea. (12) The Greek term “historeo” is translated as “to visit” or “to interview.” (13) Hence, Paul’s purpose of the trip was probably designed to affirm the resurrection story with Peter who had been an actual eyewitness to the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15:5).
Why does this matter?
I was once talking to a Muslim about the dating of the Qur’an and the New Testament. Islam states Jesus was never crucified, and therefore, never risen. The Qur’an was written some six hundred years after the life of Jesus which makes it a much later source of information than the New Testament. It seems the evidence that has just been discussed tells us that the historical content of the Gospel (Jesus’ death and resurrection) was circulating very early among the Christian community. As I just said, historians look for the records that are closest to the date of event. Given the early date of 1 Cor. 15: 3-8, it is quite evident that this document is a more reliable resource than the Qur’an. Furthermore, to say the story of Jesus was something that was “made up” much later contradicts the evidence just presented.
Note: I wanted to include a resource that responds to some Jesus Mythers attempt to say 1 Cor 15: 3-11 is an interpolation. See here:
1.Hacket Fisher, D.H., Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper Torchbooks. 1970, 62.
2. Barnett, P.W., Jesus and the Logic of History. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1997, 138.
5. Lapide, P.E., The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective. Minneapolis: Ausburg. 1983, 98-99.
6. Bauckham, R. Jesus and the Gospels: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2006.
8. Wilckens, U., Resurrection, trans. A. M. Stewart. Edinburgh: St. Andrew, 1977, 2
9. Jeremias,J. New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus, trans. John Bowden. New York: Scribner’s, 1971, 306.
10. Ludemann, G, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A Historical Inquiry (Amherst, NY: Promethus, 2004), 37.
11. Crossan, J.D. & Jonathan L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, 2001, 254.
12. Jones, T.P., Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2007, 89-94.