In discussions about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, it is common to start with the Gospels. But in my opinion, I think it is best to back up and start with Paul. After all, Paul’s writings are the earliest records we have for the resurrection of Jesus.
Paul, who was a very competent rabbi who was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ was a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin. Of his 13 books, critical scholars even accept six of them as being authentic in that we can be certain of the author and date of these writings. There are other scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson and Raymond Brown who think more than six of them are authored by Paul.
But of the 13 books, the six are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians. Bart Ehrman has written a book called Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why The Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.
In this book, he discusses the Pauline books that are in question as to authorship. I will provide a response to this here by Mike Licona. I think Mike shows there can be a plausible case for the traditional authorship of the disputed New Testament letters that are attributed to Paul.
One common tactic by skeptics is to say Paul yielded no information about the earthly Jesus. In other words, Paul only speaks of the “heavenly Jesus.” Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy tackle this issue in greater detail in their book The: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition. I have written more on that here in my post called “What Can Paul Tell Us About Jesus.” or see Paul and the Historical Jesus: A Case Study in 1 Corinthians by Stephen J. Bedard.
Another tactic is to assert that since Paul never met Jesus, his writings are of no great value. I have heard this objection on several occasions. In response, do you just pitch every writing you have written about someone else if the author never met the person they are writing about? I doubt it. Secondly, remember the following:
As Louis Gottschalk says:
“Written and oral sources are divided into two kinds: primary and secondary. A primary source is the testimony of an eyewitness….A secondary source is the testimony of anyone who is not an eyewitness – that is, of one who was not present at the events of which he tells. A primary source must thus have been produced by a contemporary of the events it narrates. It does not, however, need to be original in the legal sense of the word original – that is, the very document (usually in a written draft) [autographa] whose contents are the subject of discussion – for quite often a later copy or a printed edition will do just as well; and in the case of the Greek and Roman classics, seldom are any but later copies available.” (Understanding History, 53-54).
As we see, since Paul was a contemporary of Jesus, he can be considered as a primary source. He also claimed to have a personal encounter with Jesus (Acts 9:5-9).
Furthermore, Richard 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 needed 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).
A little time line may be helpful: Remember Paul’s Letters are dated 48 A.D to 60 A.D. However, the information he receives about the death and resurrection of Jesus predate his writings.
The death of Jesus: 30 A.D.—–33A.D
Paul comes to faith between 33 and 35 A.D.
Paul’s Death: 60-65 A.D.
Temple Destroyed: 70 A.D.
Here are some of Paul’s remarks about the resurrection in his letters:
Romans: Date: 55-56 A.D
Romans 1: 1-5
“ Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Here we see that:
1. Jesus is a descendant of David
2. Jesus was spoken of in the Tanakh (the O.T.)
3. Jesus rose from the dead
Romans 6: 1-5
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
We see here:
1. Jesus died
2. He was buried
3. He rose from the dead
4. Paul can’t exhort his readers to understand their identity in Jesus without these historical facts
1 Thessalonians: Date: 50 A.D
1 Thess.1: 9 “ For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
We see here that 1. Jesus rose from the dead
1 Thess.4: 13-14
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
Here we see that:
1. Jesus died
2. Jesus rose from the dead
1 Corinthians: 50-55 A.D.
Paul’s usage of the rabbinic terminology “passed on” and “received” (“παραλαμβάνω”) 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.”
Here, Paul mentions:
1. Jesus died
2. He was buried
3. He rose
One of the key words in this text is “receive.” 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.
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” -Crossan, J.D. & Jonathan L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, 2001, 254.
To read more about this in detail, see my post here called The Earliest Record for The Death and Resurrection of Jesus: 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7.
The point is that Paul received this information long before he even wrote his letter.
In the end, when it comes to the resurrection, I understand some apologists like to start with the Gospels. But from a tactical perspective, I think a wiser approach is to start with Paul.
Also, feel free to look at our post called Why the Resurrection of Jesus is the Best Explanation For What Happened To Paul.