Many skeptics assume that Jesus was merely a wise Jewish teacher who died unjustly and tragically young. And the tale of his Resurrection? No more than a legend that grew over time. Perhaps it was Gentile converts, raised on tales of demigods such as Hercules, who corrupted the early Jesus movement’s simple monotheism.
But the historical documents undermine such assumptions. I’ll briefly examine one of them here, drawing from the work of Gary R. Habermas, William Lane Craig, Stephen Davis and other scholars as noted.
No serious scholar doubts that Jesus was crucified somewhere between A.D. 30-35 or that Paul wrote the First Epistle to the Corinthians between A.D. 54-57.
Thus, Paul was preaching the atoning death, burial and resurrection of Jesus within, at most, 27 years of those purported events.
But the gap can be further narrowed: Paul explicitly says at 15:1-3 that he’s reminding the Corinthians of what he taught them when he resided there (around A.D. 50). So the interval is now 15 to 20 years.
However, we’re still not done: 1 Corinthians 15:1-9 contains the oldest known Christian creed.
Many indications in the text suggest that Paul is citing something older, something not his own. The vocabulary and style of 15:3-7, for example, aren’t his. Some scholars argue that the passage was originally composed in Aramaic, rather than in Greek. And Paul explicitly says that he “delivered” a message and a story to the Saints at Corinth that he himself had “received” before his arrival there. The message and story are, therefore, older than A.D. 50.
How old? He probably received them during the visit to Jerusalem described in Galatians 1:18-20, when he met with Peter and James and stayed with Peter for 15 days.
“I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter,” says the King James Version. But the New English Translation more fully catches the meaning of the Greek verb “historesai” (which, related to our word “history,” suggests not merely a meeting but an investigation): “I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and get information from him.” (Note the name “Cephas,” the Aramaic equivalent of the Greek “Peter.”)
Fourteen years later, according to Galatians 2, Paul returned to Jerusalem, meeting not only with Peter and James on that occasion but with John — all of whom were eyewitnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. (Significantly, both Peter and James appear in the witness list given in 1 Corinthians 15. Significantly, too, 15:11 assures the Corinthians that Paul’s fellow apostles teach the same thing he does.)
All scholars agree that 1 Corinthians predates the four gospels, so Paul had plainly learned what he knew about Jesus independently. His information cannot have come from reading the New Testament. (Notice that, in Acts 20:35, he’s aware of a statement of Jesus that occurs in none of the gospels: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”)
“Paul,” says the prominent Evangelical New Testament scholar Craig Evans, “was clearly doing his research by seeking out the chief apostles.” Evidently, agrees the German historian of religion Martin Hengel, “the tradition of 1 Cor. 15:3 had been subjected to many tests.”
So how far back into Christian history does the account given at the start of 1 Corinthians 15 actually take us? According to the late German theologian Joachim Jeremias, it’s “the earliest tradition of all.” The late German historian papyrologist Ulrich Wilckens contended that it “indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity.”
The German New Testament scholar Gerd Ludemann, although a self-described non-believer, nonetheless admits that the passage reflects extraordinarily early information, saying 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 the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Cor. 15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 C.E.”
The unbelieving British New Testament scholar Michael Goulder agrees that it “goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.” So does the dubious Thomas Sheehan, a professor at the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University who claims that the tradition “probably goes back to at least 32-34 C.E., that is, to within two to four years of the crucifixion.”
Assuming a very early date for Jesus’s death, German Roman Catholic Cardinal Walter Kasper goes so far as to suggest that the creed Paul quotes may have been “in use by the end of 30 A.D.”
There just isn’t time for a “legend” to have arisen. Paul is relaying extremely early eyewitness testimony to us.
This column, which was originally published on Aug. 28, 2014, has been updated with additional attribution.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs