An Ancient Christian Creed: A Look at 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

In light of the approach of Easter, I wanted to take some time to consider the resurrection of Jesus, specifically looking at the significance of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. It is widely believed that this passage contains an early Christian creed that dates to within a few years of the crucifixion of Jesus. To frame our discussion, let us begin with the full context of 1 Corinthians 15:1-11:

1Now I would remind you, brothers,of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

Now we want to give particular attention to verses 3-8. The formulation and the manner in which this passage reads indicates that this was quite likely an early Christian creedal statement, or, at the least, Paul has adapted a creedal statement for this letter. It is in a form that would be memorable: “Christ died for our sins… was buried… was raised on the third day…” These beats very succinctly sum up the gospel message and also show the absolute centrality of the resurrection to the gospel in the list of people Jesus appeared to. Consider what N.T. Wright has to say regarding this passage:

The content — that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and the basic truths that followed from that — [Paul] had, it is true, received independently of anyone else, on the road to Damascus. But the form, this way of putting it, this manner of telling the story, was apparently passed on to him (verses 3), and passed on by him to his churches. This is the kind of foundation-story with which a community is not at liberty to tamper. It was probably formulated within the first two or three years after Easter itself, since it was already in formulaic form when Paul ‘received’ it. We are here in touch with the earliest Christian tradition, with something that was being said two decades or more before Paul wrote this letter.[1]

Paul is thus here passing on a way of telling the gospel story that he had received from the other apostles and had preached it in this same way to the Corinthians. He received it, he passed it on. When might Paul have received this gospel tradition? In all likelihood, he received it during his first trip to Jerusalem after his conversion and after his escape from Damascus, as recorded in Acts 9:26-31. Paul refers to this time in Galatians 1:11-24:

11For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. 18Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20(In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24And they glorified God because of me.

In light of Paul’s account here, it would seem probable that Peter and/or James handed this creedal formula on to him. Paul did not receive the gospel message from anyone else, but as Wright said, he received the form from those who had been eyewitnesses. In passing the gospel on in this manner, Paul showed his unity with the other apostles and their preaching. As he said, “Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed” (1 Cor. 15:11). Paul and all of the apostles were united in the message that Jesus died, was buried, and rose from the dead.

Now the First Epistle to the Corinthians is typically dated to somewhere in the A.D. 53-57 range. This puts the time of Paul’s writing about 20-25 years after the time of Jesus’s crucifixion. What Paul is passing on here predates his letter by a quite a bit: Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem dates to around A.D. 37-38, less than ten years after Jesus’s crucifixion, and potentially within five years (the crucifixion is dated to between A.D. 30-33). This is highly significant for demonstrating the early belief in Jesus’s resurrection and the centrality of it in the gospel message. I would submit that such an early date is far too soon for legends of a resurrection to start creeping in, especially in light of the fact that it was eyewitnesses passing this message on.

It is quite appropriate to point out that what Paul is here preaching and passing on is not some teaching regarding a “spiritual” resurrection. What Paul is speaking of is a full-fledged bodily resurrection. There are those that would spiritualize or allegorize the resurrection and deny the reality of what the apostles taught. Consider Rudolf Bultmann as representative:

Such understanding faith in the word of proclamation is the genuine faith of Easter; it is faith that the word being proclaimed is the legitimated word of God. The event of Easter, insofar as it can be referred to as a historical event alongside of the cross, is nothing other than the emergence of faith in the risen one in which the proclamation has its origin. The event of Easter as the resurrection of Christ is not a historical event; the only thing that can be comprehended as a historical event is the Easter faith of the first disciples.[2]

Is this really what Paul taught? Simply the emergence of faith? Paul hangs the entire gospel message on the historical reality of the resurrection, so much so that he goes on to say, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). Paul preached a true resurrection to the Corinthians, and so do it all of the other apostles, going all the way back to the immediate aftermath of Jesus’s death and resurrection.

So as we come once again to our time of remembrance of the Lord’s resurrection, consider the great significance and weight that it brings with it. The whole Christian faith hangs on this one event. The content of the gospel message has always been that Jesus died and rose again from the grave. To adapt the words of C. S. Lewis, the resurrection of Christ, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.[3]

[1] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3 (Fortress Press, 2003), 319.

[2] Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, trans. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 39-40.

[3] Quote adapted from C. S. Lewis, “God in the Dock,” in The Collected Works of C. S. Lewis (First Inspirational Press, 1996), 368.

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