Part II. A surprisingly early Christian statement of belief

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures
and that he was buried
and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.
(I Corinthians 15:3-4, NIV)

In the previous post we saw that there is good reason to believe that the stories of the resurrection of Jesus in the four gospels are based on the accounts of eyewitnesses. These texts relate their reports of finding Jesus’ tomb empty on the morning of the first day of the week, the third day after Jesus’s death by crucifixion, and then of meeting and speaking with the risen Jesus.

In this post, we will consider one of the earliest expressions of Christian belief in the resurrection, a confession of faith that many scholars believe goes back to within a few years (if not months) after the events of the resurrection. The confession is found in one of the early letters of the Apostle Paul, his first letter to the church in Corinth:

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. – I Corinthians 15:3-5

Bible scholars think that this passage records an early statement of belief (a creed). Why do they think so? First, the words “received” and “passed on” indicate that Paul is relaying to the Christians in Corinth the statement of belief that he himself had been taught. Second, the creed uses words or phrases that Paul does not use elsewhere in his known writings (the Greek words translated “died for our sins,” “according to the Scriptures,” “he was buried,” and “on the third day”), suggesting that the words are not original with Paul but that he, as he says, passed along an already-existing statement.  

How do we know that the creedal statement is early? By working backwards. Paul is thought to have visited Corinth in the year 51 or 52 AD. (Paul’s visit to Corinth is recounted in Acts 18. For dating of his visit to Corinth, see, for example, N.T. Wright, Paul: a biography). The creed must predate that visit for Paul to have received it previously and passed it along in Corinth. In fact, it must already have been in use before Paul received it. This dates the creed to within a few years of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Why is this important? It shows that belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus was not a later addition to the beliefs of the church. It was what Christians believed from the time of the earliest Christians. Whether a skeptic today believes in the resurrection or not, it’s clear from the historical evidence that the earliest Christians believed it. They believed that Jesus died and rose again on the third day and that he appeared afterwards to his followers. And they understood the meaning of Jesus’ death: Jesus died “for our sins.”

One of the reasons the early Christians believed in Jesus’ resurrection is stated in verse 5-8: “he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 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 [Paul] also, as to one abnormally born.” The point is that there were people still living (over 500!) who had seen the risen Jesus. It sounds like Paul was inviting readers to check with eyewitnesses to verify what Paul was saying.

The apostles were so convinced of Jesus’ resurrection that they were willing to die for that belief—and most of them did. Imagine how certain you would have to be about something to be willing to die for it. The book of Acts recounts the execution of James the Apostle by Herod (Acts 12:2). According to ancient tradition, both Peter and Paul died by execution in Nero’s Rome. Less is known about the deaths of the other apostles, but tradition has it that many if not most died for their faith in Jesus.  

Two millennia later Christians continue to pass along the same statement of belief: “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” (I Corinthians 15:3,4). Or, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed:

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who…
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

But what differences does Jesus’ resurrection make? See Part III of this series!

(This series is taken from a Sunday School class I taught at Connect Church in Lawrence, KS.)

For more details, see these references:
Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel, 2004)
Justin Bass, The Bedrock of Christianity (Lexham Press, 2020)


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