A Look at the Creed in 1 Cor. 15:3-8
By Eric Chabot, CJF Midwest Representative
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 Yeshua 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.
Yeshua 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 heardand 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: 3-8
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 Yeshua. 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.”
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.” (6) Joachim Jeremias calls it “the earliest tradition of all.” (7)
The majority of scholars who comment think that Paul probably received this information about three years after he came to faith in the Messiah which probably occurred from one to four years after the crucifixion. While we can’t be dogmatic about this, we do know at that time, Paul visited Jerusalem to speak with Peter and James, each of whom are included in the list of the Messiah's appearances (1 Cor. 15:5, 7; Gal. 1:18–19).
This means that Paul received this information from someone else at an even earlier date. How can we know where he received it? There are three possibilities:
- In Damascus from Ananias about AD 34
- In Jerusalem about AD 36/37
- In Antioch about AD 47
One of the clues as to where Paul got his information, is that, within the creed, he calls Peter by his Aramaic name, Cephas. Hence, it seems likely that he received this information in either Galilee or Judea, one of the two places where people spoke Aramaic. Therefore, Paul possibly received the oral history of 1 Cor. 15:3-7 during his visit to Jerusalem.
In Galatians 1:18 Paul says, Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. Here, “acquainted” happens to derive from a Greek word (historesai) that means "inquire into" or "become acquainted.” (8) Interestingly enough, the word “history" also derives from the Greek word “historesai.” So, the work of the historian is to find sources of information, to evaluate their reliability, to make disciplined "inquiry" into their meaning and with imagination to reconstruct what happened. (9) Paul’s first trip to Jerusalem is usually dated about AD 35 or 36.
Why does this matter?
I was once talking to a Muslim about the dating of the Qur’an and the New Testament. Islam states Yeshua was never crucified, and therefore, never risen. The Qur’an was written some six hundred years after the life of Yeshua 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 was circulating very early among the Messianic 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 Yeshua was something that was “made up” much later contradicts the evidence just presented.
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. Wilckens, U., Resurrection, trans. A. M. Stewart (Edinburgh: St. Andrew. 1977), 2
7. Jeremias, J. New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus, trans. John Bowden (New York: Scribner’s. 1971), 306.
8. Jones, T.P., Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2007), 89-94.
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