Saturday, July 16

Early Christianity: 1st Corinthians 15 Creed

Skeptics have claimed for decades that events referred to in the Bible, such as the death and resurrection of Jesus, are nothing more than myths or legends that developed over time. In an April entry, "Is The Resurrection a Myth?", we concluded that it takes around two centuries for myth and legend to develop about a historical event and be accepted as fact, since the eyewitnesses who lived during the time of Jesus never countered the historical facts found within the New Testament. The New Testament itself was written ca.45-95 AD, well within limits. But do we have anything earlier, perhaps an early creed which Christians spread? (Photo credit: Bible Places - Apollo's Temple at Corinth; LostSeed - 1st Corinthians 13)

Christian scholars and secular scholars alike have found such a creed. The creed is in St. Paul's first letter to the Church at Corinth, which he wrote ca.54/55 A.D. Many a time, people have read past this creed, which is actually one of the most important passages about the resurrection in the New Testament. Before we continue, let us look at this passage, and then proceed to determine whether it was a creed or not. 1st Corinthians 15:3-9 conveys, "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 Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers or 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 also, as to one abnormally born."

We may now proceed to break down this passage. Let it be noted that, as aforementioned, both Christians and secular historians, philologists, and scholars believe this passage to be an early, Pre-Pauline credal statement, though there are some who disagree.[1] Upon examination, we find that the phrase "received," or "delivered" are used in such as way as to specify the passing of a tradition, meaning that St. Paul received this creed from another source, save for verse 8, "and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born," in which St. Paul is speaking of himself. Also, phrases such as "the twelve," "for our sins," "according to the scriptures," "he has been raised," "he was seen," and "third day" were not part of St. Paul's usual vocabulary, demonstrating that these are likely non-Pauline phrases. The parallel form also seems to indicate an oral confession.[2]

Certain Hebrew indicators such as the phrase "and that," along with other fulfilled Scripture references, seem to indicate an Aramaic origin. More interesting is the use of Peter's name in Aramaic, Cephas, and the Aramaic itself may indicate an early origin.[3] Paul himself, apart from the conveyance of this creed, corroborates several historical details of Jesus' life, that Jesus was born in as a Jew (Galatians 4:4), that Jesus was betrayed (1st Corinthians 11:23), that Jesus was crucified (Galatians 3:1; 1st Corinthians 2:2; Philippians 2:8), and that Jesus was buried and rose again (1st Corinthians 15:4; Romans 6:4). CARM (Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry) make a good point:

"We must note here that some critics of the Bible claim that there is no extrabiblical evidence of Christ (not true) and that because of it, He didn't exist. The sword cuts both ways. If they can say that Jesus' events aren't real because there is no extrabiblical evidence mentioning them, then we can also say that since there are no extrabiblical accounts refuting the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, then it must be true. In other words, lack of extrabiblical writings does not prove that Christ did not live and did not die."[4] There are several extrabiblical sources that affirm the historicity of Jesus Christ, as examined in the entry, "Did Jesus Exist? Is There Any Historical Evidence?".

Corinth (BiblePlaces)
This creed has been called by Joachim Jeremias as "the earliest tradition of all," and by Ulrich Wilckens, who conveys that it "indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity."[5] Why do Biblical scholars believe that this creed is so early? It is recognized that St. Paul's first visit to the Church of Corinth transpired ca.51 AD, and that, as noted, 1st Corinthians was written ca.54/55 AD, so when Paul writes that he had given them this creed upon his first visit orally, he must have been given the creed prior to 51 AD. In Galatians 1:18-19 we read, "Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles - only James, the Lord's brother."
Here, Paul records that three years after his conversion on the road to Damascus, which itself occurred about two years after the death and resurrection of Christ, he went to Jerusalem to verify what he knew of Jesus, and it is widely accepted that this was when Paul was given the creed from Peter and James found in 1st Corinthians 15:3-7. In Galatians 2:1 St. Paul writes, "Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also." Galatians 2:9 shows that Paul, Barnabas and Titus met with St, Peter, James, John and the elders at that time, which they again confirmed the creed which they received. We find that Paul was given this creed ca.36/37 AD, a mere few years after the death and resurrection of Christ, adequately demonstrating that the resurrection of Jesus was not a myth or legend that later developed, but has been proclaimed by Christians from the very beginning, as we can also see in the first message delivered by Peter in Acts 2.

Epologetics Ministry said of this, "It's possible that Paul received the creed even earlier, perhaps while in Damascus 3 years earlier than his trip to Jerusalem. However, as mentioned above, the creed contains a number of items which indicate Semitic origin, making Jerusalem a more likely location... So Paul's reception of the creed was no more than 8 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. However, the creed must have been in circulation before Paul received it. What's more, the individual assertions in the creed must have been accepted before the formulation of the creed itself, and this likely happened at the time of the events themselves (the death and resurrection of Jesus)."[6]

The words “received” (Greek “parelabon”) and “delivered” (Greek “paredoka”) "are the Greek equivalents of the technical rabbinic terms qibbel min and masar le,”[7] terms, as noted earlier, used for the passing on of tradition. William F. Orr said, “Here the correlation with delivered in vs. 3 points to a chain of tradition: Paul received the facts that he is relating from Christians who preceded him, and in turn he delivered them to the people of his churches.”[8] In 1st Corinthians 11 there is a passage which contains the phrase "received" or "delivered," indicating that St. Paul has made use of other traditional material.

"Joachim Jeremias, the chief proponent of the Semitic origin of the creed, argued that the linguistic evidence favored a Semitic rather than a Greek original for the creed. He supported his thesis with several arguments.  First, the structure is a synthetic parallelismus membrorum:

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

and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

According to Jeremias, the first and third lines correspond to each other. Each clause 'warrants the previous statement.' Second, he argues that there is an absence of particles, except kai, which demonstrates an independence from the Septuagint version of Isaiah 53. Instead, he argues there is a dependence on the Hebrew original. The absence of particles, except kai, demonstrates this independence from the Septuagint. Fourth, there is an adversative kai at the beginning of the third line. Fifth, the placing of the ordinal number after the noun in te hemera te trite is 'the only possible order in a Semitic language.' Sixth, the text uses ophthe instead of ephane, since the Hebrew nir’ah and the Aramaic ‘ithame have a double meaning ‘he was seen’ and ‘he appeared.’ Seventh, the text introduces the subject in the dative Kepha after a passive verb instead of the normal hupo with the genitive. Since Jeremias notes that Paul prefers to use Kepha over Peter, one should not presume that the reference to Kepha indicates an Aramaic original. Therefore, Jeremias states, 'These semitisms show that the kerygma was formulated in a Jewish-Christian milieu.'"[9]

While in Jerusalem three years after his conversion, it is evident that Peter, James and Paul were not simply sitting around socializing. Peter and James were likely still wary of Paul, who, under his original name Saul, had been a persecutor of Christians until his conversion on the road to Damascus. Now, it should be noted that Paul was not actually converted on the road to Damascus, but became a Christian a few days later, after Ananias had cured Paul of his temporary blindness. When I state that his conversion occurred on the road, I am referring to the event which ultimately led to his conversion, not the conversion itself. You may read the account of the road to Damascus in Acts 9, recorded by Dr. Luke ca.60/61 AD. 

Let us once more examine the creed in 1st Corinthians 15:3-7 which says, "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 Cephas, 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." What can we glean or summarize from all of this? The creed states that Jesus died for our sins, was buried and rose on the third day, that he appeared to Peter, the Twelve, more than five hundred people at once (likely on a Galilean hillside) - some of whom have "fallen asleep" (died), then appearing to James brother of Jesus and the apostles.

One point to note is that the New Testament records that James, son of Mary and St. Joseph, was a skeptic during Jesus' ministry, and did not become Christian until after the resurrection. As evaluated in the April entry, "Were The Disciples Hallucinating?", if the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus were nothing more than hallucinations, for what reason did St. James and St. Paul, hardened skeptics, see Jesus, since they would likely not have it in mind that He actually rose from the dead? At the same point in time, how do we explain more than five hundred people having seen Christ "at the same time?" It is one thing for two people to hallucinate the same thing, at the same time, saying the same thing. This in itself is unfeasible and implausible. 

But to venture that ten to eleven disciples, and even five hundred people, all hallucinated the same thing, could be likened unto a husband and wife waking up in the middle of the night. The husband turns to his wife and says, "wasn't that a good dream I had?" To believe that more than five hundred and thirteen people (the disciples, James and Paul included) saw Jesus at the same time and also at separate occasions merely hallucinated these appearances is as unbelievable as the wife turning to the husband and agreeing with him. James was a hardened skeptic (Mark 3:21-25; John 7:1-5), and for James to be converted (as can be clearly seen in his letter in the New Testament) and truly believe that Jesus was resurrected and ascended, is remarkable, in that he would have no reason for supporting what he knew to be a lie, nor would he have any reason for hallucinating the risen Christ.

1st Corinthians (LostSeed)
Another point to make is an answer to the skeptic's claim that this creed contradicts the Gospels. The Gospels make it clear that the women were the first to see Jesus, likely Mary Magdalene, yet skeptics claim that 1st Corinthians 15 shows that Cephas (St. Peter) was the first person Jesus appeared to. Dr. Gary Habermas tackled this claim and answered, "First of all, look at the creed carefully: it doesn't say Jesus appeared first to Peter. All it does is put Peter's name first on the list. And since women were not considered competent as witnesses in first-century Jewish culture, it's not surprising that they're not mentioned here. In the first-century scheme of things, their testimony wouldn't carry any weight. So placing Peter first could indicate logical priority rather than temporal priority."[10]

Indeed, it is interesting to consider the fact that the Gospels cite the women as the first witnesses to Christ's resurrection, which gives further credence to their historical eyewitness. If the disciples were attempting to perpetrate a lie, citing women as the first witnesses would not have, in any fashion, aided their cause to further Christianity, likewise with showing Peter's denial of Christ, Thomas' skepticism, the disciples at their worst moments, etc. The Gospel record accurately depicts the historical account, and by demonstrating that many of these things, along with the "hard" teachings of Jesus, would not have necessarily helped further Christianity, but instead these things were not removed because of the fact they were accurate, historical records.

Concerning Paul's visit to Jerusalem, Habermas had an interesting point, "I would concur that the scholars who believe Paul received this material three years after his conversion, when he took a trip to Jerusalem to meet with Peter and James. Paul describes that trip in Galatians 1:18-19, where he uses a very interesting Greek word - historeo... this word indicates that he didn't just casually shoot the breeze when he met with them. It shows this was an investigative inquiry. Paul was playing the role of the examiner, someone who was carefully checking this out. So the fact that Paul personally confirmed matters with two eyewitnesses who are specifically mentioned in the creed - Peter and James - gives the extra weight. One of the very few Jewish New Testament scholars, Pinchas Lapide, says the evidence in support of the creed is so strong that it 'may be considered as a statement of eyewitnesses."... and later, in 1 Corinthians 15:11, Paul emphasizes that the other apostles agreed in preaching the same gospel, this same message about the Resurrection. This means that what the eyewitness Paul is saying is the exact same thing as what the eyewitnesses Peter and James are saying."[11]

William Lane Craig, Ph.D., one of the leading apologists and philosophers in the world (along with the likes of Dr. Gary Habermas), spoke of the trip of Jerusalem three years after St. Paul's conversion that the text in Galatians implies that, "...Paul’s visit to Cephas and Jerusalem was for the purpose of gaining information about the faith from first-hand witnesses."[12] It has been established that the text of 1st Corinthians 15:3-7 (there is disagreement about how much of the text is creed, which verses that is) is very likely an early pre-Pauline credal statement given to Paul by Peter and James within five-eight years of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This demonstrates not only eyewitness testimony, since by citing these appearances people could personally ask these eyewitnesses about the historical events which took place, but it also demonstrates that the account of the resurrection of Jesus was not a later tradition, as some skeptics claim, but actually a very early belief, held from the very beginning of Christianity. The creed itself was formulated before it was given to Paul, so the creed was in use possibly from the very first year.

Troy Hillman

[1] Neufeld, The Earliest Christian Confessions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) p. 47; Reginald Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (New York: Macmillan, 1971) p. 10; Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus—God and Man translated Lewis Wilkins and Duane Pribe (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1968) p. 90; Oscar Cullmann, The Earlychurch: Studies in Early Christian History and Theology, ed. A. J. B. Higgins (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966) p. 64; Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, translated James W. Leitch (Philadelphia: Fortress 1969) p. 251; Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament vol. 1 pp. 45, 80–82, 293; R. E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York: Paulist Press, 1973) pp. 81, 92
[2] Habermas, Gary. The Historical Jesus, 153-54. Print.
[3] Ibid.
[4] "1 Cor. 15:3-4 demonstrates a creed too early for legend to corrupt." Christian Answers & Research Ministry. CARM, n.d. Web. 16 Jul 2011.
[5] Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. 1st ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998. 230. Print. 
[6] "1 Corinthians 15, the Gospel in early creed." epologetics, 23 Dec 2007. Web. 16 Jul 2011.
[7] Joachim Jeremias,  The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, trans. Norman Perrin (London: SCM Press, 1966), 101.
[8] William F. Orr and James A. Walther. 1 Corinthians: A New Translation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), 320.
[9] Turner, Ryan. "An Analysis of the Pre-Pauline Creed in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11." Christian Answers & Research Ministry. CARM, n.d. Web. 16 Jul 2011.
[10] Ibid, [5]. pp. 233.
[11] Ibid, pp.230-231.
[12] William Lane Craig, Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1989), 6-7.

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