The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Part 2: A Historically Reliable Fact

1Corinthians 15:3-4 “I delivered to you that which I also received… that Christ rose again the 3rd day.”

How can you tell if evidence for an event is historically valuable? History, the study of past events, is a very difficult thing to prove, since no one was there to witness it. Historical criticism, also known as higher criticism, studies historical records to both uncover the literal meaning of the text, in the historical setting in which it was written, as well as reconstruct the actual event(s) that the author wants to convey in the text.

Whether or not the written text can be verified as an authentic record of the past event it is describing is the job of the historical critic. But no historical critic disputes that the best, most relevant evidence for a past event is any record that is as close to the date of when the event took place. Historian David Hacket Fisher, Professor of History at Brandeis University and widely regarded for his expertise in historical criticism, explains in his book ‘Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought’ that for any historical critic, the most important question to answer about a text’s authenticity is the dating of the sources: “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.”

That brings us to our verse this week, from the 15th chapter of Paul’s 1st letter to the church in Corinth. What is striking in this verse is that Paul says that what he has written to the church (what I delivered to you) was something that he had previously been given (I also had received). Well, if this 15th chapter is Paul’s letter, but he claims the information in it isn’t original to him but had been passed along to him, the obvious conclusion is that this information dates EARLIER than Paul’s letter, which dates from AD50-55.

Here’s the full information:

1Corinthians 15:3-7: “I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Peter, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have died. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.”

I doubt most Christians, as well as skeptics, fully grasp the historical significance of these verses. Paul is giving us a record of the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ that not only predates the New Testament writings, but is also within a few years of the actual resurrection itself, which by the standards of historical criticism is as good as it gets! How can we say this? We only need to examine the evidence.

We start by understanding Jewish rabbinic culture. The word “received” is a rabbinical term meaning to receive something transmitted from someone else, either by an oral transmission or from others from whom the tradition proceeds. That means Paul received this information from someone else at an even earlier date than 1 Corinthians, which is dated 50-55 A.D. Since Jesus was crucified in 30-33 A.D. the letter is only 20-25 years after His death. But 1 Corinthians 15 was received by Paul much earlier than 55 A.D.

The late Orthodox Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide, an Israeli historian and diplomat, as well as the only known Jewish theologian who was also a Greek scholar, was so impressed by the creed of 1Corinthians 15 because of its oral transmission in rabbinic language, that he concluded this “formula of faith may be considered as a statement of eyewitnesses.” Professor Gary Habermas notes, “Even critical scholars usually agree that it has an exceptionally early origin.” Professor Ulrich Wilckens states that 1Corthinas 15 “indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity.” Professor Joachim Jeremias calls it “the earliest tradition of all.” Non-Christian scholar Gerd Ludemann says that “I do insist that the discovery of pre-Pauline confessional foundations is one of the great achievements in the New Testament scholarship.” These, and many other scholars, believe that Paul probably received this information about 3 years after his conversion, which probably occurred 1-4 years after the crucifixion.

This evidence stands firm against the most critical of historical scrutiny – that within only 1-4 years after Jesus was crucified, we have reliable eyewitness testimony that He not only rose from the dead, but hundreds of people saw it. It was not a private event. As Christians like to say at Easter time, “He has risen indeed!” So, don’t keep your Christianity private. Something this historically accurate needs to be shared!

The Evidence of Faith’s Substance – Article #344

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