The most important piece of evidence concerning the earliness of early Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is in the form of a creedal tradition cited in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 by the Apostle Paul. The creed reads as follows,
“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, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.“
This creed implies several purported facts Christians have traditionally believed supports the historicity of Christ’s resurrection. It attests to, for example, the burial story as narrated in the gospels, and that Christ was raised from the dead (thus implying the empty tomb). Most importantly is that it attests to the belief that Christ had appeared to his earliest followers (“the Twelve” and a group of more than five hundred), a skeptic (Christ’s brother James who was an unbeliever), and an enemy of the church (the Apostle Paul himself who was for a time a persecutor of the early church and Christians).
What is further valuable about the creed is that it dates very early, and possibly constitutes the earliest material for the historical Jesus. New Testament scholar James Dunn dates the creed to within 18 months of Christ’s death, “This tradition, we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’ death” (1). Even on the more skeptical end, this creed is dated no later than five years after Christ’s death on the cross. Historian Gary Habermas explains that,
“Reports from such an early date would actually predate the written Gospels. A famous example is the list of Jesus’ resurrection appearances supplied by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Most critical scholars think that Paul’s reception of at least the material on which this early creedal statement is based is dated to the 30s AD” (2).
Historian Gerd Ludemann writes that,
“the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years…the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 C.E.” (3)
The earliness of this information is valuable for historical reconstructive purposes. It would seem to undermine the idea that the resurrection of Christ was a later invention by the church or that it was a victim of mythological embellishment. The creed strongly suggests that the resurrection was one of the earliest beliefs on behalf of those within the early church. The creed also says that Christ’s resurrection was not an isolated event experienced by one or two people. Rather, Christ was believed to have appeared to several people (including followers, skeptics, and enemies), as well as to an large group numbering 500.
1. James Dunn quoted by Gary Habermas in Tracing Jesus’ Resurrection to its Earliest Eyewitness Accounts. God is Great, God is Good (2009). p. 212.
2. Habermas, G. 2005. Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels. Available.
2. Ludemann, G. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus. p. 38.