Arguably the most important line of evidence pertaining to the earliness of the proclamation of a risen Jesus comes from one of Paul’s epistles in a very early tradition cited in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8. This creed implies the fact of the empty tomb, which in turn implies that the earliest Christian belief was that Jesus was raised from the dead. Paul writes that Jesus “was buried and that he was raised.”
Paul fills us in with some more information by telling us that Jesus appeared to his chief disciple Peter, then to the inner circle of disciples known as the Twelve, then to a group of 500 disciples at once, to his younger brother James, who up to that time was not a believer, and then to all the apostles. Finally, Paul adds, “he appeared also to me,” at the time when Paul was still a persecutor of the early Jesus movement.
In fact, the prominent New Testament scholar James Dunn dates this very creed of Paul back to within 18 months of Jesus’ 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 Jesus’ death on the cross. That is extraordinarily early. 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).
It was this early belief behind the reason why Paul was executing and persecuting the early Christians in the years 31-33 AD prior to his conversion. To Paul, any Jew claiming that somebody was God’s anointed one, in this case Jesus, after he was pinned to a cross was taken to be the height of blasphemy. Historian Gerd Ludemann concludes, “…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)
This is apologetically important. Firstly, it does away with the common claim that the resurrection of Jesus was some later invention by the church and that it is no more than myth. Rather, the resurrection is evidently one of the earliest beliefs we are able to trace. Secondly, it attests to numerous resurrection appearances to a number of people. Paul identifies a large group of 500, the disciples, himself, James and Peter as being witnesses to the resurrection appearances of Jesus. In other words, we’re dealing with solid testimony from multiple witnesses.
1. 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.