1 Corinthians 15: The Historical Issue

First, and foremost, is the fact that 1 Corinthians 15 is an apologetic. Miss this fact and you miss its importance. The reason for this is multi-faceted. In this blog I will attempt to outline some reasons this is the case. Overarchingly, the biggest reason this aspect of 1 Corinthians 15 being an apologetic is important is because it defends the historical reality of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

Paul writes: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you- unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 ESV).

While the next blog will dive into the specifics of its historicity we must recognize that for Paul the historical fact of the resurrection was absolutely everything. One of the current common ploys utilized to call into question the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is New Testament scholars claiming that Paul had a spiritual view of resurrection as opposed to it being an actual, concrete[1] event. Paul’s statement here counters this claim in two ways. First, he clearly is intent on sighting historically investigatible events to his contemporaries in his efforts to prove Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Second, there is an inference that would have been caught by Paul’s contemporaries, as it should be for us as well. The New Testament church had to deal with Gnosticism, much as we do in its deviant forms today. They knew that some special spiritual knowledge that wasn’t girded in historical, concrete reality was just another attempt at popularizing Gnosticism. This is something Paul ardently argued against! C. F. Moule noted this when he wrote:

“A Gospel which cares only for the apostolic proclamation and denies that it either can or should be tested for its historical antecedents, is really only a thinly veiled Gnosticism or Docetism and, however much it may continue to move by a borrowed momentum, will prove ultimately to be no Gospel.”[2]

Another reason 1 Corinthians 15 as apologetic is so important is because of some very basic questions (and answers) that must be considered concerning Christianity. To fully understand the situation we need to clearly understand that there has never in the history of the world been a phenomenon like the Christian church. It is unique. Christianity was born out of Judaism, but was not just another sect of Judaism. It had explosive growth in a short amount of time, with clear and consistent teachings at the onset. This historical truth demands an explanation. N.T. Wright has done a good job summarizing these questions. They are:

  1. What happened with Jesus?
  2. What did the first Christians believe about the god they gave testimony to?
  3. How did these Christians account for their reason to continue to exist after the death of Jesus?
  4. Why did Christianity begin?
  5. Why did it take the specific shape it did, with the specific distinctions and characteristics – so unique it was accused of being atheistic in the Roman Empire?

Of course all the answers point to Jesus’ Resurrection, which means we must also ask:

  1. What did the early Christians mean by the resurrection?
  2. Give the evidence is there any other explanation that could be probable other than the early Christian testimony?
  3. Were they right?[3]

1 Corinthians 15 provides us with the answers to these questions in part or in whole, directly or inferred. It is nice to know that 1 Corinthians 15.3-8 provides us one of the earliest, if not the earliest Christian tradition. Paul holds no punches in this knock-out fight. He goes to the core essence of Christianity, as it was testified to from the very beginning. This is not something that was developed over the years, but was evident immediately within Christian life. Chew on that for a second and think about its incredible implications. This is why I’m so sentimental with this text and actually love to trace over it with my fingers (as alluded in the last blog). It is so precious to me.

Outside of the very rare exception, scholars, Christian and non, acknowledge the antiquity of this text. Jon Meacham wrote an article in March 2005 alluding to this truth. He wrote, “As a matter of history, however, scholars agree that the two oldest pieces of New Testament tradition speak to Jesus’ rising from the dead. First, the tomb in which Jesus’ corpse was placed after his execution was empty; ….The second tradition is that the apostles, including Paul, believed the risen Jesus had appeared to them….”[4] And then later he wrote, “Without the Resurrection, it is virtually impossible to imagine that the Jesus movement of the first decades of the first century would have long endured.”[5] And by resurrection he means the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This text, then, is in your face and demands a verdict at the end of the day. Like the rest of the Gospel message, it is offensive to most, but the essence of life to others, but none can remain neutral at the end of the day.

[1] I utilize the term “concrete” from N.T. Wright’s discussion in The Resurrection of the Son of God, Fortress Press: Minneapolis, xix (RSG). His distinction is concrete and abstract instead of literal and metaphorical.
[2] C.F. Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament: An Inquiry Into the Implications of Certain Features of the New Testament. SBT 2nd Series, vol. 1. London: SCM Press, 80-81. as quoted in Wright, RSG, 23.
[3] Wright, RSG, 6,28.
[4] Jon Meacham, “From Jesus to Christ” in Newsweek March 28, 2005 edition, 45.
[5] Jon Meacham, 43-44.

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