1 Corinthians 15: The Historical Events

“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….”[1] “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.”[2]

These words of Jon Meacham’s echoes from our last discussion on 1 Corinthians 15. In the last part of our discussion I noted the importance of recognizing the fact that this text is an apologetic rooted in historical events. Now it is time to consider the events themselves.

1 Corinthians 15:3-8 “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.”

Verses 3 & 4 represent what may be the oldest Christian tradition found in the New Testament. The fact that Paul is concerned not only with the historical veracity of these events, but also how they show God’s faithfulness in fulfilled prophecies is of significance but something we will not chase today (perhaps another day). What we are going to focus on is what Jon Meacham refers to as the two oldest pieces of New Testament tradition. Just so we don’t miss the point, what Jon Meacham means by “oldest tradition” is that this is the core teaching found in the earliest days of development of Christian dogma. It means that there was no time for development or apologetic, but it is part of the Christian faith that can be found as soon as the Christian faith existed. Laboring the point, this means that as soon as Jesus’ grave was found empty this is what his followers were adhering, teaching and believing. It speaks the historical accuracy of the account of the fact that Jesus was killed on the cross, was buried, that his tomb was found empty, and that the early Christians believed to see Jesus after the empty tomb was discovered. It is why scholars on all sides (outside of very few exceptions) agree to these historical truths. In summary, it is axiomatic to start with Jesus death, burial and empty tomb as true. The onus is then to figure out what best explains these events, but that is next time.

Now to the events themselves:

Jesus died on the cross : As noted there is little debate on this issue. However, there are some scholars who have tried to assert that Jesus really did not die when hung on the cross. Based on the consensus of scholarship these people really do find themselves barely on the edge of credulity. Even J.D. Crossan, Co-chair of the Jesus Seminar and one of the most liberal of the Jesus Seminar accepts that Jesus actually died on a cross. Since Paul starts this pericope as an apologetic, let us continue his exercise.

Outside of the fact that experts in the field virtually agree to this fact, what other reason do we have to accept the idea that Jesus really died on the cross?

Well, Roman soldiers were professionals at what they did. Not that killing someone on a cross is terribly difficult. I imagine an untried hand at it could get it right the first time if he had the stomach to follow through with the required step of actually nailing someone to a cross and then standing it on end. Roman soldiers knew how to kill. They were trained for it. Additionally, crucifixions were not anomalies. Exactly the opposite – they were common events. One extreme example to the commonality of crucifixions took place before Jesus’ day when Alexander Janneus crucified 800 Pharisees at one feast. To think that the Roman government intended to kill a man through crucifixion only to fail is to ignore historical evidence.

Jesus was buried: It almost seems silly laboring this point, but it has come under attack by some peripheral scholars. The real issue is not so much that Jesus was buried, but that he was buried in a rich man’s tomb. Remember what Paul says in verses 3 through 8. He names people, along with five hundred plus believers – most who are still alive at the writing of this text. Paul’s point is “go and interview these five hundred yourself!” The sources closest the event attest to this fact.

Also, it makes sense that Joseph of Arimethea is a historical person. Since he was a member of the Sanhedrin, it is hard to imagine Christians creating him. Two reasons why this is the case. First, 1 Corinthians 15 is written close enough to the events that it is investigatible. It would be easy for someone to debunk such a silly claim concerning a member of the prominent Sanhedrin. Second, given the fact that Jewish leaders were so hostile to early Christians it is hard to imagine a tradition/apologetic being created that uses someone from the camp that wants to see your demise as the giver and fellow witness to occurrences that create so much controversy. If you were to develop such a far-fetched piece of fiction, then why Arimethea? It is a town of little importance and no scriptural significance.

The details that must match Joseph of Arimethea’s story to be credible are there too. He had to be rich in order to own an empty tomb. In his day it was not uncommon for a notable to have such a tomb. Given the fact that Joseph of Arimethea could not have buried Jesus in his family’s tomb (because a body of a criminal would defile the bodies of the family members already lying there) it fits within the culture that had Joseph of Arimethea offered up a tomb, it would have been this one.

Another important reason to trust the burial story of Jesus is largely missed outside of scholars. This reason is that the burial story lacks theological reflection or apologetic development. This is something I spoke of earlier. This basically means that the burial story gives just that – the story. It doesn’t include long diatribes discussing theological significances or exceptional notations on details surrounding the events. Basically, this is “just the facts, ma’am.” The facts: Jesus died on the cross and was buried (we haven’t gotten to the empty tomb yet). Details such as the women coming to tend to the tomb are credible given the context. In Jesus’ day, graves of holy men were given honor through the tending to of the grave.

Finally, on the issue of Jesus’ burial – get this: no other burial tradition exists. You can find writings from the 21st century that give other “options.” But since these theories are over two millennia away without a shred of historical evidence under girding their claims (this is not an overstatement) we can easily dismiss them. Not even Jewish polemic of Jesus’ day offered another account. It assumes this reality. The fact is no other account is given other than the one we have.[3]

The tomb that Jesus was buried in was empty: This historical axiom is where suspicions begin to raise. The reason deals more with our next discussion on “What best explains these three historical events, plus the sightings of Jesus?” I would guess that some realize by admitting this fact they are giving up the battle. It should not be surprising that the empty tomb is credible given the burial story. The reason for this is that many of the same reasons that strengthen an acceptance of the burial account also strengthen an acceptance of the empty tomb account. Specifically, it too is free of theology and apologetic. It just was what it was. Everyone knew where the tomb was located. It’s not as if it were top secret. There were Roman Soldiers guarding it (can you imagine the conversation, “I wonder which one it is – maybe the one with the soldiers in front of it or that one to its left?). Also, The women knew were it was located.

Before Jesus was buried in it, it makes no sense for Joseph of Arimethea to make it a secret. “So Joe, I heard you bought a tomb. What did you go with? The new catacombs or the old traditional bench tomb?” “I’m not telling! It’s none of your business!” Wow – awkward. The fact is that anyone during the first century could make her way up to the fabled tomb of Jesus and investigate herself.

Additionally, the discovery of the empty tomb by women makes it a probable event. Women were of low status in Jewish society and were not even credible witnesses in court. How true it is that Jesus was the first women’s lib leader. It is utterly shocking in the first century to have a woman as your witness. They weren’t even admitted into court as a witness! The fact that we have the women being brave, while the early church leaders are cowardly shivering behind locked doors is a far cry if this is some type of conspiracy put together by the early church or those who followed after it. It, again, strains credulity to think the leaders of the early church would portray themselves as cowards or create an eyewitness account that didn’t even matter within the context of its own society.

Also, early Jewish Polemic presupposes the empty tomb. You would expect the moment the news came out that Jesus had risen from the dead the first thing the Sanhedrin would do was to tell everyone to go see the dead carcass in the tomb themselves. Instead, their arguments acknowledge an empty tomb and attempt to come up with an explanation for it. They would only admit it because any denial of it could be easily refuted. Matthew 28:11-15 “Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ “And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.”[4]

So, there we go – the three historical events that, as a consensus, are axiomatic. Next time we will consider the one historical event that is part of Paul’s apologetic that is not so easily accepted as stated – Jesus’ appearances after the empty tomb is discovered – along with what explanation offered makes the best sense of the evidence.

[1] Jon Meacham, “From Jesus to Christ” in Newsweek March 28, 2005 edition, 45.
[2] Jon Meacham, 43-44.
[3] William Lane Craig, “The Empty Tomb of Jesus”, in In Defense of Miracles, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 249-251. All five points come from his discussion.
[4] The Empty Tomb of Jesus, 251-259.

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