Usually we can get in such a hurry that we miss things by mistake, often really important things. This even holds true when we study, we simply rush through the material not taking time to think it through or take that next step and end up just skimming it instead. As we all know there can be larger things hiding below the surface. In this instance I am talking the Biblical text, more specifically Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. At the start of chapter 15 Paul tells us the following:
“Now brothers, I want to clarify for you the gospel I proclaimed to you; you received it and have taken your stand on it.
You are also saved by it, if you hold to the message I proclaimed to you– unless you believed for no purpose.
For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: 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, then to the Twelve.
Then He appeared to over 500 brothers at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep.
Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one abnormally born, He also appeared to me.”
(I Cor. 15:1-8)
What is interesting is that when we dig deeper there is an underlying source behind this text. What we find there happens to be one of the key pieces of evidence used to defend the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus! While Paul’s letter dates to the mid AD 50’s, once studied it reveals a much earlier and important source used by Paul. He is quoting here an ancient Christian creed written in Aramaic that goes all the way back to the earliest enshrinement of what the early Christians believed. This carries very serious historical freight. As Christians we need to be able to articulate and defend the truth of Jesus’ resurrection which is THE central claim upon which Christianity is predicated, so in turn we need to grow in and be familiar with making an evidential case for it.
Why Is This So Important?
The importance of this early creed for the truth of Christianity cannot be over emphasized here. The truth of Christianity is predicated on whether or not God actually raised Jesus from the dead. The closer our sources are to the event in question, the more likely it is to be historical. This piece of evidence shows us that what we claim now about the resurrection of Jesus is what was claimed right from the very beginning. No legendary embellishment over time, etc. So this makes us more historically certain of the truth of the central claim of Christianity. So we can see that the content of the creed as well as its dating are what makes it so important.
According to resurrection expert Dr. William Lane Craig, the creed starts in verse three and extends to at least verse 51, although I think Dr. Kirk MacGregor has argued persuasively that the creed extends to verse 72. Here Craig gives 9 key identifiers that have lead scholars to regard this as a creed written in Aramaic3:
|1||The text contains parallel structures such as 1st and 3rd lines longer|
|2||The four-fold "that" clause is Semitic|
|3||The absence of all particles except "and" is Semitic|
|4||The avoidance of using God's name by using the passive form of the verb "raised" is Semitic|
|5||The use of Peter's Aramaic name Cephas is Semitic|
|6||It is unusual in Greek to have the ordinal number repositioned but in a Semitic language this is the only possibility|
|7||He was seen or ""He has appeared is a double meaning use of the Greek word underlying it that is also Semitic in its use|
|8||Cephas stands as the logical subject in the Greek dative case instead of the expected alternative Greek construction which is Semitic|
|9||The wording is independent of the Septuagint Greek rendering in Isaiah 53 which shows its Semitic origin|
Dating the Creed
Craig sums it up nicely for us regarding the dating of the creed,
“Moreover, Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth cites an old Christian tradition that he had received from the earliest disciples (1 Cor. 15: 3— 5). Paul probably received this tradition no later than his visit to Jerusalem in AD 36 after his conversion in AD 33 (Gal. 1: 18), if not earlier while he was living in Damascus. This tradition, therefore, goes back to within the first five years after Jesus’ crucifixion in AD 30.4”
So since the apostle Paul had very early dealings with the leadership in Jerusalem, as well as the indicators from the Greek text that this formula has Semitic characteristics we can rightly conclude that Paul is passing on early tradition that enshrines what the early Christians believed and taught! So it is no wonder that we can conclude with Dr. Mike Licona, another authority on the resurrection, states of the creed,
“In nearly every historical investigation of the resurrection of Jesus, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 weighs heavily and is perhaps the most important and valuable passage for use by historians when discussing the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.5“