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The Early Belief in Jesus’ Bodily Resurrection

Apologetics and the apostle Paul

Paul Franks on April 24, 2018

When talking with nonbelievers about your Christian faith (or even when talking with current believers who are experiencing doubts about their faith), one of the most important chapters in all of Scripture to keep at the forefront of your mind is 1 Corinthians 15. In this one chapter, you can find two powerful reasons to believe that Christianity is true.

First, we see Paul’s emphasis on the importance of the Resurrection. He writes, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14, ESV). Not only that, but if Christ hasn’t been raised, we Christians are “misrepresenting God” (verse 15) and we “are still in [our] sins” (verse 17). If the Resurrection did not occur, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (verse 19).

Paul is making an important point here that many overlook. According to Paul, the entirety of the Christian worldview hangs on the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. If Christ did not rise in the real world, we’ve all been wasting our time and deserve pity.

According to Paul, we can have all the faith in Christ we want, but if Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead, that faith is in vain. So, if we don’t have good reasons to believe that Christ rose, we don’t have good reasons to be Christians. Fortunately, we do have such good reasons — very good reasons, in fact.

We find one set of reasons earlier in the same chapter of 1 Corinthians. Consider verses 3-5: “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” (ESV).

Here, starting in the second half of verse 3 and on through verse 5, Paul is recounting an early Christian creed that summarized the gospel. We see in it Christ’s atoning work on the cross, His burial and resurrection, and even evidence of His resurrection (His appearing to others).

There are two clues that help indicate that this is indeed an early creed and not Paul’s own summary of the gospel. Briefly, the fourfold use of “that” (hoti in Greek) to begin each phrase was common in other early creeds. Another clue is in Paul’s use of “Cephas,” which is the Aramaic for “Peter.” Given that Paul wrote in Greek, this sudden switch to Aramaic indicates that the source of this creed is likely not his own.

Why should we care that this was an early creed? How does that help establish the reality of the Resurrection? Well, if this is what Paul “also received,” then one may rightly wonder where and when he received it.

It turns out that there is strong textual evidence that the content of this creed, and perhaps even the creed itself, originated very close (possibly within four years) of the crucifixion. This means that the preaching of the gospel began so close to the Resurrection that, if it were not true, it would have been easy to debunk.

The preaching of the gospel began so close to the Resurrection that, if it were not true, it would have been easy to debunk.

It’s commonly accepted that Paul’s conversion happened one to three years after the Resurrection (A.D. 30). And in Galatians 1:18-19 we learn that soon after his conversion — many scholars say just three years later — Paul went to Jerusalem and met with Peter and James. So, Paul could have met with them as early as A.D. 34 but no later than A.D. 40.

The year A.D. 40 was when King Aretas’ rule ended, and Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 11:32 that he escaped to Jerusalem because “the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me” (ESV).

So, the meeting occurred no more than 10 years after the Resurrection, and perhaps just four years afterward. Well, what was this meeting with Peter and James in Jerusalem about? To help determine that, we should look at the context of Galatians 1:18-19. Nearly everything Paul says before and after these verses is about the gospel.

Paul tells his readers to protect against the gospel’s distortion (Galatians 1:7-9). Paul says he received the gospel not from human teaching but by revelation from Jesus himself (Galatians 1:11-12).

Then, after 14 years, Paul went back to Jerusalem and presented to “those esteemed as leaders” there the gospel he had been preaching because, as he explains, “I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain” (Galatians 2:1-2).

This suggests that the Jerusalem meeting was almost certainly about the gospel, and it happened very close to the Resurrection event itself. A meeting of that sort would have been a perfect venue for Paul to have “received” the specific creedal formulation of the gospel that he “delivered” to the Corinthian Church (1 Corinthians 15:3).

It’s also worth pointing out that Peter and James must have already been preaching the gospel prior to that meeting; otherwise, Paul would have been preaching the gospel to them.

The date of this meeting, and the earlier preaching of Peter and James, is so close to the Resurrection that it would have been nearly impossible for legend to have crept into the accounts of Jesus. If He were still in the tomb, there would have been far too many people around who could have pointed that out.

Christianity, unlike most other religions, is rooted in an actual event in history. Its truth is not dependent on our wishes, or even our faith. Its truth, as Paul testifies, is grounded in history. And, as we’ve seen, there are good reasons to believe that this historical event actually occurred.

Knowing these reasons can help you provide an account of your Christian faith to nonbelievers — and settle doubts current believers might have about their faith.

For those interested in more details about the evidence for the Resurrection, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ by Gary R. Habermas is very helpful, as is his co-authored book with Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.

The argument for the early dating of the creed provided above relies heavily on the insightful research of Habermas. Both books provide additional details for this particular argument, as well as other compelling arguments for the trustworthiness of the scriptural record concerning the Resurrection.

See also “What Is Apologetics, and Why Do We Need It? and “Is Apologetics Biblical?

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