A Closer Look at the Death and Resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

 

Introduction

In 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7, we have one of the  earliest records for the historical content of the Gospel – the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s usage of the oral tradition terminology “passed on” and “received” in the creed here:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: 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 Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

Notice that Paul says the following:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance 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” (1 Cor. 15: 3-4).

A similar text is seen here:

“And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ” Acts 17: 2-3

The challenge with  both passages is that Paul does not list what texts he is referring to in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).  If we jump to Isaiah 53, that brings up the issue of whether Paul is using  the LXX (THE Greek Septuagint). See the article The Use of Quotations from Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in the New Testament.  I have also written a series of blog posts called A Closer Look at Isaiah 52:13- 53:12: Who is the Servant of the Lord? 

One possibility is that Paul was familiar with the Maccabean martyrs.  One can observe atoning features about the Maccabean martyrs:

2 Maccabees 7:37-38: “I [the youngest of the seven sons martyred one by one in front of their mother], like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.

 4 Maccabees 6:27-29: [Eleazar prays] “You know, O God, that though I might be saved myself, I am dying in burning torments for the sake of the law. Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs.”

 4 Maccabees 17:22: “And through the blood of those devout ones and their deaths an atoning sacrifice divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated.”

 4 Maccabees 18:4: “Because of them [those who gave their bodies in suffering for the sake of religion; 18:3] the nation gained peace.”

Overall,  if we go back to 1 Cor. 15:3-8, in my opinion, a more plausible solution is that Paul is referring to the overall redemptive plan in the Old Testament— the Messiah had to suffer, die, and rise from the dead.

Paul knew that  the God of Israel as the only one who could raise the dead (Job 19:26; Ps. 17:15; 49:15; 73:24; Is. 26:19; 53:10; Dn. 12:2; 12:13).   Jesus was raised on the “third day” whereas we will be raised on the last day. And only of Jesus was he installed as Son of God (Rom. 1:4), as universal Lord (Rom. 14:9; Eph.1:20-21; Phi.2:9-11), and judge of the living and the dead (Acts 17:31).

Let’s look at four more features of 1 Cor. 15:3-8:

 First of all, faith has an object: In the Bible, the object of faith is sometimes described as resting in God Himself (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:24). Even in the New Testament, Jesus confirms this issue (Mark 11:22). But even as God is the object of faith, the author of the Gospel of John directs his audience to Jesus as being the object of faith as well (John 20:31). Secondly, the object of biblical faith must be true:

As D.A. Carson says,

“Paul is communicating to the Corinthians’ that their faith is “futile” (vs.17). In other words, the Corinthians faith is valid only if its object is true. Faith is never validated in the New Testament when its object is not true. Indeed, New Testament faith is strengthened when its object is validated supported by witness, shown to be revealed by God, impregnably real, true. Such an understanding of “faith” is utterly at odds with the use of faith in the Western culture.” (Carson, Donald A. Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 2005, 216).

In relation to truth, both the Old and New Testament terms for truth are emet and alethia. In relation to truth, these words are associated with fidelity, moral rectitude, being real, being genuine, faithfulness, having veracity, being complete.  According to a Biblical conception of truth, a proposition is true only if it accords with factual reality. There are numerous passages that explicitly contrast true propositions with falsehoods. The Old Testament warns against false prophets whose words do not correspond to reality. For example Deuteronomy 18:22: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken”, and the ninth commandment warns against bearing false testimony. (Moreland, J.P. and W.L. Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003, 131-132.)

Thirdly, biblical faith is rooted in historical reality: Objectively speaking, no matter how much faith a Christian has, it can’t change whether Jesus rose from the dead. In other words, believing Jesus rose from the dead won’t make it true. The event of the resurrection is in the past. Either Jesus rose from the dead or He did not rise from the dead.

A correct view of biblical faith simply appropriates what is already written in the Bible. Perhaps modern-day Christians can learn something about their own faith by reading this comment by New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III:

 “Any position in which claims about Jesus or the resurrection are removed from the realm of historical reality and placed in a subjective realm of personal belief or some realm that is immune to human scrutiny does Jesus and the resurrection no service and no justice. It is a ploy of desperation to suggest that the Christian faith would be little affected if Jesus was not actually raised from the dead in space and time. A person who gives up on the historical foundations of our faith has in fact given up on the possibility of any real continuity between his or her own faith and that of a Peter, Paul, James, John, Mary Magdalene, or Priscilla. The first Christian community had a strong interest in historical reality, especially the historical reality of Jesus and his resurrection, because they believed their faith, for better or for worse, was grounded in it.” (Ben Witherington III. New Testament History. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2001, 167).

Finally, there is a relationship between faith and knowledge: Does biblical faith assert that we can believe in things we cannot know? According to Paul, unless his audience accepts the “fact” that Jesus rose from the dead in the context of time, space, and history, they are still dead in their sins. They are to be pitied. In the words of Greg Koukl, “The opposite of faith is not fact, but unbelief. The opposite of knowledge is ignorance. Neither is a virtue in Christianity.” (Koukl, G. Tactics: A Game Plan For Discussing Your Christian Convictions. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing. 2009, 153).

Conclusion

There is a lot more to unpack in the earliest record for the death and resurrection of Jesus. But for now I hope this has provoked some thought.

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One thought on “A Closer Look at the Death and Resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

  1. David February 20, 2018 / 8:54 pm

    I think Jesus’ core followers genuinely believed they saw him alive but these were hallucinations, not actual appearances. (Paul’s claim that Jesus was seen by 500 witnesses [1 Cor 15:6] is not mentioned anywhere else and would not be useful information to anyone who wanted to investigate, as most people never travelled far outside their own region, let alone all the way from cities like Corinth to Jerusalem.) Nevertheless, sincerity of belief is no indicator of truth.

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