When it comes to the formation of the early Jesus movement, 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7 is a crucial element to the proclamation of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. In relation to early testimony, historian David Hacket Fisher says, “An historian must not merely provide good relevant evidence but the best relevant evidence. And the best relevant evidence, all things being equal, is evidence which is most nearly immediate to the event itself.” (1) One key in examining the early sources for the life of Christ is to take into account the Jewish culture in which they were birthed. As Paul Barnett notes, “The milieu of early Christianity in which Paul’s letters and the Gospels were written was ‘rabbinic.’” (2)
Paul’s usage of the rabbinic terminology “passed on” and “received” is seen in the creed of 1 Cor. 15:3-8:
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.”
The word “received” παραλαμβάνω (a rabbinical term) means to receive something transmitted from someone else, which could be by an oral transmission or from others from whom the tradition proceeds. This entails that Paul received this information from someone else at an even earlier date. 1 Corinthians is dated 50-55 A.D. Since Jesus was crucified in 30-33 A.D. the letter is only 20-25 years after the death of Jesus. But the actual creed here in 1 Cor. 15 was received by Paul much earlier than 55 A.D.
Bauckham notes in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony that the Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events. Bauckham has followed the work of Samuel Byrskog in arguing that while the Gospels though in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted.
Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy).” In other words, Byrskog defines “autopsy,” as a visual means of gathering data about a certain object and can include means that are either direct (being an eyewitness) or indirect (access to eyewitnesses).
Byrskog also claims that such autopsy is used by Paul (1 Cor.9:1; 15:5–8; Gal. 1:16), Luke (Acts 1:21–22; 10:39–41) and John (19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1–4).
Even critical scholars usually agree that it has an exceptionally early origin. Even the co-founder Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan, writes:
Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.” The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” (3).
E.P. Sanders also says:
Paul’s letters were written earlier than the gospels, and so his reference to the Twelve is the earliest evidence. It comes in a passage that he repeats as ‘tradition’, and is thus to be traced back to the earliest days of the movement. In 1 Corinthians 15 he gives the list of resurrection appearances that had been handed down to him. (4)
And Crossan’s partner Robert Funk says:
The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.” — Robert Funk co-founder of the Jesus Seminar.(5)
The crucifixion of Jesus is attested by all four Gospels. It is also one of the earliest proclamations in the early Messianic Movement (see Acts 2:23; 36; 4:10). It is also recorded early in Paul’s writings (1 Cor.15), and by non-Christian authors Josephus, Ant.18:64; Tacitus, Ann.15.44.3. Donald Juel discusses the challenge of a crucified Messiah:
The idea of a crucified Messiah is not only unprecedented within Jewish tradition; it is so contrary to the whole nation of a deliver from the line of David, so out of harmony with the constellation of biblical texts we can identify from various Jewish sources that catalyzed around the royal figure later known as the “the Christ” that terms like “scandal” and “foolishness” are the only appropriate responses. Irony is the only means of telling such a story, because it is so counterintuitive. (6)
Even Paul commented about the challenge of proclaiming a dying Messiah to his fellow countrymen:
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. (1 Cor.1:21-22)
Once again, critical scholars including those who are not even Christians say the following about the death/ crucifixion of Jesus:
I will start with two quotes from Bart Ehrman:
The denial that Christ was crucified is like the denial of the Holocaust. For some it’s simply too horrific to affirm. For others it’s an elaborate conspiracy to coerce religious sympathy. But the deniers live in a historical dreamworld.(7)
Christians who wanted to proclaim Jesus as messiah would not have invented the notion that he was crucified because his crucifixion created such a scandal. Indeed, the apostle Paul calls it the chief “stumbling block” for Jews (1 Cor. 1:23). Where did the tradition come from? It must have actually happened. (8)
Gerd Ludemann (Atheist):
The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypotheses of a pseudo-death or a deception which are sometimes put forward. It need not be discussed further here. (9)
Crossan, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar:
Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if no follower of Jesus had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixion we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus. (10)
Jesus was executed by crucifixion, which was a common method of torture and execution used by the Romans. (11)
In his book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument For Jesus of Nazareth, Ehrman goes on to say:
“Historians prefer to have lots of written sources, not just one or two. The more, obviously the better. If there were only two or two sources you might suspect that the stories were made up. But if there are lots of sources—just as when there are lots of eyewitnesses to a car accident-then it is hard to claim that any of them just happened to make it up.”-pg 40-41.
If we apply these comments to the death of Jesus we have:
- All four Gospels (written before the first century) say Jesus was crucified under the authority of Pontius Pilate.
- Paul speaks of the death of Jesus and that He was crucified: 1 Corinthians 1:13, 23, 2:2, 8, 2 Corinthians 13:4, Galatians 3:1,Philippians 2:8 Romans 5:6, 8, 106:3, 5, 9-10, 8:34, 14:9, 15, 1 Corinthians 8:11, 11:2615:3, 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, Galatians 2:21,Philippians 2:8, 3:10, Colossians 1:22, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 5:10
- Other New Testament documents say Jesus was crucified- 1 Peter, etc…
- The Book of Acts (dated 62-65 AD): Jesus was crucified according to the plan of God (Acts 2:23) and that He was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples (Acts 2:24; 31-32; 3:15-26;10:40-41;17:31;26:2).
- Josephus and Tacitus and some other outside sources speak of the death of Jesus.
The Burial of Jesus
Some skeptics assume since Jesus came from a poor family, his body would have been disposed in the manner of the lower classes, which was typically in a pit grave or trench grave dug into the ground. In other words, according to this hypothesis, although Jesus may have been placed in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea on late Friday, his body would have then been moved to its final location – a graveyard reserved for criminals – by Saturday night. From this point, it is argued the finding of the empty tomb by the disciples of Jesus resulted in an erroneous conclusion that Jesus had been resurrected. In response, archaeologist Jodi Magness, a non- religious Jewish archaeologist who specializes in the ossuaries at the time of Jesus says the following:
“Jesus came from a modest family that presumably could not afford a rock- cut tomb. Had Joseph not offered to accommodate Jesus’ body his tomb (according to the Gospel accounts) Jesus likely would have been disposed in the manner of the lower classes: in a pit grave or trench grave dug into the ground. When the Gospels tell us that Joseph of Arimathea offered Jesus a spot in his tomb, it is because Jesus’ family did not own a rock- cut tomb and there was no time to prepare a grave- that is there was no time to dig a grave, not hew a rock cut tomb(!)—before the Sabbath. It is not surprising that Joseph, who is described as a wealthy and perhaps even a member of the Sanhedrin, had a rock-cut family tomb. The Gospel accounts seem to describe Joseph placing Jesus’ body in one of the loculi in his family’s tomb.” (12)
Interestingly enough. Magness goes on to say:
“There is no need to assume that the Gospel accounts of Joseph of Arimathea offering Jesus a place in this family tomb are legendary or apologetic. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’s burial appear to be largely consistent with the archeological evidence.” (13)
Israeli archaeologist Shimon Gibson concurs by saying:
“The idea that an executed Jew would have been chucked into a common burial pit after being removed from the cross is unlikely. It may have been the normal practice for criminals of the lower classes and for slaves elsewhere in the Roman Empire, but it is unlikely to have been practiced in Jerusalem because of Jewish religious sensibilities. The truth is the Roman authorities would have wanted to keep the Sanhedrin and locals agreeable.” (14)
Even though Magness and Gibson support the burial account in the Gospels, the question is whether there is any evidence for the practice of moving criminals after a “temporary” burial to a graveyard for criminals. The question is why would Joseph himself want to move the body of Jesus to a temporary graveyard? There is no way to know if Joseph had known some future family members or Joseph himself might die. Thus, he may need the tomb he had utilized for Jesus for a future purpose? Perhaps this would be a reason to relocate the body of Jesus.
Once again, one can assert all the possibilities they want. But the question is whether there is good evidence for such possibilities. We can conclude with the following: All four canonical Gospels state that Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus and, after Pilate granted his request, he wrapped Jesus’ body in a linen cloth and laid in a tomb. At best, a skeptic can throw out the relocation hypothesis as a possibility. But even if skeptics want to postulate that his body was buried in a trench grave, it is a worthless apologetic on their part. Why do I say this? Whether Jesus was buried in a pit or trench grave, or it happens the Gospels are correct about the burial story, skeptics will still have to provide an account for the resurrection appearances and the entire story.
The Resurrection Appearances
Here we must examine explanations for the appearances. First, let’s observe the list of appearances:
• Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, shortly after his resurrection (Mark 16:9; John 20:11-18)
• Jesus appears to the women returning from the empty tomb (Matthew 28:8-10)
• Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12,13; Luke 24:13-35)
• Jesus appears to Peter ( Luke 24:34, 1 Corinthians 15:5)
• Jesus appears to his disciples, in Jerusalem. (Mark 16:14-18; Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-23).
• Jesus again appears to his disciples, in Jerusalem. At this time Thomas is present (John 20:24-29).
• Jesus appears to his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 28:16; John 21:1,2)
• Jesus is seen by 500 believers at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6)
• Jesus appears to James ( 1 Corinthians 15:7)
• Jesus appears to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20).
• He appeared to his disciples (Luke 24:50-53).
• He appeared to Paul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-6; 1 Corinthians 15:8).
As far as the appearances of Jesus, once again, many critical scholars agree that the disciples at least thought they saw the risen Jesus. For example:
That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. “I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause. Moreover, a calculated deception should have produced great unanimity. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: ‘I saw him first!’ ‘No! I did.’ Paul’s tradition that 500 people saw Jesus at the same time has led some people to suggest that Jesus’ followers suffered mass hysteria. But mass hysteria does not explain the other traditions.” “Finally we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it. (15)
It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection. (16)
Ehrman also says:
We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead. (17)
Ehrman also goes onto say:
Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. (18)
Why, then, did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this. We don’t have any of their written testimony, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years later, indicates that this is what they claimed, and I don’t think he is making it up. And he knew are least a couple of them, whom he met just three years after the event (Galatians 1:18-19). (19)
The disciples thought that they had witnessed Jesus’ appearances, which, however they are explained, “is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever may agree.  Even the most skeptical historian” must do one more thing: “postulate some other event” that is not the disciples’ faith, but the reason for their faith, in order to account for their experiences. Of course, both natural and supernatural options have been proposed. (20)
Gerd Lüdemann, the leading German critic of the resurrection says:
It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ. (21)
What is the best explanation for the resurrection appearances? See our post called What Did The Disciples Mean When They Say “Jesus is Risen”
1.Hacket Fisher, D.H., Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper Torchbooks. 1970), 62.
2.Barnett, P.W., Jesus and the Logic of History (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1997), 138.
3. Crossan, J.D. & Jonathan L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 254.
4. Sanders, E.P., The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books 1993).
5. Hoover, R.W. and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus (Santa Rosa,CA: Polebridge Press, 1998), 466.
6. Donald H. Juel, “The Trial and Death of the Historical Jesus” featured in The Quest For Jesus And The Christian Faith: Word &World Supplement Series 3 (St. Paul Minnesota: Word and World Luther Seminary, 1997), 105.
7. Ehrman, B. interview with Reginald V. Finley Sr., “Who Changed The New Testament and Why”, The Infidel Guy Show, 2008. Available at : http://www.city-data.com/forum/religion-spirituality/1264542-did-jesus-exist-disciple-buddha-america.html#ixzz2pvePXTT1}
8. ____. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings,(Third Edition New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 221-222.
9. Lüdemann, G. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A Historical Inquiry(Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2004), 50.
10. Crossan, J. D., Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. 1994), 45. While it is true that scholars agree that there are some interpolations in Josephus. But it should be noted that while the manuscript tradition of Testimonium of Josephus has the interpolations, a solid case can be made that the original passage is accurate- especially the part about Jesus being crucified under Pilate. Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. Tacitus confirmed Jesus died by crucifixion during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 CE), under Pilate’s governship (26-36 CE).
11. Martin, D., New Testament History and Literature: The Open Yale Courses Series (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2012), 181.
12. Magness, J. Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2011), 170.
13. Ibid, 171.
14. Gibson, S. The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence (New York: HarperOne. 2009), 52.
15. Sanders, E.P., The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books. 1993), 279-280.
16. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, (Third Edition New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004), 276.
17._______. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University, 1999), 230.
18. Ibid, 231.
19. Ehrman, The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings,282.
20. Fuller, R. The Foundations of New Testament Christology(New York: Scribner’s, 1965), 142.
21. Lüdemann, G. What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans. John Bowden (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 80. 22.