11 Paul’s Famous Creed: Is 1 Corinthians 15 History?

Bodmer papyrus

The gospel of Mark was the earliest gospel, written in roughly 70 CE, but Paul wrote his first epistle to the church in Corinth more than a decade earlier. This passage makes the earliest claim of the resurrection of Jesus.

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 and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have [died].

Claims about the dating of this important passage vary widely. Some argue that it preceded Paul’s letter. They say it appears to be in a different style, as if it were a creedal statement believers would have recited. One example familiar to modern Christians is the Apostle’s Creed. That is, though Paul wrote this epistle about thirty years after the crucifixion, this fragment had been an oral creed since just a few years after Jesus’ death. They cite this as evidence that belief in the resurrection was years earlier than Paul’s writing.

This popular claim fails under inspection. If the passage is a creed, then it’s not evidence for the resurrection. A creed is a faith statement, a statement of what people believe, not why others should believe it. It even sounds like one. There is no mention of date or location, like a newspaper article would have, and the passage states “Christ died for our sins” as dogma (beliefs not subject to debate), without evidence.

The different style Christians point to might instead suggest that a copyist inserted it decades after Paul wrote the original.

The gap from the authorship of this epistle to our oldest copy is about 150 years. That means a lot of opportunity for hanky-panky as scribes copied and recopied the letter, especially during the early turbulent years of the new religion of Christianity when dogma was still being decided. We can only guess what changes were made.

There are other reasons to question this passage as evidence for Christianity. Jesus “raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” is a reference to the book of Jonah (“Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights”), but the resurrection can’t be “according” to this scripture when the author of Jonah wasn’t making a prophecy. And this “prophecy” fails since Jesus was dead for only two nights, from Friday evening to Sunday morning.

Finally, each gospel makes clear that women were the first to see the risen Jesus, but Paul ignores them in his chronological list of witnesses.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and a supernatural claim like the resurrection is certainly extraordinary. Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 passage at best says that the resurrection was an early Christian belief, but it is poor evidence that the resurrection was a historical event.

Continue to chapter 12.

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Corinthians: Most of Paul’s epistles were written to churches in different cities or regions. 1 and 2 Corinthians were written to the church in Corinth. Ephesians was to the church in Ephesus, Philippians to the church in Philippi, and so on for the churches in Rome, Galatia, Colossae, and Thessalonica.

Epistle: An epistle is a letter. All the New Testament books besides Acts, Revelation, and the four gospels are epistles.

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance”: 1 Corinthians 15:3–8.

The gap from the authorship of this epistle to our oldest copy is about 150 years: The earliest manuscript of this passage is Papyrus 46, dated to around 200 ce.

“raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”: 1 Corinthians 15:4.

“Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights”: Jonah 1:17.