The first form of Christianity is seen in the earliest traditions of the faith. The Gospel is the earliest Christian tradition of faith. In Corinthians 15:3b–5, Paul presented the Gospel message that dates to the apostle Paul’s conversion 2 or 3 years after Jesus’s death. The Gospel also dates earlier to the faith of Peter, John, and James in Galatians 1:11–2:10. Biblical scholars including critical scholars all attribute the source of this faith tradition to those who were witnesses of Jesus.
This confession is a historical marker for when and how the church began. The Gospel is the message that started the church. The first Christians proclaimed the Gospel as Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. Paul recorded this confession of the Gospel: “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” (1 Cor 15:3b–5 ESV). Furthermore, Paul cited numerous witnesses in verses 6–8 that may also be a part of this ancient creedal confession.
The First Message of the First Church
Why do scholars find this message to be a very early tradition? Almost all scholarship places Jesus’s death by crucifixion about AD 30. Stephen C. Barton reported, “The likely date of the letter [1 Corinthians] can also be established with confidence as sometime in the years AD 54–55.” In 1 Corinthians 15:1–3a, Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians of the message that he proclaimed to them the same message “of first importance” for which he also received when he converted.
In Galatians 1, Paul reported of his violent persecution of the church. In this opposition, Paul received the Gospel message and converted in AD 32–33. Furthermore, Paul recounted how he took this Gospel message to Peter, John, the other apostles, and Jesus’s brother James who confirmed that this is the original message (Gal 1:18–22; 2:1–10). Paul’s account in Galatians 1:11–2:10 dates the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1–7 to the original disciples and their experiences of Jesus in ~AD 30. For this reason, critical scholars find that the Gospel message of 1 Corinthians 15:3b–5 is an early Christian confession of faith dating to the actual events surrounding Jesus’s death.
What Scholars Admit about the Gospel
Critical and evangelical scholars recognize that this Gospel proclamation originates from the first believers who experienced Jesus’s resurrection. As a critical scholar and well-known agnostic, Bart Ehrman represented mainstream critical scholarship reporting,
Paul came to know about Jesus within just a year or, at most, two of his death. Paul too preserves traditions that stem from the early period of his Christian life, right after his conversion around 32–33 CE. […] Paul claims to have visited with Jesus’s closest disciple, Peter, and with his brother James three years after his conversion, that is around 35–36 CE. Much of what Paul has to say about Jesus, therefore, stems from the same early layer of tradition that we can trace, completely independently, in the Gospels.
Ehrman had previously summarized,
Moreover, the information about Jesus known to Paul appears to go back to the early 30s of the Common Era, as arguably some of the material in the book of Acts. The information about Jesus in these sources corroborates as well aspects of the Gospel traditions, some of which can also be dated back to the 30s to Aramaic-speaking Palestine.
Furthermore, Tom Wright reflected upon 1 Corinthians 15:1–11. Wright reported, “We are here in touch with the earliest Christian tradition, with something that was being said two decades or more before Paul wrote this letter [in AD 54].” Wright also observed, “What counts is that the heart of the formula is something Paul knows the Corinthians will have heard from everyone else as well as from himself, and that he can appeal to it as an unalterable Christian bedrock.” Wright concluded,
In the tradition, then, firm unambiguous evidence that the earliest Christians believed both that Jesus had been bodily raised and that this event fulfilled the scriptural stories. […] Paul could appeal, in the mid-50s, to this entire tradition as something which all early Christians knew well.
Considering Paul’s context, Paul wrote this open letter to the Corinthians for which the Corinthians, all Christians, and all readers either knew or could consider the witnesses (1 Cor 1:1).
Various People Experienced Jesus’s Resurrection
Paul was an opponent and persecutor of the church who became of a follower of Jesus, because he experienced Jesus risen from the dead. Jesus’s brothers also did not believe until after experiencing Jesus’s resurrection (Mark 3:13–21, 31; 6:3–4; John 7:1–5). Paul reported of Jesus’s brothers as preachers (1 Cor 9:5). Jesus’s brother, James, converted because of the resurrection and thus helped confirm the Gospel that Paul received (Gal 1:18–19). These were unbelievers who experienced something extraordinary and converted to faith in Jesus Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul built upon the Gospel by citing eyewitnesses. Paul recorded,
And that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor 15:5–8 ESV)
Tom Wright commented about 1 Corinthians 15:1–11,
The whole thrust of the paragraph is about evidence, about witnesses being called, about something that actually happened for which eyewitnesses could and would vouch. Paul would hardly call eyewitnesses for an experience which continued unabated, not least in Corinth itself.
Furthermore, Wright noted that the early Christians did not perceive the experiences of Jesus’s resurrection as a mystical vision or apparition.
Paul wrote of the numerous witnesses of Jesus’s resurrection as proof — legal proof. Hundreds of disciples and opponents believed that they experienced Jesus risen from the dead and that caused them to believe. Jesus’s resurrection stands as the best explanation for these historical facts surrounding these experiences and the origin of the church.
The Gospel Started the Church
This early Christian confession of faith is a historical marker for when and how the church began. The church could not have began unless the first converts believed that they experienced Jesus bodily resurrected from the dead. These first believers could not claim that they saw a spirit or felt a presence of Jesus, but the earliest account of the first believers was that Jesus bodily rose from the dead.
- Nicholas Thomas Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), Kindle edition, ch. 5, “Resurrection in Paul.”
- Stephen C. Barton, “1 Corinthians,” Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, eds. James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) 1315.
- Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, (New York: HarperOne, 2012) 172, Kindle edition, ch. 4–5, “Evidence for Jesus Outside the Gospels” and “Two Key Data for the Historicity of Jesus.”
- Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, ch. 5, “Resurrection in Paul.”
- Scott J. Shifferd, “The Standard of Evidence, the Burden of Proof, and the Bible,” <Godsbreath.net/2012/11/26/standard-of-evidence-and-the-bible/> (2012).