Influence on the Church in the First Decades
In 1 Corinthians 15, the earliest New Testament writing to discuss
Christ's resurrection, Paul tells us what the resurrection meant to
Christians in the first 25 years of church history.
Paul begins his debate by using two technical terms that indicate how
Christian traditions were passed on. He says he "handed on" to them what he
had "received" (1 Cor. 15:3). The story of the resurrection was passed on by
word of mouth. Paul did not create his own story; he stood as a link between
early eyewitnesses and the Corinthians.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 we find four elements of early Christian
tradition. First, Christ died for our sins in accordance with the
Scriptures. Christianity had its origin in Judaism and therefore appealed to
the Jewish scriptures to interpret its experience with Jesus.
Second, Christ was buried. There should be no doubt about the awful
finality of his death and burial. Yet this was not merely a martyr's death
for a noble cause. It was for our sins, and therefore redemptive.
Third, Christ was raised on the third day in accordance with Scripture.
The passive verb means that Jesus did not rise by himself but was raised
by God. The terrible dilemma of a messiah executed as a criminal gave way to
the good news that God vindicated him by raising him up.
The resurrection on the third day also has an Old Testament background.
Speaking of God's graciousness, Hosea said, "After two days he will revive
us; on the third day he will raise us up" (Hosea 6:2). "Two days" and "the
third day" simply mean a very short time. Matt 12:40 states that Jesus like
Jonah would stay in the heart of the earth three days and nights.
Finally, Christ appeared to Cephas and the twelve, as reported also in
the gospels. Since Judas committed suicide, "the twelve" was probably a
title for the apostles rather than a numerical figure.
Paul lists other appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:6-8. Since the structure
of this list is different from the previous statements, Paul may have used a
number of other traditions.
1 Corinthians 15 is an important chapter not only because it contains
early Christian traditions, but also because it illustrates how a truth is
communicated across cultural lines. Paul, raised in Judaism and steeped in
the Old Testament, was making his case to Corinthian Christians who held to
Greek ideas of life and death.
At the beginning, Christianity was primarily a Jewish movement. Judaism
viewed human beings as mortal; their destiny was death. In the Old
Testament, there is little reference to life after death.
During the Maccabean period of Jewish history (180-160 B. C.) ideas about
a future resurrection began to emerge. Jews experienced extreme suffering at
the hands of Greek kings (the Seleucid dynasty who controlled Palestine
after Alexander the Great) who forced them to accept Greek culture and
worship. According to 2 Maccabees 7, seven Jewish brothers and their mother
died heroically for their faith. At the point of death, one of the brothers
said, "One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish
the hope God gives of being raised again by him" (2 Macc. 7:14). Likewise
the Book of Daniel, which many scholars believe to have been written in the
Maccabean period, states, "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth
shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting
contempt" (12:2). Whereas Jewish thought anticipated a future resurrection,
early Christianity affirmed that in Christ the resurrection has become a
In contrast to Jewish and Christian ideas of resurrection, Greek
philosophers from the time of Plato thought in terms of immortality of the
soul. Human beings were made up of two parts, body and soul. The body died
and decayed but the soul lived on forever. When Corinthian Christians said,
"There is no resurrection" (1 Cor 15:12), they meant that the body of Jesus
turned to dust but his soul remained immortal.
Paul protested. If there was no resurrection, the Christian faith was in
vain. It was not so much that the soul of Jesus somehow survived death but
that God raised His Son in triumph over death and sin. And just as God
raised Christ He will also raise us up. Our hope is based not on immortality
of the soul but on an immortal God.