Is the 1 Cor. 15 creed a good defense of the resurrection? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
I was asked by a reader of the blog to give my thoughts on a website called Bahnsen Burner, which normally deals with presuppositional apologetics and how in this case they’ve decided to respond to Geisler and Turek on 1 Cor. 15. Looking over the case, I’m really just seeing more of the same. At any rate, let’s go through it.
Bahnsen Burner (BB henceforth) starts off quoting Geisler and Turek.
In this, we have the common scenario of asking a question and not really bothering to look for the answer. If I was to say what I think that Geisler and Turek are saying, it’s that the passage is accepted by the vast majority of scholars on the historical Jesus as containing early material accepted across the board. That doesn’t mean they believe in the resurrection, but they do believe that appearances took place.
As for seeing the actual resurrection, that was not the claim. The claim was that He appeared to many. Let me put it easily enough for BB. Jesus was dead. There is not a debate about that. Jesus was crucified. Jesus was dead. I would normally think that would not need any scholarly backing, but in our day and age with people thinking mythicism is all the rage among scholars (It’s not. It’s no more the rage than anti-vaccination thinking is the rage among doctors) I will post some and these are all from scholars that would not hold to orthodox Christianity at all.
Now here’s the deal. Jesus is dead. Jesus is then seen again by people and these people are convinced He is alive. That means that in their mind, He somehow passed from death to life. That is what constitutes a resurrection appearance. They are convinced that a man they knew to be dead earlier is seen alive and well later.
BB goes on to quote Geisler and Turek.
And in saying this, they are well in agreement with the majority of scholars of the historical Jesus. Of course, this is scholarly work we’re talking about. On the internet, you’ll find something different where skeptics will believe any conspiracy theory no matter how rejected by scholarship just because, hey, it argues against Christianity!
But Paul himself does not tell us this. For Jesus’ death itself, Paul appeals to “the Scriptures.” Throughout his several letters, Paul relies heavily on Old Testament citations to buttress his points. Also, I find it puzzling that Geisler and Turek would reference the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians and not notice what he says just a few verses prior to the one they do cite. Paul makes it explicitly clear that the answer which our authors give us is not the right answer to the question the pose. Observe:
Dear brothers and sisters, I want you to understand that the gospel message I preach is not based on mere human reasoning. I received my message from no human source, and no one taught me. Instead, I received it by direct revelation from Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11-12)
Nor should we expect Paul to tell us. In a day and age where writing was timely and expensive with only so much room to write, Paul would say what was most essential first. There’s no need to tell the Corinthians information that is already known such as where the creed is from. Why does he repeat the creed then? Because Paul is forming an argument and he’s reminding them of the claims that they all already agreed to.
“Wait! These people are saying there is no resurrection! Why would they agree that Jesus was raised?”
Those are good questions. The answer is that the debate is not about the resurrection of Jesus but the resurrection of believers. Corinthians could easily say there was no general resurrection of the dead but Jesus, Jesus is the exception. He’s the man of special honor and favor. He will be raised, but not us. Paul then starts his argument saying “Jesus is raised. We know that. Here’s how we know it.”
Galatians 1:11-12 is a favorite to go to, but the problem is an equivocation on received and on Gospel. The four Gospels we have now were not necessarily called Gospels back then. Paul does say he received something by revelation, but is it the Gospel formally? One can imagine a conversation going on with pre-conversion Saul and the soldiers with him.
Soldier: Hey, Saul. These Christians we are persecuting. Who are they? What do they believe? How do we identify them?
Saul: Beats me. You think I actually know what they’re teaching?
Paul would have already known the content of the Gospel. What was not known is the truth of the Gospel. Paul is saying that when it comes to the truth, he wasn’t just one following the apostles. He himself was an apostle. In fact, the language in Galatians 1 is highly pointing back to Jeremiah and his call to preach to the nations.
Paul is saying that the message he received was that Jesus was indeed the resurrected Messiah. He didn’t get that by hearing what the apostles said so that the Galatians could just go over his head and back to someone else. He received that message by a direct appearance of the risen Jesus to him.
As for according to the Scriptures, what is meant is not a chapter and a verse, but that this is a fulfillment of the Scriptures. This is the story of God all alone. It wasn’t an accident. God meant this from the beginning.
BB goes on.
So according to what Paul tells us, he “received” the gospel that he preaches to everyone else directly from Jesus as a revelation. (One wonders why that same Jesus doesn’t reveal himself directly to everyone else as well rather than revealing himself to one person who then goes around telling everyone he meets about it.) Paul himself is telling us that what Geilser and Turek propose is precisely what did not take place.
The difference is 1 Cor. 15 has passed on and received. Received alone is one thing. The two together indicate an oral tradition. Paul would have been given this tradition as well as what was a simple and easily memorable way of saying what the early church believed. We can ask why Jesus doesn’t appear to everyone, but that is for another post and won’t affect the data itself.
Here an objection comes. Yeah? Well Paul uses that same language in 1 Cor. 11:23. “What I received from the Lord, I passed on to you!” Paul gets everything by personal revelation.
It’s an interesting comeback, but flawed. In his book on the historical Jesus, Craig Keener points out that rabbis of the time claimed to have teaching from Sinai. They did not mean personal revelation, but that which went back to the source. In this case, the teaching goes directly back to Jesus who said the words at the Last Supper. That’s not the case in 1 Cor. 15 because Jesus never gave a list of the resurrection appearances. Paul’s language is quite concise.
Apparently having failed to understood this portion of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, or at any rate to factor into their thinking about the question they pose before themselves in regard to I Cor. 15:3-8, our authors find their proposal that Paul “received” what he states in that passage important because they want to see it as “part of an early creed that dates right back to the Resurrection itself – eighteen months to eight years after, but some say even earlier.”
What I find curious at this point is how oblivious the authors seem to be of the quagmire they’ve gotten themselves into at this point. For one, they are clearly relying on the content of later writings – the gospels – to supply them with the dating they assume for the events that Paul mentions in this passage. Nothing in the letter itself suggests that the resurrection that Paul speaks of happened any time recently (for all that Paul gives us, his Jesus could have been crucified a century or more earlier, and not necessarily in Palestine for that matter), and only by interpreting Paul’s account by reading elements from the gospel stories into it can it be made into a reference to a recent event. The erroneous nature of this assumption and its significance to my broader point will be brought out more clearly below. For the present, I’d like to focus on another problem that Geisler and Turek bring upon themselves. For if I Cor. 15:3-8 is part of an early creed which Paul has simply imported and woven into his letter, then obviously he is not recounting firsthand knowledge. In fact, if the gist of I Cor. 15:3-8 is a creedal formula passed down to him from other believers, it is at best hearsay that he inserts into his letter.
Apparently, there’s an unwritten rule out there that you cannot use later sources to amplify your understanding of earlier ones. For instance, we have a reference to the destruction of Pompeii in 79 A.D. by the eruption of Vesuvius in an off-the-cuff remark between Pliny the Younger and Tacitus. It’s only later on that we learn historically of Herculaneum, which would actually be the more important town. No doubt, the people of the time already knew this information, but we ourselves would not.
Now if BB wants to suggest another time and place where all of this happened, he’s more than welcome to. For historical Jesus scholars, it’s quite established about the time of when Jesus died. You will have a date between 29-33 A.D. and even then that does not affect the creed at all. All will agree about it’s the time from death to the creating of the creed.
Also, Paul is not inserting firsthand knowledge into the letter. Yes. So what? If all we went by were firsthand knowledge in ancient history, we would have very little. Most accounts were written by historians who would show up later on the scene and collect the details.
“Yeah! But hearsay isn’t allowed in a court of law! It’s unreliable!”
No. It’s not allowed in a court of law generally because you’re allowed to question your accusers. That can’t be done with hearsay. We have to ask how much of ancient history BB is willing to discount because of the rule of it not being firsthand. He would have to throw out Hannibal, Queen Boudica, and Arminius
As if that weren’t bad enough, notice the overtly question-begging nature of the following statement:
There’s no possible way that such testimony could describe a legend, because it goes right back to the time and place of the event itself.
It always strikes me as rather perverse when apologists tell us that it’s impossible for a story to have legendary content while expecting us to believe in supernatural beings, resurrection of the dead, miracles, etc. But here Geisler and Turek insist that the testimony we find in I Cor. 15 could not contain any legend. To make this kind of claim, the authors must assume the historicity of the gospel accounts of Jesus, which are the only documents in the New Testament which place Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in a historical context. The authors are, in effect, using later documents to inform and corroborate earlier documents. Nothing in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, let alone the passage in question, place Jesus’ death and resurrection in any historical setting or even remotely suggest a date to the event in question. So given what Paul states in I Cor. 15:3-8, there’s nothing there which tells us that his account of the resurrection is “early” or that “it goes right back to the time and place of the event itself.” If the aim is to validate the resurrection story of the New Testament as authentically historical, Geisler and Turek simply beg the question by claiming that Paul’s own statements about it could not contain elements of legend because it is too close in time to the event in question. If the event in question is in fact legendary, and Paul’s own account of that event provide no indication of time or place or setting, then the accounts we find in the gospels, the earliest of which being written a decade or more after Paul’s letter campaign, would simply be embellishments of the legend itself. If Paul were passing on a legend that he had learned (and maybe even helped embellish himself), what would keep later writers from adding to and elaborating that legend? And if the later writings – namely the gospels – are themselves legends, then using them to date an event which is itself legendary, simply immerses apologists deeper and deeper into the fake environment of their imagination. Having to rely on one legendary work to validate another legendary work can only mean that the alleged historicity of Christ will evaporate under examination.
Note BB that there are many skeptical scholars of the NT who do not think the Gospels are accurate entirely, but they do think there is much we can learn about the historical Jesus from them. Many skeptics have an all-or-nothing thinking. Either the Gospels are entirely inerrant according to our idea of what it would mean to be inerrant, or they’re all fake.
Again, if BB wants to make that case, he’s free to try to make it. It will be a long uphill battle. The only ones who argue for completely legendary would be mythicists themselves. When we look at the historical Jesus, we take all the data we have which includes the Gospels and the Pauline epistles.
If historians want to know what Jesus said and did they are more or less constrained to use the New Testament Gospels as their principal sources. Let me emphasize that this is not for religious or theological reasons–for instance, that these and these alone can be trusted. It is for historical reasons pure and simple. (Ehrman, The New Testament, page 215)
One would also think that if the legend was being embellished, the Gospels would have more appearances in them and appearances to huger multitudes than 500. They don’t. The Gospels overall are quite constrained in this.
But the question-begging doesn’t stop there. Geisler and Turek continue:
If there was ever a place that a legendary resurrection could not occur it was Jerusalem, because the Jews and the Romans were all too eager to squash Christianity and could have easily done so by parading Jesus’ body around the city.
But if the Jesus story were a legend in the first place – the very premise which our authors are trying to defeat, then appealing to what might have happened or could have happened to Jesus’ body simply begs the question, for it assumes precisely what they are called to prove: namely that the story we have of Jesus in the New Testament is not legend. If the story about Jesus is merely a legend, then there was no body to crucify and seal in a tomb or parade through the streets of Jerusalem.
Again, if BB wants to try to find another locale for all of this, he’s welcome to it. Such hyper-skepticism is why the internet is not taken seriously by scholars today. Picture that crazy uncle at that family reunion you go to who holds all these strange ideas. The internet is where all these crazy uncles get together and discuss those ideas.
As if this could be helpful to us today, Geisler and Turek fall back on the typical defense that anyone questioning Paul could have followed up on the claims he makes in I Cor. 15:3-8:
Moreover, notice that Paul cites fourteen eyewitnesses whose names are known: the twelve apostles, James, and Paul [sic] himself (“Cephas” is the Aramaic for Peter), and then references an appearance to more than 500 others at one time. Included in those groups was one skeptic, James, and one outright enemy, Paul himself. By naming so many people who could verify what Paul was saying, Paul was, in effect, challenging his Corinthian readers to check him out.
First of all, Paul does not name fourteen eyewitnesses. In fact, the details he provides are far less substantial. In I Cor. 15:3-8, Paul only names two other people: Cephas and James. He refers to “the twelve,” which is nowhere explained in any of Paul’s letters, and to “all the apostles.” It is not even clear from what Paul gives us here that either Cephas or James were members of either group. Christians typically suppose that the Cephas Paul mentions in this passage corresponds to the Peter of the gospels (perhaps we’re expected to accept that only one person in the entire first century bore the name Cephas). Of course, I would suspect that at least some of Paul’s readers would have wondered whom he meant by “the twelve” and who were “the apostles” he mentions. Apologists typically respond to these kinds of questions by alleging that Paul’s audiences would have known whom he had in mind with such expressions, because this would have been included in his on-site missionary work when he visited the churches he later addressed in letters. There’s a persistent and annoying perhapsical nature to all this, and puts a great burden on the memories of those whom Paul personally missionized, persons who may or may not have been the recipients of Paul’s letters, which – like I Corinthians – was addressed to the church as a whole, not to a specific individual. The question naturally arises: what exactly did Paul teach the congregations he visited on his missionizing journeys, and how can we know what he taught? If his letters are an indication of what he taught, what do they tell us about “the twelve” and “the apostles”? I Cor. 15:3-8 is the only passage in all of Paul’s letters where he makes reference to this mysterious “twelve,” and even here it is not even clear that “the twelve” and “the apostles” he references in the same passage are the same group. He certainly does not name them in his letter, and one can only speculate that he named them when he visited the church addressed by the letter. Moreover, if Paul is just repeating a creed here, as Geisler and Turek seem to think, then it’s quite possible that even Paul himself did not know the names of those who constituted “the twelve.”
Even when I was a believer, Paul’s reference to “the twelve” here bothered me. Doherty sums up the problem succinctly when he writes:
One could ask why Paul does not use the term “the Twelve” anywhere else in his letters, despite often talking about the Jerusalem apostles. In fact, one would be hard pressed to understand what it refers to simply by this sole reference in I Corinthians 15:5. One might also be forgiven for thinking that, as Paul expresses it, “the Twelve” doesn’t even include Peter. And more than one commentator has fussed over the fact that this really ought to be an appearance to “the Eleven,” since the gap left by Judas’ departure had not yet been filled, according to Acts. (Challenging the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ”, p. 193.)
So indeed a list of the names who made up the membership of “the twelve” would be quite informative here, but Paul does not provide this. Simply assuming that his 1st century readers would have known what Paul meant strikes me as hasty, and even if it is not unjustifiable, it is certainly of no help to us today, and only raises further questions about what Paul might have taught on his missionary journeys. For instance, did Paul teach that Jesus was born of a virgin? His letters nowhere make reference to this feature which is not introduced until we get to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are the only two New Testament documents which mention it. Did Paul teach that Jesus assembled the disciples, or “apostles” which he mentions in I Cor. 15, during missionary work of his own? Paul’s letters nowhere indicate this. Did Paul teach his congregations that Jesus performed miracles during an incarnate visit to earth? Nowhere do any of Paul’s letters suggest this. Did Paul teach that Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot? Again, one would never learn about this gospel feature from anything Paul wrote.
Yes. No one would learn this from what Paul wrote. BB can call it hasty, but it’s simply the facts of a high-context society. If you read the Federalist Papers for instance, the writers will refer to many events in Greek and Roman history. There is no explanation of the stories. They’re off-the-cuff remarks that assume the reader knows what is being talked about.
As for if Judas Iscariot is among the twelve, let’s ask a quick question. Football fans. How many teams are in the Big Ten? Yeah. My family and friends who are football fans tell me that there is a different number now than ten. What is going on with the term “The twelve?” It became a catch-phrase used to describe the original apostles that were called.
It is indeed true that Paul does not use the term anywhere else in his letters. That’s the point. The creed is full of non-Pauline language which further shows that this is not something original to Paul. Even a personal revelation Paul could have put in his own language.
As for why not name names, it’s because the creed is short and to be something easily memorized. Ancients had better memories, but that does not mean many would memorize a list of 500 names. Instead, investigators would be sent to the Jerusalem area and investigate. They would ask around to see if any of these 500 were known in the area and available for questioning.
Regardless, how would any of Paul’s readers be able to investigate any of the things he mentions in I Cor. 15:3-8? He does not identify a place, so any reader would not be able to gather from what Paul writes in his letter where he should begin such an investigation. Where would a Corinthian go to seek confirmation on Paul’s claims with “the twelve”? And would he be encouraged to do so? And what of the anonymous 500 brethren? We’re not given one name here, let alone a time, place or setting. So the defense that Paul’s congregants could have at any time gone out and checked out his claims is dubious. And our authors’ suggestion that “Paul was, in effect, challenging his Corinthian readers to check him out,” borderlines the ludicrous. If Paul really wanted his readers to check up on his claims, he should have done much more than make the passing references that he gives us in I Cor. 15:3-8.
At the very time, Paul was getting a delegation from Corinth to join him on a trip to Jerusalem. Skeptics could send investigators along in such a group. Travel was not unheard of and the Roman roadway system made it much easier. Would they be encouraged? Since Christianity was a shameful belief and many people would be high honor and not want to lose that easily. Larry Hurtado demonstrates the shame and ostracism facing Christians in his book Destroyer of the Gods.
To make matters even more problematic, Paul gives no details on what any of the people he mentions may have actually seen or witnessed. Did they see a resurrected man? How would they know that the man they saw was once dead? Did they have a waking fantasy, as believers today have when they’re in worship? Believers today often refer to themselves as “witnesses” of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, and yet they can do this even though they weren’t even alive back in the 1st century. If the word “witness” enjoys a very loose meaning for many of today’s Christians (and it very often does), why suppose it didn’t enjoy similar flexibility among the early Christians? Christians today are constantly exclaiming how Jesus is present with them, standing right beside them and encouraging them, giving them “strength” so that they can overcome the adversity of hardship, trials and tribulations, afflictions and persecutions. They obviously do not have a physical person in mind when they make these kinds of declarations, so why suppose the early Christians were speaking about a physical Jesus when they claimed to have “witnessed” him?
Because what believers say today is entirely corresponding to what they said back then. Never mind that someone complaining about question-begging has just done a huge amount of it about the culture. It’s interesting to hear him say “Witness means many things today, so why not suppose it meant the same back then.” But to suppose that the events Paul writes about were the same as the Gospels, well that’s too much.
What did they see? They saw Jesus. We have all we need. Death, burial, resurrection appearances. I would also argue that the language of 1 Cor. 15 refers to a physical body. That again is for another post.
If 500 or so believers saw Jesus in the flesh (an interpretation which Paul’s words do not require), who were they, and where is their testimony? It seems that, if so many people had more than merely a subjective experience of an imaginary Jesus – as today’s believers frequently have in the ecstasy of church worship, we’d have more contributors to the documentary evidence than what we find in the New Testament. If I had seen a man who was actually resurrected from the grave, whom I thought was “the Son of God,” I would waste no time in writing down exactly what I had seen, where I had seen it and when I had seen it. If I knew of others who had the same experience, I would not hesitate to get their testimony down in writing, or at least to have them endorse such statements of witness. But that’s me.
BB again assumes his own culture in here with “I would waste no time writing it down!” Well, as Richards, Capes, and Reeves say in Rediscovering Paul.
So here’s the deal. You can use a method that is free, quick, easily accessible, and reaches more people, such as oral communication, or you can use a method that is costly, timely, can only be accessed by those who can read, and even then the rest have to hear it orally. Decisions, decisions. Which one will you choose?
In fact, there are many great events that weren’t written down about at the time. Hardly anyone wrote about the destruction of Vesuvius that destroyed two cities at the time. We have no contemporary writing about Hannibal in the Punic Wars. Now it’s possible that some things were written and simply lost, but we cannot appeal to lost documents.
Again, if BB wants to go this route, he’s welcome to it. Just don’t be expected to be taken seriously in the scholarly world. It’s noteworthy that so much of what he cites comes from mythicists. That tells us about all that we need to know.