In the mid-50s of the 1st century AD, a Christian leader called Paul wrote the following to the church in the Greek city of
‘3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that, he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 And last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he appeared also to me.’ (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
I am convinced, as many others are, that Paul’s words in this passage form a very strong piece of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
In this article I want to try to persuade non-Christians of this. And so, in what follows I will attempt to leave on one side my Christian beliefs and examine this passage purely from the viewpoint of a modern, critical historian.
There are a few preliminary points about the passage that are in order.
Paul wrote this passage
To begin with, there is no good reason for doubting that Paul himself wrote the passage.
Of the thirteen letters that are attributed to Paul in the New Testament, seven are known among NT scholars as the ‘undisputed’ letters of Paul. The reason for this is simply that scholars of all worldviews agree that Paul really did write them. The seven are Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon.
Importantly for our purposes, the passage we are considering is in 1 Corinthians, an undisputedly genuine letter of Paul.
It is true that within the seven undisputed letters there are a few passages that some scholars believe are additions to the original text that were written by someone other than Paul. Passages of this kind among the undisputed letters, however, are fairly few in number. And, most importantly for our concerns, NT scholars very widely agree that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
We can be confident about the original text
Next, there is the textual history of the passage to consider.
As copies were made of the NT writings in the early centuries of the church, scribes often made unintentional mistakes. And they also sometimes deliberately altered the wording when they thought something read poorly or what it said was theologically problematic.
In this passage, however, there are relatively few differences among the surviving Greek manuscripts. Even more importantly, the differences that do exist aren’t relevant for our concerns in this article.
A few manuscripts omit ‘what I also received’ in v. 3. Some have epeita (‘after that’) instead of eita (‘then’) in vv. 5 and 7. A few have ‘eleven’ instead of ‘twelve’ in v. 5. And a few have ‘also’ before ‘fallen asleep’ in v. 6.
None of these is significant for our purposes.
The only one I want to comment on briefly is the reading ‘eleven’ in place of ‘twelve’ in v. 5. NT textual analysts agree that ‘twelve’ should be strongly preferred as the original reading instead of ‘eleven’, since a change from ‘twelve’ to ‘eleven’ is easy to explain but a change from ‘eleven’ to ‘twelve’ is much harder to explain.
Paul apparently used ‘the twelve’ rather loosely as a reference to the inner circle of Jesus’ followers during his ministry, even though by the time Paul is referring to in v. 5, the number in this group had reduced to eleven through the defection of Judas Iscariot.
However, some scribes, knowing of Judas’ defection, and therefore aware that Paul had been technically inaccurate, changed ‘twelve’ to ‘eleven’.
It would be possible to go into a long discussion of all this, but there is no need. The variation in manuscripts between ‘twelve’ and ‘eleven’ won’t be important in the following discussion. It is clear that Paul had in mind the inner circle of Jesus’ followers at a time shortly after his death, regardless of whether he wrote ‘twelve’ (almost certainly) or ‘eleven’ (very improbably).
We can therefore sum up the second preliminary point in two statements. First, we can be very confident that we know what nearly all the original Greek wording of this passage was. And second, regarding those few words where we are not so sure, the uncertainties are not relevant for our purposes.
The passage is easy to understand and translate
Finally, the Greek in this passage is very easy to understand and translate. There is a dispute about whether ‘was raised’ or ‘rose’ is the better translation in v. 4, but this is not something that will be important in the following discussion. There is also some debate about the meaning of the word ektroma, that I have translated as ‘one born at the wrong time’. But this too is not something that need concern us.
That concludes our preliminary discussion of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Summing up what we have found:
(1) We can be very confident that Paul wrote this passage.
(2) We can also be very confident that we know what the original Greek wording was in every respect that is relevant for the following discussion.
(3) The Greek is easily translated into English. And my translation is virtually identical to all other English translations, except that some have ‘he rose’ in place of ‘he was raised’, a difference that is not important for our purposes.
I should stress that so far everything I have said fits with the consensus of NT scholarship. Virtually all NT scholars of all worldviews agree that Paul wrote this passage. Scholars broadly agree that we can reconstruct the original wording of the passage with a high degree of accuracy. If they were to read through the discussion that follows, I am certain they would agree that the differences in the Greek manuscripts are not relevant for our purposes. And I am certain too that they would all be happy with my English translation of the very easy Greek, although some would prefer ‘rose’ in place of ‘was raised’.
DOES PAUL MEAN A PHYSICAL OR A SPIRITUAL RESURRECTION?
With the preliminaries in place, let’s move on to some of the key points of this discussion. As I have done so far, I will try to set aside my Christian beliefs and look at things from the perspective of a modern, secular historian.
Firstly, we need to decide what Paul means in this passage when he says that Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared to various people.
Some modern writers claim that Paul is saying that Jesus underwent some kind of spiritual resurrection, not the physical resurrection of traditional Christian faith. Those who make this claim point out that Paul never mentions the empty tomb of Jesus. And they see his silence on this as support for their view.
One variation of this view has Paul claiming that God gave visions of Jesus to early Christians including himself, although Jesus’ body remained rotting somewhere.
Another, more radical variation has Paul claiming only that Jesus appeared to early Christians in the sense that they received revelation about him, while, again, his body was not raised from the dead.
As a large majority of scholars acknowledge, however, this isn’t what Paul means in this passage. There are at least three reasons for this:
Comparison with what Paul says elsewhere
First, a purely spiritual resurrection doesn’t fit with what Paul says elsewhere, including later in 1 Corinthians 15.
In 1 Corinthians 15:35-44 he teaches the Corinthians about the resurrection of Christians. And he says this will be a physical resurrection that involves having a body.
Importantly, in vv. 20, 23 he describes the resurrection of Jesus as the firstfruits of the resurrection of Christians. This means that Jesus’ resurrection is the first instalment of the resurrections that will take place. So it is very implausible that a purely spiritual resurrection of Jesus could be described as the firstfruits of the physical resurrection of Christians.
Similarly, in Philippians – and Philippians is another letter that is agreed to have been written by Paul – Paul says that a time is coming when the bodies of Christians will be made like Jesus’ glorious body. This verse also shows that Paul understood Jesus’ resurrection in physical terms.
Comparison with what the first Christians believed
Second, we need to consider what the first Christians believed about Jesus’ resurrection.
Here, the empty tomb of Jesus is very important. Even if we leave aside the evidence for this from 1 Corinthians 15, there is good evidence that Jesus’ tomb was empty very soon after his burial.
For example, all four Gospels say that some women found Jesus’ tomb empty about 36 hours after he was buried. See Matthew 28:1-7; Mark 16:1-8; Luke ; John 20:1-2.
In Jewish society of the time, the testimony of women was held in very low esteem. So scholars generally agree that it is very unlikely that an invented story would have made women the people who find the tomb. Instead, it is much more likely that women really did find Jesus’ tomb empty on the Sunday morning.
If the tomb of Jesus was empty, as the evidence suggests it was, then surely when the first Christians proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, it was his physical resurrection that they proclaimed.
Importantly, Paul must have had the same understanding about the physicality of Jesus’ resurrection as the first Christians. In 1 Corinthians 15:3 he reminds the Corinthians that the information in vv. 3-7 that he handed on to them, which includes information about Jesus’ resurrection, is something that he previously received. Paul is doubtless referring to traditions he received from other Christians very soon after he first became a Christian, which was itself within a few years of Jesus’ crucifixion. So Paul is implying that he and the first Christians had the same understanding of the Christian basics.
Therefore, because there are good reasons for believing that the first Christians understood the resurrection of Jesus to be a physical thing, it makes sense to think that in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 Paul is referring to a physical resurrection of Jesus.
The traditional concept of resurrection
Third, the traditional concept of resurrection in first century Judaism involved a physical resurrection of people at the end of the age. Jews believed that when the end came, people would emerge from their tombs with real bodies. (Those in the Corinthian church who were of a pagan background would have had no standard, traditional concept of resurrection.)
If Paul, a Jewish Christian, intended to depart from the traditional Jewish concept when referring to Jesus’ resurrection, we would expect him to explain this. We wouldn’t expect him simply to say ‘he was raised’. Paul’s words therefore most naturally imply that Jesus’ tomb was empty and that he rose physically.
We have strong evidence, then, that in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 Paul is referring to a physical resurrection of Jesus.
And the discussion in this section has shown too that we have good evidence that the first Christians also believed in Jesus’ physical resurrection.
There is wide agreement among NT scholars about these points.
DID PAUL BELIEVE WHAT HE WROTE IN THIS PASSAGE?
Next we need to ask if Paul believed what he wrote in this passage. Could he be lying about the appearance of the risen Jesus to himself? And could he be lying about some or all of Jesus’ appearances to the other Christians he mentions?
These questions are easily answered. In short, it is extremely implausible that Paul is lying in what he says here.
Most importantly, there are Paul’s sufferings to take into account. It is not disputed that Paul suffered very greatly for his faith. Many passages that NT scholars agree were written by him show this clearly. 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 is a key text:
‘23 . . . [I have been] in far more labours [than the people just referred to], in far more imprisonments, beaten countless times, often in danger of death. 24 Five times from the Jews I have received the thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I have been beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I have been shipwrecked, I have spent a night and a day in the sea. 26 I have been on many journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from bandits, dangers from my own countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brothers, 27 in toil and hardship, in many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and nakedness. 28 Apart from such external things, I have daily troubling concerns about all the churches.’
There are many other passages that are also agreed to have been written by Paul, in which he refers to sufferings he has experienced, and about which there is wide scholarly agreement that he is truthfully telling what happened. It is completely implausible that he went through so much suffering for something that was based on a lie. And scholars recognise this fact.
If you read through the seven undisputed letters of Paul, you also get a feel for the man himself. (I am not implying that he didn’t write any of the other six letters attributed to him.) And one thing it is surely impossible to deny is what a sincere person he was. Again, this is the scholarly consensus.
Quite simply, then, it is beyond reasonable doubt that Paul believed that the risen Jesus had appeared to him and to many other Christians. And the vast majority of modern, critical scholars of all worldviews are convinced of this.
DID OTHER EARLY CHRISTIANS BELIEVE THEY HAD SEEN THE RISEN JESUS?
But even if Paul wasn’t lying, is it possible that all the other early Christians who claimed they had seen the risen Jesus were lying?
Paul knew some of the people he refers to
The first point to make here is that Paul would have been quite well informed about which Christians claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus.
We know that Paul knew a number of the others he refers to in his list in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
In vv. 5 and 7, he says that the risen Jesus appeared to Cephas (i.e., Peter) and James (i.e., James the brother of Jesus, as scholars widely agree). In Galatians – and scholars agree that Paul wrote Galatians – he says that he went to
three years after he
became a Christian and spent two weeks with Cephas. Then in the next verse he remarks that at
that time he saw James the brother of Jesus.
In Galatians 2:9 he also speaks of meeting with John, one of the twelve. Jerusalem
There is plenty of other evidence too which makes it highly likely that Paul knew other members of the twelve and others among ‘the apostles’ he refers to in v. 7. To cut a long story short, scholars agree that Paul knew at least several of the people he mentions in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 and that he probably knew many of them.
There is good reason for thinking, then, that in this passage Paul is accurately giving a list of early Christians who claimed they had seen the risen Jesus.
Even if Paul’s memory has not served him perfectly, it is at least very highly likely that most of the people on his list claimed to have witnessed a resurrection appearance. But the confident way in which he says that Jesus appeared to all these people suggests he is sure that all those on the list really should be there.
Again, there is wide agreement among scholars that numerous early Christians claimed they had seen Jesus risen from the dead.
The sufferings of early Christians
There is no doubt that, like Paul, many first century Christians suffered badly for the faith. And they would surely not have done this for something they had simply lied about. Once again, a very large majority of scholars, Christians and non-Christians alike, agree.
That is not to say that there can’t have been any fake claims to being witnesses of the resurrection among those who professed faith in Jesus in the early days of the church. It is possible that some claims were fabricated for some reason by people whose circumstances didn’t involve facing persecution. But it is not credible that most of the appearances of the risen Jesus that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 originated through fakery.
The idea that Jesus’ disciples stole his body from the tomb and invented the resurrection appearances is therefore not a viable one, as scholars very widely acknowledge. This theory is still promoted by some popular writers, but among the experts it is rejected. It simply doesn’t hold water.
We should have no hesitation in saying, then, that a number of early Christians genuinely believed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them. And the vast majority of scholars of Christian origins, Christians and non-Christians alike, agree.
DID JESUS REALLY DIE ON THE CROSS?
Occasionally you will find popular writers claiming that Jesus actually survived his crucifixion. They say that this explains so-called resurrection appearances.
This idea should be totally rejected, however.
Firstly, it is extremely unlikely that someone sentenced to death by the Romans would have survived.
And secondly, even if, for the sake of argument, we suppose that Jesus survived crucifixion, we would have to assume that in his badly injured condition he then hatched a plot to deceive his followers by pretending to rise from the dead, a plot he succeeded in implementing! This is fiction at its most imaginative!
Unsurprisingly, the idea that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross is regarded as completely implausible by scholars today.
COULD THE EARLY CHRISTIANS HAVE BEEN MISTAKEN?
We have seen that there is very strong evidence that Paul and numerous other early Christians believed that they had witnessed resurrection appearances of Jesus after he had physically risen from the dead.
Very importantly, a large majority of people who are experts in this field agree firmly with this conclusion. And they include many who are not conservative Christians or even Christians at all.
But this leads us to another extremely important question. Could these Christians have been mistaken?
Most commonly, those who deny Jesus’ physical resurrection claim that supposed sightings of him were caused by psychological phenomena.
It is apparently true that occasionally people mourning the loss of someone they love have had hallucinations in which they have seen the recently deceased person. And so, many claim that some early Christians, in distress at Jesus’ death, must have experienced this sort of thing.
This explanation, however, is highly implausible.
The number of sightings
First, we need to consider the number of claims that Jesus appeared in light of the rarity of psychological experiences of the kind just mentioned.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul lists six appearances of Jesus, three involving one person and three involving groups of people. We have seen that there is good reason for thinking that Paul’s list accurately gives the identities of those who believed they had seen the risen Jesus. Even if we were to suppose that he might have been somewhat mistaken, it is extremely unlikely that the list is highly inaccurate. So the evidence strongly suggests that different individuals and groups of people believed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them.
Psychological experiences in which an individual sees a recently deceased person are very rare. But group experiences of this kind, as the experts tell us, are exceedingly rare.
Given the high likelihood of accuracy in Paul’s list and the rarity of visions of a deceased person, especially group visions, it is extremely difficult to explain all the early appearances of the risen Jesus as purely psychological experiences.
Not expecting to see Jesus
Second, modern psychology has shown that expectation of something plays a very important role in hallucinations. Yet there is strong evidence that when Jesus was crucified, his disciples were disillusioned and didn’t expect him to appear to them. This would make them poor candidates for hallucinatory experiences.
The empty tomb
Third, even if the appearances of the risen Jesus were all explained by positing purely psychological experiences, what about the empty tomb? As I have already noted, there is good evidence that Jesus’ tomb was empty very soon after he was buried.
In conclusion, then, the psychological explanation of sightings of the risen Jesus is very implausible. Not only do we have to imagine that multiple hallucinations occurred in which individuals and groups thought they had seen him. But we also have to suppose that the evidence for the empty tomb is misleading.
When all things are considered, it is far easier to conclude that numerous early Christians believed they had seen the risen Jesus because he really had been raised from the dead. This is where the evidence of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 points.
OTHER EVIDENCE FOR JESUS’ RESURRECTION
This passage is far from being the only biblical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. There is much more besides. The four Gospels, for example, also provide very strong evidence that he rose from the dead.
As far as the Gospel resurrection narratives are concerned, NT scholars widely agree that the traditions underlying them underwent some modification as they were handed down in the early church. And in some respects this makes them difficult for a historian to use.
By contrast, the text in 1 Corinthians that we have been looking at is much more straightforward. Despite its short length, it really does stand as a powerful piece of evidence that Jesus rose physically from the dead. And integrity demands that this evidence is not simplistically explained away.
WEIGHING UP EVIDENCE
All of us will have experienced times when we are trying to form a view on something, but different pieces of evidence seem to point in different directions. When that happens, we have to decide which the weightier pieces are. And then we follow them at the expense of the weaker pieces.
If someone is convinced for reasons not discussed in this article that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then it would be logical for them to conclude that the evidence for the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 should be overruled by other evidence.
But in such a case, that person should at the very least admit that this passage provides a very strong piece of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. To deny this should not be an option.
However, when we are confronted by strong evidence that conflicts with what we believe, we should do more than just admit that the evidence is difficult for our beliefs. This is a time to question whether what we believe is actually correct. All of us are very prone to getting things wrong, and openness to being mistaken is a good attitude to have.
Many years ago, as an atheist, I was open to being wrong about my worldview, and I became a Christian after deeper questioning. I would therefore encourage everyone who reads this article not to quickly dismiss the evidence that 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 provides for the resurrection of Jesus. Instead, I hope that readers will seriously ask themselves if this evidence might in fact fit with what is true.