For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. – 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NRSV
This passage of scripture is part of the standard selection of verses used, either directly or indirectly, by Christian apologists to attempt to prove that Jesus actually rose from the dead and appeared again to his followers.
Christian apologist, Josh McDowell, in his lovely work of apologetic fiction entitled “Evidence for the Resurrection”, relays it this way:
“Several very important factors are often overlooked when considering Christ’s post-resurrection appearances to individuals. The first is the large number of witnesses of Christ after that resurrection morning. One of the earliest records of Christ’s appearing after the resurrection is by Paul. The apostle appealed to his audience’s knowledge of the fact that Christ had been seen by more than 500 people at one time. Paul reminded them that the majority of those people were still alive and could be questioned.”
“the fact that Christ had been seen by more than 500 people at one time”
“One of the earliest records of Christ’s appearing after the resurrection is by Paul.”
More correctly, that should read, THE earliest record of Christ’s appearing after the resurrection is by Paul. That is our earliest written source. So what EXACTLY does Paul say? What was his purpose for writing this? Is this actually evidence of the resurrection of Jesus; evidence that would stand up in court? Is this a verifiable fact? Let’s have a look:
The very first thing that Paul reveals is that he is simply relaying hearsay information, a rumor.
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that…” v.3
“For I handed on to you….what I in turn had received: that…”
This is known as the Tradition Summary Formula. People passing along stories still use it in various forms today. One example would be “guess what I heard: that…”.
Does Paul provide testimony as to where he got his information? No, only that he had heard the rumor. This is not in any way legitimate testimony that would stand up to scrutiny. This is not the testimony of 500 witnesses. There is no corroborative testimony by anyone that Paul names. This is a rumor spread by one man.
What was Paul’s purpose for writing this?
There is a specific “occasion” for each of Paul’s genuine letters”; a reason why the letters were written. The recipients of this letter, Paul’s converts in Corinth, were facing several dilemmas. One of those being that Paul had told them one thing, while other followers of Jesus were telling them something different. This seems to be a common theme among Paul’s earlier letters. Who were these other followers of Jesus? In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, they were Jewish followers of Jesus, telling Paul’s converts that in order to be followers of Jesus, they had to first be Jewish. Remember, Jesus would have been a Jew. Those who followed him during his lifetime would have also been Jews. There is no evidence that Jesus stepped outside of Judaism. Oddly enough, Paul’s biggest battles were against the followers of Jesus. That is kinda’ funny, if you stop and think about it for a moment.
In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul talks about the various messianic factions that were already apparent during his time.
“For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”” vv. 11-12
The Corinthians were doubting whether Paul had brought them the correct message, or whether they should believe these others. The purpose of the passage in 1 Corinthians 15 is an attempt to prove to his audience that he DID have this authority. According to legend relayed by Paul, the resurrected Jesus had appeared to “Cephas, then to the twelve” (note that he does not say eleven; no betrayal by Judas in Paul’s writings), “to the 500”, “to James”, then to “all the apostles”. He then closes the thought with his point, “he appeared also to me”. He even then goes on to brag about how he is more legitimate than those other followers; “I worked harder than any of them” v.10.
Paul’s purpose for writing that was not to prove that Jesus had risen from the dead, but to prove that he was legitimate. In attempting to reinforce his followers’ faith, he inadvertently predicted the ultimate demise of Pauline Christianity.
Read ‘em and weep:
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. – 1 Corinthians 15:13-19
A few more examples of the apologetic use of 1 Corinthians 15
- Evaluating different religions: 5 reasons to start your spiritual search with Christianity
- Resurrection of Jesus
- The Resurrection of Jesus and Our Resurrection Section: A.2.d.iii