Monday, September 19, 2005

The Three D's and 1 Corinthians 15

I mentioned, in a recent post here, that I've been having some discussions with Jon Curry on Greg Krehbiel's theology board. Curry has renounced Christianity and is now a deist.

He's brought up a lot of arguments, sometimes inconsistently, and I want to post some examples of how untenable those arguments are over the next few days. Curry has raised common objections regarding the lateness of the New Testament documents, the possible carelessness of the early Christians, the possible apathy of Christianity's early enemies, etc.

Today I want to discuss 1 Corinthians 15, a passage that's highly problematic for critics of Christianity, since it runs contrary to so many critical claims about the nature of the evidence. We can summarize three of the most common objections to Christianity with three D's:

- Dated. Are the earliest Christian accounts too late to have sufficient credibility?

- Dishonest. Were the early Christians dishonest, such as in making up miracle accounts?

- Delusional. Were the early Christians too undiscerning to be trusted? Were the resurrection witnesses hallucinating or undergoing a psychological disorder of some other type, for example?

1 Corinthians 15 is significant in that this one passage gives us a lot of evidence against all three of these arguments. Regarding a creed Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, Gary Habermas and Michael Licona explain:

"In fact, many critical scholars hold that Paul received it [the creed of 1 Corinthians 15] from the disciples Peter and James while visiting them in Jerusalem three years after his conversion [Galatians 1:18-19]. If so, Paul learned it within five years of Jesus' crucifixion and from the disciples themselves. At minimum, we have source material that dates within two decades of the alleged event of Jesus' resurrection and comes from a source that Paul thought was reliable. Dean John Rodgers of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry comments, 'This is the sort of data that historians of antiquity drool over.'" (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], pp. 52-53)

Though we can attain a lot of data on the resurrection from the gospels and other sources, notice some facts we can establish just from this creed in 1 Corinthians 15 and its immediate context:

1. The testimony to the resurrection is early. The whole spectrum of scholarship, from liberals to conservatives, is in agreement that 1 Corinthians can be dated to within 30 years of Jesus’ death and that the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 can be dated even earlier (1 Corinthians 15:3).

2. The testimony to the resurrection is Jewish. Paul refers to the resurrection occurring “according to the [Jewish] scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4). Given that the mainstream Jewish view of resurrection at the time Paul was writing involved a resurrection of the same body that went into the grave, it follows that Paul probably held the same view. As he goes on to explain, that which goes into the ground is what comes out in a transformed state (1 Corinthians 15:36-38).

3. The testimony to the resurrection is accepted by people other than the professing eyewitnesses, and is still considered credible decades later (1 Corinthians 15:1).

4. The testimony to the resurrection is from multiple sources. Paul mentions hundreds of people (1 Corinthians 15:5-8).

5. The testimony to the resurrection is detailed. Paul names people and mentions identifiable groups, he mentions witnesses in their chronological order (“then”, “after that”, and “last of all” in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8), and he knows what proportion of the witnesses are still living (1 Corinthians 15:6).

6. The testimony to the resurrection comes from eyewitnesses. Paul was an eyewitness (1 Corinthians 15:8), and other eyewitnesses were giving their testimony (1 Corinthians 15:11).

7. The testimony to the resurrection comes not only from individual experiences, but also from group experiences. Hallucinations are individual experiences, but the apostles saw the risen Jesus together, as did more than 500 people at once (1 Corinthians 15:5-7).

8. The testimony to the resurrection doesn’t just come from people who were already believers when they saw the risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:9).

9. The testimony to the resurrection is given realistically. Paul understood the significance of what he was asserting (“of first importance” in 1 Corinthians 15:3 and 1 Corinthians 15:14-19).

10. The testimony to the resurrection was given by people willing to suffer for what they were testifying to (1 Corinthians 15:30-32).

11. The testimony to the resurrection is continually updated, even decades after it originated. Even about two to three decades after the resurrection occurred, Paul was following the lives of the other resurrection witnesses so closely that he knew that a majority of the more than 500 people he mentions were still living, though some had died (1 Corinthians 5:6). Apparently, Paul was being careful with the data he was citing and was continually thinking about it and rethinking it. He wasn’t being careless.

12. The testimony to the resurrection is unified. Whatever false views non-leaders in the early church may have adopted, the leaders of the church, including Jesus’ closest disciples, were agreed in what they were teaching on the subject (1 Corinthians 15:11).

All of these facts and others can also be derived from other early Christian sources. But even from 1 Corinthians alone, especially chapter 15, a document that both liberals and conservatives accept as early and as written by Paul, we can dismiss many popular arguments against the traditional Christian view of Jesus’ resurrection. The claim that the resurrection belief came from unhistorical legends that gradually developed over time is refuted by the earliness of 1 Corinthians and the creed of 1 Corinthians 15. The theory that the witnesses of the risen Christ were hallucinating is contradicted by the realism and carefulness of Paul’s testimony and the fact that Jesus sometimes appeared to multiple people at once. Other skeptical theories likewise can’t survive the scrutiny of this one passage, much less the combined scrutiny of all of the evidence.