Sunday, March 04, 2007

"Whether Then It Was I Or They, So We Preach" (1 Corinthians 15:11)

Martin Hengel has written:

"The significance of 1 Cor. 15.11, a passage which is all too easily forgotten in New Testament theology (see above, 145ff.), cannot be estimated highly enough. Among other things, despite all the difficulties (which are sometimes great), indeed tensions and fights, it is the basis for the final unity of the primitive Christian proclamation of Christ; one could also say on the basis of 1 Cor. 15.1-11 that it is the basis of the christological unity of the Gospel." (The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], p. 156)

If Paul was referring to a physical resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, as I argued in a recent post, then Paul's comments in verse 11 suggest that the other most prominent leaders of the early church agreed with him on the issue. And we do see references to the physical nature of the resurrection in the early non-Pauline sources, in many contexts and in many locations. Craig Keener comments that "All our early Christian sources unanimously affirm the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Jesus" (A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], p. 711).

If the resurrection appearances involved hundreds of people and multiple appearances to groups over more than a week of time, as 1 Corinthians 15, the gospels, and Acts suggest, and the people involved were thinking of their experiences as involving a physically resurrected Christ, then it would be highly unlikely that none of the witnesses involved would have sought the sort of physical evidence the gospels and Acts describe. If hundreds of people over more than a week of time (John 20:26, Acts 1:3) thought they were seeing a resurrected man, and some of them saw him more than once, then the common skeptical assertion that the references to concern for physical evidence in the gospels and Acts are unhistorical is dubious. First century Jews would have had the sort of interest in physical evidence that the gospels and Acts suggest. What's unrealistic isn't the suggestion that there was such interest in physical evidence. Rather, what's unrealistic is the suggestion that there wouldn't have been such an interest. Even where no physical evidence is mentioned, such as in the creed of 1 Corinthians 15, where we wouldn't expect such details to be included, the concept that all of the people involved were mistaken is highly implausible on multiple points. Why should anybody believe that Peter, for example, hallucinated at least three different times, twice in coordination with other people who were with him?

As Richard Bauckham's Jesus And The Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006) has recently illustrated, the gospels consist largely of eyewitness testimony. All of the gospels end with the resurrection and the circumstances surrounding it. It was a central event in the eyes of the gospel authors, as it was to Paul and the other leaders of the early church. The concept that eyewitness testimony would have been preserved on other issues, but that all of the resurrection accounts in the gospels and Acts or all of the elements of physical evidence within those accounts were later fabrications, is dubious. Mark's Petrine inclusio, indicating that Peter was his primary source (for an explanation, see here), ends in Mark 16:7, which means that Mark probably is reproducing some of what Peter had said about the resurrection. Similarly, the gospel of John was composed by an eyewitness who includes the resurrection material in that gospel as part of his eyewitness testimony. Richard Bauckham argues that Luke uses the inclusio of eyewitness testimony in his gospel as well, and portions of the resurrection narratives in Luke are included.

The highest-ranking leaders of the early church were required to be eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-2, John 15:27, Acts 1:21-22, 1 Corinthians 9:1, Hebrews 2:3, 2 Peter 1:16, 1 John 1:1-3), and multiple sources tell us that the resurrection was among the events they had to have eyewitnessed (in addition to the relevant passages just cited, see First Clement 42 and pp. 114-154 in Richard Bauckham's book cited above). The concept that there was such concern for eyewitness testimony, and that the earliest church leaders were chosen on such a basis, yet none of their testimony other than Paul's was preserved in the gospels or other sources (and that Acts is wrong in what it preserves about Paul) is absurd. These eyewitnesses were alive, traveled widely, and were in prominent places of leadership for several decades. The concept that they had as little influence on the early church as critics often suggest is implausible.

1 Corinthians 15 reflects some of the earliest beliefs of the early church. The earliest Christians thought of the physical resurrection of Christ as part of the foundation of their belief system. It would be unlikely that they wouldn't seek physical evidence of the event and preserve eyewitness testimony relevant to that evidence. The concept that such evidence was rarely or never sought, and that it wasn't preserved in the gospels or anywhere else, is more a result of what skeptics want to believe than it is a result of what the evidence suggests.

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