Behind the Bible: Discovering early evidence for the resurrection

(Courtesy Llann We, Wikimedia Commons)

(Courtesy Llann We, Wikimedia Commons)

Gary Michuta

Gary Michuta

How many times have you seen cable programs that call into question the roots of Christianity? Usually, these programs try to gain viewers by attacking the basis for a recent religious holy day. At Christmas, they attack Christ’s divinity. At Easter, they attack the resurrection. But what most viewers don’t know is that nearly all of these seemingly new claims are really quite old and many of them have been discussed, debunked, and discarded by scholars in the field.

One common charge is that the data found in the New Testament was written too long after the fact to be reliable. Therefore, the claim of Christ’s resurrection, for example, is more of a pious hope than a historical fact. But is this so? How should a Catholic respond to this claim?

There are several solid responses, but one of the most fascinating can be found by looking deeper into the historical background of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, in which St. Paul recounts for the Church in Corinth a list of eyewitnesses to the risen Christ.

1 Corinthian 15:3-8 reads: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Kephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me.”

How early is this testimony? Most scholars (Catholic, Protestant, and secular) date 1 Corinthians quite early, roughly A.D. 53-57. If the generally acknowledged date of Christ’s resurrection is A.D. 30, then Paul’s list of eyewitnesses would be only 23 to 27 years removed from the actual event. This is a remarkably short period of time, especially in comparison to pagan histories that were written decades — or even centuries — later. Indeed, 1 Corinthians was written so close to the resurrection that in verse 5, Paul mentions that most of the five hundred who saw the risen Christ were still alive!

But there is more to the story. Paul stated that this list of eyewitnesses is something that he had received (1 Corinthian 15:3). Where did he receive it? Scholars generally agree that Paul must have received this information when he “conferred” with St. Peter for 15 days in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18). The Greek word translated “confer” is historeo, which means “to investigate” or “to acquire knowledge.” Ancient historians used to sit at the outskirts of a city so that they could historeo with explorers upon their return. Similarly, Paul conferred with Peter for 15 days learning about Our Lord and the events that had transpired. When did this meeting occur? Scholars date around A.D. 35, which places St. Paul’s list within five years of the resurrection.

If we stopped here, we would have more than ample grounds to dismiss any suggestion that our information about Christ’s resurrection is too late. But there is more. If we dig a little deeper, we find something even more surprising. Scholars also note that this passage has a special form and structure, what is commonly called a literary form.

You may have noticed that Paul’s list is punctuated by the word “that” or “after that” like bullet points:

that Christ died…”

that he was buried.”

that he was raised on the third day…”

that he appeared to Kephas….”

After that, he appeared to more than five hundred…”

After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles…”

Scholars call this literary form a creedal statement, which makes it conducive to recitation and memorization. But it takes time for information to become formalized. If St. Paul received this information in its current state, it would mean that the list pre-dates our A.D. 35 date by a least a few years, which would bring the date within a year or two of Christ’s resurrection. Such a short span of time should be more than sufficient to satisfy the most skeptical critic.


Gary Michuta is a professional author, speaker and apologist and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.