In I Corinthians 15:3–8, Paul records a list of witnesses to Jesus’ post-mortem appearances:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.”
In this passage, Paul provides a chronologically ordered, yet non-exhaustive, list of Jesus’ appearances.1 Other New Testament passages (Matt. 28:9–10; John 20:11–18) record eyewitness accounts of various women who saw Jesus. However, Paul most likely excludes them “because women were not qualified to be legal witnesses, and therefore their presence in the list would be worthless, or even counter-productive.”2 Nonetheless, the importance of this one biblical text cannot be overstated. This particular listing presents crucial eyewitness evidence of a risen Jesus that is historically reliable and corroborated in other non-Pauline sources.
Several significant conclusions can be drawn regarding Paul’s testimony that point to its authority and historical reliability. First, there is almost no question among scholars that Paul wrote I Corinthians.3 Even in the most skeptical scholarly circles, this conclusion is almost unquestioned.
Second, in I Corinthians 15:3ff, Paul records an early creed that pre-dates the writing of the epistle. According to Gary Habermas, an eminent scholar on the historicity of the resurrection,4 “numerous evidences indicate that this report is much earlier than the date of the book in which it appears.”5 One is justified in this conclusion on the basis of several reasons. First, “the technical terms delivered and received traditionally indicate the imparting of oral tradition” (cf. I Cor. 11:2).6 In this custom, also referred to as “traditioning,” the “Jewish teachers would pass on their teachings to their students, who would in turn pass them on to their own students.”7 Thus, Paul is recording material that he had previously received from others.
Furthermore, there is good reason to think that Paul received this material from Peter approximately three years after Paul’s conversion. In Galatians 1:18–20, Paul records his visit to Peter and James, both of whom are listed as eyewitnesses in I Corinthians 15. In this account, Paul uses the Greek word historeo, signifying that his visit was of an investigative nature. What was the primary subject of Paul’s inquiry? “The immediate context suggests that the chief topic of conversation concerned the nature of the gospel (Gal. 1:11–16), which included reference to Jesus’ resurrection” (I Cor. 15:1–4).8 For this reason, most scholars ascribe an early date to this creed and agree that Paul received the material from two to eight years after the crucifixion of Jesus, between A.D. 32-38.9
This brief examination of I Corinthians 15:3ff is quite significant. Habermas summarizes the value of this data: “In the pre-Pauline formula of I Corinthians 15:3ff. alone we have an extraordinarily early tradition, arising within a very short time after the events themselves, reported by an apostle, who could very well have received it from other apostles who followed Jesus during his earthly ministry.”10
Therefore, the majority of scholars conclude that the material contained in I Corinthians 15:3ff supports the historicity and authority of Paul’s testimony. As German historian Hans von Campenhausen states, “This account meets all the demands of historical reliability that could possibly be made of such a text.”11 Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide adds that this creed “may be considered as a statement of eyewitnesses.”12 As a result, this passage is an invaluable report of early eyewitness testimony to the actual appearances of a physically resurrected Jesus.