Each week as Christians meet we remember Christ’s resurrection and victory over death. Annually we remember that at the time of Passover Jesus became the sacrificial Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) But without the resurrection, the sacrifice would be meaningless. As Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised your faith is worthless” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Our faith is not worthless, because Christ’s resurrection conquered sin and death.
How do we know that is true? Some unbelievers argue that the resurrection is just a myth that arose many years later. The evidence against that idea is numerous and strong. The apostles carried the message of Christ’s resurrection to the ends of the Roman Empire for the rest of their lives. That was even though they had nothing to gain except a life of persecution ending in execution. If they had not seen the resurrected Christ, they would not have spent their lives proclaiming the message of the resurrection.
The argument that the gospels were written years later has often been used to “prove” that the resurrection was a myth that developed during those years. However, Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth in A.D. 57, before any of the four gospels were written. In it, he included an oral tradition which gives a summary of the gospel message.
Today we have access to writing materials, books, and computers. We are accustomed to writing things down. In the first century, there were no computers or printed books or pamphlets. Even simple writing materials were scarce and precious. People memorized important things by summarizing them efficiently and then passing them on as oral traditions. The early Christians used that method. Here is the first part of an oral tradition that Paul wrote down in that first letter to the church in Corinth:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to…”
The oral tradition then goes on to list some resurrection appearances of Christ. Then Paul adds himself to the list of those who saw the resurrected Christ. (You can read it for yourself in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.) Of course, the “Scriptures” that Paul refers to are the Old Testament prophecies of Christ since the New Testament was not yet written.
When did Paul receive this tradition? He probably received it no later than A.D. 36 when he first visited Jerusalem. (See Galatians 1:15-18.) It is possible that he received it earlier than that in Damascus when, as Saul the persecutor, he encountered Ananias and received his sight. Ananias preached the gospel to him and “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.” Whether in Jerusalem or Damascus, Paul received the oral tradition of Christ’s resurrection no more than five years after the event. That tradition was not a myth that developed years later after the eyewitnesses had died.
As we celebrate Christ’s resurrection each week and especially at this time of year, we can trust the story is true. We have that oral tradition written down, but we would do well to memorize it as the early Christians did.
— Roland Earnst © 2019