Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures . . .
he was buried . . .
he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures . . .
he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time. . . .
Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
Listed above is what scholars argue is the actual creedal tradition(s) Paul received, without Paul’s additional words and comments. This is a new discovery. Even New Testament scholar (and atheist) Gerd Lüdemann called this discovery “one of the great achievements of recent New Testament scholarship.” The early Church Fathers, medieval theologians, and reformers all knew, quoted, and commented on 1 Corinthians 15:3–7, yet it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that anyone realized it wasn’t originally composed by Paul, but was instead a creedal tradition Paul had received more than a decade before AD 49 or 50, when he planted the Corinthian church.
The two main reasons for this are found within the biblical text itself.
First is the way Paul introduces it with the words “delivered” and “received” (1 Cor. 15:3). When Paul planted the church in Corinth, he delivered certain traditions to the Corinthians that further illumined the gospel (cf. 1 Cor. 11:2) he himself had received. These included some teachings and stories about Jesus (1 Cor. 7:10; 9:14; 11:1; 2 Cor. 10:1), the account of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23–26), hymns (1 Cor. 8:6; 2 Cor. 8:9), and this creedal tradition on Jesus’s death, burial, resurrection, and appearances (1 Cor. 15:3–7).
The second major reason is linguistic. Paul uses words and phrases here that he uses nowhere else. Phrases such as “died for our sins,” “in accordance with the Scriptures,” “he was buried,” “he was raised,” “on the third day,” “he appeared,” and “the twelve” are either only used here, or, if used elsewhere, are likewise influenced by tradition.
These considerations have persuaded virtually all scholars that 1 Corinthians 15:3–7 is a pre-Pauline creedal tradition. It dates before Paul’s earliest letters. But how early?
When and Where Did Paul Receive This Tradition?
When you survey the literature, scholars from all different backgrounds and faiths (or no faith) are virtually unanimous that this creedal tradition dates, on average, to within five years of Jesus’s death. A few argue for around a decade after Jesus’s death, some for within even a year. For instance, New Testament scholar James Dunn argues, “This tradition, we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’s death.”
Scholars from all different backgrounds . . . are virtually unanimous that this creedal tradition dates, on average, to within five years of Jesus’s death.
I believe that Dunn has the best estimate, and that only “months” after Jesus’s crucifixion were new converts learning and memorizing this creedal formula, possibly during the church-planting movement of the apostles and their disciples. It may have formed the foundation of an introductory catechesis for new converts. Further, 1 Corinthians 15:3–7 is the creedal summary and foundation for sermons in Acts (see Acts 10:39–40; 13:28–31) and the Passion narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Where, when, and from whom did Paul receive this pearl of great price? Scholars contend it was either soon after his conversion in Damascus (AD 34) or three years later in Jerusalem (AD 37), when he spent two weeks with Peter (Gal. 1:18) and also met with James, Jesus’s brother (Gal. 1:19). I favor the latter option. It makes the most sense of how he received information such as “[the risen Christ] appeared to Cephas . . . [and] to James” (1 Cor. 15:5, 7). New Testament scholar and agnostic Bart Ehrman agrees: “This visit is one of the most likely places where Paul learned all the received traditions that he refers to and even the received traditions that we otherwise suspect are in his writings that he does not name as such.”