Doctrine of Christ (Part 26)

October 05, 2017

Discussion of the Tradition Found in 1 Corinthians 15

We have been discussing the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians which is Paul's treatise on the resurrection of Jesus. We come now to discussing the structure and the content of the tradition that Paul handed on. Let's read again this tradition that Paul himself received from those in Christ before him and which he then passed onto his converts in Corinth – 1 Corinthians 15:3-5.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received [and now comes this four-line formula], 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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

Notice that this formula has a structure of four lines which are parallel to each other. The first and third lines are parallel; the second and fourth lines are parallel to each other. Nevertheless, each of the lines begins with, in the Greek, the words kai oti – that is to say “and that.” Often these are omitted in English translations but they are there in the Greek - that Christ died, and that he was buried, and that he rose, and that he appeared. This grammatically unnecessary enumeration of the events serves to show that each line is a separate fact, equally important, and equally emphasized. It orders them, as it were, first, second, third, and fourth so that these are the central facts of the passion of Christ as we see from a comparison of this outline with the passion narrative in the Gospels.

Paul then begins to pile up additional witnesses in the ensuing verses. After saying he appeared to Cephas then to the Twelve, there seems to come a break here. That seems to be the end of the formula. But then Paul adds more witnesses that he is aware of. He says, “then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” What Paul is enumerating here are the witnesses to the risen Lord. This is not a list of appearances. It is a list of witnesses. That is to say, there could have been multiple appearances to some of these people, like the Twelve disciples. In the Gospels, we have several appearances to the Twelve narrated. Similarly, there is no appearance listed here to the women. We know in the Gospels that Jesus appeared to women. Why are they omitted from the list? Because in first century Palestine their credibility as witnesses was not recognized. Women were not thought to be credible witnesses who could bear testimony, and therefore they are quietly omitted from the list. What Paul is listing here is not the appearances of the risen Christ; he is listing the principal witnesses who saw Christ risen from the dead.

Let's go through the list as well as the additional witnesses that Paul adds.

First is Cephas. This is Simon Peter – Jesus' chief disciple. This same appearance is also mentioned in Luke 24:33-34. We won't read that now. We will look again at these appearances in more detail later, but I want to just alert you to the fact that some of these are attested elsewhere. So the appearance to Peter is attested also by Luke.

The next appearance is to the Twelve which refers to this group of original disciples that Jesus had selected to follow him and included originally Judas though he betrayed Christ and then fell away.[1] This appearance is also mentioned in Luke 24:36-43 as well as John 20:19-20. This is the appearance on Easter evening in the upper room in Jerusalem.

Then Paul says Christ appeared to more than five hundred people at one time. We have no other reference to this appearance anywhere in the New Testament. So scholars have simply been left to speculate as to whether it might not be identified with one of the other resurrection appearances that is mentioned. This is the only place that it is mentioned explicitly in the New Testament.

Then comes the appearance to James. This is also unique to Paul's letter. It is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, but you will recall that when Paul visited Jerusalem in AD 36 (three years after his conversion on the Damascus Road) he said the two apostles that he spoke with were Peter and James, the Lord's brother. This is doubtless a reference to Jesus' younger brother James. We know from the Gospels that James was not a follower of Christ during Jesus' lifetime. John 7:1-10 relates a very ugly story of how Jesus' younger brothers tried to goad him into a death trap by getting him to go up to Jerusalem when they knew that the authorities were seeking Jesus' death. John, as well as Mark, says that none of his brothers believed in him. Yet, when you read the book of Acts from Acts 1:14 on through the rest of the narrative James is a believer. He is one of the three principal pillars of the Jerusalem church. Eventually he becomes the sole elder and sole leader of the mother church in Jerusalem. This appearance to James that is mentioned by Paul seems to have been the pivotal event in Jesus' younger brother's life that changed him from a skeptic and unbeliever to being an ardent follower of Jesus.

Then Paul says he appeared to all the apostles. This is probably not a reference to the Twelve since they've been mentioned already but to a wider group of missionaries. Apostle means a person who was sent out and could include people, for example, like Barnabas as well as the original Twelve. For the existence of such a group, look at Acts 1:21-22. It refers to those who from the beginning were followers of Jesus from the time of his baptism by John the Baptist up through his resurrection. It is from that wider group that a replacement for Judas is selected. We have here a reference to all of the early apostles that Paul knows about.

Finally, Paul gives us his firsthand encounter with Christ. He says, “then he appeared also to me.” We have a narrative of this event in Acts 9. In Acts 9:1-19 we have an account of Jesus' appearance to Paul on the Road to Damascus. This is then repeated twice more in the book of Acts.

This is the content of the tradition that Paul is delivering to the Corinthians that includes these resurrection witnesses to Jesus alive after his death.

The purpose of enumerating these witnesses, or piling them up, is to give evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. As we will see, this is going to play a key role in Paul's refutation of the Corinthian heresy which says that there is no such thing as a resurrection of the dead. So Paul wants to pile up the witnesses here. He is giving a historical proof by the standards of his time by enumerating the witnesses who had seen Jesus risen from the dead.


Student: We all know the account that Paul encountered Jesus.[2] It was not a physical Jesus. It is a spiritual understanding and communication that other people could not validate except some sounds.

Dr. Craig: And so with what right does Paul put himself in the list of witnesses – is that the implication?

Student: Right. I was wondering whether the resurrection is in that order? That these disciples and apostles had this encounter which I do not deny the reality of their hearing sound or seeing Christ, but yet it is not for everybody to validate.

Dr. Craig: OK. You are raising an issue that is right at the center of discussions of the resurrection and Paul's discourse here. In putting himself in this list of witnesses, is Paul sort of special pleading for himself by saying, I saw Christ risen from the dead, even though (as you characterized it) what he really had was just a sort of subjective vision that nobody else experienced? Or is he implying, as you seemed to suggest, that the other appearances were just as subjective as his own – that they were not in fact bodily, physical appearances? We will talk about this more when we get to the question of the nature of the resurrection body which is the second part of this chapter. But let me say by way of preview, when you read the Corinthian correspondence there were people in Corinth who had been influenced by these sort of super-apostles (as Paul calls them) who denied Paul's apostleship. They said that Paul wasn't a real apostle – he was a sort of second-rate guy. So Paul has every incentive to include himself in this list of eyewitnesses. He wants to show that he is a real apostle; that he, too, has seen Jesus, the Lord, and therefore he deserves to be in this list. However, I don't think that this means that Paul is misrepresenting his experience. Paul's experience, unlike all of the others that he names in the list, was unique in that it was a post-ascension encounter. The other appearances all happened prior to Jesus' ascension into heaven and that was the terminus. But Paul's encounter on the Damascus Road was a post-ascension encounter with Jesus which made it unusual. It was still not the same thing as a subjective vision of Jesus. Here I think it is very instructive to compare Stephen's vision of Jesus in Acts 7 with Paul's encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road in Acts 9. Stephen, when he was stoned, saw the Son of Man glorified in heaven. No one else saw or heard anything. Those standing around saw nothing. They rushed upon him and stoned him to death. What Stephen saw was a subjective vision of Jesus ascended into heaven. He didn't see Jesus risen from the dead in space and time there in front of him. By contrast, Paul's encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road was not a heavenly vision. It had extra-mental accompaniments – namely, the light and the voice which Paul's traveling companions also experienced. They did not receive a message as Paul did, but it says they heard the voice and they saw the light. So Paul's encounter, though quasi- or semi-visionary in character in that it was a post-ascension encounter, was nevertheless a real resurrection appearance because it took place in the external world, not just in Paul's mind. There were these extra-mental manifestations of the light and the voice that Paul's traveling companions also experienced. I think that Paul can in good conscience include himself in a list of witnesses to the risen Christ because his experience was qualitatively different from that of visions of Jesus, such as Stephen experienced and that Paul himself experienced on other occasions. I think that Paul hints at that when he says, “as to one untimely born he appeared also to me.”[3] Paul recognized that his experience was out of joint chronologically so to speak with the others, but nevertheless it was a real appearance of Jesus and not just a subjective vision which were experiences that Paul was also familiar with and could differentiate from a resurrection appearance. We will talk about that more later on, but for now I wanted to address it.

Student: I was wondering about chapter 1 of Acts. If that is actually a reference to the five hundred witnesses. I don’t want to read the whole thing – you’d have to read the whole chapter. But basically if you look at the ascension, in verse 11 it says “men of Galilee.” It is capitalized, so it is a proper noun. Is this a larger group then just the twelve apostles? Because then you go on again – they travel back to the upper room. Verse 15 says, Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren, a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons were there together.

Dr. Craig: It is possible. Again, we can only conjecture. I tend to think of these appearances that you are talking about here in Jerusalem with the one hundred and twenty and those who were with them to be perhaps identified with the appearance to all the apostles – when he says, “then he appeared to all the apostles.” That seems to me to be more plausibly identified with this group you are referring to. But there is no way to know for certain. It could well be what you said.

Student: This might fall into the same kind of . . . it is just not super clear but it could be a suggestion. At the end of Matthew 28 – so you already know what I’m taking about?

Dr. Craig: Yes, go ahead though.

Student: It talks about . . .

Dr. Craig: This is the mountaintop appearance in the final chapter of Matthew.

Student: Right. Going back to verse 8, it talks about that they departed from the tomb and they ran to tell the disciples the news. But the disciples there – we are not sure how many that is. That could have been hundreds of people or it could have been just a handful. But then Jesus meets them, they worship him, then he says, Go on and go to Galilee where you will see me there. Then they have the scheme to say the body was stolen in the night. Then they travel to Galilee – in verse 16 – to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. When they saw him they worshiped him, and he gives them the Great Commission. I like thinking that the mountain where he had directed them was maybe the Mount of Olives, and there was maybe hundreds of people there, and that he gives the Great Commission, his last big statement, his marching orders to his whole army of disciples at that point. But of course it is not clear and doesn’t say it.

Dr. Craig: Not clear but certainly possible. It was in Galilee that five thousand people gathered to hear Jesus preach. Remember on the hills and he fed the five thousand. In Mark, four thousand men plus women and children had gathered to hear Jesus. Is it possible that this could have been a gathering of five hundred disciples? Interestingly enough is the phrase that you didn’t mention in verse 17 – they worshiped him but some doubted. That wouldn’t seem appropriate for the Twelve – would it? – if they were the only ones that were there. Could they have been part of this wider group that had gathered? Again, I think that is a real possibility.


Now we turn to the second half of this first part of the chapter on Christ’s resurrection as evidence of our resurrection. This is in verses 12-34. Let’s read these verses together. 1 Corinthians 15:12-34:

Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.[4] For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “For God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one.

Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? Why am I in peril every hour? I protest, brethren, by my pride in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.

What is Paul’s basic argument in this section? He is not citing the resurrection appearances as merely some sort of apostolic legitimization of himself. Rather, Paul is presenting an argument here against the Corinthian heresy. It is basically a three-step argument. It goes like this:

  1. If the dead are not raised then Christ has not been raised.
  2. But Christ has been raised.
  3. Therefore the dead are raised.

This is a wonderful example in Paul’s letters of the use of a simple logical syllogism to argue against the Corinthian heresy. If, as the Corinthians said, the dead are not raised then it follows that Christ hasn’t been raised from the dead. But, he says, Christ has been raised from the dead, from which it follows that therefore the dead are raised. Simple logic. The citation of the witnesses to the appearances of Christ constitutes the evidence for premise (2). That is why Paul lists the witnesses – keeps piling them up – because he wants to show that this second premise is true. This premise appears in verse 20. Verses 12 and 13 says “if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised.” That is premise (1). Then premise (2) is in verse 20, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,” from which it follows therefore the dead are raised. The Corinthian heretics are in error.

What Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 15 is refuting the Corinthian heresy by means of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection – presenting a simple logical argument. In the course of this argument he also explores what consequences there would be if Christ has not been raised. These are mentioned in verses 13-19 and verses 29-32.[5] In 13-19 he says that, If Christ has not been raised then your faith is in vain, our preaching is in vain, we apostles are even found to be misrepresenting God – lying about God because we said he raised Jesus from the dead. Those who have fallen asleep in Christ have just ceased to exist. There is no hope of ever seeing your loved ones again. They are dead and gone. Then in verses 29-32 he talks about this peculiar practice – again we don’t know what was going on in Corinth – people being baptized on behalf of the dead. But he points out that practice doesn’t make any sense if the dead aren’t raised. Also Paul’s apostolic sufferings – he was persecuted as an apostle, beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, under constant harassment for his life and pressured – he says, Why do all these things if the dead are not raised? There are huge consequences if Christ has not been raised as premise (2) states.

Finally, the third question that Paul deals with in the course of this passage is the scenario of the last things. What is going to happen at the end? This is addressed in verses 22-28 where he says that the last enemy to be destroyed will be death, the dead will be raised eventually, there will be the end time resurrection, all things will be put into subjection to Christ, he will be on the throne, and then Christ himself will be subjected to God the Father so that God becomes everything to everyone. Christ's resurrection is the forerunner – it is the harbinger – of our own resurrection at the end of human history. In Christ's resurrection we have the first fruits, he says, of the harvest – a representative sample of the harvest that will come. In Jesus' resurrection, the resurrection so to speak has already taken place in advance in Messiah Jesus. That is, Paul says, the foundation for our confidence and hope that someday we too will rise from the dead and that therefore these disastrous consequences that he lists will not in fact ensue.


Student: In the last part where it says until everything is subjugated, restored all authority, put everything under him, how does that relate to Acts where it says, Heaven must receive him until it is accomplished? I think it has more meaning in that interpretation than the fact that he finished the payment at the cross – that Adam was fully restored.

Dr. Craig: I have not tried to relate it to that passage in Acts that you refer to. It seems to me that what it is talking about here is a kind of submission to the authority of the Father. During his earthly ministry Jesus did the Father's bidding. Ultimately, when everything has been put under Christ's feet – under his authority, under his throne – then Christ himself will deliver this Kingdom to God and say to God the Father, This is your Kingdom and will be under submission of God the Father himself. That is the way I understand it.

Student: My understanding of this is this is a modus tollens form of an argument – not-B, therefore not-A.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's right! This is so funny for those who deride the use of logic in theology because what you've got here is, as you say, a very simple argument. Paul says, not-P implies not-Q, but Q, therefore P, which is, as you say, modus tollens.

Student: I think it is really cool that Paul articulates that argument in that way. It is completely logically sound. The question I would ask about it is: it seems to me that the crux of the argument would rely on the first statement being completely sound and not exclusive. I wanted to ask you if anybody has debated that? Did they say there actually could be situations where the first statement isn't correct?[6]

Dr. Craig: The part of the problem is we don't really know what these Corinthian heretics believed. It is hard to imagine that they could have been Christians and denied that Jesus was risen from the dead. Did they believe in Christ's resurrection but then said there isn't going to be anybody else rise from the dead at the end of history? We just don't know. But Paul is assuming here that any reservations they would have about the resurrection of the dead at the end of human history would apply to Christ as well. We will see when we get to the second half of the chapter that they seem to be repulsed or revolted at the idea of the materiality of the resurrection. They didn't want to have this earthly body with all its grossness resurrected and brought back to life again. But I think Paul would quite rightly say, But that is exactly what happened to Jesus. This was not some spiritual resurrection from the dead. Christ rose physically and bodily from the dead and so he would be right in saying that if the dead are not raised then Christ wouldn't be raised either because the same objections would apply.

Student: And we haven't heard of any other groups that objected to that other than potentially the Corinthians?

Dr. Craig: I am not aware of any, but there probably are some because every heresy under the sun finds some exponents some place.


[1] 5:01

[2] 10:04

[3] 15:04

[4] 20:05

[5] 25:00

[6] 30:00

[7] Total Running Time: 32:11 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)