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#186 The Witness of the Pre-Pauline Tradition to the Empty Tomb

November 08, 2010

Dr. Craig,

I have a few questions regarding some of your arguments in your article "The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus". My questions center around your claims that we can establish that Paul believed and knew about the empty tomb.

First off, you discuss the formula that Paul uses in 1 Cor. 15:3-5, and you claim that it is a very old Christian formula that Paul probably received on his visit to Jerusalem following his conversion. Therefore, you say that this formula can probably be dated back to within five years of Christ's death. You base your belief that this formula is an old Christian tradition on its "Semitic and non-Pauline characteristics" and on Paul's claim that this gospel formula is something that he received.

However, in Paul's epistle to the Galatian (3.11-12, 15-18) he says, "But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ... But when it pleased God who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, To reveal his Son in me that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood; Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter..."

Paul seems to claim that he didn't receive the gospel which he preached and specifically outlined in 1 Cor. 15:3-5 from man, but from God in some special revelation. Therefore, how do you reconcile your belief that Paul received and consequently preached the old Christian formula of 1 Cor. 15:3-5 with what Paul says in Galatians 3? In addition, what are the Semitic and non-Pauline characteristics that are exhibited in 1 Cor. 15:3-5?

Lastly, you conclude that Paul's claim that Christ rose "on the third day" is indicative of a physical resurrection and consequently an empty tomb. You say that colloquial usage of the phrase "on the third day" in the formula and within Christian writings is probably "a time indicator for the events of Easter, including the empty tomb, employing the language of the Old Testament concerning God's acts of deliverance and victory on the third day, perhaps with texts like Jonah 2. 11and Hos 6. 2 especially in mind." However, it seems to me that the dating of the resurrection on the third day could also just as easily have been the result of Christ appearing to the disciples (not even necessarily on the third day) and their remembrance numerous claims that He would rise on the third day (e.g. Matt. 12.39-40; 16.21; 17.22-23; 20.17-19; 27.63, etc.). How do you know that the development of the phrase "on the third day" was not the result of many predictions to His disciples and others that He would rise on the third day? Sorry for the long question. I've just been studying your arguments for the resurrection, and these are some questions that I can't seem to resolve.


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Dr. craig’s response


The evidence that Paul is not writing in his own hand in I Cor. 15.3-5 is so powerful that all New Testament scholars recognize that Paul is here passing on a prior tradition. In addition to the fact that Paul explicitly says as much, the passage is replete with non-Pauline characteristics, including, in order of appearance: (i) the phrase “for our sins” using the genitive case and plural noun is unusual for Paul; (ii) the phrase “according to the Scriptures” is unparalleled in Paul, who introduces Scriptural citations by “as it is written”; (iii) the perfect passive verb “has been raised” appears only in this chapter and in a pre-Pauline confessional formula in II Tim. 2.8; (iv) the phrase “on the third day” with its ordinal number following the noun in Greek is non-Pauline; (v) the word “appeared” is found only here and in the confessional formula in I Tim. 3.16; and (vi) “the Twelve” is not Paul’s nomenclature, for he always speaks of the twelve disciples as “the apostles.”

Now the visit during which Paul may have received this tradition is the visit you mention three years after his conversion on the road to Damascus (Gal. 1.18). This puts the tradition back to within the first five years after Jesus’ death in AD 30. So there’s not even an apparent inconsistency with Paul’s appropriating the language of the formula to encapsulate the Gospel he was already preaching during those first three years in Damascus.

The only way there would be even an apparent tension would be if Paul received the tradition while in Damascus at the very beginning. In that case, in light of the evidence, we’d have to say that Paul is putting his own “spin” on things to the Galatians to his own advantage.

But does Paul’s statement in Gal. 1.11-12 imply that he received no oral tradition like I Cor. 15.3-5 while in Damascus? I think not. “His” Gospel, of which Paul was so proud, was the Gospel of God’s grace freely bestowed on Jew and Gentile alike without discrimination. It was this Gospel that he later laid before the Jerusalem apostles to make sure that he was not running in vain (Gal. 2:2). But they were happy for Paul to take the Gospel to the Gentiles as they had to Jews. Paul’s receiving this insight into the Gospel by direct revelation is not at all inconsistent with his learning the basic events of Christ’s passion rehearsed in the early formula. Indeed, since he had been a persecutor of the early church, he was probably familiar with the basic events already as a non-Christian.

As for the “third day” motif, it is more probable that this is tied to the empty tomb tradition than to the appearance traditions. The phrase appears in the third line of the formula, which is a summary of the empty tomb narrative (see comparative chart in The Son Rises, pp. 49-50). It seems to be a theologically loaded rendering of the phrase “the first day of the week,” which is used in the empty tomb narrative. Notice, too, that the third day is always associated with the event of Jesus’ rising from the dead, never with the appearances.

The problem with reading the third day motif off Jesus’ resurrection predictions alone rather than as a time indicator of when the tomb was discovered empty is that the prophecies are not as strongly attested historically as the empty tomb itself. Indeed, they’re often regarded as having been written after the fact. So if you accept their authenticity, there’s no basis remaining for the even more strongly attested fact of the empty tomb. If the early proclaimers of Jesus’ resurrection chose to adopt the language of his prophecies, that was because the tomb had, in fact, been discovered empty on the first day of the week, the third day after Christ’s crucifixion.

- William Lane Craig