Dating the Corinthian Creed

I’m so frequently asked this that I need to publish a general answer everyone can refer to. It usually amounts to something like this:

I keep hearing Christian apologists insisting the Corinthian Creed (1 Cor. 15:3-8) can be reliably dated to the 30s A.D., just years or even months after Jesus died. Can you direct me to a solid refutation of that claim?

The answer is no. Because there is no refutation of this claim—other than “maybe possibly it originated later,” which is the logical fallacy of possibiliter ergo probabiliter (“it’s possible, therefore it’s probable,” see Proving History, index). In fact the evidence for this creed dating to the very origin of the religion is amply strong; and there is no reasonable basis for claiming otherwise.

Yes, maybe Paul’s letters are a forgery. But that’s very unlikely. Yes, Paul added at least one line (verse 8, appending his own conversion years later to the original). But the first three lines certainly are original components of the sect’s founding creed (written in non-Pauline style). Yes, the text may have become corrupted (I suspect verse 6 originally said something like, “then he appeared to all the brethren together at the Pentecost” and not “then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at once”; and verse 7 looks like a post-Pauline scribal addition, as it breaks the logic of the sequence and is too redundant, just repeating the same information already conveyed in verses 5 and 6, since everyone who saw Jesus was already an apostle and James the pillar was already one of the twelve: see Empty Tomb, pp. 192-93). But the essential elements of the creed (especially verses 3 to 5), even if we have to account for some transmission error (in verses 6 and 7), still dates to the sect’s origin. It’s what distinguishes Christianity from any other sect of Judaism. So it’s the only thing Peter (Cephas) and the other pillars (James and John) could have been preaching before Paul joined the religion. And Paul joined it within years of its founding (internal evidence in Paul’s letters places his conversion before 37 A.D., and he attests in Galatians 1 that he was preaching the Corinthian creed immediately thereupon: OHJ, pp. 139, 516, 536, 558).

The way Paul writes about the sect makes clear he believed this was the creed Christians were preaching before his conversion; and he claims that the original apostles confirmed this to him years later, and he could hardly have been making that up, as then he’d have been exposed the moment anyone checked this with them. So the Corinthian Creed, at least verses 3-5, definitely existed and was the central “gospel” Christians were preaching in the early 30s A.D. That’s definitely no later than a few years after the purported death of Jesus. And since the sect’s formation only makes sense in light of this being its seminal and distinguishing message, it must have been formulated in the very first weeks of the movement. We can’t be certain how soon that actually was after the death of Jesus (though the creed says Jesus was raised on the third day, it conspicuously does not say how much later it was when he appeared). But it can’t have been more than a few years, and could well have been mere months (though one can’t then assert that it was mere months; that would be another possibiliter fallacy).

Comparing Cases

For the evidence, arguments, and quotations of even liberal scholars concurring, see BeliefMap. More arguments come from Evangelicals who get some things wrong, but not everything. In that link, they count four arguments as five (though the one argument they repeat twice, about the creed being un-Pauline, is correct), and repeat dubious apologetic tropes, e.g. in introducing the creed, Paul is not using the language of Rabbinical transmission, but his own language for revelation (cf. OHJ, p. 139), and Paul is actually adamantly denying in Galatians 1 that he learned the creed from the apostles before him, though he does attest there that his “revealed” creed was the one they had been preaching before him—as one could expect he’d know, since he persecuted Christians and obviously knew what their creed was, despite his need to insist he didn’t learn it that way (OHJ, pp. 536-37).

By contrast, arguments that the whole creed was interpolated (e.g. Price makes the best attempt in The Empty Tomb, pp. 69-104) are just built on possibiliter fallacies, and aren’t being evaluated in comparison with alternative hypotheses, e.g. that verse 7 doesn’t fit actually argues for the creed not being an interpolation, and for verse 7 being an interpolation, since if the whole thing were, it would be coherent. Or they rest on false claims. For example, Bob Seidensticker bases his case for interpolation on the false claim that we ‘know’ the scripture this creed references is the book of Jonah. Actually, experts most typically conclude it’s Hosea 6:2. But even that incorrectly assumes the scriptures we have now are exactly the ones the Christians were using, when in fact we know they aren’t: OHJ, pp. 88-92. Likewise Seidensticker says Paul doesn’t talk about the atoning death of Jesus elsewhere, which is wildly false; or that Paul can’t have written that Jesus appeared to “the twelve” because there were only eleven, Judas having died. In fact, the atoning death concept is ubiquitously present throughout Paul’s theology (OHJ, pp. 92-93, 143-45); and the Judas story is a late invention, unknown to the earliest Christians (Proving History, pp. 151-55; OHJ, pp. 312, 314, 453n132, 560-61), whereas it’s an interpolator who would be more likely to have said “the eleven.”

An Early Creed? Not Really All That Useful

Now, all that said, that doesn’t save the day for resurrection apologetics. Though verses 3-5 are likely original to the very dawn of the sect, verses 6 and 7 remain questionable, and yet apologists desperately need verse 6 to have been in the original. Because it’s the only mass appearance listed in the creed. In fact the other appearances, e.g. to “the twelve” in verse 5, conspicuously don’t say they occurred “all at once”; the only one Paul says occurred like that is this one. The others are all brief, isolated appearances, which matches incidental visions, and not a bodily Jesus hanging around for days on end.

Note, though, that Paul doesn’t say what the appearance consisted of, not even this one collective experience (just a light in the sky, like in Acts 9? an ecstatic trance, like in Acts 2?). And if he did write that line, and it hasn’t been corrupted as I suspect it has (already two if’s, and in ET I present evidence for this—it’s not just a conjectured possibility), it doesn’t match the structure of the rest of the creed. So it looks like an addition to it (the more so as it includes Paul’s own historical note, about some having died, which certainly was not in the original). Here, the Evangelical argument from structure and language turns against them, since those same arguments make this verse more likely not part of the original, by the same reasoning used to establish verses 3-5 as original.

Likewise verse 7, as I already noted above. Evidence suggests it wasn’t in the original; or not even written by Paul. We can’t know for sure. But it’s sufficiently suspect that you can’t hang a life decision on it. And even if authentic, it doesn’t say anything useful. It just says more people had visions. But do please also notice, dear Christian apologists, at no point is the James in 1 Cor. 15:7 identified as a brother of the Lord, or as anyone other than the Apostle James, who was the brother of John, not Jesus, and one of the three pillars who founded the sect; the other James Paul mentions in Galatians, Paul actually grammatically declares was not an Apostle (OHJ, pp. 588-91), and therefore cannot be the James he would be talking about in 1 Cor. 15:7 as among “all” the Apostles, and as having had a vision of Jesus, because that made one an Apostle (1 Cor. 9:1).

So, yes, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 is almost certainly a pre-Pauline text composed within a few years of when Jesus was believed to have died. But no, it is not therefore good evidence Jesus actually rose from the dead. It is, rather, evidence he didn’t. For someone who really rose from the dead would not be appearing on brief incidental isolated occasions, and only ever be seen by choice fanatics. This looks like an ecstatic experience, and not a reanimated corpse walking around—just like countless other spates of visions in countless other religions (OHJ, pp. 124-37, 159-63). As I wrote in The Christian Delusion (pp. 308-09):

Only an ordinary explanation can easily explain why Jesus only appeared to die-hard believers, and then, much later, to only one of millions of outsiders across the entire planet. If God himself were really appearing to people, and really was on a compassionate mission to reform and save the world, there is hardly any credible reason he would appear to only one persecutor rather than to all of them. But if Paul’s experience was entirely natural and not at all divine, then we should expect such an event to be rare, possibly even unique—and, lo and behold, that appears to be the case.

Paul’s conversion thus supports the conclusion that Christianity originated from natural phenomena, and not from any encounter with a walking corpse. A walking corpse—indeed a flying corpse (Luke 24:51 and Acts 1:9–11) or a teleporting corpse (Luke 24:31–37 and John 20:19–26)—could have visited Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin, the masses of Jerusalem, the Roman legions, even the emperor and senate of Rome. He could even have flown to America (as the Mormons actually believe he did), and even China, preaching in all the temples and courts of Asia. In fact, being God, he could have appeared to everyone on earth. He could visit me right now. Or you! And yet, instead, besides his already fanatical followers, just one odd fellow ever saw him.

If Jesus was a god and really wanted to save the world, he would have appeared and delivered his Gospel personally to the whole world. He would not appear only to one small group of believers and one lone outsider, in one tiny place, just one time, two thousand years ago, and then give up.

8 comments

  1. I really appreciate your work and would love nothing more than for you to debate Blake Giunta concerning the resurrection. He is the epitome of Christian apologetic tap-dancing and question begging. Ironically, he claims to be a Bayesian; but insists that belief affects prior-probability. Am I completely off-base in questioning his assertion?

    Thanks again for your important work in this field of study.

    Reply
    1. I don’t know what he’s said on that, so I can’t know for sure, but it sounds like he is confusing belief with knowledge. Prior probability is conditional on background evidence, not background beliefs.

    2. Thanks. I asked in this post because he specifically cites the Corinthian Creed as strong evidence for the reliability of Peter’s sermon in Luke/Acts. And concerning Bayesian reasoning, he asserts that a supernatural cause (which he denies as an argument from incredulity) is the most likely explanation for the resurrection, given the natural options. Hence the question about prior probability.

      He also cites as evidence for his justification in the resurrection (argument from authority?) the claim that “all” major (he makes it a point to exclude you and a few others) New Testament scholars agree that the apostles “genuinely” believed what they were proclaiming. I’m not exactly sure how anyone could honestly know exactly what these people were actually thinking.

  2. Marc Miller August 11, 2016, 5:44 pm

    Paul likens the Corinthians to children in Christ… Could this creed be an “entry level creed” since early Christianity was a mystery religion?

    Reply
    1. Yes. That’s almost explicitly stated in Hebrews, though Paul did not write that (OHJ, p. 208n139 cf. pp. 108-14 & 565). It’s certainly the case, though, because when Paul refers to mysteries he has to be coy about, they are things not in the Corinthian Creed; and he refers to things even in Corinthians that he can’t write about because they aren’t of sufficient rank to hear them, which means obviously the Corinthian Creed wasn’t one of those higher level things. The Corinthian Creed itself may have been an entry-level mystery, and thus not even spoken in public at the time, just to penitents who joined a congregation. We don’t know for sure.

  3. Marc Miller August 13, 2016, 5:40 pm

    I’ve been wondering how Paul could have known Christian teachings deeply enough to have become a missionary.

    If he got his information from those Christians that he persecuted, he must have had lengthy ” conversations ” with them…

    Could Paul have been military officer?

    Reply
    1. There is no evidence of that. So it would just be speculation.

      It’s not impossible (it was one way to gain citizenship, as Acts claims he had, and thus also a Latin name, as Paul claims to have in his own Epistles), but the way Paul talks about his interaction with the congregations before conversion is clearly religious, not political. So even had he ever served in the army, he would not have been persecuting the church then. (IMO more likely his citizenship status, if genuinely the case, came from inheritance, not service.)

      Paul was not persecuting Christians for the Romans (there is no evidence the Romans ever cared about Christians at that early date), but for the Jewish authorities and for specifically Jewish reasons (e.g. Gal. 1:13-15; Phlp 3:6), so he would have been enforcing Jewish law, as Jews were permitted to do, under their treaty with Rome (only fellow Jews were subject to it, though, and only if they didn’t flee to the protection of a secular legal system they held citizenship in, although doing so might result in their banishment from or shunning in their local Jewish community, so pursuing them would still be persecution even if they avoided any other punishment).

      Paul never says he executed anyone, it’s worth pointing out. He never says what manner of persecution he inflicted on Christians. It may simply have been securing their expulsion from their communities, for example (as heretics under Jewish law, although it’s not clear what legally relevant heresy they were engaging in; Paul doesn’t tell us that, either).

      What Paul would have learned this way is also not clear. Certainly, heresy hunters obviously found out teachings that were heretical, so he knew something about what Christians were preaching, although it may have been false (looking at what Christians continued to be accused of for over a century, it was usually bogus things they weren’t guilty of). And we don’t know what their public kerygma was (as opposed to what initiates were taught; much less members of higher rank) or whether Paul had learned any of the mystery teachings or whether this “creed” was among them (or instead a part of the public proclamation).

      No matter what, though, it’s entirely possible he really learned this creed from human informants, and only pretended not to have. Or half-pretended, since he could “plausibly” claim to have learned it by revelation even if it was known he had also learned it by human sources; because only the revelatory source is validating and thus the only one relevant for him to emphasize, as long as he also learned it that way, he could say he “didn’t” learn it the other way, not in the sense of “not at all” but in the sense of “only”.

      I discuss some of the possibilities in OHJ, p. 536 and in Element 13 (pp. 108-14).

  4. Marc Miller August 15, 2016, 5:37 pm

    Thank you so much for the fantastic responses!!! I was thinking not so much of the Romans, but maybe a regional militia… I’m not sure how big a Jewish population there was in Tarsus ( If that’s really where Paul came from ), but the whole Jewish law thing makes a lot of sense! In any case, he was certainly one of the elites in his time… with such skill at composing letters.

    I can’t believe that nobody else is asking questions about probably our earliest window into Christianity!

    Keep up the great work Dr. Carrier!!!

    Reply

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