Do We Have Solid Historical Evidence About Jesus?

The creedal material that Paul presents in 1 Corinthians 15 is probably the heart of contemporary discussions concerning the historical Paul. And of course, they have a great bearing on the historical Jesus.

If we can imagine about a 25-year timeline beginning with the cross—30ish AD, ending with the writing of 1 Corinthians—55 to 57 AD, you’ve got about 25 years there. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, “I gave you this gospel when I came”—that’s about 51 AD. We’ve cut it down to 20 years. And then he outlines it in 1 Corinthians 15:3, and he said, “I delivered unto you that which I also received.” And the typical view is, Paul ascertained this material in Jerusalem with Peter, with James the brother of Jesus, from Galatians 1:18, about 35 AD. And of course, if we’re only five years from the cross when Paul visits Jerusalem, then somebody had it before he did. 

And we can spend a couple moments chatting about this, but one important question is, “How do we know Paul is not the originator of Christianity?” Paul says at the most important point, 1 Corinthians 15:3 says, “This is of first importance.” He says, “The center of my proclamation.” And then he says, “It didn’t come from me.” “As of first importance, the center of my proclamation, I gave you what I received.” And if he received it in Jerusalem from Peter and James, not only is this not Paul’s material, but it came from two of the important proclaimers in the early Church: Peter and James the brother of Jesus.

Now, is what Paul said true? Does it line up with the facts? Well, when you take a look at 1 Corinthians 15:3, we find out that it does. And if there’s any conclusion that’s virtually unanimous in New Testament scholarship it’s this: that creedal statement, the tradition that Paul is passing on, the confession if you will, that Paul is passing on, the catechism that Paul said he received from somebody else, it begins in verse 3 and it goes down some think as far as verse 5, some think as far as verse 7. 

But here’s the point. There are a number of indications that this is not Paul’s proclamation. There are a number of indications of exactly what he says—this is why we take Paul at face value—he got it from somebody else. How do you know? There are non-Pauline words there. Paul never again says, “On the third day.” This is his proclamation in that he is given it, but not his proclamation as far as “he made this up.” He’s passing on tradition. There are non-Pauline words. Peter is called Cephas, and Joachim Jeremias, the German New Testament scholar, argued that there’s perhaps an Aramaic original here, which means it really predates Paul.

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