First, the creed – which is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:
3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,
8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Almost all historians accept this creed as dating back to within 5 years of the death of Jesus. But why?
Here’s an article about this early creed from ancient historian Gary Habermas.
(1) Contemporary critical scholars agree that the apostle Paul is the primary witness to the early resurrection experiences. A former opponent (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13-14; Phil. 3:4-7), Paul states that the risen Jesus appeared personally to him (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; Gal. 1:16). The scholarly consensus here is attested by atheist Michael Martin, who avers: “However, we have only one contemporary eyewitness account of a postresurrection appearance of Jesus, namely Paul’s.”
(2) In addition to Paul’s own experience, few conclusions are more widely recognized than that, in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff., Paul records an ancient oral tradition(s). This pre-Pauline report summarizes the early Gospel content, that Christ died for human sin, was buried, rose from the dead, and then appeared to many witnesses, both individuals and groups.
Paul is clear that this material was not his own but that he had passed on to others what he had received earlier, as the center of his message (15:3). There are many textual indications that the material pre-dates Paul. Most directly, the apostle employs paredoka and parelabon, the equivalent Greek terms for delivering and receiving rabbinic tradition (cf. 1 Cor. 11:23). Indirect indications of a traditional text(s) include the sentence structure and verbal parallelism, diction, and the triple sequence of kai hoti Further, several non-Pauline words, the proper names of Cephas (cf. Lk. 24:34) and James, and the possibility of an Aramaic original are all significant. Fuller attests to the unanimity of scholarship here: “It is almost universally agreed today that Paul is here citing tradition.” Critical scholars agree that Paul received the material well before this book was written.
The most popular view is that Paul received this material during his trip to Jerusalem just three years after his conversion, to visit Peter and James, the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:18-19), both of whose names appear in the appearance list (1 Cor. 15:5; 7). An important hint here is Paul’s use of the verb historesai (1:18), a term that indicates the investigation of a topic. The immediate context both before and after reveals this subject matter: Paul was inquiring concerning the nature of the Gospel proclamation (Gal. 1:11-2:10), of which Jesus’ resurrection was the center (1 Cor. 15:3-4, 14, 17; Gal. 1:11, 16).
Critical scholars generally agree that this pre-Pauline creed(s) may be the earliest in the New Testament. Ulrich Wilckens asserts that it “indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity.” Joachim Jeremias agrees that it is, “the earliest tradition of all.” Perhaps a bit too optimistically, Walter Kasper even thinks that it was possibly even “in use by the end of 30 AD . . . .”
Indicating the wide approval on this subject, even more skeptical scholars frequently agree. Gerd Ludemann maintains that “the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus. . . . not later than three years. . . . the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor.15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE. . . .” Similarly, Michael Goulder thinks that it “goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.” Thomas Sheehan agrees that this tradition “probably goes back to at least 32-34 C.E., that is, to within two to four years of the crucifixion.” Others clearly consent.
Overall, my recent overview of critical sources mentioned above indicates that those who provide a date generally opt for Paul’s reception of this report relatively soon after Jesus’ death, by the early to mid-30s A.D. This provides an additional source that appears just a half step removed from eyewitness testimony.
(3) Paul was so careful to assure the content of his Gospel message, that he made a second trip to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10) specifically to be absolutely sure that he had not been mistaken (2:2). The first time he met with Peter and James (Gal. 1:18-20). On this occasion, the same two men were there, plus the apostle John (2:9). Paul was clearly doing his research by seeking out the chief apostles. As Martin Hengel notes, “Evidently the tradition of I Cor. 15.3 had been subjected to many tests” by Paul.
These four apostles were the chief authorities in the early church, and each is represented in the list of those who had seen the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor. 15:5-7). So their confirmation of Paul’s Gospel preaching (Gal. 2:9), especially given the apostolic concern to insure doctrinal truth in the early church, is certainly significant. On Paul’s word, we are again just a short distance from a firsthand report.
(4) Not only do we have Paul’s account that the other major apostles confirmed his Gospel message, but he provides the reverse testimony, too. After listing Jesus’ resurrection appearances, Paul tells us he also knew what the other apostles were preaching regarding Jesus’ appearances, and it was the same as his own teaching on this subject (1 Cor. 15:11). As one, they proclaimed that Jesus was raised from the dead (15:12, 15). So Paul narrates both the more indirect confirmation of his Gospel message by the apostolic leaders, plus his firsthand, direct approval of their resurrection message.
Here’s a great article from Eric Chabot, director of Ratio Christi Apologetics Alliance, The Ohio State University to explain who accepts this creed. It’s not just conservatives!
Even the co-founder Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan, writes:
“Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.” The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days” (11).
This comment by Crossan makes sense because within the creed Paul calls Peter by his Aramic name, Cephas. Hence, if this tradition originated in the Aramaic language, the two locations that people spoke Aramaic were Galilee and Judea. (12) The Greek term “historeo” is translated as “to visit” or “to interview.” (13) Hence, Paul’s purpose of the trip was probably designed to affirm the resurrection story with Peter who had been an actual eyewitness to the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 15:5).
Now the Jesus Seminar was a radical group of scholars – these were not moderates. Crossan himself admitted to being an atheist in his debate with William Lane Craig. So here you have an atheist admitting that 1 Cor. 15:3-8 is early and in contact with eyewitnesses.