Tag Archives: Historical Jesus

Should the Gospel of Thomas be included in the New Testament?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

I was on a long distance drive Monday night. I finished listening to “God’s Crime Scene”, and started “The Case for the Real Jesus”. Craig Evans’ discussion about the Gospel of Thomas stuck in my mind, so I’m turning it into a post.

Should the Gospel of Thomas be included with the four canonical gospels? Is it early? Is it the same historical genre as the four gospels? Does it give us eyewitness evidence of the life and teachings of Jesus?

Here’s an article about it that references the chapter from “The Case for the Real Jesus” that I was listening to.

First reason, Thomas has literary dependence on TONS of other New Testament books, which favors a date for Thomas AFTER the books it quotes:

The Gospel of Thomas Cites Too Much Of The New Testament. Publishing writings in the first century was nothing like it is today. If you want a copy of something, you take a quill and some papyrus and you just copy it. That is how the books of the New Testament circulated. It was a very slow process. By the early second century, only a few of the books of the New Testament were in full circulation. Christians of that time only had a few of the books of the New Testament to reference. The epistles of Ignatious, written in AD 110, does not even quote half of the New Testament.

But the gospel of Thomas shows familiarity with 15 of the 27 books of the New Testament! Doctor Craig Evans pointed out that he was not aware of any Christian writing which referenced this much of the New Testament prior to AD 150. The Gospel of Thomas simply references far too many books to be dated early. But despite that, the Jesus Seminar attempts to date Thomas between AD 60 and 70.

Further, this gospel not only cites too much New Testament material. It cites the later New Testament material. Mark was not very strong in Greek grammar and etiquette, so when Matthew and Luke quoted Mark, they polished his wording. The gospel of Thomas quotes the polished wording, the later version. In fact, Thomas even has material from the gospel of John – penned in about AD 90. How can a book from AD 60 or 70 quote a book from AD 90? Thomas is not independent of the other gospels, it quotes the later ones and it is not early, it quotes too much of the New Testament to be considered early.

Second reason, Thomas shows signs of being based on a Syriac translation:

The Gospel of Thomas Shows Syrian Development. The gospels are published in the Koine Greek language, which was the most conventiant language of that time if the goal was to spread them far and wide. But when Christianity began to spread eastward, the gospels were translated into Syriac. But this did not happen immediately.

A student of Justin Martyr named Tatian compiled a Syriac translation of the four gospels in AD 175, which was named the Diatessaron (meaning ‘through the four’). He made the four gospels available to those who spoke Syriac. What makes this significant is that the gospel of Thomas shows traces of the Syrian language forms! Indeed, the gospel of Thomas adopts concepts that were only found in the Syrian church. It refers to Thomas as Judas Thomas, which was a concept that began with the Syrian church. The Syrians did not like ascetics, wealth, businessmen, commercialism, and were interested in elitism and mysticism. Precisely everything that the Syrians were not interested in, the gospel of Thomas was not interested in, and that which they were interested in, the gospel of Thomas was interested in.

Further, and critically, if we read the gospel of Thomas in English, it sort of looks like a non-contextual group of proverbs and sayings. It is just randomly assorted. It appears randomly assorted in Koine Greek as well. But if you translate it to Syrian, it is not random at all. There are literally hundreds of catchwords in Syrian that are meant to help people memorize the gospel. There are memory aids written in Syrian. The gospel of Thomas was written in Syrian.

Two other reasons would be:

  • it contains gnostic overtones, and that movement started in the 2nd century
  • none of the early Church Fathers quote it, but they quote the four gospels and the letters of Paul, etc.

Not sure why people get so interested in this Dan Brown hypothetical stuff, but my job is to share with you the things I’m reading that are relevant. By the way, the audio versions of the unabridged “Case For” books are read by Lee Strobel himself – HIGHLY recommended. You will not lose interest.

N.T. Wright lectures on the resurrection of Jesus: did Jesus rise from the dead?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

Here’s a lecture from N.T. Wright, whose multi-volume case for the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus seems to be getting a lot of respect from the other side, (although I strongly disagree with his economic and political views, which are naive at best). Wright has taught at Cambridge University, Oxford University, Duke University, McGill University, and lectured on dozens of prestigious campuses around the world. He’s published 40 books.

Here’s a video of his case for the resurrection:

N.T. Wright’s historical case for the bodily resurrection of Jesus

Wright basically argues that the resurrection cannot have been a myth invented by the early Christian community, because the idea of the Messiah dying and being bodily resurrected to eternal life was completely unexpected in Jewish theology, and therefore would not have been fabricated.

In Judaism, when people die, they stay dead. At the most, they might re-appear as apparitions, or be resuscitated to life for a while, but then die again later. There was no concept of the bodily resurrection to eternal life of a single person, especially of the Messiah, prior to the general resurrection of all the righteous dead on judgment day.

Wright’s case for the resurrection has 3 parts:

  • The Jewish theological beliefs of the early Christian community underwent 7 mutations that are inexplicable apart from the bodily resurrection of Jesus
  • The empty tomb
  • The post-mortem appearances of Jesus to individuals and groups, friends and foes

Here’s the outline of Wright’s case:

…the foundation of my argument for what happened at Easter is the reflection that this Jewish hope has undergone remarkable modifications or mutations within early Christianity, which can be plotted consistently right across the first two centuries. And these mutations are so striking, in an area of human experience where societies tend to be very conservative, that they force the historian… to ask, Why did they occur?

The mutations occur within a strictly Jewish context. The early Christians held firmly, like most of their Jewish contemporaries, to a two-step belief about the future: first, death and whatever lies immediately beyond; second, a new bodily existence in a newly remade world. ‘Resurrection’ is not a fancy word for ‘life after death’; it denotes life after ‘life after death’.

And here are the 7 mutations:

  1. Christian theology of the afterlife mutates from multiples views (Judaism) to a single view: resurrection (Christianity). When you die, your soul goes off to wait in Sheol. On judgment day, the righteous dead get new resurrection bodies, identical to Jesus’ resurrection body.
  2. The relative importance of the doctrine of resurrection changes from being peripheral (Judaism) to central (Christianity).
  3. The idea of what the resurrection would be like goes from multiple views (Judaism) to a single view: an incorruptible, spiritually-oriented body composed of the material of the previous corruptible body (Christianity).
  4. The timing of the resurrection changes from judgment day (Judaism) to a split between the resurrection of the Messiah right now and the resurrection of the rest of the righteous on judgment day (Christianity).
  5. There is a new view of eschatology as collaboration with God to transform the world.
  6. There is a new metaphorical concept of resurrection, referred to as being “born-again”.
  7. There is a new association of the concept of resurrection to the Messiah. (The Messiah was not even supposed to die, and he certainly wasn’t supposed to rise again from the dead in a resurrected body!)

There are also other historical puzzles that are solved by postulating a bodily resurrection of Jesus.

  1. Jewish people thought that the Messiah was not supposed to die. Although there were lots of (warrior) Messiahs running around at the time, whenever they got killed, their followers would abandon them. Why didn’t Jesus’ followers abandon him when he died?
  2. If the early Christian church wanted to communicate that Jesus was special, despite his shameful death on the cross, they would have made up a story using the existing Jewish concept of exaltation. Applying the concept of bodily resurrection to a dead Messiah would be a radical departure from Jewish theology, when an invented exaltation was already available to do the job.
  3. The early church became extremely reckless about sickness and death, taking care of people with communicable diseases and testifying about their faith in the face of torture and execution. Why did they scorn sickness and death?
  4. The gospels, especially Mark, do not contain any embellishments and “theology historicized”. If they were made-up, there would have been events that had some connection to theological concepts. But the narratives are instead bare-bones: “Guy dies public death. People encounter same guy alive later.” Plain vanilla narrative.
  5. The story of the women who were the first witnesses to the empty tomb cannot have been invented, because the testimony of women was inadmissible under almost all circumstances at that time. If the story were invented, they would have invented male discoverers of the tomb. Female discovers would have hampered conversion efforts.
  6. There are almost no legendary embellishments in the gospels, while there are plenty in the later gnostic forgeries. No crowds of singing angels, no talking crosses, and no booming voices from the clouds.
  7. There is no mention of the future hope of the general resurrection, which I guess they thought was imminent anyway.

To conclude, Wright makes the argument that the best explanation of all of these changes in theology and practice is that God raised Jesus (bodily) from the dead. There is simply no way that this community would have made up the single resurrection of the Messiah – who wasn’t even supposed to die – and then put themselves on the line for that belief.

And remember, the belief in a resurrected Jesus was something that the earliest witnesses could really assess, because they were the ones who saw him killed and then walking around again after his death. They were able to confirm or deny their belief in the resurrection of Jesus based on their own personal experiences with the object of those beliefs.

Peter J. Williams lectures on the historical reliability of the gospel narratives

Peter J. Williams
Peter J. Williams

Here’s the main lecture: (54 minutes)

And here’s the Q&A: (9 minutes)

About Peter Williams:

Peter J. Williams is the Warden (CEO) of Tyndale House and a member of the Faculty of Divinity in the University of Cambridge. He received his MA, MPhil and PhD, in the study of ancient languages related to the Bible from Cambridge University. After his PhD, he was on staff in the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University (1997–1998), and thereafter taught Hebrew and Old Testament there as Affiliated Lecturer in Hebrew and Aramaic and as Research Fellow in Old Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge (1998–2003). From 2003 to 2007 he was on the faculty of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, where he became a Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Deputy Head of the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. In July 2007 he became the youngest Warden in the history of Tyndale House. He also retains his position as an honorary Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Aberdeen.

Summary of the lecture:

  • What if the stories about Jesus are legendary?
  • were the gospels transmitted accurately?
  • were the gospels written in the same place as where the events happened?
  • do the gospel authors know the customs and locations where the events happened?
  • do the gospels use the right names for the time and place where the events took place?
  • do the gospels disambiguate people’s names depending on how common those names were?
  • how do the New Testament gospels compare to the later gnostic gospels?
  • how do the gospels refer to the main character? How non-Biblical sources refer to Jesus?
  • how does Jesus refer to himself in the gospels? do the later Christians refer to him that way?
  • how does Jesus teach? do later Christians teach the same way?
  • why didn’t Jesus say anything about early conflicts in the church (the Gentiles, church services)?
  • did the writers of the gospels know the places where the events took place?
  • how many places are named in the gospels? how about in the later gnostic gospels?
  • are the botanical details mentioned in the gospels accurate? how about the later gnostic gospels?

And here are the questions from the audience:

  • how what about the discrepancies in the resurrection narratives that Bart Ehrman is obsessed with?
  • what do you think of the new 2011 NIV translation (Peter is on the ESV translation committee)?
  • how did untrained, ordinary men produce complex, sophisticated documents like the gospels?
  • is oral tradition a strong enough bridge between the events and the writers who interviewed the eyewitnesses?
  • what does the name John mean?
  • why did the gospel writers wait so long before writing their gospels?
  • do you think that Matthew and Luke used a hypothetical source which historians call “Q”?
  • which gospel do critical historians trust the least and why?

I really enjoyed watching this lecture. He’s getting some of this material from Richard Bauckham’s awesome book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”, so if you aren’t familiar with it, you can get an idea of what’s in it. Peter Williams is a lot of fun to listen to – an excellent speaker.

 

Gary Habermas and James Crossley discuss the minimal facts case for the resurrection

Two ninjas face off at sundown
Two ninjas face off at sundown

James Crossley is my favorite atheist ancient historian, such a straight shooter. He’s on the skeptical left, but he has a no-baloney way of talking that I really like. I was so excited to summarize this, and there’s not a speck of snark in this summary. Crossley dates the gospel of Mark 37-43 A.D., far earlier than most scholars. Justin Brierley does a great job as moderator. Gary Habermas is OK, but he is not familiar with any useful arguments for God’s existence, (kalam, fine-tuning, origin of life, Cambrian explosion, etc.), and that is a problem in this debate.

Here are the details of the debate:

Christian Bible scholar Gary Habermas and agnostic New Testament scholar James Crossley return to answer questions sent in by Unbelievable? listeners.

They answer your questions on the Jewishness of Jesus, the dating of the New Testament documents and much more!

Note: this is the first of two shows they are doing together!!

The MP3 file is here. (If this disappears, tell me, I have a copy)

This non-snarky summary starts at 10:52.

Summary:

  • Habermas: the minimal facts are the facts that even the majority of skeptical scholars will accept

Habermas list of minimal facts: (near universal acceptance)

  1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion
  2. After his death, his disciples had experiences that they believed were appearances of the risen Jesus
  3. The disciples were transformed by their experiences and proclaimed his resurrection and were willing to die for their belief in the resurrection
  4. The proclamation of his resurrection was early
  5. James was converted by a post-mortem experience
  6. Paul was converted by a post-mortem experience

Habermas list of widely-accepted facts:

  1. Burial for Jesus in a private tomb
  2. The private tomb found empty
  3. The disciples despaired after Jesus was crucified
  4. The proclamation of the resurrection started in Jerusalem
  5. Changing the worship day from Saturday to Sunday

Crossley’s views on the minimal and widely-accepted facts:

  • Crossley: I am in broad agreement with what Gary said
  • Crossley: “the resurrection appearances are some of the hardest, best evidence we have” because it’s in early 1 Cor 15:3-8 creed
  • Crossley: people were convinced that they had seen the risen Christ

The burial in a private tomb:

  • Crossley: I have my doubts about the private tomb burial and the empty tomb
  • Crossley: Mark’s gospel has the burial in a private tomb by Joseph of Arimethea, and Mark is the earliest gospel
  • Crossley: I don’t have a doubt, it’s just that there are other possible alternatives, and then the tradition was invented later – but that’s just a possibility
  • Crossley: there is not enough evidence to make a decision either way on the burial

The empty tomb:

  • Habermas: there are multiple lines of evidence for the empty tomb
  • Habermas: the reason it’s not one of my minimal facts is because a quarter to a third of skeptical scholars reject it

The transformation of the followers of Jesus:

  • Crossley: “yes, clearly, I don’t think you can argue with that, it’s fairly obvious”

The conversions of James and Paul:

  • Crossley: “yes, because it’s based on 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, that report, that was handed on to him”

Where Habermas and Crossley agree:

  • Habermas: you agree with the 6 facts in the minimal facts list, and you have problems with 2 of 5 facts from the widely accepted list
  • Crossley: Yes

The empty tomb:

  • Crossley: Two problems: first, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 doesn’t mention it, but it “probably assumes the idea that Jesus left behind an empty tomb when resurrected, I am convinced by some of the conservative arguments on that one, but it’s not hard evidence for there actually being an empty tomb”
  • Crossley: Second, “the other early source we have ends with no resurrection appearances”, it makes him a bit skeptical of the empty tomb
  • Habermas: the empty tomb is not a minimal fact, I want 90% agreement by skeptical scholars for it to be a minimal fact
  • Habermas: I have never included the empty tomb in my list of minimal facts
  • Brierley: William Lane Craig puts it in his list of minimal facts
  • Habermas: It is very well attested, so if that’s what you mean, then it’s a minimal fact, but it doesn’t have the 90% agreement like the other minimal facts
  • Habermas: I have 21 arguments for the empty tomb, and none of them require early dating of sources or traditional authorship of the gospels, e.g. – the women discovered the empty tomb, the pre-Markan source, the implications of 1 Cor 15 has some force, the sermons summary in Acts 13 which Bart Ehrman dates to 31 or 32 A.D. has putting a body down and a body coming up without being corrupted

Why is 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 more respected as a source than the gospels?

  • Habermas: There is a unanimous New Testament conclusion, across the board, from conservative to liberal, that in 1 Cor 15:3-8 Paul is presenting creedal data, Richard Bauckham says that this goes back to the early 30s A.D., Paul got this from the eyewitnesses he mentions in Galatians 1 and 2
  • Crossley: [reads 1 Corinthians:3-8 out loud], now that’s a tradition that’s handed on, this is Paul, we know this is Paul, writing mid-50s, this is kind of gold, this is the evidence I wish we had across the board

Why doesn’t James accept the resurrection:

  • Crossley: Historians should not conclude that the supernatural is real, concluding the supernatural is outside of history
  • Crossley: I am more interested in what people believed at that time
  • Brierley: as a historian, are you required to give an explanation of the commonly-accepted facts
  • Crossley: yes, historians must give their explanation for the facts
  • Crossley: we know people have visions, and how the cultural context determines the content of visions, e.g. – the background of martyrdom
  • Brierley: so you would go for the hallucination hypothesis?
  • Crossley: yes, but I prefer not to use that word

Should historians rule out the supernatural?

  • Habermas: let’s not ask what caused the event, let’s just see if the disciples thought they saw him before he died, that he died on the cross, and then believed they saw him after he died, like you might see someone in the supermarket
  • Habermas: I’m not asking whether a miracle occurred, I just want to know whether Jesus was seen after he died on the cross
  • Crossley: that sounds like the angle I’m coming at this from
  • Crossley: the problem is that there is a supernatural element to some of the appearances, so it’s not a supermarket appearances
  • Brierley: it’s not angels and hallelujah in the sky
  • Habermas: nothing like that, no light in the early accounts, fairly mundane

Does James agree that people believed they saw Jesus after his death?

  • Crossley: yes,I think that’s fairly clear that we do
  • Crossley: but historians cannot prove claims that what happened to Jesus was supernatural
  • Brierley: your view is so far from what I see on Internet atheists sites, where they say it’s all legendary accumulation, fairy tales
  • Crossley: I’m perfect comfortable with the idea – and I think it happened – that people created stories, invented stories
  • Crossley: there are too many cases where people are sincerely professing that they thought they saw Jesus after his death

Would you expect the disciples to have visions of a resurrected Jesus if nothing happened to him?

  • Habermas: the dividing line is: did something happen to Jesus, or did something happen to his disciples?
  • Habermas: the view that people were seeing a kind of ghostly Jesus (non-bodily) – a Jedi Jesus – after his death is a resurrection view, but I hold to a bodily resurrection view
  • Brierley: N.T. Wright says a resurrected Jesus was contrary to expectations – should we expect the disciples to have a vision of Jesus as resurrected?
  • Crossley: Wright generalizes too much thinking that there was a single view of the resurrection (the general resurrection at the end of the age), there are a variety of views, some are contradictory
  • Crossley: Herod Antipas thought that Jesus might be John the Baptist returned from the dead, and he knew Jesus was flesh and blood, there is the story of the dead rising in the earthquake in Matthew, there are stories of the resurrection in Maccabees, and this would influence what people expected
  • Habermas: the earliest Christian view was *bodily* resurrection
  • Crossley: yes, I think that’s right
  • Crossley: In Mark 6, they thought Jesus was a ghost, so there is room for disagreement

Why should a historian not rule out a supernatural explanation?

  • Habermas: to get to supernatural, you have to go to philosophy – it’s a worldview problem
  • Habermas: he predicted his own death and resurrection
  • Habermas: one factor is the uniqueness of Jesus
  • Habermas: the early church had belief in the bodily resurrection, and a high Christology out of the gate
  • Habermas: you might look at evidence for corroborated near-death experiences that raise the possibility of an afterlife
  • Crossley: I’m content to leave it at the level of what people believe and not draw any larger conclusions
  • Crossley: regarding the predicting his own death, the gospels are written after, so it’s not clear that these predictions predate Jesus’ death
  • Crossley: it’s not surprising that Jesus would have predicted his own death, and that he might have foreseen God vindicating him

If you admit to the possibility of miracles, is the data sufficient to conclude that the best explanation of the facts is resurrection?

  • Crossley: If we assume that God exists, and that God intervenes in history, and that this was obvious to everyone, then “of course”
  • Brierley: Are you committed to a naturalistic view of history?
  • Crossley: Not quite, broadly, yes, I am saying this all I can do
  • Brierley: should James be open to a supernatural explanation?
  • Habermas: if you adopt methodological naturalism,it colors how look at the data is seen, just like supernaturalism does

What’s the earliest historical report of the resurrection of Jesus?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

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.

Quote:

(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.”[3]

(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.”[4] Critical scholars agree that Paul received the material well before this book was written.[5]

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.[6] 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.”[7] Joachim Jeremias agrees that it is, “the earliest tradition of all.”[8] Perhaps a bit too optimistically, Walter Kasper even thinks that it was possibly even “in use by the end of 30 AD . . . .”[9]

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. . . .”[10] 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.”[11] 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.”[12] Others clearly consent.[13]

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.[14] 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.[15]

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!

Excerpt:

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.