Here is a post from my friend Eric Chabot. He writes about the earliest historical source for the minimal facts about the resurrection, which is the early creed recorded by Paul in 1 Corinthians: 3-7.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.
6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,
8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Just in case you didn’t know, Cephas is Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers.
The general consensus among scholars is the that creed goes back to within 1-3 years after the death if Jesus, when almost all the eyewitnesses were still around.
In Eric’s post, he quotes very well-known skeptical historians who affirm each part of the creed.
First, the creed as a whole is respected, even by atheist scholars like John Dominic Crossan:
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” (3).
And atheist scholar Robert Funk:
The conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead had already taken root by the time Paul was converted about 33 C.E. On the assumption that Jesus died about 30 C.E., the time for development was thus two or three years at most.” — Robert Funk co-founder of the Jesus Seminar.(5)
Let’s take a look at one of the parts of the creed that is respected by skeptical historians… namely, the early belief that Jesus was resurrected shortly after his death.
The early belief in the resurrection
Skeptical scholar E.P. Sanders:
That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. “I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause. Moreover, a calculated deception should have produced great unanimity. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: ‘I saw him first!’ ‘No! I did.’ Paul’s tradition that 500 people saw Jesus at the same time has led some people to suggest that Jesus’ followers suffered mass hysteria. But mass hysteria does not explain the other traditions.” “Finally we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it. (14)
Skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman:
Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. (17)
Why, then, did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this. We don’t have any of their written testimony, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years later, indicates that this is what they claimed, and I don’t think he is making it up. And he knew are least a couple of them, whom he met just three years after the event (Galatians 1:18-19). (18)
You know, if all you did was give someone his post, I think that would be enough to show people that a more complete investigation of the historical Jesus was certainly a reasonable thing to do. It’s amazing to me that people who grow up at this time when access to the data is so easy do not take the opportunity to look into Christianity.
List of virtually undeniable facts
Finally, below is a list of facts about the historical Jesus that are accepted by ancient historians – Christian, non-Christian, atheist.
These are compiled by non-Christian scholar E.P. Sanders:
From his book “Jesus and Judaism” (1985):
- Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
- Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve.
- Jesus confined his activity to Israel.
- Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.
- Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple.
- Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.
- After his death, his followers continued as an identifiable movement.
- At least some Jews persecuted at least parts of the new movement.
From his book “The Historical Figure of Jesus” (1993):
- Jesus was born c.4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great;
- He spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village;
- He was baptized by John the Baptist;
- He called disciples;
- He taught in the towns, villages, and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities);
- He preached “the kingdom of God”;
- Around the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover;
- He created a disturbance in the temple area;
- He had a final meal with the disciples;
- He was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;
- He was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate;
- His disciples at first fled;
- They saw him (in what sense is uncertain) after his death;
- As a consequence they believed he would return to found the kingdom;
- They formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God’s Messiah.
The way the resurrection of Jesus is presented on TV, you would think that mythical stories about Jesus emerged decades and even centuries after the fact in other parts of the world from where the events happened. But the trouble is that no ancient historian thinks that. Only Hollywood TV producers and movie makers think that. Now, if you are getting your view of the historical accuracy of basic Christian beliefs from television and movies, then don’t be surprised if you are wrong. No one is saying that you have to go to Christian pastors and preachers for the facts, but you should go to the historians. They at least know the minimal facts.
The best way for a skeptic to tackle these issues is, I think, to watch a decent debate on the resurrection of Jesus between two respected scholars. My favorite debate on the resurrection is William Lane Craig versus atheist historian James Crossley. I have a video and a summary already ready made just waiting for you to check it out. Don’t worry, no one will be looking over your shoulder making you change everything your life should you be convinced. Just watch the debate and decide what you are going to do with it on your own. You don’t have to change your whole life overnight. Becoming a Christian is instantaneous and easy to do. Living like a Christian is a process, and it’s between you and God how fast you go. So just see what the facts are to start with and then take it from there.
5 thoughts on “What do skeptical ancient historians think of the earliest Christian creed?”
I also think many people in their bias can’t even conceive any scholarly work is being done into early Christianity or the life of Jesus.
They assume old claims prior to any evidence that it was all made up etc, are all true and never have been proven wrong.
It takes time to convince people that real scholars and academics and historians study this stuff. And it is only bias that regards Jesus as never existing or his life and facts exaggerated after the fact.
By that standard you can write off almost any point of human history that is inconvenient to you. Because we have more evidence and early accounts to the life of Jesus than to many other historical events that are never challenged.
The list has many good points and I know you stopped there to not overwhelm anyone that t is open to an honest investigation, so they have enough points to start getting their feet wet into the examination of the life of Jesus
I really like the quotes from E.P Sanders. Not some restricted minimal facts list. Full on historical facts that belong to the portrait of historical Jesus. That is something to build a religion on!
He’s not a Christian, just a very respected historian. It really shows you where the lines are for rational and non-rational views of the historical Jesus.
As Christians we have great logical reason to believe what we do. It is why it is great for your faith to study science and many things.
At points it is good to learn to recognize naturalist assumptions when it creeps into science, because we don’t have to be absolute with naturalism alone. We can allow the actual science to lead what is studied and believed.
I sometimes pick who I correct on their errant claims about the Bible. Some of the loudmouth types where you can tell by phrases use they are just parroting Richard dawkins claims about the mean God of the bible and all the errors, I will often ignore of there aren’t a few people there that I feel it is worth correcting the record for.
But even when you don’t always use the information it is good to know that amid all the claims of the intolerant style atheists, they have no factual basis for their attack just personal opinion