The Resurrection: Engaging Mind & Spirit
Rev. Clinton Chisholm
Any analysis of the Easter story from a New Testament perspective must
grapple with 1 Corinthians 15. 1 Corinthians is almost universally accepted
as written by Paul about AD 55/56 and therefore earlier than Acts and
some, if not all, of the Gospels.
From the details of Acts—18.12, which mentions Paul in Corinth
with Gallio as proconsul of Achaia—and the Gallio inscription, we
know that Paul visited Corinth in AD 50 and departed there AD 52. The
gospel he preached in Corinth (1 Cor. 15) was already in creedal form
and contained critical elements surrounding the resurrection doctrine:
literal death (v.3), literal burial (v.4), literal resurrection (v.4),
literal multiple post-mortem sightings by people, most of whom were still
So as early as Paul’s writing was, the content/structure of the
gospel he preached, pre-dated his own writing and conversion as he merely
passed on what he had received. The words in italics are technical terms
used of passing on an entrenched tradition in Jewish circles. This is
accepted by a wide and theologically divergent group of scholars such
as Reginald Fuller, Oscar Cullmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Martin Hengel,
Rudolph Bultmann, Hans Conzelmann, A.M. Hunter, Raymond E. Brown, Norman
Perrin, George Ladd, et al.
Owing to the use of the Aramaic term Cephas for Peter (v.5) and several
non-Pauline expressions like ‘for our sins’ (v.3), ‘according
to the scriptures’ (vv.3-4), ‘he has been raised’ (v.4),
the ‘third day’ (v.4), ‘he was seen’ (vv.5-8)
and ‘the twelve’ (v.5), along with the triple usage of ‘and
that’ (vv. 4, 5), scholars like Ulrich Wilckens and Joachim Jeremias,
conclude that the tradition goes back to the oldest phase of primitive
Christianity, about 3 to 8 years after the death of Jesus.
To appreciate the full force of the historical nature of the resurrection
in this passage one has to remember the audience as Corinthians who had
good reason to boast about their intellectual traditions in the university
city, Corinth. The common Greek-based Corinthian view—similar to
the modern one—was that dead people stay dead, period, they do not
rise from the dead at all. This view was also held by some even in the
1 Cor. 15. 12, queries, “Now since it is being preached that Christ
was raised from the dead how are some among you saying there is no resurrection
of the dead?”
There is no way that one can sustain an argument that what is at issue
in the text is some non-historical or figurative ‘resurrection from
the dead’, the kind of ‘being alive’ that comes from
keeping alive the memory of someone.
There is a clash in the text of two truth-claims, the one, informed by
normal history and an a priori position, says explicitly, ‘dead
people cannot rise from the dead’, which implied that Jesus could
not have been raised from the dead. The other truth-claim, informed by
a historical reality, says explicitly, ‘Jesus was raised from the
dead’, which implied that the dead can rise, literally.
The historical, the corporeal is both patent and latent in the text and
context. In fact, Paul goes on to explain some of the logical, theological
and practical consequences of holding to the truth-claim that resurrection
from the dead is nonsense.
There is something of special note in this passage. If Paul countenanced
a non-historical, non-physical resurrection of Jesus then he could not
have argued, without some qualification, that denial of resurrection stripped
the Christian message of the things he mentioned in vv.13-19.
One could, like so many clergypersons today, hold that Jesus did not
rise from the dead literally but he lives, he is raised spiritually, and
because he was raised spiritually—a theological belief—then
one could by faith hold to certain beliefs even though they were not historically
Paul’s philosophical starting point and logic are radically different;
hence, he could categorically and with forceful logic declare what he
said in vv. 13-19. What did he declare in these verses? That if, philosophically,
resurrection of the dead is non-sense, not an ontological reality, then
seven critical consequences follow, logically: 1) Christ is still dead
(vv.13, 16); 2) kerygmatic preaching lacks content (v.14); 3) faith in
the kerygma lacks content (v.14); 4) kerygmatic preachers misrepresent
God (v.15); 5) the sins of the Corinthian Christians are unpardoned (v.
18); 6) Christian dead people are doomed (v.18) and 7) living Christians
who expect life beyond death are arrant fools (v.19).
1 Cor. 15.3ff then, as German historian Hans von Campenhausen has said,
“…meets all the demands of historical reliability that could
possibly be made of such a text.” A.M. Hunter says similarly, “The
passage therefore preserves uniquely early and verifiable testimony. It
meets every reasonable demand of historical reliability.”
It should be noted as well that the truth-claim of a historical bodily
resurrection continues in 1 Cor. 15.29 (‘if the dead are not raised
actually/at all [Greek: holos]’). Also in v.32, Paul suggests the
nonsense of endangering one’s life for nothing, if the dead cannot
be resurrected. In v. 32, Paul’s option to a literal, bodily resurrection
is neither existential liberalism (‘Jesus is still dead but I have
met the risen Christ’) nor fideistic conservatism (‘you ask
me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart’) but unbridled
hedonism – “...if the dead rise not let us eat and drink for
tomorrow we die.”
The truth-claim of a historical, bodily resurrection continues as well
in vv. 35-44, in the issue of the nature of the resurrected body.
There is need to press home a linguistic and philosophical point here.
In 1 Cor. 15, it should be noted that the critical elements of the gospel
are not simply, ‘Jesus died, was buried, was seen’ (because
that could be amenable to a non-literal resurrection). The critical element
that we left out just now is, ‘was raised’, coming before
‘was seen’. We are emphasizing the linguistic passive construction
‘was raised’ because the passive requires an agent being acted
on by another. That activity is independent of a third person who happens
to see the person raised. If he simply died, was buried and then was seen
the one seeing may be hallucinating or engaged in wish-fulfillment.
However, the fuller construction ‘was raised on the third day’
followed by ‘was seen’ is linguistically and philosophically
tighter. ‘Was raised’ here is temporally, logically and metaphysically
prior to ‘was seen’. Put differently, ‘was seen’
is dependent on ‘was raised’.
The theological notion of Jesus being Lord, the doctrine of sins being
forgiven or justification being imputed, the assurance of victory over
death all rest on the historical truth-claim that the Father raised Jesus
from the dead (Acts 2.24, 29-32, 36; Rom. 4. 24-25; 1 Cor. 15.52-57; 2
From the standpoints of literary intent and literary content the New
Testament writers that treat with the resurrection of Jesus Christ were
writing history. The clear or veiled didactic or ethical purpose that
may emerge in these writings in no way militates against the basic historicity
of the documents as this was a common technique in ancient historiography,
as classical historian Colin Hemer urges.
It is our contention that the New Testament writers that deal with the
resurrection of Jesus Christ intended to convey, and were successful in
conveying to readers, what really took place in the history of the last
days of the earthly life of Jesus.
Craig Blomberg’s dictum adequately sums up the issue. “Unless
there is good reason for believing otherwise one will assume that a given
detail in the work of a particular historian is factual…The alternative
is to presume the text unreliable unless convincing evidence can be brought
forward in support of it…[this method] is wholly unjustified by
the normal canons of historiography. Scholars who would consistently implement
such a method when studying other ancient historical writing would find
the corroborative data so insufficient that the vast majority of accepted
history would have to be jettisoned.” (The Historical Reliability
of the Gospels, 1987, p. 240).