The Kerygma is a fancy word we use for talking about the essential Gospel message, the “preaching” or “proclaimation.” it contains the central elements of the Gospel of the early Church.
1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NIV
”For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 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. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
Here here is a breakdown:
1. Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.
2. He was buried.
3. He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.
4. He appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.
5. After that, He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom were still living, though some had fallen asleep.
6. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
7. Last of all, He appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (Verse 8 is not considered part of the early, but is Paul’s personal addition).
Of the 20 sermons or proclamations in the book of Acts by an Apostle, while there are other things stressed to varying degrees (burial, second coming, repentance, etc), every one of the contain the death and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, 1 Cor 15:3-4 is arguably the most concise summary of the Kerygma in the Bible.
One of the Most Significant Apologetics for the Resurrection of Christ
A key argument in support of the Resurrection of Christ is the rapid emergence of the Kerygma, this foundational message of the Gospel. The swift development of this core message in a community capable of easily exposing any falsehoods would suggest that it is unlikely to be a fabrication or a legend.
Therefore, it’s important to understand why scholars, both believers and non-believers, believe the Kerygma laid out in 1 Cor. 15 was written very early.
What is a Semitism?
First, let me introduce a word that you are probably more familiar with other context: semitism. A “semitism” in biblical studies refers to a linguistic or conceptual feature in a text that reflects the influence of a Semitic language (like Hebrew or Aramaic), indicating the text’s origin or influence from a Semitic cultural or linguistic context.
In the New Testament, which was primarily written in Greek, a Semitism would be a marker that brings attention to the fact that the account would be more naturally expressed in a Semitic or Jewish tongue. This suggests that it was originally spoken or thought of in that language, and therefore, predates the text we have.
When was 1 Corinthians Written?
Since this is not about when First Corinthians was written, I’m just going to give you a general scholarly consensus and try to work out the timeline. Most scholars believe that First Corinthians was written in the mid 50s, shortly after Paul’s first missionary journey to Corinth in 51-52. If Christ died around 33 A.D. – the general consensus – this would place First Corinthians around 20 years after the origin of the Gospel event.
Yet scholars believe that First Corinthians chapter 15, verses 3-8, was written a decade or more before Paul’s writing of First Corinthians. This would place the Creed just a few years after Christ’s death and resurrection. This is an incredibly significant claim. It would not only challenge those who say the message of the gospel developed as a legend over the years but also refute the possibility of it being a lie told by the disciples. The event and the writing of it would be too close for either legends or lies to arise.
Semitism in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7
Regarding 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, there are many points of evidence for its early attribution as a Semitism.
Here they are:
1. Formulaic Structure: The passage follows a formulaic structure (“I delivered to you… what I also received”) that is characteristic of Jewish oral traditions. This structure was often used for important teachings, making them easier to memorize and transmit accurately.
2. Credal Statement: This section appears to be an early Christian creed or a formal statement of belief. Such credal formulations have parallels in Jewish practice, where concise statements of faith or doctrine were used in teaching and worship. This demonstrates that it probably goes back before the mission to the Gentiles even began!
3. Scriptural References: While this passage does not directly quote the Tanakh (Old Testament), Paul’s assertion that Christ died for our sins “…according to the Scriptures,” was buried, and was raised on the third day “…according to the Scriptures” reflects a uniquely Jewish approach of validating new theological ideas with scriptural backing. Why would the Gentiles care that much to put such validations into a creed?
4. Messiah Concept: The notion of Jesus as the Messiah who died and was resurrected is rooted in Jewish Messianic expectations. Although it represents a unique interpretation within the Christian Jewish thought of Paul’s time, this still shows its Semitic origin.
5. Apostolic Witness: The listing of those who witnessed the resurrected Christ, including Cephas (Peter) and then the Twelve, follows patterns of Jewish legal testimony where multiple witnesses were required to establish a fact.
Deuteronomy 19:15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”
These features in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 reflect the Jewish background and Semitic context of the early Christian community. Paul, having received this creed from others, passed it on in a credal form to the Corinthians. Its structure and wording provide a powerful witness to the veracity of the Gospel of Christ.
1. James Dunn: Dunn, a Professor at Durham, stated that this tradition was formulated as a tradition within months of Jesus’ death in his book Jesus Remembered (Eerdmans, 2003).
2. Michael Goulder: An atheistic New Testament professor, Goulder believed the creed goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion, as mentioned in “The Baseless Fabric of a Vision” in Gavin D’Costa’s Resurrection Reconsidered (Oneworld, 1996).
3. A.J.M. Wedderburn: A Non-Christian New Testament professor at Munich, Wedderburn considered it right to speak of the creed as dating from the ‘earliest times’, most probably in the first half of the 30s, as noted in his book Beyond Resurrection (Hendrickson, 1999).
4. N.T. Wright: The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003), Wright, a prominent New Testament scholar, argued that the creed was likely formulated within the first two or three years after Easter.
5. Gerd Lüdemann: An atheistic NT professor at Göttingen, Lüdemann dates the elements in the tradition to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus, as mentioned in various sources. You can find his arguments in The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (Fortress, 1994)
6. Robert Funk: Founder of the Jesus Seminar, Funk believed that the conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead was established by the time Paul was converted, around 33 CE, as stated in The Acts of Jesus by Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar (1998).
7. Richard Carrier: Even atheistic “historian” and mythicist, Carrier acknowledged the early dating of the creed as being amply strong (also discussed in various debates and writings on the historicity of Jesus).
8. Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar, views the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 as an early Christian statement of faith. He suggests that this creed was already established and being circulated among early Christians before Paul’s writings. Ehrman’s analysis often highlights the creed’s historical significance in understanding the development of early Christian beliefs, particularly about Jesus’ death and resurrection. See How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2015).
Of course, I am leaving out some of the more explicitly conservative and Christian scholars like Gary Habermas, Dale Allison, Craig Keener, Craig Bloomberg, Michael Licona, Larry Hurtado, Richard Baucham, Darrel Bock, William Lane Craig, and others as their opinions are given.
For a detailed discussion of the creedal nature of this passage, see Kirk R. Macgregor’s “1 CORINTHIANS 15:3B–6A, 7 AND THE BODILY RESURRECTION OF JESUS” here. As well, see Randall C. Webber (”A NOTE ON 1CORINTHIANS 15:3-5”) here.
In summary, if 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 contains Semitisms, it suggests that the core message of this passage might have been an early creed or a summary of belief that was formulated and transmitted orally in a Semitic language before Paul wrote it in Greek! This would mean that the ideas in this passage predate Paul’s writing and belong to the earliest days of Christian tradition, possibly within the first three years. This is one of the reasons why scholars are in virtually agreement about the dating of this passage. What an exciting historical footprint we have to bolster our faith!