1 Corinthians 15: The Oldest Christian Creed?

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By Will Deatherage, Executive Director

Today’s readings include what I consider as one of the most intriguing passages in the New Testament, given the likelihood that it contains one of the earliest Christian creeds. The creed is found in 1 Corinthians 15, and it reads: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve,” (1 Cor 15:3b-5). This reflection will summarize why scholars think it is one of the earliest creeds, as well as the implications of this theory. Most of this information comes from Raymond F. Collins’s chapter on Corinthians in the Paulist Biblical Commentary, though Evidence Unseen and Cross Examined have also compiled and aggregated some important recent scholarship on the passage. Important Greek terms are in parentheses, and I used Bible Hub for my translation.

For I delivered (paredoka) to you in the foremost importance what I also received (parelabon): that Christ died for our sins according to (kata) the (tas) scriptures (graphas)

The first noteworthy items are the words “delivered” (paredoka) and “received” (parelabon). In Judaism, these terms usually refer to how oral traditions were transmitted between people. Such sayings were often preserved via creeds that involved repetition of certain words, similar sentence structure, and other techniques that made them easy to memorize. Thus, it appears that Paul is preparing his audience to receive a creed that he did not invent. When exactly did Paul, himself, receive it? In Galatians 1:18-20, Paul mentions that three years after his conversion, which was likely around 33 AD, he visited Peter and James the Brother of Jesus, so he likely received the creed around 36. Finally, the phrase “for our sins (kata tas graphas)” is notable because Paul usually refers to sin in the singular sense, making this an unusual phrase to be of Pauline origin.

A few theological ideas are noteworthy here. First, if this passage really is as old as historians suspect, it means that fairly soon after Christ died (around 33 AD), Christians realized that Jesus’s death had some impact on their sins. This, of course, implies that Jesus is a divine agent, since only God can forgive sins. Jesus’s divinity was, therefore, accepted quite early in the Church, which is remarkable given Judaism’s strict monotheism. “According to the scriptures” (kata tas graphas) suggests that Christians were also already drawing parallels between the events surrounding Jesus’s life and the Hebrew scriptures. Thus, while the notion of Christ dying for sins according to scriptures might seem rudimentary to modern Christians, it is remarkable how soon early Christians subscribed to these ideas.

and that he was buried (etaphe); that he was raised (egegertai) on the third day according to (kata) the (tas) scriptures (graphas)

The “was buried (etaphe)” and “was raised (egegertai)” are important because they are in the passive voice. In the Hebrew scriptures, deeds written in the passive voice are often attributed to God. It is notable how not only did early Christians believe in a resurrection, but that this resurrection was caused by God, Himself. “According to the scriptures (kata tas graphas),” which has been mentioned twice in this creed so far, is also atypical of Paul, who usually writes “it has been written (gegraptai).” This, again, seems to suggest that this passage is not Pauline. Again, Jesus’s connection to the scriptures is remarkable because it demonstrates that Christians were confident in Jesus’s role as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecies.

and that he appeared to Cephas (Kepha), then to the (tois) Twelve (dodeka).

Testimonials were very important to early Christian writers. The use of Peter’s Aramaic name, Cephas, is significant because St. Paul does not often use his Aramaic name, providing further evidence that this creed was not Pauline in origin. “The twelve (dodeka)” is also not often used by Paul (many sources I read say it is unique to this passage, as he usually refers to the apostles in broader terms). If the early Church really professed this creed, then it not only embraced a tradition of twelve chosen apostles but acknowledged Peter as its leader as well.

In summary, from this creed, which many scholars believe originated more than three years after the death of Christ, we learn that:

  1. The early Christians thought that Christ’s death had some impact on their sins, a role that only God, Himself, could play
  2. The early Christians saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecies, especially in his death and resurrection
  3. The early Christians believed that Jesus was resurrected by God, Himself
  4. The tradition of twelve apostles is rooted in the earliest Christian beliefs
  5. The early Christians assigned a special role to Peter among the apostles

The next part of the passage reads “Thereafter he appeared to more than five hundred brothers (adelphois) at once of whom most remain, while some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to Hames, then to all the apostles (apostolois).” Most scholars agree that this section was not part of the original creed because it uses the Pauline term “brothers (adelphois) to refer to Christians, as well as “apostles (apostolois)” to refer to the disciples. These terms are typical Pauline language that would not likely have been used by early Christians in Jerusalem.

It is notable that even the most prolific skeptics and critics of Biblical authorship agree that this passage is an early Christian creed. Gerd Ludemann and John Dominic Crossan, two heavyweights of the “Jesus Seminar”, a highly criticized project that attributes less than 20 percent of Jesus’s sayings to a historical Jesus, believe that this passage is an early Christian creed. While I am personally not a professional biblical scholar, I hope this article has at least sparked some of your interest in this verse, and I hope that you take a look at some of the links mentioned in the first paragraph, which have compiled some valuable quotes from acclaimed scholars.

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