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Isn't The Resurrection A Late Mythological Development?

Q: Isn't the resurrection of Jesus just a myth that developed several decades after the crucifixion?

A: The short answer to this question is, no. To understand why, we need to turn to the work of New Testament textual criticism. Before we do this, it may be helpful to understand something about the dating of the books of the New Testament. The Gospels were not the first written accounts that the early church had. The majority of Paul's letters were written prior to the creation of the first written gospel, the Gospel According to Mark. For reasons I will go into in a future post, I would date the Gospel According to Mark to the late-50's AD. However, several of Paul's letters pre-date even Mark's account. Since Paul's letters also contain references to the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, these references would constitute our earliest sources. One of these references in particular should be mentioned.

Paul wrote 1 Corinthians around 55 AD. However, 1 Corinthians contains an extraordinarily early creed in 15:3-8. This is almost universally accepted by scholars today. In fact, it is almost universally accepted that this creed dates back to no more than 5 years after the crucifixion. Paul here uses technical language here equivalent to what a rabbi used when passing along sacred truth. This is thus something that Paul received, not something that Paul created. Most scholars hold that Paul received this creed when he went to visit Jerusalem 3 years after his conversion on the Damascus road. Thus, the latest possible date for this creed is AD 35, which is incredibly early. Many sources, including  atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann, give it an earlier date than this. Lüdemann writes, "We can assume that all the elements in the tradition are be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…..the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE.”[1] Thus we have an incredibly early source in this creed.

The next question to be answered is what the creed itself says about the resurrection, if anything. I will summarize for the purposes of this post, but for a more detailed analysis, see my exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, found here. When this creed declares that Christ was raised, it uses the Greek word "egeiro" (ἐγείρω). This word carries a connotation of a body going from a prone position to a standing position. It did not carry a connotation of a spiritual exaltation, as some have suggested. Furthermore, there appears to be a connection between the phrase "on the third day" in this creed and the Jewish belief regarding decomposition of the body beginning on the fourth day. Jews in the first century had a belief that bodily composition beginning on the fourth day, with the bodily fluids that leaked from the body, was divine recompense for an individual's sins. Thus, this connection necessarily implies the bodily nature of the resurrection. Finally, the textual clues from Paul's epistle suggests that he at least understood the resurrection of Jesus as a bodily resurrection. To the first-century Jew, a non-bodily resurrection was not a possibility. This was certainly true for Paul, as well as for the formulators of this creed.

As if this were not enough, there is also another, more detailed early source that should be noted. Many scholars believe that when Mark began writing his gospel, he used an incredibly early passion narrative. While scholars differ on the reconstruction of this passion narrative, it is generally agreed that such a passion narrative existed. This pre-Markan passion narrative appears to have a terminus ante quem of around 37 AD. This means that a full passion narrative, including the earliest story about the empty tomb, existed no later than 7 years after the crucifixion. It was likely earlier than this.

In conclusion, we can safely say that the belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus goes back to the earliest days of the church, and was not a mythological development that occurred after several decades. Those who claim otherwise really do not have a leg to stand on.

[1] Lüdemann, Gerd. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994. 38.


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