Scholars have noticed that the information Paul passes on in 1 Corinthians 15 is presented in a stylized format. Paul appears to be using the form of parallelism, which is often used as an aid to memorization.
1Cor. 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:
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,
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
In fact, the structure is not unlike that of the Apostles Creed. This fact has led many commentators to conclude that Paul is actually reciting an early Christian creed, the form of which he had received from the earliest followers of Jesus. According to N.T. Wright: “We are here in touch with the earliest Christian tradition, with something that was being said two decades or more before Paul wrote this letter.” If Paul wrote this letter around 53 AD, two decades earlier would have been 33 AD, and that is only a few years removed from the crucifixion. This is essentially the same time that liberal scholar John Dominic Crossan said that Paul went to visit Peter (see Part 2 of this series).
Notice also that there is great specificity to the good news that Paul records. The good news is not merely about God in general or how we can have a relationship with him. Instead, it’s about Christ in particular. Christ is not presented as a groovy teacher or one who offers moral clarity. He’s not presented as a helpful guide to get us through life’s difficulties. There’s nothing here about him being “chicken soup for the soul.”
Rather, Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. This is what the gospel is. It’s both Christ-centered and cross-centered. The gospel is the good news associated with an event regarding the person of Christ. That event includes a particular word in the past tense: he died. That is not an esoteric principle or proverb; it’s an historical claim. With that historical claim we find a purpose statement. According to this early Christian creed, Christ died for our sins. Here we discover that the gospel, as defined by the earliest Christians, was not a kind of therapy or plan for social justice. It was not a collection of groovy ideas by a wise sage. Rather this gospel was a particular historical claim related to the death of a particular Jewish Rabbi, wrapped together with the explanation of this event’s incredible significance.
This gospel was not merely Christ-centered and cross-centered, it was also Scripture centered: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” What Scriptures? Perhaps Paul and the authors of this early creed were thinking of a text like Daniel 9:24-27. This text teaches that when messiah comes, he will “atone for iniquity.” Or perhaps the authors were thinking of the great servant song of Isaiah 53, which says that the man of sorrows will “make many to be accounted righteous and shall bear their iniquities, by pouring his soul unto death.” Or perhaps they were thinking of Zechariah 12 in which God himself says, “I will pour on the house of David… a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn….” That text goes on to say that on that day “there shall be a fountain opened up for the house of David… to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.”
The framers of this early creed could also have been be thinking of the shadows of Christ that we find throughout the law of Moses. For example, earlier in this epistle (1 Corinthians 5:7), Paul writes, “Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed.” In other words, the Passover lamb was but a shadow of things to come but the reality was Christ. This is the same type of language that we heard from John the Baptist who, when he saw his cousin Jesus approaching, said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
But this gospel is not only rooted in atonement. It is also rooted in resurrection:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: 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.
Here this ancient creed argues that throughout the Old Testament not only was Christ’s death foretold but also His resurrection, and that on the third day. The fact that Paul does not cite any scriptures at this point is further evidence that he assumed his audience was familiar with these texts. He is presuming that what he is reciting is part of a memorized formula. In verse 4 we also discover the repetition of the phrase “according to the scriptures,” which is a particular construction not found elsewhere in Paul’s writings. His typical way of interacting with the Old Testament begins with phrases such as “Scripture says,” or “what do the Scriptures say,” along with their citation.
In the next edition of this blog series, we’ll investigate what Old Testament texts Paul and others might have been thinking of when they argued that Christ’s resurrection on the third day was foretold in the Scriptures.