I first started thinking about this post last year during Advent, but I think it's still relevant now as we look ahead a few months to Easter. We know Advent is a time of longing for the fulfillment of God's promises, and baby Jesus is gift we celebrate with an eye toward his death and especially resurrection. Christmas is nothing without Easter.
So it seemed somehow appropriate to come across these notes at PrimeTime Jesus reporting on a analysis of just how early the church started talking about resurrection.
This one is a bit personal for me. Back in 90s, I had a crisis of faith, largely fueled by half-understood truths of New Testament history. I knew, for instance, the gospels were written decades after the events they describe, so I wondered if such a gap made them historically suspect. What, I wondered, was really happening between Jesus' crucifixion and the writing of the gospels? Were they talking about the resurrection as a central pillar of the faith immediately, or was it a later innovation to describe their mere memories of Jesus?
As it turns out, it's not really all that difficult to reconstruct the timeline, but it does bring a few surprises.
One thing that's hard to remember is that Paul is the earliest writer of New Testament works. If we put the New Testament in order of when the books were written, the epistles would come first. I've often wondered what insights could be gained from reading the NT in order of writing and not the content. What would we see emphasized in Paul's descriptions of Jesus if we knew little of the gospels first?
Another is that even Paul was drawing on the oral and maybe written conversation of the church. There were sources going back to the beginning, both eyewitnesses and likely written documentation.So in terms of the timeline, a highly condensed version looks like this: Paul was converted not long after the resurrection itself, likely within a couple years. Paul also quotes material, likely creeds or hymns, in which the bodily resurrection is central (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-6).
But for Paul to have been given an already established creed including resurrection witnesses, known not just in Jerusalem but also in Damascus, some time must have already elapsed for this foundational information to have been crystallized in this form and become widely known in the various locations believers lived and become widely agreed on as the kind of information to be passed on to each new convert.
Ludemann, the atheist, says this means within one to two years from Jesus' death, it was widely agreed on that Christ had been bodily resurrected.
The point here is that it's perfectly likely that the first Christians were immediately preaching the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as the center-point of their faith and God's action in history. Conversely, it's less likely that they thought it up later or meant it poetically.
For good or ill, the traditional understanding of Jesus' resurrection was the first foundational confession of Christianity.