The Earliest Report of the Resurrection of Jesus Likely Dates Back to AD 35 or Earlier

Going on the radio to promote a book is a weird experience.  One problem is that writers tend to immerse themselves in their topics and so fail to appreciate that other people don’t know anything about their subject… and don’t really care.

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That’s even true when the subject is Christianity and Jesus of Nazareth.

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For example, during my last book tour some of my media interlocutors were a bit shocked when I mentioned that the earliest report about Jesus’s resurrection dates to just a few years after the Crucifixion – say, circa AD 31 or 32.

They assumed, like most people, that the earliest reports are found in the Gospels, perhaps in the Gospel of Mark, which the scholarly consensus dates to around AD 70 – or 40 years after the Crucifixion around AD 30 or 33.  They’ve heard this like a mantra from Internet skeptics:  the earliest reports of the Resurrection date 40 or 50 years after the Crucifixion.

No, I’d say, that’s not true.

In fact, the earliest report we have is from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians – and that, in turn, is his recounting of what he himself heard right after his conversion on the way to Damascus.

I then quoted the passage in full:

“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.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me (1 Cor 15: 3-8, ESV)

This is the earliest report of the resurrection of Jesus – a creedal statement that Paul “received” not more than three years after the Crucifixion.

It’s not clear precisely when Paul received this summary account.  In his letter to the Galatians, perhaps written in AD 46 but probably later, Paul relates his visit to Jerusalem three years after his conversion when he “went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days (1:18).”

However, following his vision on the road to Damascus, he met with leaders of the Jesus movement in that city, and so he could have heard this report there.

Even skeptical scholars, with a few exceptions, accept that this early “pre-literary” report of the Resurrection dates to just a few years following the Crucifixion.  The exception to this are more radical critics, known as “mythicists,” who claim that Jesus of Nazareth never existed at all – and that this passage was invented in the second century of the common era when pagan Greeks invented the “Christ myth.”

For most historians and skeptical scholars, however, Paul’s report in 1 Corinthians is just as it seems to be, the recounting in the mid-50s, when he likely wrote this letter, of reports he had heard very soon after his own vision of the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Of course, this early report has problems of its own for anyone who wants to harmonize all of the various resurrections accounts – as I do in my new book, The Dawn of Christianity. For one thing, there is no mention of an empty tomb, as in the Gospels.  Nor is there mention of the women who first found the empty tomb.  In addition, this report refers to individuals who saw the risen Jesus who are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts, such as the apostle Peter and James and the “five hundred.”

But what this very ancient passage does show is that the followers of Jesus believed Jesus rose from the dead very, very early.

One of the differences between the historians and scholars of today and those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is that even many secular, agnostic, and even atheist scholars now accept that something extraordinary happened to Jesus’ earliest followers—something that led them to believe Jesus had come back to life after death.

Some of world’s most skeptical New Testament scholars now affirm this, including agnostics such as Bart Ehrman, Jesus Seminar skeptics such as Robert Funk,  and secular historians such as Marcus Borg  and E. P. Sanders.

“There can be no doubt, historically, that some of Jesus’s followers came to believe he was raised from the dead – no doubt whatsoever,” Bart Ehrman concludes. “… Jesus’s followers – or at least some of them – came to believe that God had done a great miracle and restored Jesus to life.”[1]  The secular New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders asserts that  it is a “fact” that the disciples did have genuine resurrection appearances, although he adds that “what the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.”[2]

[1]   Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 174.

[2]       E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 279–80.

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Robert J. Hutchinson is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).