Any analysis of the Easter story from a New Testament perspective must grapple with 1 Corinthians 15. 1 Corinthians is almost universally accepted as written by Paul about AD 55/56 and therefore earlier than Acts and some, if not all, of the Gospels.
From the details of Acts 18:12, which mentions Paul in Corinth with Gallio as proconsul of Achaia—and the Gallio inscription, we know that Paul visited Corinth in AD 50 and departed there AD 52. The gospel he preached in Corinth (1 Cor. 15) was already in creedal form and contained critical elements surrounding the resurrection doctrine: literal death (v.3), literal burial (v.4), literal resurrection (v.4), literal multiple post-mortem sightings by people, most of whom were still alive (vv.5-8).
So as early as Paul’s writing was, the content/structure of the gospel he preached, pre-dated his own writing and conversion as he merely passed on what he had received. The words in italics are technical terms used of passing on an entrenched tradition in Jewish circles. This is accepted by a wide and theologically divergent group of scholars such as Reginald Fuller, Oscar Cullmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Martin Hengel, Rudolph Bultmann, Hans Conzelmann, A.M. Hunter, Raymond E. Brown, Norman Perrin, George Ladd, et al.
Owing to the use of the Aramaic term Cephas for Peter (v.5) and several non-Pauline expressions like ‘for our sins’ (v.3), ‘according to the scriptures’ (vv.3-4), ‘he has been raised’ (v.4), the ‘third day’ (v.4), ‘he was seen’ (vv.5-8) and ‘the twelve’ (v.5), along with the triple usage of ‘and that’ (vv. 4, 5), scholars like Ulrich Wilckens and Joachim Jeremias, conclude that the tradition goes back to the oldest phase of primitive Christianity, about 3 to 8 years after the death of Jesus.
To appreciate the full force of the historical nature of the resurrection in this passage one has to remember the audience as Corinthians who had good reason to boast about their intellectual traditions in the university city, Corinth. The common Greek-based Corinthian view—similar to the modern one—was that dead people stay dead, period, they do not rise from the dead at all. This view was also held by some even in the Corinthian Church.
1 Cor 15:12, queries, “Now since it is being preached that Christ was raised from the dead how are some among you saying there is no resurrection of the dead?”
There is no way that one can sustain an argument that what is at issue in the text is some non-historical or figurative ‘resurrection from the dead’, the kind of ‘being alive’ that comes from keeping alive the memory of someone.
There is a clash in the text of two truth-claims, the one, informed by normal history and an a priori position, says explicitly, ‘dead people cannot rise from the dead’, which implied that Jesus could not have been raised from the dead. The other truth-claim, informed by a historical reality, says explicitly, ‘Jesus was raised from the dead’, which implied that the dead can rise, literally.
The historical, the corporeal is both patent and latent in the text and context. In fact, Paul goes on to explain some of the logical, theological and practical consequences of holding to the truth-claim that resurrection from the dead is nonsense.
There is something of special note in this passage. If Paul countenanced a non-historical, non-physical resurrection of Jesus then he could not have argued, without some qualification, that denial of resurrection stripped the Christian message of the things he mentioned in vv.13-19.
One could, like so many clergypersons today, hold that Jesus did not rise from the dead literally but he lives, he is raised spiritually, and because he was raised spiritually—a theological belief—then one could by faith hold to certain beliefs even though they were not historically grounded.
Paul’s philosophical starting point and logic are radically different; hence, he could categorically and with forceful logic declare what he said in vv.13-19. What did he declare in these verses? That if, philosophically, resurrection of the dead is non-sense, not an ontological reality, then seven critical consequences follow, logically: 1) Christ is still dead (vv.13, 16); 2) kerygmatic preaching lacks content (v.14); 3) faith in the kerygma lacks content (v.14); 4) kerygmatic preachers misrepresent God (v.15); 5) the sins of the Corinthian Christians are unpardoned (v. 18); 6) Christian dead people are doomed (v. 18) and 7) living Christians who expect life beyond death are arrant fools (v.19).
1 Cor. 15.3ff then, as German historian Hans von Campenhausen has said, “…meets all the demands of historical reliability that could possibly be made of such a text.” A.M. Hunter says similarly, “The passage therefore preserves uniquely early and verifiable testimony. It meets every reasonable demand of historical reliability.”
It should be noted as well that the truth-claim of a historical bodily resurrection continues in 1 Cor. 15.29 (‘if the dead are not raised actually/at all [Greek: hol?s]’). Also in v.32, Paul suggests the nonsense of endangering one’s life for nothing, if the dead cannot be resurrected. In v.32, Paul’s option to a literal, bodily resurrection is neither existential liberalism (‘Jesus is still dead but I have met the risen Christ’) nor fideistic conservatism (‘you ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart’) but unbridled hedonism – “…if the dead rise not let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”
The truth-claim of a historical, bodily resurrection continues as well in vv. 35-44, in the issue of the nature of the resurrected body.
There is need to press home a linguistic and philosophical point here. In 1 Cor. 15, it should be noted that the critical elements of the gospel are not simply, ‘Jesus died, was buried, was seen’ (because that could be amenable to a non-literal resurrection). The critical element that we left out just now is, ‘was raised’, coming before ‘was seen’. We are emphasizing the linguistic passive construction ‘was raised’ because the passive requires an agent being acted on by another. That activity is independent of a third person who happens to see the person raised. If he simply died, was buried and then was seen the one seeing may be hallucinating or engaged in wish-fulfillment.
However, the fuller construction ‘was raised on the third day’ followed by ‘was seen’ is linguistically and philosophically tighter. ‘Was raised’ here is temporally, logically and metaphysically prior to ‘was seen’. Put differently, ‘was seen’ is dependent on ‘was raised’.
The theological notion of Jesus being Lord, the doctrine of sins being forgiven or justification being imputed, the assurance of victory over death all rest on the historical truth-claim that the Father raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 2:24, 29-32, 36; Romans 4:24-25; 1 Corinthians 15:52-57; 2 Corinthians 4:14).
From the standpoints of literary intent and literary content the New Testament writers that treat with the resurrection of Jesus Christ were writing history. The clear or veiled didactic or ethical purpose that may emerge in these writings in no way militates against the basic historicity of the documents as this was a common technique in ancient historiography, as classical historian Colin Hemer urges.
It is our contention that the New Testament writers that deal with the resurrection of Jesus Christ intended to convey, and were successful in conveying to readers, what really took place in the history of the last days of the earthly life of Jesus.
Craig Blomberg’s dictum adequately sums up the issue. “Unless there is good reason for believing otherwise one will assume that a given detail in the work of a particular historian is factual…The alternative is to presume the text unreliable unless convincing evidence can be brought forward in support of it…[this method] is wholly unjustified by the normal canons of historiography. Scholars who would consistently implement such a method when studying other ancient historical writing would find the corroborative data so insufficient that the vast majority of accepted history would have to be jettisoned.” (The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 1987, p. 240).