Thursday, June 21, 2007

Dating the Gospel Message

The other day, I refuted the charge that the Gospel accounts were written too late to be reliable. We learned that all were written within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses and that in this regard they far surpass other ancient documents deemed reliable.

But we can do much better than that. You see, the agenda behind this charge is to be able to say that the accounts about Jesus are legends--that the time interval between the events of his life (and death) and the written records of them is sufficient to have allowed legends to arise. Thus, all appeals to His divinity, to miracles in general, and to Jesus' bodily resurrection in particular are late inventions of the church. This view is belied by all of the information I discussed in the other post, but today I want to show that this central view of the early church--this understanding of Jesus as the sinless Savior, the miracle-working, dying-and-rising-again Son of God--can be traced all the way back to within two to five years after the crucifixion.

Even the higher critics--the guys like The Jesus Seminar who have bought into naturalism and whose goal is therefore to rid the Scriptures of anything supernatural--accept most of what I'm going to argue here. That is because--for them--while the Gospels are out, Paul is in. So we'll be dealing with a passage from I Corinthians, a letter whose Pauline authorship and date are acknowledged by scholars from across the theological spectrum. Chapter 15, verses 3-8 read...
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.
Scholars recognize this as an early Christian creed, a saying repeated by the faithful that encapsulated what it is they believed. So when did these beliefs arise, long after the alleged events, or from the beginning of the church?

I Corinthians dates to between A.D. 54 and 57, at most 27 years after the crucifixion. This is excellent attestation itself, all the moreso because Paul confidently writes (in effect) 'You don't have to take my word for it--go ask any of a number of eyewitnesses still alive!' But though he wrote these things in, say, A.D. 57, we learn that he had already told the Corinthians these things earlier ("For I delivered to you as of first importance..."). When was that? Luke tells us (in Acts 18:12) that Paul was in Corinth when Gallio was proconsul. We have an extrabiblical source that tells us that this was the case only in A.D. 51. So, now we're back to within 21 years of the crucifixion.

But whereas Paul delivered to the Corinthians in A.D. 51 this understanding about who Jesus is and what He accomplished, he himself received it earlier still. When might that have been? A majority of critics will say that Paul received this teaching in A.D. 35 from Peter and James in Jerusalem. Most date Paul's conversion (on the Damascus Road) to two years after the crucifixion. After spending some time in Damascus, Paul went to Jerusalem to check with the disciples to make sure that they were preaching the same thing that Jesus had directly revealed to him. And this same thing was that Jesus was Messiah, who alone through His sinless life, substitutionary death, and vindicating bodily resurrection was qualified and willing to redeem us from our separation from our Creator.

Paul's Christology--his understanding of Jesus' person and work--was every bit as high as that of the gospel writers. And that view of Jesus--far from being a late invention of the church--was the common understanding from the earliest years of the Christ-followers.

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