What Were the Disciples Saying About Jesus Prior to Writing the Gospels?
by J. Warner Wallace
Last weekend I had the great honor of speaking several times at Southern Evangelist Seminary’s National Apologetics Conference. The highlight of my time there (aside from hanging out with my dear friends, Frank and Stephanie Turek) was the panel discussion where I joined Gary Habermas, Ted Wright, Joseph Bergeron, and Bryant Wood to talk about the historicity and deity of Jesus. We discussed the transmission of the New Testament documents and the period of time prior to the creation of these documents. The Biblical eyewitnesses didn’t immediately write down their observations about Jesus. Following the resurrection, many years passed before the first Gospel was penned. In this “tunnel period” between the resurrection of Jesus and the authorship of the first Gospels, the eyewitnesses communicated their observations orally. What precisely were the disciples saying about Jesus prior to writing the Gospels? Were their oral statements consistent with the Gospel accounts? How can we determine what they said about Jesus? As it turns out, we have an evidential record of the earliest statements about Jesus. They’re embedded in the writings of the Apostle Paul.
Paul was converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus, where Jesus appeared to him and radically changed the course of Paul’s life. Formerly a devout Jew charged with identifying and destroying the fledgling Christians, Paul became a committed follower of Jesus and eventually penned more New Testament books than any other author. Most scholars think Jesus appeared to Paul within two to three years of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (if, for sake of clarity, we date the resurrection of Jesus at 33AD, Paul would have been converted between 34-35AD). Paul ultimately traveled as a missionary and wrote about the historicity and deity of Jesus.
In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul includes what most scholars believe to be one of the earliest Christian creeds. The vast majority of Biblical scholars accept both the Pauline authorship and early dating of 1 Corinthians (typically locating it’s origin in the mid 50’s). Paul says something important in this letter about the earliest claims related to Jesus:
1 Corinthians 15:3-7
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
Paul said he had already preached information about Jesus to the Corinthians; information he had first received from others. Paul’s words here echo the language used by ancient Rabbis to describe how they would carefully memorize and transmit formal teaching through oral statements. Paul included a short creedal statement related to the historicity and deity of Jesus (and demonstrated his reverence for this information, describing it as “of first importance”). Paul provided several important pieces of data in this creed…
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