Mainstream New Testament scholarship on the Gospels is considerably more conservative than it was, say, forty years ago (or thirty, or perhaps even twenty). For example, the greater number of New Testament critics seemed to agree as a kind of in-house duty that the Gospels were written late in the first century – the later the better, and if you can find a way of saying that they weren’t finished until the second century, even better! The centre of what is “mainstream” has moved a long way since then. Now it is voices like N. T. Wright, Craig Evans and Richard Bauckham that are setting the pace. Much of the extraordinary scepticism and radical reconstruction of first century Christianity is now seen as simply unwarranted.
But I digress (I got distracted by a certain sense of satisfaction with the sea change that the world of biblical studies has seen). Even those with outdated and extraordinarily sceptical approaches to New Testament studies acknowledge the relatively early date of authorship of the letters written by the Apostle Paul. The first epistle to the Corinthians was composed in the mid fifties, around twenty-five years after the crucifixion. From reading through the letter you can see that one of the theological issues that the church in Corinth was struggling with was scepticism over the resurrection. This was understandable, given the pagan culture in which they lived. Dualism was a rampant belief system, and the idea of eternal survival as an immortal soul would have seemed perfectly natural. A physicalist idea like resurrection however would seem crude to some by comparison to a higher, “spiritual” existence. Part of Paul’s method of convincing them of the resurrection of the dead was to stress to them the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Here is part of what Paul said, from 1 Corinthians chapter 15 verses 3-7:
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.
Here’s where I want to draw your attention: “he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” Why is this important? Consider the following:
There’s no serious doubt over the fact that this letter was written less than thirty years after the crucifixion (which was around AD 30). It was written, therefore, easily within the lifetime of the people that Paul was referring to (as he himself says). He is writing this as a means of persuading people of the resurrection, by giving a list of witnesses to the risen Christ. It is quite obvious why it is important, for the purposes of persuasion, to point out that most of these five hundred people are still alive. It meant that if there was any question over whether they were actually witnesses, they were still living and breathing and people could still check with them whether they had seen the risen Jesus. Paul may as well have been saying “look, if you still don’t believe me, there are hundreds of people who saw Jesus alive again, and they are still alive. Just ask them!”
Imagine the tremendous risk that Paul would be taking if he was lying, and that Jesus had not been raised from the dead and had not appeared to Paul. If a major testable claim like this one was false, then any recipient of this early Christian letter could have called Paul’s bluff and blown his cover. If the witnesses were supposedly numerous and still living members of the first century church but in reality they didn’t exist, then a simple question could have been devastating: “Oh really, well if you’re so confident that we can check with them, then give me a few names. I will check with them.”
This is why these comments by the Apostle Paul in very early Christian literature bear striking witness to the actual existence of eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Paul could not have been foolish enough to so openly expose himself to discovery as a fraud. His words betray an actual confidence of being acquainted with the witnesses themselves.