Making the Case for the Resurrection

The most detailed explanation of the Resurrection in the New Testament is presented by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. He spends what we have as the first eleven verses establishing the historic fact of the Resurrection.

This is unique in Scripture. Nowhere else is there a lengthy exposition to prove that a particular event occurred. With the rest of Scripture it is not so important that a particular event occurred, but rather what can be learned in the telling of it.

Paul is concerned here with establishing the validity of the witnesses to the Resurrection.

Paul’s first witness is the Scriptures. He is not referring to the New Testament Scriptures we have today, because for the most part, those had not even been written, and it would be some time thereafter that they would be accepted as being divinely inspired and on par with the Church’s Scriptures at the time, what we call the Old Testament.

In John 20, the disciple whom Jesus loved says that he and Peter believed in the Resurrection at the tomb, however he says in verse 9, “For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” On the day of the Resurrection, Jesus is on the road to Emmaus chatting with Cleopas and his friend. According to Luke 24:27, “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”

In neither case is the author referring to some sort of proof-texting exercise. All of the Old Testament told a story that culminated in the Resurrection of Christ.

The next witnesses are Cephas – a name Paul often uses for Peter – and the Twelve. Of course that Twelve doesn’t include Judas Iscariot, but Matthias who was chosen by the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy to take his place. (See Acts 1:15-26)

The next witness is the 500 brethren, most of whom are still alive and could be questioned directly.

Then there are James and all the apostles. This James refers to James the step-brother of Jesus who was the first bishop of Jerusalem. We see him in the book of Acts and he is likely the author of the New Testament Epistle bearing that name. All the apostles refers to everyone else referred to as an apostle who is not one of the Twelve. This would include people like James, as Paul also indicated in Galatians 1:19, and Barnabas, who is referred to as an apostle in Acts 14:14.

The final witness is Paul himself, who is the last apostle, referring to himself as “one born out of due time.”

One of the important things we see in verse 7 is that he appeared to all of the apostles. This is one of the requirements of being an apostle – to have personally seen the risen Lord. This is one of the reason that we know there are no more apostles.

Paul also makes this clear in Ephesians 2:20, where he refer to the Church as “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone”. Just like in the English translation, the Greek verb denotes a past completed action. The apostles and prophets were also the foundation and they have already been built upon. Ephesians 3:5 also described part of the apostolic office as those to whom the mystery of Christ “has now been revealed.”

This directly contradicts those who would claim modern apostleship, even when it has been based upon a putative personal vision of the Lord. This fad has been around from time to time, particularly since what is commonly referred to as the Second Great Awakening. It is a feature of the Latter Day Saint Movement, which we now call the Mormons. The title apostle also seems to be used with some frequency in various historically African-American Pentecostal groups. While much more prevalent in American Christianity, it also appeared in what was called the Catholic Apostolic Movement in Britain and Germany starting in the 1830s.

Modern apostleship was popular in certain nondenominational charismatic circles in the 1970s and 1980s as an attempt to create a kind of episcopal governmental structure, based on the erroneous notion that apostleship has something to do with church planting. The ecclesiology in which this flourished laid the groundwork for the much more insidious New Apostolic Revival movement, which like the Latter Day Saint movement claims to be the re-establishment of the apostolic office with universal authority over the Church. But perhaps more on that another time.

One thing you may notice about the list of witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15 is that, unlike in the Gospel accounts, there are no women mentioned. This is not an attempt to ignore them. Paul is aware that, right or wrong, women were not considered competent legal witnesses. Paul is building a case for the Resurrection. He is demonstrating that what he is saying would hold up in front of the most rigorous judicial process.

That’s the point of Paul’s opening argument in 1 Corinthians 15. Once that is established, he will explain the theological necessity of the Resurrection. In other word, having demonstrated that the Resurrection did happen, he will show that it must have happened.

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