Today the blog continues its examination of St. Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. Previous material on this topic and on Genesis and Mark, can be accessed from my archive. Biblical references can be placed after emmock.com as can particular topics eg. emmock.com John 3:16; or emmock.com obedience. The daily headlines are reminders of the world we live in.
1 Corinthians 15
15 Now, brothers, I must remind you of the Good News which I proclaimed to you, and which you received, and on which you have taken your stand, 2 and by which you are being saved — provided you keep holding fast to the message I proclaimed to you. For if you don’t, your trust will have been in vain. 3 For among the first things I passed on to you was what I also received, namely this: the Messiah died for our sins, in accordance with what the Bible says; 4 and he was buried; and he was raised on the third day, in accordance with what the Bible says; 5 and he was seen by Peter, then by the Twelve; 6 and afterwards he was seen by more than five hundred brothers at one time, the majority of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Later he was seen by James, then by all the emissaries; 8 and last of all he was seen by me, even though I was born at the wrong time. 9 For I am the least of all the emissaries, unfit to be called an emissary, because I persecuted the Messianic Community of God. 10 But by God’s grace I am what I am, and his grace towards me was not in vain; on the contrary, I have worked harder than all of them, although it was not I but the grace of God with me. 11 Anyhow, whether I or they, this is what we proclaim, and this is what you believed.
This has been widely recognised as an important passage because it is one of the first formal statements of the common Christian gospel, that is, of the tradition about Jesus current in the believing communities at the time Paul became a believer, namely between 40 and 45 CE only 12 or so years after the execution of Jesus. It provides important historical evidence:
1. that Paul is acting and writing as part of an organised association of people which names Jesus Messiah as the source of its identity;
2. that this Jesus was a Jewish man and is believed to be the Jewish Messiah or anointed leader;
3. that his death, described elsewhere by Paul as ‘ on the Roman execution stake’ was nevertheless meaningful as being ‘for our sins’ and ‘according to what the Bible says ‘
4. that he was buried but ‘rose again’ on ‘the third day.’
5. that this rising is proven by his ‘being seen’ by witnesses, many of whom were still alive when Paul was writing. He names Peter, the twelve disciples, 500 brothers, James, all the emissaries, and finally Paul, who is not only last but least because he had persecuted the followers of Jesus.
6. Paul associates this tradition with God’s kindness to him, in spite of his unkindness to the believers. Whatever he has been able to achieve has been done through God’s kindness (grace).
It seems reasonably clear that the reference to Jesus’ ‘death for our sins according to the bible’ points to Isaiah chapter 53 especially verses 8 and 9, in which the suffering of God’s servant is portrayed as an offering that brings atonement with God to the Gentiles. This is interesting because the traditional phrase ‘our sins’ then means that the first believers, who were Jewish, saw themselves and perhaps their whole nation as being no better than Gentiles. In addition the scriptural reference means that fairly soon after the birth of faith in Jesus, his death (and life?) was interpreted as that of God’s servant described by Isaiah.
It also seems clear that the reference to Jesus ‘ rising on the third day according to the scripture’ points to Hosea 6:2, in which the third day is not a designation of time but to the decisiveness of God’s mercy. The third day is not therefore, in this passage a confirmation of the Gospel story of Friday to Sunday but may be the origin of it. Here it means that God’s decisive mercy raised Jesus to life.
As regards the meaning of Jesus being ‘seen’ we can use Paul’s description his own vision of Jesus, in Galatians 1:15: ” it pleased the one who had set me aside from my mother’s womb and called me by his kindness, to reveal his son in me, so that I might announce him as good news to the Gentiles.” We must not use the accounts in the book of The Acts to flesh out this account, as Luke is writing some forty years later, and is creating a “dramatised version” of events. Paul himself gives no account of the circumstances of this revelation nor of his psychological experience, but simply states its content: God revealed his son in me. We may conclude from this that ‘ seeing the risen Jesus’ is an event in which God reveals his son in a person. There seems also to be an implication in the way Paul speaks, that this particular event of seeing has been completed with his own vision of Jesus, which confirmed him as an emissary. Paul confirms this in chapter 9 of this letter in verse 1: Am I not free? Am I not an emissary? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?
People who say that Paul is here laying down facts that must be simply accepted are mistaken, given that the crucial references to Jesus ‘ death and resurrection involve biblical interpretations that go beyond all facts. Equally those who say there no facts here a also mistaken ; Paul was not naming witnesses for fun. In truth Paul is reminding his converts of the ‘gospel’ which is neither a list of historical facts nor simply a record of profound convictions but a mixture of both, which over time has its own factual history, including Paul’s conversion and ministry. To deny that Paul is recording profound convictions is to erase the ceativity of human faith from the gospel; while to deny the embedded facts is to cut the gospel loose from the mundane world. The Gospel, the story of God’s rescue of the cosmos, includes faith and facts, and is always the one story but it can be told in many different ways, as we can see within Paul’s letters and when we compare the letters with the four gospels.
Paul is saying that soon after the death of Jesus Messiah on a Roman execution stake, men and women who could be named, experienced him as alive, came to understand his death as a self-sacrifice which reconciled them to God, and began to tell this story as an announcement of God’s blessing on the world, the good news.