Table of Contents
(Translated from the PT version)
It’s Easter again!
Easter is originally a Jewish holiday , but it was adopted by Christians as a time of celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Last Supper, just before Jesus was arrested and sentenced to death, was the celebration of the Jewish Passover .
We celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, the most important fact of Christianity. If Jesus was not resurrected then Christianity is false.
The main sources that affirm this fact are the documents of the New Testament, but this is composed of several books, written on different dates. Common sense tells us that the closer an event is to your account, the more likely it is to be true to reality, as there was less time for legendary and mythological embellishments.
What are the dates of composition of the various books of the New Testament? In round numbers, the four gospels are dated 40 to 65 years after the crucifixion, with Mark the oldest and John the most recent. The Apostle Paul’s letters, which make up a large part of the New Testament, all predate this. Paul died about 40 years after Jesus. There is no complete consensus on the exact dates, but we are certainly in the correct decades.
Is 40 years after the fact close enough?
Let’s make three comparisons with other historical figures:
- Buddha lived in the 6th century BC. The oldest Buddhist texts we have date from 500 to 900 years after the birth of Buddha.
- Muhammad lived in the 6th century after Christ. His earliest biography of him dates to over 100 years after his death, but we don’t have it. The oldest surviving records date back over 200 years after Muhammad.
- Alexander the Great lived in the 4th century BC. The oldest source of information we have about his life dates from 300 years after the fact.
We can see that the New Testament is well positioned to be a reliable source of information when it comes to staying close to events. There are letters from the apostle Paul that date back 20 years after Jesus’ death. But can we get any closer?
The New Testament Creeds #
In Paul’s letters we find small passages that have a different formulation from the rest of the surrounding text. They are credal formulations , constructed in a way that aids recitation and memorization. These creeds are styled differently from the rest of the text of the letters, and in some of them Paul claims that he received them. For this reason many believe that a good many (if not all) of these creeds are pre-Pauline. These creeds are probably the oldest historical record of Christendom and are a unique window into the content of the early Christian proclamation.
What is the content of these creeds? Let’s read 4 of them
CREED 1 #
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved
This creed clearly affirms the resurrection, but it also identifies Jesus with the Jews’ own God, YHWH or Jehovah . Paul calls Jesus “Lord”, and 3 verses later he quotes a verse from the Old Testament in which the name of God is translated Lord.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved;
CREED 2 #
regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord
In this creed Jesus is called the Son of God and his humanity and resurrection are affirmed.
CREED 3 #
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
In this creed, Jesus is affirmed as a being who pre-existed his incarnation in a divine form, but decided to humble himself to the point of being condemned to death unjustly. Yet God reversed his humiliation and exalted him above all creation.
CREDO 4 #
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
This creed is very interesting in that it affirms the resurrection while enumerating its eyewitnesses.
In summary, the early Christians immediately after Jesus’ death affirmed his divinity , pre-existence , death for our sins , burial , and resurrection . These ideas were not later developments that took years to crystallize. They are the basic facts of Christianity from its genesis.
But how early can we date these creeds? It is impossible to date them precisely. However, we can make good estimates. Knowing a little about the history of the apostle Paul, we know of two moments in which he had contact with the church in Jerusalem, the place of all these events.
Three years after his conversion, Paul met with Peter and James . Fourteen years after that the first council of Jerusalem took place around the year 50. It is possible that Paul received these creeds from the other apostles at one of these times. The exact dates of the apostle’s life are disputed, but not by much. We can consider a margin of error of about two years. We are therefore sure that these creeds would have been fully developed 20 years after Jesus’ death.
However, if we are willing to speculate a little, we can go a step further and try to date the very creation of these creeds. I contend that even before the apostle Paul himself was converted, two to five years after the crucifixion, these creeds would already be in circulation among believers. To support this claim I will give two arguments.
First, it is stated in the book of Acts that Paul persecuted the church, arrested , threatened and even consented to the death of Christians. Why were Paul and the Jewish religious so angry with the Christians? Was it because they claimed a resurrection? Not. Paul as a Pharisee accepted the resurrection . Was it because they affirmed the coming of the messiah? Not. That would be a good thing for a Jew. However, one thing a faithful Jew could not accept was the claim that a man was divine. Jesus as God was unacceptable, and in the eyes of a Pharisee a blasphemy punishable by death.
Second, we can read that immediately after his conversion Paul preached the same Christian message that made those who affirmed it worthy of death.
At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah. After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him
This is the message that Christians have been saying for nearly 2000 years.
Jesus pre-existed his incarnation. He is God himself. He voluntarily “stripped” himself in order to enter the world in human form. He died crucified for our sins and was buried. His tomb is empty because he is risen! Happy Easter!