Gary Habermas on the Pre-Pauline Creed of 1 Cor. 15

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1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is widely recognized by New Testament scholars as a statement of belief (creed) that was systematized long before Paul quoted it.  If so, it represents the earliest historical account of Jesus’ resurrection, and goes back to the eyewitnesses themselves.  Gary Habermas comments on the very early date of this creed, which even skeptical scholars acknowledge.

Do critical scholars agree on the date of this pre-Pauline creed?  Even radical scholars like Gerd Lüdemann think that “the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion . . . no later than three years after the death of Jesus.”  Similarly, Michael Goulder contends that Paul’s testimony about the resurrection appearances “goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.”

An increasing number of exceptionally influential scholars have very recently concluded that at least the teaching of the resurrection, and perhaps even the specific formulation of the pre-Pauline creedal tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, dates to AD 30!  In other words, there never was a time when the message of Jesus’ resurrection was not an integral part of the earliest apostolic proclamation.  No less a scholar than James D. G. Dunn even states regarding this crucial text: “This tradition, we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’ death.

— Gary Habermas, “Tracing Jesus’ Resurrection to Its Earliest Eyewitness Accounts,” God is Great, God is Good (InterVarsity Press, 2009), 212.

For the sources quoted by Habermas, see here at Google Books.  For more on the pre-Pauline creed, see here.

This early dating seriously damages claims of long periods of time when legends about Jesus supposedly developed and became part of Christian proclamation.  It also puts to rest unfounded speculations about the purported role pagan mythology played as source material for Jesus’ resurrection.  William Lane Craig soundly critiques that position here.

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13 thoughts on “Gary Habermas on the Pre-Pauline Creed of 1 Cor. 15

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  4. Gary,

    I think a run-down of the early resurrection appearances may clear up any misunderstandings.

    * Mark 16:14 describes an appearance to “the Eleven” — which no doubt means all the disciples except Judas. However, this is part of the Mark 16:9-20 passage that doesn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts, so it’s not relevant for trying to reconstruct the post-crucifixion appearances.

    * Luke 24:36-43 and John 20:19-25 appear to be parallel accounts of Jesus’ appearance “on the first day of the week.” Luke notes that this appearance was to “the Eleven.” John adds the detail that Thomas “was not with the disciples when Jesus came” (John 20:24), but does not specify how many disciples were present.

    * One week later, Jesus appeared again while Thomas was present (John 20:24-29). Here, the title “the Twelve” is used (John 20:24).

    The only potential problem that arises in relation to the number of disciples is between the parallel accounts mentioned above of Luke 24:36-43 and John 20:19-25. If Thomas weren’t present, one wonders why Luke would use the term “the Eleven.” I think the best explanation is that, like “the Twelve,” the term “the
    Eleven” is a title that doesn’t necessarily specify an exact number. Just as John used the title “the Twelve” (John 20:24) when both Judas and Thomas were absent, I believe Luke uses “the Eleven” although Thomas is absent at this appearance (Luke 24:36-43). “The Eleven” is also used as a title in Acts 1:26 and 2:14. One thing that’s helpful to keep in mind is that modern conventions of writing are very different from ancient conventions. Ancient writers often used round numbers rather than exact figures (as Stephen does in Acts 7:6, using 400 years for the Egyptian slavery period, while Exodus reports 430 years), so Luke using “the Eleven,” although ten were present, wouldn’t have been considered unusual. I think this is the most plausible way to approach this (from a modern viewpoint) dilemma.

    Take care,

  5. Yes, I know it doesn’t say “the 11” in Jn 20. But we’ve noted above that Jesus’ first appearance to “The 12” was to 11 of them, Jn 20 seems to clearly state that Thomas was not present at that meeting, so it remains a mystery to me who comprised “the 11” at Jesus’ first appearance to them.

  6. Gary,
    Actually, the phrase “the eleven” doesn’t appear in John 20. It only says that Thomas was “one of the Twelve” (v. 24). There are four verses in the gospels where the number of apostles is described as “eleven,” all occuring after the resurrection (Matt. 28:16; Mark 16:14; Luke 24:9, 33), indicating the absence of Judas. So, I don’t believe there’s a problem with the number of apostles/disciples. Sometimes they’re called by the formal title of “the Twelve” and in other cases the exact number is used, “the eleven.”

  7. Chris,

    Your thoughts about “The 12” are very helpful to me, but I still don’t know what to do with Jn 24-25 in regards to the make up of “the 11.” It seems clear here that Thomas was not present at Jesus the first post resurrection appearance to “the 11.” And since “11” is an exact number, not a title, I’m curious who the 11th disciple was.

    God bless,


  8. Hi Gary,

    I’m glad we agree that “the twelve” was a recognized title for the original 12 apostles–even after Judas’s death and even when some apostles were absent at a given time. You mentioned that the Gospel writers would probably have used the title “the twelve” in that case, and it appears that they did (Mark 4:10; Luke 8:1; John 6:70). As you noted, there are also a couple of instances after the resurrection where “the eleven” is used (Matt. 28:16; Luke 24:9). It seems reasonable to conclude that “the twelve” was a formal title that was used in some contexts, while in others the gospel writer chose to use the actual number (after the loss of Judas) of “eleven.”
    Take care,

  9. That’s not a bad explaination of why 1 Cor. 15 would say “the 12” and I don’t have trouble believing that “The 12” was a title for the disciples (even if some where missing). But if that was the case, I think it would be likely that the writers of the Gospels would also use this title for them since it was creedal and came along before they wrote their accounts. If it was a title and creedal, It seems to me that the Gospel writers would say something like ‘Jesus appeared to the 12 minus Judas or Thomas,’ or something like that. However, they just state that Jesus appeared to “the 11?” This seems to me to be a strange and ‘unorthodox’ thing to say. (We don’t change the creedal statements that have been passed down to us.)Also, it does seems clear as per John 20-24-25 that Thomas was not among ‘the 11’ when Jesus first appeared to them. So If Judas was not there (and I can certainly understand your desire to not have him there), that would leave ‘the 10.’

    >>Jn 24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” <<

  10. Hi Gary,

    Thanks for this interesting question. I think the most likely explanation is that the original 12 apostles (minus Judas, leaving 11) were still known as “the Twelve” even after Judas’s death. This seems to be a formal title that wasn’t abandoned even though Judas left the group.

    One example of this usage is in John 20:24, which you referenced also, which notes that Thomas was “one of the Twelve.” It appears that Judas hanged himself immediately after Jesus was turned over to the authorities (Matt. 27:5), so that John still applies the term “the Twelve” to those who saw Jesus alive (in John 20) — excluding Judas who was already dead. So even in Judas’s absence, the title “the Twelve” was still being used. Craig Blomberg adopts this view (

    as does Anthony Thiselton (p. 1204 and 1205 in this reference: ).

    So, I believe Paul was using this title (the Twelve) in 1 Cor. 15, which was a part of the creed that he was quoting that went back to the apostles themselves.

    All the best,

  11. Paul here quoting the earliest known Christian creed seems to contradict the Gospel accounts of how many apostles were present when Jesus appeared to them. The Gospels state that Jesus after the resurrection appeared to “the 11.” Some argue that the 11 included Judas Iscariot because John 20:24 reports that Thomas was not among them when Jesus came; others argue that Judas Iscariot was the missing of the 12 because he committed suicide after betraying Jesus, as in Matthew 27:3-5. Either way we have a report in the Gospels of Jesus appearing to 11 and not 12 in the Gospel records which appears to be in contradiction to the creedal statement offered in the Pauline letter. This needs an explanation.

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