To further zero in on the question of exactly how early do we see references by Paul to Jesus as an actual historical person, we turn to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Many modern scholars believe Paul only wrote seven of his credited thirteen letters in the New Testament. Out of these seven, I Corinthians is as a sure fire bet to most critics. Within the letter itself, there is an interesting pre-Pauline creedal statement in chapter fifteen (verses 3-5).
L. Michael White (he is director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin) comments on this passage:
I Corinthians was probably written in about 53-54 CE and was one of Paul’s earlier letters. … The first part of this formula – “I received … what I also handed on to you, that. …” was regularly used for passing on oral tradition and is also found in the Rabbinic sources. It is sometimes called the tradition summary formula. The word “that” functions in Greek like quotation marks, to mark direct discourse or cited material. … The use of these units in oral tradition pushes Paul’s account to yet an earlier stage – at least in the 40’s. Thus, we are much closer to the time of Jesus and within the first decade or so of the movement.*
Gary Habermas lists a number of works that show many of the words in this mini-creed are “non-Pauline, again indicating another origin of this material”.** Habermas also cites Joachim Jeremias, who “notes such non-Pauline phrases as":***
(1) “for our sins” (v. 3);
(2) “according to the scriptures” (vv. 3–4);
(3) “he has been raised” (v. 4);
(4) the “third day” (v. 4);
(5) “he was seen” (vv. 5–8); and
(6) “the twelve” (v. 5).
Jeremias also points to the use of the Aramaic Cephas in verse 5 instead of the Greek Peter as yet another indication of an earlier Semitic source.****
It is highly likely that Paul received this tradition in Jerusalem shortly after his conversion in Damascus. If so, Paul referred to the event in Galatians 1:18-19:
“Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother” (NASB).
This would push the date back: no later than 38 AD and even as early as 33 AD.
Either way, this is an unbelievably early witness to the death and burial (not to mention the resurrection) of Jesus. There are a number of reasons why all this is significant; two major ones are it shows that tradition about Jesus is centered in Jerusalem and undeniably early. On it being early, we must keep in mind that legends of extraordinary caliber do not crop up within five years of the reported events - especially if the legend was based on a man who never even lived!
Adjunct Professor of Education at Arizona State University, Dr. Donald K. Sharpes, makes an interesting off-hand comment about Paul’s testimony to the existence of Jesus in his book Lord of the Scrolls: Literary Traditions in the Bible and Gospels:
“There are enough fragments, imperial decrees, Tacitus and Josephus’s brief notations and Paul’s testimony with Peter, John and James who actually knew Jesus to suggest that he was a real person, crucified under orders from Pontius Pilate, and that he had a brother James who was stoned to death”. *****
This is noteworthy because Sharpes does hold to a version of the “Mystery Religions influenced Christianity” theory and the statement takes place in a chapter entitled “The Manufactured Jesus: evidence and Mystery”.
Overall, I concur with the analysis of Dunn, who concludes that the Q Source plausibly even existed during the lifetime of Jesus. ****** Further, Dunn states, “the character [of Q] was already impressed in and on the Jesus tradition as it was orally circulated already during the mission of Jesus.” ******* Next, we shall go from early Q to the earliest historians.
*L. Michael White, From Jesus to Christianity: How Four Generations of Visionaries & Storytellers Created the New Testament and Christian Faith (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 119.
White, who served as principal historical consultant and co-writer for PBS Frontline’s “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”, also affirms the existence of Jesus: “That Jesus was a real figure of first-century Judean history is no longer much questioned, as it once was. Later sources from opposing camps – Romans, Jews, and Christians – show that all sides acknowledged both his life and his death” (From Jesus to Christianity, 95).
** Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1996), 153.
*** Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 153.
**** Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, translated by Norman Perrin (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1966), 101–102.
***** Donald K. Sharpes, Lord of the Scrolls: Literary Traditions in the Bible and Gospels (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2007), 181.
****** James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 21-54.
******* James D.G. Dunn, A New Perspective on Jesus, Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 121.