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As Easter approaches with its commercialization of eggs and bunnies, the irony of new life is not lost upon those whose thoughts turn towards the events of Holy Week. In the first century a new faith came on the scene of the pagan Greco Roman world that literally turned that culture on its head. Its practitioners came to believe that their Lord, an obscure peasant from Nazareth in Galilee, was in fact the creator of the universe who demonstrated that reality by His resurrection from the dead. From this they were able to encapsulate the essentials of their faith in a poetic creed that was easy to memorize in that mostly verbal storytelling era, and which we are fortunate to have a copy of today.
As a result of the arrangement of the gospels as the first books in the New Testament, we think of them as the earliest writings about the resurrection. In reality, though early, they are not the earliest writings about the resurrection. That distinction belongs to Paul the writer of so much of the New Testament, in his letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth. The evidence behind this being the earliest record is quite compelling. Readers of the book of Acts are aware of the legal incident involving Paul in Corinth when Gallio was the proconsul there.  What is significant about this seemingly inconsequential tidbit recorded by Luke is an archeological find at Delphi. There in the ancient Grecian city is an inscription by the Emperor Claudius that mentions Gallio as holding the office of proconsul in Achaia during the emperor’s twenty-sixth acclamation as imperator. That period has been determined to cover the first seven months of A.D.52  Depending on the timing of the event recorded in Acts 18 (i.e.: whether Paul’s difficulties occurred early or late in Gallio’s term of service), Paul’s writing of 1 Corinthians occurred a relatively short time after completing his ministry there which was somewhere in the mid-fifties.  Thus the information from 1 Corinthians is approximately twenty-five years after the resurrection itself, a very short time in terms of ancient literary records of historical events.
However, the evidence within the text itself indicates that Paul is actually conveying even earlier material and this is where it becomes very interesting. Paul essentially uses rabbinical terminology when he writes to the Corinthians, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received …” The meaning is basically that in this section of the letter he is not writing new material, but rather recording the tradition (probably oral) that he had received from others. “These two texts together make it clear that this is technical vocabulary from Paul’s Jewish heritage for the transmission of religious instruction. As with the tradition of the Lord’s Supper, this language indicates that the essential matters go back to the very beginnings of things … [and] were well formed before Paul come on the scene.”  Those from whom Paul received the tradition would have been the founding apostles, most likely Peter and James. The reason Paul wants to convey this as common tradition is because he wants the reader to understand that the gospel is consistent across the early church. He noted in verse eleven, ‘Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.” Thus the creedal discussion in 1 Corinthians 15 is an extremely early record of the worship of the early church. Some have estimated its composition as early as six months, certainly no later than a few years after the resurrection. It’s like having in your hands an example of the liturgy of those ancient Christian communities gathering on the first day of each week.  With this knowledge, let us take a fresh look at what is the very earliest text about the resurrection which is not only powerful in its scope, but also rhythmic in its presentation.
Take a moment and read 1 Cor. 15.1-19. As you read notice that in the first segment Paul is telling the Corinthian’s that he is repeating what they should already know. It will be the basis of his argument concerning the resurrection. He also wants them to be clear that the resurrection (the main topic of the chapter), is of “first importance,” that is to say it matters the most of all. As his argument progresses we readers are led to understand that the resurrection is the center of the faith, not some optional add on. He begins his quote of the creed in the second part of verse 3 which can be seen in the rhythmic layout below:
and that he was buried; and that he appeared to Cephas, then he appeared to James,
According to the Scriptures;
and that he was raised on the third day,
According to the scriptures;
then to the twelve.
after that he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time,
Most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;
then to all the apostles;
and that he was buried;
and that he appeared to Cephas,
then he appeared to James,
Some would break off the creed at “…then to the twelve,” but as you can see the poetic rhythm is quite obvious, even in the English translation. Each of the “that” words introduce a new line of the creed. So often, because we have the scriptures available in book format, we forget the early church was an oral culture. They did not go around with “bibles” to “church”. An oral culture uses structures such as we see above to remember the essential truths both for instruction as well as passing on. So this resurrection weekend as we press our minds back to the earliest members of our faith what should we focus on? There are at least four truths that we not only pin our eternal hopes on, but which we also should come to understand as worth giving our lives for.
So this Good Friday as you contemplate the death of Jesus allow the seriousness of his death drive deep into your soul. Don’t mitigate the implications of our sin being the real force behind the scourging and the nails and the spear. But never forget that Sunday is coming! And when you rise up from your bed Easter morning remember the one who rose up from the grave. It truly is a wonderfully amazing, full of grace gift of new life.
Photo of tomb © / 123RF Stock Photo
 Acts 18
 Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992. 282.
 Morris, Leon. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Volume 7: 1 Corinthians. Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985. 35.
 Fee, Gordon D. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987. 722-3.
 1 Corinthians 16:1
 Fee, 726.
 John 20.8
 Acts 4