Resurrection beliefs from 1st century Judaism to 21st century Christian apologetics

Jesus after his resurrection. Image from

The topic of the resurrection of Jesus is central to every discussion in Christian Apologetics ministry, either around the existence of God, or the particularities to believe in the Christian God instead of any other monotheistic God, or even why this act was necessary for the forgiveness of sins. This subject can define someone’s metaphysical beliefs by defining how could a perfect being be human and divine in nature (or essence to borrow from Aristotle). It can also define your epistemological basis by changing what is truth depending on the fact that Jesus actually resurrected or not (if the answer is yes, God’s truth is the absolute truth to look for). Or even change your ethics standpoints by starting from the fact that everyone is sinful but can only be forgiven by the blood of Jesus.

Another important aspect is that this discussion happens from the very early Christian tradition in the 1st century. Some scholars say that the passage of 1 Corinthians 15, which talks primarily about the resurrection of Jesus, refers to a creed used as soon as AD 30–35, around the year of the resurrection itself: “This is the kind of foundation-story with which a community is not at liberty to tamper. It was probably formulated within the first two or three years after Easter itself, since it was already in formulaic form when Paul ‘received’ it.” [1] Paul says in this passage, for example, that if Christ did not rise from the dead, i.e. resurrection did not actually happen, then the Christian faith is useless and Christians will perish when they die (1 Corinthians 15:17–19).

The discussion continued during patristic times, not only regarding the nature of Christ and how he could have died on the cross if he was indeed also divine, but also on the consequences for the theology of salvation. On the same topic that Paul talks in the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15, “Athanasius argues that it is only God who can save. God, and God alone, can break the power of sin, and bring humanity to eternal life. […] If Christ is not God, he is part of the problem, not the solution.” [2], in other words, if Christ was not God, his resurrection would not mean anything, and Christians would continue to perish when they die. Later there was also the deist controversy, “an extended debate that took place […] roughly from the late 1600s through the mid 1700s. The deists […] denied special divine action beyond creation. Hence they claimed that Christianity as a revealed religion was false or even contemptible.” [3] This meant that miracles were to be discarded and the resurrection would be the most unreasonable of them.

Finally, in 20th and 21st centuries, scholars such as Wolfhart Pannenberg tried to argue for the resurrection of Jesus as an act of divine revelation in history and N. T. Wright very recently in his Gifford Lectures tried to argue for the resurrection as the central point for a natural theology approach to Christianity. Alister McGrath, talking about the revelation of God as history, says: “According to Pannenberg, Christian theology is based upon an analysis of universal and publicly accessible history, rather than the inward subjectivity of personal human existence or a special interpretation of that history.” [4] In other words, it is an important topic for the apologetics discussions.

This post will focus on two specific times and the context around the discussion about the resurrection of Jesus: Jewish and Corinthian context on the time Paul wrote the 1st letter to the Corinthians together with the analysis of the passage from 1 Corinthians 15, and current times’ context on how the Christian Apologetics ministry handles this topic and why this is important for this area of the church.

Corinth history with Paul (15:1–2)

According to new testament studies, Paul first preached in Corinth during his second missionary journey and stayed a year and a half there with one focus: Jesus Christ. He wrote the first letter to the Corinthians probably when he was in Ephesus and “others had come to build on the foundation that Paul had laid in Corinth,” [5] such as Apollo and possibly Peter. In the first verses of the chapter, Paul reminds them that he preached the same gospel for them, it is nothing new, but if they are not willing to accept it as a whole, they believe in vain. This theme of attesting authority from previous works done in the church is present in other of Paul’s letters too and it is a characteristic of his style, e.g. Philippians 1:3–5, Colossians 1:3–5.

In the context of this letter, Paul was dealing with questions brought to him from the Corinthians themselves (1 Cor 7:1), that even considered the resurrection of Jesus as truth but denied the resurrection of the dead in the future. From that, Paul tries to argue with them that these two statements contradict each other.

Resurrection as a historical fact (15:3–11)

“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.” 1 Corinthians 15:3–8 [6]

As it was said in the introduction, this creed goes back to two or three years after the resurrection has happened, and that is good material for Paul’s apologetics and our current apologetics too. Paul’s set of events is the following: Christ died, he was buried, he was raised from the dead, and he appeared to many people, including Paul who is taken by most as the founder of Christianity. As this letter is written around twenty years after these events, most of the people referred in them were still alive and that is important for the strength of this argument. If Jesus did not appear for any of these people or any of them knew that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, for example, they were able to just deny this fact to anyone who asks them about.

These events are also taken as foundational for an argument in favor of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus: “the case for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus seems to me to rest upon the evidence for three great, independently established facts: the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith.” [7] Paul attests that Jesus indeed died and was buried, which together with a later empty tomb, plays in favor of an actual resurrection (and not just an initial faint and not death as some skeptical scholars point out). Craig also talks about the post-mortem appearances described by Paul: “This is a truly remarkable claim. We have here an indisputably authentic letter of a man personally acquainted with the first disciples, and he reports that they actually saw Jesus alive after his death.” [8]

In the context of first century (and even older) Jewish tradition, it is important to notice the “according to Scriptures” passages in these verses. At the time Paul was writing this letter, this does not mean the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, since they were not considered scriptures yet, but this refers to the Old Testament texts that predicted the death and resurrection of the Messiah. N. T. Wright is very-well known for his emphasis that resurrection in first-century Judaism had a very specific meaning: “It didn’t mean ‘life after death’. It was never a general term for any and every belief about what might happen to people after they die. It meant, very specifically, that people already dead would be given new bodies, would return to an embodied life not completely unlike the one they had had before.” [9] That is part of what Paul is arguing in the end of the chapter and it is also the base for believing that Jesus’ tomb must have been empty if he indeed resurrected from the dead. The point is that nobody in Corinth would think that Paul meant just a spiritual resurrection, that they would live only as spiritually glorious creatures in eternity.

Despite some of the Old Testament text uses resurrection as a metaphor to national restoration, Beale and Carson mention that at least two texts use it as “a personal hope of life after death that is bodily in nature”: Isaiah 26:19 which says “your dead shall live,” [10] promising a corporeal resurrection, and Daniel 12:1–3 that mentions the awakening of those who are asleep. They also note that most of the intertestamental writings include resurrection as a central topic, which means that was widely believed by first-century Jews.

Some were denying the resurrection of the dead (15:12–19)

It is also known that some in Corinth were denying the resurrection of the dead. It is interesting to observe that the same people who accepted that Jesus has been raised from the dead as a unique event, do not accept that all people would be raised from the dead in the end of times. That is probably the reason why Paul do not spend time explaining why they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Instead, Paul will argue that holding both of these beliefs is inconsistent. Paul puts Christ’s resurrection at the center of the Christian faith: Jesus is not simply a good moral teacher, a good leader, or a guru, as some have tried to classify him today.

That said, this kind of bodily resurrection, as noticed by professor Wright, was not held by many outside of Jewish circles at that time. Gundry also mentions this fact: “we know from extrabiblical sources that in the first-century Roman Empire there was a lot of skepticism about any sort of afterlife, and at most a belief in the soul’s immortality apart from the body.” [11] Some scholars have debated if they denied the resurrection of all or only of those died before the glorious return of Christ [12], in any case Paul is showing for the Corinthians that the Christian faith is countercultural.

Paul insists that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then their faith is worthless. Actually, the reason why they would perish if Christ was not alive comes from an Old Testament teaching: “In rehearsing the consequences for the Corinthians if Christ is not raised, Paul effectively reverts to an OT/Jewish view of their condition. If there were no resurrection of Christ, God would judge and condemn them in their sin.” [13] Paul is linking the power of sin to death, as it was usually the case in Jewish tradition, which means that Christ being raised meant that death was defeated and sin had no power over them anymore. This also implied that God would not judge them based on their sins.

However, as Paul describes, if the dead would not be resurrected, that means death is not defeated; if death is not defeated, then sin still has power over them; if sin still has power over them, then their faith in Christ is worthless. Those who deny the resurrection are not simply standing in a negotiable element of the Christian faith, they are very far from Paul’s orthodoxy. With that, they reduce Christianity to some sort of spirituality, in the same way that it is present in the society these days. The importance of apologetics to establish Christianity as a unique form of religion, not the same as others, comes to another level now as people try to relativize the importance of the belief in Jesus’ resurrection to your connection with God and even to the salvation of the humanity.

Jesus is the Messiah and the King (15:20–34)

In the following verses, the apostle Paul will describe, then, what it means for them if Christ has indeed raised from the dead. The Kingdom New Testament, a translation done by professor N. T. Wright, says:

“Each, however, in proper order. The Messiah rises as the first fruits; then those who belong to the Messiah will rise at the time of his royal arrival. Then comes the end, the goal, when he hands over the kingly rule to God the father, when he has abolished all rule and all authority and power. He has to go on ruling, you see, until ‘he has put all his enemies under his feet’. Death is the last enemy to be destroyed, because ‘he has put all things in order under his feet’.” (1 Cor 15:24–27a, emphasis mine).

With that teaching, the apostle assumes that Jesus is already ruling over this world. Besides, “he has put all his enemies under his feet” is a text from Psalm 8:6 and it can be seen as a prophecy of Christ’s enthronement and authority over all creation. As Beale and Carson observe, Psalm 8 is a praise to God’s work in creation, specifically the creation of humankind as God’s supervisors over the earth [14]. To summarize the importance of these verses to Paul’s theology, N. T. Wright comments:

“Here we are near the heart of Paul’s theology […]: on the cross the real revolution took place, and the resurrection is the first sign that it has happened. Among many results of this revolution, justification takes its vital place, partly because of the assurance of sins forgiven, but also because of the assurance of membership in Abraham’s family (again, as in Gal. 3).” (emphasis mine) [15]

Comparing his fights with the ones who fight with beasts, he says that “if he went through all that in order simply to die, with no hope of resurrection, he would be just like those gladiators, eating, drinking and making merry the night before the big show, knowing that this was the end.” [16] That is one practical advice from Paul to our daily life: it only makes sense to avoid drinking or sexual immorality and to live a good life if Christ indeed raised from the dead. Otherwise, he should give himself to these pagans practices too, since his life did not make sense. On the apologetics field, the question of the absurdity of life without God relates to what Paul is saying: “If life ends at the grave, then it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin or as a saint. Since one’s destiny is ultimately unrelated to one’s behavior, you may as well just live as you please.” [17]

On the latter part of this passage, Paul warns Corinthians to not be corrupted by others, suggesting their denial of the resurrection of the dead is coming from outsiders (as previously mentioned, very few non-Jews in Roman Empire believed in some kind of bodily resurrection). He is actually citing the Greek poet Menander in a probably ironic manner, to emphasize that Christians should follow what Christian leaders say and do, and do not borrow from the corrupted Roman society: “When faced with a new idea, especially the questioning of some central aspect of the faith, the wise Christian will ask: does this fit with what we regularly do as Christians?” [18]

The Mystery and Victory of the Transformed Resurrected Body (15:35–58)

Now the text goes on to differentiate the current earthly body with the future resurrected body. They differ not that one is physical and the other is not, as it was previously stated, Paul believed and preached that we will have a physical resurrection for eternity. They are animated by different types of life, though:

“The present body is animated by the normal life which all humans share. The word Paul uses for this often means ‘soul’; he means it in the sense of the ordinary life-force on which we all depend in this present body, the ordinary energy that keeps us breathing and our blood circulating. But the body that we shall be given in the resurrection is to be animated by God’s own spirit.” [19]

This is completely different from previous Greek philosophers such as Plato, who described in one of Socrates’ dialogues that death is nothing else than the soul being separated from the body and existing in herself, and also different from later Gnostic thinkers who based their views on Greek philosophers and also believed the future resurrection would mean only a spiritual resurrection.

Coming from the context of the Old Testament people and teachings, Paul’s message is also linked to Isaiah 25:8, that says the Lord will “swallow up death forever” and also “wipe away the tears from all faces.” According to Beale and Carson, this Isaiah text is cited by rabbinic literature and “In citing Isaiah’s eschatological vision, Paul ties God’s triumph over death (and God’s universal salvation) to the resurrection of the body,” [20] as stated before, meaning God’s victory and authority over all creation. Also mentioning this link with the Old Testament and highlighting God’s victory story, N. T. Wright says:

“We shall be transformed. It will happen in a flash, in a great act of new creation, echoing round the cosmos like the blast of a great trumpet. When this happens, the ancient story which the Bible told in a thousand different ways will come true: the story of creation reaching its intended goal; the story of the enemies being defeated (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Syria and many others — and now the ultimate ones,sin and death); the story of God’s victory, the creator’s victory, over all the forces of chaos and destruction. Paul here quotes from two biblical passages, Isaiah 25 and Hosea 13, which pointed in this direction.” [21]

Finally, in this chapter known as the central point of Paul’s theology of the resurrection, it is seen a new hope to the ones waiting for Christ’s second coming: we are already part of God’s new creation and we should take care of all of the current creation as part of God’s plan. God’s new heavens and new earth are not yet known by us, but we should know that Christ is already the king over all.

Paul’s resurrection message in modern apologetics context

The field of study and ministry of the church known as Christian Apologetics is a theoretical discipline, but also a practical aspect of the faith. In a modern context, where Christian faith is challenged from one side by atheists who claim that there is no God, and from the other side by pluralists who claim that all religious practices lead to God, this ministry has shown significant importance.

Considering the practical applications of this passage to the life of a Christian in general, and to the life of an apologist in particular, some lessons are grasped:

  1. The resurrection of Christ sets Christianity as a unique religion among the current pluralistic society. From an apologetics point of view, we should not only defend the existence of God in general terms, but it is also possible to use history as part of our natural theology approach and give Christian specific reasons for our beliefs.
  2. There is meaning in our lives because Christ resurrected from the death. In the same way Paul was being persecuted because of his faith, we are currently discriminated or treated as unreasonable because of ours, however the fact the Jesus is indeed Lord over all gives us hope that despite this suffering, our sins are forgiven and we will reign with him in the end.
  3. Since God has transformed the world by his own person and presence, the church should not only “seek to celebrate the coming of God in Christ in and through the sacramental elements” but also “go straight from baptism and the Eucharist to make God’s healing, transforming presence a reality in the physical matter of real life.” [22] In other words, it is necessary to care about the world around us, e.g. either by environmental care or social justice work (even though, social justice is now seen as a bad word among several Christians).

Finally, as noted by William Lane Craig, research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, apologetics has three main goals: shape the culture, strengthen believers, and evangelize unbelievers. [23] With the resurrection account in the gospels, but specifically after the analysis of the text in 1 Corinthians 15, it is possible to shape the culture by getting miracles to at least be part of the discussion again and not discarded before hand; to strengthen believers by giving them hope despite of their persecution; and to evangelize unbelievers by giving historical and practical reasons for the belief in the resurrection, which goes back to the same period of the event itself.

Another very different type of post, which I hope you like. This is also a work done as part of a class in the Masters of Arts in Christian Apologetics, from Biola University: Survey of the New Testament. The writing was adapted to a format better suited for Medium. Please, tell me if you liked the post! Post a comment below and share it if you think others may benefit from it.

[1] Wright, N. T. Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol 3: The Resurrection of the Son of God (p. 319). Fortress, 2003.

[2] McGrath, Alister E. Christian theology: an introduction (p. 219). Wiley, 2016.

[3] University of Oxford. Ian Ramsey Centre: The Deist Controversy. Available at

[4] McGrath, Alister E. Christian theology: an introduction (p. 140). Wiley, 2016.

[5] Carson, D. A.; Moo, Douglas J.; Morris, Leon. An Introduction to the New Testament (p. 264). Zondervan, 1992.

[6] Unless noted otherwise, all Bible quotations are taken from the New International Version.

[7] Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (pp. 360–361). Crossway, 2008.

[8] Ibid., p. 377.

[9] Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (p. 205). Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Kindle Edition.

[10] Beale, G. K.; Carson, D. A. Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament (pp. 743–744). Baker Academic, 2007.

[11] Gundry, Robert H. Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation (p. 681). Hendrickson, 2010.

[12] Mays, James L. (editor). The HarperCollins Bible commentary (p. 1091). HarperCollins, 1988.

[13] Beale, G. K.; Carson, D. A. Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament (p. 744). Baker Academic, 2007.

[14] Ibid, p. 745.

[15] Wright, N. T. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (p. 323). HarperOne, 2016.

[16] Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (p. 217). Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Kindle Edition.

[17] Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (p. 74). Crossway, 2008.

[18] Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (p. 218). Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Kindle Edition.

[19] Ibid, p. 221.

[20] Beale, G. K.; Carson, D. A. Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament (p. 748). Baker Academic, 2007.

[21] Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (pp. 226–227). Westminster John Knox Press, Kindle Edition, 2001.

[22] Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (pp. 266–267). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[23] Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (pp. 16–23). Crossway, 2008.



Philosophy & Theology nerd (MA degree). Christian. Software Eng. Brazilian. Doubt the premises; find the hidden assumptions; live the conclusions consistently.

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Helton Duarte

Philosophy & Theology nerd (MA degree). Christian. Software Eng. Brazilian. Doubt the premises; find the hidden assumptions; live the conclusions consistently.