According to Dr. Gary Habermas, Paul cites a number of early Christian creeds in his letters, and Peter cites one as well. Of first importance is 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. The other creeds include 1 Corinthians 11:26; Acts 2:22-36; Romans 4:25; Romans 10:9; Philippians 2:8; 1 Timothy 2:6; and 1 Peter 3:18. Other scholars identify creeds in 1 Corinthians 11:23-29; Romans 1:3-4; Romans 10:9; 1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:8; and Philippians 2:6-11.[ii]
The importance of these creeds is that they include the earliest message of the church following the death of Jesus. They reveal the most fundamental and central message of the early followers of Jesus. The significance of these creeds, then, can’t be understated, and they all have one theme – the death and resurrection of Jesus.
That the writings of the New Testament, mostly from Paul, contain early creeds that were originally passed down orally, is accepted by virtually all New Testament scholars.[iii] These creeds are evidenced by statements that the words have been received and passed on, their different style, use of Aramaic words and poetic, rhythmical features.[iv]
Of particular importance is the language in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5.[v] The importance lies partially in the early date of the creed, which no scholar dates later than the mid-40s AD,[vi] and some date within a year or two from the death of Jesus[vii], even many very liberal scholars.[viii] Combine the very early date and the message itself, and the importance is obvious.
The creed is a statement of the death, burial, resurrection and appearance of Jesus to His followers, and it can arguably be traced to within years (or less) of the events it recalls. That means the message of the resurrection of Jesus was not a legend that arose in the 2nd or 3rd Centuries, but was reported from the beginning. This assertion, which the early church stated as an historical fact, is also the centerpiece of the early church’s message.
Paul prefaces the recital of the creed by saying it is “of first importance”. Paul goes further to highlight the importance of this early message to the church when he says,
[I]f Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.[ix]
From the early dating of these creeds, most scholars concede that the early church believed that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his followers.
Though not likely part of the creed, Paul adds that Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive…”[x] That’s a large number of people, most of whom Paul says were still alive when he penned those words, who could confirm (or deny) the assertion. Paul, presumably, was encouraging his audience to check it out: “Just go talk to them!” Paul was saying.
Though we may not be able to date the other identified creeds in the New Testament as definitively or as early as the creed in 1st Corinthians, all of the other creeds focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus. [xi] Even 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 focuses on the death and resurrection in recounting the Last Supper and ritual of communion that secures in our memories the foretelling and foreshadowing of the death of Jesus, sacrificing his body and blood for us, satisfying the justice of God, allowing the Father to raise him from death:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is shed for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
All of the creeds cited in the New Testament writings obviously predate those writings. They all focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus, which was the fundamental and central message of the early church. Indeed, that is the Gospel, that God became man, revealed Himself to men, sacrificed Himself in place of all men who have sinned and fallen short of the perfect requirements of God to satisfy His perfect justice and then raised Jesus in bodily form as a man from the dead, demonstrating to us His compassion for us and the power to save us from the fate of death and sin.
This is the central message of the church in the earliest years following the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and this is the central message (or should be) of the church today. This is the Gospel, which is the power of salvation to everyone who believes.[xii] And the early creeds in the New Testament give us assurance that this same Gospel is the one that was preached from the beginning.
[i] Habermas, The Risen Jesus & Future Hope, 39, 65n.
[iv] Creeds in the New Testament
[v] For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (The creedal language is italicized.)
[ix] I Corinthians 15:14-19
[x] 1 Corinthians 15: 6
[xi] Acts 2:22-36; Romans 4:15; Romans 1:3-4; Romans 10:9; Philippians 2:8; 1 Timothy 2:6; 1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:8; Philippians 2:6-11; and 1 Peter 3:18
[xii] Romans 1:16