The Message in the Earliest Creeds in the New Testament

 (c) Can Stock Photo

(c) Can Stock Photo

According to Dr. Gary Habermas, Paul cites a number of early Christian creeds in his letters, and Peter cites one as well. Perhaps, the most significant creed is found in 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.[1]  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 most significant characteristic of these creeds is a common theme – the death and resurrection of Jesus.

That the writings of the New Testament contain early creeds that were originally passed down orally is accepted by virtually all New Testament scholars.[iii] These creeds are are often identified by statements that the words have been “received and passed on”, their different style, use of Aramaic words and poetic, rhythmical elements.[iv]

Of particular significance is the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5.[v] The early date of this creed is notable. No scholar dates it later than the mid-40s AD,[vi] and some date it within a year or two of 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. Because this creed can be traced to within years (or less) after the events it recalls, we know with a high degree of certainty that the message of the resurrection of Jesus was arose early.

Contrary to claims of scholars when I was a college student, the message of the resurrection of Jesus did not arise in the 2nd or 3rd Centuries. It did not develop as legend or myth develops. It was reported from virtually the beginning, and the claim that Jesus rose from the dead is the centerpiece of the first message of the early church that we have.

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…. 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 now concede that the early church believed that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his followers. It doesn’t prove the fact of the matter – that he actually did rise from the dead – but it substantially proves that they believed he rose from the dead.

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) what Paul claimed. Paul, presumably, mentioned them to encourage his audience to check it out: “Just go talk to them!”

Though we may not be able to date the other identified creeds in the New Testament as definitively early as the creed in 1st Corinthians, the other creeds also focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus. [xi] Even 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 focuses on the death and resurrection of Jesus 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.”

All of the creeds cited in the New Testament writings obviously predate those writings, themselves. They all focus on the death, resurrection and appearance of Jesus to his followers. They reveal to us the fundamental and central message of the early church.

Indeed, that is what we call “the Gospel”: that God became a human being, revealed Himself to people, sacrificed Himself for our salvation and then rose from the dead in bodily form, demonstrating to us His compassion for us and the power to save us from 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.

[ii] Creeds in the New Testament

[iii] The Life of Jesus Primary Sources: Creeds and Facts

[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, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (The creedal language is italicized.)

[vi] An Analysis of the Pre-Pauline Creed in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

[vii] 1 Cor. 15:3-4 demonstrates a creed too early for legend to corrupt

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

[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

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