Here is the Earliest Testimony to the Resurrection

From St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

Now I am reminding you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you indeed received and in which you also stand. Through it you are also being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I handed on 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; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God [that is] with me. Therefore, whether it be I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

But if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. Then we are also false witnesses to God, because we testified against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.

But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ; then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death, for “he subjected everything under his feet.” But when it says that everything has been subjected, it is clear that it excludes the one who subjected everything to him. When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will [also] be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.

Otherwise, what will people accomplish by having themselves baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, then why are they having themselves baptized for them?

Moreover, why are we endangering ourselves all the time? Every day I face death; I swear it by the pride in you [brothers] that I have in Christ Jesus our Lord. If at Ephesus I fought with beasts, so to speak, what benefit was it to me? If the dead are not raised:

     “Let us eat and drink, 
     for tomorrow we die.” 

Do not be led astray:

     “Bad company corrupts good morals.” 

Become sober as you ought and stop sinning. For some have no knowledge of God; I say this to your shame.

But someone may say, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come back?”
The Resurrection Body. You fool! What you sow is not brought to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be but a bare kernel of wheat, perhaps, or of some other kind; but God gives it a body as he chooses, and to each of the seeds its own body. Not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for human beings, another kind of flesh for animals, another kind of flesh for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the brightness of the heavenly is one kind and that of the earthly another. The brightness of the sun is one kind, the brightness of the moon another, and the brightness of the stars another. For star differs from star in brightness.

So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown corruptible; it is raised incorruptible. It is sown dishonorable; it is raised glorious. It is sown weak; it is raised powerful. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual one.

So, too, it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being,” the last Adam a life-giving spirit. 46 But the spiritual was not first; rather the natural and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, earthly; the second man, from heaven. As was the earthly one, so also are the earthly, and as is the heavenly one, so also are the heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.

This I declare, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For that which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:

     “Death is swallowed up in victory. 
     Where, O death, is your victory? 
     Where, O death, is your sting?” 

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Co 15:1–58)

Some people are surprised to learn that Paul is our earliest witness to the Resurrection, because they imagine the New Testament books are in chronological order, with the gospels relating the life of Jesus and then the epistles providing post-game commentary. But in fact the letters of Paul are the earliest words of the apostles to go to paper and the gospels are written toward the end of the apostolic generation to make sure the story is accurately recorded before it starts to get garbled (as gnostics are already starting to do by the late first century). Paul is writing to people who know the traditions recorded in the gospels. His purpose is not to re-tell the traditions, but to flesh out their implications, apply them to life, and correct errors in the communities to which he writes in living out those implications.

Some people imagine Paul is mucking up the simple story of the martyred rabbi and his friends with Resurrection nonsense. But this is simply not so. As he himself makes clear he is repeating tradition from the Twelve, supplemented by his own experience of encounter with the Risen Christ. The Resurrection was at the core of apostolic preaching from Day One of the Church.

Others think he is denying that Jesus was raised bodily what with all the “sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body” stuff. But in fact he is asserting Resurrection, bodily resurrection (which is the only thing the word resurrection meant to a second Temple Jew like Paul). What he in fact distinguishes is not Jesus the Meat Man of History from Jesus the Disembodied Spook of Faith, but the soma psychikon (the body animated by the soul) from the soma pneumatikon (the transformed and divinized body animated by the Spirit). Neither are disembodied for Paul. That’s why he, like the whole early Church, mention the fact that Jesus was buried, because if Jesus is not raised bodily, there is still a tomb with a corpse in it or an ossuary where the bones of Jesus reside. There is not any such thing and the whole Church emphasizes both the empty tomb and the bodily encounters with Jesus eating fish, breaking bread, and inviting Thomas to poke him in the ribs.

And Paul will bang away at the bodily nature of the Resurrection repeatedly in his other correspondence, declaring that God will “change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself” (Php 3:21), and that “we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Ro 8:23), and that:

We know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven. or in this tent we groan, longing to be further clothed with our heavenly habitation if indeed, when we have taken it off, we shall not be found naked. For while we are in this tent we groan and are weighed down, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a first installment. (2 Co 5:1–5)

The entire point of all this language is not “Resurrection means Jesus became a disembodied spook” but that Jesus rose–bodily–from the tomb in a body that was at once in continuity with his mortal body, but also transformed into some kind of transformed, transphysical, embodied life that participates in the life of God in a glorified, divinized way. Paul is clearly, like the gospel writers, struggling to find language to describe his experience of encounter with this utterly new transphysical form of human life. But what neither he nor the gospel writers are trying to do is what would have been infinitely easier for them to do: say that Jesus is dead as every other corpse is dead, but that his Spirit lives on in the hearts of his friends and that you can be his friend too by letting his memory live on in your heart. It’s just not what he is saying, nor any other apostle.

The question N.T. Wright takes up in his magisterial work THE RESURRECTION OF THE SON OF GOD is “How do we account for the early Christians coming to this weird, awkward, inconvenient, and difficult belief about what happened to Jesus after his death?” It was not, after all, expected that a Messiah should rise from the dead. It was massively provocative and alienating to both Jew and Gentile. It would have been a thousand times easier to say “We saw his ghost and know he lives!” But instead, the whole early Church proclaims this extraordinarily freakish story of a bodily resurrection of a crucified Messiah when neither crucifixion nor resurrection were expected by anybody, least of all themselves, to happen to Messiah. Wright argues very powerfully that the best, simplest, and most obvious answer to the riddle is that Jesus did, in fact, rise from the dead.

That this happened is, I think, the obvious conclusion from the data. What it meant to the early Christians and why it meant that has to do with how they read the world (and their own Jewish scriptures) with the eyes of second Temple Jews. Wright is very good at drawing this out:

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