How Did the First Christians Communicate Jesus’ Resurrection?

The New Testament reports the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth occurred and some scholars date this event to AD30, others to AD33.

But just how historical is the New Testament itself when it comes to the claims of Jesus’ resurrection? 

There’s a common, popular level caricature of the New Testament – that it was written much later than the events it describes, separated by a gap of time that exceeds living memory. Maybe even written centuries after the events in question. The truth is very different – these events were being communicated by the church from the earliest times of the first century.

If we are willing to consider historical evidence, and rational argumentation, there are good reasons to accept the truthfulness of the historical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. For example:

But how did the early Christian church share the good news of the resurrection of Jesus, and the Christian gospel?

There were three overlapping stages in the first century, apostolic age of Christianity:

  1. Oral Tradition Period
  2. Written Letters Period
  3. Written Gospels Period

Stage 1 – Oral Tradition Period

This period covered the time between the first Easter, and the composition of the first gospels. This is believed to be at the time of the persecution by Emperor Nero and the deaths of leading Christian apostles Peter and Paul. 

Learning in the ancient world involved passing stories between generations using poetic formations to aid memory. Jesus himself is believed to have repeated his teachings in poetic form to help his listeners remember them.

“Rabbis were encouraged to memorize the entire Hebrew Scriptures … plus a sizeable body of the oral laws that grew up around them…elementary education, mandatory for many Jewish boys from ages five to twelve…was entirely by rote memory; and only one topic was studied; the Bible.”[1]

Ken Samples observes various checks and balances that existed during this early oral era:[2]

  • The early apostles (Peter, James, and John) squashed misleading information about Jesus and replaced it with accurate information (e.g. Acts 8:14; 11:1-3)
  • Critics of the new Christian movement could serve as a corrective to false testimony.
  • Disciples in Ancient Judaism revered their teachers and worked hard not to miss a single detail of their instruction. It is reasonable to assume the apostles warded off widespread misrepresentation in this culture.

As first-hand eyewitnesses grew older and faced martyrdom, Samples observes it became essential to preserve the “apostolic witness through the permanence of writing.”[3]

Stage 2 – Written Letters Period

Twenty-one of the twenty-seven New Testament books are letters, and the largest collection was penned by the apostle Paul. Theologian Alister McGrath notes, “the New Testament letters…date mainly from the period AD49-69, and provide confirmation of the importance and interpretations of Jesus in this formative period.”[4]Galatians is believed to be the earliest of the letters, penned between 15 and 18 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and reported resurrection.

A high Christology is evident in these earliest writings. Jesus is clearly worshipped during this earliest period. This shows the doctrines of Christianity did not evolve later, though they were better expressed and understood in the later Christian creeds of the fourth century onwards. The earliest letters, “illustrate a line of continuity and integrity of message that runs through the entire period.”[5]

The earliest letters also contain evidence of the oral creeds used by the Christian church, some thought to date back to months following Jesus’ resurrection.

Stage 3 – Written Gospels Period

Samples explores the first written Gospels through four questions.

3.1 What kind of writing are they?

They are not a modern, chronological style of history. They reflect ancient practice of providing an interpreted history, informing the reader of theological importance of the events being described. The early Christians were, “convinced that Jesus was the Messiah … their Saviour, and naturally felt that these conclusions should be passed on.”[6]

3.2 Who Wrote the Gospels?

While anonymous, the early Church knew who the authors were, and understood they were in a strong place to report reliable history.

Matthew – various first and second-century church fathers attested to the authorship by Matthew the former tax collector. Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, and Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons. No other name has been connected to this gospel until modern times.

Mark – Papias and Irenaeus testified that John Mark, cousin of Barnabas the associate of the apostle Paul, recorded eyewitness testimony and preaching of the apostle Peter. The other synoptics often defer to Mark, and that makes sense if Peter was a major source.

Luke – quite apart from the testimony of church fathers, the authorship of Luke and Acts by a close companion of the apostle Paul is supported by the internal structure of the text. Luke would have had access to the original eyewitnesses and his gospel relies on these.

John – most likely authored by “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). Irenaeus supported John’s authorship.

Craig Bloomberg observes that the synoptic gospels do not carry the names of the central apostolic leaders. Why would second century Christians ascribe these Gospels to such unlikely candidates unless they did in fact write them?[7]

3.3 When Were they Written?

Because the synoptic gospels do not mention important events that occurred between AD60 and AD70, scholars believe they were likely composed in the early AD60s, if not earlier. These events are:

  • Nero’s persecution (mid-60s)
  • Martyrdom of James, Peter and Paul
  • Fall of Jerusalem to Roman military leader Tirus (AD70)

3.4 Given the Writers Mix Theology With History, Does this Negate their Objectivity?

First, there are no unbiased reporters of facts. All history is interpreted.

Blomberg notes, “In the ancient world, there was virtually no such thing as dispassionate history.”[8]

Second, holding convictions about the truth does not rule out our ability to report reliable history. We can see this today in the accounts of the Ukraine and Russian war; we do not automatically assume the Ukrainians are telling lies because they are committed to defending their country. Rather, people generally think they are more likely to be reporting the truth.

Samples says, “active participants [often] feel a deep obligation to be careful and even-handed. A source therefore can be committed and correct simultaneously.”[9] Further, theologian Richard Bauckham notes the testimony of eyewitnesses was valued by ancient historians, “people who could convey something of the reality of the events from the inside.”[10]

Conclusion

The Christian reports of Jesus’ resurrection were being reported from the earliest times, and their worship of him is evident from the start of the Christian church. The earliest reports are generally considered by scholars to be the most evidentially important and credible, and Christianity has this in spades.


[1] Kenneth Richard Samples, God Among Sages Why Jesus is Not Just Another Religious Leader, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017), 57.

[2] Samples, 57 – 58.

[3] Ibid., 58.

[4] Alister McGrath, Introduction to Christianity, 58, quoted in Samples.

[5] Samples, 59.

[6] Ibid., 60.

[7] Craig Bloomberg, Where Do We Start Studying Jesus, 28, quoted in Samples.

[8] Ibid., 37.

[9] Samples, 63.

[10] Richard Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, 15, quoted in Samples.