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.

Published by

Respond

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

11 thoughts on “How Did the First Christians Communicate Jesus’ Resurrection?”

  1. “he truth is very different – these events were being communicated by the church from the earliest times of the first century.”

    It’s easy to make claims that can’t be supported.

    “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.”

    there is no historical evidence for the resurrection. Funny how no one noticed a guy wandering around being followed by a literal Roman legion’s worth of men in occupied Palestine and no one noticed a single day with a major earthquake, the sky darkening and the dead wandering around Jerusalem on a passover.

    1. “there is no historical evidence for the resurrection”

      Seems to me your earlier comment is relevant here:

      “It’s easy to make claims that can’t be supported.”

      1. Yep, it is very relevant since you have no evidence for the resurrection, so it is easy for you to make claims that can’t be supported.

        Christians can’t agree on a date, a year, where this happened, where the supposed “empty tomb” is, and no one noticed the major earthquake, sky darkening and the dead wandering around.

        What we do have is that for any date offered, entirely different things were happening, the usual existence in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. So we have both absence of evidence and evidence of absence.

      2. “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had Resurrection experiences is, in my judgement, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.”
        — E.P. Sanders, agnostic NT scholar

        “I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say, and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something.”
        — Paula Fredriksen, agnostic NT scholar

        The issue is not that scholars concede the resurrection was believed to have happened by Jesus’ disciples (and this is the case for believing scholars and many skeptics too – I quoted two). The issue is – there is a historical bedrock that leads scholars there. To say that I am making claims about Jesus’ resurrection that cannot be supported – is clearly false. Both evidentially (historical reporting in the NT) – and based on the clear challenge that many skeptical scholars have in accounting for the evidence.

      3. So, you gave me claims people thinking ‘experiences” were a fact. Not one bit of evidence for your god or your supposed messiah. only subjective nonsense that was yep, experienced and nothing to show that it was what they thought. There is no “historical bedrock” except for delusion.

        There is no historical reporting in the NT. it is a set of claims that have nothing to support them.

        By your argument, the people who claimed they saw Elvis after he was dead are just as believable.

      4. So…I guess you mean that because it’s the same…that hundreds of people have reportedly seen Elvis back from the dead themselves? And some were willing to give their lives in a hostile culture telling about their first-hand experience of the risen Elvis? Wow – that’s amazing! Fast forward 2000 years and there will maybe be a worldwide church that worships the risen Elvis.

      5. Yes, Respond, claiming to see dead people is the same delusion.

        And yep, plenty of people die for stupid reasons. There is no “firest hand experience” of jesus, since no one can show that Jesus even existed. People love to pretend how important they are, claiming that they were “right there” and yep, they delude themselves into thinking they should die for such things. Witness the suicides at People’s Temple, the Muslims who blow themselves up, all in assuming something is true.

        Yep, there could indeed be a church that worships Elvis. Not likely since Elvis died in the era of recording media. Your cult’s myths come from a time where people thought that gods were real, all of them. Then believers started making up excuses on why it was okay those myths failed, these are the same apologetics you still use.

        Humans are a funny species, often being willing to believe anything if they think they’ll get magical presents.

      6. Except that suicide bombers don’t die for what they know to be true from first hand experience. They die for – as you say – a belief they have taken on. Not so the apostles. Except – you’ve decided that you believe that it didn’t happen with no basis for saying so. We could use your argument to debunk all of history – it’s therefore not a good argument.

        That people thought gods were real says nothing about whether God actually exists. Christianity is not about excuses – but about a historical faith and a present experience.

        And as far as media is concerned today…wow. Do you think we are less likely to be misled by fake news today? Oh – I dont think so at all. We spend so much time watching a screen today – something that can be made to say whatever the creator of the piece being shown wants it to say. Much harder to get a fake resurrection to stick in a hostile 1st century monotheistic culture…

        Yes humans are funny, yes they believe in magic, yea they want presents. These tendencies may have nothing to do with the claims in the NT. And it could have everything to do with our need to be accepted by our tribe (of internet atheists perhaps).

        Of course – we could also be wired to seek out the supernatural because God made us that way. And you just misunderstand that because you’ve decided to believe there’s no God.

        Maybe the Elvis cult will emerge from your cult of belief there is no God? 😂

      7. Yep, a belief they have taken on, and since there are no “eyewitnesses”, all of your rather silly martyrs are dying just like the suicide bombers. For nothing.

        I always enjoy when a Christian makes the ignorant claim that somehow all of history can be debunked if their myths are. Any theist could make the same claim, and it still isn’t true. You have no evidence for your nonsense. History does, or when it doesn’t, is not making silly claims about magic.
        Christianity is entirely about excuses, since it has no evidence that its many contradictory claims are true. It is indeed a historical faith, based on nothing but stories that have nothing to support them. It is also a present experience, just like every other religion claims that they are too.
        Yep, we watch screens to day, and we can go out and find if someone is lying. That wasn’t quite so easy 2000+ years ago. Again, nothing about a hostile culture makes your nonsense true. People believed and still believe in nonsense, no matter how much ridicule there is. Every cult is just like yours.
        Yep, the fact that humans believe in magic and want presents is entirely to do with religion, and Christianity in particular. Each claim in the NT was to feed that belief, promising if you agree with this “god”, you get magic prezzies in the afterlife.

        Considering that atheists agree on one thing, that there is no god and/or gods, do tell about this supposed “tribe”.

        Hmmm, since you can’t show your god exists at all, your claim that your god wired us to seek it out, you have a problem. The sad cases of feral children and people who were raised without any god and didn’t miss it also shows your claim is pure nonsense. Now, dear, how can puny human me ignore this “wiring”? Is your god that impotent?

        And nope, a cult about a person can arise from anything but the belief that there is no god. We can see that with nonsense about saints and messiahs in Christianity. As long as gullible humans are promised that this character will give magic prezzies, people will believe in it.

      8. Sigh.

        I can see my first point differentiating eyewitness from believers went by you. Maybe it’s because your belief is there is no God to begin with. You sure make this claim a lot in my blog comment section. But – I’m yet to hear you actually argue that there is no God. You assert it like it’s an axiom that you believe. And think your job is done.

        Sigh

        I simply reject your bare assertion that there is no God. With many supporting arguments. My blog is relevant here.

        The one statement you have made still remains highly descriptive of your comments in general:

        “It’s easy to make claims that can’t be supported.”

        For you it sure is. Yup.

      9. there are no eyewitnesses, Respond. Not one instance that you can show. All you have are stories with no evidence to back them up.

        There are no gods, dear, not even your version of The Christian one. There is no evidence that any of the events that this boogeyman supposed caused happened. Therefore, there is no reason to think the god of your bible is any more real than the gods of the egytian book of the dead.

        It’s seems to be a new thing, this attempt by theists to try to claim that I haven’t made any argument that there is no god. Alas, your refusal to acknowledge them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It’s pretty funny when a theist’s best defense is acting like a dull three-year old child.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s