Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Does the OT predict that the Messiah
Would be resurrected on the third day? Pt. 1

Sam Shamoun

One will often find Muslim dawagandists appealing to the arguments of hostile critics of Christianity, whether liberals or agnostics/atheists, in order to cause people to doubt the authenticity of the Holy Bible. They also never tire of attacking and slandering the Apostle Paul by accusing him of distorting the message of Christ.

One such attempt (*) is to accuse this blessed and holy servant of Christ of inventing a prophecy about the Messiah dying and rising on the third day:

“For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures,” 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

According to the Muslim critics, Paul basically twisted the meanings of some OT passages and applied them to Jesus since there is no explicit text in the OT stating what he claims in his epistle to the Corinthians.

Such a critique is problematic for at least a couple of reasons.

In the first place, Paul wasn’t the one who invented this tradition. He was simply passing on what he had received from the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ such as Peter and James, the Lord’s brother:

“Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, MOST OF WHOM REMAIN UNTIL NOW, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and 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 toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” 1 Corinthians 15:1-10

According to the consensus of NT scholarship the disciples of Jesus formulated this tradition within three years from the date of Christ’s physical, bodily resurrection:

2. Beyond Paul's own experience, this apostle presents plenty of additional evidence for the claim that Jesus had appeared to his early followers. Essentially all critical scholars today agree that in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul records an ancient oral tradition(s) that summarizes the content of the Christian gospel. Jesus the Christ died for human sin, was buried and raised from the dead, afterwards appearing to both individuals as well as groups of witnesses. While Paul penned the words, he is clear that this material was not his own but that he had passed on to his listeners years before (1 Cor 15:1-2) what he had received from other, as the very heart of his message (1 Cor 15:3). If he were writing today, he might have footnoted his source! Thus this testimony is actually years earlier than the book of 1 Corinthians. Reginald Fuller indicates the scholarly agreement here: “It is almost universally agreed today that Paul is here citing tradition.”

So Paul provides a straight forward explanation that he delivered to his audience what he had first received from others (1 Cor 15:3), which are the equivalent terms for passing rabbinic tradition to others (cf. 1 Cor 11:23). Besides this clear declaration of his actions, there are many other indications that this is exactly what happened. The sentence structure, diction, verbal parallelism, the threefold sequence of “and that,” as well as the presence of several non-Pauline words, the proper names of Cephas (cf. Lk 24:34) and James, and indications that there may have been an Aramaic original all point clearly to this tradition being pre-Pauline. Critical scholars agree that Paul received it from others.

The most popular view among scholars is that Paul first received this very early material when he visited Jerusalem just three years after his conversion. He visited Peter and James, the brother of Jesus (Gal 1:18-19), both of whom are listed as having seen the risen Jesus (1 Cor 15:5, 7).

Stronger evidence to support this conclusion comes from Paul’s use of the verb historesai in Galatians 1:18, which is usually not very helpfully translated into English. The Greek term indicates that Paul visited Peter for the purpose of investigating a particular subject. The immediate context reveals the subject: Paul's topic for discussion was ascertaining the nature of the gospel message (Gal 1:11-2:10). And Jesus' resurrection was the focus of the gospel message (1 Cor 15:3-4; Gal 1:11, 16). Without it, faith is vain (1 Cor 15:14, 17).

Critical scholars usually concede that this pre-Pauline tradition(s) originated at an exceptionally early date. For Ulrich Wilckens, this content “indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity.” Walter Kasper even thinks that this ‘ancient text’ was possibly “in use by the end of 30 A.D.”

Perhaps surprisingly, skeptics frequently even agree. Skeptic Gerd Lüdemann asserts that “the elements in the traditions are to be dated to THE FIRST TWO YEARS after the crucifixion of Jesus… NOT LATER THAN THREE YEARSThe formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor. 15.3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 C.E.” Philosopher Thomas Sheehan thinks that this pre-Pauline formula ‘probably goes back to at least 32-34 C.E., that is, to WITHIN TWO TO FOUR YEARS of the crucifixion. Michael Goulder holds that this resurrection report “goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion.”

Other skeptics are often not shy about expressing their agreement. In fact, most of the critical scholars who date these events conclude that Paul received this material within just a few years after Jesus’ death, in the early or mid 30s. We will see how the existence and circumstances at such an early date translate to additional eyewitness testimony besides Paul’s.

3. Paul was exceptionally careful to ascertain the content of the gospel message, which centered on the resurrection. To do so, he made a second trip to Jerusalem specifically for the purpose of checking out his gospel preaching (Gal 2:1-10). Amazingly, he states his fear that perhaps he had been teaching the wrong message (Gal 2:2). Some think that Acts 15:1-35 describes an amazing third trip to Jerusalem to do the same. Paul obviously desired to be absolutely positive of the gospel truth! Further, Paul was careful to ask his questions of the proper authorities – the chief apostles. In his initial trip, he met with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus (Gal 1:18-20). On the second occasion, he met with these same two men, plus the apostle John (Gal 2:9). Martin Hengel points out that “evidently the tradition of I Cor 15.3 had been subjected to many tests” by Paul.

It is easy to overlook the significance of these meetings. The four men who met together on the latter occasion were certainly the chief apostles in the early church, and each one had been an eyewitness of Jesus’ resurrection appearances (1 Cor 15:5-7). Therefore, when Paul received their confirmation that his gospel was correct (Gal 2:9; cf. Acts 15:23-35), we have their assurance that Paul's message of Jesus' resurrection appearances agreed with their own experiences. Certainly, if they thought that Paul erred on the central fact of the gospel, this would have created grave problems, especially given the apostolic concern to insure doctrinal truth in the early church.

So Paul provides more than his own eyewitness testimony, as in (1) above. During his trips to inquire of the three senior apostles in Jerusalem, Paul passed their examination regarding his gospel proclamation. Their blessings assume their own eyewitness testimony concerning Jesus' resurrection appearances, since they had also experienced the risen Jesus. Here we are but one step removed from additional eyewitness testimony.

4. Not only did the other apostles confirm Paul's gospel message, but we also have the reverse testimony. After reporting a list of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, Paul explains that he knew what the other apostles were preaching on this subject and that it was the same as his teaching about Jesus’ appearances (1 Cor 15:11). Together, they proclaimed the risen Jesus (1 Cor 15:12, 15). So we have both the previous, more indirect apostolic confirmation of Paul's gospel message provided by the apostolic leadership, as well as Paul's firsthand, more direct approval of their resurrection message. (Habermas, To Everyone An Answer, eds. Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland [InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 2004], Part 3: Christ And Miracles, Chapter 11: The Case For Christ’s Resurrection, pp. 183-186; bold and capital emphasis ours)

Therefore, Paul wasn’t twisting or inventing anything. He was faithfully transmitting the tradition which he had received from the very disciples of our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This leads me to my next point. According to the Gospel of Luke, the disciples received this teaching of the OT predicting the death and resurrection of the Messiah on the third day from the Lord Jesus himself:

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’” Luke 24:44-47

This again shows that Paul didn’t invent or misquote anything, but simply handed down what the Lord Jesus had personally taught his followers.

With that said, it is now time to move on to the next part of our reply where we will examine the OT writings to see if such a prophecy can be found.