First Corinthians 15 is a great way to open discussions about the historical shape of early Christian confession and faith.1
This Pauline letter is one of earliest writings in the New Testament, alongside his Thessalonian correspondence. It predates the writing of the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation by decades. Moreover, it is one of the earliest writings to follow on the heels of the Christ event (e.g., life, ministry, death, resurrection) some twenty to twenty-five years later.
The passage is an interesting window into the theological imagination and confessional life of the early Church as well as Paul. It is striking how Paul refers to the authority of a tradition that predates him in a letter where he is busy asserting his own authority and perspective in the present moment. Repeatedly, Paul makes statements such as, “I laid the foundation, and someone else builds” (1 Cor 3:10), or “To the rest I say — I and not the Lord…” (1 Cor 7:12), or “Now in the following instructions I do not commend you” (1 Cor 11:17). In each instance, Paul stands flat-footed on his own theological and leadership laurels and he makes demands on the lives of the Corinthians.
He demands the Corinthians cease their practice of drawing party lines based on apostolic figureheads like Peter, Apollos, and Paul (1 Cor 3:21-23). He corrects behaviors that fracture the community into people who are “the haves” and “have-nots,” or in the vernacular of Paul, into “the strong” and “the weak” ones (1 Cor 8:7-13; 12:22). He commands them to avoid idols (1 Cor 10:14) and corrupt and immoral intimate machinations (1 Cor 5). He urges them to resist public disputes and censure (1 Cor 6:1-11). Paul speaks his own mind, thoughts, and ideas without apology.
Although Paul makes demands based on his own perspective, he, nonetheless, leverages the confessional traditions and history of those who precede him. He says in 1 Cor 15:3, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures…” Paul discloses that the content of his Gospel, not necessarily his ethical advice, comes from elsewhere. The proclamation of Christ’s death is not an invention but a recollection. Paul rehearses the traditions of the community as a way to unify the divisive Corinthians around one banner — namely their shared experience of belief in Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:11).
According to Paul, this passing of tradition from one person to another is an essential characteristic of the Christian experience. Several times in this letter he reminds the congregation that he is handing onto them (paradidomi) what he already received (1 Cor 11:2, 23; 15:3). The proper way for them to practice Christian confession and faith is to continue the tradition of information sharing: “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you” (1 Cor 11:2). In so many words, Paul tells them to duplicate his actions, linking remembrance with active communication (1 Cor 4:16; 11:1).
One useful way for understanding the literary shape of this section is as a creedal story.
These verses are full of creedal language and resonances.2 In these creedal statements one can undoubtedly hear a precursor to the Apostle’s Creed (1 Corinthians 15:3b-5a): “…Christ died for our sins…he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day…and that he appeared…” Paul’s creedal statement here balances the idea that Christ died and was raised with the language that Christ was also seen, repeatedly.
Another hallmark of 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is the way in which it reminds hearers of the broader community. These verses anchor Paul’s hearers in clear statements about the contents of their shared faith. Yet, it does much more than that. Paul’s words demonstrate that his gospel is a collective knowledge. There are more witnesses to the life of Christ than just Paul himself. Cephas, the twelve, the five hundred sisters and brothers, James, the apostles are all joined with Paul proclaiming the same message of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Interestingly, Paul falls into the very same trap of competition and rivalry that he criticizes the Corinthians about when he says, “I worked harder than any of them” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).
The opening verses to chapter 15 in 1 Corinthians call us to remember the words of faith that have encouraged us. They invite readers to engage in the spiritual practice of personal recollection and group confession. We are reminded that a “great cloud of witnesses” from the past and present surround us (Heb 11:1). In terms of the future, we are called to be witnesses to future generations of this living hope. It is an invitation to boldly state what we believe together, and in that way truly become connected confessional people.
Lord of the resurrection, you died and were raised so that ultimately death would not prevail. Remind us daily that sin, and even death, have no power over us. Amen.
Christ is arisen ELW 372, H82 184 Abide with me ELW 629, GG 836, H82 662, UMH 700, NCH 99
Death where is thy sting and But Thanks be to God from Messiah, G. F. Handel