What facts did the earliest Christians report concerning Jesus in the initial years after his crucifixion? Of what did the earliest Christology consist before the composition of the New Testament? Is it possible to get back to eyewitness testimony and to historical facts with regard to Jesus? These are fascinating and very important questions, and one of the chief efforts of contemporary scholarship has been to address these issues. Such is also a major concern in this book.
In this chapter we will endeavor to investigate an area which many feel is the most promising means of describing the nature of Christian thought before the writing of the New Testament. This general subject concerns the existence of early Christian creeds which were first repeated verbally and later written in the books of the New Testament. Thus, in one sense, this material is not extrabiblical since we rely on the scriptural material for the creeds. At the same time, this data was formulated beforethe New Testament books, in which the creeds appear, were actually written. In short, these creeds were communicated verbally years before they were written and hence they preserve some of the earliest reports concerning Jesus from about AD 30–50. Therefore, in a real sense, the creeds preserve pre-New Testament material, and are our earliest sources for the life of Jesus.
This chapter also includes a listing of facts which are admitted by virtually all critical scholars who study this subject. In other words, critical theologians, historians and philosophers who have studied the New Testament have ascertained a number of facts from the life of Jesus by the critical examination of the biblical sources. The procedure in this chapter is first to examine some Christological creeds with regard to the information they relate concerning the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This last subject will be the special concern in the second section of this chapter, as we investigate 1 Corinthians 15:3ff., which is perhaps the most important creed in the New Testament (at least for our purposes). This is followed by the presentation of the critically accepted facts, as mentioned above. Lastly, an examination of this data will follow.
In the early church there were multiple creedal formulas which corresponded to various circumstances in the Christian faith. The most common of these confessions were purely Christological in nature.^1 The two most common elements in these
1 See Oscar Cullmann, The Earliest Christian Confessions, transl. by J.K.S. Reid (London: Lutterworth, 1949), pp. 35,38. This book is one of the classic works on this subject.
From Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus – Ancient Evidence For The Life Of Christ (in print at Amazon)
creeds concerned the death and resurrection of Jesus and his resulting deity.^2 Thus we note the major interest in the life and person of Jesus Christ.
The Life of Jesus Christ
The earliest Christians were confident that “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh,” as proclaimed in the confession found in 1 John 4:2.^3 Seldom was belief in Jesus’ incarnation expressed more clearly than in the “pre-Pauline hymn” of Philippians 2:6ff.,^4 which speaks of both Jesus’ human and divine natures. His humble life on earth is clearly contrasted with his heavenly position “in the form of God” and his later exaltation and worship.