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The Earliest Christian Creed

In this post, I decided to take a look at the earliest known Christian creed.

What is meant by creed? Simply put it is a statement of belief; a codification of what a group of people hold to be true.

Why is it important? Because the earliest creed will tell us what the early Christians really believed to be true.

The earlier we can date such a creed, the more confident we can be that we have a accurate picture of what Jesus’ followers really believed following his death.

So what is the earliest Christian creed? It is:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:3-7 ESV)

Paul wrote these words approximately 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The date of this writing itself is significant; it effectively eliminates the possibility of legendary developments and, in addition, lets us know there would have been living eyewitnesses available at the time to confirm (or deny!) his published statements.

However, as Paul states in verse 3, this is something that he “received” … this wasn’t his original work. The wording of this creed indicates a much earlier date; Oxford scholar Dr. Terry Miethe explains:

Most New Testament scholars point out that one of the ways we know [1 Corinthians 15:3-7] is a creedal statement is that it appears to have been in a more primitive Aramaic, and it’s also in hymnic form. This means it was stylized Greek, non-Pauline words, and so on, which indicates that it predated Paul and was widely used, probably even used and recited in worship experiences as a form of worship or a song or a hymn or a creedal statement, and was therefore universally acknowledged. (as quoted in Resurrection by Hank Hanegraaff, p39)

So when did this early creed form? Scholars have determined this creed was formed within 2 to 3 years of Jesus’ crucification.

This creed then gives us the clearest picture of what those who lived with Jesus believed following his crucification. They believed Jesus:

  • Died for our sins
  • Was buried
  • Was resurrected on the third day, as the Old Testament prophecies stated he would
  • Appeared to Peter and the disciples and 500 others (of whom many still lived)
  • Appeared to James … this is significant because before Jesus’ crucification his brother did not believe him, but after his resurrection this sceptic became a leader of the early church

This is the truth that the followers of Jesus proclaimed in the years immediately following his death, and it is the truth we proclaim today.