For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Corinthians 1:4)
This, apparently, is what early Christians believed; Paul is thought to be quoting an early creed here. What an incredible statement it is. Incredible because of its demonstrable falsity.
‘Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’: just where, in which scriptures, does it say this? Presumably Paul, or those he’s quoting, thinks it’s Isaiah 53, where it says:
…the Lord was willing to crush (his servant), and he made him suffer. Although you make his soul an offering for sin, he will see his offspring, and he will prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will triumph in his hand. ‘the Lord makes his life an offering for sin’ (Isaiah 53:10)
Unfortunately for Paul, most scholars agree that Isaiah 53 is not about the Messiah at all, but about the Jewish nation. It looks as if it neatly fits the much later ‘Christ’ because the Christ is a construct built on a handful of believers’ visions and this very chapter, which seemed, but only superficially, to validate their inner experiences.
Paul goes on to say, ‘he (Christ) was buried (and) was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. Here he is on even shakier ground. The Messiah was not going to die for his people – he would be a triumphant warrior king – and he certainly wasn’t predicted to rise from the dead. There are no references at all, anywhere in the Scriptures, to the Messiah being raised from the dead and certainly not ‘on the third day’. Paul is wrong. At best, he’s mistaken, at worst he’s deliberately perpetuating a falsehood.
When Paul wrote this, the gospels were still many years away from being written. All that new believers, in as faraway a place as Corinth, could rely on was the testimony of preachers who came to tell them about the Christ. Some of these preachers may have known Jesus personally (though I doubt it) but most, like Paul, had limited means of persuading those they aimed to convert that Jesus had died for their sins and had risen again. Not unlike today’s evangelists, all they offered was their own and others’ inner spiritual experiences and visions, together with ‘evidence’ from scripture. Paul admits this is all he’s offering here: ‘what I received’ and ‘according to scripture’. But there is no evidence from the scripture available at that time.
What’s a gospel writer to do? When Mark created his gospel, he undoubtedly knew of Paul’s teaching about the resurrection and he may have known of this early creed. Yet he knew also that there was no prophecy about Jesus rising ‘on the third day’, on which to build his story. Consequently, he has Jesus declare in Mark 8:12 that ‘no sign will be given’ (= ‘there’s nothing in the scriptures about this’) and he omits the resurrection from his story.
Not so Matthew. As is his way, Matthew scoured Jewish scripture till he alighted, in the absence of anything resembling a prophecy, on the story of Jonah. Jonah 1.17 claims preposterously that this ancient prophet spent ‘three days and three nights’ in the belly of a great fish – and Matthew decided, ‘that’ll do!’. He has his Jesus refer to the tall tale as a ‘sign’ that he too will spend three days and nights in the belly of the earth:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees told Jesus, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” But he replied to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves a sign. Yet no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah, because just as Jonah was in the stomach of the sea creature for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights…” (Matthew 12:38-40)
Contradicting Mark’s Jesus (‘no sign will be given’), Matthew also modifies the original belief that Jesus rose on the third day. Now it’s after ‘three days and three nights’, which does not mean the same as ‘on the third day’. According to Matthew’s own gospel, Jesus was in the tomb – the belly of the earth? Really? – from Friday ‘as the evening approached’ (Matthew 27:57) till before dawn on Sunday morning (Matthew 28:1). This only just qualifies as being ‘on the third day’, given that days are counted from evening to evening in the Jewish calendar; it certainly isn’t ‘three days and nights’. Jesus lay dead in the tomb for no more than 36 hours. The damn ‘sign’ Matthew is so eager to use doesn’t even fit his own story.
What a mess. It’s what you get when you lift any old tall tale from ancient scripture and use it as a symbol for your own made-up story.