The “Proto-Creed” of Christians

TRADITION IS A DIRTY WORD in many modern circles. There it describes the old and therefore outmoded and undesirable today. In the historic Churches of East and West, however, it is an honored and revered term describing both the Christian patrimony and the continuity with which it has been transmitted in the Church. Eastern Christians in particular speak of “Holy Tradition,” describing it as the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

It is with this sense of reverence that St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “What I received I passed on to you” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Tradition is first of all something received, usually from the community elders (but not in St Paul’s case, as we shall see). Tradition is meant to be passed on to others; otherwise it dies. Finally when we speak of the Tradition we are referring to the content which is passed down. In the case of St Paul here, it is the central faith of the Church: “the gospel which I preached unto you” (v.1).

The apostle identifies that fundamental faith as belief in Christ risen from the dead: “…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, and that he appeared…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). This, it has been said, was a kind of early creed identifying the first Christians as distinct from other Jews who did not see the Lord Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the prophets. It fact, however, St Paul insists that our faith in Christ is rooted in the Old Testament (“according to the Scriptures”) and the experience of the Jewish people.

In his Homily 38 on 1 Corinthians St John Chrysostom described it like this: “…the sum of the gospels has its origin here: that God became man and was crucified and rose again. This is the gospel which Gabriel preached to the Virgin, which the prophets announced, and which all the apostles brought to the world.”

The memory of Christ’s death and resurrection is at the heart of our faith and our worship. Our weekly observance of fasting and feasting is a memorial of that death and resurrection. Our Wednesday and Friday fasting commemorates the betrayal, passion and death of Christ. Our Sunday, with its Divine Liturgy and eight-week cycle of resurrection hymns, brings the weekly observance to its glorious conclusion.

The Apparitions of the Risen Christ

While we believe in Christ’s resurrection, we know that no one actually saw Christ rise from the dead. The first visitors to His tomb found it empty “but Jesus they did not see” (Luke 24:24). This is why imaginative portrayals of the Lord rising from the tomb are not accepted in Byzantine iconography. This mystery is beyond our ability to perceive it. Our icons of the resurrection depict the visit to the empty tomb or the effect of Christ’s death: the victory over Hades instead.

The first Christians’ belief in Christ’s resurrection was based on the testimony of those who subsequently saw Him alive. In 1 Corinthians 15, St Paul lists a number of those eye-witnesses whose testimony is the source of our faith: “…he appeared to Cephas and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born” (vv. 5-7).

Cephas (Peter) – The Gospels according to Luke and John speak of Peter running to the tomb “Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened”(Luke 24:12). He did so in response to the news of the empty tomb brought by the women: “It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles” (Luke 24:10). Why do these women – whom our Church reveres as myrrhbearers and even “equal to the apostles” not figure in Paul’s list?

St Paul sought to demonstrate the resurrection by appealing to competent and credible witnesses. In the Jewish practice of the time, however, the witness of women was not acceptable in Jewish courts. As the Jewish historian Josephus said, “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.15). If the word of the myrrhbearers would not have been convincing to St Paul’s audience, it suggests that they were primarily converts from Judaism. The Gospels, however, were written to bring the message of Christ to the Gentiles and so the evangelists present the women as the first witnesses to the resurrection.

The Twelve and The Apostles – After mentioning Christ’s appearance to Cephas, St Paul lists His manifestation to “the Twelve,” that is, Andrew, James, John, Thomas and the rest. The Gospels speak of the Lord coming to them in the “upper room” on the evening of Pascha, an event which we commemorate at paschal vespers. There are several other appearances to the Twelve after the resurrection mentioned in the Gospels.

The first question we encounter here is, Why does St Paul speak of “the Twelve” when Judas had killed himself and Matthias was not selected to join the others until after the ascension. Should he not have said “the Eleven”? That is what we find in Mark 16:14: “He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table…” It has been suggested that St Paul is not counting heads here but referring to these closest collaborators of the Lord in the way that the first Christians knew them The Twelve, then, is not a literal number but the designation of an office.

We find something comparable in our Pentecost icon. The Spirit is depicted as descending on the Twelve – but one of them is St. Paul who was added later! The Twelve in the icon represent the historical Thirteen – the original eleven plus Matthias and Paul.

The mention of the Twelve in v. 5 is followed by a reference to “all the apostles” in v. 7. Christ selected not only the Twelve but, as we read in the Gospel, “…the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go” (Luke 10:1). While the West generally speaks of them as “disciples” not apostles, the Eastern Churches follow Paul in speaking of the Apostle Barnabas, the Apostles Jason and Sosipater, and the rest.

James – In the Gospels the Lord’s blood relatives seem leery about His prophetic ministry, even goading him to prove Himself. “‘If You do these things, show Yourself to the world.’ For even His brothers did not believe in Him” (John 7: 4.5). Yet after Pentecost we find James as the leader of the Jerusalem Church and others of the family active among the believers. Perhaps it was this appearance to James which converted the family to Christ.

The Five Hundred Brethren – There is no other mention of such an appearance in the Scriptures. We do read of the Lord telling the women, “Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me” (Matthew 28:10). This may refer to the relatives of the Lord mentioned above or to His followers from Galilee, some of whom had followed Him into Judea.

Paul Himself – St Paul lists his own encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9:1-9) as a revelation of the resurrected Lord. As he earlier wrote to the Galatians, “The gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galations 1:11, 12). He did not see the empty tomb – he saw Christ Himself.