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76a57The oldest written account on the Resurrection, an account that is even older than the Gospels. It is in one of the epistles of St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 15. This is the earliest written account of the Resurrection. It is an extremely important passage in the New Testament. Now it may surprise you to learn that this epistle is older than the Gospels. The Gospels talk about a period of time that is earlier than Paul’s epistles, but the Gospels in fact were probably written after Paul’s epistles, at least in the form that we now have them. The epistles of Paul are the oldest parts of the New Testament, because they are contemporaneous with the time that Paul was active—for these are letters. So when Christ rose and sent the apostles out to preach, they went out around the world busily preaching the Gospel. And this was the time period during which Paul was writing his epistles. So we’re talking about a period of time within the couple of decades after the Resurrection of Christ—and St. Paul never imagined that he was writing Scripture. He was simply writing letters to his communities, answering questions that they raised, responding to the crises and problems within them.

St. Paul’s epistles are contemporaneous with his missionary activity, whereas the Gospels were not written at the time that Christ was preaching, or even right after the Resurrection, because there was no need to write a Gospel right after the Resurrection. No one imagined that they needed to do that, because they had the apostles. They had eyewitnesses. There was no need for a written Gospels. They had the oral teaching, the oral apostolic tradition was considered superior to any kind of writing. So because there were plenty of apostles alive, and because there were eyewitnesses already in existence, and also because they believe that the Lord was going to return very, very soon, it never occurred to them to sit down and write the Gospels until a little bit of time had passed. They figured the Lord would come back; and there were plenty of eyewitnesses, so why put these things to writing? But as the apostles started to die and it appeared that the Lord was not going to come back as quickly as they thought, (because He never said He would come back very soon—they just assumed that), some people started writing down the Gospels. It’s very difficult for us to understand how something that is an oral tradition is more acceptable, more believable, considered superior to something that is in writing, because we are more likely to believe something if we see it in writing, especially in a book. But in in antiquity people were less likely to believe something in writing because all books were hand copied. Anyone could write a book and attach someone’s name to it, or they could copy a known, existing book and then change the contents. So you could never be confident about a writing. You couldn’t have confidence that what you were reading was a true, genuine copy of the original document, or that it was accurate. That’s why the oral tradition was considered superior and more trustworthy: because when you learned something orally, you knew who taught you and you based your trust and confidence on that person.

Somebody like St. John, for example, teaches Polycarp, who later became the bishop of Smyrna. And then he teaches Irenaeus, so Irenaeus becomes the bishop of Lyon way towards the end of the second century. He says, “My teacher was Polycarp, and Polycarp’s teacher was John, and John’s teacher was the Lord.” So isn’t that interesting? He knows exactly who his teachers were and therefore he has confidence in the authority of the message and the truthfulness of the message. Now, for example, you can see this in the book of Revelation, which curses anyone who tampers with its contents. This was a real problem in antiquity, and this kind of curse or a warning, not to tamper with the contents of a book by adding or removing anything, was also found in other books in antiquity. So the oral tradition was more important than the written tradition, and it just so happens that what we have in 1 Corinthians 15 was the oral tradition that was being passed around at that time about the Resurrection of Christ.