Image: “The Burial of Christ” by Gustave Dore, woodcut (19th Century)
This is the season of Lent, where Christians remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ during the 40 days (not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter. This morning, I read the first recorded Christian creed of the resurrection, which was written by Paul of Tarsus in the middle of the first century in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth: “…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 Cor 15:3b-4).
This begs a question: Which “Scriptures” attested to this death, burial, and resurrection? Paul grew up as a very devout Jew, and knew his Jewish Scriptures very well, so he is certainly speaking of those sacred texts, which is what Christians today regard as the Old Testament. The New Testament was far from its final form (indeed, some texts were not yet written) as of Paul writing this creed. So Paul is not referring to the death, burial, and resurrection accounts found in the first century biographies of Jesus written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
While the “suffering servant” songs of Isaiah (i.e. Isaiah 53) and Psalm 22 foreshadow the death and suffering of Christ, there is still the question as to which Jewish texts point to the resurrection of Christ. There are few particular passages to which Paul could be referring:
1. Psalm 16:10-11: “because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay” (this is especially interesting when you read Peter’s sermon in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:22-36).
2. Isaiah 53:11: “After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied” (interestingly enough, the phrase “of life” is not found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the phrase “light of life” is not found in the Masoretic Text).
3. Hosea 6:2: “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence” (remarkably, early Jewish rabbinical teachings from the 2nd Century view this passage as referring to resurrection; see also 2 Kings 20:5 for another “third day” restoration).
4. Jonah 1:17: “But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights” (this should be seen as prophetic only as it relates to what Jesus says in Matthew 12:40: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth”).
According to Gordon Fee, the most plausible explanation for Paul claiming that the Jewish Scriptures foreshadow the resurrection of Christ is that “‘on the third day’ was probably seen in terms of the variety of OT texts in which salvation or vindication took place on the third day” (Fee, NICNT: 1 Corinthians, 727f.).
I would like to reference two commentaries that helped in compiling this information: John N. Oswalt’s The NIV Application Commentary: Isaiah (2003, p. 587) and Gordon D. Fee’s The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (1987, pp. 727f.).