The Firstfruits Feast and the Case for the Resurrection

The argument that I have long defended for the resurrection, inspired by the famed Christian philosopher William Paley, is structured around the fact that there are three (mutually exhaustive) alternative explanations for why the apostles claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to them:

  1. They were honestly mistaken that Jesus had appeared to them (e.g. they experienced an hallucination).
  2. They were deliberately setting out to deceive people.
  3. Jesus really did rise from the dead.

This approach is sometimes called a maximal data approach (a term coined by my esteemed colleague, Dr. Lydia McGrew). The argument proceeds by showing the implausibility of the first two options, leaving the third option as the most probable explanation of the origins of Christianity. The traditional way of showing the implausibility of the first option is to argue that the testimony concerning the resurrection, found in the gospels and Acts, reflects the unembellished testimony of those who were purportedly eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus. That being the case, the nature of the claims concerning the resurrection that are found in the gospels and Acts are the sort about which it is quite difficult to be honestly mistaken, for they involve multiple sensory modes — including group conversations, extended discourses, physical contact, eating with Jesus on more than one occasion (including an occasion on which Jesus cooks breakfast for seven of the disciples), and its being extended across a forty-day time period.

What follows will offer an additional, under-appreciated, argument against the first of those alternatives, leaving the latter two for us to adjudicate between.

The Claim That Jesus Rose on a Sunday is Very Early

This first part of my argument is not at all new, but it is important to lay this foundation first. One of the key evidences that the earliest claim was that Jesus rose on the Sunday following His death is the universal practice of Christians of assembling to worship on the Sunday, rather than on the Jewish Sabbath, which was the Saturday. How far back can this practice be traced? It turns out, it has to have originated very early.

The church father Origen (A.D. 184-253), wrote that,

On Sunday none of the actions of the world should be done. If then, you abstain from all the works of this world and keep yourselves free for spiritual things, go to church, listen to the readings and divine homilies, meditate on heavenly things. [Homil. 23 in Numeros 4, PG 12:749]

Tertullian of Carthage (A.D. 160-225) wrote that

Others, again, certainly with more information and greater verisimilitude, believe that the sun is our god. We shall be counted Persians perhaps, though we do not worship the orb of day painted on a piece of linen cloth, having himself everywhere in his own disk. The idea no doubt has originated from our being known to turn to the east in prayer. But you, many of you, also under pretense sometimes of worshiping the heavenly bodies, move your lips in the direction of the sunrise. In the same way, if we devote Sunday to rejoicing, from a far different reason than Sun worship, we have some resemblance to those of you who devote the day of Saturn to ease and luxury, though they too go far away from Jewish ways, of which indeed they are ignorant. [Apology (chapter XVI)]

Further back, Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) even states that the purpose of assembling for worship on the Sunday was because Christ’s resurrection was on a Sunday,

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things […] But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration. [First Apology (chapter LXVII)]

Going even further back still, the epistle of Barnabas (composed sometime between A.D. 70 and 132), states,

And we too rejoice in celebrating the eighth day; because that was when Jesus rose from the dead, and showed Himself again, and ascended into heaven. [Epistle of Barnabas 15]

A further early source we have that addresses this subject is Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 35-108), who states that,

We have seen how former adherents of the ancient customs have since attained to a new hope; so that they have given up keeping the sabbath, and now order their lives by the Lord’s day instead (the Day when life first dawned for us, thanks to Him and His death. That death, though some deny it, is the very mystery which has moved us to become believers, and endure tribulation to prove ourselves pupils of Jesus Christ, our sole Teacher). [Epistle to the Magnesians 9]

An ancient first century church manual, called the Didache, also speaks of the so-called Lord’s day which, as we have seen already from Ignatius, was to be distinguished from the Saturday sabbath:

But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one that is at variance with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations. [Didache, chapter 14]

Even Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia, in a letter to the emperor Trajan (~110), mentions that Christians “were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god.” He goes on to note that, following this meeting, “it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of good food — but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.” It seems likely that Sunday is the “fixed day” that Pliny has in mind, rather than Saturday, since he mentions the pre-dawn assembly first and then mentions that the second meeting took place later in the same “certain fixed day”. Since Pliny was a Roman, one would expect him, if he were referring to the Saturday sabbath, to mention the later meeting first and then the pre-dawn meeting that occurred after the “certain fixed day”.

The concept of the Lord’s day is itself firmly rooted in the New Testament. The apostle John, towards the end of the first century, in the book of Revelation (1:10), states, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” Since no further elaboration on the Lord’s day is supplied, it suggests that his readers were already acquainted with what that was.

The apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthian Christians from Ephesus in the mid 50’s A.D., only a couple of decades after Jesus’ death and alleged resurrection, tells the Corinthian Christians, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come,” (1 Corinthians 16:2). Here, it is simply assumed that the Corinthian Christians were in the habit of assembling on the first day of the week, which suggests that this practice dates well before Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians. We also read in Acts 20:7, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread.” On this occasion Paul was in Troas, which is some distance from Corinth, being on the other side of the Aegean sea.

Cumulatively, all of these lines of evidence indicate that the assembly for worship on the Sunday, or Lord’s day, was both universal among the early Christian communities, and established as a practice very early on. This complements well the gospel narratives, all four of which maintain that the resurrection took place on a Sunday. As I have argued extensively elsewhere, the gospels themselves are firmly grounded in the testimony of the eyewitnesses. The fact that the four gospels themselves attest to the resurrection happening on a Sunday, therefore, would in itself be sufficient to establish that this claim goes back to the earliest apostles themselves. Furthermore, the early and universal changing of the Christians’ sacred day from Saturday to Sunday is, I would argue, best explained by the Lord’s resurrection taking place on the Sunday.

The Theological Background to Jesus’ Resurrection on Sunday: Christ as the Firstfruits

In 1 Corinthians 15:20, Paul says of Christ that he is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” What is being alluded to here? For the answer, we turn to Leviticus 23:9-14, in which we read of the feast of firstfruits.

9 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest, 11 and he shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, so that you may be accepted. On the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. 12 And on the day when you wave the sheaf, you shall offer a male lamb a year old without blemish as a burnt offering to the Lord. 13 And the grain offering with it shall be two tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, a food offering to the Lord with a pleasing aroma, and the drink offering with it shall be of wine, a fourth of a hin. 14 And you shall eat neither bread nor grain parched or fresh until this same day, until you have brought the offering of your God: it is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.

The feast of firstfruits is the next Jewish feast following the feasts of Passover and unleavened bread, and had to do with the barley harvest, which preceded the slightly later wheat harvest (the former arrived in March / April; the latter around May, according to our calendars). The latter of those was associated with the feast of weeks (Pentecost). God, therefore, instructed the people of Israel that prior to reaping the barley harvest they were to wave before the Lord a sheaf of the first grain. This would symbolize that the sheaf was representative of the whole crop. It represented their trust that the God who had given them the firstfruits would also bless the rest of the harvest.

How, then, does Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:20, link Jesus to the feast of firstfruits? Christ was the firstfruits of the resurrection, having been raised prior to the general resurrection at the end of time. Although previous people (e.g. Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter) had been raised from death, those individuals were not raised to glory and immortality. Eventually, they would die again. Jesus, by contrast, was the first person in all of history to be raised to glory and immortality, with a body transformed such that it was no longer subject to decay or death. Thus, he is the ‘sheaf’ that is waved before the Lord, the firstfruits of the harvest.

Now, what is particularly striking is the day on which the feast of firstfruits was to take place. According to Leviticus 23:11b, it was to happen “the day after the Sabbath” following Passover. That would be Sunday! It can thus hardly be a coincidence that Christ was raised on the Sunday following the Passover, nor indeed that Jesus’ death took place at the time of Passover, given the intricate symbolism that is bound up with the Passover lamb serving as a substitute for the firstborn of the household and the firstborn being protected from the wrath of God by the blood of the slain lamb. Christ’s execution by the Romans at the time of Passover is itself a remarkable coincidence that would have been difficult for an impostor to engineer, but when we consider the day that Jesus was raised as a firstfruits from among the dead (the Sunday following Passover), we have yet another striking coincidence. It might be objected here that the Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed over whether the Sabbath in question was the Day of Passover itself, as maintained by the Pharisees (Antiquities 3.249), or the Sabbath following the Passover, as maintained by the Sadducees (Menachot 65b). However, though the Pharisees held more influence with the Jewish populace, the Sadducees (who took the latter view) were in charge of the temple in the first century prior to its destruction in A.D. 70. Their view was thus the one that prevailed in first century Jewish practice, up to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.

An Inference to Design

Given that Jesus was alleged, from the beginning, to have been raised on the Sunday following Passover, during the feast of firstfruits, this suggests that the choice of the Sunday as the day of the resurrection resulted from rational deliberation, or conscious design, whether on the part of human schemers or divine agency. It seems to militate fairly heavily against the hypothesis that the original apostles were honestly mistaken about Christ’s resurrection — for the placement of the resurrection claim on the Sunday following the Passover seder is so striking, given the theological import, that it significantly reduces the plausibility of its being a mere coincidence. One might argue in response that the theology of Jesus as the firstfruits from among the dead developed as a result of the resurrection being alleged to have happened on a Sunday, but it seems that Jesus as a sort of firstfruits is bundled together inextricably with his resurrection to glory and immortality, given the Jewish belief in the general resurrection at the end of time. Though not in itself completely conclusive (or even necessarily sufficient) to rule out the hypothesis that the apostles were honestly mistaken, when this data are combined with the evidence that I and others have discussed elsewhere that the resurrection claims given in the gospels and Acts reflects the unembellished testimony of those who were purportedly eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus (and that the nature of this testimony is the type about which it is very difficult to be sincerely mistaken), it renders this hypothesis difficult to maintain. The question then becomes, what best explains the resurrection claim — human or divine design? One may then adduce the various lines of evidence (as I and others have done extensively elsewhere) that argue strongly against the hypothesis that the alleged witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection were deliberately lying (such as the dangers and hardships voluntarily undertaken in attestation of the resurrection). For a good discussion, I refer readers to this excellent article by Dr. Lydia McGrew. This, then, renders the hypothesis that Jesus in fact rose from the dead the best — most adequate — explanation of the pertinent facts.


In summary, the argument adduced in this article may be expressed as follows:

  1. The belief that Jesus rose from the dead on the Sunday following Passover has theological significance in association with the feast of firstfruits, and early adherence by the apostles. 
  2. The combination of Jesus dying on the Passover and Jesus being raised from the dead on Sunday — the feast of firstfruits (and the significance of both of these events) would be unlikely to occur by chance (which would be the case if the apostles were honestly mistaken.) 
  3. If it did not occur by chance, then it occurred by design. 
  4. It either occurred by human design (the gospel writers were lying) or divine design (God raised Jesus from the dead.) 
  5. The gospel writers were not lying (they can be shown to be habitual truth tellers and accurate reporters of events whenever these things can be verified, and they were willing to go to their deaths for this claim.) 
  6. Therefore, it is by divine design (God raised Jesus from the dead).
Note that premise 2 is probabilistic (that is, it is not certain that such a coincidence did not occur by chance). However, it seems to me incontestable that it provides some significant evidence in favor of Christ’s resurrection — that is to say, it renders the resurrection more probable than it would have otherwise been. For a more detailed discussion of other lines of evidence for Christ’s resurrection, see my essay here on the evidential contribution of Luke-Acts to the case for the resurrection.