THE CHASM OF HISTORY

When scholars look at the Bible, or any other ancient religious work, they are well used to the idea of traditions and legends building up over time, as stories are retold. The assumption is that, the further we stand from a historical event, the more embellished it becomes, and that is generally a reasonable statement.  We pay far less attention to another process at work in making our scriptures, which is that of historical amnesia. Even with a religion like Christianity, with so many scholars over time seeking every little titbit that could possibly pass as historical fact, some truly major phenomena have simply dropped out of sight, and are seemingly beyond recovery. That has to teach us humility about the prospects for ever writing a history of the earliest Christian movement.

As a case in point, I offer the famous list of Christ’s Resurrection appearances from 1 Cor.15: 4-8:

was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that 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.

The exact chronology here is fairly clear. Paul is writing around 50 AD. The crucifixion occurred around 30, with Paul’s conversion a few years afterwards. All the events described here occurred between 30 and 35.

Let me focus on the appearance to the five hundred. For present purposes, it does not matter whether such an event was historical in the sense of being an actual appearance by the risen Christ. Paul’s statement shows that such an event was believed to have occurred, and that it was widely reported by people to claimed to have participated – certainly dozens, perhaps more. Otherwise, his statement would have been mockingly rejected by anyone who knew the church’s authentic history. Based on what we know about Paul’s contacts with the disciples, he likely heard that story from the apostolic circle when he visited Jerusalem around 38. Arguably, such a listing of witnesses (prior to Paul himself) represented a kind of credal statement used in early preaching.

This appearance must have been a spectacular event, one that cries out to be the climax of some Biblical epic. It could not be reimagined as the mystical insight of a lone believer mulling over the meaning of Jesus’s life. Somehow, we must believe, several hundred people assembled in one place believed they were sharing a vision of the Risen Christ. At the time, that must have represented a major proportion of all the Christian believers on the planet. As to location, it is difficult to imagine it occurring anywhere else than Jerusalem, but one of the provincial cities of Galilee is just possible.

But our uncertainty about location points to an amazing fact, namely that this event is not recorded in the New Testament or the Apostolic Fathers, nor in any alternative Christian sources. Although sometimes identified with the Pentecost scene in Acts 2, the differences between the two are overwhelming. For one thing, that is not a Resurrection appearance. That also takes me back to my original point about how legends grow. I can well imagine how an original story might have told how a group of Spirit-filled apostles preached successfully to large crowds, and that over time this mutated into a colorful legend of a direct appearance by Christ himself. Is it likely, though, that the process might have traveled the other way, that Luke might have purged or toned down an original Resurrection appearance in order to make the Pentecost narrative as we have it? I don’t believe so.

Setting aside that event, the appearance to the five hundred features nowhere in our texts, outside that passing reference in one Pauline letter. Unlike the manifestation to James, it is not (to the best of my knowledge) recounted in any alternative gospel or Gnostic text. For historical purposes, it has ceased to exist.

How could this be? The explanation, of course, is that Paul was writing at a time when Jerusalem still stood as it had in Jesus’s time, and a great many people could still transmit information about what had happened during and after his lifetime. All that changed, catastrophically, after the Jewish war that raged from 66 to 73, which must have eradicated most of those traditions. By the 70s, moreover, most of the first generation of apostles must have died out, and their memories with them. The first written accounts we have of actual Resurrection appearances date only from the 90s, with the stories in Matthew, Luke, and probably John. All were writing after a watershed event that made it extraordinarily difficult to reconstruct much of the church’s earliest history.

If a Resurrection appearance could have slipped from memory, we can only speculate what other events or beliefs have also been lost irretrievably. What other histories died with Jerusalem?

 

 

 

  • Preston Garrison

    You guys put out one of the most substantive and interesting blogs I know of. I realize it takes some effort to do that, and I appreciate it. You don’t often generate the kind of blogoversy that makes a big splash, but that’s fine. I learn a lot from your stuff. Thanks.

    • philipjenkins

      Much appreciated!

  • David Tiffany

    You aren’t the first who has done what you have done in this ariticle: cast doubt on the accuracy of the Scriptures to introduce something different such as Mormonism’s teachings that the Gospel includes working our way to heaven, temple covenants and the keeping of those covenants, etc.
    But Paul preached the fulness of the Gospel of Christ and we have the record of that Gospel in the Scriptures (the Bible). It is accurate, and Mormonism adds to it.
    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/

    • philipjenkins

      You got me! I must be a crypto-Mormon.

  • Jan

    Thank you for pointing out this intriguing passage about a specific 500 witnesses in 1 Corinthians.

    Acts 1:1-4
    The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, 2 until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, 3 to
    whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many
    infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of
    the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. nkjv

    I think Jesus appeared to the apostles AND to the other disciples who were gathered together with the apostles during this 40 day period between Jesus’ resurrection and His ascension. This group could have easily numbered about 500. We know that Scripture recorded that Jesus sent out about 70 disciples to preach (other than the 12 apostles) while He was still on earth. The news of Jesus’ resurrection would have quickly spread among the faithful and this would have ignited the fervor of both apostles and disciples and I think they would have all surely joined together in Jerusalem for further instructions from the Lord.

    • philipjenkins

      You may well be right. But isn’t it odd that such a spectacular vision does not make more of an impact in the scriptural record?

      • Jan

        Perhaps that particular fact about the “500 witnesses” was simply used as a tool by Paul to help back up his own claims about Jesus’ resurrection and so he included it in his letter to the Corinthians. None of these Greeks were present with the apostles and disciples during the 40 days while Jesus was still on earth and neither was Paul.

        John 21:25
        And there are also many
        other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I
        suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that
        would be written. Amen. nkjv

  • FA Miniter

    Modern Christians do not seem to appreciate the relationship between fasting and visions. Ancient (and even modern) shamans do, however. If you want to have a vision, it is simple. Isolate yourself from others for a number of days while eating almost nothing. A vision, or hallucination, is almost a certainty. And the New Testament writings contain at least a couple of such instances. (1) Jesus alone in the desert for the symbolically significant 40 days is tempted by visions of Satan; (2) James isolates himself and fasts until he sees Jesus.

    As to Paul, he was crossing a very hot, dry desert when he had his visions. As some have remarked, there is good reason that prophets emerge from the desert.

    • Jan

      Please give the Scripture verse for the “(2) James isolates himself and fasts until he sees Jesus.” Thanks.

      • FA Miniter

        That actually comes from the fragmentary Gospel of the Hebrews, and is quoted by Jerome in his De vir inl. 2, which says that after the resurrection, Jesus immediately:

        “went to James and appeared to him. For James had sworn that he would not eat bread from the hour in which he had drunk the cup of the Lord until he should see him risen from among them that sleep.”

        Then, too, in Acts 10:30, Cornelius fasts until he sees Jesus. And in Acts 13:2, several disciples fast until the Holy Spirit appears.

        • Jan

          Thank you for the clarification. I think fasting is a good spiritual exercise, but we must be careful to always test the spirits (who we do become more aware of while fasting) to see if they are from God or not.

          1 John 4:1
          Beloved,
          do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of
          God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. nkjv

          A person who believes in what an ungodly spirit speaks to him while fasting does eventually become a false prophet to other people.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Good piece Phillip. I still think this and the Pentecost event are likely one and the same, For starters, too often people take what Paul says as if, some 20 years after the event, there would have been homogeneity in how such events were recalled. One was one’s appearance of Jesus could have been another’s communal ecstatic experience after preaching (or some combination of both).

    That such an event is completely absent from all other canonical and non-canonical 1st century texts we have, I’m more liable to believe its referring to Pentecost and not another event that simply disappeared from the Christian record. If you are going to say the histories all vanished with the fall of Jerusalem, then how do we still have all of this oral tradition about the sayings and acts of Jesus that gets transferred to the Gospels (unless you’re going to argue they were all written pre-70 AD, a decidedly minority scholarly position)?

    • philipjenkins

      I’m open to being persuaded. BTW I’m certainly not saying that ALL such histories and traditions vanished in 70, but rather that some crucial ones did.

    • philipjenkins

      But I do return to the question raised in the text. Do you believe that a story told credally as a resurrection appearance of Christ in the 30sAD could by the 90s have downgraded into what we today have as the Pentecost story in Acts? I’m very dubious, because that’s just not how religious stories evolve. And if we are to understand Pentecost as a Resurrection appearance, then we must understand the language of Resurrection in highly non-physical, spiritual and abstract terms. That’s dangerous ground theologically, surely?

      • Andrew Dowling

        Thanks for the feedback Philip.

        Again, I don’t take for granted that the appearances in Corinthians are part of a creedal statement from the 30s widely accepted by the whole Christian Church . . .that is often assumed without IMO strong evidence to back that up. When Paul says he’s sharing “what he received” it could just be what he deemed his unique revelation as anything taught by the Apostles (and in Galatians he takes pains to note that a majority of what he teaches is the former, although of course one can question how open he’s being about other influences-I do think what he’s saying has been passed down from someone, although how things are interpreted as they’re passed down can definitely change).
        Given Paul’s fierce independence and the time elapsed, I think the one version he’s presenting could have very well been presented a different way somewhere else by another early Jewish-Christian preacher . . not completely different, but different enough that I can see Pentecost and the 500 in one place Appearance cite originating from the same event.


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