In the book of First Corinthians, there’s a passage that’s frequently cited by Christian apologists:
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:
After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.
After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.
And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.
—1 Corinthians 15:3-8
It’s often been observed that Paul’s epistles have virtually nothing to say about a historical Jesus, but this passage is one of the few points of apparent contact between his letters and the gospels. As such, it’s frequently cited by Christian apologists seeking to build a historical narrative of the events of the New Testament.
But there are some anomalies about this passage that don’t fit with the traditional view of New Testament historicity. This post will examine some of them.
First of all, the way Paul describes the disciples is strange. He refers to Cephas (Peter) as if he was not among them. But more interestingly, he refers to “the twelve” – a description that would have been plainly inaccurate at this point, because Judas committed suicide before the resurrection (Matthew 27:3), and his replacement, Matthias, was not chosen until after the ascension (Acts 1:26).
Next is that Paul writes that Jesus was seen by “the twelve”, and then two lines later, by “all the apostles”. Unless he meant something different than what Christians commonly mean by “the apostles”, this would have been redundant. It seems as if Paul considered those two to be different groups of people.
There is yet a third point of discontinuity between this passage and the gospels, and that is that this passage contains an omission. This verse has been treated in the Christian community as a primitive creed, reciting the list of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. But then, why doesn’t it mention the women – especially Mary Magdalene – whom Mark, Matthew and John all agree met the resurrected Jesus before any of his male disciples saw him?
Historian Earl Doherty makes this point in his book Challenging the Verdict:
If it is claimed that an empty tomb story, presumably accompanied by Gospel appearance traditions, goes back to a time that was earlier than Paul, how could such stories be circulating at the same time as this 1 Corinthians creed, when the two would have been mutually incompatible, contradicting each other as to who had seen the risen Christ? Wouldn’t that have occasioned an outcry from those who would condemn the creed as inaccurate, since it left out the women entirely and declared Peter to be the first to see Jesus? And even if no earlier version of Mark’s story existed at the same time, this purported creed would have been circulating at a time when there would have been a lot of people who could point out its inaccuracy. Where are the women in this creed? That’s the cry that would have been raised.
In all three of these points, Paul’s resurrection creed is out of kilter. It will not come into focus; it resists harmonization with the gospel accounts in subtle but important ways, hinting that the orthodox picture of Christianity’s origins is inaccurate.
Despite these inconsistencies, this passage is often cited by apologists for one major reason – Paul’s claim of the five hundred witnesses. They treat this as if it were a major piece of evidence in favor of the resurrection, but it is nothing of the kind.
We do not have five hundred separate, notarized accounts. What we have is one person, Paul, who says that five hundred anonymous people saw Jesus, giving no further details about their identities or the circumstances of the seeing. By itself, this is not strong evidence, just as it would not be strong evidence if I gave you a piece of paper that said, “One thousand people saw me do a miracle.” This is not independent corroboration; it does not have enough detail for outsiders either contemporary or ancient to verify for themselves. And, of course, these alleged 500 witnesses are never mentioned again in Paul or anywhere else in early Christian literature.
One final point about this passage that Christians often overlook is that Paul lists his own “seeing” (Greek ophthe) of Jesus alongside all the others, drawing no distinction among them. But Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, either before the resurrection or after it. His only experience of Jesus, according to both Acts and his own letters, was a purely spiritual, visionary one. But since he describes it in the same terms as all the others, this implies that those others – the five hundred witnesses included – were also purely visionary, not an encounter in flesh. Earl Doherty again:
In a study of the meaning of “ophthe” here, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. V, p. 358) points out that in this type of context the word is a technical term for being “in the presence of revelation as such, without reference to the nature of its perception.” In other words, the “seeing” may not refer to actual sensory or mental perception. Rather, it may simply be “an encounter with the risen Lord who reveals himself… they experienced his presence.”
When all things are considered, Paul’s resurrection creed fits better into the mythicist model of Christian origins: the theory that Jesus was not a historical human being, but an spiritual savior whose death and resurrection were purely a matter of faith. These “seeings” of him by Paul and other early Christians were mystical, visionary experiences which they interpreted as confirmations of that belief. The gospel details – Judas’ suicide, the women at the tomb, the identification of “the apostles” with “the twelve” (possibly these were originally two separate groups of early church elders) – came later, as details were added to this mythical tale to give it a veneer of history.