This coming Sunday marks the feast of Pentecost. In connection with that, I am posting an expanded version of an offering of mine at this site back in 2014.
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 claim historical validity, 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. We have forgotten so much, probably irretrievably.
As a case in point, I return to a theme I have discussed repeatedly at this site, namely the famous list of Christ’s Resurrection appearances from 1 Cor.15: 4-8. Jesus
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 (NIV).
The exact chronology here is fairly clear. Paul is writing around 50 AD, at least twenty years before the earliest canonical gospel was written. The crucifixion occurred around 30, with Paul’s conversion a few years afterwards, and he picks up this account in Jerusalem in the mid-late 30s. All the events reported here, all the appearances, occurred between 30 and 35. Put together, this is the bedrock of the Christian faith as proclaimed by the apostles. This was the array of proofs and evidences on which Paul and his contemporaries based their evangelism.
But there is extraordinarily little correspondence here with the appearances as recorded in any of the canonical gospels, with all their beloved associations and stories. No Mary Magdalene, no garden, no holy women, and no Road to Emmaus. And just what is the correlation between “then to the Twelve” and “then to all the apostles” ? Are these separate appearances, two separate incidents? How do they correlate with what we have in the gospels?
Just to divide these appearance stories into separate episodes, with how they are or are not recorded in the New Testament:
he appeared to Cephas, [John 21; Luke 24.34]
and then to the Twelve. [John 20. 19-22, Matt 28. 9-10, 16-20; Luke 24. 36-39. Possibly other passages as well?]
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. [?not in any canonical gospel?]
Then he appeared to James, [definitely not in any canonical gospel]
then to all the apostles, [?not in any canonical gospel? Possibly Acts 1.1-11?]
and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born [Acts 9]
Or to approach the issue from the other end. The statement in Corinthians clearly stresses the initial appearance to Simon Peter as critical and transformational. But where is that recounted in the canonical gospels? It is present, but marginalized. Read Luke 24.34 and that proclamation about the Lord appearing to Simon/Cephas, and then try to determine from the text exactly where that amazing event is supposed to have happened. As we have it, John’s gospel explains just how Jesus did not initially appear directly to Peter (John 20.7-10) – but then follows with the appearance to Peter in Acts 21.
Let me focus here on the sensational appearance to the “more than five hundred,” epeita ophthei epano pentakosiois adelphois ephapax. Just to repeat a common complaint about translation, the passage does not say that Jesus “appeared,” but rather that he “was seen by,” ophthei, which is more passive. The emphasis is on the experience of the audience, not the intent of the appearer.
Some scholars think that Paul added a couple of words to the original statement, particularly “more than” and “at the same time.” But I do wonder about that ephapax, “at the same time.” I should say that ephapax is an odd word, and for whatever reason, Paul rarely used it otherwise, nor its cognates. This is of interest because writers tend to favor or dislike particular words, and their habits in that way are often a guide to the authorship of texts.Pardon a seeming digression here, but it does get to that issue. Ephapax appears just five times in the whole New Testament, and three of those occurrences are in the notoriously non-Pauline Epistle to the Hebrews. It derives from hapax, “once,” which occurs by itself fourteen times. Eight of those occurrences are likewise in Hebrews, a text that dearly loved the word, whether as hapax or ephapax. In contrast, just three of the uses of hapax are in all Paul’s letters, compared to two in the very short letter of Jude. Putting the two cognate words together, Hebrews accounts for eleven of the nineteen usages in the whole NT. Without an easy explanation, I just observe that the author of Hebrews was so especially fond of a word that occurs in a passage that, as we have it presently, preserves one of the very oldest layers of the Christian oral tradition. Hmm …
For present purposes, it does not matter whether the appearance to the five hundred was historical in the sense of being an actual appearance by the risen Christ. Paul’s statement shows that such an event, such a massive “seeing” or collective vision, was believed to have occurred, and that it was widely reported by people who 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. Arguably, such a listing of witnesses (prior to Paul himself) represented a kind of credal statement used in early preaching. Five hundred people saw this in one place and at one time! How can you doubt it?
This appearance must have been a spectacular event, one that cries out to be the climax of some Biblical epic. It could not be interpreted 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, Pentecost is not a Resurrection appearance. Is it?
That also takes me back to my original point about how stories evolve grow over time. 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 even (to the best of my knowledge) recounted in any alternative gospel or Gnostic text. For historical purposes, it has ceased to exist.
The omission of that event is one reason among many that I am skeptical about attempts to give early dates to Luke-Acts. And if the author of those books actually had known Corinthians – or had known Paul at first hand – could he conceivably have missed that very early creed?
How could this amnesia have occurred? Do recall 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 detailed well known accounts we have of actual Resurrection appearances date from the 80s or 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 beyond the chance of recovery. What other histories died with Second Temple Jerusalem?