"Most of whom are still alive" – The Apostle Paul on witnesses to the resurrection

apologetics Theology / Biblical Studies Uncategorized

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Mainstream New Testament scholarship on the Gospels is considerably more conservative than it was, say, forty years ago (or thirty, or perhaps even twenty). For example, the greater number of New Testament critics seemed to agree as a kind of in-house duty that the Gospels were written late in the first century – the later the better, and if you can find a way of saying that they weren’t finished until the second century, even better! The centre of what is “mainstream” has moved a long way since then. Now it is voices like N. T. Wright, Craig Evans and Richard Bauckham that are setting the pace. Much of the extraordinary scepticism and radical reconstruction of first century Christianity is now seen as simply unwarranted.

But I digress (I got distracted by a certain sense of satisfaction with the sea change that the world of biblical studies has seen). Even those with outdated and extraordinarily sceptical approaches to New Testament studies acknowledge the relatively early date of authorship of the letters written by the Apostle Paul. The first epistle to the Corinthians was composed in the mid fifties, around twenty-five years after the crucifixion. From reading through the letter you can see that one of the theological issues that the church in Corinth was struggling with was scepticism over the resurrection. This was understandable, given the pagan culture in which they lived. Dualism was a rampant belief system, and the idea of eternal survival as an immortal soul would have seemed perfectly natural. A physicalist idea like resurrection however would seem crude to some by comparison to a higher, “spiritual” existence. Part of Paul’s method of convincing them of the resurrection of the dead was to stress to them the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Here is part of what Paul said, from 1 Corinthians chapter 15 verses 3-7:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

Here’s where I want to draw your attention: “he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” Why is this important? Consider the following:

There’s no serious doubt over the fact that this letter was written less than thirty years after the crucifixion (which was around AD 30). It was written, therefore, easily within the lifetime of the people that Paul was referring to (as he himself says). He is writing this as a means of persuading people of the resurrection, by giving a list of witnesses to the risen Christ. It is quite obvious why it is important, for the purposes of persuasion, to point out that most of these five hundred people are still alive. It meant that if there was any question over whether they were actually witnesses, they were still living and breathing and people could still check with them whether they had seen the risen Jesus. Paul may as well have been saying “look, if you still don’t believe me, there are hundreds of people who saw Jesus alive again, and they are still alive. Just ask them!”

Imagine the tremendous risk that Paul would be taking if he was lying, and that Jesus had not been raised from the dead and had not appeared to Paul. If a major testable claim like this one was false, then any recipient of this early Christian letter could have called Paul’s bluff and blown his cover. If the witnesses were supposedly numerous and still living members of the first century church but in reality they didn’t exist, then a simple question could have been devastating: “Oh really, well if you’re so confident that we can check with them, then give me a few names. I will check with them.”

This is why these comments by the Apostle Paul in very early Christian literature bear striking witness to the actual existence of eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Paul could not have been foolish enough to so openly expose himself to discovery as a fraud. His words betray an actual confidence of being acquainted with the witnesses themselves.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 23 comments… add one }
  • Joey January 24, 2010, 11:02 pm

    Yeah, well, everyone knows Paul didn’t really exist!

    After all, Jesus didn’t exist, and the apostles didn’t exist either, they were all made up by the early church, which didn’t really teach Jesus’ divinity until Constantine came to power, so Paul probably didn’t exist either. Of course, then again he did invent Christianity, so…darn it!

    (End sarcasm).

    Very good points Glenn 🙂

  • CPE Gaebler January 25, 2010, 11:52 am

    Joey, that only leaves open the question of which ancient myths Paul was copied from, since we all know that everything in early Christianity was adopted from the pagan religions around them, and the ones far away, and the ones on the other side of the world. I’m thinking if we can find an example of an Aztec myth of a holy man being cured of blindness, we got this in the bag. Double points if we can get one from 300 AD Greenland too.

  • Rob January 25, 2010, 5:31 pm

    The only concern I have with Paul’s appeal to this huge number of eyewitnesses to the resurrections is why, if Jesus actually did appear to this large number of people at once, we have no record of it in the gospel resurrection narratives. It’s hard to believe a story with such obvious apologetic value would not get included in the gospels. (Of course, if they were, their very apologetic nature would serve as a strike against their historicity in the thinking of most critical scholars.)

  • Glenn January 25, 2010, 7:11 pm

    I’ve wondered about that too, Rob – not least because this letter is earlier than the Gospels, so even if this had all been a myth and the Christian community had wanted to “cook the books” to make everything agree neatly, as the Gospels were completed they could certainly have been made to include this “mythical” event that Paul refers to.

    I really couldn’t say why they don’t refer to it.

  • Haecceitas January 25, 2010, 11:12 pm

    Some have suggested that the appearance at the end of Matthew 28 is the same as the appearance to the 500. The location would allow such a number of people, as would the fact that it was announced beforehand by the angel. And there’s also that “some doubted” part that would be explained by the presence of a larger crowd. Also, isn’t the angels’ words to the women in Matt. 28:10 one of the few places in the resurrection narratives of the Gospels where the word “adelphois” is used (John uses it a few times, I think), which makes me wonder if it has any connection to Paul’s mentioning it in 1. Cor. 15:6. Though admittedly this was a very common word, especially in Paul’s usage, so this point may not be that significant.

  • Glenn January 26, 2010, 10:32 am

    I emailed Mike Licona about Rob’s question to see if he had any interesting thoughts to offer. Here’s what he had to say:

    The authors of the Gospels appear to know of some appearances they don’t narrate. For example, Luke (24:34) knows of an appearance to Peter but fails to narrate it. Mark (14:28; 16:7) seems to know of an appearance to the 12 and perhaps Peter but doesn’t narrate them, unless, as many suspect, the ending of Mark was lost or that he didn’t get to complete it. Luke says that Jesus appeared to His disciples over a period of 40 days. The appearance to the 500 could have occurred during that period and didn’t get narrated. It’s possible that it’s the appearance reported in Matthew 28:16ff.

    The appearance to James in 1 Cor. 15:7 likewise doesn’t appear in the resurrection narratives. Yet, few doubt that James had an experience of what he perceived was of the risen Jesus. What’s cool is that the appearances to the 500+ and to James are listed in the earliest known tradition. Had they appeared in the Gospels only, “Legend!” would be the cry of skeptics. Instead, we find them absent from the narratives, suggesting that their authors wanted to focus on the appearance to the women and to the 12.

    It’s also interesting to note that the appearance to the women don’t appear in the 1 Cor. 15:3-7 tradition. This is probably because it was kerygma, i.e., the message that was publicly proclaimed and in a society that generally had a low regard for women. So, many believe the appearance to the women was probably not mentioned in public proclamation in order not to create a stumbling block for many. Even the Jesus Seminar grants that the women had an experience they believed was of the risen Jesus.

    Ultimately, we can only guess why the Evangelists focus on certain appearances and don’t mention the others.

    Thanks Mike!

  • Rob January 26, 2010, 5:52 pm

    I appreciated Mike’s answer, thanks for that. I think he’s coming to my university in the spring for a “Veritas Forum,” so I look forward to seeing him if we can book him.

    I think a curious implication of Mike’s answer is that the Evangelists did not always include what we consider the most ‘impressive’ or ‘conclusive’ evidence for the resurrection in their narratives. This in turn makes me think that the Gospels are meant more as in-house documents rather than for external evangelization, since a number of the resurrection appearances tend to emphasize issues like Jesus’ corporeality. We might be able to assume some sort of proto-docetic impulse provoking these sorts of resurrection narratives and not others, and therefore perhaps view the Gospels as texts for those who already believed in the resurrection but needed, like the Corinthian believers, to get their views about Jesus’ resurrection straightened out?

  • Glenn February 6, 2010, 1:07 pm

    There was a recent comment here and my response to it, but due to issues with the move to the new server, these were both lost. My apologies.

  • Geoff February 6, 2010, 3:23 pm

    There was a comment by Dr James F McGrath (Otherwise known as Dr Lost :P)

    Google seems to think they have a cache of it, but when you click on it, the page isn’t there.

    solly :s

  • Glenn February 6, 2010, 5:10 pm

    Basically he said that Paul’s comments about there being hundreds of living witnesses lose credibility because James gets spam/chaim/junk email all the time about far out things having happened “to someone I know.”

    My response was to say that this was a clearly anachronistic comparison.

    The reason we don’t raise an eyebrow when we get an email like that is that they are so common that they’ve become a bit of a cultural meme. We don’t think to look up the “someone I know” because we don’t care. It’s a chain email, which we get dozens of in a given week.

    By contrast, if a person that James actually knew and trusted emailed him and said that he had seen something incredible, and that about two hundred other people had seen as well, and James could just ask them about it, I suspect he would not treat it in the same way as one of those chain emails. What’s more, I don’t think he would be at all inconsistent either.

  • eric bess July 7, 2011, 9:53 am

    I don’t think the argument is credible. It was sufficient enough that Paul made the claim. He wasn’t anticipating some one to write him back and say ‘Give me a list, I’m going to travel the Greco-Roman world looking for these people and ask them myself.’ It’s the very rhetoric of the claim that plays the audience right into his hands, just like apologists using this as an argument have played into his hands. This whole early Christian atmosphere of Jesus-preaching where no one would have subjected their claims to falsification if they weren’t true or were exaggerated because they expected everyone to be world-scouring ‘myth-busters’, I think, is a mythical paradigm in evangelical circles that needs to be expunged from their scholarship.

  • Glenn July 7, 2011, 5:42 pm

    Eric, I I don’t think people who find this argument plausible would be all that interested in the response you’ve suggested.

    Of course we can just say of anyone appeals to evidence: “he’s bluffing, he doesn’t expect that anyone really cares. He’s dishonest, he is just using rhetoric.” You’ve created a scenario, I think, where nobody would have even cared about evidence or falsification, but you haven’t yet given strong reasons to believe that this is the sort of environment that existed at the time. You would also need to be willing to show that Paul couldn’t have imagined that any of his readers would be so inclined.

    I’d go as far as to say that all we have here on your part is prejudice.

  • eric bess July 8, 2011, 12:58 pm

    But that’s my point, and in my mind, it’s what undermines using this as evidence. Because given the fact that no one can establish whether or not Paul heard this on the basis of hearsay, was lying, exaggerating, etc., OR that he knew the Corinthians to be these sorts of ‘myth-busters’ such as that he wouldn’t have made the claim unless he could actually back it up with is exactly what makes this whole line of argument worthless. Perhaps he expected them to accept it on his personal apostolic authority. That he wrote this with the thought in mind that some one would actually challenge him on it and organize an itinerant scouring mission from Corinth (which sounds absurd anyway) is something you’re (those who make this argument in general) ASSUMING specifically because you’re trying to push the evidence in the direction you already want it to go. Imagine if historians in disciplines other than biblical studies handled texts of the time the way you do. It amazes me.

  • eric bess July 8, 2011, 1:09 pm

    For all we know, someone from Corinth may have written him back and said ‘prove it’ and he could have ignored the letter or upbraided them with all sorts of claims about how his revelatory experiences from God made him an apostle and that they shouldn’t challenge his authority. There’s no way we can extract information enough about his ingenuousness, whether he gave much thought to the matter, how ambivalent he was about the claim, etc., in order to make high probability statements about the factuality of these 500 witnesses. You simply can’t do it.

  • Glenn July 9, 2011, 5:01 pm

    Eric, you are arguing entirely from silence.

    Effectively you’re raising the challenge that we don’t know that there wasn’t a conversation between Paul and early Christians where they did actually ask for evidence, and Paul brushed them off and told them that he was not going to give any indication of where any of these 500 people was.

    The trouble is, there’s no indication that any such discussion took place, and the approach taken in this letter of Paul suggests very strongly that this was not his approach in communicating with the church.

    Yes, we can invent fictional scenarios out of nothing which, if they were real, would make Paul’s appeal weaker. And?

  • eric bess July 10, 2011, 3:26 am

    Exactly, Glenn. Now I think you’re seeing what I’m saying….Fictional scenarios. To say Paul would have expected his Corinthian correspondents to start scouring the empire because he knew the truth of what he spoke and was willing to start listing names, etc. to confirm it all….is a FICTIONAL SCENARIO. The argument is designed to push the evidence in a specific direction. Truth is, there’s no possible way to tell. To say Paul had intimate knowledge of the character and number of these appearances, were there a basis to this claim, and therefore they probably took place the way you say they did is reading far too much into the text. He could have even believed they took place and we would get no closer to according it any reliability. At best we could say this was one item of faith on his list of beliefs. We can’t recover the experiences of 500 people ‘at one time’ seeing the resurrected Jesus, or be assured Paul had concrete evidence of it just because you think he wouldn’t have said were it not the case.

  • eric bess July 10, 2011, 3:45 am

    This could just as easily be interpreted as Paul asserting it because he believed it was true and we wouldn’t know whether he could back it up, or that he anticipated anyone would challenge him on it (especially in a community where he held privileged religious authority.) That’s just the way your argument is designed, and I reject it. Let me ask you this: how do you know Paul could back this up and that the aim of his persuasion was to submit this belief to falsification?

  • eric bess July 10, 2011, 4:00 am

    Just look at Paul’s reasoning later; it’s entirely circular. He essentially argues if none of it happened, they’ve been preaching it for nothing, so it must be true (or else the religious consequences are unacceptable.) This does not inspire much of my confidence in Paul’s ability to back what he says up here about an experience he did not have and which some one may just as well have told him was the case. His argument is essentially the same as yours: he wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true. That’s rhetoric, not something we can take reliable historical data from.

  • Glenn July 10, 2011, 3:17 pm

    Eric:

    Firstly, your posts seem rather frantic, and they come in quick succession. Three short comments (all much smaller than the size limit) in barely half an hour. Not sure what to make of that. Please don’t do that. Think your argument through, and post it all.

    Secondly, you must surely see that it’s dishonest to say “exactly” and “fictional” scenarios as though I’m in any way agreeing with you. It doesn’t sound like you’re interested in communication if you’re going to play games like that. I have not agreed with you about fictional scenarios.

    Thirdly, the argument doesn’t push evidence in any direction. Paul’s claim, rather, is that the evidence exists in the form of witnesses who are still living. How this “pushes” the evidence anywhere is beyond me. The evidence was either there or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t and yet Paul still said this, then he was taking a risk.

    Nothing is being “read into” this text. All that I have done is to ask what follows from the fact that Paul made these claims. There’s no dispute between you and me as to what Paul’s claims were, so neither of us is reading into the text.

    Your question seems wrong-headed. You ask how I know that Paul’s goal was to submit his claim to scrutiny/falsification. May answer is: Have you read his claim? If someone comes to you offering evidence in the form of a claim that there now exist many living witnesses, he would be justified in thinking you had not heard him clearly if you said: “But how can I test that?” To understand Paul’s claim is to understand how it can be falsified.

    And lastly, you misunderstand Paul if you think his argument is “circular.” In context, Paul is responding to Corinthian Christians who denied that they would physically rise from the dead (check this for yourself – the issue is whether or not there will be a future resurrection). In that context, Paul says (and I’m summarising for your benefit, but feel free to check out all of chapter 15 for yourself), that if nobody rises from the dead, then not even Jesus rose from the dead (and this would be a problem since the Corinthians did believe that Jesus rose). But if Jesus never rose, then “we” (the Apostles) would be preaching for nothing.

    So you see eric, it’s not a circular argument at all.

    Cheers
    Glenn

  • eric bess July 10, 2011, 3:42 pm

    First, it’s not ‘dishonest’ to use those terms. They are intended to convey an irony, which you missed. Your character assassination is unwarranted and uncharitable. Second, my posts are not ‘frantic’. There are 3 of them in tandem because I’m the same guy on your women at the tomb thread who already stated he has character limits on his phone per post. Not that you remember even, or that you could assume I always post from my phone, but your assessment of my pace of thought is still wrong. Like with Paul, you’re reading too much into my mind when I wrote what I wrote. Third, Paul could have said what he said simply because he expected it to be persuasive, not because he contemplated any risks and communicated this belief because he anticipated the notion of some one working to falsify it. Reflecting back on the text as moderns doing history, we think about those sorts of things. There’s nothing going for believing Paul was prepared to back it up just in case some one asked for a list and address information

  • eric bess July 10, 2011, 4:03 pm

    We see how it could theoretically be falsified, but that doesn’t carry over to Paul’s reason for mentioning these witnesses or that he consciously felt he was taking a risk. That’s all in your imagination. Fourth (and note: I’m continuing my previous post for character limits, not because I’m ‘frantic’, thanks), I’ve read 1Cor 15. Your superior attitude is, among other things (cf. false accusations above)ironically, showing how little interested you are in communication. My point is to show the kind of reasoning Paul employs, I didn’t say that in those verses he was specifically talking about the 500 witnesses. But it is a circular argument, nonetheless and shows why I doubt Paul’s critical thinking skills. To say ‘p’ did occur or else it was pointless to assert it is circular by definition. Seeing that you’re obviously uncharitable, continuing would be a waste of my time. Your argument fails.

  • Glenn July 10, 2011, 5:08 pm

    “First, it’s not ‘dishonest’ to use those terms.”

    Yes it definitely was dishonest.

    You still – seriously – need to go back and read 1 Cor 15 and follow Paul’s argument. It’s not circular.

    To say ‘p’ did occur or else it was pointless to assert it is circular by definition. Seeing that you’re obviously uncharitable, continuing would be a waste of my time. Your argument fails.

    But this is not Paul’s argument. I explained what Paul’s argument was, and this isn’t it. You can’t just make up an argument, attribute it to Paul, and then blame him for how circular it was. Again, here it is:

    1) If the dead do not rise at all, then Jesus did not rise.
    2) You actually accept that Jesus rose, and so do we, which is what we proclaim.
    3) Therefore if no dead rise, then this falsifies what you and we already believe, so what we have said is false. Clearly you need to rethink whether or not the dead will rise.

    So there is no circularity, Eric. It’s not a sense of superiority on my part that motivates me to point this out. You genuinely have not understood Paul’s claims in 1 Cor 15.

    As for the rest, thanks for your thoughts, eric.

  • Piers May 11, 2015, 11:47 pm

    Thinking about eyewitness testimony, I came across this post… that you wrote 5 years ago!

    I think you have in part discussed this issue with eric, but given his frantic posting I couldn’t quite make out whether we are making the same point – or something else entirely.

    Now, you say the following:

    It meant that if there was any question over whether they were actually witnesses, they were still living and breathing and people could still check with them whether they had seen the risen Jesus. Paul may as well have been saying “look, if you still don’t believe me, there are hundreds of people who saw Jesus alive again, and they are still alive. Just ask them!”

    Could a possible reply from the septic be, “Well of course Paul can say that knowing full well that people aren’t going to check up with the 500. He is taking a calculated risk. The Corinthians aren’t about to go for a stroll/voyage of 1000 or so miles just to find whether Paul is telling the truth. So Paul could say anything to make his case look more solid, knowing full well that whatever he said would unlikely be investigated.”

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