When looking for support for our position, we look for those with similarities. We even overlook great dissimilarities to focus on minute agreement. How many times have we seen a creationist quote one little line from a scientist, thinking it supports creationism, yet ignore the plethora of other works and quotes from the same author that would strongly disagree with the creationist position?
One of the areas in which I watch this happening is the attempt to reconcile the resurrection appearances of Jesus among the canonical books. Similarities are trumpeted; inconsistencies are down-played. And in this search, we look for the earliest record of the appearances. 1 Corinthians 15 enters stage right.
3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,
5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve.
6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.
7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles.
8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.
The date of this writing would be 55 C.E. and only the second letter of Paul’s that we have. (1 Thessalonians being the first.) Which places this account within 25 years of the resurrection. Pretty good; but many Christian scholars believe it can be dated even earlier. The claim is made this section, or at least verses 3b-5 are part of a Christian credo which Paul learned long before writing 1 Corinthians. How long before is a question.
The argument Paul was quoting something else is based upon:
1) The term “I delivered to you what I received…” is a rabbinical term for the transmission of sacred traditions;
2) Non-Pauline words such as “for our sins,” “according to the scriptures,” “he has been raised,” and “on the third day.”
3) Semitic transliteration of “Peter” to “Cephas,” and the threefold use of “and that.”
However, this ends up being a double-edged sword. Due to the non-Pauline nature of the writing, other scholars have argued this is a latter interpolation (insertion) in the text. Further, the three arguments are not as strong on their face:
1) Paul also uses the term “deliver what I received” when referring to the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:23) which he claims to have received directly from God;
2) Paul uses “for our sin” in Gal. 1:4, “according to the scripture” could only be referring to the Tanakh (since the Gospels were not written yet) and what scripture this is referring to is problematic…Hosea 6:2 is generally suggested. Paul has an interesting use of the word “third” particularly in 2 Cor. 13:1. (When the Torah requires “two or three witnesses;” Paul uses that to say his appearing three (3) times is equivalent.)
3) Paul uses the term “Cephas” throughout 1 Corinthians (1:12; 3:22; 9:5) and never “Peter.” When writing Galatians, Paul uses “Peter” at 2:7 & 8, but favors “Cephas” at 1:18; 2:9, 11 & 14
If we are claiming this is a non-Pauline credo, it retains some very Pauline characteristics! Be that as it may, assuming this was a credo of some sort, passed from Christian to Christian eventually falling on Paul’s ears—what does it say about the Gospel stories which have very different accounts? How is it the Gospel of Matthew, if written by one of the Disciples, does not align with the credo? Nor the Gospel of John—also an alleged eyewitness according to Christian tradition?
Many Christian apologists attempt to place this credo early; unwittingly forfeiting the reliability of the Gospel accounts. They want us to look at the similarities, and ignore the differences. Let’s look at the order of appearances:
1. Cephas (presumably Peter)
2. “The Twelve” (title of the Disciples)
3. Over 500 brethren at once
4. James, the brother of Jesus
5. All the apostles
Has no appearances.
1. Mary Magdalene and the Other Mary
2. Eleven Disciples
1. Simon? (24:34)
2. Cleopas and ____ on the Road to Emmaus
3. Eleven and those who were with them.
4. Apostles. (Acts 1:2)
1. Mary Magdalene
2. Ten Disciples (No Thomas)
3. Eleven Disciples.
4. Peter, Thomas, Nathanial, sons of Zebedee and two other disciples
[And it should be noted, this is a straightforward reading. Inerrantists who attempt to align the Gospel accounts fiddle with these accounts. For example, some remove Mary Magdalene in the first appearance of Matthew, and add other followers in the last appearance of the same Gospel.]
What is striking is not only the differences in order, but the actual persons involved. The credo does not include the women—who are in both Matthew and John. The credo specifically lists James—again unmentioned in the Gospels. And finally lists “all the apostles” which is an unknown group comprised of unknown individuals, and unaccounted for in the gospels as well, although possibly included in Luke’s second book of Acts.
The credo includes this count of “over 500 brethren” which are not mentioned in any of the gospels. (Although the Gospel of Nicodemus mentions such an appearance.) Oddly, Acts 1:15 records the total number of “brethren” as being only 120. This is the same word used by Paul—how could it drop from 500 to 120?
Of the four Gospels—Luke would be the closest to this credo. Luke seems to have no knowledge of any appearance to Peter prior to the disciples (note the words are placed in other people’s quotes, with no indication of any event occurring) and does not include any appearance to James. While one may imply such an appearance occurred, due to James staying with the disciples in the room (Acts 1:14), it also includes the other brothers; not even the credo includes any appearance to them.
If this was an early creed, it lacks continuity with the later writings.
It finally should be noted, assuming Paul heard this from someone else, we have no knowledge as to how “early” it could be. Although apologists like to state Paul heard it from Peter on his first trip to Jerusalem (Gal 1:18), there is no reason Paul could have not heard it until his second trip. (Gal. 2:1) Or at his conversion experience. Or anytime between. Again, if this was a creed, it may have transmitted through other Christians. If it was only a one-time statement from Peter, one questions how reliable either it, or the Gospel accounts, are.