Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Picking and Choosing

Prior to a trial, each side has to present to the other an Exhibit List—a pleading detailing what documents and items they intend to introduce at trial. It is no surprise the lists between opposing parties disagree. Why? Because each side is picking (out of ALL possible Exhibits) those which support their case.

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.”

Article here.

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 Corinthians
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
6. Paul.

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.


  1. 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.)

    This is probably a small point, but I'm not convinced this is the case. If you tie it to the immediately preceding text rather than the following (recalling, of course, that the chapter boundaries are arbitrary), it could be read as reminding his audience that he will need to receive multiple reports before he will entertain the chastisement of an alleged miscreant. The "third time" might be merely an expression of exasperation that a third visit would be yet again filled with verbal floggings rather than praises.

    This interpretation may not be without problems, but IMO it's more plausible than the suggestion that he's trying to cram circumstances to fit the requirement on multiple witnesses; particularly since in quoting the passage fairly literally, he emphasizes the point of separate individuals with the phrase "in the mouths of...".

  2. I would note that Paul is pretty emphatic in Galatians 1 that what he received, he received by direct revelation from Christ rather than from man. Apologists ignore this in an attempt to tie the "received" in 2 Corinthians 15 to the visits to Jerusalem in Galations 1. The fact that Paul says he preached for three years before talking to any of the original apostles seems to make this untenable.

    The most ludicrous use of this passage is a little shtick that Lee Strobel does where he invites his listeners to imagine 515 witnesses testifying in court for fifteen minutes each, which would take five full twenty-four hour days to complete. How could anyone not be convinced by that many witnesses? The problem of course is that it's imaginary!

    Even if you grant the apologist that 1 Corinthians 15 contains a very early creed, it is still only Paul's statement. If one witness in court testifies that fifty other people saw what he saw, you still only have one witness, not fifty-one.

  3. Micah Cowan,

    He he he. I picked up that tidbit from a Christian scholar who was defending the basis of “rose again on the third day, according to the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4) was an accurate assessment (since we have no exact correlation) by Paul’s midrashic use of Hosea. The scholar noted Paul’s interesting similar defense of “2 or 3 witnesses” being his 2nd and 3rd trip to Corinth in 2 Cor. 13:1

    If you fail to be convinced by the Christian’s argument attempting to justify “according to the scripture” it will not blow my socks off. *wink*

    However, I do think it is persuasive this is what Paul is doing in 2 Cor. 13:1. First of all, a primary theme of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s defense he really does qualify to be an apostle. (See 11:5, 12:11-12) In looking at 13:1, we investigate what it is Paul is attempting to establish by 2 or 3 witnesses. He uses the term “every word.” And in 13:3, he says, “you seek proof of Christ speaking in me.” I think there is a strong correlation between these two verses as to what Paul is attempting to establish.

    I agree we should look at the context before, but that would start at 12:11. Looking at a whole, it seems to me to be far more likely Paul was using an interesting twist on the Torah to claim this was a “third” type of witness.

  4. Vinny,

    And there is simply no way to confirm this “500” number. As I noted, it is not adhered to by any canonical work, and actually contradicts Luke/Acts. And you are quite correct, it is all hearsay from Paul. He could have said 300 or 500 or 1000—it is simply a made-up number. (Similar to the current vernacular of “They say…” when no one knows who “they” are.)

    Further, Paul is free to say, “hey, some are still alive” because no one would question him on it. How is Paul keeping track of who is alive or not? What verification is Paul going through to determine what they saw, when they saw it, etc.

    This is an off the cuff statement made to preach to the choir. “Don’t worry. There are 500 people out there who confirm what I say. Next time I see ya, I will give you some names, even though you couldn’t look ‘em up if you were inclined to do so.”

  5. I have my own hypothesis about how Paul might have come up with this creed.

    During his time as a persecutor, Saul/Paul must have questioned suspected Christians about their beliefs, perhaps under torture, in order to determine who deserved punishment. He may have had informants as well. While some might have given him accurate information about Jesus, there would doubtless be others caught in his net that would happily invent fantastic stories about what others believed in order to get Saul off their back. “No. No. I’m not one of his followers, but my next door neighbor claims that Jesus came back from the dead and appeared to a big crowd.” If you look at various religious persecutions throughout history, I suspect you would find that the persecutors generally don’t have a terribly accurate picture of their victims’ beliefs and practices.

    So when Paul has this vision (hallucination?) on the road to Damascus, he decides that all these stories he had been told about Jesus must have been true. Then he goes out for three years and enjoys great preaching success based on his understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry. When he finally met some of the original apostles, I cannot imagine that Paul would have been terribly concerned by details that did not fit with the picture he had been painting.

  6. The 500 number always seemed like a throwaway line to me. It's mentioned once, and then those 500 are never allued to again (unless I'm missing something). There aren't even names associated with those 500s, or any sort of writings.

    There is no way we'd find such a reference convincing in any other format. Even if our best friend told us that an alien ship landed and 500 people witnessed it, we'd want to hear from those 500 ourselves, given the nature of the claim.

    Or, to drive the point closer to home. If Islam has a writing stating that 500 people heard their prophet perform a miracle, or directly heard from God that Islam was the one true religion Christians wouldn't find that proof. Yet they do find it proof when Paul says that 500 were witnesses?