He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles;
Here Paul begins to list the eyewitnesses – not to the Resurrection itself, but to the risen Christ. Keep in mind that these reports were in circulation within 2-3 years after Jesus’ death. There can be no doubt that these people actually reported having seen Jesus after his death. Those reports were either true or false. One thing they were not were myths and legends that developed over a long period of time. Paul himself checked with the apostles to verify the contents of his preaching as he writes in Galatians 1:18-20. He says, “Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother. Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying.”
Skeptics sometimes like to use the illustration of the game where you have a line of people and the person at the start of the line gives a message to the next person. They pass it to the next person and so on, until it gets to the other end. Then you see how the message got garbled in the process. This, they say, is how we got the stories about Jesus in the New Testament. The problems with this illustration are numerous. The biggest problem is this: all you need to do to find out what the original message was is to ask the person at the front of the line. In fact, that’s the only way you can tell that the message was changed is by comparing the last person’s story with the first person’s story. So in order for this to be the process by which we arrived at the stories of Jesus in the New Testament, you have to assume that nobody checked with those who were reported as eyewitnesses. However, we have specific claims that people DID check with the eyewitnesses, and not just by Paul. Luke also specifically claims to have checked with eyewitnesses, as does John. Paul even basically swears an oath here in Galatians that he’s telling the truth. But if those claims were false, then these men were lying. Is it possible Paul was lying? The early and consistent testimony of church history is that Paul died a martyr’s death in Rome around 64 AD under Nero after having risked his life countless times to proclaim the Gospel message throughout the Roman Empire. Of first importance in that proclamation was the eyewitness testimony of those who had seen Jesus after his Resurrection. This was not a game for Paul and for the other eyewitnesses – it was quite literally a matter of life and death.
He Appeared to Cephas
The first appearance Paul reports is one to Peter (Cephas is Peter’s name in Aramaic), and evidently to Peter by himself since it’s listed separately from the appearance to the Twelve. Some skeptics object that we have no report in the Gospels of such an appearance. But this is not entirely correct. It’s true that there’s no narrative of such an appearance, but in fact an appearance to Peter by himself is mentioned by Luke. This happens after the narrative of Jesus appearing to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Luke writes, “And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them, saying, ‘The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon’” (Luke 24:33-34). Simon is Peter’s original name which Jesus changed to Cephas (or Peter), meaning rock. So here in Luke we have a clear reference to this first appearance to Peter mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians. We have no other details of this appearance, but Luke indicates that Peter, after going to the tomb himself to verify the incredible story of the women, returned to his home “marveling at what had happened” (Luke 24:12). This private appearance to Peter most likely occurred at his home.
Then to the Twelve
The next appearance listed by Paul is to the Twelve. Luke and John both record an appearance of Jesus to his disciples on the evening after his resurrection. In Luke it occurs immediately after the passage given above. The Emmaus disciples return to Jerusalem to find the eleven and others who are with them talking about Jesus’ appearance to Peter. The two from Emmaus then recount their own testimony. Jesus then appears to all of them. Interestingly, Luke records that they became frightened thinking that it was a spirit. Jesus says to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” He then asks them if they have something to eat, and eats a piece of broiled fish in front of them. This is an absolutely remarkable story given the completely unexpected nature of it. Luke does not portray Jesus here as a spirit-like being at all, but as having the properties of a normal human being. At the same time, he also can do things normal people can’t do, like appearing and disappearing at will. But the Gospel narratives give nothing else unusual about Jesus, except that he is sometimes recognized immediately and sometimes not recognized until later. If this was a legendary development, why does Jesus’s body not glow or something else to indicate its supernatural qualities? Luke indicates that the angels in the tomb were “dazzling” in appearance – why not Jesus? Even the disciples seem to have doubts and questions about their experiences. This is consistent with what we would expect from anyone who sees a person they’ve known after their death, but hardly as an apologetic for the Resurrection written afterwards to dupe a gullible populace.
The skeptic likes to raise the objection that at this point in the story the Twelve was no longer twelve, since Judas had reportedly committed suicide after betraying Jesus. In fact Luke says the disciples on the road to Emmaus returned to “the eleven.” So how can Paul say that Jesus appeared to the Twelve? One solution immediately presents itself in Luke’s account of the election of a replacement for Judas in Acts 1. We are told that Matthias was chosen for this role. But we are also told that Peter gave the necessary qualifications for this office in Acts 1:21-22: “Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us -- beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us -- one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” So the only candidates were apparently those who had accompanied the apostles from the beginning. Luke has already indicated that there were others gathered with the eleven when Jesus appeared, so it’s quite possible, even probable, that Matthais was one of those present at that appearance on the first evening. Of course, John reports that Thomas was NOT present for that first appearance, but that eight days later Jesus appeared to them again when all of the disciples were present.
Then to more than 500
Paul makes a remarkable report that Jesus also appeared to a group of more than five hundred people at one time. He also adds the note “most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.” This obviously was not part of the original creed which Paul had received, but was added by him when he wrote the Corinthians. Skeptics will argue that this appearance must be fictitious, because there is no record of such an appearance in the Gospels. Some suggest that the appearance in Matthew 28 on the mountain in Galilee may have been this event, although Matthew only mentions the eleven. It’s conceivable that Matthew just omitted reference to a large crowd besides the disciples, although arguments from silence make for poor evidence. But the skeptic’s argument is itself an argument from silence: the Gospels do not specifically mention such an appearance, so there must not have been one. Of course, even when multiple accounts mention the same appearance (such as the one to Peter and to the Twelve), the skeptic says those ones didn’t happen, either for some other reason!
What is remarkable about the five hundred is Paul’s statement that most of these eyewitnesses are still alive. For one thing, it indicates that he must have known who these people were and had some sort of up-to-date information on their whereabouts in order to make such a claim. After all, he was writing to the Corinthians some 20 years after the events in question. How could he claim that most of these eyewitnesses were alive without having some reliable source of information on them? And of course it also raises the question of why he would add this to his letter. He’s clearly using this list as evidential support for the claim that Jesus had really risen from the dead. The information could be verified by his readers, and Paul is staking not only his own apostolic authority on the veracity of his claims, but also the entire truth of the Gospel message itself, a message which he had risked his life to proclaim and eventually gave his life for it. Would he have made a claim like this if such an event had not been reported by eyewitnesses? And again, since the event itself appears to have been part of the early creed and was thus in circulation within 2-3 years after Jesus’ death, how could such a story have originated? Skeptical theories such as hallucinations absolutely won’t work. For more than 500 people to have a hallucination of the same person at the same time would be at least as great a miracle as the Resurrection itself.
Then He Appeared to James
This James is not the same James as the member of the original apostles by that name, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John. Paul is referring here to James, the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3) who became a leader in the early church (Gal. 1:19) and wrote the book of James. This is in itself a remarkable fact. The portrait of Jesus’ siblings in John’s Gospel is that they did not believe in him and may in fact have been somewhat embarrassed by him. How is it, then, that one of Jesus’ brothers not only became one of his followers after his death but a leader in the early church? According to this early church creed, it was because Jesus himself appeared to James after his resurrection. Paul himself met personally with James to confirm this story. So there can be no doubt that James, the brother of Jesus, reported having seen his older brother after he had risen.
Then to All the Apostles
The penultimate appearance on Paul’s list is to “all the apostles,” apparently meaning a different group than the Twelve. The word “apostle” means one who is sent or commissioned and is used in the New Testament to refer to individuals other than the Twelve. A.T. Robertson believes this final appearance to be the one narrated in Acts 1 at Jesus’ ascension. While this is a plausible explanation, we don’t have enough information to be certain.
The list of eyewitnesses that Paul gives here is impressive. He says that all of these people claimed to have seen Jesus after his resurrection. As we have already learned, this creed was almost certainly in circulation among the churches within 2-3 years of Jesus’ crucifixion. Is it possible that these stories had developed as legends in such a short period of time? That’s out of the question. Legends take far longer than that to develop. As A.N. Sherwin-White notes, even two full generations is not sufficient to wipe out a core of historical facts. Besides that, Paul himself met with at least some of these eyewitnesses personally, and was also able to make the claim that most of the 500 were still alive at the time of the writing of his letter to the Corinthians 20 years after the crucifixion. They weren’t legends.
Could the reports have been mistaken in some way? Did people simply think they had seen Jesus but they actually didn’t? Natural explanations involving things like hallucinations are just not plausible. Hallucinations are subject-dependent, so it’s not possible for two people to have identical hallucinations at the same time, let alone 500 people! Even taking just the testimony of the apostles, it’s impossible that they could have all been deceived into thinking that they had seen Jesus when in fact they had not.
It’s also inconceivable that they could have fabricated the story. What would have been their motive? To achieve fame and glory? If that was there motive, they would have had plenty of opportunity to recant after it became clear that their “reward” for their deception was going to be persecution, imprisonment, and martyrdom. But tradition records that all of the apostles except for John were martyred for their faith without ever recanting of their testimony. Skeptics have challenged how good the evidence is for the martyrdom of all of the apostles. The accounts for some of the apostles are admittedly sketchy, but there are good early traditions for many of them, including James the brother of John who was put to death by Herod in Acts 12:2, Peter, and Paul among several others. As Tim and Lydia McGrew point out, even the fact that the apostles had seen others of their number put to death would have been enough to give strong motive to recant on their testimony. So how strong is this eyewitness testimony? Strong enough for the eyewitnesses themselves to have risked, and in many cases given their lives for it, to deliver their message to future generations.