I posted an article last week that argues for a large amount of agreement among the resurrection accounts in the New Testament. What I want to do here is focus on 1 Corinthians 15, which receives a lot of attention for various reasons in discussions of the evidence for Jesus' resurrection. I want to discuss how well the passage aligns with what we find in the gospels and Acts and some of the reasons why that alignment is significant.
Paul lists six appearances of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15. At the outset, I want to note that I'm not aware of any inconsistency between Paul's list and the material in the gospels and Acts, which is significant, given how easily these sources could have come into conflict. Having said that, let's look at each of the six appearances:
- Jesus appeared to Peter (1 Corinthians 15:5). Luke mentions an appearance to Peter, and, like Paul, places it early (Luke 24:34).
- Then Jesus appeared to the Twelve (1 Corinthians 15:5). (See my post last week on what we should make of group names, like "the Twelve".) Luke and John narrate such an appearance, and both, like Paul, place it early (Luke 24:36-43, John 20:19-23). Like Paul, Luke places it after an appearance to Peter (Luke 24:34-6).
- Jesus then appeared to more than five hundred people (1 Corinthians 15:6). That appearance occurred after the one to the Twelve, which happened on Easter Sunday, and before the next one that can be dated, which is the appearance to Paul. That leaves a large timeframe in which the appearance to the more than five hundred can be placed, and there's no significant problem with fitting it in. Luke and John refer to how the pre-ascension resurrection appearances occurred over weeks of time, not some shorter period (John 20:26, Acts 1:3), and Matthew and Mark don't say anything to the contrary, so there's a large space available for the timing of the 1 Corinthians 15:6 appearance. It may not be narrated by any of the gospels or Acts, and none of those five documents mention the number of witnesses cited by Paul. The best candidate for the appearance in the gospels and Acts is Matthew 28:16-20. I'm aware of a few arguments that can be made in favor of identifying that Matthew 28 appearance as the one Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 15:6. First, the mountainous setting provides enough space for that many people. Second, the planned nature of the appearance ("the mountain which Jesus had designated" in verse 16) would help explain why so many people were gathered together. Third, notice the implications of combining the first two points. Why did Jesus direct his disciples to a mountainous area, given that so many other areas closer to where they'd normally be could accommodate a smaller number of people? Directing them to that mountainous region would make more sense if he directed them there in anticipation of the presence of a larger number of people. Fourth, what Jesus says on the occasion, the Great Commission, is appropriate for an appearance to such a group, in contrast to other appearances of a more personal nature (addressing Mary Magdalene, Thomas, Peter, etc.). Fifth, the largeness of the group of more than five hundred and its inclusion in the material Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15 suggest that there would be a good chance that at least one of the gospel authors would include a reference to it. Matthew mentions the Eleven in verse 16, but he had reason to focus on them even if others were with them. As far as I know, we can't demonstrate that the Matthew 28 passage is referring to the 1 Corinthians 15:6 appearance, but that Matthew 28 passage seems to be the best candidate for a reference in the gospels and Acts. Regardless, there's no significant problem with seeing 1 Corinthians 15:6 as at least consistent with what those five documents tell us.
- Then Jesus appeared to James (1 Corinthians 15:7). Nobody narrates the appearance, and the gospels and Acts make no explicit reference to it. Like the appearance in verse 6, however, it's at least consistent with what the gospels and Acts tell us. But we can go further. James' conversion and prominence in Acts are best explained if he saw the risen Christ. He's portrayed as if he has the authority of an apostle (Acts 12:17, 15:13-21, 21:18), and he would have to have seen the risen Christ in order to have had that status (Acts 1:21-2, 10:40-2, 1 Corinthians 9:1). The references to "apostles and elders" (Acts 15:2, 15:4, 15:6, 15:22-3, 16:4) seem best explained if James is in the "apostles" category with Peter. The two of them together would explain the plural. Elsewhere, James is distinguished from "the elders", even if he was an elder in some sense (Acts 21:18). Acts 9:27 refers to Paul's visiting "the apostles", and Galatians 1:18-9 explains that he only met with Peter and James on that occasion, so Acts seems to be identifying James as an apostle there as well. It looks like Acts agrees with 1 Corinthians 15 that there was a resurrection appearance to James.
- Afterward, Jesus appeared to all the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:7). Once again, the appearance is at least consistent with the gospels and Acts. Furthermore, Luke and John at least confirm that there were multiple appearances to the apostles as a group (Luke 24:36-51, Acts 1:3-9, John 20:19-29, 21:14). We can't confirm whether Paul had one of those later appearances in mind or something else, but Paul's comments are at least consistent with and partially corroborated by the gospels and Acts.
- Last in Paul's list is the appearance to him (1 Corinthians 15:8). Acts confirms that there was an appearance to Paul and that it occurred last (Acts 9:3-5).
To appreciate the significance of these agreements between 1 Corinthians and the other five documents, think of how easily and how much they could have disagreed. If the gospels and Acts are as unhistorical as many critics suggest, and if early Christianity in general was so unconcerned about history, why would 1 Corinthians 15 align so well with the other five documents? All three of the individuals Paul names (Peter, James, and Paul) and the one group he names (the Twelve) are found in the gospels and Acts. Every appearance Paul mentions is consistent with what we see in the other documents. All of the appearances Paul mentions either are narrated in the other five documents or are highly plausible candidates for fulfilling that role. The gospels and Acts even place the appearances in the same order in which Paul does in contexts in which it would have been easy for that to have not occurred. Think of how easily the appearance to Peter could have not been mentioned at all or could have been placed in a different order. It would have been easy for none of the non-Pauline documents to have provided as plausible a setting as Matthew does for the appearance to more than five hundred. It would have been easy for Acts to have not implied an appearance to James in the manner I've described above. And it would have been easy for the gospels and Acts to have not referred to any appearances to the apostles as a group and even easier to have not referred to multiple such appearances. Or think of how easily the appearance to Paul could have been placed in the midst of appearances to the other apostles rather than last. It would have been easy for any, or more than one, of the non-Pauline authors to have made some comment that would contradict Paul or corroborate him less.
These alignments between 1 Corinthians and the other five documents suggest that the resurrection accounts are more consistent and more historical than critics typically suggest.