Now let’s take a closer look at verses 5-6 of 1 Corinthians 15. In particular, pay close attention to the sequence of events listed here. First the text says Jesus appeared to Cephas (which is the Aramaic equivalent of Petros, the form of Peter’s name that we would expect to find in an early Christian creed dating to around 33AD). Later Jesus appears to the twelve and then to a large crowd of over 500 brothers.
Interestingly, this is a different sequence of events from what we find in the Gospels. According to various gospel reports, several women discover the empty tomb first and are confronted by an angel declaring that Christ has risen. They tell Peter, who runs to the tomb with John, and they find it empty, just as the women had reported. When they leave, Mary Magdalene stays behind and sees the risen Jesus, who she at first mistakes for the gardener. The various accounts report different aspects and perspectives of the same event. Sometimes these accounts can be difficult to piece together, which is what typically happens in the case of actual eyewitness testimony of unexpected events.
But we should stop for a moment and ask why Mary Magdalene or any of the other women are not listed in 1 Corinthians 15 as the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection. I believe the answer has to do with the purpose of this early creed.
If this creed was crafted sometime in the early 30s, then it was primarily to be used among Jews rather than Gentiles. As we’ve seen, this creed does not only outline the basic facts of the gospel. It also provides two kinds of witnesses to testify concerning those facts, namely the testimony of the prophets and the Apostles. But there was something else going on as well. In the Jewish culture of the first century, women were not considered reliable witnesses in a court of law. Though Moses never prohibited women’s testimony in a legal proceeding, first century historian Josephus writes the following as he comments on the Law of Moses:
Antiq. 4:219 “…let not a single witness be believed; but two or three at the least, and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex…”
So in light of this 1st century evidence, it makes sense that we would find this early Christian community rooting the gospel of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection in the eyewitness testimony of the Apostles and other male witnesses as part of its public deposition.
We see further evidence of this in verse 6 as the creed goes on to say that Christ appeared to more than 500 brothers at once. Notice it does not say 500 people, but brothers. It was the custom of this period to only count male heads when calculating crowd sizes. When this early creed says that more than 500 brothers were witnesses to Christ’s resurrection, in reality this may have been an audience of up to a thousand or more individuals if we are to assume women and children were present. Another example would be the feeding of the five thousand. The crowd may actually have been up to twice that size since we read in Matt. 14:21 that “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” Now, like slavery, you may find this sort of patriarchalism distasteful, but once grasped, it actually helps us understand many New Testament texts, 1 Corinthians 15 in particular.
Now, in terms of the order, it’s interesting to note that the creed does not say that Peter was the first eyewitness. It simply lists him first. He was the first of the Apostles to witness the risen Lord and that’s all that is being claimed here. After this, Jesus was seen by the twelve. Most of the gospel accounts don’t narrate Peter’s exclusive meeting with the risen Christ, but we do find it briefly mentioned to in Luke 24:34. After the two disciples talk with Jesus on the road to Emmaus and return to Jerusalem (which is roughly about a three-hour walk), they finally meet up with the disciples and find them saying, “The Lord has risen indeed and has appeared to Simon.” So sometime during that first Sunday, Jesus had revealed himself to Peter before he appeared to all the disciples at once.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once (most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep).
Many scholars here believe that the creed is interrupted by a parenthetical comment by Paul. He writes that “most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” Here, Paul is admitting that a few decades have now passed since these events transpired and that some of the witnesses have died. Most, however, would still be living and would have been available to be questioned about these events.
One question that has perplexed scholars over the years is the exact timing of this large gathering of believers who were witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. Since it is not reported in the gospels, no one is exactly sure.
Some have argued that it may be hinted at in Matthew 28 when Jesus appears to his disciples and instructs them to tell others to leave Jerusalem and go to Galilee where he would appear to them there. The text says that the disciples then go to “the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” Now remember, they don’t have minivans at this period, so this takes a little time to do by foot. Since they were instructed to tell others, by the time they arrived there may have been a significant crowd with them of the type described in 1 Corinthians 15.
But why did Jesus show himself to his followers only? Why didn’t the risen Lord show himself to unbelievers as well? We’ll take up those questions in the next post in this series.