Then He Appeared to Over Five Hundred Brethren at Once!

Christian apologists will often throw a tantrum and kick up hay over the notion of “mass hallucination.” That’s impossible! Never documented! Absurd on its face! And they’ll especially bring up “the more than five hundred brethren” Paul says the resurrected Jesus “appeared” to (1 Corinthians 15:6). “You can’t explain that!” they’ll say. And what about “the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:5) and “all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:7)! How can that be explained? Jesus must have risen! God be praised!

Formally, this is an equivocation fallacy. Because what critics mean by “group hallucination” is not what Christian apologists mean by appearances of Jesus. So apologists conflate those two, hope you don’t notice, and get the result they want. But if you unpack that, you can easily expose the deception. Mainstream explanations of the visions of Jesus do not say what the apologists claim. Apologists really just want everyone to assume that the encounters with the risen Jesus narrated in the Gospels are true. And not just true, but true in every detail.

The Gospels Are Useless Data

Of course they aren’t, though. Those stories in the Gospels are no more true, than any other wild claim recorded in history for which we have no eyewitness source and no objective corroboration of any kind. Dead people walking about, gaping wounds and all (John 20:25-27, 20:20), morphing into other people (Luke 24:14-16; John 20:14-15, John 21:4-7), becoming blinding balls of light (Acts 9:3-5, Acts 22:6-9, Acts 26:13), announced by celestial monsters (Matthew 28:2-8; Luke 24:4-8; John 20:11-13; Acts 1:10-11, cf. Mark 16:5-8), teleporting (Luke 24:31, 24:36-37; John 20:19, 20:26), flying (Acts 1:9-11). We recognize those kinds of stories. They never turn out to be true. It’s fantasy. And if it were any other religion, Christians would admit that.

The Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. They don’t even claim to be. Yet were written an average lifetime after the events they relate, in a period when we cannot establish any eyewitness was still alive. And we can neither locate nor name any witness they claim to have consulted. In fact, not a single Gospel claims to have consulted any eyewitness. Luke just says he used prior Gospels (Luke 1:1-4; see my analysis of the underlying Greek in Not the Impossible Faith, Ch. 7). And we know which ones: Mark and Matthew, or some other now-lost Gospel(s) used by them; yet neither Mark nor Matthew claim to be witnesses, nor write like witnesses, nor cite any witness as a source for anything they relate.

Hence Luke just asserts those Gospels contained a tradition passed down by eyewitnesses; he does not cite any evidence of that assertion being true. The Gospels themselves don’t even say that. And even the authors of the Gospel of John (yes, plural), who fabricate an anonymous eyewitness source completely absent from every previous version of the story (as I demonstrate in On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 500-05), only claim to have read something that unnamed witness wrote…in other words, some previous Gospel, whom they show no sign of having confirmed was actually written by anyone actually there (they just assert they “know” what he wrote is true; giving no indication of how they know that). They don’t even say they’d ever met him. Or knew what his name was. Nor do we get to hear what anyone who really would have been there, actually thought about these narratives. They may have completely denounced them as fabrications. We don’t know. Whatever they said, was deleted from history. If any were even alive to say anything about them at all. We have no evidence any were.

So, no. We don’t get to assume as fact that anything the Gospels relate is true. We don’t even have a good argument for thinking that’s likely. All attempts to claim otherwise, fail on both logic and evidence (see Proving History, Chapters 7 and 13 of Not the Impossible Faith, and Chapter 10 of On the Historicity of Jesus).

That Leaves us with Paul

So all we have left to count on is Paul, whose letters constitute the only text we have from anyone claiming to be an eyewitness to a risen Jesus, and someone who tells us he knew and met some of the eyewitnesses before him (though he didn’t meet them until years after he himself saw Jesus and was already evangelizing across the Middle East). But here’s the huge disconnect. Nothing in Paul, connects with anything in the Gospels. That’s right. Not a single detail in the Gospels, matches anything in Paul. Paul never mentions anyone hanging out with the undead Jesus eating and drinking and fondling him for weeks on end. And Paul’s only reported sequence of events, corresponds to no Gospel we know.

Paul tells us Jesus was seen, and preached his gospel of resurrection and salvation, in revelations (Romans 16:25-26; Galatians 1:11-16; 1 Corinthians 9:1). Not by showing up at the apostles’ door and asking for a hot breakfast. In fact, what Paul does tell us, rules that out. The most detailed account Paul ever gives is in 1 Corinthians 15:5-9:

[I told you] that [Jesus] appeared to Cephas [Peter]; then to the twelve; then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom most remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one malformed, he appeared to me too, for I am the least of the apostles, who is not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

Apologists will lie to you and claim Paul distinguished the nature of the appearance of Jesus to himself, and to the others. To the contrary, he equates them as identical (“me, too”). He makes no distinctions other than time (“last of all”) and divine motive (“I persecuted the church”). That he meant anything else here, is a false assumption, based on importing later fake myths, and “assuming” Paul agreed with them. He never says such a thing. It is not credible that he did. He clearly believed he saw Jesus in just the same way as the “apostles before him” (e.g. 1 Corinthians 9:1; Galatians 1:6-20). Even his calling himself “one malformed,” literally a miscarriage (ektrôma), refers to his being a monster, because he was a persecutor (as he directly tells us), so he means it’s a miracle God chose to include him. This implies he knew, and everyone knew, his vision was the same as every other apostle’s.

But Paul tells us what his vision was like. Paul says Jesus appeared to him not as a “man,” not in “flesh and blood,” but “through a revelation” (di’ apokalypseôs: Galatians 1:11-12), which Paul describes as God revealing Jesus “inside me” (Galatians 1:16). He never says anyone saw Jesus in any other way. So we cannot assume he or anyone thought he had. All we have are myths and legends a lifetime later, from no known or credible source. Paul had revelations like this all the time, complete with schizophrenic conversations with Jesus inside his mind (see 2 Corinthians 12:1-9). In fact the evidence shows the earliest Christians were prone to hallucinating, and believed their hallucinations real (see On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 124-41). Like many schizotypal cults throughout history (ibid.; plus pp. 159-63).

So what mainstream historians are saying when they say the visions of the risen Jesus “were hallucinations” is that the apostles received inner experiences, inside their mind, that convinced them they had “seen” Jesus. They do not mean “they met a walking corpse, manhandled him, dined with him, and sat in on his scholarly lectures.” They do not mean even just “saw a walking corpse.” Some have speculated things close to that, like imagining that Paul’s brief four-verse history of the visions is a decades-in-the-making exaggeration of what actually began as momentary and fleeting bereavement hallucinations. But we don’t even need to posit that. And I personally don’t think that’s the most likely account of what Paul relates. It’s just more likely than actual walking corpses.

In antiquity, distinctions were not even routinely made between hallucinations and dreams. Both would be described as “seeing” the god, as the god “appearing” to them, as “revelations” from the god. Both were believed to be real, actual manifestations of the god (see William Harris, Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity). So we can’t even tell if Paul means by “appeared” simply “appeared in a dream.” Did Peter have an extended dream about conversing with a resurrected Jesus explaining to him all the things he’d been hoping were true, and then awoke, assured Jesus had really appeared to him? He would have excitedly told the others, explaining how Jesus had appeared to him and appointed him an apostle of the new gospel. And so inspired, and wanting desperately for it to be true, and to be apostles too, each then had his own dream in which Jesus elected them to the apostolate. And they then inspired yet more followers to the same. This would be 100% consistent with everything Paul says. And therefore, we can’t rule it out. And if we can’t rule it out, we can’t “rule in” anything else, much less anything far more improbable, like actual resurrections of eternal space aliens.

It could just as easily been some combination of dreams and hallucinations, as they would not have seen any relevant difference, and thus never remarked on it. An appearance of a god was an appearance of a god.

The Five Hundred Brethren

The key wording in verse 6 is:

Epeita ôphthê epanô pentakosiois adelphois ephapax ex hôn hoi pleiones menousin heôs arti tines de ekoimêthêsan.

Interlinearly translated:

Epeita [Then] ôphthê [he appeared] epanô [to more than] pentakosiois [five hundred] adelphois [brothers] ephapax [all at once] ex [out of] hôn [whom] hoi [the] pleiones [majority] menousin [remain] heôs [until] arti [the present] tines, [some] de [however] ekoimêthêsan [have fallen asleep].

There are several things to notice here, that apologists and even many mainstream scholars gloss over.

First, this is the only appearance on Paul’s whole list that is “all at once” (ephapax). That means none of the other appearances he lists were “all at once.” So when he says Jesus appeared “to the twelve” in verse 5, he means individually, on separate occasions; not to all twelve “at once.” Otherwise, he’d have said so. As he does here, for the five hundred. Likewise, to “all the apostles” in verse 7 means individual apostles had individual experiences over time. Not a mass appearance all at once. Indeed, Paul can be read as including himself in that number, simply specifying that he was the last one. Because he does not say “then” Jesus appeared to him, but “then” Jesus appeared to all the apostles “and last of all me too,” meaning, he was the last of the apostles he just mentioned. Certainly other apostles must have been in that group, whom we know are, like Paul, Diaspora Greeks and not Galilean peasants: certainly Apollos, possibly Andronicus and Junias (or Junia). They would not have been on hand to experience a mass vision. They must have had individual experiences (whether dreams or visions) on isolated occasions. Just like Paul. Paul is clearly saying only “the more than five hundred brethren” got to have a mass experience, that indeed this was the most remarkable thing about it.

Second, Paul cannot mean Jesus hung around with his followers for days or weeks. Paul’s use of “all at once” for only one single event, and his entire sequence (Cephas, and then each of the Twelve, and then the brethren, and then James, and then each of the Apostles, and then Paul), entails these were isolated, momentary visions. They came, and went. Paul therefore cannot mean a lingering Jesus who stuck around and dined with them for days on end. That simply isn’t what he is describing here. At all. And yet this fact strongly supports explanations from the cognitive science of religious experience: these were visions; not a reanimated body. A reanimated body would stick around.

Third, this is not an apostolic election. Paul says Jesus appeared to more than five hundred brethren on this occasion; not apostles. Instead, he reserves the apostolic appearances for other verses (verse 7, “to James and all the apostles”; verse 5, “to Cephas and the twelve”). He very conspicuously does not say this was an appearance to “the apostles.” And that distinction matters. It means Paul (and everyone else who heard this same story, whatever it was) regarded this appearance as different from all the others. Because it did not result in these brothers becoming “over five hundred apostles.” Apostles were elected in separate, individual visions, in which Jesus appointed them and “sent them forth” (the meaning of apostolos: messenger, ambassador; from the verb apostellô, “to send forth”), just as Paul relates of himself.

Paul also must mean multiple revelations, of course. In verse 6 “all the apostles” would mean Cephas and the Twelve, too; but they are already listed as receiving their revelations in verse 5. So “all the apostles” (not “all the other apostles”) must mean Cephas and the Twelve had further revelations. Which also means the James in verse 7 could be anyone, even the Pillar among the Twelve. And what we may have here is a second leader, James, having a new vision that endorsed electing more apostles, inspiring The Twelve to have the same confirming revelation, and then many others receiving their own now-approved revelations of election—the last to exploit this being Paul, whose reference to being “the last” must mean the central leadership shut that process down after hearing about him (after which anyone claiming to see Jesus was declared a liar or the victim of deceiving spirits).

But regardless of whether that’s the case, what is clear is that there was something unique about this appearance to “more than five hundred.” It was different in being “all at once” and it was different in not being an apostolic election like all the other appearances were. It seems only to have confirmed to the brethren that what the first apostles were saying was true. Without allowing these brethren to claim they had thus been chosen by Jesus to be apostles as well.

Was This a Scribal Mistake?

As I explained over a decade ago in The Empty Tomb (pp. 192-93), there is only one event anywhere in the Gospels that comes anywhere near to matching this. The Pentecost ecstasy narrated in Acts 2:1-4:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

That would have been fifty days after Jesus died (the Pentecost).

Paul’s sequence—Peter, the Twelve (Disciples?), Hundreds of Non-Commissioned Brethren, James, All Apostles, Paul—matches no Gospel we have. In no Gospel is Peter the first to see Jesus (others always are, and always before the Twelve as a whole do). In no Gospel is there any special appearance to anyone named James (just the same whole appearances to the Twelve). In no Gospel are there any additional apostolic elections by revelation after the Twelve. Other than Paul, who does get to be “last of all” in the Acts narrative. Which narrative is the first to invent any other distinction between Jesus “appearing” to Paul (an amorphous light in the sky, and words heard inside his head) and Jesus “appearing” to the Twelve (the fondled, shape-shifting, teleporting, flying, angelically announced, dinner-eating corpse-lecturer).

But Acts says there were about 120 brothers and sisters (not apostles). Ten times twelve being a suspiciously convenient biblical number, we can doubt this was based on any kind of actual census of the church at the time. It probably is just a way of saying “over a hundred,” the actual number not being known. It’s bizarre though that the author of Acts didn’t say “about five hundred” to line his account up with Paul. Could this be because Paul’s letters did not then say “above five hundred brethren” when the author of Acts consulted them? It’s distinctly possible. There are three pieces of evidence for that conclusion: (1) that no Gospel ever mentions an appearance “to over 500,” not even Luke-Acts (yet how could they have failed to have built that out, if they had such a precious verse in Paul to work from?); (2) that “over five hundred” looks suspiciously similar in Greek to “over the Pentecost”; and (3) Paul actually links the resurrection of Jesus to the Pentecost, and indeed in the very same chapter of First Corinthians that he mentions an appearance to hundreds of brethren.

Shortly after listing the appearance sequence, Paul writes “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). The firstfruits is a reference to the Pentecost ritual of offering the “first fruits” of the harvest to God (per Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). It seems a remarkable coincidence that Paul said the risen Jesus was akin to the Pentecost offering in the same place he mentions an appearance to over a hundred “all at once,” and Acts narrates an appearance to over a hundred on Pentecost “when they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1)? Might Paul’s letter have originally read epi pentêkostês adelphois rather than epanô pentakosiois adelphois? That would have meant Paul said Jesus appeared “during the Pentecost to the brethren.” In other words, he didn’t say how many brethren were there, only that “the brethren” all experienced a vision, at the Pentecost. This would explain where the author of Acts 2 got the idea for a mass vision of the brethren on Pentecost.

If someone screwed up on copying Paul’s original text—say, slipping from epi into epô, or pentêkostês to pentêkostois, or any of a number of common errors we find throughout ancient manuscripts—a later corrector would have had to make sense of the resulting mishmash and come up with a fix. They could easily assume epô must have meant epanô, and therefore pentêkostês must have been a mistake for pentakosiois; or that epi pentêkostois must have been a mistake for epanô pentakosiois. We have examples throughout ancient manuscripts of these very kinds of corrections and emendations. And we know the early copyists of the New Testament were unprofessional amateurs prone to all kinds of mistakes (see Three Things to Know). Such an emendation is even more likely if the corrector faced with the garbled text was a Gentile not fully immersed in the Jewish ritual calendar, and thus “Pentecost” wouldn’t have been the first thing occurring to him as what Paul could have meant.

The spelling is even weirdly close. Acts says the event happened tês pentêkostês, the day “of the Pentecost”; 1 Corinthians now says the event involved pentakosiois, over “five hundred” brothers. Acts says the event occurred epi to auto, “in the same place”; 1 Corinthians, that the event was epanô, to “more than” a certain number. Acts says the event happened when pantes homou, “all were together”; 1 Corinthians, that the event happened ephapax, “all at once.” The similarities seem too numerous to be a coincidence. Has Luke remodeled Paul? Or did Paul originally describe a Pentecostal appearance and not an appearance to “more than five hundred”?

Either way, many experts have suggested or concluded the Pentecost event in Acts 2 is indeed the event Paul is referring to in 1 Corinthians 15:6. For example: Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology: §4.1.3.8 (pp. 100-08); Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 258); Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 730); and Raymond Collins, First Corinthians, pp. 535-36. Opponents of that equation tend to be Christian apologists who don’t like what accepting it entails for their agenda. N.T. Wright, for example (The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 324-25). Because admitting this, would undermine his case for a walking-corpse dinner-guest.

What Was It Then?

So it seems significantly probable that this appearance to (maybe hundreds) of brethren “all at once” is not only the only mass event Paul knew, and also something different from what he and the other apostles experienced, but also the event lying behind the fanciful narrative of Acts 2, the Pentecost ecstasy.

The author of Acts lies and exaggerates a lot (many examples are documented in On the Historicity of Jesus, Ch. 9). He often takes what we know was probably a more mundane phenomenon, and spins it with fantasy into something amazing. We see this with his treatment of glossolalia in the same chapter: we know from an actual eyewitness (Paul) that speaking in tongues never actually meant a magically acquired knowledge of foreign languages, but the same thing it means today: random unintelligible babbling, that required special “interpreters” to understand (see On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 124-25). Yet the author of Acts spins it into a fabulous narrative about magically acquiring human languages.

We can assume the author of Acts did the same thing with the Pentecost vision. Probably the original story was something about seeing lights in the sky or the air and feeling a presence (or even hearing voices in one’s mind). Not only because this appears to underlie the same author’s fabulization of the appearance to Paul—which we can infer was also a celestial or aerial light, and an inner voice—but also because this is, like glossolalia, a common and well-understood type of mass hallucination. In fact, it’s the best documented kind of natural mass hallucination: a mass of people seeing some kind of miraculous “light” in the air or sky, and being convinced it’s the apparition of a divine being.

The most famous example being the Fatima Sun Miracle, which we know (because we had the ability to carefully record the events and interrogate those present at them) was really just an ecstasy-inspired hallucination of some unusual light phenomena associated with the sun, really only experienced internally. Just an altered state of consciousness; a perceptual confabulation of the human brain. This isn’t the only example in history. Other kinds of mass hallucination of light occurred at Our Lady of Assiut and Our Lady of Zeitoun. Many a mass UFO report appears to relate to misperception of an amorphous light phenomenon. Similar experiences have been studied in Buddhists.

The significant fact for us is that everyone who experienced the “vision” at Fatima came away claiming they had “seen” the Virgin Mary; that a celestial woman named Mary had indeed “appeared” to them. Only upon careful interrogation would you even know that what they meant was just an ambiguous dance of light. And yet unlike the Fatima incident, for the event Paul refers to we don’t get to access what anyone actually was saying or claiming. If all the eyewitness testimony in the Fatima sun miracle were destroyed, and all we had was a report twenty years later that the Virgin Mary “appeared to hundreds at once,” would it make any sense to conclude she really did in fact appear? Of course not. The only reason we can’t prove how the confusion came about from “hallucinating a bouncing sun” to “Virgin Mary appeared” is our lack of access to accurate reports of what happened, not the falsity of the conclusion. What we know for certain is that we have very good evidence that these kinds of mass hallucinations occur, and get rapidly misreported as gods or spaceships “appearing” to masses of excited observers. We have no evidence that corpses rise from the dead. And when it comes to explaining what has happened in history, when we don’t have access to any more data about what happened, what is well documented as a thing that happens is far more likely than what has never been reliably documented at all.

The most probable thing that could have happened is that all the brethren in the congregation at that time, riling themselves up into an ecstasy on Pentecost owing to its prophetic and religious significance, and the exciting and hope-fulfilling claims of the Twelve, had a Fatima-style mass experience, in an altered state hallucinating amorphous lights above them, and feeling the Presence of the Lord, and then concluded this was an instance of Jesus having appeared to them, now in his celestial and supernatural form. Probably no auditory element was present, no verbal revelation, not only because none is recorded (not even in Acts), but that would have made this into an apostolic election. And Paul clearly does not think it was. These brethren did not become, and thus are not described as, apostles. The apostles appear in the next verse.

Scientifically, what happened was the same as in the Fatima incident: each individual had his own private hallucination of a miraculous light, each one different from the next, but because it was amorphous and only communicable in the abstract (“I see lights above us!”) there was no way to “compare notes” (even if they were inclined to) so as to discover they were seeing different things (and they likely wouldn’t conclude so anyway: the believers in the Fatima case didn’t). And they all had this experience at once because all were exciting themselves into the same altered state on the same religious occasion, just as with the Fatima events. The well-studied scientific facts of anchoring and memory contamination and the power of suggestion and need of belonging (and thus the need to have seen or felt the same things as one’s comrades, or at least claim to have) would ensure the resulting story became more and more homogeneous over time.

Just as it came to be told that the Virgin Mary “appeared” to hundreds of witnesses at Fatima, so it came to be told that Jesus “appeared” to hundreds of witnesses at Pentecost. There is no evidence against this being what happened. And it has the highest prior probability, given all the background knowledge we have about how these claims commonly originate and come to be told. Corpses don’t rise. But masses of people do claim divine beings have appeared to them—when all that really happened was a subjective ecstatic hallucination of lights in the sky. It thus doesn’t matter if any Corinthians could “check” Paul’s claim by finding any of these people. If they even did (I thoroughly cover that problem in Chs. 7 and 13 of Not the Impossible Faith), the witnesses would simply report they saw Jesus as a fabulous light, and so decisively felt his presence that they could not be mistaken, and the usual psychosomatic miracles of “tongues” and “healing” proved it. Which is what the Corinthians would already know. And back then, who could prove it wasn’t real?

Conclusion

So there remains no difficulty in explaining what Paul reports to us about what maybe “hundreds” of brethren all saw on one single occasion. And we are left with no reliable way from this information to be confident Jesus rose from the dead. We can’t access eyewitness accounts, nor vet them in any way. And that leaves us with no other conclusion we can claim probable except that what most likely happened is what usually happens when the marvelous comes to be believed and is embellished over time. That means phenomena we have well and securely documented—not phenomena that has never been documented, like corpses restored to life. Indeed, we have no evidence connecting anything of Paul’s Epistles with the later Gospel accounts. For all we can ascertain, Paul had never heard the resurrection tales in the Gospels nor any of the details in them. Nor had any Christian for many decades. Not even, so far as we can tell, had the author of the first Gospel (Mark) ever heard them. Mark’s narrative has no account of the risen Jesus. What he heard about that besides, could have been anything. It’s only after Mark that fantastical tales of the walking and eating and fondling dead come about.

All we actually have to explain is why Paul would write 1 Corinthians 15:5-8. What experiences was he aware of and thus intending when he wrote? Paul specifically mentions only revelations, and writes exclusively of inner experiences. He told the Galatians “God…was pleased to reveal his Son inside me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles.” He talks about conversations with Jesus inside his head (e.g. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Paul never mentions anyone ever experiencing the risen Jesus in any other way. Even on the one occasion he reports a group experience to hundreds of brethren, that’s the only experience Paul says happened “all at once.” And that cannot be identified as anything more substantial than “suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them tongues parting asunder, like as of fire; and it sat upon each one of them” (Acts 2:1-4). Amorphous, indistinct, ecstatically hallucinated sounds and lights. Which they simply concluded was an appearance of Jesus.

That’s impossible? Nope. It fits all known science. Never documented? Nope. We have well-documented examples. Absurd on its face? Nope. Entirely plausible; indeed, highly probable. To deny this, you’d need to rule it out. But you have no access to any of the evidence you’d need to do that. And that’s the end of that.

25 comments

  1. An interesting note is that 500 may just be a term for a large number, it is conveniently close to the numbers in a cohort, Luke’s number is also pretty much the number of troops in a maniple.

    Probably coincidence but interesting.

    Reply
  2. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?) June 29, 2018, 7:53 am

    “Teleporting” lol. But seriously, that puts the Bible into perspective.

    Craig and Licona cherry-pick all the supposed facts that support the resurrection hypothesis, but ignore all the facts that naturalism better explains. They also act like one has to have just one naturalistic hypothesis.

    By the way, I just re-watched the debate between you and Craig. To put it bluntly, Craig was a total jerk to you.

    Reply
  3. Somewhat on a tangent: your hypothesis is that Paul envisioned Jesus to have been killed spatially far removed from himself, and that this explains Paul’s lack of interest in a hypothetical Earthly execution of Jesus.

    Now in my view Paul’s lack of interest in any Earthly Jesus, his supposed relatives, friends and followers, his lack of engagement with the intrigues, controversies and politics that would inevitably have followed after the execution of a faith leader is why we should doubt Jesus was historical.

    But let me ask you this: is it not just as likely that Paul imagined Jesus to have been killed a very long time ago? He might have imagined it as happening in the heavens, or at some unspecified place on Earth. Possibly he saw Jesus as a preexistent archangel, God’s agent of creation, who was killed by Satan some time after that, staying “asleep” for perhaps thousands of years. But now, finally, returning from the dead, appearing in visions before his now imminent Earthly return. It might be complained that Paul thinks Jesus was ‘of the seed of David’, which is commonly understood as being a descendant of David, which would limit it to about a thousand years. But I’m not sure this should be understood as a literal descendant, could it not just be a way to claim that Jesus was Jewish?

    Or is there some other strong reason to believe Paul must have thought Jesus’ death must have been a recent event?

    Reply
    1. This is possible, but unlikely. Paul says the resurrection of Jesus is the firstfruits of the general resurrection in 1 Cor. 15, which excludes it having happened hundreds of years ago. He is treating it like an imminent sign the end of times has begun. It therefore must have been imagined as recent. Additionally, Jesus’s death canceled the rule of Satan (and thus death itself) over the world. It makes no sense that Jesus would have achieved that centuries ago, but never made use of that for centuries on end. The cosmic symmetry of Jesus’s sacrifice requires it to have just happened to overthrow Satan’s long reign. Not to have overthrown it as soon as it began, much less before.

      Reply
      1. Hi Richard,

        What do you think about the claim that Apo 13:8 and Gospel of Philip 9 is evidence of the fact that Jesus was crucified before the creation of the world in the earliest myth?

        Reply
        1. As I’ve written several times before:

          Paul says the resurrection of Jesus is the firstfruits of the general resurrection (in 1 Cor. 15:20), which excludes it having happened hundreds of years ago. He is treating it like an imminent sign the end of times has begun. It therefore must have been imagined as recent. Additionally, Jesus’s death canceled the rule of Satan (and thus death itself) over the sublunar world. It makes no sense that Jesus would have achieved that thousands of years ago, but never made use of that since. The cosmic symmetry of Jesus’s sacrifice requires it to have just happened to overthrow Satan’s long reign. Not to have overthrown it as soon as it began, much less before Satan even rebelled.

          Revelation 13:8 does not say “the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world.” The KJV word order is literal but misleading. Modern editions get it more accurately (e.g. the ASV). The clause “from the foundation of the world” means “every one whose name has not been written.” In other words, the lamb’s book of life was written or begun before creation. Not the lamb was slain before creation. Indeed, the preposition apo does not mean “before,” but “after.” And it refers to continuous activity, not a singular event. So you’ll notice a lot of theologically specious Bible translations (a sect that wants predeterminism to be in the Bible will want this verse to say “before,” thus establishing God already knew who would not be saved before they were born; but this verse does not say “before,” it says “after”). But the actual Greek means an ongoing process of writing names in the book, which process began at creation (obviously) and has continued ever since. Needless to say, Jesus was not continuously slain ever since. That’s a singular event. It’s just part of the name of the owner of the book, as in “this is the book owned by that guy who got killed.”

          GPhil says “It was not only when he appeared that he voluntarily laid down his life, but he voluntarily laid down his life from the very day the world came into being.” In other words, he chose to die (it was part of his plan) when the world began; not “he died” the day the world began (and certainly not “before”; that’s simply not what the text says). It clearly means he died “when he appeared” (hence, long after the world began), and then says he even had decided to do that when the world began. It is speaking of two events. And obviously that can’t mean he died twice. He died once, and planned that earlier (just as Paul says in Romans 16:25),

      2. Johan Rönnblom July 1, 2018, 6:46 pm

        I agree ‘thousands of years’ may be a stretch. But what bothers me is that if we are to believe the mainstream chronology of Paul joining the sect within a few years of Jesus’ death (on Earth or elsewhere), this would mean that he, and the proto-Christians before him, had experienced a time before Jesus’ sacrificial death. And I cannot find any trace of such thinking in Paul’s writing. I find it highly unlikely that the distinction between the life before this cosmic event, and after it, would not have been a subject of any of Paul’s writings.

        Instead, the only such distinction is between before having learned of the event, and after gaining this knowledge. And that makes sense, but if Paul truly believed the event itself happened during his own lifetime, and while others had been members of the proto-Christian sect, surely this would have influenced his thinking. For instance, if he believed some Church members had been circumcised before Jesus’ death, it seems obvious to me he would have argued that their circumcisions were mandated by the law, but that further circumcision was no longer mandatory precisely because something changed since then.

        Reply
        1. That’s far too weak an argument to overcome the evidence to the contrary. There isn’t a very great reason Paul should ever discuss the state of the world prior to the event that fixed the world order. The latter is the only thing he is preaching, and the only thing that matters. At most he just says things compatible with either view, because it would not have occurred to him that he needed to make any of this clear to a reader two thousand years later.

          For example 2 Cor. 3:10-17 suggests that the atonement had not been effected in the time of Moses but afterward, and that what the Jews did not understand was the prefiguring of the atonement, not that it had already occurred. Because there is no way to make compatible the view that it had already occurred yet God sent elaborate revelations to Moses (forming the Tanakh) about the need for elaborate annual rituals of atonement, as the latter would have served no function in such a case (as Hebrews 9 explains). Clearly Christ’s atonement can’t have “done away” with the law, if it preceded the law. That would be so bizarre a thing to assert, that we should expect Paul to discuss that, struggling to explain how it even makes sense, and not the other way around (particularly in Romans, where he would most need to explain how this could even make sense to his Jewish-leaning audience).

          And if we are supposing the atonement occurred hundreds of years after the law and hundreds of years before the revelation of it, we have no intelligible reason left why that should even have been imagined. If you are going to have a revelation of a world-changing event that occurred after the law was delivered, why on earth would you set it centuries before you? Surely you’d imagine it as having just now occurred—precisely as predicted chronologically in Daniel 9, for example.

          In short, I think this is a theory neither plausible nor supported by the evidence.

        2. After some more reflection, I think that 1 Corinthians 15 conveys that Jesus’ death and resurrection happened fairly soon before Jesus’ appearance to Cephas. However, since Paul also claims to have persecuted the church ‘severely’, I think we must at least allow a period of some years between Cephas’ vision and Paul’s. Thus, it could likewise have been years between all the visions he lists in 1 Cor, and Cephas’ may have started the church decades earlier, now being an old man.

          If we assume Cephas’ travel to Antioch happened around 53 CE using the common dating for Galatians, and that Cephas was not much older than 60 at that time, and that he had his first vision not much before the age of 20, that would place the earliest plausible date for Jesus’ supposed resurrection at about 10 CE.

        3. Indeed, one can even argue—if we didn’t have the Gospels and Acts imagining a 30s AD date for the religion’s origin, or if we decided to reject that as fiction—that Paul’s letters are more or at least as congruous with the Hasmonean date for the origins of Christianity rather than the Roman, i.e. Paul wrote in the 50s BC, not AD.

          There is nothing in Paul that argues against that; we only oppose it on the grounds that the Gospels and Acts don’t seem to know this (or are lying about it); although that’s in effect what the Talmud entails, since it places the death of Jesus precisely in the Hasmonean period (in the 70s BC, twenty years after which is the 50s BC), as did, it seems, the Nazorian sect (if that’s how we should read Epiphanius; at any rate, Epiphanius describes an argument for dating Jesus to the 70s BC, wherever that came from or whatever reason he inserts it into his account of the Nazorians). See, again, Ch. 8.1 of On the Historicity of Jesus.

          One other argument against that is that that entails a strangely long period of silence in the Christian record: no literature whatever produced for over a century, between Paul (and 1 Clement and Hebrews and maybe 1 Peter), and then we get the Gospels, Acts, then half a century to a century after that an explosion of Christian literature. This is not impossible to explain, but it does require a lot of ad hocery. And it would just be a speculation void of evidence.

          On the other hand, one argument for it is that it would make more sense of Paul’s telling us Aretas had a governor occupying or embargoing Damascus he had to flee from (2 Cor. 11:32-33). In the AD scenario, that requires supposing that incident happened during the Aretas-Judean conflict in 36-37 AD. No other date fits. Though we have no explicit account of Aretas occupying or embargoing Damascus in that war (it’s plausible given what we know, but not directly attested). However, some scholars suggest Paul means by ethnarch in that passage a diplomatic prefect, i.e. the marshal of a “Nabataean Quarter” of Damascus. Though we have no evidence for that being a thing either (though again it is nevertheless also plausible). By contrast, if Paul meant an incident in the 70s or 60s BC, he would have meant Aretas III rather than Aretas IV, who did in fact rule Damascus from 85 to 72 BC.

          That this would perfectly align Paul’s entire chronology and ministry with the Talmudic Jesus executed in the 70s BC is indeed intriguing. But alas, this can only be speculated. There isn’t enough evidence to argue it’s probable.

  4. I entirely agree with you on the issue of apologetic misinterpretation and obfuscation.

    As an addendum, there are a lot of details in the narrative of Mark and later gospels suggesting that the intention of the original story was that Jesus survived his execution. Not an unlikely scenario, given that what completed the act (in the quick method) was the blow from the crurifragium or (in the slow method) exposure and slow suffocation. Neither happened, in the reported story of Jesus. So what would then have happened, in the story or in any historical incident, after Jesus had been revived?

    Mark is cut short, but there is a respectable case that the interpolated transfiguration narrative is derived from the gospel’s ending. Jesus went back, in the story before it was dismembered, to Galilee and then into exile/hiding.

    In which case, Jesus could have appeared to a crowd, either as described at Caesarea Philippi or having come down from Mount Hermon (see my ‘The Lost Narrative of Jesus’). Saul/Paul could thus have been right in relaying the information of a meeting with a large number of ‘brethren’, whether or not this was in origin partly factual or entirely fictional, without the necessity to explain it now as a mass hallucination.

    Reply
  5. Nice summing up Richard. What is the reception history of 1 Cor 15:5-9 like? What is the earliest that 1 Cor 5-10 is attested in the church fathers, or in non-canonical Christian writings?

    Reply
    1. Earliest manuscript would be P42 (c. 200 AD). Then the two extant imperial uncials of the early 4th century (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus). The next manuscript to even contain a fraction of it is P123 (c. 350 AD), and that only a few words (because it’s just a shred and torn up). Every other representation is medieval.

      In Church Fathers (problematic because their manuscripts were sometimes doctored to make their quotations match medieval bibles), the earliest quote of this material that I know of is in Origen, Against Celsus 2.63. I don’t know if it’s referenced in any earlier writer though.

      Reply
    1. As best I can tell, it’s 50/50. We don’t know. Both theories explain all the extant evidence equally well and have equally likely grounds in background knowledge (from science and historical examples).

      Reply
  6. The idea of the text of 1 Cor 15 reading ‘epi pentêkostês adelphois’ is interesting but the problem (with the 1 Cor 15:3-11 passage) is that Paul almost certainly did not know the tradition of the Pentecost. In fact the Acts 2 scenery might have originated as an argument with Paul, specifically with his objection to spiritual nuttines breaking out in the congregation. Paul’s lecture on speaking in tongues in 1 Cor 14 makes it clear he knew nothing of any tradition of the Pentecost event. 1 Cor 14:23 reads: “If therefore the whole church come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?” How could this be a hypothetical if the church was supposedly founded on exactly this kind of event (with naysaying strangers dutifully present) ?

    Reply
    1. That’s not the case. Remember, Acts is making up its account. The Acts account won’t have matched anything known to Paul except in a few core underlying details. Hence Paul’s discussion of speaking in tongues would never have to reference the event Acts is describing. That indeed may well have conflated different events: the seeing of light that took place indoors (as Acts says), which Paul is talking about in 1 Cor. 15, and public glossolalia events, which Paul is advising against in 1 Cor. 14 (which Acts likely invented, as an aetiological myth for church glossolalia in general).

      In any case, Acts is not telling the truth, but exaggerating and fantasizing whatever historical events underlay its account, so it’s incorrect to expect Paul to mention exactly what’s in Acts—what’s in Acts didn’t exist in Paul’s day, it’s fiction; the core truths it is built on is all Paul would know, he wouldn’t know of any fantasist exaggerations of it. Just as he wouldn’t have heard of claims that speaking in tongues meant speaking in actual languages, he wouldn’t have heard of it converting people to Christ in a public show of such power—because no such power existed, thus no such event can have existed.

      Acts is fiction. The only thing that could correspond to anything Paul knew was the private indoor hallucination of hovering lights (and the feeling of Christ’s presence through the Spirit) experienced by “all the brethren at once.” And Acts is likely not even reporting that accurately. Acts is fictionalizing the event. Just as it surely does the vision of Christ to Paul. The only things likely to have any truth in them are that these visions involved some kind of amorphous light experience, were private (among the brethren; to Paul), and were believed to be communications or appearances of Jesus. The rest is post-Pauline fantasy.

      Reply
      1. I think we are a bit at cross-purposes here. What I am saying is that 1 Cor 14 makes it virtually impossible that Paul knew of the Pentecost event (as a church tradition) and therefore could not reference it as you suggested. This is because he proposes hypothetically a situation in which the whole church is glossolalic and this leads outsiders who suddenly enter question the revelers’ sanity (in Acts their sobriety). Now, if the event at the Pentecost really happened and Paul was recruited into the Jerusalem church, he would not have lectured to his flock either ignoring or in effect dismissing the very event whereby the church was supposedly consecrated by a higher power (as he does in 1 Cor 14:23.) The fact of the matter is however that among the church fathers some have followed Paul in their dislike of mass orgiastic displays (which we know from studies of modern “spiritualistic” Christian sects are learned role playing – and faking – and not the spontaneous glossolalia which occurs naturally in highly excited individuals e.g. during manic highs). I am sure you have noted that Eusebius completely ignored the Pentecost event in H.E. when giving account of the Jerusalem beginnings.

        Reply
        1. I don’t see why Paul’s comments in 1 Cor. 14 has any bearing on the issue. Other than (as most of Paul’s letters do) refuting Acts’ version of events. Speaking in tongues was not associated with the 1 Cor. 15 mass appearance. That’s a fiction Acts invented. Hence there is no reason Paul should ever mention a fiction that wasn’t invented when he was alive.

  7. Well, if by your suggestion the original text of 1 Cor 15:6 referenced the Pentecost (epi pentêkostês adelphois) and it was written by Paul (I consider verses 3 or 4 to 11 interpolated) then the verse also referenced glossolalia, which is very common among ecstatics in their “mystical unions” with whatever Godhead they do business with. The event at the Pentecost in Acts of course is a fiction but the issue here is whether it was invented to argue with Paul’s authority and those early fathers who wanted to control access to the “mysteries” by the church hierarchy.

    Reply
    1. No. Acts invented the glossolalia event. No such event ever occurred. Which should be obvious: the event as described is literally impossible. That’s why it isn’t mentioned in 1 Cor. 15 or 1 Cor. 14. So there isn’t any possible way it can be “referenced” in 1 Cor. 15. Paul would never have heard of it. Because it hadn’t been invented yet!

      Reply
  8. The Following is not fully on topic, but I want to bring out here a theory of mine to another important Paul – question : Why does acts end so apruptly (with Paul under roman house arrest) and what was the final fate of Paul?

    (I know there is also a question of the historicity of Paul and/or the historicity of acts or in this case the end of acts, but please lets assume that for the sake of my argument here.)

    Now i know that there are various attempts for a logical, historical or apologetical explanation.

    But I never read anywhere the following possible explanation. It springs to mind :

    What if the reason that the author of acts ended his work so apruptly is PAUL FLIPPED under roman custody or flipped because he was buyed off by the Romans.

    This may be improbable, but in no way impossible and would be a perfect explanation for acts aprupt ending by its christian author.

    Assumingly in this case Paul had become a too important apostle of christianity to not be appreciated in acts, while it was too soon to spin a believed lie that would cover the flipping of Paul. That he fell from christianity.

    In this case christian leaders assumingly would have considered him as a fallen apostle, like today the mormon offspring sect TEMPLE LOT considers Joseph Smith a fallen prophet.

    No reason would there be to describe the fall of the apostle and it would be a perfect explanation for the aprupt ending of acts.

    What do you say?

    Reply
    1. A million different things are possible (and we do know Christian sources suppressed stories of apostates: Pliny the Younger says essentially there were more ex-Christians for him to find than believers as of 110 A.D.). But for Paul, several others are more probable than this.

      The most agreed upon theories in the field are that the author died before continuing the rest of the book or starting its sequel, the author’s sources ended at that point so there was nothing to continue, and that continuing to Rome’s persecution of Christians or execution of Paul (which Acts earlier hints at and thus knew about) would undermine the apologetical and propagandistic purposes of the author.

      I suspect the middle one is the case. Our earliest source (1 Clement) says Paul died in Spain (the most “Western” province). Later legend had him executed in Rome by Nero (but, weirdly, not in connection with the burning of Rome). So it’s clear no one had any clear idea of what happened to Paul after a certain point. Acts lands him in Rome because he wrote a letter to Rome. But if Paul then went off to Spain and was killed, it may well be there was no surviving account of what happened to him. And thus nothing to write beyond his evangelism at Rome, ending on which served the propagandistic purposes of the author (Paul moves the center of evangelism from the Jewish capital to the Gentile capital of the Western world: Rome).

      If something else even weirder happened, we have no evidence to support it. And speculation is idle at that point. But it’s true a Christian can’t be sure. The author of 1 Clement seems to think Paul died a martyr. But how did he know that? Or did even he know otherwise but that was the story he wanted believed? Etc. We can’t know. Which is the more worrying problem for Christian apologetics.

      Reply
  9. Why on Earth should Aretas IV attack Damascus in a dispute with Herod Antipas? Vitellius would hardly have needed to refer to Tiberius about it before rocking up with the legions. Over a hundred miles and maybe ten days march against a walled city, and a direct attack deep into the province of Syria. At the least I should think he would have lost his kingdom; if not his head. Since he didn’t, why is this at all plausible?

    Paul’s word, the Talmud, Epiphanius. Three datum points for the 50’s BC. For the 50’s AD do we have any at all that don’t rely on circular arguments? If not, then no matter how improbable, the former seems the best we have got; or we have to say we can admit no dating at all I would have thought.

    Reply
    1. That’s what the hypothesis proposes happened. Aretas started a border war with Herod. During which he was shockingly successful (as in fact he was). This is where the status of Damascus would be in question. Velleius intervened and restored the original borders.

      That’s the only period of time in the first century that Aretas would have agents in Damascus Paul would need to run from. Even if Paul means some other kind of influence (as has been proposed, I’m not sure how plausibly; there could surely have been a Roman-subordinate ethnarch of a Nabataean quarter, but one then has to explain why that ethnarch would care about Paul and not the Roman-subordinate ethnarch of the Jewish quarter).

      At any rate, see Taylor’s article in Revue Biblique for the status of the question (Taylor argues against occupation and in favor of Nabataean authorities under Roman rule, but in the process surveys the state of the field on the question). Damascus was actually on the border with the Nabataean kingdom at that time. Not hundreds of miles away. And had been under Nabataean rule before, again briefly, a century earlier. The Damascenes actually defected to the Nabataeans. If they could pull that off under the Seleucids, they could under the Romans (we can’t establish Damascus was Roman then; it may have been under Augustan gift to the Herods). In any event it was an obvious first strike target in any border war with Herod at the time; and any kind of influence could have been used to occupy it. Hence the hypothesis.

      There are other hypotheses (e.g. that Aretas had ethnic or commercial authorities in Damascus subordinate to whoever was ruling the city, as the Jews did). But all require Aretas to be alive. Which sets a time on the event. Unless, of course, as I’ve noted, Paul was actually writing in the 50s B.C., and referring to the well documented control of Damascus by another Aretas in the 70s. Hence my mention of that possibility. But the evidence just doesn’t weigh strongly enough to assert that possibility is probable—much less (and this is the key point) more probable than any of the theories that have Paul refer to the Aretas of the 30s A.D. Ultimately it’s a wash: we can’t rule anything out, and there’s an equal chance on this evidence alone of it being the 70s BC or 30s AD. No other decade is possible. And the balance of remaining evidence falls on the latter. Likewise vs. hypothesizing it’s the error of a forger or anything else you imagine: all a wash. No evidence. No greater probability than any other solution. Which gives us no certainty. Just ignorance. Like most of what we run into with early Christian history.

      It’s not circular, though, to put all the data together (Acts, the Gospels, the silences and contexts still in the Epistles, etc.) and conclude the balance of probability falls on Paul referring to an actual situation in the 30s AD. There is not sufficient evidence to weigh against all that for any other hypothesis. In fact, no evidence whatever. Other than the extremely late, indirect, and unsourced evidence of a sect of Medieval Christians claiming their religion began in the 70s B.C., and then inferring this means Paul lived then as well. That just doesn’t carry as much weight as all the other evidence. And that’s just where we are.

      Reply

Add a Comment (For Patrons & Select Persons Only)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.