Saturday, April 16, 2005

Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead? – The Appearances

Well, so far we have looked at the accuracy of the burial account and established the fact that the tomb was empty. But big deal, all an empty tomb tells us is that the body wasn’t there. This leads us to our second area of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus; the multiple appearances of Jesus Christ after his execution. Had Jesus only appeared to one of the disciples, it would be pretty difficult to believe he had resurrected from the dead. But Jesus didn’t appear to just one person. Instead he appeared to many different people, individually and in groups, over a span of time. I won’t go into exquisite detail of the resurrection appearances as books have been written about this topic, nor do I want to investigate the appearances as recorded by the gospels, rather I want to examine the appearances from the perspective of Paul as recorded in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8. Although the gospels record the different appearances of Jesus quite adequately, I want to look at Paul’s account for two reasons. First, almost all Scholars agree that Paul’s writing of 1 Corinthians predates all four of the Gospels which makes it the earliest account that we have. Secondly, because in reading 1 Corinthians we have an authentic letter from the former chief persecutor of the Christian church who was an eyewitness to, and also in contact with other eyewitnesses to, the risen Jesus. This makes his testimony much more powerful than any of the gospel writers.

1 Corinthians 15:5-8 reads:

“and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

Although this passage takes up a little bit of space, it packs in lots of important information. Paul first mentions that Jesus appeared to Peter. This account is independently attested to in Luke 24:33-34. (Remember what I said earlier, that events are much more credible if more than one source records it [Multiple Independent Attestation in Scholar speak]). Paul then mentions that Jesus appeared to the 12 disciples. This is account is independently attested to by Luke in Luke 24:36-43 and John in John 20:19-20.

Next Paul mentions that Jesus appeared to over 500 people at once. 500 people! Now sometimes when I mention this people will point out that this account isn’t found anywhere else in the New Testament (which I guess implies it isn’t as credible?). But I’m not so sure about that. Some people believe, me included, that this appearance to the 500 is recorded in Matthew 28:16-17 which reads “But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.”

Let me tell you why I believe these were the same appearance. First, it was on a mountain. Mountains were necessary to accommodate large groups of people (remember the feeding of the 5,000 and the teaching of the Beatitudes were on mountains). Secondly, it was by appointment. The disciples were told to go there and wait for Jesus. This provided plenty of time for other people to hear the news and gather together as well. Thirdly, Matthew records that “some doubted.” Who were these people? Surely not the disciples. Could they have been some of those 500 that had gathered around? I know my argument isn’t airtight but that’s okay, it doesn’t have to be. Even if Matthew is talking about a totally different appearance that doesn’t discount the authenticity of Paul’s record. It simply means we don’t have a second record of it. More important than the number of sources is Paul’s challenge. When Paul writes “most whom are still living yet some have fallen asleep” he is directly challenging his readers to verify the accounts for themselves. By knowing that some have died (fallen asleep) Paul is showing he isn’t just passing along some story but that he is personally acquainted with these individuals. He must know who these people are to know which ones are dead and which ones are alive. On a side note, just to help explain the magnitude of these 500 witnesses seeing Jesus alive after his execution, if all 500 of these witnesses were brought into a courtroom and each one spoke for only 6 minutes, you would have 50 hours of courtroom testimony.

Continuing on with our study, we see that next Jesus appeared to James, Jesus’ own brother. Now according to Galatians 1:19, we know that Paul had firsthand information of this appearance by talking directly with James when he traveled to Jerusalem. Okay, quick pause for background information, even though they grew up together, James did NOT believe that his brother Jesus, was the Messiah nor the son of God. We know this from both Mark 3:21 and John 7:5. We also know that after Jesus’ death James DID become a believer in Jesus. We know this because James was executed by the Sanhedrin in 65 AD for leading the church in Jerusalem. So how do we explain this conversion of James to faith in Jesus? Here’s an even better question: what type of event would need to take place to convince you that your brother was the Lord and would cause you to be willing to be executed for that belief? I don’t know about you, but for me it would take nothing less than seeing my brother come back from the dead.

According to Paul, Jesus then appeared to the apostles again and then finally appeared to Paul himself. Although we’ve only looked at one small passage regarding the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, I hope you can see that Jesus appeared to many people over a span of time in the very city he was killed in. He didn’t appear to just one person way out in the woods never to be heard from again; that is of course unless you believe the account of Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon.

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