Garry Wills - Christ Appeared to Paul After 500 Witnesses
Paul told the Corinthians how he met Christ:
“For what I received I passed on to you …. that [Christ] was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters 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, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-9)
This is one of several descriptions from Paul. Most scholars say relatively little about it, since it contradicts all other accounts. Garry Wills, however, accepts it without reservation. Paul said it, so it must be true.
In What Paul Meant, Garry Wills notes, “Of all those who saw the risen Lord, Paul is the only one whose own words we possess” (p. 21). That’s enough for him. As further justification, he adds, “Paul, at the time he wrote, met many of those who shared his privilege – people who could have challenged his claim.” According to Wills, the fact that we do not have written challenges from the apostles or the 500 other witnesses means that Paul was right.
Wills spells out some implications of Paul’s story: “Those five hundred witnesses to the Resurrection were obviously a mobile bunch. Three members of his missionary team – Barnabus, Silvanus, and Mark – had probably come from Jerusalem as part of the first spread of the faith from the original followers” (p. 43). Wills says that those 500 witnesses spread the story of Jesus’ return -- presumably the same story as Paul’s. (Note that Wills has promoted Paul to the head of Barnabas’ team.)
Few scholars accept Paul’s account, and with good reason. For one thing, it contradicts the gospels.
The Gospels’ Version
The obvious place to look for confirmation of Paul’s story is the Gospels. Each of them discusses Jesus’ resurrection. But none of these stories is remotely similar to Paul’s tale. They also contradict each other in various ways. I briefly describe them.
Mark is the oldest gospel, written about fifteen years after Paul’s letter. Being the oldest and most straightforward of the gospels, Mark is often regarded as the most historically accurate.
The original version of Mark did not contain any appearance by the resurrected Christ. It ended when Mary Magdalene, Mother Mary, and a woman named Salome went to Jesus’ burial cave to anoint his body with spices. The mouth of the cave had previously been blocked with a boulder, which was now moved aside. Inside the cave was a young man dressed in white – presumably an angel, though not identified as such. He tells the women to tell the disciples that Jesus will see them in Galilee. Then the gospel ended.
A longer ending was added later. It includes appearances by the resurrected Christ, who first appeared to Mary Magdalene, and later appeared to two disciples walking “into the country.” Then he appeared to the 11 remaining apostles, after which he ascended to heaven.
Everything about the account differs from Paul’s story. First, Paul never mentions Mary Magdalene or Mother Mary, and he says nothing of Christ meeting the disciples in Galilee. Conversely, Mark knows nothing of an appearance before 500 witnesses.
Matthew elaborates on Mark’s story. He also has Mary Magdalene and Mother Mary go to the burial cave and discover that the boulder has been moved from its mouth. Matthew claimed it was moved by a “great earthquake,” which apparently had very limited effects.
Matthew specifically identifies the man in white as an angel. As in Mark, he tells the women that Jesus will meet the disciples in Galilee.
Matthew has the resurrected Christ appear to the two Marys while they are on their way to the disciples. He repeats that he will meet the disciples in Galilee. The disciples later went to Galilee and met the resurrected Christ.
Luke kept some of Mark’s story, but greatly embellished it, and added some subplots of his own. Luke also says that women discovered that Jesus was no longer in his burial cave. Not only Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene saw this, but also an unspecified number of “women who came from Galilee with him,” including one named Joanna. Luke said there were two angels in the cave, who told the women to “remember” that Jesus would rise again on the third day – as if they would have forgotten such a thing. The women go back and tell this to the apostles, who did not believe them, although Luke assures us that Jesus previously told them about it.
Two of the apostles decided to go to Emmaus, a town near Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus appeared to them, and lectured them on why the Messiah must “suffer these things,” and other reinterpretations of scripture. Jesus even ate with them, at which time they finally recognized him. They returned to Jerusalem and told the others in their house this story. Then Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst, showed that he still had flesh and bone – contrary to what Paul claimed -- and even ate some fish with them. The resurrected Christ once again lectured on the suffering Messiah and related subjects, “reminding” them of his earlier teachings. Then Christ led them to Bethany and ascended. The apostles and friends returned to Jerusalem and were “continually” in the temple, blessing God.
Luke’s story differed considerably from those of Mark and Matthew. He invented the meeting on the road to Emmaus, and some new lectures by the resurrected Christ. Luke also said nothing about Jesus appearing to 500. His big meeting in Jerusalem headquarters might have included a couple of dozen at most. Luke’s story was even further removed from Paul’s than the prior gospels.
In John, only Mary Magdalene discovered that the burial cave was empty, apart from two angels. She actually saw Jesus as well, and even talked with him, but did not recognize him at first. Jesus told her to inform the disciples of this meeting, and she did.
That night, Jesus appeared in the house of the disciples, and “breathed” the Holy Spirit on them. A week later, he reappeared and demonstrated that he had his physical body. According to John, Jesus also “did many other signs” or miracles, which John couldn’t be bothered to describe.
Later, Jesus reappeared to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, and miraculously assisted their fishing. Afterwards Jesus ate with them, distributing bread and fish just like the old days. John notes this was the third appearance of Jesus before the disciples, and ends with Jesus doing some fortune telling and “many other things.”
John’s gospel has very little in common with the other gospels - and even less with Paul.
The Gospels versus Paul
The gospel stories about Jesus’ disappearance and reappearance differ widely. About the only constant is that women, rather than the apostles, discover that his burial tomb is empty - apart from an angel or two. The women usually include both Mary Magdalene and Mother Mary, though John has little use for the Virgin Mary here and in general.
But the most important fact is that none of the gospel accounts remotely resembles Paul’s story in First Corinthians. By far the most salient part of Paul’s story was the appearance of the resurrected Jesus before 500 witnesses. The gospels generally talk of a small number of witnesses, at most about 20 over several appearances.
In ancient days, about the only form of evidence was eyewitness testimony. God had not invented or revealed fingerprints or photographs. Even in the few cases where written evidence was relevant, eyewitnesses were often required. The Bible requires a minimum of two or three eyewitnesses in civil cases. It is also very concerned with false testimony - a serious, intrinsic problem.
Five hundred witnesses is a huge number. Most towns had less than 500 people. Nazareth, Jesus’ home town, was about half that size. You almost never came across any event of interest that had 500 witnesses. If you had 500 witnesses, there was no doubt about it. (People were not very sophisticated about illusions and sleight of hand.)
Recall that Garry Wills said that many of these 500 witnesses, including Barnabas, Paul, Silas, Mark, and Peter, went out and spread the story. Anyone who spoke of Jesus’ reappearance would have been sure to mention that it was witnessed by over 500 people. That would be incontrovertible proof.
There is no way to get from Paul’s story to the gospel accounts. None of the gospels spoke of 500 witnesses, or any evidence that would have been remotely as convincing. Nor did any non-canonical text that we know of. If Paul’s story were true, it is inconceivable that accounts of Jesus’ reappearance would ignore the presence of 500 witnesses. Paul’s story is obviously false. Mr. Wills and professional Christians are amazingly adept at ignoring facts and reason.
Paul himself contradicts this story that Mr. Wills credulously accepts. While Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians spoke of 500 witnesses to a terrestrial re-appearance of Jesus, his second letter to the Corinthians spoke of Paul’s being swept up to the third heaven to encounter Jesus (2 Cor 12.3f). There were no witnesses to this or other encounters with Christ. Needless to say, Mr. Wills willfully ignores this radical change in Paul’s story.
My assumption is that the Corinthians did a little checking. They knew the Christian missionary Apollos as well as emissaries of Peter. If there were anything to Paul’s tale of 500 witnesses, it would be easily confirmed. It wasn’t. Keep in mind that the Corinthians – like almost all of Paul’s churches of record – called him a liar and worse. We know that Paul told the Corinthians that he supported himself and did not accept money from others. The Corinthians discovered he was taking money from the Philippians and denounced him, causing Paul to do a song and dance about “stealing” money in Second Corinthians.
My guess is that the Corinthians also denounced Paul’s story about the resurrected Jesus appearing to 500 (and Paul). Paul’s second letter did not explicitly acknowledge the criticism, but simply switched stories to a private, heavenly encounter. I note that Paul frequently invented such stories. He told the Galatians that God revealed Jesus in Paul. He told the Galatians nothing about a terrestrial visit witnessed by hundreds, or about a private encounter with Jesus in the third heaven.
Paul’s miraculous encounter with the resurrected Christ supposedly occurred about 20 years before he wrote of it to his churches. Neither Mr. Wills nor any professional Christian attempts to explain why some 20 years later, Paul would variously describe that event as a quasi-normal terrestrial encounter, a very mysterious encounter in the third heaven, or God revealing Jesus in Paul. Viewing this evidence, a reasonable person would conclude that Paul was either a raving madman or what the apostles called a Christ-hustler. Mr. Wills and his colleagues simply go into a state of denial, and refuse to address the evidence. Paul Revealed documents a wide variety of such evidence that professional Christians willfully ignore.
The Teaching of the Apostles regarding Jesus’ Return
The Teaching of the Apostles, or Didache, is an ancient Christian handbook. Some of it, such as the introductory account of the “Two Ways,” may well be older than Paul’s writings. The handbook was updated for about a century, long after the canonical gospels were written.
Like all early Christian texts, the Didache said that Jesus would re-appear in the near future to complete his messianic duties of initiating the Kingdom of God. But unlike Paul and the gospels, the Didache said nothing about the risen Jesus having appeared to the apostles or anyone else, much less 500 witnesses. It should be obvious that if there were anything to Paul’s tale of 500 witnesses, the Didache would have mentioned it. Furthermore, the authors and editors of the Didache must have known the kinds of stories floated in the gospels about Jesus reappearing to Peter, the apostles, and others, and must also have known that such stories were crowd-pleasers. Nonetheless, they rejected these stories. This appears to be true of all Jewish-Christian literature, though little survives.
The Teaching of the Apostles and other apostolic literature would have discussed the re-appearance of Jesus if it had any basis. This was an invention. Paul used it to establish his credentials. But Paul’s stories disappeared – along with his churches. Other Gentile Christians invented different stories of Jesus’ re-appearance, some of which found their way into the gospels. Note that Jesus’ re-appearance in and of itself is of little theological importance. All that really counts is the claim that Jesus was resurrected and went to heaven. However, the gospels use Jesus’ reappearance for propaganda purposes, such as explaining why he was crucified instead of fulfilling his messianic role of establishing the Kingdom of God; and propounding the Great Commission, which conflicts with teachings of the historical Jesus.
In summary, Garry Wills takes an extreme position by accepting Paul’s story in First Corinthians about Jesus’ re-appearance. Very few do. It contradicts all available evidence, and even contradicts other testimony of Paul’s. But Mr. Wills’ infatuation with Paul overcomes both fact and reason.