Summary 1 Corinthians 15 Part 2: Seeing Jesus

In Part 1 of this summary, we considered that there may well have been/probably were early followers of Jesus who did not believe Jesus had been divine, and did not believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. The next topic, in order of importance, is a consideration of what Paul meant when he said he had “seen Jesus”.

This is another topic on which the conventional wisdom has settled based on a consensus reading of the various resurrection stories, especialy Matthew and John. “Everybody knows” about the empty tomb, and the man or men inside and the appearance to Mary of Magdelene. “Everbody knows” about how Jesus walked the earth for 40 days, eating and conversing with his disciples, until he ascended into heaven. “Everybody knows” this latter part, even though the story is only found in Luke. What no one seems to know is that Jesus appeared to Paul. That is in exactly none of the stories related by the evangelists. Why not?

The simplest answer to this question is that none of the evangelists knew this. It is not a great stretch to imagine that they were unaware of the existence of either Galatians or 1 Corinthians. But the tradition holds that Luke had been a disciple of Paul. Why was Luke, then, unaware that Paul had seen Jesus?

Again, the simple answer to this is that Luke was a disciple of a disciple of Paul, so he got the story at one remove. But let’s think about Luke’s gospel for a moment. In many ways, it’s the fullest of the gospels. Our conception of the Nativity is based, for the most part, on Luke: the census, the stable, the manger, the shepherds who were sore afraid at the appearance of the multitude of the heavenly host, all of which are only in Luke. And there are other stories about Jesus’ life that are only in Luke: the story of the 12-year-old Jesus teaching in his “father’s house” and the Ascension.

Just so, it is Luke alone of the evangelists who mentions Paul, even if it comes in an epilogue called Acts that is not properly part of the good news of Jesus. And Luke actually does tell us that Paul did, in fact, see Jesus. Sort of. We are told at least that he heard Jesus, and that the voice emanated from a light from Heaven that Paul saw. I would suggest that this is “Luke’s” interpretation of what Paul meant when he said he ‘saw’ Jesus. I would also suggest that this vision “Luke’s” interpretation of what Paul meant when he said that God revealed the good news to Paul directly, without an intermediary human agency.  Paul was talking about a conversion experience, and “Luke” told the story in his own, dramatised, way,

And I would suggest that this is what Paul meant when he said that Jesus was seen by Cephas and the 12 and the 500 and, finally, by James and the apostles, and then Paul. When Paul says that he and others ‘saw Jesus’, I believe that he means that they understood, as by a bolt of light from heaven, that Jesus had been raised from the dead and was, indeed, the Christ. This is the essence of the message about the Christ: one “saw” him because the Christ had been raised from the dead after the crucifixion. Whether it was the seeing of the Christ that caused the faith in the raising, or the faith that caused the vision is largely a matter of conjecture, although I would suspect the former. I believe this interpretation provides the best explanation, and the best reconciliation for the apparenty contradictory statements made by Paul and Luke. They don’t contradict each other; Luke interprets Paul by putting a dramatic spin on Paul’s words.

What, in turn, are the ramifications of this interpretation?

“Seeing Jesus” was what distinguished the Christ-story from the wonder-worker story. The wonder-worker was a man; a great man certainly, an agent of God most likely, but still a man. In contrast, the Christ was divine, whether by adoption as Paul and Mark seem to suggest, or from birth as the later writers tell us. When the people mentioned–Cephas, the 12, the 500, James, and Paul–“saw Jesus” after the latter’s death would–or at least could–mean they came to understand that Jesus had been raised from the dead, that he was indeed the Christ. In some ways, this suggests an allegorical or metaphorical understanding of  “seeing”, but I’m not sure that we use a term like “metaphorical” without being guilty of some horribly anachronistic thinking.

Remember Pelikan’s quote: “the sky hung low in the ancient world, and there was a great deal of traffic in both directions”. As RL Fox describes at length in Pagans and Christians, seeing divine entities was the stock-in-trade of numerous pagan temples, especially those dedicated to healing. There, an individual slept in the temple precinct in the hopes of being visited by the god, usually in a dream, and the latter would either effect the cure on the spot, or tell the suppliant what steps to take to be cured. And there is the famous story in Herodotus in which the would-be tyrant of Athens dressed a tall woman as Athene and had her drive a chariot and lead the aspirant into Athens. This demonstrated he had been chosen by Athene. Now, maybe not everyone took the woman to be the goddess in our scientifically literal sense, but the point was made–and accepted.  After all, the woman wasn’t struck dead for impersonating Athene, so perhaps the goddess looked favourably on the enterprise after all.

The point is that the boundary between what we would describe as ‘natural’ vs. ‘supernatural’ was much thinner and more flexible back then, if it existed at all. I am suggesting that Paul “saw” the risen Christ in the same way that we “see” the point of an argument. I am not suggesting that Paul, necessarily, had a vision, or saw the Christ in a dream, but I don’t think we should take his statement that he saw the Christ to mean something like the stories told in Matthew and Luke. My sense is that Paul “saw” the Christ pretty much exactly as one sees the point in an argument: with a flash of insight that is nearly palpable. He had a conversion experience, even if it wasn’t on the Road to Damascus. I believe that this experience led Paul to believe that the Christ had, indeed, been raised from the dead, with all the attendant implications. In discussing Galatians I suggested that the conversion experience may have had something to do with understanding the difference in the Law and Faith. Now I suspect that I may have been premature; or, perhaps this new understanding about the Law and faith may have come during the time he spent in Arabia (Gal 1:17). For I would suggest this sojourn in Arabia is when God chose to reveal the message of the Christ to Paul without the benefit of a human intermediary.

And it is especially important to understand that I am not calling Paul a liar, or saying he was deluded. No. He truly believed what he “saw”. To him it was as real and as solid as the keyboard I’m using is to me right now, or the computer screen is to you. Rather, what Paul saw was True, even if we may doubt the factual accuracy. But, for Paul, the failing would be on our part for having such a narrow conception of reality.

To finish this topic, I want to discuss the order of the sightings. The first was Cephas. In Galatians, Paul told us that Cephas and James, brother of the lord, did not necessarily see eye-to-eye on some topics. Now, the complete expunging of James from the gospels is a topic unto itself. Was James not one of the original followers? Did he only come ’round after Jesus’ death, at which point he tried to place himself at the head of the Jesus movement? Personally, I believe he does survive, as “James the Lesser” in the gospel stories. I have little faith in the existence of James, the son of Zebedee; that was, I think, a clever way to replace the brother James with someone else of the same name. One of the arguments (using the term loosely) for the veracity of the James Ossuary was that the name “James” was not common. And yet, it appears twice within the twelve. I find that curious, and very suggestive. But the point is that Cephas and James had their differences; more, Cephas tended to agree with Paul, at least on the matter of the Jewish dietary laws. Did they also disagree–at least, at first–on whether the resurrection had occurred?

From an historical point of view, we must be very conscious that the idea of Jesus being raised from the dead was hugely important for any number of reasons. For our purposes, the most important is that this takes us completely outside “mainstream” Judaism. So, if James was intent on remaining a Jew–perhaps seeing Jesus as the latest Prophet–the the idea of the resurrection would have been a huge problem for him. He could not believe–or even accept–this and still remain a traditional Jew. Is that why James is so far down on the list of those to whom Jesus appeared? Because it took James longer to accept that Jesus had been raised from the dead? I think it might. Recall the rancour with which Paul spoke about James  in Galatians; that seems to be gone here. It would be tempting to think that James accepted the idea of the resurrection between the writing of the two epistles, but I think that is taking it too far. More likely, James had conceded on the points of dietary law, and no longer insisted that pagan converts had to become Jews. I do suspect James held out longer on the resurrection than others since the list Paul gives clearly represents a time sequence. My suspicion is that this holdout may have something to do with him being ignored by the gospels.

When weighing evidence regarding what people believed in the first years of the proto-church, the context that we have to keep in mind is that there were different gospels, by which I mean different tellings of the Jesus story. This is not speculation, or even an inference based on the “two sections” that I see in Mark’s gospel. Rather, this is an established fact. Paul told us this in 1 Thessalonians, again in Galatians, and he has both reaffirmed and extended the affirmation here. He has extended it by telling us what one of these other gospels preached: that there was no resurrection of the body. This is one of those “inconvenient facts” that biblical (and other) scholars use to demonstrate veracity: there is no benefit to Paul to admit another story; therefore, the likelihood of it being true increases. A lot. Paul is telling us that there were differences of opinion on the most basic fact of the Jesus belief: that he was raised from the dead. It would be difficult to imagine something more inconvenient.

Two final points regarding Paul’s list. First, recall that I had serious doubts about the existence of the Twelve. The inclusion of the  Twelve on Paul’s list is pretty clear evidence that the Twelve did exist; however, it does not prove that the Twelve dated back to Jesus. Given the confusion of the names in the lists given by the various evangelists, and the sequence of their choosing, I strongly suspect that the Twelve was instituted later. Given the association with Peter, I would suggest that this was something that he created, and that he deliberately chose twelve as a symbol of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. However, the point is far from proven. But what I think is proven by this statement is that the Twelve were not the Twelve Apostles. In Paul’s list, the Twelve are mentioned first and associated with Cephas; the apostles, however, represent a different group, one that is associated with James. And this correlates with Paul’s description that James “sent out” (= “apostellein“) what we might call missionaries that followed in the wake of Paul’s conversions. As such, we cannot, I think, talk about the Twelve Apostles, since they were pretty clearly two separate groups. Yes, one can quibble on this, and come up with all sorts of clever ways in which we can get this to work out, but I firmly believe that Paul’s description is pretty much conclusive.

The other point is a bit more subtle. Cephas is the first named. Paul was the last, and he claims the least. However, in a sequential list like these, the first and last names are often the two most remembered. That is why movie stars often opt for the end of the list when they are not the primary star. By holding himself for last, what we remember are Peter (Cephas) and Paul. It’s a very clever rhetorical trick, and Paul is not altogether lacking in rhetorical tricks and techniques.

There are a few more items that deserve attention, so I will save them for a third installment.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on August 25, 2014, in 1 Corinthians, epistles, General / Overview, Historical Jesus, Paul's Letters, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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