Witnesses to the Resurrection – 1 Corinthians 15:5-11

To show that the resurrection of Jesus is credible, Paul lists several witnesses to the fact that Jesus was alive (15:5-7).

Witnesses to the Resurrection

Cephas and then to the Twelve. While the Gospels report the first witnesses of the resurrection were the women who came to the tomb to anoint Jesus, this creedal statement pre-dates the Gospels and begins with an appearance first to Peter. This may be Luke 24:36-49, although Peter is not mentioned specifically. In John 21:15–19 Jesus re-instates Peter as a leader of the disciples after the resurrection.

Five hundred brothers at one time. This is not recorded in the Gospels, although it is possible this is a reference to the commissioning of disciples in Matthew 28:18-20, although only the eleven are mentioned in v. 16. What is the point of saying some of them have died? It is possible this is a sad fact, some of the original witnesses of the resurrection have naturally died in the 20+ years since the resurrection. On the other hand, it is possible some in the Corinthian church thought the “true believer” would live until the Parousia, so the reference to the death of witnesses shows this belief cannot be true.

James, Jesus’ brother. As with the five hundred, a story of Jesus appearing to his brother is not found in the New Testament. It is a fact he is a significant leader in the Jerusalem church by Acts 15 and Paul refers to him in Galatians. Since the brothers of Jesus were not believers prior to the resurrection, it is likely Jesus appeared to James, confirming Jesus was the Messiah to his family.

Jerome, The Lives of Illustrious Men, 2. The Gospel also which is called the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and which I have recently translated into Greek and Latin and which also Origen often makes use of, after the account of the resurrection of the Saviour says, “but the Lord, after he had given his grave clothes to the servant of the priest, appeared to James (for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he drank the cup of the Lord until he should see him rising again from among those that sleep) and again, a little later, it says “ ‘Bring a table and bread,’ said the Lord.” And immediately it is added, “He brought bread and blessed and brake and gave to James the Just and said to him, ‘my brother eat thy bread, for the son of man is risen from among those that sleep.’” (NPNF, 3: 362).

Is it possible these appearances to Peter and James represent a commission to ministry? James seems to focus on Jerusalem, reaching priests and Pharisees with the Gospel of Jesus, while Peter goes to Diaspora Jews in Galilee and Antioch. Paul, the third named person in this section, is directly commissioned to go to the Gentiles, so it is at least possible the people named were specifically commissioned to a particular ministry after the resurrection. Is it also possible these named appearances reflect the divisions in the church at Corinth? Both Peter and Paul represent factions within the church, perhaps too there is a conservative Jewish faction holding to James as their leader.

Why doesn’t Paul mention the women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection? Each of the four Gospels mentions several women who visit the tomb early in the morning and discover Jesus is no longer in the grave. Although they are the first witnesses of the Jesus’s resurrection, Paul only mentions the men who saw Jesus. There are probably more reasons for this, but Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians are a tradition handed down to him, so this pre-dates the writing of any of the four Gospels. It is possible Paul did not know about Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene (John 20), which was likely written 25 years later. On the other hand, Paul  is giving a list of credible witnesses, or maybe better, authoritative witnesses that would mean something to the Corinthian church. They knew Peter and the Apostles, and likely heard of James the Lord’s brother. that several women were the first witnesses would be less important to a Greek audience. (Feel free to add other ideas in the comments!)

Last of all, Paul lists himself as a witness to the resurrection. Paul is very humble since he was not a follower of Jesus prior to the resurrection (15:8-11). Historically, Paul is not a follower of Jesus until he encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus. (However, see this: Did Paul Know Jesus?) As is well known, he is a persecutor of Jesus’ followers prior to the resurrection appearance of Jesus. Paul is claiming to be an eyewitness to the resurrection, albeit one with different credentials than Peter or James since he did not know Jesus before the resurrection.

His experience was like one with an “untimely birth” (ESV). This word (ἔκτρωμα) is used for a stillborn child or a miscarriage. Many commentators think this is an insult Paul faced in his ministry, he is not just a “Johnny-come-lately” or someone who is trying to “jump on the band-wagon,” he has some spiritual deficiency that ought to disqualify him from being considered an apostle. Rather than responding to an attack, Paul is simply listing himself as the final witness because he was the final witness, and his experience is unique among the Apostles.

Paul is “unworthy to be called an apostle” because he persecuted the church, despite the fact he was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles by Jesus himself. Nevertheless, Paul by the grace of God, “I am what I am.” Likely he carried a great deal of guilt for persecuting the early believers as well as for missing out on hearing Jesus preach during his lifetime.

For Paul, the resurrection is a reliable event in history witnessed by a wide variety of people, including people who were not among the followers of Jesus during his ministry.

6 thoughts on “Witnesses to the Resurrection – 1 Corinthians 15:5-11

  1. Do you think the appearances were part of Paul’s gospel, or just the part according to the scriptures?

    Woodrow Nichols

  2. James was likely the strongest of these witnesses to Jesus in bodily, resurrected form, especially in 1st century Jewish circles. Do you consider James bar Joseph to be a half brother to Yeshua of Nazareth?

  3. Since the resurrection is such a vital part of the Christian faith, Paul lists witnesses that saw Jesus after he died and rose again. The first witness of the resurrection that Paul lists is Cephas (Peter) and then the rest of the disciples. Other than the recorded witnesses that we have in the Bible, I think that further proof that the disciples saw Jesus was that they all died (historically) for their faith. To me, it would be crazy to die for a lie. Why would these men all die pretty brutal deaths just to cover up a lie that would not really matter. Paul also says that 500 people witnessed Jesus after the resurrection as well. Jesus also appeared to his brother James according to Paul as well. I have never really thought about how the women who saw Jesus at the tomb were not mentioned. I do think that it makes sense that Paul would not have known yet about the women seeing Jesus at the tomb. Paul says that he is a witness to the resurrection. Since Paul saw Jesus on the road to Damascus he counts as both an apostle as well as a witness to the resurrection of Christ. To me, all of these witnesses just add to the fact that Jesus did die, and that he was in fact raised from the dead.

  4. I believe Paul writes about all the witnesses of the resurrection to build up his credibility to believers so people with questions had so many sources to gain information from. As far as the women being left out of the writing, possibly it was from a view of women did not know what they were talking about and could be viewed as lying, this is just an idea but I do not find it justifiable to gaining peoples following. Jesus’ resurrection is the largest event to happen in the entire history of the earth so building up a list of people that were able to witness the greatest event would be a smart idea because it is such a huge idea that could be made up if only one person spoke of it.

Leave a Reply