by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
Numerous alleged Bible discrepancies arise because skeptics frequently interpret figurative language in a literal fashion. They treat God’s Word as if it were a dissertation on the Pythagorean theorem rather than a book written using ordinary language. They fail to recognize the inspired writers’ use of sarcasm, hyperbole, prolepsis, irony, etc. Such is the case in their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:5. Since Paul stated that “the twelve” (apostles) saw Jesus after His resurrection, these critics claim that Paul clearly erred, because there were not “twelve” apostles after Jesus’ resurrection and before His ascension. There actually were only eleven apostles during that time. [Judas already had committed suicide (Matthew 27:5), and Matthias was not chosen as an apostle until after Jesus’ ascension into heaven (Acts 1:15-26).] Skeptics claim Paul’s use of the term “twelve” when speaking about “eleven” clearly shows that the Bible was not given “by inspiration of God.”
The simple solution to this numbering “problem” is that “the twelve” to which Paul referred was not a literal number, but the designation of an office. This term is used merely “to point out the society of the apostles, who, though at this time they were only eleven, were still called the twelve, because this was their original number, and a number which was afterward filled up” (Clarke, 1996). Gordon Fee stated that Paul’s use of the term “twelve” in 1 Corinthians 15:5 “is a clear indication that in the early going this was a title given to the special group of twelve whom Jesus called to ‘be with him’ (Mark 3:14). Thus this is their collective designation; it does not imply that all twelve were on hand, since the evidence indicates otherwise” (1987, p. 729, emp. added).
This figurative use of numbers is just as common in English vernacular as it was in the ancient languages. In certain collegiate sports, one can refer to the Big Ten conference, which consists of 14 teams, or the Atlantic Ten conference, which is also made up of 14 teams. At one time, these conferences only had ten teams, but when they exceeded that number, they kept their original conference “names.” Their names are a designation for a particular conference, not a literal number. In 1884, the term “two-by-four” was coined to refer to a piece of lumber two-by-four inches. Interestingly, a two-by-four still is called a two-by-four, even though today it is trimmed to slightly smaller dimensions (1 5/8 by 3 5/8). Again, the numbers are more of a designation than a literal number.
Critics like Steve Wells, author of the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, misrepresent the text when they claim Paul taught: “Jesus was seen by all twelve apostles (including Judas) after Judas’ suicide and before Jesus’ ascension” (2001, emp. added). Paul did not teach that Jesus was seen by all twelve of the original apostles (including Judas). The text says simply that Jesus “was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve.” As already noted, skeptics reject the explanation that Paul used the term “twelve” in a figurative sense (yet they must admit that such numbers can be, and frequently are, used in such a way). These critics also disregard the possibility that the twelve may have included Matthias, the apostle who took Judas’ place (Acts 1:15-26). Although in my judgment Paul was using “the twelve” in a figurative sense, it is possible that he was including Matthias with “the twelve.”
Matthias had been chosen as one of the apostles long before Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, and we know he was a witness of the resurrection of Christ (Acts 1:21-22). In fact, it is very likely that he was part of the group that “gathered together” with the apostles when Christ appeared to them after His resurrection (Luke 24:33). When Paul wrote of “the twelve,” it may be that he was using a figure of speech commonly referred to as prolepsis (the assignment of something, such as an event or name, to a time that precedes it). Thus no one can say for sure that Matthias was not included in the twelve apostles mentioned by Paul.
Does Paul’s reference to “the twelve” in 1 Corinthians 15:5 contradict Jesus’ appearances to ten of the apostles on one occasion (John 20:19-23) and eleven on another (John 20:26-29)? Not at all. Either he simply used a figure of speech common to all languages—where a body of persons (or groups) who act as colleagues are called by a number rather than a name—or he was including Matthias.
Clarke, Adam (1996), Adam Clarke’s Commentary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Fee, Gordon D. (1987), The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Wells, Steve (2001), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible [On-line], URL: http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/1cor/index.html.