Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists frequently assert that the Bible is the inerrant and inspired Word of God. All that humanity needs to understand the meaning of life is contained in this book, handed down by God through people chosen specifically by him for this purpose. Aside from the obvious problem of free will that such a claim implies, it is also an assertion that is completely unsupported by a critical look at the biblical texts themselves. In this essay, I intend to illustrate one example that I believe justifiably tears down any arguments of biblical inerrancy.
The book of 1 Corinthians is a New Testament letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church he had founded in Corinth. In this letter, Paul reminds his congregation of the central claim of his theology, the event that “started it all,” as it were, for Paul’s own conversion and his life’s work as a Christian missionary to non-Jews. This event, of course, is the resurrection of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Paul states the following:
“For what I received I passed onto you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve.”
Now, at first look, many people may wonder just what it is about this passage that could offer proof of the Bible’s fallibility. It is, after all, simply asserting the central claim of Christianity – that Jesus died, was buried, was raised on the third day, and later appeared to his followers. But it’s the very last phrase of the passage that serves to tear down inerrancy arguments: “and then to the twelve.”
The Gospels of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – all independently attest to the fact that Judas, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, betrayed Jesus to Roman authorities. Following the betrayal, Judas disappears from two of the Gospels, but Matthew’s Gospels asserts that Judas was so torn with guilt that he committed suicide. Additionally, the book of Acts – which was written as a second volume to the Gospel of Luke – states that Judas later died after an accidental fall (which, of course, is yet another example of biblical fallibility, but that’s for a different essay).
Following Judas’s departure from the story, three of the Gospels describe appearances that the resurrected Jesus made to the eleven remaining disciples (Mark’s Gospel ends after Jesus’ tomb is discovered empty – no resurrection appearances are described).
Considering these things, the discrepancy in Paul’s statement about Jesus appearing “to the twelve” should be apparent: the Gospel stories – written several decades or more after Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – agree that Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances were to the eleven; Paul, on the other hand, says Jesus appeared to “the twelve.”
Two assumptions must arise from this problem: either Paul had never heard of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, and knew nothing about Judas’ alienation from the rest of the group, or Paul simply made a mistake.
Regarding the former, it seems highly unlikely that Paul, the self-proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles, could have been ignorant of Judas’ betrayal. This leads one to question whether the Judas story was a legend that developed later in Christian history, after Paul’s death. Of course, this one innocuous piece of evidence is not enough to legitimately suggest that the Judas story is mythological, but it does cast a shadow of doubt on the story’s authenticity.
If you reject the idea that the Judas story was mythological – which, if you are a Bible literalist, you would have to do by definition – then you must either make the unlikely assumption that Paul had never heard the story, or you must accept that Paul made an error.
Either way, this otherwise insignificant comment by Paul stands as evidence of an irreconcilable error. If Paul had never heard of the betrayal story, then clearly God was lax in imparting the necessary knowledge to his chosen apostle to the Gentiles, such that he allowed Paul to make an erroneous statement. If Paul did know about the betrayal story, but simply had the 1st century equivalent of a brain fart, then it stands as evidence that the writers of the New Testament – including, no less, the most important writer of the New Testament – were, in fact, human, with human frailties, failures, and fallibilities.
One argument that literalists put forth, when faced with this question, is that Paul’s “twelve” included the “replacement” disciple, Matthias. In the opening chapter of Acts, the writer explains that the eleven remaining disciples elected a replacement for Judas, an otherwise unknown man named Matthias. The problem with this assumption is that the writer of Acts makes it clear that Matthias was not elected by the eleven until after they had witnessed Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The writer tells us that, following Jesus’ final appearance and his ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and Peter suggested electing a replacement disciple. So Paul’s assertion that the resurrected Jesus appeared “to the twelve” could not include the replacement disciple.
No matter how you slice it, Paul’s assertion that Jesus appeared “to the twelve” is an irreconcilable error. Whether it was Paul or later New Testament writers, somebody messed up somewhere. It cannot be both ways; Judas cannot have been present and not present at the same time. Either he was there or he was not there.
Of course, in the whole scheme of Paul’s writings, and in the whole scheme of Christian theology, this issue is rather insignificant – indeed, it doesn’t really matter at all; that is, it doesn’t really matter if you are not a Bible literalist or one who claims that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. But if you do make such claims, as so many fundamentalists and evangelicals do, then you have a real problem on your hands when you confront this passage.
In my experience, anyone who claims that the Bible is infallible has simply never read the Bible, at least not critically.