Q: #408. Why does (1 Cor 15:5) say that Jesus appeared to "the twelve" apostles after His resurrection when there could only have been eleven at that time?
A: Good catch! This is actually a verse that skeptics use to disprove the infallibility of the Bible. This is based on the fact that since Judas had already committed suicide (Mt 27:3-5), he could not have been present during Jesus’ resurrection. This is a true statement. So, how do we explain Paul’s use of “the twelve?” There are three possible explanations.
First, and in my opinion the most likely explanation, takes us to (Acts 1:15-26). In these verses, the 11 disciples are gathered together, along with about 120 others, when Peter gives a speech explaining the death of Judas, and the need to replace him with another disciple. He gives the following requirements for his replacement: (Acts 1:21-22) “Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, (22) Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection.”
In other words, the successor had to have been a part of Jesus’ ministry while He was on the Earth, from His baptism by John the Baptist until His resurrection. (One classic definition of an apostle being “to have seen the resurrected Christ.”) Then, two men were put forth who met these requirements: “Joseph called Barsabas” and “Matthias.” Matthias was chosen, and (Acts 1:26) says, “And he was numbered with the 11 apostles,” making them 12 again.
Since the book of First Corinthians was written well after the naming of Matthias as an apostle (and replacement for Judas), he was considered one of “the twelve” by the time Paul wrote First Corinthians. In addition, since one of the requirements for his appointment as a replacement was that he had seen the risen Christ, it can be said that Jesus did indeed “appear to the twelve” after His resurrection, but just not all at the same moment. For example, He appeared to 10 at one time, without Thomas (Jn 20:19-23), then He later appeared to Thomas, but not with all 10 present (Jn 20:24-29), and He also appeared to “more than five hundred brethren” (1 Cor 15:6) and “all the apostles” (1 Cor 15:7), of which perhaps Matthias was one of those.
A second possible explanation is that the use of the term “the twelve” is not speaking of EXACTLY 12 men, but rather, it is speaking of “an office.” We see the term “the twelve” used over and over in the Gospels in reference to the disciples of Jesus. This was how they were known to some. In other words, if someone said, “Jesus was with the twelve,” the translation might be, “Jesus was with those guys who follow Him everywhere.” There did not necessarily always need to be twelve to be called “the twelve.” “The twelve” was a designated title. We can see an example of this in (Jn 20:24), when it says “But Thomas, one of THE TWELVE, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came” (caps emphasis mine). Notice, they are called “the twelve” here even though there were only eleven alive at this time.
I like the parallel I read somewhere that (as of this writing) we call the Big Ten Conference the “Big Ten” even though there are 14 teams in it. The “Big Twelve” Conference has 10 teams. We often call “a president,” “President ——-,” even after they leave office. Therefore, when Paul used “the twelve,” he could easily have been using the “designation” given for the disciples of Jesus. There did not need to be 12 men to be an accurate use of the term.
Finally, and this is very unlikely to me, the use of “the twelve” could be the result of scribal error. As Christians, we believe that the “autographa” or original manuscripts (no longer in existence today) were free from error. The versions of the Bible we have today are based on copies from these original manuscripts. When a version is written, it is generally done so using the best manuscript evidence available at the time. As copies have come down from the originals over time, there have been mistakes here and there that have occurred because fallible man is involved in copying or translating what God originally stated. This could apply in this situation. Perhaps this verse was translated as “the twelve” when it should have been “the eleven.” There are a few older manuscripts that actually say “the eleven” rather than “the twelve,” however, the best and most reliable manuscripts say “the twelve.”