Why did Paul say Jesus appeared to the twelve? Here is an interesting question from my Readers’ Mailbag connected to the tradition that Judas Iscariot killed himself soon after Jesus’ death, leaving only eleven disciples. Did Paul know about this tradition? Why does he seem to think there were still twelve disciples after the resurrection?


What do you think about Paul saying that Jesus appeared to the “twelve” (Apostles) after his resurrection? (1 Cor. 15:5) I find this to be a big mistake; given the multiple gospel stories about Judas’s betrayal and subsequent suicide. Wouldn’t Paul have known that there were only eleven Apostles at that time?

How Can Paul Say that Jesus Appeared to The Twelve?


Ah, an interesting question, and answering it involves a number of rather unexpected complexities. The basic question: does Paul know that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and afterward committed suicide?

The first issue to address: who among the authors of the New Testament does know about the suicide of Judas? Here’s an interesting point. It is not “multiple” authors. There is, in fact, only one: the author of Matthew (see 27:5). Judas’s death is not mentioned in Mark, Luke, or John.

In only one other New Testament book is there any reference to Judas’s death: Acts 1:18-19. But this passage doesn’t say anything about it being a suicide and what it does say stands at odds with what Matthew says. I give this as an exercise to my students sometimes: I tell them to compare in detail the account of Judas’s death in Matthew 27 with the account in Acts 1. Note all the similarities (in their finest details) and the differences (again, in detail), and then see if it is possible to reconcile the differences. It’s a very intriguing little assignment. I’d suggest you do it and see what you come up with.

Were There Really Twelve?

But even if the accounts are difficult (at best) to reconcile, they do both agree that Judas died soon after Jesus’ death. So when Jesus appeared to his disciples, he appeared to only eleven, not twelve, right? So why does Paul say he appeared to “the twelve.”

I think there are two major options. One – I think this is the one most scholars take – is that when Paul says “the Twelve” he is using it as a technical term to refer to “the group of Jesus’ chosen disciples.” This group was simply called “the twelve.” And even if someone was missing, the group as a whole was just called “the twelve.”

That may seem implausible at first glance, but actually, we do the same thing ourselves. Let’s talk college football (or basketball: take your pick). Most college teams are organized into leagues. My North Carolina team is in the Atlantic Coast Conference. One of the strongest football leagues on the planet is the Big Ten. And how many teams are in the Big Ten? Right. Fourteen. Why then do we call it the Big Ten? Because that’s its name since originally it had ten teams.

The idea is that something like that is going on with “the Twelve.” There were originally twelve, but they were still called “the Twelve” even after there were only eleven. (Note: there is no point in objecting that there was an election to replace Judas with Matthias to keep the number at twelve so that there always *were* twelve. That election happened in Acts only after Jesus’ resurrection appearances – in fact, after his ascension — and we are now asking whether there were eleven or twelve members in the group at the time of those appearances).

Or Maybe Paul Really Didn’t Know

So that’s one option. Another one, that I tend to prefer on most days, is that Paul talks about the appearance of Jesus to the twelve because he knows nothing about the tradition that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and then died soon after…