Does the Expression “the Eleven” (Luke 24:33) Constitute an Error?
In John 20:24-26 we read about Jesus making two appearances to his disciples — the first one without Thomas being present. And then, eight days later, he appeared with Thomas present. However, from the account in Luke 24:33, we read that Jesus appeared to the “eleven,” and it seems that this was the first appearance of Christ to His disciples. So, my question is this: Why does the text say ‘eleven,’ since Thomas was not present on that occasion, and there were only ten?
First of all, it must be remembered that a genuine contradiction exists only when there is absolutely no way to effect a harmony between passages that appear to be in conflict. One of the rules for dissolving alleged difficulties is to recognize that words may be employed in different senses in various contexts. This principle should be kept in mind in pursuing a resolution to the passage in question.
Before going further, as a side note it should be observed that it is a rather distressing circumstance to note how many commentators “skip over” problem passages. If one has confidence in the biblical claim that the Scriptures are a verbally inspired communication from God, he should search for a reasonable explanation to difficult passages that superficially appear to be adverse to that lofty concept.
At the same time, every informed student will acknowledge that in any significant body of literature there are latitudes of language-flexibility that are perfectly permissible. The failure to recognize this often leads to confusion. We thus offer the following thoughts for consideration.
While it seems likely that the meeting in Luke 24:33, and that of John 20:19ff, represent the same occasion, some suggest that such may not have been the case. Alfred Plummer, who was not adverse to characterizing the Gospel records as “inaccurate” whenever he felt so disposed, wrote1: “We cannot determine whether this is the same appearance as Jn. 20:19.”
It is an acknowledged fact that Christ made post-resurrection appearances that are not recorded in the Gospel records. The Lord appeared to Peter alone on one occasion, and then on another to more than 500 people (cf. 1 Cor. 15:5-6). The actual circumstances of these appearances are not described in the sacred narratives. But the “different event” theory does not appear to be the best explanation, and rarely has it been adopted.
More likely is the common view that the phrase, “the eleven,” became a semi-technical expression for the apostolic band after the defection and death of Judas, and that as such, mathematical precision was not intended — particularly when evidence is available to demonstrate otherwise. Let us reflect upon this possibility.
It is very clear that there is ample precedent for this sort of language flexibility. There is a common figure of speech called the “synecdoche,” that is generally defined as “the part for the whole” or “the whole for the part” (cf. Mt. 3:5). It may also involve the “singular for the plural,” or vice versa (cf. Jdgs. 12:7). One aspect of this figure is when “the definite” is used for “the indefinite” (cf. 1 Sam. 1:8). Any good volume dealing with sacred hermeneutics will address this widely-recognized usage2.
The numeral “twelve” was used of the apostles in a sense that merely signifies the apostolic band — even when a literal twelve was not intended. Paul mentions that in one of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances, he appeared to “the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5). During the forty-day post-resurrection period, however, Judas was dead already, and Matthias had not yet been selected. Obviously, then, the numeral “twelve” was employed figuratively for the body of the apostles in general, rather than of twelve specific individuals. Again, Thomas is designated as “one of the twelve” (Jn. 20:24), when there was no “twelve” at that time.
Similarly, the expression “twelve apostles” is used symbolically in Revelation 21:14. This is apparent because Judas had been replaced by Matthias, and Paul had been added to the apostolic company — thus there was a total of thirteen. Scholars have long observed that “twelve” was commonly employed in a “corporate” sense, without the actual numeral being precise. Beckworth3 commented, “A Roman parallel has been frequently pointed out; decemviri and centumviri came to be used as official terms without regard to precise numbers.”
It is entirely possible (and most likely), therefore, that the expression “the eleven” took on a similar significance in those days after Judas had abandoned the apostolic company. Concerning Luke 24:33, R.C.H. Lenski4 has noted: “John 20:24 states that Thomas was absent, yet Luke writes that the two disciples from Emmaus found ‘the Eleven.’ As they were formerly called ‘the Twelve,’ so they are now called ‘the Eleven’ whether the full number was actually present or not.”
It is interesting to note that Mark uses the identical expression in 16:14. Of this matter D. Edmond Hiebert5 similarly says, “‘The eleven’ here appears to be a reference to the group of Jesus’ disciples as such, not to the actual number present.”
In view of the foregoing facts, it is clear that no legitimate claim of a discrepancy can be brought against the biblical narratives in this matter. The critic’s charge fails the bona fide “contradiction” criteria.
For further study, see our article, Does the Bible Contain Contradictions?.
1 “St. Luke,” The International Critical Commentary, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1896, p. 558.
2 See: D.R. Dungan, Hermeneutics, Cincinnati: Standard, n.d., pp. 300-314.
3 Isbon T. Beckworth, The Apocalypse of John, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979, p. 759.
4 The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1946, p. 1194.
5 The Gospel of Mark, Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1994, p. 483.