Books and Authors, New Testament

500 Witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus?


The Resurrection—Tischbein, 1778.

The Resurrection - Tishbein, 1778

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NRSV

This passage of scripture is part of the standard selection of verses used, either directly or indirectly, by Christian apologists to attempt to prove that Jesus actually rose from the dead and appeared again to his followers.

Christian apologist, Josh McDowell, in his lovely work of apologetic fiction entitled “Evidence for the Resurrection”, relays it this way:

“Several very important factors are often overlooked when considering Christ’s post-resurrection appearances to individuals. The first is the large number of witnesses of Christ after that resurrection morning. One of the earliest records of Christ’s appearing after the resurrection is by Paul. The apostle appealed to his audience’s knowledge of the fact that Christ had been seen by more than 500 people at one time. Paul reminded them that the majority of those people were still alive and could be questioned.”

“the fact that Christ had been seen by more than 500 people at one time”

“One of the earliest records of Christ’s appearing after the resurrection is by Paul.”

More correctly, that should read, THE earliest record of Christ’s appearing after the resurrection is by Paul. That is our earliest written source.  So what EXACTLY does Paul say?  What was his purpose for writing this?  Is this actually evidence of the resurrection of Jesus; evidence that would stand up in court? Is this a verifiable fact? Let’s have a look:

The very first thing that Paul reveals is that he is simply relaying hearsay information, a rumor.

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that…” v.3

“For I handed on to you….what I in turn had received: that…”

This is known as the Tradition Summary Formula.  People passing along stories still use it in various forms today.  One example would be “guess what I heard: that…”.

Does Paul provide testimony as to where he got his information?  No, only that he had heard the rumor.  This is not in any way legitimate testimony that would stand up to scrutiny.  This is not the testimony of 500 witnesses.  There is no corroborative testimony by anyone that Paul names.  This is a rumor spread by one man.

What was Paul’s purpose for writing this?

There is a specific “occasion” for each of Paul’s genuine letters”; a reason why the letters were written.  The recipients of this letter, Paul’s converts in Corinth, were facing several dilemmas.  One of those being that Paul had told them one thing, while other followers of Jesus were telling them something different.  This seems to be a common theme among Paul’s earlier letters.  Who were these other followers of Jesus?  In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, they were Jewish followers of Jesus, telling Paul’s converts that in order to be followers of Jesus, they had to first be Jewish.  Remember, Jesus would have been a Jew.  Those who followed him during his lifetime would have also been Jews.  There is no evidence that Jesus stepped outside of Judaism.  Oddly enough, Paul’s biggest battles were against the followers of Jesus.  That is kinda’ funny, if you stop and think about it for a moment.

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul talks about the various messianic factions that were already apparent during his time.

“For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.  What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”” vv. 11-12

The Corinthians were doubting whether Paul had brought them the correct message, or whether they should believe these others.  The purpose of the passage in 1 Corinthians 15 is an attempt to prove to his audience that he DID have this authority.  According to legend relayed by Paul, the resurrected Jesus had appeared to “Cephas, then to the twelve” (note that he does not say eleven; no betrayal by Judas in Paul’s writings), “to the 500”, “to James”, then to “all the apostles”.  He then closes the thought with his point, “he appeared also to me”.  He even then goes on to brag about how he is more legitimate than those other followers; “I worked harder than any of them” v.10.

Paul’s purpose for writing that was not to prove that Jesus had risen from the dead, but to prove that he was legitimate.  In attempting to reinforce his followers’ faith, he inadvertently predicted the ultimate demise of Pauline Christianity.

Read ‘em and weep:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. – 1 Corinthians 15:13-19

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Discussion

12 thoughts on “500 Witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus?

  1. Firstly Paul speaks of the Twelve and not the Eleven: Jesus appeared to the disciples on many occasions after His resurrection over a period of 40 days. This is not just one appearance, but according to Acts 1 there were numerous appearances where He actually ate with them and let them touch Him. So it would not be unreasonable to believe that on some of those occasions, Matthias (the newly appointed 12th Disciple) was there.

    Even though Matthias wasn’t officially a disciple at the time Jesus appeared to them, he was at the time of Paul’s writing and therefore Paul included him. It would actually have been rude and demeaning not to have, and there is no reason why Paul should have excluded him IMO. Certainly Paul was aware that Judas was no longer among them. Let’s give Paul more credit than that, he wasn’t retarded and this was obviously no mistake. But even if you insist that it was, it would be trivial and no reason to reject the Gospel over something like that.

    Now to the 500 Witnesses. Apparently the 500 eye-witnesses were common knowledge in that day. When Paul wrote this, they knew who he was talking about and the event he referred to. I have no doubt Jesus appeared to a very large group after everyone was told to go meet up in Galilee and Jesus would appear to them there. Moreover, since Paul made the statement, and if knowledge of this event was also in circulation, then the Corinthians could simply ask Paul, and many other people, where this happened and who are the people Jesus appeared to. I agree that travel was a great inconvenience back then, but that certainly doesn’t mean Paul was lying.

    If this statement was made in a court of law, the judge wouldn’t simply “throw it out”, but would ask the same questions that the Corinthians might ask should they wish to verify the claim. These questions could be asked of Paul, and many other people who were aware of the event including any of the other Apostles, James, the two Mary’s and so on. Paul, for example, would look pretty bad if someone asked Peter if what Paul said was true, and Peter denied it (as Peter was certainly among those 500). That’s why the statement by itself is credible, because it was made and circulating during the time that people who were alive could vouch for it.

    So one would have to believe that this was either a massive lie by all these people, and mass hallucination (where even the missing body of Jesus and an empty grave are part of that hallucination), or it’s simply the truth. The fact of the matter is the hallucination idea doesn’t work.

    Is it really reasonable to believe that they were all lying to start a new religion, but for what? What would be the purpose of starting a “new religion”, that calls people to abstain from all ungodliness and sin, if the very foundation of that new religion is based on lies? For their testimonies they were beaten, tortured, jailed, humiliated and martyred in horrible deaths including beheadings, crucifixions, burnings, and so on. People who die for their eye witness testimony are the most credible of all witnesses. After all, who would willingly die for something they knew was false?

    Posted by Steve | May 25, 2013, 2:40 pm
  2. Concerning Paul’s testimony where he says he “received” the information that Jesus had appeared to 500 people: you’re right; it wouldn’t stand up in court. If I was an attorney in that trial, I would shout, “Objection! Hearsay. I ask that Paul’s comments be stricken from the record.”

    And as I was reading the part about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he starts dealing with all the problems (internal strife, etc.) and controversies (gross immorality, sex & marriage, eating food offered to idols, etc.), I don’t think Paul ever refers to the teachings of Christ to back up what he is saying about those topics. Hmm…

    Good article..thx for writing and posting it!

    Posted by Larry Jones | March 31, 2011, 11:36 am
    • Objection sustained. We do not have the testimony of 500 witnesses. We have the hearsay testimony of one man saying that there are 500 witnesses. It’s rather obvious when reading that passage in context that what Paul is desperately trying to do is basically say, “Hey, I’m one of them too, I deserve to be an apostle. In fact, I’m better than they are.” “but I labored more abundantly than they all”. Humble people is funny sometimes.

      Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Paul knew much about the sayings, parables, teachings, miracles or the Passion and empty tomb of Jesus. IOW, he didn’t seem to know much about Jesus at all. I would imagine that many of those stories hadn’t been created yet.

      An interesting aside:
      Pseudo-Saul/Paul (from Acts) also left us one unique saying, supposedly from Jesus, not found anywhere else in the Gospels. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” That’s gotta be one of the Church’s favorite sayings. I think it’s also part of the mission statement of the Tea-Party movement.

      Thanks for reading along.

      Posted by Xcntrik | March 31, 2011, 1:24 pm
    • What is YOUR source to say that Paul’s IS the earliest account of witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection? The oldest Gospel is Mark’s and he attested to the fact in his own eye witness account of the matter. Check is out. I doubt that so many people would die martyred for a lie even more so when they were contemporaries to Jesus’ ministry and personal friends. Just as the news is reported now, reporters rely on eye witnesses yet you probably take their word for their accounts. So believe it or not… that is the question.
      DCarrillo

      Posted by Diana Carrillo | May 9, 2012, 3:45 pm
  3. Very interesting. I’m going to be reading for awhile.

    Posted by Knowledge | November 18, 2010, 4:23 pm
  4. LJ and SL,

    Thanks for reading a bit.

    Don’t forget to subscribe and you’ll get a free pony*.

    *some conditions may apply

    Posted by xcntrik | November 10, 2010, 3:44 pm
  5. This is very interesting. Thanks for sharing it, Xcntrik.

    Posted by Larry Jones | November 9, 2010, 8:41 pm
  6. Veeeeeedy Intaaaadresting……Col. Hogan!

    Posted by Scott Lout | November 8, 2010, 10:19 pm
  7. Xcntrik, about the use of “12” and no mention of Judas in Paul’s writings, I wanted to state a personal opinion of mine, which I think is reasonable, from a believer’s standpoint at least. Paul was converted well after Judas’ betrayal. More importantly, he was converted after the selection of the 12th apostle to replace Judas in early Acts. All of this would have been history to Paul, assuming (as I must) that all of this history had been communicated to Paul either by other person(s) or divine revelation. Paul, having not known Judas personally, or be a firsthand witness of any of the events concerning Judas, would have no real reason to write about Judas after the fact once that situation had been rectified by the selection of Matthias in Acts 1:26, and the Gospels revealed all that was needed to be known about Judas concerning his actions while alive. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but this is why I don’t think that Paul’s constant use of the 12 and never mentioning Judas is a real problem. It’s a little bit puzzling to me, I admit, but not an insurmountable difficulty.

    Posted by byroniac | October 28, 2010, 8:57 pm
    • Thanks for the reply, bryoniac.

      The mention of “the 12” was an aside within the post that I didn’t spend any time discussing. I had written about the Judas traditions in “Growing up Iscariot”, but I had not mentioned that specific point, so it was kind of an addendum, so to speak. But any new information is great to get the mind thinking in new directions. Personally, I find it a bit difficult, if not impossible to understand how the biggest “crime” in Christendom, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, if historical, went completely unmentioned by our earliest author. However in reality, Paul doesn’t seem to know much at all about the actual life, teachings or Passion of Jesus. At least he doesn’t write much about it. He seems to spend more time talking about himself *Barney Fife sniff*. I tend to think that it was a tradition started later and can even be seen developing through the Gospel tradition, long after Paul’s time. But that’s just my opinion. It should be noted, as I’m sure you know, that the predominant scholarly dating for Acts is around the end of the first century, some 30-40 years or so after Paul disappeared from the historical record. I also acknowledge that is not the dating of the minority evangelical opinion, which leaves one to ponder. I don’t hold much historical value in the writings of Acts, it is discredited by its own words. I see Acts as historical fiction. I have commented about that particular issue in “Luke/Acts as Historical Fiction“.

      Here’s an exercise that might be fun. See if you can find where the resurrected Jesus appears to Matthias. I haven’t, so it’s difficult to comment on something that isn’t there. What Acts 1 does say is that the resurrected Jesus spent 40 days with the apostles. Then you will notice that the choosing of Matthias comes later (v.26), after the Ascension (v.9). Is it possible that Matthais was part of the group? Sure, but he is not included as one of the 12 until chosen by lots at the end of that chapter, specifically to replace Judas, after Jesus was long gone.

      (Which brings about another aside that I have pondered. Why do you s’pose Christian authorities did away with the casting of lots? My opinion would be; because the practice removes the decision making process from those who sought authority in early Christianity.) anyway . . . .

      For me, it is more logical to think that the tradition that had been passed down to Paul was that Jesus had appeared to “Cephas, then to the twelve”, just like he said. That the stories of a betrayal by Judas developed in the third quarter of the first century, when, as the return of Jesus never happened as predicted, early gentile Christians and Diaspora Jewish-Christians began to rethink and elaborate on the significance and meanings of what they had been taught, thus bringing about the canonical Gospels and a plethora of other early Christian writings.

      Posted by xcntrik | October 28, 2010, 11:32 pm

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