Five Hundred Witnesses

One of the most important passages for demonstrating the resurrection of Jesus is the first part of 1 Corinthians 15.  There is one part of this that some people have questioned:

Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. (1 Corinthians 15:6 NRSV)

In the context, Paul is offering witnesses to the resurrection as evidence for the Corinthians to remember.  He names a number of people or groups including Peter, James, the Twelve and the Apostles.  But what about the 500?  It seems as if Paul is challenging the Corinthians to ask these people about their experience of seeing the resurrected Jesus.  But what good is this if Paul does not give names with the five hundred?  If I told you that five hundred people saw a UFO, that would mean nothing because you would not know or have access to those witnesses.  What we have to keep in mind is that Paul is not talking about just five hundred people in the world, but five hundred people in Jerusalem.  Not only this, he is referring to five hundred Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.  This narrows down things quite a bit.  Although Paul does not give names to the five hundred, he is expecting that a Christian could travel to Jerusalem, contact the Christian church and that they could point someone to one of these five hundred.  Thus this statement becomes powerful evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.

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11 thoughts on “Five Hundred Witnesses”

  1. In the 1960’s, I attended a Catholic grade schools where the nuns would tell us about appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary like the one at Fatima in 1917 where thousands of people witnessed miracles. I don’t recall the exact words they used, but one of those nuns might well have told us that many of those people were still alive at the time the nun was telling the story. I don’t think that I could read anything more into the nun’s statement than that this was a story that she had heard and believed to be true. I would not interpret this as convincing evidence that the miracles had actually taken place.

    By the same token, Paul’s statement proves that he was told a story about a miracle and he believed the story to be true. It doesn’t prove that the miracle actually took place.

  2. We have to be careful with using the word ‘proof’ as that is properly used only for things like mathematics. With history we are speaking more in terms of evidence. Let us look at what you said. If there were thousands of people in a local area that had witnessed a miracle, that is something dramatic not a healing of a headache or even the “healing” of a stranger in which no one knew the prior condition, we would have to take that testimony seriously, especially if those witnesses were still alive and available to be interviewed. In the case of the resurrection, Paul is writing twenty years after the events. Jesus was known to have been killed and 500 people claimed to have seen him alive again. Perhaps that proves nothing but it is more evidence than say the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief that Jesus returned during WWI but invisibly so that it is completely undetectable. We are dealing with probabilities based on the evidence. Five hundred witnesses of a dramatic miracle such as a resurrection just twenty years after the event is pretty good evidence.

  3. 500 claimed to have seen him alive again.

    This is incorrect. One person claims that Jesus appeared to 500 people. We have no idea where Paul came by this information. Do you believe that he spoke personally with each of the 500 people and heard each of them make the claim? Isn’t it possible that, like the nuns who told me about Fatima, he heard about the event from someone else who wasn’t their either?

  4. Scholars believe that Paul received this early creed from Peter, John and James during his visit to Jerusalem. So, Paul (who had seen the risen Jesus) heard from Peter, John and James (each who saw the risen Jesus) that there were another 500 who had seen the risen Jesus. Sure Paul is recounting that there are other witnesses other than himself. Paul’s point is that if the Corinthians do not believe Paul, they are welcome to go to Jerusalem and talk to some of these other witnesses.

  5. Some scholars believe that, however there may be other explanations. When Paul says he is passing on what he received, he may be referring to the basic gospel message he received rather than the specific creedal formulation of the gospel found in 1 Cor. 15. That particular formulation could have been a fairly recent innovation. As far as the gospel message itself goes, Paul is quite by clear in Galatians that he received it be divine revelation. No one told it to him.

    I don’t think that there is any way to be certain where Paul heard the story about the appearance to the 500. If it were found in any of the gospels, we might be justified in concluding that he heard it from Peter or John, but it is not found in the gospels. One possibility is that Paul heard the story prior to his conversion from some early believer that he was persecuting.

    My basic point is this: There is a huge difference between “500 people claim to have witnessed an event” and “one person who wasn’t there claims that 500 people witnessed an event.”

  6. There is always some other possible explanation but even liberal scholars such as Gerd Luedemann date this creed to a couple years after the events. Regarding the 500, we could argue this back and forth. The point is that Paul expected that the Corinthians and hear their testimony.

  7. That may be true. By the same token, the nuns that taught me in grade school believed that there were people alive who would attest to the miracles at Fatima. It does not seem like very strong evidence to me.

  8. It depends on your worldview. If you reject anything supernatural outright, it does not matter if there are a million eyewitnesses. We all have to sift through the evidence and make our own conclusions.

  9. Look up the 500 soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb in the Gospel of Nicodemus, who saw Jesus and apparently converted according to the Gospel of Nicodemus. And then look back at 1Cor 15 and how the story of the 500 is sandwiched in between appearances to Peter and then James, etc. probably a latter insertion based on an apocryphal tale. It even ends, ” to this day” which is something someone might add much later even than when Paul wrote his letter

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