500 Eyewitnesses to the Risen Christ? Not Likely.

500 Eyewitnesses to the Risen Christ? Not Likely. April 10, 2013

The apostle Paul throws down the gauntlet in 1 Cor. 15:6, and many apologists see it as powerful evidence in favor of the resurrection story. Paul in effect dares his readers to go check out his claim if they want. Who would make a claim like this, making himself vulnerable to readers catching him in a lie (or at least an embarrassing error), if he didn’t know it were true?

[Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have [died]. (1 Cor. 15:6).

But this confident defense of the resurrection wilts under scrutiny.

Let’s think this through. Imagine that we’re in that church in Corinth and we have just received Paul’s letter.

1. Who are these 500 eyewitnesses? Names and addresses, please? To find out, someone would need to send a letter back to Paul, at that moment 200 miles across the Aegean Sea in Ephesus. If a church member had the money, time, and guts to write this letter, why would Paul have deigned to reply?

Even if Paul had witnessed Jesus in front of the 500 (he hadn’t), it’s possible he wouldn’t have known a single person in the crowd. And even if Paul thought the number was accurate, “500 eyewitnesses” might be all he knew, and he wouldn’t have been able to back it up with any evidence.

2. How many will still be around? Paul writes 1 Corinthians in about 55CE about a supposed event that occurred over 20 years earlier. Of the 500 eyewitnesses, how many are still alive and still in Jerusalem, ready to be questioned?

3. Who could make this trip? Jerusalem is 800 miles away, and getting there would involve a long, dangerous, and expensive trip.

4. How many candidates for this trip? Paul had only started the church in Corinth a couple of years earlier. There would probably have been less than 100 members.* Would even one have the means and motivation to make the big trip to Jerusalem?

5. Who would challenge Paul? If the founder of the church says something, who’s likely to question it? There might well have been people who were unimpressed by Paul’s message, but these would never have joined the church. Others within the church might have become disappointed and left. Even if these people had wanted to embarrass Paul, they wouldn’t have been in the church community to learn of the claim.

6. What did the eyewitnesses actually see? Let’s imagine that we have the money and daring to make the trip, we have a plan for whom to interview in Jerusalem, and we’re rebellious enough to spit in the face of our church’s founder to see if he’s a liar.

After many adventures, we reach Jerusalem. What will the eyewitnesses say? At best they’ll say that, over 20 years ago, they saw a man. Big deal—that’s uninteresting unless they saw him dead before. Had they been close enough to the movement to be certain that they recognized Jesus? Human memory is notoriously inaccurate. There’s a big difference between the certainty one has in a memory and its accuracy—these don’t always go together.

7. So what? Suppose all these unlikely things happen: we make the long trip, we search for eyewitnesses, and we conclude that Paul’s story is nonsense. If we successfully make the long trip back, what difference will this make? Even if we had the guts to tell everyone that Paul’s story was wrong, so what? Who would believe us over the church’s founder? We’d be labeled as bad apples, we’d be expelled from the church, and the church would proceed as before. And Paul’s letter would still be copied through the centuries for us to read today!

In my recent post on the Shroud of Turin, I noted that our very first historical record of the Shroud is a letter stating that the shroud was a fake. That’s done nothing to steer people away from a belief they want to hold. As with the Naysayer Hypothesis, apologists imagine that this argument is far stronger than it is.

Who would imagine that a supernatural claim written two thousand years ago would be compelling when we wouldn’t find it compelling if written two minutes ago?

Let’s consider two possible conclusions about this verse.

1. The resurrection happened supernaturally as the gospels describe it. (Let’s suppose that the gospels all tell the same story.)

2. Tales circulated orally in the years after the crucifixion among Jesus’s followers, with the number of eyewitnesses to the risen Christ growing with time.

Why imagine a supernatural story when a natural story explains the facts?

If you can’t be a good example,
then you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning.
— Catherine Aird

Photo credit: University of Michigan

* Prof. Philip Harland’s “Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean” podcast #1.5 (“Paul and the followers of Jesus at Corinth, part 2”) argues that each house church would’ve only had dozens of members.

(This is a modified version of a post originally published 12/21/11.)

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  • JD Henry

    So, the main argument seems to be Paul was a liar. Or, Peter and James were liars. Don’t know why they would lie, since they gave their lives eventually for the cause (not to mention all the beatings, being stoned and left for dead, and imprisoned). But hey, I will defer to your greater wisdom…

    • Perhaps you didn’t read so good. Paul could’ve been a liar (just inflating his story for effect), but that’s not the point. A likelier story would be that Paul heard the story in no more detail than you know it–500 eyewitnesses to the risen Christ. That’s it. So he passed it along.

      Gave their lives? No, I don’t think so. I burst that poorly inflated balloon here.

  • Steve

    Hi JD, if a person does not want to believe they will find an endless number of reasons not to, if a person wants to believe and come to know God, there is ample evidence for faith and God is faithful to reveal Himself.

    • This “ample evidence” must be something that I’m just missing.

    • Merari

      Wishful thinking is not evidence.

    • LiamT

      the bible doesnt count as evidence. so what else do you have?

    • nobody

      The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason. Ben Franklin
      So no, your personal revelation isn’t evidence for a god, only for your personal delusion.

  • LiamT

    i love how you mention fairytales but dont class your religion as one. btw, NO great minds dismiss evolution. the scientific community is virtually all behind evolution. the only people who deny it also think millions of animals can fit on a wooden boat so im not sure they have all the faculties.

  • LiamT

    yet there are currently around 10k priests and preachers in the USA who no longer believe in what they preach. so, 1 v 10,000, you do the maths

  • adam
  • Paul worked out and employed almost all of the Christian apologetics fallacies, and Christians have been using them ever since. Christians and other religious believers have been making up stories and fabricating “witnesses” in their stories since time immemorial. Mormons have their “Three Witnesses” and “Eight Witnesses,” therefore this proves that angels are real, that angels visited them, that the Mormon gold plates actually existed as archaeological artifacts, and that the Book of Mormon is true. With religious belief, it’s turtles all the way down.

  • Kevin K

    Seems to me that 500 witnesses is exactly the same number as risen saints referred to in Matthew. So….the eyewitnesses were all ZOMBIES!!!

    • Greg G.

      Interesting. Matthew doesn’t give a number but it could be his reference. I think Matthew was probably using Isaiah 26:19 and/or Ezekiel 37:7-13 but the 1 Corinthians 15 passage may have given him the idea.

      • Kevin K

        Stop ruining my post hoc rationalizations!! 😉