What do we make of Paul’s claim that 500 people at one time saw Jesus after the resurrection (in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5)? I get this question every now and then — maybe five or six times just this year. These days, among other things, I point 0ut something I hadn’t thought about in most of the years of my existence, that there was almost certainly no Christian group (meaning: a group of people who believed Jesus was raised from the dead) of that size in Paul’s day anywhere in the world! (I discuss the numbers of Christians at different time periods in antiquity in my book The Triumph of Christianity.) So on that level alone it seems highly implausible.
But jut now looking through old posts from many years ago, I see I was asked the question and dealt with it in a different way. I’d forgotten all about it, but see now that I give a bit of analysis that tries to unpack Paul’s claims. Here’s the Q and the A:
QUESTION on 1 Corinthians 15:3-5:
“3 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, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters[c] at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. ”
Where do you think he got his information from especially on the 500? Many say it could only have come from Peter or James or else he made it up, which would be odd.
It’s a great question, and as with many great questions, I don’t think there’s a great answer. There are several things we can say. Paul did know both Peter and James, and so presumably they told him that they had had visions of Jesus. He knew lots of other Christians who either were Christians before he was or who knew Christians who were Christians before he was. Or who were later Christians who had heard stories that were allegedly told by Christians who were Christians before he was.
My sense is that *any* of these sources could have been his sources of information, and there is no way to evaluate why one of these sources has a better claim to being *the* source from any other source.
Several other things to note about the list. He gives six sets of appearances of Jesus, and the six divide themselves into two groups of three:
A: Cephas, the twelve, the 500
B: James, the apostles, Paul himself
The appearances in group A correspond to the appearances in group B. First there is an appearance to an individual who was to become a leader of the church in Jerusalem (Cephas/Peter and then James); second was to a group of people (the twelve disciples; the apostles); and third to a group/person who could vouch for the reality of the appearance: the 500 (the reason he says some are still alive to be asked is so that the report could be verified) and himself (who could also verify the report).
My point is that this careful construction of the list suggests that it is not simply a chronological listing: it is a careful construction of a list of witnesses. This is not simply a historically-driven list, it is one driven by a literary/apologetic motive.
And there are oddities in it.
- He indicates that Cephas was the first to have a vision of Jesus. What about the women at the empty tomb? Does Paul not know about them? Does he choose not to mention them? Why? (Note: at the end, when he says “last of all, he appeared also to me,” that “last of all” is usually taken to mean that he has given the full list, that there were no other appearances).
- He lists the twelve and the apostles as separate groups. Why? There are two puzzles here.
- Does he really mean the “twelve”? If so, that would include Judas Iscariot. But according to Matthew and Acts, Judas was dead by then. Paul never mentions the betrayal of Judas (not even 1 Cor. 11:22-24, for reasons I can explain if anyone’s interested) or the death of Judas or, even, the name Judas! Does Paul know the tradition that Jesus was betrayed by one of his own, or does he think that all twelve lived on and remained “the twelve” after Jesus’ death? Another option is that the term “the twelve” is simply a technical term for “Jesus’ closest disciples” and does not require that there were actually 12 of them. I guess that would be like the Big Ten conference which has more than ten teams in it….
- If the twelve does refer to the disciples of Jesus, as surely it must, then why does Paul have a separate appearance to “the apostles”? Who were the apostles if not the twelve, after Jesus’ death? Paul included himself as an apostle, of course, but he is not included in this appearance to “all the apostles.” That would be because he converted later. But who else would be in this group?
- Note that Paul does not differentiate the appearance to himself in any way to make it unlike the appearances to any of the others. In other words, he gives no indication that Jesus first appeared to the other five individuals/groups and then ascended and then only later appeared to him. Paul never mentions the ascension. And the appearance to him was like the appearances to all the others. The reason should be clear: for Paul, when Jesus was “raised,” he wasn’t simply brought back to earth. He was raised up to heaven where he currently lives and reigns, and occasionally comes down to appear to his followers.
So where did Paul get his information from? Maybe Peter. Maybe James. Maybe other Christians. Maybe a combination of them all. I doubt if he “made up” the idea of “500 brothers” at one time out of whole cloth. My sense is that rumors of these sorts of things circulate all the time – as with the appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary in modern times, as she is attested as appearing to 1000 people at once in some times and places. Do I think this is *evidence* that she really did appear to these people? No, not really. Same with Paul. There were stories about such appearances and he believed them.