500 Eyewitnesses to the Risen Christ? Not likely.

How does Christianity stand up to atheist critique?Christians often point to 1 Corinthians 15 as important evidence for the resurrection.  This book, Paul’s first epistle to the church in Corinth, was written roughly a decade before the earliest gospel of Mark (written in 65–70CE).  This makes it the earliest claim for the resurrection of Jesus.

Here’s the interesting section:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he 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]. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor. 15:3–8)

Claims about this important passage are all over the map.  Some argue that it actually precedes Paul’s writing.  They say that it appears to be in a different style, as if it were a creedal statement (like the modern Apostle’s Creed) that would have been recited by believers.  That is, though Paul wrote this passage 25 years after the crucifixion, it had been an oral creed since as early as a few years after Jesus’ death.  They cite this as evidence that belief in the resurrection was even earlier than Paul’s writing.

Others propose a very different interpretation: that the different style suggests that it was added to copies decades after Paul’s writing.

To understand this interpretation, consider how we know what the epistle says.  Our earliest copy is from papyrus P46, part of the Chester Beatty collection.  This manuscript was written in roughly 200 CE, which means that our best copy of 1 Corinthians is 150 years older than the original letter.  150 years gives a lot of opportunity for hanky-panky as scribes copy and recopy the letter, especially during the early turbulent years of the new religion of Christianity.

But I give this simply as background.  We can’t resolve this scholarly debate about the authenticity of this passage.  What I find more interesting is one verse:

[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).

This is a popular passage among apologists, and they see it as powerful evidence in favor of the resurrection story.  Granting for now that Paul actually wrote this in the mid-50s CE, that’s a lot of eyewitnesses, and 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 error), if he didn’t know it were true?

But this bold and confident defense of the resurrection wilts under scrutiny.  Let’s imagine that we’re in that church in Corinth and we have just received Paul’s letter.

1. Who are these 500 people?  Names and addresses, please?  To find out, someone would need to send a letter back to Paul (200 miles across the Aegean Sea in Ephesus) to ask.  Paul’s challenge is vague, not inviting.

2. How many will still be around?  Paul is writing 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 would 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?  If the church in Corinth had thousands of members, the risk of someone with the means and motivation to make the big trip to Jerusalem might be high.  But Paul had only started the church a couple of years earlier.  How many members would there have been … maybe 100?

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 might have wanted to topple 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’ve found at least a handful of names that we can search for to find many of the eyewitnesses, and we’re rebellious enough to spit in the face of our church’s founder and 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.  Did they see him dead before?  Were they 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 and we track down 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!

As with the Naysayer Hypothesis, apologists imagine that this argument is far stronger than it is.  And if Paul’s claim is such compelling evidence, why didn’t the gospels include it?  None do, and they were all written after 1 Corinthians.

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 as the gospels describe it.  (Let’s grant for now 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?  Even supposing that Paul invented the story to boost his credibility or strengthen his church, this is a plausible natural explanation that trumps the supernatural one.

Photo credit: University of Michigan

Articles in support of the Christian position:

  • “1 Corinthians 15:3–8,” Agent Intellect blog, 2/24/09.
  • Keith Krell, “The Facts of Faith (1 Corinthians 15:1-11),” bible.org.

4 thoughts on “500 Eyewitnesses to the Risen Christ? Not likely.

  1. For the record, the very next chapter of 1 Corinthians indicates that the people of Corinth were taking up a collection for the believers in Jerusalem and Paul wanted the Corinthians to pick a messenger to take the gift. I agree that Paul’s statements don’t constitute credible evidence of the appearance to the 500, but you may not want to argue that no one would make the trip from Corinth to Jerusalem.

    • That is helpful, thanks. Still, we have the distinction between the rebellious journey (“I’m going to check to make sure Paul isn’t lying to me”) and the journey in support of the church that you point out.

      • That’s true. It’s unlikely that the believers who would have undertaken such a journey would have entertained the slightest doubt about anything Paul told them.

  2. Pingback: Contradictions in the Resurrection Account | Galileo Unchained

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