A common slogan in apologetic circles is to claim that the resurrected Jesus appeared to a whole crowd of 500 witnesses, who saw Jesus “at the same time,” and who thus could not have been simultaneously hallucinating or mistaking their senses for anything but their physically resurrected Messiah. In actuality, the specific details behind this alleged event, as extrapolated from the very sparse evidence available, are virtually impossible to reconstruct, nor does Jesus’ appearance to a “crowd” of 500 witnesses constitute a bona fide historical fact.
As with any claim about ancient history, we must begin by asking questions about the source, by analyzing the document, its author, its genre, its context, and its intention. The claim about Jesus appearing to 500 witnesses is solely reported by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:6.
Paul is writing 1 Corinthians to the Christian church at Corinth, which is located over 800 miles from Palestine, around the middle of the 50’s CE. The context is that the Christian church at Corinth had fallen into dispute about a number of issues, such as whether Christians should sue each other in court (1 Cor. 6.1-11), or eat food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8), etc., and Paul is writing the epistle to provide a set of instructions for correct practices and belief. The letter is not a critical history, but a set of instructions.
The author, Paul, is an ardent evangelist whose main goal is to convert people to his ideas about an impending apocalypse (1 Cor. 15:20-28). Paul shows signs of experiencing visions (possibly, though not necessarily, hallucinations), such as in his claim to have once been raptured to “third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2), and has indicated elsewhere that he is willing to do whatever it takes to get people on his side (e.g. 1 Cor. 9:20-22).
One of the issues discussed in the epistle is that some of the Christians at Corinth were claiming that there is no resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:12). We do not have their own words, so it is unclear what this group thought; however, as scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 524) explains, “those whom Paul would correct may have thought that the equivalent of resurrection had been accomplished already by the coming of the Spirit so nothing else was to be expected.” Paul is writing to emphasize that the resurrection of the dead has not yet come, and that it would specifically be a post-mortem experience.
To set these people straight, Paul argues that Jesus resurrected from the dead post-mortem. Now, scholars debate whether Paul believed that Jesus had resurrected in his same body as on Earth, or whether Paul believed that Jesus’ spirit had ascended to Heaven and been clothed in a new heavenly body. For arguments in favor of a one-body view, see Mánek in “The Apostle Paul and the Empty Tomb,” and for arguments in favor of a two-body view, see Carrier in “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb.” Either way, Mánek, who favors the one-body view, points out that there is no reference in Paul’s writings to an “opened tomb” nor a discovered burial place with Jesus’ body missing. Paul makes no argument that Jesus’ corpse had gone missing as proof of his post-mortem resurrection. As scholar G.W.H. Lampe (The Resurrection, pg. 43) argues:
“In this case I think that the argument from silence has unusual force. For the situation in which Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15 was that some of the Corinthians were denying there is a resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15:12). In answer to them Paul marshals every possible argument … If Jesus’ resurrection is denied, he says, the bottom drops out of the Christian gospel. And the evidence that he was raised consists in the appearances to himself and to others. Had he known a tomb was found empty it seems inconceivable that he should not have adduced this here as a telling piece of objective evidence.”
Rather, Paul quotes what appears to be an earlier creed (1 Cor. 15:3-7) about Jesus dying, being buried, “rising” from the dead, and then “appearing” to a number of persons. First off, it never says in this creed that Jesus rose on Earth, since the Greek ἐγήγερται (“rose” or “lifted up”) can also refer to being raised to Heaven, either in the same body as on Earth, or spiritually and then being clothed in a new body. Nor does the creed claim that anyone physically saw the resurrected Jesus on Earth, since the Greek ὤφθη (“was seen” or “appeared to”) can also refer to visionary experiences or revelation. In fact, the Greek verb ὁράω (“to see”), from which the passive form ὤφθη (“was seen”) is derived, was often used in antiquity to describe visions of celestial beings, such as those of the god Asclepius, exactly as Jesus would be after being raised to Heaven. (In fact, ὤφθη is even used to describe the appearances of angels in the New Testament, such as in Luke 1:11.)
Bart Ehrman argues that both Paul and the earliest Christians believed that Jesus had appeared to them from Heaven and not on Earth. As Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pp. 205-206) writes:
“They believed that Jesus had come back from the dead — but he was not still living among them as one of them. He was nowhere to be found. He did not resume his teaching activities in the hills of Galilee … The disciples, knowing that Jesus was raised that he was no longer among them, concluded that he had been exalted to heaven. When Jesus came back to life, it was not merely that his body had been reanimated. God had taken Jesus up to himself in the heavenly realm, to be with him … This is why the disciples told the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances the way they did. Jesus did not resume his earthly body. He had a heavenly body. When he appeared to his disciples, in the earliest traditions, he appeared from heaven.”
The creed nevertheless achieved Paul’s purpose, however, of emphasizing to the Corinthians that the resurrection had not yet come, but would occur post-mortem. For Jesus had died, but then “been raised.”
Now, scholars generally agree, based on the wording of this creed, that the creed predates Paul. This conclusion is reached only through source analysis, however, and it cannot be fully certain. Paul claims to have παρέλαβον (“received,” 1 Cor. 15:3) this creed, which leads scholars to date it as pre-Pauline. Nevertheless, in Galatians 1:12 Paul uses the same verb to say that he παρέλαβον (“received”) the Gospel that he preached, not from any man nor human origin, but from a revelation of Jesus Christ. As such, it cannot be completely certain that Paul is not referring to the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 in the same way.
Furthermore, there have also been textual challenges to this passage, as Robert Price has written an article arguing that 1 Cor. 15:3-11 may be a post-Pauline interpolation. If that is the case, the whole argument and the alleged crowd of 500 disappears right there.
Nevertheless, the large majority of scholars (with whom I agree) accept the view that the creed is textually authentic and pre-Pauline. The creed is generally dated to within 2-5 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, some 730 to 1,826 days after the event (during which time any number of rumors or stories could have spread). In fact, this creed is only a few brief sentences, which could have been fabricated for any number of reasons that do not require a miraculous resurrection.
Now, in the creed Paul lays out two sets of groups whom the resurrected Jesus “appeared to.” These groups include:
“Cephas/Peter” (although the later Gospels have Jesus appear to women first), then the “Twelve” (if we are talking about the disciples, wasn’t Judas dead?), and then the oft-referenced “Five Hundred” witnesses.
“James,” then the “Apostles,” and lastly to Paul himself.
Now, scholars recognize that, even if this is an earlier creed, Paul has tweaked with it and added things, particularly since the appearance to himself would not have been in a creed that Paul received and would have had to be added by the apostle. Dale Allison (Resurrecting Jesus, pg. 234) points out, “Verses 6b and 8 must be the apostle’s own additions.” Fitzmyer notes that Paul may have added the group of 500 to the creed, so that it does not go back to as early a provenance as the other witnesses listed. The origins of the group are certainly quite ambiguous. We do not have the original creed, however, nor do we know who coined it, so it is impossible to ascertain with certainty how much Paul tampered with it.
Now, first things first, this creed has Jesus appear to individuals in a hierarchical order that increases in number each time: Peter -> the Twelve -> the Five Hundred. As such, scholars have recognized that the creed probably refers to a designation of church authority.
The Jesus Seminar (The Acts of Jesus, pp. 484, 485, 492) finds:
“The tradition probably arose as a confirmation of apostolic authority. Reports of appearances to various people in the early Christian community had political consequences. The recipient of an appearance had received the special endorsement of the source of all authority, Jesus of Nazareth, and was therefore entitled to respect and power.”
As such, the creed probably has far more to do with a designation of authority than an actual historical record of any group appearances. What exactly would these groups have “seen”? It is anyone’s guess. There is no description of any physical interaction with Jesus, nor does it state that Jesus was even seen on Earth rather than seen through visions and revelation.
In fact, the most telling sign against an earthly appearance is the fact that Paul lists himself alongside the other witnesses included in the original creed. As Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 534) points out:
“The concluding reference to himself is extremely important since Paul is the only NT writer who claims personally to have witnessed an appearance of the risen Jesus … Paul places the appearance to himself, even if it was last, on the same level as the appearance to all the other listed witnesses.”
However, we know from Paul’s own writings and from Acts that Paul never knew Jesus during his ministry nor saw Jesus in any physically resurrected form. Rather, Paul says that he has “seen” Jesus (1 Cor. 9:1), as the basis for his authority as an apostle, and claims that the Gospel he preaches (Gal. 1:12) is based on a “revelation” from Jesus Christ. Nothing about this indicates physical appearance, rather than revelation or subjective experience. Acts (9:3-5; 22:6-8; 26:13-15) has Paul see Jesus from a light in the sky, which would still not be an earthly appearance, rather than a celestial vision, and, even then, Brown (pg. 534) points out, “Few would give the Lucan picture priority over the Pauline.”
So, based on the language and structure of the creed, it appears to be a hierarchical designation of authority, where those who were apostles had “seen” Jesus as their claim to authority, to which number Paul, who experienced a subjective vision and revelation of Jesus, includes himself.
Nothing about this explicitly states that a physically resurrected Jesus appeared to a crowd of 500 witnesses. The only thing to suggest that the group was joined in any sense is the use of the adverb ἐφάπαξ, which can translate to “at once” or “once and for all.” In every other place in the NT epistles (Rom. 6:10; Heb. 7:27; 9:12; 10:10) this adverb translates as “once and for all,” not to signify a joined group or crowd, rather than to signify completion and finality. Nevertheless, the Liddell and Scott Greek English Lexicon (s.v. ἐφάπαξ) classifies the adverb in 1 Cor. 15:6 as “at once.” But the point remains that we are dealing with an adverb with multiple meanings that is incredibly vague. At one place? At on time? At one place and one time? We have no idea. Nor is anybody in this anonymous group of 500 even named or identified.
Furthermore, the Gospels and Acts never state that Jesus appeared to a joined crowd of 500 people after the resurrection. This is all very strange if there was an early tradition of Jesus appearing to a joined crowd of 500 witnesses. The author of Luke and Acts, heavily influenced by Paul, reports nothing about this event, even when he is covering the very period in which this alleged crowd appearance would have occurred. In addition, we do not even know what this appearance would have even looked like. I mean, was there an amphitheater of 500 people and then Jesus jumped up on a stage and said, “Here I am!”, before everyone? Furthermore, how would the crowd even know what Jesus looked like? This is in an age before photographs or even eyeglasses. It’s not like people knew ancient faces the same way that we recognize celebrities today, when there was no media and visual culture to popularize a specific set of features. And yet even today people have claimed to have seen recognizable celebrities like Elvis Presley post-mortem. The situation with Jesus is exponentially worse.
If we are to accept that there is some historical kernel behind this anonymous group of 500 people seeing Jesus “at once,” there are many explanations for what this could have been other than Jesus physically appearing before a crowd. As scholar Stephen Patterson (The God of Jesus, pg. 236) points out:
“It is not inconceivable that an early Christian group might have interpreted an ecstatic worship experience as an appearance of the risen Jesus.”
In fact, one of the major theories for why this group appearance is not recorded in the Gospels is that it is, in fact, included in Acts 2:1-13 on the day of the Pentecost, which recounts an ecstatic experience of the early Christians speaking in tongues and receiving revelations from the Holy Spirit. This theory is discussed by S. MacLean Gilmour in “Easter and Pentecost.” In that case, the 500 refers to nothing more than an ecstatic worship and spiritual experience, hardly a crowd of people seeing the physically resurrected Jesus .
Regardless, the information is far, far too limited to ever claim that it is a historical fact that a physically resurrected Jesus appeared to a crowd of 500 people in any earthly setting. Appealing to the 500 witnesses may be a stock slogan for apologists, but for historians it is nothing more than a vague rumor, most likely referring to a designation of authority or possibly even some early ecstatic experience in the church, about which, regardless, it is now impossible to pin down any specific details, if the claim has any kernel of truth hiding behind it at all.
 For more information about how ecstatic group experiences can lead to claims about crowds simultaneously witnessing miracles, see Keith Parsons’ “Kreeft and Tacelli on the Hallucination Theory.” Parsons discusses an incident involving a far larger crowd than the alleged group of 500, which was reliably documented (rather than relayed through hearsay via Paul), where thousands claimed to witness a miracle at one time. Parsons writes:
“Mass delusions may be directly witnessed as they occur. When, a few years ago, a woman in Conyers, Georgia, began to claim regular visitations from the Virgin Mary, tens of thousands of faithful would gather monthly to hear the banal ‘revelations.’ While the Virgin was allegedly making her disclosures many of those attending claimed to witness remarkable things, such as the sun spinning and dancing in the sky. A personal friend, Rebecca Long, president of the Georgia Skeptics, set up a telescope with a solar filter, and demonstrated – to anyone that cared to look – that the sun was not spinning or dancing. Still, hundreds around her continued to claim that they were witnessing a miracle.”
Likewise, the ancient biographer Plutarch reports such group hallucinations for Pagan miracles in his Life of Coriolanus (37.2-38.3), in which multiple onlookers would repeatedly report stories about a statue of Lady Luck that would speak, shed tears, or bleed. This is far more specific than Paul’s account, giving a specific location and specifying that numerous people witnessed the event in one place. Yet, even in antiquity Plutarch figured out that this came from the fact that people had a prior expectation that they would see a miracle, not from any actual physical miracles. People looking for miracles will find ways of seeing miracles, especially when ecstatic group experiences provide a climate that influences subjective experience and recollection.