In a letter to the Corinthians, Paul states that the resurrected Jesus Christ appeared to 500 brothers at one time. With Easter coming up this week, this is one of the resurrection claims that will be talked about as historical fact. Believers lean heavily on this record because it is viewed as a very early creed with no time for embellishment. But can it bear the weight?

Let’s look at the passage:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (ESV)

Paul obviously presents this as something authoritative, something which he received and then passed on. More like a creed than something he made up. But how does it match with the gospels?

The first half is fairly close to what the gospels record: Death, burial, resurrection, and appearances to the twelve disciples. Of course, given Judas Iscariot’s absence “the twelve” should really have been eleven, but I’ll assume that was a title rather than a count: the gospel of John uses “the twelve” in the same way.

However, none of the rest is confirmed by the gospels. There is no record of 500 believers seeing Jesus. No appearance to James. No appearance to Paul, either. In fact, I thought the appearance to Paul was meant to be a vision - does that mean the other claim of appearances are also visions?

If this story of 500 witnesses was from the earliest creed, why did none of the gospels mention it? Why does it only turn up in a letter supposedly written to a community nearly 1,000 miles away from Jerusalem?

This isn’t just an argument from silence. It gives us an example of the difficulty of reconciling Paul’s letters with the gospels and with Acts. In this case, Acts tells us that after Jesus ascended to heaven there were about 120 believers (all fitting in one upper room) in Jerusalem. Where did the other 380 go?

Maybe they left Jerusalem to go elsewhere?
Well, that raises more questions than it answers. Acts records Jesus commanding them to stay in Jerusalem. The outreach process then starts from Jerusalem at Pentecost, stays in Jerusalem until the believers were driven out by persecution, and then spreads outwards. If 80% of the believers had already left before Jesus’ command not to leave, that doesn’t suggest a healthy community. It also raises the question of how Paul had actually been able to verify the existence of the 500. If most of them had scattered abroad even before Pentecost, who was keeping track of their whereabouts and making them available for questioning?

The Christian argument here is that Paul was challenging the Corinthians to check the story. Obviously, he wouldn’t do that unless there were really 500 witnesses. So we have to just accept that the story is true. In spite of the inconvenient fact that we can’t take him up on his offer to go check on it.

I knew this to be a really bad argument many years ago. It overestimates both the ease of checking the story, and the likelihood that anyone would take the effort. Back then, it wasn’t just catching a plane from Corinth to Jerusalem. Travelling that distance was difficult, dangerous, time-consuming, and presumably expensive. And when our hypothetical questioner got to Jerusalem, what would they find? Perhaps they would find other believers saying they too had heard the story. But, like with Paul himself, we can be fairly certain our hypothetical questioner would not have been able to question the 500. They were probably scattered all over the country, and I doubt there was an address list for them. Even if the questioner had a month to spare for interviews I doubt he could have tracked most of them down.

But there’s a reason why our hypothetical questioner remains hypothetical. Why would they want to check? As far as we know, they had no reason to distrust Paul: he was the spiritual leader. Checking up would be a lot of wasted effort, and might even be considered rebellion.

And even if they did check and were unable to confirm it, what negative evidence could they present? (“I could only find 5 of the alleged 500”?) And would other believers have accepted their word over Paul’s? It would probably just have meant one fewer believer, but an otherwise untouched community.

So why would Paul make up this claim? Well, actually, he doesn’t have to have made it up. Even if he passed on something he was told and believed to be correct, that doesn’t make it correct. In Galatians he makes a virtue of the fact that he only talked with a few key apostles, and that he remained unknown to the churches of the Judea. No mention of interviewing 500 witnesses. Paul might have been in a slightly better position to check these things than our hypothetical Corinthian believer, but he was a busy man. Why would he spend the time checking this one minor detail? We don’t even know that this creed came from Jerusalem rather than elsewhere on his travels.

So, in short, I see the following problems with the idea of 500 believers seeing the resurrected Christ:

  • It’s a highly improbable claim.
  • It’s not supported by the gospels.
  • Acts seems to contradict it.
  • Paul can’t have verified it.

But this is just the most obvious case of the problems with common resurrection claims. Traditional arguments work like this:

  1. Present a few naturalistic explanations.
  2. Eliminate them all.
  3. Conclude that the resurrection occurred.

This is following the Sherlock Holmes model:

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

The problem with this is that we don’t know a lot about the history and culture of early Christianity, and most of what we do know comes from the very records we are trying to determine the accuracy of. This makes it really difficult to narrow down the list of possible options. We don’t even know this section was in the original letter to the Corinthians: some have suggested that because this creed is in a different style from the rest of Paul’s writings it shows itself a later addition. To make a case, apologists need to assume that large sections of the Bible are historical fact (in spite of apparent contradictions between different books of the Bible), then fill in the gaps with guesses about the motivations of the actors involved.

You may think that my other options aren’t very compelling. But I don’t think we know enough to eliminate them. And that has been known to be the weakness of the Sherlock Holmes method pretty much since Arthur Conan Doyle first wrote it down: How do you enumerate and dismiss all possible options?

Personally, I think a resurrection and mass appearance is the most surprising and improbable option I have presented. Christians would not accept it in any other religion, ancient or modern. I see no reason to accept it in theirs.

In case you want to explore the problems with the Christian argument further, Bob Seidensticker calls it the “Naysayer Hypothesis”, and documents 13 reasons to reject it.