What purpose did Paul have in mentioning the 500 witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15? Do we have any reason to believe these people ever existed?
I’ve recently run across a couple of comments that have aimed to drive skepticism towards the 500 witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15:6.
After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.
The post-mortem appearances to Paul and the disciples are a part of the minimum facts approach we worked with when we examined the evidence for the Resurrection (see link 1 below). But what about the 500? Do we have good reason to doubt their legitimacy? Critics suggest we can by noting that the 500 do not appear in any other historical writing. They argue that since such a massive event was not recorded anywhere else apart from 1 Corinthians it can’t be real. Perhaps then Paul fabricated the numbers himself to prove Jesus rose from the dead? Maybe it was a legend Paul picked up along the way and simply assumed to be true? These kinds of kitchen sink theories still leave us in the dark as they lack any evidential support. To hastily assume they’re true or even plausible isn’t relying on evidence but on presupposed ideologies.
Instead of jumping the gun and pouncing on the first speculation that comes to mind, we’ll attempt to provide an answer to the initial question because, believe it or not, there is one.
Why aren’t the 500 witnesses mentioned anywhere else? The questions critics fail to answer are what do we mean when we mention the 500? Where else would we expect to find them and why should it show up anywhere else? We have many non-christian writings that mention Christians and the rapidly growing Christian movement, often in the way of criticism and verbal shaming. So we have to ask what, exactly, does the critic want? A writer who mentions the 500 and/or that they saw Jesus walk among them? Would that then not be a distinctly Christian text? If just the existence of the 500 who claimed to see the risen Christ, wouldn’t they be labelled, notoriously so, as Christians? If just the appearance of Jesus Himself, we have three Gospels, the book of Acts, and Paul. Do we dare suggest that critics want a disinterested, indifferent writer who happens to know the 500, witness the risen Jesus personally, and yet have it not affect any part of his life or religious loyalty in any way? Surely they would agree that such a proposition is untenable!
Let’s set our focus on the place where we would logically expect to see the 500 mentioned, yet aren’t: the Gospels.
1 Corinthians 15 and the Gospels were written for two entirely different purposes. The Gospels were written as ancient biographies so they didn’t carry an exclusively evangelical or even apologetic purpose. We use them as such today, and of course we are correct to do so, but for the most part, that was not their intended use. They were written to and for audiences who already believed in Jesus’ divinity and Resurrection. Their intention was to reveal the character of Jesus and learn positive examples to follow to model our lives after. In this sense, the ancients preferred what are more substantial appearances that reflect the character of Jesus and tell us more about Him. On the other hand, the appearances to the 500 probably would not have told us much. Many of these people may have only seen Jesus one time and that most likely wouldn’t have been an intimate meal or personal, extended teaching. If it was just the 500 the Gospels were interested in that would have left room for many questions, such as “How do you know this Jesus is who you say He is?”
1 Corinthians 15 had an apologetic reason to mention them. Paul needed to remind the Corinthians that Jesus arose in a very real, physical body. He wasn’t a personal vision or dream. Yet even then Paul surrounds them with other higher quality appearances (Cephas, the twelve, James, the apostles, and himself).
Another reason the Gospels do not mention the 500 is that, by the time of their writing, many of the witnesses may not have been alive. It was rare for someone to live to old age in the first century and the average citizen of the Roman Empire would be lucky to reach the age of 40 or even as low as 30. This is important because Paul concludes with the caveat that “some of them have fallen asleep (died)” which means the value of them as witnesses were that they were alive and could be consulted.
This means that the fact that the 500 aren’t mentioned in the Gospels and other writings is an affirmation of their reliability and the existence of the 500 and not a reason to doubt them. They were referenced by Paul because, at the time, many of them were alive and could be tested. As soon as that was no longer an option there was no further need to mention them. The authors weren’t about to make them up or rely on them long after they had passed away. They immortalized their own experiences in writing to witness to and teach the next generation of believers.