Saint Paul mentions an interesting detail: that the resurrected Jesus appeared to 500 people! That’s a big deal. Why isn’t it mentioned in the Gospels (or is it)? We’ll explore this detail in this post:
In 1 Corinthians 15, Saint Paul recites what seems to be a formula or creedal statement about the resurrection of Christ. I’ll bullet point it to make it clear:
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 brethren 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 Cor 15:3-8)
Here we have the kernel of the Apostles Creed (died, buried, rose on third day) but appended to it six resurrection appearances. Five apparitions and then finally one apparition to Saint Paul himself.
Paul speaks of the resurrected Christ appearing to “more than five hundred” and this event is recorded nowhere in the four Gospels or within St Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. So what is Saint Paul describing?
Christ Appearing to Over 500?
There are 4 opinions on this “500 witnesses event”:
- Never Happened: Liberal scholars say that Saint Paul made this up to make it sound like there were plenty of witnesses to the resurrection. It never happened. It’s a lie. The Catholic Christian cannot allow that the Apostle Paul would bear false witness within Divine Scripture.
- Galilee Event: Saint Paul refers to the Galilee appearance of the resurrected Jesus Christ as described by Saint Mark: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee. There you shall see him, as he told you” (Mark 16:7). The 11 Apostles would have then gathered over 500 believers to join them in Galilee where Jesus appeared to them in His resurrected body.
- After the Ascension: Saint John Chrysostom speculates that this event happened after Ascension because the Greek “more than (ἐπάνω) five hundred” could accurately be translated “above five hundred,” as in “above in the sky.”
- Pentecost in Jerusalem: Saint Paul is referring to Pentecost. Saint Luke says that 120 Christians (Mary, Apostles, the Seventy, the women, the brethren of Jesus) were gathered for miracle of the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost in Jerusalem. These 120 and the first several converts somehow witnessed an apparition of the resurrected Christ on this day, as well. Or perhaps the manifestation of the “Spirit of Christ” is counted as an apparition of Christ by Paul.
The majority position is (2) that this happened in Galilee when the Apostles went back to Jerusalem to witness Christ there. Here’s why this is the best answer:
- The Ten Apostles (without Thomas) saw the resurrected Christ on the evening of the Resurrection Sunday when Christ appeared to them within locked doors and breathed on them.
- The Eleven Apostles (now with Thomas) saw the resurrected Christ one Sunday later and allowed Thomas to place his fingers within His wounds.
- If the Apostles saw Christ at least twice in Jerusalem, why then would Christ instruct them to go to Galilee to be witnesses there? Presumably so that all of Christ’s followers in Galilee could see Him resurrected there. This would make sense and this is why “more than five hundred” would see Christ resurrected. This “more than 500” would be the nucleus of the 5000 that were fed and of those who had seen His miracles.
- When Saint Paul writes: “then to all the Apostles,” at the end of his list, he is likely referring to the Ascension of Christ. So the appearance to 500 likely happened before the Ascension. That rules out (3) Christ appearing after Ascension as suggested by Saint John Chrysostom. Sorry Chrysostom.
- It also rules out (4) Christ appearing at Pentecost, because Christ appearing to disciples at Pentecost would have been recorded by Paul’s friend Saint Luke. After all, Saint Luke mentions Christ appearing to Saint Stephen – so why would he omit an apparition of Jesus on Pentecost? So then, it seems safe to say that Christ did not appear on Pentecost.
It could also be that Saint Matthew records the “500 Event” as having occurred in Galilee without mentioning “500”:
“The eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Mt 28:16-17).
Matthew speaks only of the 11 living Apostles but says “some doubted.” Surely the 11 didn’t doubt at this time since it follows the “doubting Thomas” event that happened 13 days after the Resurrection in Jerusalem. So it could be that “some doubted” refers to “some of the 500 doubted.”
Christ is risen!
Dr Taylor Marshall
Question: I’d love to hear others weigh in on this topic. Who were the five hundred and when did it happen? I think it was the Galilee Event but I’m open to other ideas. You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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