Only in the Weird and Whacky World of Christian Apologetics Part 1: Paul and the 500 Witnesses

I’m going to run an occasional (i.e. it will appear at random, probably when I can’t think of much else to talk about) series on some of what I consider to be the odder arguments that apologists advance. These aren’t fringe arguments. These are all mainstream arguments that will crop up repeatedly in apologetics. 

Here is one that caused a sharp intake of breath when I first heard it. I mean, it’s so obviously wrong (isn’t it?) Still, for many Christians it is an absolute clincher. 

In defending the historical reliability of the resurrection Christians will often refer to this verse:

After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;

1 Corinthians 15:6

“‘Most of whom remain until now!’ Wow!” says the apologist, “I mean, that’s as good as an invitation to go and check it out for yourself!  So Paul knew his claims were rock-solid irrefutable. He had (most of) 500 witnesses all ready to back them up.”

This might be more persuasive if Paul had named at least two out of the 500.  Or if he’d specified the exact location of this appearance.  But even then, unless the appearance had been at some place near Corinth (let’s say, less than one day’s travel by donkey) that extra information was still not going be of any help to anyone wanting to conduct a bit of research in an age before the advent of the telephone and the Internet. 

I see this as an extremely vague claim made in circumstances where it was not realistically possible to refute it.  Christian apologists see it as a confident appeal to verify a story which Paul knew to be true. I wonder which of us is right?


7 thoughts on “Only in the Weird and Whacky World of Christian Apologetics Part 1: Paul and the 500 Witnesses

  1. If he had lived today, Paul would have been seen by other Christians as an excitable drama queen. Fiercely devoted to Christ and the Gospel message, just as he had been fiercely devoted to weeding out Christians and having them put to death before his conversion experience.
    He was almost certainly given to gross exaggeration and sweeping claims. It wouldn’t have been his style to say, “Actually, Christ did appear to quite a lot of people, probably all at the same time. Yeah, I know, some of them have died since, but quite a few are still alive, as far as I am aware.”
    People who knew Paul wouldn’t have been shocked or surprised by his “more than five hundred” claim. They certainly wouldn’t have been worried about verifying it.

    Oh – and I don’t think that all Christian apologists would see this as a clincher. Not in my neck of the woods, anyway.
    Conclusion: I totally agree with you. “Weird and whacky” is polite.

  2. Hello again. I’m just scrolling through some of your posts in my spare time. (I enjoy them.)

    I think that this objection that you’ve made only carries force when you read it out of the context in which it is provided. E.g., you’ve said that it would be great if Paul named people. Well, Paul did name people in verses that surround this passage, to which it is connected. They are not said to be among the five hundred, because the five hundred merely seem to be noted to emphasise that there are witnesses, indeed many of them. There are also plausible reasons for Paul not naming any of the five hundred. Perhaps Paul didn’t know any of them. Perhaps Paul wasn’t there to ask them their names. Etc. Whatever the case, the passage shouldn’t be treated as what it is not meant to be, by Christians or counter-apologists.

    Incidentally, there have been quite convincing reports of similar appearances since then, which are reported to have been seen by thousands. E.g., those of Mary, which have been photographed and filmed in the presence of many witnesses. The apparitions in Egypt are especially interesting.

  3. Hello Raj. Thank you for liking my blog!

    I wrote this piece because I have come across apologists who do argue that because Paul mentions that some of the 500 witnesses are still alive, this is tantamount to an invitation to go and fact-check his claim by speaking to those witnesses e.g.
    Several very important factors arc often overlooked when considering Christ’s post-resurrection appearances to individuals. The first is the large number of witnesses of Christ after that resurrection morning. One of the earliest records of Christ’s appearing after the resurrection is by Paul. The apostle appealed to his audience’s knowledge of the fact that Christ had been seen by more than 500 people at one time. Paul reminded them that the majority of those people were still alive and could be questioned. Dr. Edwin M. Yamauchi, associate professor of history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, emphasizes: “What gives a special authority to the list (of witnesses) as historical evidence is the reference to most of the five hundred brethren being still alive. St. Paul says in effect, ‘If you do not believe me, you can ask them.’ Such a statement in an admittedly genuine letter written within thirty years of the event is almost as strong evidence as one could hope to get for something that happened nearly two thousand years ago.” Let’s take the more than 500 witnesses who saw Jesus alive after His death and burial, and place them in a courtroom. Do you realize that if each of those 500 people were to testify for only six minutes, including cross-examination, you would have an amazing 50 hours of firsthand testimony? Add to this the testimony of many other eyewitnesses and you would well have the largest and most lopsided trial in history.”

    If the use made of this comment were the more modest one that you suggest, then. I would have no quarrel with that. But it is when apologists go beyond that and argue that Paul’s claim about 500 witnesses is compelling evidence of the truth of the resurrection *because he was willing to be proved wrong* – then I can only wonder at how easily satisfied some people are.

  4. Hoping someone can tell me the basis for denying a christian apologist access to reasoning and logic to justify their believing the Historical Truly Good News. While at the same time the counterapologist proclaims full access to reason and logic (notwithstanding how able she is/isn’t to adequately apply them). Thanks

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