Bart Ehrman on Paul’s 500 Witnesses

Paul said that a crowd of over 500 people saw the resurrected Christ. As previously noted, [Garry Wills - Christ Appeared to Paul After 500 Witnesses] Garry Wills believes these 500 played a major role in the spread of Christianity. Bart Ehrman, in How Jesus Became God, has a lengthy (7 pages) discussion of this passage, and reaches very different conclusions. His translation (with verse #’s in parentheses):

(3) For I handed over to you among the most important things what I also had received, the Christ died for our sins in accordance with scriptures, (4) and that he was buried; and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; (5) and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve; (6) then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, many of whom survive until now, though some have fallen asleep. (7) Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles; (8) and last of all he appeared even to me, as to one untimely born.” (1 Cor. 15:3-8) (p. 137)

The first point he emphasizes is that Paul is repeating a traditional story or creed. Ehrman claims “there are very good reasons … for thinking that the original form of the creed was simply vv. 3-5, to which Paul has added some comments of his own.” However, Ehrman fails to provide those ‘very good reasons.’ He merely notes that verses 3-5 contain a pair of parallel statements which the others do not, and uses this as justification for saying the remaining verses were not ‘traditional.’

This is highly dubious. It seems pretty obvious that “all the apostles” in verse 7 was part of the ‘traditional’ story, and not simply a new Pauline add-on. The gospels of John and Luke speak of Jesus appearing before many apostles, as does Acts. It is all but inconceivable that tradition would omit them, as Mr. Ehrman suggests. James is not mentioned in the gospels, but since he was the leader of the Jesus movement, it would hardly be surprising if his name were added to the list. Ehrman notes that the second half of verse 6 – ‘many of whom survive…’ – is a comment by Paul. I agree, as is verse 8. But the rest of the passage is supposed to be ‘traditional.’

As noted, Ehrman devotes 7 pages to this passage. He discusses almost every verse in detail, but never mentions the 500 witnesses. This is a startling omission. Paul almost certainly emphasized the 500. Paul was still selling his flock on Jesus’ resurrection and reappearance. Ehrman’s vv. 3-5 merely states that Peter and the 12 saw the resurrected Christ. This is not terribly persuasive. They could have made up the story. Furthermore, as Ehrman discusses, visions or hallucinations about a loved one are not that uncommon, and could account for Peter and the Twelve. But 500 eye witnesses is a huge number, and can’t easily be dismissed. That’s why Paul included it in his ‘traditional’ account.

There is a good reason Ehrman doesn’t mention the 500 witnesses. As I previously argued, it is preposterous. It is obviously not traditional, so Ehrman tries to exclude it from Paul’s ‘traditional’ passage. But even if Ehrman is right about this, the fact remains that Paul claimed that a crowd of over 500 people saw the resurrected Christ. This is false - a lie. But as I noted in the case study in Paul Revealed, Ehrman believes that Paul would never lie. So he spends 7 pages tap dancing around the 500 witnesses without mentioning them.

Bart Ehrman is defending his beloved Paul by burying the truth. But he knows the claim of 500 witnesses is absurd. Over seventy pages later, he gets around to discussing them: “it does need to be pointed out that Paul is the only one who mentions this event, and if it really happened – or even if it was widely believed to have happened – it is hard to explain why it never made its way into the Gospels, especially those later Gospels such as Luke and John that were so intent on ‘proving’ that Jesus was physically raised from the dead” (p. 202). He never attempts to explain why Paul uttered such a falsehood, as it is clearly a deliberate lie.

Virtually all New Testament scholars share Bart Ehrman’s view of Paul’s 500 witnesses. No one believes it. But virtually no one talks about it, either – especially its implication about Paul.

Garry Wills knows this literature and knows that Paul’s claim is outlandish. But his faith trumps both fact and reason. Wills does this sort of thing repeatedly, yet no one mentions it. People don’t call attention to pious stupidity or fraud. New Testament scholars routinely suppress fact and reason on Paul’s behalf.

Postscript - This is further evidence that Paul’s churches did not give rise to Christianity. If Paul taught his churches about the 500 witnesses, yet the gospel writers, 20-40 years later, never heard of that claim, it implies that Paul’s churches had little influence, and probably disappeared.