In I Corinthians 15, Paul lists six specific individuals or groups who are reported to have been eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus. But are these reports credible? A brief assessment of each account seems to provide good reasons to think that these reports are reliable.
Paul’s first eyewitness is the apostle Peter. Interestingly, the Gospels do not give a detailed account of Jesus’ appearance to Peter. In light of this fact, are there other reasons to trust its historicity? From the earlier examination of I Corinthians 15:3ff and Paul’s visit with Peter in Galatians 1:18, one can be assured that Paul received a first-hand account of Peter’s testimony, which he vouches for in I Corinthians 15. In addition, Luke confirms the appearance to Peter in Luke 24:33–34: “And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them, saying, ‘The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon.’” Thus, as William Lane Craig observes, “even the most skeptical [New Testament] critics agree that Peter saw something that he called an appearance of Jesus alive from the dead.”1
Secondly, Paul records that Jesus appeared to the Twelve. Considered the most reliable appearance account by scholars, it is confirmed in the Gospels by Luke 24:36–42 and John 20:19–20. The agreement in these independent records attests to their historical reliability. As a result, this event is well-attested to by early Christian tradition, Paul’s confirmation of the report after having spent time with the Twelve, and both Luke and John’s records in the Gospel material.
Thirdly, and quite remarkably, Paul records the fact that Jesus appeared to over 500 people at once. Nowhere else in the New Testament is this occurrence mentioned, but this fact casts no doubt upon its reliability. Indeed, it seems incomprehensible that Paul could have invented this material with the majority of eyewitnesses alive to confirm or deny the accuracy of his account. Immediately following his mention of the 500 eyewitnesses, Paul says that “most of [them] remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.” As C. H. Dodd comments, “There can hardly be any purpose in mentioning the fact that most of the 500 are still alive, unless Paul is saying, in effect, ‘the witnesses are there to be questioned.’”2
The next eyewitness account on Paul’s list comes from James, the younger brother of Jesus. This appearance is notable for the fact that during the lifetime of Jesus, James and his brothers did not believe in Jesus (see Mark 3:21, 31–35; John 7:1–10). However, after the resurrection event they are found in the upper room in Acts 1:14. Later, one discovers that James has become a prominent leader in the early church (Acts 12:17) and then appears to be the primary leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 21:18). Ultimately, James was martyred for his faith. Given the history of James, an important question arises: what was it that transformed James from being an unbeliever who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, to giving up his life because of his faith in Jesus as the Messiah? The most reasonable explanation is that James saw the risen Jesus.
The fifth appearance is to “all the apostles.” This group, although wider than the Twelve (otherwise, this is simply a duplication of Paul’s reference to the Twelve in verse 5), was probably a limited circle of individuals who had been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry (see Acts 1:21–22; John 15:27). Craig states that “the facticity of this appearance is guaranteed by Paul’s personal contact with the apostles themselves.”3
Lastly, Paul includes his own eyewitness account of the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. As with the James account, one is confronted with the question of Paul’s transformation. What was it that changed Paul from a devout rabbi who persecuted Christians to their death, to a devout Christian who went to his death for his faith in Jesus? Paul gives us the only adequate explanation: “and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.”
The data found in I Corinthians 15 provides overwhelming eyewitness evidence of the post-mortem appearances of Jesus. Paul’s detailed account gives a “diversity of witnesses in a variety of places over a forty-day period,” suggesting that these “earliest accounts of the resurrection were not fictitious.”4 Robert Funk, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, a group of radical liberal scholars, argues against a supernatural Jesus who rose from the dead. According to Funk, such a conclusion is mythical: “We want to liberate Jesus. The only Jesus most people know is the mythic one. They don’t want the real Jesus, they want the one they can worship. The cultic Jesus.”5 As the Jesus Seminar has concluded, real resurrections do not occur, and therefore, the “real” Jesus never rose bodily from the dead. However, after an examination of the eyewitness evidence, the best explanation is the historical fact of the resurrection. Indeed, the only Jesus that is “real” is a Jesus that was crucified as an ordinary criminal, died on a Roman cross, and three days later was resurrected bodily from the grave. Only this Jesus, the historical Jesus, is one worthy of being worshiped.