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The Five Hundred Witnesses to Jesus’ Ascension
By John R. Wible
The attestation of Jesus’ Resurrection is of signal importance to Christians. Without it, there is
no hope for man, there is only despair. 1
Thus, it was of the greatest importance that the
writers of the New Testament document this Resurrection for all men of all cultures to see and
Taken together from all four gospels, the Acts and 1 Corinthians, we see Jesus’ Resurrection
verified by the witness of Mary Magdalene, by the Two on the Road to Emmaus, by the Eleven
remaining Apostles, by certain named apostles, by “more than five hundred brethren at one
time,” and lastly by the Apostle Paul.
Why does the Apostle Paul state that Jesus’ Post-Resurrection appearances were verified by
more than 500 people? There are three possible answers: We can determine the motives; We
cannot determine the motives; or We can postulate one or motives. First, we will examine the
other scriptural record. Then we will examine Jewish, Roman and Greek law for clues. Lastly, we
will put forth a hypothesis answering the questions.
Matthew records in 28:16-20.
But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had
When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. 18
Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven
and on earth. 19
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the
name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20
teaching them to observe all that I
commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Mark states in a passage of disputed authenticity:
Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary
Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons. 10
She went and reported to
those who had been with Him, while they were mourning and weeping. 11
heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it.
See 1 Corinthians 15:14.
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After that, He appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking
along on their way to the country. 13
They went away and reported it to the others, but
they did not believe them either.
Afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table;
and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not
believed those who had seen Him after He had risen. 15
And He said to them, “Go into all
the world and preach the gospel to all creation.
Luke reports in Chapter 24 the appearances to Mary Magdalene, Cleopus and the other man on
the Road to Emmaus and then adds:
And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them.
While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven.
And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53
continually in the temple praising God.
John records the appearances to Mary and to the Apostles and then notes:
Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples,
which are not written in this book; 31
but these have been written so that you may
believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in
In Acts 1:6-11, Luke states:
So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time
You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7
He said to them, “It is not for you to know
times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; 8
but you will receive
power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in
Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a
cloud received Him out of their sight. 10
And as they were gazing intently into the sky
while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. 11
said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been
taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched
Him go into heaven.”
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Lastly, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 provides in circa. 55 AD:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for
our sins according to the Scriptures, 4
and that He was buried, and that He was raised on
the third day according to the Scriptures, 5
and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the
After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most
of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; 7
then He appeared to James,
then to all the apostles; 8
and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me
C.H. Dodd has put forward the idea that the Apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15 was
in fact a re-statement of what amounted to a creed that could be confidently traced back to
Jerusalem in around AD 35, a mere two years after it happened.2
Hans Von Campenhausen and
A. M. Hunter have separately stated that the creed text passes high standards of historicity and
reliability of origin.3
Dr. Peter May writes:
Few dates could be more certain, because while he was there he was hauled up before
the Roman proconsul Gallio (Acts 18:12-17). Gallio, who subsequently conspired against
Nero, was the brother of the philosopher Seneca. Proconsulship was a one year post
and a Roman stone inscription found early in the 20th century at nearby Delphi records
his period of office as being AD 51-52. This date is so firmly established that it has
become one of the lynchpins for working out the dates of the rest of New Testament
Professor William Barclay points out in his commentary on 1 Corinthians5
that to the Greek
mind, rising from the dead was a completely nonsensical thing. To the Greeks, there was a
complete dichotomy between body and soul: the body being evil and the soul being good. If
the body is evil, why would God, if He exists, want to reunite man’s good soul with his evil
body? This is elaborated upon by the Gnostics, creating a Christian heresy that last for many
decades. The New Testament writers, all knowing this found that it was imperative to prove
that Jesus had, in fact, risen from the dead.
C.H. Dodd The Founder of Christianity, 1971.
Hans Von Campenhausen, "The Events of Easter and the Empty Tomb", in Tradition and Life in the Church at
page 44 and Archibald Hunter, Works and Words of Jesus at page 100.
“The Resurrection of Jesus Christ and Witness of Paul.” Bethinking. http://www.bethinking.org/did-jesus-rise-
William Barclay, The Daily Bible Study, First Corinthians.
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Of the writers mentioned, Matthew, Mark and John were Jews. Luke was a Greek and Paul was
a Roman Citizen of Jewish descent. Each proved the resurrection in his own way and to his own
audience of readers.
Under Jewish Law, the testimony of two or three witnesses was sufficient to establish a fact.
See Genesis 236
; Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15; Ruth 47
; 1 Kings 21:10 and 13;
and Jeremiah 32:12. The number of witnesses required was further attested in the Mishnah,
the compilation of the oral Rabbinic tradition beginning in the Babylonian period and
continuing well into the new millennium. See the writings of the great Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish,
circa., 200 AD quoting Rabbi (or Sage) Judah Nesiah, his teacher and grandson of the noted
patriarch of the First to Second Century AD, Judah ha-Nasi whom ben Lakish identifies as the
“father of the Mishnah.”
Thus, a Jewish audience would have been convinced.
In Roman law extant in the First Century AD, we find that typically, the required number of
witnesses in a civil or testamentary matter was five.
In an article entitled “Testamentum,” the author explores at length the manner in which a
Roman Citizen made a will or a Testamentum. 8
The testator, that is the one making the Will,
after having written his will (tabulae testamenti), called together five witnesses, who were
Roman citizens and not incompetent because of being a slave or because of one of many other
disqualifying factors, and announced his intention to make a will. This announcement is called
the publicatio, or publication. The American judicial still retains both the necessity for witnesses
and for a publication.
According to Gaius, there were three methods of making a will, at Calata Comitia , a time of
“calling together,” held twice a year for just such purpose; in procinctu, that is, when the
testator was going to battle; and per aes et libram, when the testator was in imminent danger
of death and there was no time to institute the formal proceeding at Calata Comitia.9
Also by implication.
George Long, M.A., Fellow of Trinity College at pages 1113-1118 of William Smiths’ A Dictionary of Greek and
Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875
Bradley P., Ancient Rome: Using Evidence, Cambridge University Press, 2007; Plutarch, Gaius Gracchi.(Lucius
Mestrius Plutarchus, 46 – 120 AD.)
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In all three proceedings, the participation of the five witnesses was necessary to make the will
valid; It was a sine qua non, a thing without which the will did not exist.
It is interesting to note that at the cross, Jesus spoke to the young Apostle John and remanded
his Mother into John’s custody. This was, in fact, a part of the Roman ceremony per aes et
libram where a friend, referred to in Latin as the Familae Emtor, received the bequest.
It can be argued that figuratively, Jesus completed the ceremony per aes et libram at the Mount
of Ascension when he spoke the words testimonium or the words of the bequest or instruction
to more than five.
There being more than 5 witnesses, a Roman venire would have been satisfied.
The most striking number from history involving the testimony of witnesses is from the Ancient
Greeks, generally and in particular, from Athens, the birthplace of democracy. While the Greeks
could convict even of a capital crime with but the testimony of the accuser, they employed a
jury of at least 500. We know this from the record of one of the most famous trials in all of
Western Civilization, that of Socrates on the charge of “impiety.”10
We learn from the remarkable record, a direct copy of which survived into the Second Century
AD, that the prosecuting witness was a man named Meletus. The account summarized by the
faculty writer for the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law school states:
The trial of Socrates took place over a nine-to-ten hour period in the People's Court,
located in the agora, the civic center of Athens. The jury consisted of 500 male citizens
over the age of thirty, chosen by lot from among volunteers. Athens used very large
numbers of jurors, from 500 to as many as 1501, in part as a protection against bribes:
who could afford to bribe 500 people? All jurors were required to swear by the gods of
Zeus, Apollo, and Demeter the Heliastic Oath:
"I will cast my vote in consonance with the laws and decrees passed by the
Assembly and by the Council, but, if there is no law, in consonance with my
sense of what is most just, without favor or enmity. I will vote only on the
matters raised in the charge, and I will listen impartially to the accusers and
See Criminal Procedure in Ancient Greece and the Trial of Socrates. University of Missouri-Kansas City School of
Law. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/socrates/greekcrimpro.html. Accessed 4/11/14.
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Only a majority vote was necessary for conviction. Four jurors were assigned the task of
counting votes. . . . In the case of Socrates, the jury found Socrates guilty on a relatively
close vote of 280 to 220.
As we know, the sentence was death by hemlock which Socrates carried out upon himself in
Since more than 500 people saw Jesus in the Post-Resurrected state, the Grecian jury would
have been satisfied.
Hailing from Tarsus, a bastion of learning in the time, having studied in Jerusalem with the
venerable Rabbi Gamaliel, 12
and belonging to the strict sect of the Pharisees13
, Paul was a
scholar of both Jewish and Roman law and history. Being a scholar of Roman history, Paul
would also have been a scholar of Greek history since the Roman and Greek cultures were
joined at the hip like Siamese twins. Likewise, his exposure to Greek culture of the highest order
in Tarsus would have reinforced his Greek knowledge. During the time of Alexander the Great,
Tarsus was a center of Greek culture in Asia Minor.14
A sample of Paul’s knowledge of Greek philosophy is patent from his writings. Paul quotes 3rd
Century BC Euripides in 1 Corinthians 15:33; the Cretan Epimenides in Titus 1:1; Seneca, the
famous Spanish Stoic in Acts 17; Aristotle in Romans 2:14; and Plato in Acts, Romans, Galatians,
Ephesians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Timothy and Titus.
He certainly would have known the particulars of the trial of the great philosopher Socrates and
would have been aware of the 500-man jury. I submit that Paul would have found the afore-
mentioned creed of Jesus’ Post-Resurrection appearances to the 500 tantalizing in its
symbolism, so much so that he was compelled to mention it in his First Letter to the
Corinthians. Note also, that Corinth was a Grecian city lying only about 60 miles from Athens.
Here then, we have two reasons why Paul would have mentioned the appearance to 500 or
more: The ancient creed of the Faithful declared it to be so and the number would have
satisfied a Greek Jury.
The evidence adduced supra. convinces this writer of the historicity of the claim “beyond a
reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty.15
“Socrates.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1911. Accessed 4/11/14.
Wright, G. Ernest , Great People of the Bible and How They Lived. 1974.
The author here quotes verbatim the Common Law formula for the burden of proof required in the highest
degree. See. Sykes v. State, 151 Ala. 80; Rogers v. State, 117 Ala. 9; and Williams v. State 52 Ala.411.