Overview: The alleged Resurrection of Jesus is regarded as the basis of belief for many Christian believers. Paul claims that there were 500 people who have witnessed the miraculous account. What is the historical basis for this, if at all, and what are the ramifications for Judaism and Christianity?
Christian theologians love the Resurrection account because it allegedly validates Jesus’ claim of being the Messiah. At first glance, it indeed seems convincing; after all, were there not 500 witnesses present as the New Testament claims?!
The Jewish response is simple: It never happened! And even if we are to assume it did occur, it wouldn’t prove anything. It could have well been a disciple of his who knew the powers of sorcery (perhaps learning it from him). The biblical response to this is from Deuteronomy 13[i] in which even a miracle-worker is not to be believed if going against the absolute Word of G-d—the Torah. Thus, even a great sorcerer cannot come to change the identity of the Messiah or the Oral Law in any shape or form. However, despite this concept of sorcery, I’m still inclined to say that the Resurrection account never happened—not even through sorcery. Why am I being so skeptical towards it (to believe it didn’t happen if I can just explain it as sorcery)? Because it’s more realistic to be critical towards radical claims, especially when there is not a single shred of evidence supporting it.
The general take on the Resurrection claim is that either the New Testament writers invented the story in order to promote their obvious agenda, or that they were innocently writing down the legend of Jesus’ passing that has developed until their times some few decades later. They may have also selected their most preferable version of the Resurrection legend that was around at their time.
What about the 500 witnesses?
At first I would like to mention, that there are major contradictions, both in quality and quantity, within the recorded Resurrection narrative. Within the four Gospels, there are additions, omissions, and contradictions regarding the date and witnesses and much more. One Gospel says there were 150 people present while another says 500. One says it happened on the second day of Passover while another says on the eve of Passover. This is in addition to many more contradictions, 24 in total. It seems as well, based on the dates attributed to the Gospels, that the story evolved throughout time getting increasingly dramatic. See Matthew 27:52 which really steps up the game. It gives the radical claim that at Jesus’ passing many of the deceased righteous were elevated from their graves in Jerusalem and appeared to many people.
Missionaries explain these conflicts to be like differences in eyewitness testimony of an event. They assert that conflicts are expected and actually prove the veracity of the witnesses since false witnesses would rehearse their stories. There are two problems with this answer of theirs: First, many of the differences concern times, dates, and places, which cannot be explained away by differences in perspective. Second, the testimony of the authors is supposedly “the inspired Word of G-d” to the point that it was affixed to the biblical canon by Christians scholars.
Let’s get back to the alleged witnesses who witnessed the Resurrection. Who’s telling us about the supposed witnesses? The Apostles—the very ones marketing Christianity. So it all boils down to a few people. It’s not like there are numerous writings about it found from different eye-witnesses; in fact, it’s rather surprising that not a single eye-witness documented this dramatic account (including the raising of the many dead in Jerusalem story recorded in Matthew!).
But what about Jesus’ vacant grave?
First of all, it is only the New Testament which tells us of this vacant grave, so why believe it? But there are explanations even if it indeed was vacant.
It may have been taken by the Apostles in order to fool the masses. It’s also possible that it was simply destroyed or discarded by an opponent (possibly it was a Pharisee who was scared his followers would turn his body/grave into a worship site); this would in fact convince the Apostles themselves that there was a Resurrection. It’s possible as well that they checked or displayed the wrong grave. Just use your imagination to easily come up with many possible scenarios.
The Apostles traveled around preaching the raised Jesus from his grave-site. Some of the ignorant populace, as understood, would have bought it. After this, the Apostles wrote in their writings an adjusted and edited version of the story to make it sound more convincing. Each Apostle fabricating his own details, Paul even adding the alleged 500 witnesses.
But why would they lie, and even sacrifice their lives, for something they themselves knew not to be true?
Some missionaries are convinced about the truths of the Resurrection because of the stubbornness of the Apostles. The early Christian sources, such as Eusebius, record that the Roman government tortured the 11 Apostles for their faith. Yet they refused and were tortured to their death. A person, they claim, yet alone 11 people, do not jeopardize their life in order to stick to something they themselves are aware is false. The Apostles were obviously completely convinced of the Resurrection and therefore put their lives at stake for its message.
Sounds convincing? Maybe at first glance. For starters and most importantly, since when should we believe in the early Christian sources (and the New Testament) which are the only source for this story that the Apostles were tortured for this Resurrection myth and their belief in Jesus. It is a circular argument to base belief in the New Testament from a story brought in early Christian sources themselves (or the New Testament itself).
Secondly, as brought earlier, there is the possibility that the Apostles were in fact convinced that there was a resurrection because they checked the wrong grave-site or Jesus’ body was discarded or destroyed by an opponent of Jesus. This would actually convince the Apostles of a Resurrection. Third, the Apostles sincerely believed in Jesus and would do anything to convince the populace of the same. Putting their lives at stake for the Resurrection myth was a good method. I’m sure they were convinced they were going directly to Paradise for their courageous work. Fourth, it may well be that the Apostles believed in the Resurrection but haven’t witnessed it first-hand. They may have accepted a legend circulating at their time regarding the Resurrection and put their full faith in it.
Wouldn’t the people deny the claim unless verified by the witnesses?
It can be argued that people wouldn’t have accepted the Resurrection claim unless verified by the alleged witnesses. So from the fact that there were people who believed in the Resurrection shows that they obviously did go verify with the witnesses.
There are a few possible answers to this. Paul’s writings (the first of the Gospels) were only written at least 30-40 years after Jesus’ times. In addition, it must have been publicized only years after that (after all, the epistles were all private letters to individuals or communities at first). In addition, it is understood that those days there was no printing-press and only few would have access to the book for quite a while. Moreover, most Gentiles wouldn’t have even been able to read Greek, the language the New Testament was written in. Thus, by the time people would go to verify, the witnesses would have long been gone. [And this that Paul writes “500 witnesses most of whom are still living” they would obviously understand to be in his time of writing.]
Critical scholars date the New Testament to long after Jesus’ passing, with some extreme liberal dates putting it at 150 years after (the author obviously trying to write in a disciple first-hand perspective). The Talmud[ii] even records Jesus (with most the details similar to the New Testament) being two generations before the New Testament’s dating of Jesus. Much confusion circles the authorship of the New Testament. Many indications show that the writings weren’t around in the first-century. There is much strong internal evidence that the documents have a later date than actually attributed to them by the authors and its followers.
There’s much speculation if Jesus was even around as a highly popular figure in the times that the New Testament records him to have been. There’s much controversy if Josephus, a contemporary historian in Judea, even mentioned Jesus and it is surprising how silent he was regarding this supposedly popular miracle-worker. Besides him, none of the historical recordings of the time, including those of the Roman government in Judea and Philo of Alexandria, mention anything about Jesus. The dozens of New Testament contradicting accounts of the basics—of Jesus’ birth, life, names of 12 disciples, and death etc.[iii] only adds to the reasoning of a later date to the Gospels.
If Jesus even existed as an historical earthly figure (in contrast to a heavenly angel) is up for question, though most scholars and early sources, including the Talmud, agree that he did exist. Because of their most probable late date attributed to them, the Gospels couldn’t be written by the disciples of Jesus. Many versions exist on the text of the New Testament; this is because of the many “alters” and “corrections” the early Christians felt free doing by adding, subtracting, or changing phrases in the New Testament.
Leaving all the valid speculation aside, let us assume that the book of Mathew documenting the Resurrection account was written and publicized right away. Paul was trying to persuade the pagans of the Greco-Roman empire to join his new attracting religion. Even if he will write of the alleged witnesses, they would have no way of verifying being in a different land than Judea (where the witnesses would have been), where the witnesses would be (especially since no city is mentioned of where the witnesses would be located).
Even if few were to go verify and would return after a failed manhunt, who is to say that they would be believed upon their return (after all, being just a few, which also can lie in defense of paganism etc.). There also could have been a Paul-arranged group to claim that they went to verify and confirm it. Many plausible scenarios are available upon imagination. Bear in mind, that the Gentiles would have a much easier time accepting Paul’s version of the Resurrection, after hearing the many rumours of the rise of Jesus and the empty grave and eager for a monotheistic religion.
Another possibility is that it was a sort of dress-up mock Jesus (or a look-alike) that appeared from afar to a mass (with some trivial details easily being fabricated in the New Testament). This really isn’t so far-fetched—at least relative to the claim of a resurrection!
It is possible (and most likely) that the Apostles and some other strong believers traveled around preaching that they themselves witnessed Jesus arisen from the dead, thus the rumors begin!
In summary, the entire Resurrection account is one with no reliable basis and would prove nothing about Christianity even if factual.
 It should be noted, that there were many who resurrected the dead throughout history, it was no new concept by Jesus. See I Kings 17:17-24, II Kings 4:18-37, 13:20-21.
 It is different than the contradictions within the “Old” Testament (i.e. Tanach), for those are only in insignificant details. However, an event trying to prove the accuracy of a religion must be absolute. The contradictions of the Torah come after it was already validated through various proofs discussed in Vol. 1 of The Rational Believer series.
 It was at a time when there were multiple writers who should have written about the earth-shattering event which allegedly could have been authenticated by hundreds of witnesses.
 For whatever motivation the Apostles had in their agenda to persuade the populace to believe in their deceased mentor and teacher.
 There are those who try to refute these answers by claiming that the circumstances (such as the rock, the soldiers etc.) wouldn’t allow for it. This is easily retorted by the fact even back then the New Testament records of people then denying and being skeptic, though knowing the circumstances—are we any smarter without knowing the circumstances?!
 Some of them are recorded in the New Testament book of Acts.
 While the dates of Paul’s writings remain a hot topic of controversy, most scholars and historians would agree that it was written much after Jesus’ death.
 There are some rabbinic commentators on the Talmud who explain that there were two popular heretics named Jesus who lived at different times. Jesus was the Greek name for the popular Hebrew name Yeshua.
 It is controversial if Josephus recorded Jesus or the references were forged by later Christians. Relying on the description of the New Testament writers, Jesus would have been a major headline in the news—yet Josephus barely mentions him, that is if he ever mentioned him.
There are three references to Jesus. The first is a simple remark about the stoning of “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.” Although some scholars question the authenticity of this sentence, most scholars agree to its veracity. But this mention does nothing but tell us that there was a known man named Jesus who had a brother James. It is rather surprising that Josephus, who records almost everything that happened in the first century in Judea, mentions Jesus so briefly. According to the New Testament account, Jesus should have been the talk of town.
Another sentence largely accepted as reliable is the mention of John the Baptist’s imprisonment and death. This, however, only gives credibility to the man named John the Baptist discussed in the New Testament. In no way does this give credibility to the existence of Jesus and the extent of his fame.
The third and most controversial mention of Jesus is found in Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 3, 3. “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of G-d had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”
There are four reasons to speculate and doubt the accuracy of this last sentence regarding Jesus mentioned in Josephus and rather assume that it was inserted sometime in the forth-century by a Christian bishop (most likely Eusebius). (1) The phrasing is extremely Christian sounding, as it praises Jesus and has Christian beliefs within it. Josephus was a devout religious Pharisee and would totally have rejected Jesus! (2) The argument that Josephus mentions Jesus in praise, wasn’t brought up until the times of Bishop Eusebius of the fourth century. Earlier Christian philosophers and debaters, although mentioning the phrase of “James brother of Jesus” recorded in Josephus, they failed to mention this much more clear and explicit reference. (3) For some reason Josephus only writes about this here in one paragraph. Nowhere else in his many works is a description of Jesus mentioned—how strange?! (4) The context of before and after this paragraph seem to be so connected to each other yet are interrupted by this strange paragraph.
It would be silly to say, as some do, that Jesus deliberately ignored the Nazarene sect out of hatred, for he does elaborate (many times in negative terms) on the other heretical sects at the time of whom he opposed (e.g. Essen, Sadducees, and Sicarii).
It would be extremely easy for the Church to forge the statement, for unlike these days, there were no libraries outside of the church or king (who was also Christian) and the manuscripts were hand-written by Christian scribes.
Hence, it is doubtful if Josephus knew of a highly-popular man named Jesus, and even if he did, he only wrote perhaps one or maybe two statements about this should-have-been (according to the New Testament) so famous of a character at Josephus’ time.
 Monotheism was extremely popular in those times. In fact, until Paul presented Christianity to the Gentile world, pagans were converting en-masse to Judaism.
[i] V. 2-6.
[ii] Shabbos 104b, Sanhedrin 43a, Sotah 47a, Chagigah 4b, Jerusalem Talmud Yevamos 16, 1.