Peter’s speech includes a mention of the fact that the Apostles, and others, met Jesus alive after he had been raised from the dead.
"This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses." (Acts 2:32)
The Apostles were witnesses to the resurrection. They had met Jesus after he had risen from the dead and had talked with him. They had seen him on the day of the resurrection and they had continued to see him for forty days afterwards (the length of this period is given in Acts 1:3). During this time he had taught them and had conversed with them. Jesus ascended to heaven forty days after his resurrection; Pentecost was fifty days after the Passover, so the disciples had been talking to Jesus only nine days before Peter gave his speech.
Jesus was seen by a large number of people after he rose from the dead. There is a convenient list of the most significant of these in one of Paul’s letters. This is his first letter to the Christians of Corinth, written in 55 AD, about 25 years after the resurrection.
"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me." (1Corinthians 15:3-8)
The list contains many significant witnesses:
Cephas: This is the Aramaic version of the name Peter. Peter was the Apostle who gave the speech at Pentecost. He had travelled around Galilee with Jesus and visited Jerusalem with him. He had seen Jesus crucified and was one of the first people to meet Jesus after the resurrection.
The Twelve: This is the group of close disciples who had been with Jesus while he was travelling and teaching.
More than 500 brothers: These were almost certainly the people referred to in Matthew 28:16-20. Paul wrote this letter in the late spring of 55 AD, about 25 years after the resurrection. By this time, he writes, some of the five hundred had died, but most were still alive. The only reason to include them is that some of the 500 witnesses might be met by members of the Corinthian congregation who could then ask about their experience. This means that the witnesses were travelling in the ancient world and telling people of the resurrection, exactly as they were told in Matthew 28:19. This coincidence of detail is another small bit of evidence which supports the idea that the accounts are both true and accurate.
James: James was one of the half-brothers of Jesus. During the time when Jesus was travelling around Judea and Galilee healing and proclaiming the Kingdom of God, the family of Jesus (which would include James) opposed him. However, James became one of the principle Apostles, and wrote one of the books of the New Testament. What made him change his mind was that he met Jesus alive after the resurrection.
Paul: The last person in this list in Corinthians is the Apostle Paul himself. As Paul tells us himself (in 1 Corinthians 15:9 - the next verse), he was a strong opponent of the Gospel, putting his full effort behind the persecution of the early Christians. Having met Jesus alive on the road to Damascus, Paul knew that he had been raised from the dead.
This list of witnesses is incomplete; it doesn’t, for example, include any of the women who saw the risen Jesus, and it doesn’t contain references to meetings where Jesus met those who had already seen him alive after the resurrection. However, the list of the people that are included is very impressive. It includes some of Jesus’ closest associates, even one of his brothers. These people would be unlikely to be mistaken about the identity of the risen Jesus.
Some of the witnesses were close associates of Jesus, but others were opponents of his. James was an opponent of Jesus before the resurrection (see John 7:5) but afterwards he proclaimed that Jesus was alive, became one of the chief Apostles, and was the writer of one of the books of the Bible. According to Roman historians he was killed for his faith in the Gospel in 62 AD.
The most impressive element of the list of 1 Corinthians 15 is the five hundred of verse 6. The correspondence between this and Matthew’s Gospel means that there is no doubt that these witnesses existed. Five hundred people is a large number of witnesses to any event.
The witnesses did not have an easy time. Jesus had been put to death and his followers also suffered persecution. They were imprisoned, they were beaten, their property was confiscated, they were forced to flee from city to city and some of them died. There is a reminder of the earliest days of the Christian community in the letter to the Hebrews:
"But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated." (Hebrews 10:32,33)
The process continued and was taken up in 64 AD by the Romans who declared that Christianity was no longer tolerated as a religion and began a severe persecution under the instructions of the Emperor Nero.
The Christians became proverbial for maintaining their witness, even though this would result in their deaths. It is clear that those with the evidence before them believed their own message - and at the core of this message was the fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
Summary of the Evidence
We therefore have two main items of evidence:-
The empty tomb.
The witness of those who met Jesus alive after the crucifixion.
Any explanation of what happened must account for these two facts, and must also account for the way that the witnesses were prepared to die rather than to deny what they had seen. There is only one satisfactory explanation - Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead.