Updated 2/19/10: I have changed my assessment of the possibility that Luke recorded the appearance to the 500. Originally I had argued that it was unlikely on the grounds that Jesus’ final appearance began indoors, and only then proceeded outdoors (thus the gathering had to be small). But it occurred to me that this conclusion fails to take into account the fact that Luke is obviously telescoping his account of Jesus’ resurrection appearances into a single appearance. The appearance recorded in Luke 24:50-51 cannot be a continuation of the appearance recorded in Luke 24:36-49, and thus there is no reason to believe the latter appearance began indoors (as the former appearance obviously did).
How do I know Luke must be speaking of at least two different appearances, but telescoped them into one for his narrative? In Acts 1 Luke recounts Jesus’ final appearance and ascension from Bethany/Mount Olivet, providing much more detail than he did at the end of his Gospel. Luke declared that Jesus appeared to the apostles many times over a period of 40 days, after which He ascended into heaven (Acts 1:3-12). It is clear that the appearance in Luke 24:36-49 occurred the day of Jesus’ resurrection. If Jesus did not ascend until 40 days later, then the appearance and ascension recorded by Luke in 24:50-51 must have been separated from the appearance in 24:36-49 by 40 days. That means the appearance in 24:50-51 may have been instantiated outdoors, and thus it is possible that a group of more than 500 people could have been present. The text below has been updated to reflect my change of mind.
Matthew records a very peculiar event in connection with Jesus’ resurrection appearances. He writes, “The eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Mt 28:16-17). It is highly unlikely that Matthew would have invented a story in which individuals who see the resurrected Christ for themselves still do not believe in Jesus. This comment, then, lends credibility to the historicity of Matthew’s report.
But the question remains: Who doubted? Was it some of the 11 apostles, or members of another unidentified group? It’s unlikely that some of the apostles doubted. The “they” in verse 17 most naturally refers to all 11 disciples mentioned in verse 16, and thus it stands to reason that all 11 worshipped Jesus: when “they” (the Eleven) saw Him “they” (the Eleven) worshipped Him. The real clincher, however, is that we know this was not Jesus’ first appearance to the Eleven. His first appearance to them was in Jerusalem on the eve of His resurrection (Mk 16:14; Lk 24:36-42; Jn 20:19-23). Since that appearance convinced the Eleven that Jesus had risen, they cannot be numbered with those who doubted at Jesus’ Galilean appearance.
Who were those that doubted, then, if it was not some of the Eleven? Most likely, they were members of a larger, unidentified group of witnesses that accompanied the Eleven to the mountain, all of whom were disciples of Jesus during His ministry. In fact, there is good reason to speculate that this was the epiphany Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 15:6 wherein Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at once.
What is the basis for such speculation? An appearance to so many people at once would require an outdoor setting. A mountain would be an ideal location since it would be big enough, and it would be far enough from the populace so as not to attract the attention of the authorities. There are only two appearances described in the Gospels that occur outdoors that are not explicitly limited to a small number of people: Matthew 28:16-20 and Luke 24:50-51. I have already provided a reason to think more than just the Eleven were present at the Galilean appearance recorded by Matthew. But what about Luke’s account? Are there reasons to think the appearance of Jesus at Bethany involved more than just the Eleven? Yes. Luke recounts the same, final appearance of Jesus in the opening chapter of his Acts of the Apostles. He makes it clear that the Eleven were present at Bethany/Mount Olivet to witness Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:12-13), but more disciples must have been present because one of the requirements in choosing Judas’ replacement was that the individual must have been present with the disciples from the inception of Jesus’ ministry to His ascension. Two candidates were put forth, indicating at the very least the presence of two other disciples at the Mount Olivet appearance (Acts 1:21-23). If there were two, there could have been many more (since many of them would have been disqualified on the grounds that they were not an original disciple of Jesus who had accompanied Jesus and the Twelve throughout Jesus’ ministry). It’s plausible, then, that either Matthew or Luke has recorded the appearance to the 500.
What reasons might we have for preferring Matthew’s epiphany over Luke’s as being a more plausible setting for the appearance to the 500? Matthew tells us Jesus had made known His intention to appear to the Eleven in Galilee to Mary, so the Eleven traveled to Galilee for the express purpose of seeing Jesus (Mt 28:10, 16). The epiphany recorded by Matthew is unique, then, in that it was by appointment. All the other appearances were unanticipated, including—insofar as we can tell—Jesus’ final appearance recorded by Luke. Given the fact that the Eleven knew where and when Jesus was going to appear, it is highly plausible that they invited a multitude of Jesus’ followers to accompany them to share in this amazing encounter, so that they too may see the risen Christ and believe. It is less plausible that a group of more than 500 believers just happened to have been gathered on Mount Olivet while Jesus appeared to them unexpectedly.
Furthermore, we would expect to find a large group of Jesus’ followers gathered together in a location where Jesus spent a lot of time and could accumulate a large following. Given the fact that Jesus spent most of His ministry in and around Galilee, it makes sense to think the appearance to the 500 took place there. This might also explain why only 120 believers were present in the upper room at Jerusalem. Some of them did not believe according to Matthew, so they would not have come. Furthermore, if the majority of the 500 were Galileans, it would not be feasible for most of them to return to Jerusalem with the Eleven.
Both the location and the apostles’ foreknowledge of the appearance make it quite plausible that the epiphany recorded by Matthew is the epiphany to the 500 recorded by Paul. If so, this answers the objection raised by critics that if Paul’s testimony were true, the appearance would have been mentioned by one of the Evangelists. It very well may have been, even if only implicitly.
I was alerted to this possibility by a Christian scholar, but I have no recollection of his identity. If you know of someone who has made a similar suggestion/argument, please inform me of his name and the source so I can give him proper credit.