In a recent blog I mentioned in passing that the Lord Jesus only led around 500 people to faith in Himself. Brett then emailed in this follow-up question: “Can you tell me where you came up with the figure that 500 were saved during Christ’s ministry? Had you written that about 5,000 came to Christ during his ministry, I would have still written this email to you. Any justification for this 500 would be greatly appreciated.”
That figure comes from 1 Cor 15:6: “After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.”
I looked in vain for an article discussing this question. Even the commentaries I consulted on 1 Cor 15:6 failed to discuss this issue. I hope you will find my musings helpful.
It is possible that the Holy Spirit drew most or all of the believers in Israel together to see the risen Lord. If that is the case, then the number of 500 is a good approximation of the total number of believes in Israel at that time.
But it is also possible that the Holy Spirit only drew together a small percentage of the believers in Israel to see the risen Lord.
The population of Israel at the time of Christ is estimated at between half a million and one million. In light of what John wrote in his prologue, it is unlikely that there were a large number of believers in Israel at the time of Jesus’ resurrection. John famously wrote that Jesus “came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). While some did receive Him (John 1:12), the number was small or else John could not say that “His own did not receive Him.”
Further support for a smaller number is found in John 14:12 where the Lord Jesus told the Eleven, “he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.” The Book of Acts reports that on the day of Pentecost alone Peter led “about three thousand souls” to faith in Christ (Acts 2:41). That appears to be far more people than the Lord Jesus led to faith on any one occasion in His ministry. Indeed, many speculate that Peter led more people to faith in Christ that first day than the Lord Jesus did in three years. Luke reports that the church kept growing and “many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand” (Acts 4:4).
Brett has a point. We really cannot be sure how many people the Lord Jesus led to faith in Himself. There might have been 5,000 or more believers in Israel before Pentecost.i
It should be noted, however, that the Lord Jesus was not the only person who led people to faith in Him during His ministry. Certainly, John the Baptist led people to faith in Christ (John 1:7-8; 3:36; Acts 19:4).
The twelve disciples went out preaching and healing. Surely, they too led people to faith in Christ.
The Lord sent out seventy disciples on another occasion. More would have come to faith then.
And we should not forget that when people like the woman at the well came to faith in Christ, they in turn led others to faith in Christ (John 4:29-42).ii Many of the people who came to faith in Christ likely came to faith through the witness of everyday people.
I would guess that the number of believers in Israel at the time of Jesus’ resurrection was somewhere between 500 and 5,000. But since God did not give us any numbersiii (other than the “more than five hundred” number in 1 Cor 15:6), we have no way of coming up with more than a guess.
i When I shared this blog with a friend, he said we have no way to know the number. To illustrate his point, he wondered if there might not have been a large number who came to faith in Christ when Jesus fed 5,000 men plus women and children (John 6:1-14). As I reflected on that, the text of John does not indicate that He evangelized that crowd that day. John indicates that it was the next day when Jesus gave His Bread of Life discourse, a great evangelistic message. He gave that message on the other side of the sea (John 6:22). Only those who followed Him there would have heard that message. And the evidence suggests that many if not most in that crowd did not come to faith (see, for example, John 6:41, 52). In fact, after that message, Jesus went on to say to His disciples that even some of them did not believe in Him (John 6:64).
ii Of course, she was a Samaritan and the people she evangelized were Samaritans. We do not know how many came to faith in Christ in Samaria either.
iii In contrast to today’s evangelists, we are not told by John how many came to faith in Christ in any of His evangelistic messages (e.g., 2:23-25; John 5:16-47; 6:22-59; 8:30-32). The word many (polloi) in Greek as in English, is nonspecific (e.g., John 2:23; 8:30). It could refer to any number more than a few. See, for example, “with many other exhortations he preached” (Luke 3:18), “our brother whom we have often proved diligent in many things” (2 Cor 8:22), “He must…suffer many things” (Matt 16:21), “And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed on the Lord” (Acts 9:42).