Many considered Jesus of Nazareth one of the greatest leaders who ever lived. He wasn’t a politician, an author, or a soldier, but his teachings have inspired and influenced countless people in the last 2,000 years. Many people want to know how many followers Jesus had when he was on earth.
Scholars estimate that Jesus had around 500 to 1,000 followers at the peak of his popularity. Whatever the exact number was, it declined sharply when he was crucified. After he rose from the dead, his followers increased. Acts even reports that thousands of people decided to follow Jesus in one day.
Where does the estimate of 500 to 1,000 followers come from in the New Testament? What about Luke’s reference in Acts to 120 followers of Jesus? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Do the Gospels mention the exact number of Jesus’ followers?
The New Testament doesn’t reveal the exact number of people who followed Jesus at any given time. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John commonly refer to the 12 disciples, like Peter, Andrew, and James. Yet there are many others who followed Jesus, too.
Women like Mary Magdalene and Mary, Jesus’ mother, were devout followers. There were also hundreds of other men who followed Jesus who were not among the 12 (more below).
The Gospels also refer to “crowds” that heard Jesus teach, were amazed at his words and deeds, and even asked him questions. It’s not clear how many people constitute a “crowd” in the Gospels. It was not the purpose, or presumably the interest, of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to keep attendance records.
Even if the Gospel writers provided the exact number of people in each crowd, there would still be no indication of how many in attendance sincerely followed Jesus. Many were probably just onlookers who had heard about Jesus and wanted to see and hear him out of curiosity.
Where does the number 500 come from?
Paul reports that after Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to more than 500 people. Scholars debate whether the term “brothers” in the description refers to just men or if it includes women, too.
Paul writes: “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.”
He continues: “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:3-6, ESV)).
Is Paul just referring to men? Many scholars believe that the figure Paul provides only refers to men. If this is true, it would make translations like the NIV inaccurate: “After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep” (emphasis added).
Why would Paul just refer to men? Paul would only refer to men for the same reason that he doesn’t mention any women on his witness list in the passage. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John agree that women, like Mary Magdalene, were among the first to the empty tomb and to encounter the risen Jesus. Yet Paul doesn’t mention any of them.
In the first century, the testimony of women was considered untrustworthy. While this makes the resurrection accounts in the Gospels all the more fascinating, it may also explain why Paul doesn’t mention them as witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15.
If Paul’s figure of 500 people represents the number of men who were present, then it’s plausible that Jesus had just as many women who followed him. Even if the women weren’t present at the appearance Paul is referring to, they were still followers of Jesus. This would make the total number of Jesus’ followers greater than 500.
Were the 500 followers of Christ? That seems to be the implication that Paul is making. He is referencing the resurrection appearances as if to suggest that skeptics can speak to those who saw Jesus alive after being crucified. In context, it’s unlikely that Paul would suggest that skeptics seek more information from other skeptics.
Did Jesus only have 120 followers after his resurrection?
In Acts 1:15, Luke writes, “In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120)” (ESV). Peter’s speech occurred just after Jesus’ ascension, so the number 120 refers to 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection. There are different views on the number 120.
- Literal view: Most scholars believe the figure represents literal people, though it may be approximate. This makes the most sense in relation to the context and literary genre of Acts.
- Symbolic view: A small number of scholars think the number is symbolic. There is no evidence in the context that the number has a non-literal meaning. What the number 120 symbolically portrays is unclear and doesn’t have non-literal precedent elsewhere in Scripture.
- Representative view: Some scholars argue that 120 constitutes the legal number of men required to form a new community. There is no evidence of this in the context of the passage. It’s also not clear why Luke would say “about 120” if the number exactly matched a legal requirement.
What is the connection between Luke’s 120 and Paul’s 500? Many scholars believe that the 120 brothers that Luke mentions were probably among the 500 Paul mentions, but their suspicion is based on informed speculation, not a concrete reference.
Some speculate that Paul’s reference may parallel a statement Matthew makes in his resurrection account: “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17). The suggestion isn’t convincing to many readers because the context refers to 11 disciples (v. 16), not 500 people.
Others suggest that Jesus’ appearance to 500 people may have occurred at Pentecost (cf. Acts 2), but this idea is speculative because neither Luke nor Paul mention it.
Jesus’ effectiveness despite relatively small numbers
Jesus changed the world with relatively few numbers. Whatever the exact number of followers he had while on earth, the figure accelerated as his followers preached and lived out the Gospels.
Robert Coleman writes, “Perhaps his total number of devoted followers at the end of His earthly ministry numbered little more than the five hundred brethren to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection (I Cor. 15:6), and only about 120 tarried in Jerusalem to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:15).”
Coleman continues: “Though this number is not small considering that His active ministry extended only over a period of three years, yet if at this point one were to measure the effectiveness of his evangelism by the number of his converts, Jesus doubtless would not be considered among the most productive mass evangelists of the church.” 
 The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman. p. 34.
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