Tomorrow Christians celebrate the pivotal event that lead a group of disheartened, first-century Jews to feel as if their faith in Jesus as the messiah was vindicated even after his horrifying execution. The event is known as the resurrection and it helped transform a Jewish sectarian reformist movement into a worldwide religion that ultimately left its Jewish roots far behind.
But how did those first followers of Jesus experience that life-changing moment? It is troubling to some students in my New Testament class that the texts which describe the resurrection do not entirely agree with regard to what happened. Specifically, Christians struggled during the first century to come to terms with the form in which Jesus was raised from the dead. Was Jesus’s post-mortem vindication by God revealed to the disciples in a vision? Did Jesus manifest his resurrected nature as a ghost or spirit? Or, did a corpse rise from the tomb in flesh and blood, appearing essentially the same as before, crucifixion wounds and all?
The earliest texts in the New Testament were penned by the apostle Paul. Anything he has to say on the subject at least chronologically supersedes any gospel account as currently written. In his first letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Greece, Paul “handed on” the tradition that he “received” about Jesus’s resurrection appearances. In the famous chapter 15, Paul wrote that Jesus was “buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3-5 NRSV). He goes on to say that Jesus also appeared to more than five hundred believers at one time, to James, the brother of Jesus, then to all the apostles, and lastly to himself. Whatever we make of the list of appearances, none of which are described in the gospels (the appearance to Peter is only hinted at in Luke 24:34; and the gospels describe appearances only to the eleven [Matt 28:16, Luke 24:33-36, John 20:26 and 21:1], not the twelve, since Judas was no longer a participant), the formula Paul uses is instructive. He speaks of an “appearance.” (In his letter to the believers in the province of Galatia in Asia Minor, Paul wrote [Gal. 1:15-16] that God “was pleased to reveal his son to me.”) The question is: What appeared or was revealed?
Further on in chapter 15 of First Corinthians, Paul describes what a resurrected body looks like. It should be kept in mind that Paul included himself in the string of resurrection witnesses as if they all experienced the same thing. He does not give any indication that one appearance was different from the others. Therefore, his description of a resurrected body should give us a clue as to what Paul experienced when the resurrected Jesus appeared to him.
In his discussion, Paul claims that there are different kinds of flesh (1 Cor. 15:39): one for humans, one for animals, birds, fish, etc. He differentiates this type of body from a “spiritual body”. Paul says that while the physical body is perishable, dishonorable, and weak, the spiritual body is imperishable, glorious and powerful. He concludes by affirming that, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:50). We may conclude that when Paul says the resurrected Jesus visually appeared or was revealed to him, it was as a spiritual body. Since flesh and blood cannot inherit the spiritual, as Paul states, it could not be any other way.
This notion of a visual appearance or revelation of the resurrected Jesus is fundamental to the tradition that he first “appeared to Simon/Cephas/Peter.” Remember, Paul claimed to have met and conversed with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, on his first visit to Jerusalem three years following his witness of the resurrected Jesus (Gal. 1:18). It is inconceivable that Paul did not discuss with them his experience or that they did not discuss theirs with him. It is logical that they should have been in agreement on this issue if nothing else. Therefore, it seems safe to conclude that the earliest accounts of Jesus’s resurrection appearances described the phenomenon as a revelation, a vision, a visual appearance – not a flesh-and-blood body returned from the grave.
Hints of this early form of belief still remain in the gospels written twenty to perhaps fifty years or more after Paul’s letters. The appearance of Jesus to the disciples as described in Matthew’s gospel gives no hint that he arrived in the flesh. The disciples “saw” and “heard” him (Matt. 28:17-18) but made no contact. In fact, the appearance was such that the author admits “some doubted” it. The Gospel of Luke retains some traces of this early belief in the story of the two disciples who encounter the resurrected Jesus on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). They apparently knew Jesus during his lifetime but did not recognize him on this trip because his form has changed. This is an example of polymorphy, the ability of entities to transform their appearance, and seems appropriate to a story about the appearance of a spiritual body or the experience of a visionary revelation. Indeed, Jesus does reveal his identity at the end of the story but suddenly vanishes like a ghost. According to John’s gospel, Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene but warned her not to touch him because he was about to ascend to heaven (John 20:17). Later he appeared to his other disciples, twice materializing suddenly in a locked room (John 20:19, 26). Another example of polymorphy may be evident in the appended chapter 21 of John’s gospel in which the resurrected Jesus stood on the shore yet the disciples on their boat upon the sea do not recognize him (John 21:4).
Even though the gospels retain hints of the earlier belief in Jesus’s non-flesh-and-blood resurrection, it is evident that with the passage of time traditions arose that Jesus did indeed resurrect in the flesh. Basic to all of these accounts is the empty tomb story and the witness of Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:1-8, Matt. 28:1-10, Luke 24:1-10, John 20:11-18), both of which serve to provide evidence to believers and non-believers alike that the physical corpse of Jesus arose out of the grave.
Matthew’s gospel goes to great lengths to insist on corpse revivification expanding the empty tomb story. (Interestingly, Jesus, according to Matthew, described resurrected bodies to be like “angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30) not flesh-and-blood bodies.) Matthew reports that hostile witnesses (guards) were sent to prevent the disciples from stealing Jesus’s body from the tomb. This was to prevent a later claim that the body was miraculously raised. But instead of being able to serve as witnesses for the prosecution, the guards are described as having seen the resurrection for themselves (Matt. 27:62-66; 28:11-15)! They will later be paid to shut up about it (see below).
Mary Magdalene, replacing Peter in the earlier tradition as the first witness to the risen Jesus, “took hold of his feet,” according to Matthew, thus demonstrating Jesus’s flesh-and-blood nature (Matt. 28:9).
At the end of the Emmaus episode, Luke combines both notions of a visionary and a flesh-and-blood resurrection by having Jesus physically take matter (bread) and manipulate it (break it) (Luke 24:30). Later, Jesus appears to the disciples and defends (on behalf of Luke’s readers) the flesh-and-blood nature of his appearance, claiming that “a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” before displaying his crucifixion wounds (Luke 24:39-40).
The Gospel of John also mixes in the flesh-and-blood resurrection tradition no less subtly than Luke. Thomas, one of the disciples, actually demands, and is allowed to, put his fingers in the crucifixion wounds of the resurrected, flesh-and-blood Jesus (John 20:27). Finally, in the last chapter, the resurrected Jesus even eats breakfast with his disciples (John 21:12-15). Why are these later accounts trying so valiantly (and so crudely) to drive home the belief that Jesus arose from the tomb in the flesh and not simply as a vision or spiritual body?
We get a clue to the answer by studying the verbal attacks by opponents of the early church against the Christian profession of Jesus’s resurrection. These opponents could easily challenge the Christian claim that the ghost of Jesus was somehow proof that God had vindicated him and made him Lord. Christians countered that it was not just a ghost that appeared but actually Jesus in the flesh. As we saw in Luke, the resurrected Jesus himself was made to defend his physical, flesh-and-blood nature as if the belief in his resurrection were under attack. Indeed it was. Ignatius, leader of the Jesus movement in Antioch, Syria during the late first century, fights back against those who denied Christ’s resurrection by affirming that, after it occurred, “he was still possessed of flesh and I believe that he is so now” using as proof the tradition in which “he ate and drank” with the disciples (Ignatius, Letter to Smyrna 3). Ignatius’s claim was also challenged. Pagans did not believe in flesh-and-blood resurrection.
Christians reacted to such challenges as early as the Gospel of Mark (ca. 70 CE) by spreading the story that on Easter morning Jesus’s tomb was found opened and his body missing. Opponents blamed the missing corpse on theft. Matthew’s gospel, also written in Syria during the late first century, countered those charges by appeal to the hostile guards who, though they were said to have actually witnessed the resurrection of the flesh-and-blood Jesus, were paid to say that his body was stolen. Matthew reminds his readership that the lie was still being spread in his day (Matt. 28:15).
Christians eventually reconciled the various natures of Jesus’s resurrected form claiming that any perceived discrepancy in the accounts was due to its mysterious nature. Regardless of what form the resurrected Jesus took, belief in the event itself served as the springboard for a revitalized, re-energized group of followers to take its story and spread it, as Matthew says, to “all the nations.” As Matthew also says, it is still being told to this day.