The resurrection is the bedrock event that launched a movement based on the belief that Jesus was and continued to be the Messiah of Israel despite his death and that he would soon return. Some suggest that, absent the resurrection event, Christianity would not have begun. The followers of Jesus would have gone their separate ways just like those who sided with many of the other failed messiahs and end-time prophets on the scene around the time of Jesus as described by Josephus. In other words, we probably would never have heard of Jesus.
In the early centuries of Christianity, many non-believers chided Christians for proclaiming a dead and risen Messiah. Unbelievers challenged the earnest appeal of Jesus’s followers who continued to chant Marana tha, “Our Lord is coming!” Christians fought back with increasingly specific tales of the resurrection.
Everyone knows that the resurrection of Jesus is described in the four gospels of the New Testament (ca. 70-105). But the earliest statement that the risen Jesus appeared to his followers comes from the letters of the apostle Paul (50s). He is the only contemporary of Jesus to describe his own experience of the heavenly Christ although he admits that it occurred quite late when compared to the experiences of others (1 Cor 15:8). Paul named a couple of other individuals who experienced the risen Jesus: Peter (cf. Luke 24:34; John 21:15-22) and James (cf. Gospel of the Hebrews). But groups of followers apparently also shared a similar experience. Paul identified “the Twelve” (cf. Matt 28:16; Luke 24:26-51; John 20:19, 26-29, 21:1-14; Acts 1:3-9), the “five hundred brothers (and sisters?),” and the “apostles” (1 Cor 15:3-7) as further witnesses.
Paul admitted, and was proud, that he was a visionary susceptible to many supernatural experiences. He wrote that he transcendentally visited the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2). He claimed that the spirit helped him make decisions (Gal 2:2; cf. Acts 16:7). In terms of the risen Jesus, Paul wrote that God “revealed his Son in me” (Gal 1:16). The Greek word Paul used, and which we translate as “reveal,” is apokaluptō, meaning a divine revelation (apocalypse) of the outer-body variety.
This list does not exhaust those named as experiencing the risen Jesus. The New Testament gospels name Mary Magdalene as a witness, too (Matt 28:9 with “the other Mary”; John 20:15-17). The Gospel of Luke tells of two disciples, one named Clopas (Luke 24:18), who encountered the risen Jesus on their way to Emmaus; they even ate with him. And stories of further encounters with the risen Jesus did not stop after Paul and the gospels. Gnostic and other Christian gospels are full of otherwise unknown appearances of the risen Jesus not mentioned in the canonical literature. Gradually, more people were said to have received visions of Jesus. And the stories acquired more detail.
Paul initially described something seen or perceived (Greek: horaō, optanomai) but the gospels began to speak of someone they touched or held (krateō), that is, a physical form. And as we saw, there are even tales of the risen Jesus eating (Luke 24:30; John 21:13-15). Is all of this historically true? Do all of these accounts reflect actual events?
Some scholars suggest that a simple story of one or more of Jesus’s followers seeing his image after his death expanded into an account of a reanimated corpse exiting his tomb. Perhaps the intent was to validate certain apocalyptic beliefs that the righteous dead would rise to inhabit a reformed world under God’s direct rule. Paul understood that God’s kingship would arrive, too, but he also understood that resurrection would result in something more sublime than a reanimated corpse. He described spiritual bodies that would come to occupy this new world (1 Cor 15:42-44). He knew Peter and James. Had their testimony been about a reanimated corpse that they could touch and eat with, it seems Paul’s understanding of the resurrected form would have been different.
So from the time of Paul’s writing in the 50s to the late first century, the gospel authors began to write of Jesus’s disciples grasping, poking, prodding and eating with Jesus’s resurrected form. Was this in response to detractors claiming that the disciples merely saw a ghost, something thought common enough, and therefore not evidence of a divinized being? But what was so unimpressive about seeing or beholding a vision of Jesus after his death? Why did the simple story of an appearance of Jesus become so explicit?
Part of the reason may have to do with literary convention. As Scott Bruce writes, “ancient, medieval, and early modern authors related stories and ideas about supernatural events involving the dead in a wide variety of genres…The persistence of these stories over such a long span of time speaks to the abiding interest among the living in the fate of the dead” (Bruce, ed., The Penguin Book of the Dead: Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters, xiv). “The descriptions of the restless dead in the oldest Greek sources provided the template for depictions of them for centuries to come. The ancients described ghosts as shadows in human form or as insubstantial corpses, stained with the blood of the wounds that killed them” (Ibid., 3). In so many of these stories, the dead return to instruct the living in some important matter. Jesus is depicted as doing this, too. And why a fleshly reappearance? Like to dispel criticism that there was nothing special about a vision of a post-mortem Jesus.
Some people question whether any of Jesus followers saw anything at all. Perhaps it was all an invention. To that, consider how Jesus’s Jewish followers would have reacted to Jesus’s death. If they thought he was the Messiah, his crucifixion put the lie to that misplaced belief. If they thought that God had sent him for some divine mission, they were proven quite wrong. If they thought, like Paul, that Jesus had been cursed by being hung on a tree thereby breaking one of Torah’s laws (Deut 21:22-23; Gal 3:13), then they had been mistakenly following not one of God’s chosen but perhaps one of the devil’s. But all that angst, self-recrimination, and doubt changed when they beheld a vision of the one they thought had died and failed them. Is it so far-fetched to concede that someone saw something? What else can account for the rapid reversal of those people from guilt-ridden, fearful collaborators of a false-messiah to self-assured proclaimers of Jesus’s vindication and rightful status as Messiah? That’s how they would have interpreted it. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t see something that prompted their interpretation.
Bruce, again, is instructive: the “relationship between the living and the returning dead…has been a persistent theme in Western literature for almost three thousand years” (xiv). Uncountable people throughout time have seen lost loved ones after their death. A brief image can create reassurance that their connection is not totally lost and death not completely final. Whether the mind, in its abject grief, recreates such an image for psychological comfort or whether humans do, in some form, continue to exist on another plane of reality, cannot of course be conclusively determined. But these sightings do happen.
Non-Christians need not accept that the vision of the risen Jesus guarantees Jesus’s status as a divinity, or as God, nor validates him as the Messiah of Israel. That is how his followers interpreted it and continue to interpret it. But there is no reason that others cannot accept that these demoralized, frightened, shocked followers of Jesus saw their dead leader in some way that assured them that he continued to live on. There is nothing exclusively “Christian” about that. And if we don’t grant that initial experience, how do we explain the continued, and markedly dangerous, insistence by those left behind that a dead man rose?