Is the “Lord’s Prayer” Apocalyptic?

Perhaps the most quoted of Jesus’s sayings is a short, three- or four-verse prayer, one which Jesus actually instructed his followers to recite. And they do. The “Lord’s Prayer” is routinely offered in virtually every Christian church by members of virtually every Christian denomination. But do these words mean the same to the faithful today as they did to those who first heard Jesus teach them? Were they meant as a plea for help with daily life and a promise of continued ethical behavior? While people can certainly infuse any meaning they wish into their own prayers, I suggest that originally these words of Jesus were not meant to serve as a program for living. They are better understood within the context of the apocalyptic preaching of an apocalyptic prophet.

Just what is an apocalyptic prophet? The term is based on a type of ancient Jewish writing now known as an “apocalypse.” In its original Greek, the word apocalypse means “revelation.” Thus, apocalyptic writings propose to offer revelation given by God or another heavenly being to the author who often writes under an assumed name, usually that of a Biblical figure from the past. Examples of such texts include The First Book of Enoch, The Fourth Book of Ezra, The (Syriac) Apocalypse of Baruch and The Apocalypse of Abraham. Parts of the Biblical book of Daniel are apocalyptic. Early Christians adopted this style of writing and composed their own apocalyptic texts. The New Testament contains The Apocalypse of John. Other Christian examples include The Apocalypse of Peter and The Apocalypse of Paul, both written pseudonymously long after the deaths of their presumed authors.

The revelations received by the writers of these texts usually include a cosmic recreation of worldly events as well as a future forecast. At the time the revelations are received and written down, life looks bleak for both the author and his community. They were usually facing a severe crisis that threatened their very existence as a people. The world powers of the day were arraigned against them. But fear not, says the writer. These malevolent forces are destined for destruction and the evildoers (whoever they happened to be) will be destroyed. God will then restore the world and reward his loyal and righteous followers with new life in a new age, one like the Kingdom of God promised by Jesus.

Apocalyptic prophets saw themselves as messengers who were charged with bringing their revelations to the people. John the Baptist was such a prophet. He warned that the wheat (the righteous and loyal followers of God) was about to be separated from the chaff (the wicked, ruling powers) and that the chaff would burn in fire. According to John, the ax (of final judgment) was already at the root of the trees (people) and those trees that did not produce good fruit (the wicked) would be chopped down.

Jesus, according to most scholars, was also an apocalyptic prophet. There is much to commend this view. According to the gospels, Jesus often warned of a coming judgment in which a heavenly judge called the Son of Man would separate the righteous from the wicked (Matthew 13:41, 16:27 etc.). Jesus also seems to have believed that the coming of God’s rule, which he referred to as the Kingdom – or better “Kingship” – of God, would come during his generation (Mark 13:30). Apocalyptic prophets and writers usually emphasized the imminence of such world-changing events.

Jesus differed in some ways from what we know of most apocalyptic prophets and seers. Jesus seems to have given at least equal time to the positive aspects of the coming calamity. He actually referred to his warnings as “good news.” For repentant and faithful followers, the Kingship of God would bring complete renewal to the world restoring it to the way it was intended to be. It would be like a new Garden of Eden replacing the one which was lost due to Adam and Eve’s disobedience.

Under God’s direct rule, people would once again no longer have to fret about food and clothing as they had to after being expelled from the Garden of Eden (Mat. 6:25; compare with Genesis 2:21 where Adam and Eve must begin to wear skins to cover their nakedness, and Genesis 3:17 in which Adam is sentenced to farm for his food).  In the Kingship, peace and harmony will characterize social and ecological relations (John 13:34; compare with Genesis 4:1-8 in which jealousy, duplicity, and murder mar the relationship between the first “brothers” Cain and Abel, Genesis 3:14 in which animals were set against Adam, and Genesis 3:18 in which the land began to grow thorns and thistles). Satan will no longer wreak havoc with human lives in the Kingship (Mark 3:26; compare with Genesis 3:1-5 in which the serpent successfully tempts Eve to disobey and sets humanity on its path to destruction). Physical suffering would become a thing of the past (Luke 9:2; compare with Genesis 3:16 in which Eve is promised pain in childbirth). Finally, in the Kingship, life would be eternal (Mark 10:30; compare with Genesis 3:19 in which Adam is condemned to return to dust as punishment for his disobedience). Death, humanity’s sentence for disobedience, would be overcome (Matthew 19:29, 25:26, Mark 10:17, etc.).

According to the gospels, Jesus forecasted this changing dynamic in his own work. He produced food in miraculous quantities, reached out to the socially marginalized, cast out demons, healed others of their infirmities, relieved them of their pain, and caused some to rise from the dead. By his actions, the gospels suggest, Jesus demonstrated for his followers what the kingdom would be like once it was fully established.

The authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke received the text of the Lord’s Prayer from an earlier, written collection of Jesus’s sayings which scholars have agreed to call “Q” (Q stands for Quelle, the German word for “source”). Q contained scores of sayings by Jesus including the famous prayer. Because the authors of Matthew and Luke have reworked their source material, or worked with different versions of Q, the prayer is rendered slightly differently in each gospel.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-12 NRSV)

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial. (Luke 11:2-4 NRSV)

Luke usually preserves the original text of Q more faithfully than Matthew. In this case, however, I think Matthew preserves the apocalyptic ideas behind the prayer more in accord with Jesus’s other teachings and thus may reflect the more original form. Luke likely preserves the original word “sin” rather than Matthew’s “debts,” however. Let’s examine the prayer line by line.

To open, Jesus acknowledges the sanctity of the name of God (“Our Father in heaven, hallowed by your name”). This is the essence of the first of the Ten Commandments which also serves as the basis for the shema recited in daily prayer by many Jews: “Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord our God is one.”

Jesus next makes the apocalyptic call that becomes our key to understanding of the rest of the prayer in its original context: “Your kingdom come.” Jesus is here calling on God to re-establish his dominion over the earth and all of his creation. This expectation is at the root of the message that he and John the Baptist have been proclaiming in their ministries. This is the same kingdom, or kingship, the benefits of which Jesus has been demonstrating through his deeds. From this point in the prayer, Jesus has his sights firmly fixed on the coming kingdom.

What will the kingdom be like when it comes? First, God’s will, his original intent for his created world once manifested in the Garden of Eden, will again be realized on earth (“Your will be done on earth…”). For now, this perfect expression of God’s intent is limited to the realm in which God resides (“…as it is in heaven”). The coming Kingdom will provide so many benefits and relieve so much suffering that a brief itemization is in order to remind the faithful of what they are praying for.

Under God’s rule, he will give food to everyone in abundance (“Give us this day our daily bread”) just as all food requirements were met for Adam and Eve in the Garden. This “daily bread” will no longer be a matter of concern: God will give it. It will not be obtained by planting seed, tilling the soil, and threshing the fields as Adam and his descendants have been sentenced to do because of their disobedience.

Under God’s rule, his faithful followers will be acquitted of all their sins (“Forgive us our sins…”; see also Mark 3:28). Both mutual forgiveness (“…for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”) and forgiveness by God are hallmarks of life under God’s reign according to Jesus. Jesus and John the Baptist spoke tirelessly of forgiveness not only in the form of baptism but as part of the physical process of healing (Mark 2:5). Forgiveness is a status commensurate with life in God’s coming kingship. Forgiveness puts right the fouled relationship that exists in the present age between God and humanity and between one and another.

With the coming of God’s rule comes a judgment, a time of trial. John the Baptist predicted it and Jesus confirmed it. The righteous people hope to avoid judgment by virtue of their prior repentance and renewed faith in God. They plead for acquittal before the coming trial of judgment (“Do not bring us to the time of trial”). Jesus further instructs his followers to pray for the day when Satan and his minions are finally destroyed (“Rescue us from the evil one”). Only under God’s rule can this prayer line become possible. Rescue from evil is a prominent feature of the final victory of God reclaiming his cosmos from the demonic forces that oppose him. Jesus looked forward to the day when Satan would be defeated (Luke 10:18). The Gospel of Luke does not include this last provision in the prayer but the criteria of contextual credibility and coherence make it likely that Jesus included it in his teaching.

It is safe to say that most modern Christians interpret the Lord’s Prayer as a supplication for daily sustenance, mutual good behavior, and spiritual support. But the focus of the historical Jesus was not about good social behavior or how to deal with the mundanities of daily life. It was on the immediate future and its imminent end. By any understanding of the apocalyptic nature of Jesus’s teaching, he was calling for the kingdom to come in his lifetime bringing the benefits so eloquently outlined in his prayer.

The “Antitheses” of Jesus: Overturning Moses and Torah or Something Else?

All of the first followers of Jesus were Jews. They characterized Jesus in a number of Jewish ways: as Messiah, God’s son, a prophet. The latter designation, prophet, seems an obvious and even insufficient understanding of who Jesus was when compared with the other titles. Nevertheless, this characterization of Jesus is likely based on a prophecy from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. In the book of Deuteronomy a future prophet like Moses is promised to God’s people (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18; see also 34:10).

Some first-century Jews expected that this prophet would arrive to herald the End Times just before God reclaimed his rule over the earth and the people inhabiting it. Some saw Jesus as this very prophet, a Moses-like figure who would, incidentally, perfectly fulfill the Torah that Moses left behind. How best to follow Torah was and continues to be a matter of utmost importance for Jews. But once God’s kingship was established on earth there would be no need for such laws. People would live in perfect righteousness and the earth would return to its original perfect state. In a world like that, laws would no longer be necessary.

According to Jesus’s followers, the herald of the New Age did come. It was Jesus. But the transformation of the earth did not occur as a result. The evil kingdoms of the world were not overthrown nor did the earth become another Garden of Eden. Thus, for Christian Jews, the Torah remained in effect and the debate continued on how best to follow it. Evidence of these concerns can be found decades after the crucifixion as written in the Gospel of Matthew.

Continue reading “The “Antitheses” of Jesus: Overturning Moses and Torah or Something Else?”

The Bloodline of Jesus? Descendants of the Holy Family

Every now and then, the subject of Jesus’s celibacy is raised, usually in connection with Mary Magdalene who some suggest was his wife. Still others believe that the tomb of Jesus has been found in Jerusalem, a tomb that contained the remains of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and their son. While the jury is still out on such proposals, many who are interested in learning more about the historical Jesus remain unaware of the early Christian traditions that testify to other members of Jesus’s family. It is to these “lost” descendants of the Holy Family that we now turn.

Most readers of the New Testament gospels know that Jesus had brothers and sisters. His brothers were named James, Joses (“little Joseph”), Judas, and Simon (Mark 6:3); the sisters are left unnamed though early tradition knows them as Mary and Salome. An unbiased reading of the Gospel of Mark would lead to the conclusion that these children are sons and daughters of Mary and Joseph. Later Christian tradition, emphasizing sexual abstinence as a means of attaining piety, would make them Jesus’s step-brothers and step-sisters or even cousins. Identifying them in this way allowed for the belief that Mary remained a virgin her whole life and that even Joseph sired no offspring. Be that as it may, the brothers and sisters are historical figures and we know something about at least one of them beyond Mark’s meagre introduction.

“James,” an English revision of the Hebrew name Jacob, was a very important person in the life of the early community of those who believed in Messiah Jesus. He is mentioned several times in the New Testament: in the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Corinthians. There is even a letter in the New Testament attributed to him although many scholars remain doubtful as to its authenticity. Regardless, James became the undisputed leader of the apostles in Jerusalem either immediately after the crucifixion of Jesus or after the departure of Peter for places unknown (Acts 12:17).

Continue reading “The Bloodline of Jesus? Descendants of the Holy Family”

The Burial and Remains of St. Peter – A Study of the Evidence

Several years ago I prepared a paper detailing what archaeology and history have revealed to us about the last days and ultimate burial of Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ. Few scholars today would doubt the historicity of the tradition that the apostle Peter suffered martyrdom in Rome. The exact year or the circumstances that surround the event remain unclear but the common presumption that the execution took place during Nero’s retaliatory persecution of Christians blamed for the great fire of Rome in 64 C.E. remains tenable. Though knowledge of the precise date and proximate cause of Peter’s death is not necessary in terms of this paper, the general manner of it, i.e. martyrdom, and the location in which his death and burial took place is.

Much earlier in the life of this blog site, I provided a summary of the primary topics and promised the full paper. It was recently brought to my attention that this never happened! So I am pleased to provide the following dropbox link to the paper in full. I hope you will enjoy it!

Elements from the Christmas Nativity Display: What Gospel Does That Come From?

Nativity scene

At this time of year throughout Christendom churches and homes (no longer, it appears, governmental institutions) recreate for display the scene of Jesus’s birth. Actually, they depict not the birth itself but a moment in time afterward. How long afterward? That is a question that cannot be satisfactorily answered. The reason is not because historians and biblical scholars can’t estimate the span of time between, say, the birth of Jesus and the arrival of shepherds from their fields, or the birth and the arrival of magi from the East. It is because those arrivals are depicted in different gospels and are therefore, incongruent.

The story of Jesus’s arrival featured in the Gospel of Luke tells of shepherds who arrive quite soon after Jesus is born. The magi of the Gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, seem to make their appearance in Bethlehem about two years after Jesus’s birth. That is because, after meeting the magi and discovering their purpose for being in Judea, Herod the Great, King of the Jews, finds out where they are bound, and orders the slaughter of every male child in Bethlehem less than two years of age. It’s not a pretty picture of course and one understandably left out of nativity scenes.

This difference in timing between the visitations recounted in the two gospels ought to alert the reader that story elements from multiple sources have been employed to artistically recreate the nativity. The images of the manger, a star, angels, animals, shepherds, magi, and so forth, derive from a number of ancient texts both canonical and apocryphal. Let’s explore the popular nativity display, also called a manger scene or crèche, and trace its various components.

Obviously the primary sources for information about the birth of Jesus come from the New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Each story both differs from, and agrees with, the other in multiple ways. One story element to which both agree is the presence of Jesus’s two parents, Joseph and Mary. Every nativity scene features the two parents of Jesus looking down approvingly upon the newborn child. But, as far as the gospel stories go, that is where the commonality ends in nativity displays.

The Gospel of Matthew reports that a moving star led magi from the East to Bethlehem then stopped directly over the exact location of Jesus’s birth. No modern nativity scene is complete without this star, be it a mere C7 light bulb or a handsomely luminous astronomical effect. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, features no star. It reports instead that shepherds in nearby fields were alerted to the birth of Jesus by an angel. The shepherds (and perhaps the angels as well, according to most nativity displays) then go to Bethlehem where they find Jesus in a phatnē, a Greek word that can simply be translated as crib but which most English Bibles prefer to call a manger or stall. As Luke explains, this was because there was no room for Joseph and Mary in the kataluma, Greek for “guest chamber.” The guest room(s) being otherwise occupied, the expectant couple was probably directed down below the primary dwelling to the cave-like cellar where produce, wine, and sometimes animals were kept. It was dark, cool, and private. Nevertheless, artists have almost unanimously chosen to depict the newborn Jesus in a barn lying in an animal food trough. And nearly every display follows Luke by showing Jesus wrapped in strips of cloth, or “swaddling clothes.”

Continue reading “Elements from the Christmas Nativity Display: What Gospel Does That Come From?”

The Fall (and Rise) of Pontius Pilate

Almost everyone, Christian and non-Christian, has heard of Pontius Pilate and is generally aware of his role in the death of Jesus. He was certainly an historical figure as archaeology, non-biblical historical sources, and the gospels can attest. Pilate was a prefectus, sometimes translated into English as governor, appointed by Rome to administer the relatively new imperial province of Judea and Samaria in 26 CE. Such men were chosen from the equestrian class, the Latin knights of Roman society. Thus Pilate was a military man with sufficient experience and accolades to suggest his appointment to the emperor. He, like the four prefecti before him, made his headquarters in the Mediterranean coastal city of Caesarea, only recently given an extensive Greco-Roman renovation by the late Herod the Great. Periodically, when the religious city of Jerusalem swelled with visiting pilgrims, Pilate would make his way with his cadre of non-Italian infantry and a few cavalry to take up residence not far from the Jewish Temple. There, he would reside in Herod’s Jerusalem palace. His accompanying troops augmented their stationary comrades located in the fortress named for Mark Antony astride the Temple itself. It was on just such an occasion, the Passover of 30 CE, that Pilate was presented by the Temple’s religious leadership with a Jewish offender who required Roman justice, one Jesus of Nazareth. It was he, the leading priests said, who had been making himself out to be a king. Pilate should therefore vanquish him forthwith.

Why the Jewish leadership thought Pilate might willingly acquiesce to such a request is not hard to fathom. The late first-century CE Jewish historian Josephus gives us a number of examples of Pilate’s brutality in reaction to real and imagined rebellion during his tenure. Pilate, hardly a friend of the Jews, arrived at his post in a contemptuous manner sending his troops into Jerusalem carrying the iconic image of the emperor attached to their military standards, an obvious violation of Jewish laws against graven images. Only after threats by the populace did he have them replaced. Later he made plans to modernize Jerusalem’s water delivery system by using, with the chief priests’ acquiescence or not, temple funds to do so. This, too, created an uprising which resulted in casualties. During an event that took place after Jesus’s execution, Pilate was quick to violently strike down a group of Samaritans who had assembled near the ruins of their own temple. There they had joyfully followed a self-appointed leader who promised to dig up the temple’s buried holy furnishings from the past. The subsequent over-reaction by Pilate resulted in his recall to Rome.

Although Josephus only gives us his side of the story of the altercations mentioned above, we may add the characterization of Pilate by the first-century Alexandrian Jewish theologian Philo (“inflexible,” “vindictive,” “furious temper”) and a New Testament reference to an incident involving “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1) to confirm that crucifying Jesus would not have unduly worried the Roman governor. Yet this is not quite the picture we get of Pilate by reading the accounts of the hearing that Pilate gave to Jesus. In fact, Pilate is made to seem quite reluctant to sentence Jesus to death.

Continue reading “The Fall (and Rise) of Pontius Pilate”

Disagreement over Jesus’s Resurrection: How did it Really Happen?

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.