Were Jesus’s Resurrection Appearances Visions?

Were Jesus’s Resurrection Appearances Visions? April 10, 2015

Many contemporary New Testament (NT) scholars claim that the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus narrated in the four NT gospels were “visions.” We’re talking about the forty-day period between Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and his heavenly ascension (Acts 1.3, 9). Are these scholars right about this?

My first book, The Gospels Interwoven (1987, 415 pp.), is in two parts: (1) a composite harmony of the four NT gospels in the NIV, and (2) 130 questions and answers about the primary harmonizing difficulties that arise when comparing these gospels, with these questions keyed to the harmony text. So, the latter portion of the harmony presents in an attempted chronological form the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, and the second portion of the book addresses the many harmonizing difficulties regarding this portion.

In my recent three-part review on this blog of Dr. Bart Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God, I stated in Part 2–which addresses Ehrman’s two chapters about the purported resurrection of Jesus and his post-resurrection appearances in the four NT gospels–that when Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, was released in 2004, I promptly laid aside my current writing project and tried my hand at writing a film screenplay about this subject and calling it “The Resurrection of Christ.” I based it on that portion of my book and made it especially for Icon Productions, owned by Gibson and his business partner Bruce Davey. I then spent almost the next 1.5 years doing the following: taking a course on screenwriting, more research on this subject, writing the script, and writing a fifty-page apparatus that justifies scenes especially according to scripture, but also archaeology and tradition. I then tried to shop it in Hollywood and didn’t get very far with it. Benedict Fitzgerald, Gibson’s screenwriter for The Passion, read it and likes it, and I did talk to Gibson’s agent Ed Limato on the phone briefly about it. So, the script has been sitting on my bookshelf gathering dust ever since.

The reason I say this about my book and the screenplay is that for a layperson I have done a lot of work learning about Jesus’ resurrection and post-resurrection appearances. So, when I read books about this subject, I fell I have something to say about them that is worthwhile. The Part 2 of my review of Ehrman’s book is an example. In it, I relate that Ehrman alleges that all of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in the four NT were “visions” that Jesus’ disciples experienced. Now, Ehrman provides a nuanced, rather complex definition of how he uses the word “vision.” For me, he’s saying Jesus did not literally appear to his disciples in any of these supposed historical events.

First of all, I stated in this review of Ehrman’s book that he is a professed agnostic and apostate Christian. But, that is a little deceptive in my opinion. An agnostic says he “doesn’t know,” in this case whether or not something is historically true. In fact, Ehrman does not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus, so he is athestic about it. For that reason, he must view the NT gospel reports about this as visions or something similar rather than as historical events that actually happened.

Surprisingly, there are what seems to me an increasing number of rather conservative NT scholars, who I tend to think of as Christian, who agree with Ehrman that these were visions; yet they also seem to believe Jesus literally arose from the dead. I am about to read a new book published by the Catholic Paulist Press and written by Francis Maloney, a good, Catholic NT scholar, entitled The Resurrection of the Messiah: A Narrative Commentary on the Resurrection Accounts in the Four Gospels. A review of this book says Maloney regards the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus as visions.

I disagree strongly. And if that had been the case, I think Christianity never would have happened. For, the foundation of Christianity is belief in the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It is what makes Christianity such a unique religion and the largest religion in the world for the past 1700 years.

How many post-resurrection appearances in the NT gospels are we talking about? In my book, I state that there either nine of ten. None of them are described as a “vision.” Rather, I think the authors clearly present their narratives with the purpose of causing their readers to think that these were historical events that actually happened, thus certainly not visions that people only think in their minds. But in saying this, I need to address Luke 24.13-43.

Luke says that on the first Sunday afternoon following Jesus’ crucifixion death, two of Jesus’ disciples were walking from Jerusalem seven miles to the village of Emmaus (Luke 24.13). Luke says, “While they were talking and discussing” about Jesus having died, “Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (vv. 15-16). Luke does not describe this as though it is some vision these disciples thought or “saw” in their minds, with no historically reality to it. Rather, he tells about how Jesus conversed with these two men along the way. They mentioned “the things” that had taken place about Jesus in Jerusalem as big news (v. 18). Jesus played dumb by saying, “What things?” (v. 19). They answered, “some women of our group astounded us. They were at the the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive” (vv. 22-23). When they arrived at Emmaus, they invited Jesus into the house for a meal. Jesus broke bread and handed each a piece. Then Luke says, “Then their eyes were opened, and they recongized him; and he vanished from their sight” (v. 31).

The main issue regarding historical reality in this narrative is the men describing the womens’ encounter with two angels at Jesus’ tomb as a “vision.” Now, concerning all of the data in the four NT gospels about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, Matthew says at Jesus’ tomb there was “an angel” (Matt 28.2), Mark says there was “a young man” (Mark 16.5). Luke says there were “(two) men” (Luke 24.4-5), and John says there were “two angels” (John 20.12). But Matthew adds that the angel’s “appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men” (Matt 28.3-4), thus passed out unconscious. And Luke adds that they wore “dazzling clothes,” suggesting they were other worldly. That surely is why the two men on the road to Emmaus called them “angels.”

These descriptions by Matthew, Mark, and John surely give the impression that these were actual, historical events. If so, why did the two men going to Emmaus tell Jesus that the women had seen a “vision of angels”? When the women were the first to discover Jesus’ tomb empty, as well as the first to see the risen Jesus (Matt 28.9-10), and they told Jesus’ male disciples about it, Luke says, “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24.11). So, due to their unbelief, all of the male disciples probably concluded that the portion of the womens’ story about angels was not historical, but a vision. Therefore, we should not understand the report of the men on the road to Emmaus about these angels to have necessarily been accurate since the men had not yet even believed that Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb, let alone that they had heard that Jesus had appeared to any of the disciples.

Furthermore, the gospel accounts say the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples and either invited them to literally touch his body or they actually did touch him as follows:

  • Concerning the women who went the tomb and then departed, “Suddenly, Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him” Matt 28.9).
  • When the two men returned from Emmaus that Sunday evening and joined the excited disciples gathered in a house. “While they were talking about this Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, show them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence” (Luke 24.36-43).
  • Mary Magadlene, alone at the tomb, “saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus…. Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father'” (John 20.14, 17). This latter suggests that Mary touched Jesus just as the other women had.
  • The risen Jesus said to the Apostle Thomas, “Put your fingers here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20.27), which certainly does not comport with a vision.
  • So, what about the two men on the road to Emmaus not recognizing Jesus all that time as well as Mary Magdalene not at first recognizing Jesus? Doesn’t that suggest that those were not actual, historical events? Well, Jesus had a resurrection body, which is not the same as our mortal bodies. He said his resurrection body consisted of flesh and bones. Yet it was somehow quite different because it was immortal. The scriptures do not tell us much about it. Scripture does say the risen Jesus could appear and disappear instantly, and even do so in locked rooms. So, we should not be surprised that people did not recognize the risen Jesus until he decided that they would or did something regarding his body that then enabled them to naturally tell that it was him.

In conclusion, we need to be careful when examining the NT gospel accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and only make conclusions about them that are clearly based on the evidence as purported in these most holy documents.

 

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  • Keefa

    >>‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a
    piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence” (Luke 24.36-43)

    >>Do you think that Jesus still partake of physical food
    while in heaven?

    >> Could it be possible that Jesus still has a flesh
    and bone body so that he can return to the earth?

    • kzarley

      Good questions. I’m not sure about either question. The main biblical information we have about these questions is “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21.2), which I think happens at the second coming of Christ. The remainder of the Bible mostly describes this city. It has a river of water and a “tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (22.2). All of that seems to be physical. So, someone surely will be eating that fruit growing on the tree of life. Is this the case now in heaven, so that angels eat that friut? I don’t know. It reminds me of “the manna from heaven.”

      The risen Jesus said to his disciples, “a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24.39). But Paul says of the present and future resurrection bodies of the saints, and thus Jesus’ body, “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam [Jesus] became a life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15.44-45). So, it seems that Jesus’ resurrection body is flesh and bones but that there is something different about it that caused Paul to say it is “spiritual.” Each time in this text Paul uses the Greek word for “spirit”–pneuma or pneumatikon.

  • Ben Klein

    In the earliest reference to the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15.3-8, we read:

    “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 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. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

    Paul includes himself in his list of those to whom the risen Jesus “appeared”. He makes no distinction, but in fact equates, the appearance of Jesus to him and the appearances to others. The Greek verb Paul uses for all these appearances he mentions is the same one – ὤφθη (Greek – ōphthē) meaning “appeared, was seen” – in each case.

    “The choice of this word is significant because it does not necessarily imply the actual appearance of a person, but may only indicate an unusual phenomena…the use of the word ὤφθη in enumerating other visions in the Pauline lists…excludes such details as prolonged conversations, meals and resumption of ordinary life, on which the gospels dwell.” – Charles Guignebert, “Jesus” pg. 523

    The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. V, p. 358) points out that in this type of context the word is a technical term for being “in the presence of revelation as such, without reference to the nature of its perception.” In other words, the “seeing” may not refer to actual sensory or mental perception. “The dominant thought is that the appearances are revelations, an encounter with the risen Lord who reveals himself…they experienced his presence.”

    There are many instances where it’s used of spiritual “visions”. For example: Acts 16:9-10 “And a vision appeared (ōphthē) to Paul in the night; there stood a man of Macedonia…And after he had seen the vision (horama), immediately we endeavored to go into Macedonia” Is there anyone who actually thinks the Macedonian man’s physical body was actually standing in front of Paul when he “appeared” to him?

    Same thing in Mark 9:4/Matthew 17:1-3, Moses and Elijah “appeared” (ōphthē) to Peter. Matthew 17:9 calls the experience a “vision”. Did their physical bodies appear?

    The word is used in the LXX (Greek translation of the OT) to describe how the Lord God appeared to the patriarchs (e.g., to Jacob in a dream, in Gen 31:13). In the LXX stories that use this word, the emphasis is more on the presence of God and on its power to reveal than on the “reality” of the experience.

    “When Paul classifies the Damascus appearance with the other in 1 Cor 15:5 this is not merely because he regards it as equivalent….It is also because he regards this appearance similar in kind. In all the appearances the presence of the risen Lord is a presence in transfigured corporeality, 1 Cor 15:42. It is the presence of the exalted Lord from heaven. This presence is in non-visionary reality; no category of human seeing is wholly adequate for it. On this ground, the appearances are to be described in the sense of revelation rather than making visible.“ – Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Vol. 5 pg. 359

    ===================================

    We know from the book of Acts, Paul’s description of his encounter on the Damascus road makes it clear that this was a vision – a light from heaven and a disembodied voice – not an encounter with a physically-revived former corpse returned to life.

    Acts 9:3-8
    “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him….”

    Acts 22:6-11
    “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me….”

    Acts 26:13-18
    “About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions….”

    Acts 26:19
    “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.”

    ===================================

    We also know that the companions of Paul did not see or hear the vision/voice properly. This indicates that the experience was, at least in some sense, subjective to Paul.

    Acts 9:7
    “The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.”

    Acts 22:9
    “My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.”

    As far as the appearances go Paul makes no distinction, but in fact equates, the appearance of Jesus to him and the appearances to others in 1 Cor 15. So if we’re to take the accounts in Acts 9:3-8, 22:6-11, 26:13-18 as historical then the appearances mentioned in 1 Cor 15 were originally understood to be spiritual “visions” instead of actually seeing a physically resuscitated corpse. This comes as no surprise considering Paul himself admits to having “visions” and “revelations” of the Lord (2 Cor 12:1). By Paul’s own admission, he was “seeing things.”

    Acts also records Peter as having “visions” in Acts 10.10-16. At the beginning, Luke says that ‘a trance came upon him’, and afterwards that he was perplexed at ‘what the vision which he had seen might be’ (Acts 10.17). Later, Peter begins to explain it, saying ‘I saw a vision in a trance’ (Acts 11.5). This makes Peter a particularly suitable candidate for ‘he [Jesus] appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve’ (1 Cor. 15.5).

    So we have evidence that two of the eyewitnesses mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:5-8 were susceptible to having “visions”.

    In the earliest manuscripts of gMark there are no resurrection appearances. In Matthew, only Jesus’ feet are mentioned and he appears on a mountaintop but “some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). In Luke and John the physical body is increasingly more emphasized. Also in John, the deity of Jesus is stressed which is nowhere mentioned in the synoptics. This seems to be clear evidence of a legend growing in the telling with the earliest beliefs being that of “visions” then to bodily encounters all the way up to Jesus being God in the flesh in gJohn. If this story were actually true we would expect a lot more consistency than we get from the documents.

    • kzarley

      I agree with some of what you are saying. You obviously know this subject fairly well. But to me, you are not making yourself clear. It seems your purpose for presenting biblical evidence that ophthe can refer to visionary appearances is to prove that the resurrected Jesus did not actually appear to his disciples as a spiritual body that could be touched and that could eat and drink, whereas I have cited biblical texts to the contrary. I agree that ophthe is used in the NT for both visions and reality. Regarding Elijah and Moses appearing at the Transfiguration, I think that was visionary yet the physical Jesus was there also. And everyone believes Jesus remained in heaven when he appeared to Paul on the Damascus road. Regarding OT appearances of YHWH/LORD in the OT, I believe those are the same as appearances of “the angel of YHWH/LORD.” In my RJC book, I have a considerable section on this subject, showing that it was an actual angel and that it is Michael the archangel. Angels, of course, can really appear to humans, thus not necessarily in vision. I disagree about your assertion of a historical development of Christian belief from vision to reality, especially if you mean Jesus’ resurrection. And in my RJC book I devote 100 pages to showing that the Gospel of John does not say Jesus is God. Thus, I think it was quite wrong of church fathers to identify Jesus as God, since I do not believe there is any biblical evidence for that. As for your accusation that biblical documents are inconsistent, I strongly disagree with you on this.

      • Ben Klein

        What’s clear is that the nature of resurrection evolves over time within the New Testament.

        Paul (c. 50 CE) does not indicate the Risen Jesus was experienced in a way that was any more “physical” than a vision or revelation. He gives no hint that the disciples interacted physically with the resurrected Jesus on earth.

        Mark (c. 70 CE) introduces the empty tomb (absent from Paul), but does not narrate the appearances in the earliest manuscripts.

        Matthew (c. 80 CE) has the women grab Jesus’s feet then has him appear to the disciples on a mountaintop but “some doubted.” It is not clear from Matthew that the resurrected Jesus was an actual flesh and blood body.

        Luke (c. 85 CE) depicts a flesh and bones Jesus eating with the disciples while he allows them to investigate his body. Luke is the first to mention the 40 day period of Jesus on earth then his physical form flying up to heaven while people were watching. How did these amazing details make it past Paul, Mark, and Matthew without so much as a mention?

        John (c. 90-120 CE) is the furthest developed theologically and makes statements which seem to equate Jesus with God. Again, how did these noteworthy statements go unnoticed by the synoptic authors?

        Answer: We have a legend growing in the telling.

        • kzarley

          I don’t think any NT documents were written after 70 CE. And I think you are demanding too much from them about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. “How did these amazing details make it past Paul,” etc. Come on! Paul didn’t know all these things then, 50 CE, that were later put in the gospels. I doubt Paul knew of the virgin birth.

          The argument of no empty tomb in Paul is old hat and of no substance. A risen Jesus logically requires a dead Jesus entombed. Paul wrote only letters, not treatises. Even when he at length explains the nature of resurrection, in 1 Cor 15, it is not to establish information about Jesus’ resurrection body but to correct proto-Gnostic belief that “there is no resurrection” (v. 12), thus denying Jesus’ resurrection.

          So, some of your arguments regard silence. The four gospels present mostly Jesus’ ministry which easily became part of oral tradition since there were so many eye witnesses of it whereas Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are a completely different genre–being private with few witnesses–and thus not very conducive to oral tradition.

          I already said I don’t believe the Gospel of John says Jesus was/is God, and there is no such in the synoptics, to which a huge majority of scholars agree. Read my RJC.

          No, Jesus’ resurrection is not legend. It is true and remains the foundation of Christianity. If it had not happened, there never would have been any Christianity.

          • Ben Klein

            “I don’t think any NT documents were written after 70 CE.”

            The dates I gave are the scholarly consensus. You can disagree with that but it’s still the consensus view in modern scholarship. That says something.

            “Come on! Paul didn’t know all these things then, 50 CE, that were later put in the gospels. I doubt Paul knew of the virgin birth.”

            In Galatians, Paul speaks of meeting with Peter for 15 days. Did Peter just forget to mention these amazing details?

            “The argument of no empty tomb in Paul is old hat and of no substance. A risen Jesus logically requires a dead Jesus entombed.”

            Try again. The Greek word Paul uses for “raised” is egegertai which has a wide range of meaning. One of the meanings is “to recall the dead back to life.” If Paul or the earliest Christians meant the word to be used that way then obviously they were not concerned with the what happened to the corpse of Jesus. You can’t restrict a word with such a wide range of meaning to just the literal “raising of a physical body.”

            “Even when he at length explains the nature of resurrection, in 1 Cor 15, it is not to establish information about Jesus’ resurrection body but to correct proto-Gnostic belief that “there is no resurrection” (v. 12), thus denying Jesus’ resurrection.”

            Paul says its a “spiritual body” that is raised. This “spiritual” body is contrasted with the natural or earthly body. There’s no evidence in the letters of Paul that he thought Jesus was “raised” in his earthly flesh and blood body. The earliest Christians and Paul believed Jesus received a new spiritual body in heaven. Hence, why these “appearances” of the glorified Christ were from heaven.

            “So, some of your arguments regard silence.”

            And arguments from silence can be valid under certain circumstances. In this case it’s quite telling that the earliest accounts are missing astonishing details such as a wholly physical revivification, the empty tomb, discarded grave cloths, people touching Jesus, Jesus eating and his physical form flying up into heaven.

            “The four gospels present mostly Jesus’ ministry which easily became part of oral tradition since there were so many eye witnesses of it whereas Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are a completely different genre–being private with few witnesses–and thus not very conducive to oral tradition.”

            Paul is our only verified eyewitness material. That’s a fact. The gospels are written in the third person and never claim to be based on eyewitness testimony. The earliest (Mark) was written about 4 decades after the crucifixion. Moreover, Matthew and Luke copied Mark. It makes no sense for “eyewitnesses” to borrow so much material from another source if they experienced the events themselves.

            “I already said I don’t believe the Gospel of John says Jesus was/is God, and there is no such in the synoptics, to which a huge majority of scholars agree. Read my RJC.”

            Do you deny the statements in John that seem to present Jesus in a much higher Christological state than in the synoptics? I’m talking about statements such as “I and the father are one,” “Before Abraham was I am”. How did these amazing statements go unmentioned by the earliest and more reliable sources such as Mark and Matthew?

            “No, Jesus’ resurrection is not legend. It is true and remains the foundation of Christianity. If it had not happened, there never would have been any Christianity.”

            This is a post hoc fallacy.

          • kzarley

            I’m not going to convince you, so it is a waste of my time to continue this.