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.