[10-13 minute reading time]
1 Corinthians 15 is the earliest writing we have that mentions Jesus’s resurrection appearances, and Paul uses the Greek word ὤφθη (ophthe) which is commonly translated in English as “appeared”. In English, there’s some ambiguity to the word: an angel might appear in a vision or an acquaintance might appear from around a corner or a performer might appear on stage. But, of course, the modern English meaning is nearly irrelevant; we need to understand what the Biblical authors meant by it. I was looking into this very question the other day and came across something surprising which I thought I’d share.
First, though, I’m going to look briefly at Paul’s situation. Then I’ll look at all the uses of the word ὤφθη/ophthe in the Bible. Then I’ll circle back to one of the important uses of the word ὤφθη in Luke and consider its context in more depth.
Why is this important? For me, personally, my faith was held together by my belief in an historical resurrection. Other arguments for faith were gradually stripped away until just this one remained. But I thought that the evidence for it was compelling and that it validated the other claims that Jesus made. My faith fell apart when I came to believe that these claims are not really backed up, any more than the comparable claims in other religions. Of course, the specific story has its nuanced differences but the basic idea of some holy person obtaining a spiritual insight that separates him (almost always a “him”) from the other apes is something that we mostly ignore. But Christians claim that the resurrection of Jesus is differentiating and so let’s look at the specifics of the appearances.
I aim to be at least somewhat challenging to people with an exalted view of the evidence for the resurrection and a modern view of what the resurrection even means.
A Working Definition of Resurrection
I have been on the receiving end of enough casuistry in discussing this that I want to get a quick definition in. I’m not (yet) making any theological or exegetical points. I merely want to define two terms that I will use:
- Earthly resurrection: This is the resurrection of a person on earth. It is the actual body that dies and comes back to life, such as is reported for Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter, the saints of Jerusalem, and Jesus. For all but Jesus, we presume that the earthly body died again later and then (presumably) experienced a heavenly resurrection, while their earthly bodies decayed.
- Heavenly resurrection: This is the resurrection of a person in heaven after they die on earth. Christians (mostly) believe that after they die, their earthly body will stay dead and be eaten by worms or whatever, but that they will be given a heavenly body in their resurrection in heaven. There’s no particular reason (at least from a logical perspective rather than a theological perspective) why they couldn’t then visit earth, but when they do so it is their heavenly body that is visiting and their earthly body would still be dead. Such a visitation would not, of course, be evidence for an earthly resurrection.
This distinction may seem artificial, but for now, please just go with it. I make the definitions here so that my later points will be clear.
You will note that I say nothing about physical and spiritual. Most Christians believe that both are physical resurrections and I am not about to wade into those waters. I’ll grant that both are physical; it doesn’t matter for my argument. This is the specific sophistry that I am aiming to avoid by defining my points carefully.
Secondly, please note, that for the vast majority of Christians, when they talk about Jesus’s resurrection, they mean the earthly resurrection. In this case, it’s followed by the ascension, so they blend a little. But nonetheless, there was a period of time after the crucifixion and before the ascension when we can talk about Jesus’s earthly resurrection.
Paul’s views are fascinating and I will try not to digress as we discuss this. It’s so hard though. There’s so much there! Okay, focus.
Three quick points:
- Paul was a witness of the heavenly resurrection, not the earthly resurrection. He claims to be a witness of the resurrection (that’s his qualification for being an apostle in 1 Cor 9:1), but he is not a witness of the earthly resurrection which is what modern Christians mean by the resurrection of Jesus.
- Paul only ever adduces two sources for what he says: scripture (meaning what modern Christians patronizingly call the Old Testament) and revelation (meaning something that he has had directly from Jesus or God, such as his visit to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2), his vision of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23), or the Damascus road experience). He specifically states that he did not receive his gospel from other men (Gal 1:12).
- Paul is the earliest documented evidence of Jesus’s resurrection that we have (1 Cor 15).
Let’s briefly look at the earliest written account that mentions the resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-9):
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers at once, most of whom remain until now, but some have also fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, as to the child born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, who is not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the assembly of God.1 Cor 15:3-9
It’s a fascinating section for a number of reasons, and I’ve emphasized a few words so I can reference them.
Firstly, Paul uses the word “appeared” (ophthe) throughout. We know that, at least in his case, he’s talking about a visitation from heaven – a heavenly resurrection. In other words, nothing that would count as evidence for the earthly resurrection. He is no more a witness of the earthly resurrection than is Tofik, a modern-day Muslim who claimed to see Jesus. However, interestingly, he uses the same word for the other appearances and does not seem to think that it was any different for them. We will return to this in the next section.
Secondly, Paul explicitly tells us that his sources are revelation and scripture. He is certainly skimpy on any details that could be used. He does not mention here or anywhere else in his writings any of Jesus’s parables, his miracles, the passion in Jerusalem, Calvary, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, the transfiguration, the triumphal entry, the cleansing of the temple, the interrogation by the Sanhedrin, the garden of Gethsemane, the thieves, the weeping women, the time or place of the Crucifixion, Judas, Pilate, or Barabbas. Can we really take Paul seriously as an historian when he is so uninterested in the details? Notice he says “buried” rather than “laid in a tomb”. And, of course, no scripture is ever presented for the Messiah dying and rising on the third day.
Thirdly, the phrase “last of all” implies that he is presenting an exhaustive list. Unfortunately, the list does not at all correspond with the Gospel accounts. The women are missing completely (as is the entire tomb), he refers to the “twelve” when there were only eleven in the Gospels (Judas having left and Matthias not having yet arrived).
Dang it! The second and third points are digressions, after I tried not to. But fascinating, amiright? Anyway, let’s focus on the first point. He “appeared to Cephas” first of all, which is usually taken as Simon Peter. Let’s look at the other times this word is used in the Bible.
Ophthe in the Bible
Of these nineteen verses, thirteen of them are unambiguously appearances from heaven (angels, the transfiguration appearances of Elijah and Moses, and Jesus’s heavenly appearances to Paul) or visions, such as the appearance in a vision to Paul of the man from Macedonia (Acts 16:9) or the three occurrences in the Revelation. I included the appearance of Jesus to Paul in 1 Cor 15:8, but not the other three appearances in 1 Cor 15. Fascinatingly, 1 Tim 3:16 does not use it to say that Jesus was “revealed in the flesh” but does use it to say that Jesus was “seen by the angels” (“appeared to the angels” might be a better translation) so I include this in the count too.
Five of them are appearances of Jesus but without any specifics. These references are vague enough that it could go either way. Three of those we’ve already met in 1 Cor 15:5-7. One of them is the curious passage of Luke 24:34 in which the eleven are saying, “The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” I’ll return to this one in the next section as it is possibly the genesis of Christianity. The fifth is in Acts 13:31, where Luke claims that Paul says that Jesus appeared to those who had traveled with him without giving any specifics (Luke’s reported sermons are very unconvincing, since Peter and Paul both sound very similar).
Only one instance (Acts 7:26) of the word is earth-bound. Here, Stephen is telling the story of when Moses happened upon the two fighting Israelites (“appeared to them”), so that one single case out of nineteen is an earth-bound appearance. However, even this one is summarizing an ancient story in a fable-like way and provides scant details.
So we have this word that Paul is using in reference to his own witness of the resurrection, which we already know is a heavenly resurrection. And we have him using the same word for the other appearances. And this is meant to be the best and earliest account that we have. We do have some writings of Peter and James but they never describe what they saw. This is a little suspicious to me. If the definition of “resurrection” changed from earthly resurrection to heavenly resurrection early on in the evolution of Christianity, you might expect their descriptions of a heavenly resurrection to be aggressively elided from their writings. It’s hard to imagine them not ever describing such an important encounter with Jesus.
We also know that Peter had a vision of a blanket of food (Acts 10:9-16) and he hears a voice which he takes to be Jesus and completely changes his theology as a result. So he’s clearly not above having heavenly visions.
It actually boggles the mind a little to consider what is being claimed here. You can almost imagine Jesus arriving back in heaven and saying “Job done!” And God saying, “Good. Did you tell them not to call common that which I have cleansed?” (Acts 10:15). Jesus’s eyes widen. “Uh, totally. Of course. Er… I’m just going to check on something…”
This is the earliest witness we have, and it’s completely unspecific about time and place. The author only ever claims to have seen a heavenly resurrection. In fact, he’s constantly having these schizotypal experiences. And he presents the other witnesses as equivalent, including Peter who is described as being hungry and out in the noon sun when he falls into a trance. None of this is impressive. Nowadays, we might suggest that they take some Clozapine. Or take less Harmal.
Next are the gospel accounts. Mark, the earliest, doesn’t mention any of the appearances (Mark 16:9ff is a late addition and really wouldn’t add to his plausibility if you took it to be authentic). Matthew and Luke start to have him appear but in a weirdly incorporeal way. And John starts to solidify him more. Plainly none of the gospel writers are eye-witnesses (they are all third person accounts, for example). And, strikingly, every single time they describe an earthly resurrection experience it is accompanied by the witnesses doubting that it is real, even as they are experiencing it. Every single time.
And our great hope for an eye-witness account (Peter, James, and maybe John) simply don’t describe their appearances.
So we have no eye-witness accounts of the earthly resurrection.
We have Paul, who alludes to a couple of visions and calls himself a witness of the resurrection, but he means a heavenly resurrection. The later verses of 1 Cor 15 make it clear that this is what he thinks resurrection actually means.
We have (at best) second-hand reports in the Gospels, which contradict each other about who saw Jesus and where (though plainly they believe in an earthly resurrection by this point in the evolution of Christianity). And Peter, James, and John, who’s discussion of the resurrection could go either way, but who also do not describe what they supposedly saw.
Let’s take Luke 24:34 as a brief example of this. First, the context.
It starts with the women visiting the tomb. It’s different women in each of the four gospels, and different numbers of angels / men who are in the tomb or not, which is guarded or not. Luke changes what the angel says (plainly, he’s “correcting” Mark, but he’s doing so to move the resurrection appearances away from Galilee to Jerusalem). And now Peter gets sent along to confirm the women’s testimony. But no appearances yet.
Cut scene to the road to Emmaus, where the vanishing hitchhiker story takes place (Luke 24:13-32). At the time Luke was written, a popular tale was re-enacted every year about the resurrection of Romulus which has many parallels with this passage (see Carrier, OTHOJ; see here also).
Here are some of the parallels. It was told to show that Romulus had risen (vs Jesus had risen). It was told about Proculus which means “tell all” (vs Cleopas which means “tell all” or “proclaim”). Proculus was on a journey to Rome, showing the centrality of Rome (vs Cleopas’s journey from Jerusalem, showing the message spreading from there). Romulus appears in glory, showing the glory of Rome in this world (vs Jesus being hidden, showing a kingdom visible to believers only). Proculus is convinced by Romulus’s glory (vs Cleopas who is convinced by Jesus’s words). Romulus explains the secrets of heaven (vs Jesus explains the secrets of heaven). Proculus goes on to proclaim the good news (Cleopas goes on to proclaim the good news). The early readers of the gospel would have known this well.
The story includes Jesus not being recognized, which makes no sense, but allows for the amusing passage in which Cleopas and the other one (unnamed in the passage) explain Jesus to Jesus. Jesus goes in with them to eat, takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to them. They recognize him and he immediately vanishes.
They rush back to Jerusalem, where they find the eleven saying, “The Lord is risen and has appeared to Simon.” This appearance is never described, but given the context it’s sounding more and more similar to Paul’s experience.
Next thing, Jesus is standing among them and they are all frightened. Jesus says (Luke 24:39): “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
He doesn’t mention the wound to the side because that only happens in John. It also looks like the story is evolving. The author of Luke is writing this many years later. Peter and Paul have had their appearances but perhaps this is no longer seen as good enough. Compare Jesus’s statement about having flesh and bones with Paul’s writings on the resurrection in 1 Cor 15:50 in which he says: “I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”
So for Paul, the resurrection was a heavenly resurrection. For Peter, it looks like it could be the same but we don’t have any details given to us. We’re just told that Jesus “appeared” to Peter, using a word used exclusively in the Bible for visions, heavenly appearances, and ancient stories. For Luke, the story was already evolving, and Jesus is claiming to have flesh and bones and eating fish. But he’s still sometimes unrecognized by his friends and is able to appear and disappear in a mysterious way.
And note Luke 24:41, “And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement…” Luke goes out of his way to note that this doubt still exists. And these kinds of expressions accompany every description of Jesus’s earthly resurrection.
Finally, Jesus leads them out to Bethany and is taken up into heaven. So, in Luke’s account, it all happens in Jerusalem and on that third day: the ascension happens on the same day that he rises. But the story continues to evolve, and Luke, not being an eye-witness, simply adjusts it in the book of Acts. Matthew, of course, has all the appearances in Galilee. Luke has Jesus say, “Do not leave Jerusalem” in Acts 1:4. He also hears that Jesus sticks around for forty days, so records that in Acts, even though in Luke, Jesus ascends on that third day.
The resurrection is clearly central to the Christian faith. But there is some ambiguity about what the resurrection means: is it earthly or heavenly? If the earthly resurrection is important to you, but the early Christians meant heavenly resurrection when they say resurrection, then that is an important detail to consider.
It is completely clear that the earliest writer (Paul) meant heavenly resurrection when he claimed to be a witness of the resurrection. And he uses the word ophthe to describe his experiences and those of the other witnesses he mentions in 1 Cor 15 without differentiating. No-one clarifies this issue for the people that Paul names in this passage. Simon Peter Cephas (if these are even one person) doesn’t write about his experiences (suspicious; perhaps those passages were removed early on) and all we have is vague allusions to the fact that Jesus appeared to him. But we do know that Acts describes Peter having a vision that he takes to come from The Lord and that completely changes his theology.
The gospel writers then give us second-hand reports that seem to be slowly solidifying Jesus’s resurrection from a heavenly one to an earthly one. We literally see the missing links in this evolution with the vanishing hitchhiker story (clearly meant to be a reflection of the Romulus story), the sudden appearances, and the constant doubt. And, right in the middle of it, Luke 24:34 records that Simon has claimed that Jesus appeared to him, using the exact word that is used exclusively in the Bible for visions, heavenly visitations, and ancient stories. It’s like a fossil of the earlier belief.
All this means that we don’t have a single eye-witness account of the earthly resurrection. Many Christians (including my former self) believe that these witnesses went on to die rather than admit that it hadn’t happened. But if this was all based on visions, then they died for a substantially different religion from modern Christianity. Of course, there are no reliable accounts of the martyr stories either and the Bible itself doesn’t record anything helpful (Stephen is not a witness of the resurrection, so is evidence only that people might die based on second-hand information which we already knew; and it’s not clear which James dies or what the circumstances were. For example, was he given a chance to recant, and was that even important. There’s no evidence for either).
All in all, it’s a fun story, but not one that is more compelling than the stories of Joseph Smith, Mohammad, L Ron Hubbard, Sathya Sai Baba, or any of a myriad other stories.