Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus
The Greeks, by contrast, had long held that a meritorious man could be resurrected as a god after his death (the process of apotheosis). The successors of Alexander the Great made this idea very well known throughout the Middle East, in particular through coins bearing his image – a privilege previously reserved for gods – and although originally foreign to the Romans, the doctrine was soon borrowed by the emperors for purposes of political propaganda. According to the theology of Imperial Roman apotheosis, the earthly body of the recently deceased emperor vanished, he received a new and divine one in its place, and was then seen by credible witnesses; thus, in a story similar to the Gospel appearances of the resurrected Jesus and the commissioning of the disciples, Romulus, the founder of Rome, descended from the sky to command a witness to bear a message to the Romans regarding the city’s greatness (“Declare to the Romans the will of Heaven that my Rome shall be the capital of the world…”) before being taken up on a cloud.
The experiences of the risen Christ attested by the earliest written sources – the “primitive Church” creed of 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:8 and Galatians 1:16 – are ecstatic rapture events and “invasions of heaven”. A physical resurrection was unnecessary for this visionary mode of seeing the risen Christ, but the general movement of subsequent New Testament literature is towards the physical nature of the resurrection. This development can be linked to the changing make-up of the Christian community: Paul and the earliest Christ-followers were Jewish, and Second Temple Judaism emphasised the life of the soul; the gospel-writers, in an overwhelmingly Greco-Roman church, stressed instead the pagan belief in the hero who is immortalised and deified in his physical body. In this Hellenistic resurrection paradigm Jesus dies, is buried, and his body disappears (with witnesses to the empty tomb); he then returns in an immortalised physical body, able to appear and disappear at will like a god, and returns to the heavens which are now his proper home.
Earliest Jewish-Christian followers of Jesus
The earliest report of the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus is in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. This lists, apparently in chronological order, a first appearance to Peter, then to “the Twelve,” then to five hundred at one time, then to James (presumably James the brother of Jesus), then to “all the Apostles,” and last to Paul himself. Paul does not mention any appearances to women, apart from “sisters” included in the 500; other New Testament sources do not mention any appearance to a crowd of 500. There is general agreement that the list is pre-Pauline – it is often called a catechism of the early church – but less on how much of the list belongs to the tradition and how much is from Paul: most scholars feel that Peter and the Twelve are original, but not all believe the same of the appearances to the 500, James and “all the Apostles”.[Notes 1]
By claiming that Jesus has appeared to him in the same way he did to Peter, James and the others who had known Jesus in life, Paul bolsters his own claims to apostolic authority. In Galatians 1 he explains that his experience was a revelation both from Jesus (“The gospel I preached … I received by revelation from Jesus Christ”) and of Jesus (“God … was pleased to reveal His son in me”). In 2 Corinthians 12 he tells his readers of “a man in Christ who … was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know – God knows;” Elsewhere in the Epistles Paul speaks of “glory” and “light” and the “face of Jesus Christ,” and while the language is obscure it is plausible that he saw Jesus exalted, enthroned in heaven at the right hand of God. He has little interest in Jesus’ resurrected body, except to say that it is not a this-worldly one: in his Letter to the Philippians he describes how the resurrected Christ is exalted in a new body utterly different to one he had when he wore “the appearance of a man,” and holds out a similar glorified state, when Christ “will transform our lowly body,” as the goal of the Christian life.
Gospels and Acts
The gospel of Mark (written c.70 CE) contained no post-Resurrection appearances in its original version, which ended at Mark 16:8, although Mark 16:7, in which the young man discovered in the tomb instructs the women to tell “the disciples and Peter” that Jesus will see them again in Galilee, hints that the author may have known of the tradition of 1 Thessalonians.
The authors of Matthew (c.80-90 CE) and Luke/Acts (a two-part work by the same anonymous author, usually dated to around 80–90 CE) based their lives of Jesus on the Gospel of Mark. As a result, they diverge widely after Mark 16:8, where Mark ends with the discovery of the empty tomb. Matthew has two post-Resurrection appearances, the first to Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” at the tomb, and the second, based on Mark 16:7, to all the disciples on a mountain in Galilee, where Jesus claims authority over heaven and earth and commissions the disciples to preach the gospel to the whole world. Luke does not mention any of the appearances reported by Matthew, and replaces Galilee with Jerusalem as the sole location. In Luke, Jesus appears to Cleopas and an unnamed disciple on the road to Emmaus, to Peter (reported by the other apostles), and to the eleven remaining disciples at a meeting with others. The appearances reach their climax with the Ascension of Jesus before the assembled disciples on a mountain outside Jerusalem. In addition, Acts has appearances to Paul on the Road to Damascus, to the martyr Stephen, and to Peter, who hears the voice of Jesus.
The Gospel of John was written some time after 80 or 90 CE. Jesus appears at the empty tomb to Mary Magdalene (who initially fails to recognise him), then to the disciples minus Thomas, then to all the disciples including Thomas (the “doubting Thomas” episode), finishing with an extended appearance in Galilee to Peter and six (not all) of the disciples. Chapter 21, the appearance in Galilee, is widely believed to be a later addition to the original gospel.
The earliest Jewish followers of Jesus (the Jewish Christians) understood him as the Son of Man in the Jewish sense, a human who, through his perfect obedience to God’s will, was resurrected and exalted to heaven in readiness to return at any moment as the Son of Man, the supernatural figure seen in Daniel 7 13-14, ushering in and ruling over the Kingdom of God. Paul has already moved away from this apocalyptic tradition towards a position where Christology and soteriology take precedence: Jesus is no longer the one who proclaims the message of the imminently coming Kingdom, he actually is the kingdom, the one in whom the kingdom of God is already present.
This is also the message of Mark, a gentile writing for a church of gentile Christians, for whom Jesus as “Son of God” has become a divine being whose suffering, death and resurrection are essential to God’s plan for redemption. Matthew presents Jesus’ appearance in Galilee (Matthew 28:19-20) as a Greco-Roman apotheosis, the human body transformed to make it fitting for paradise. He goes beyond the ordinary Greco-Roman forms, however, by having Jesus claim “all authority … in heaven and on earth” (28:18) – a claim no Roman hero would dare make – while charging the apostles to bring the whole world into a divine community of righteousness and compassion. Notable too is that the expectation of the imminent Second Coming has been delayed: it will still come about, but first the whole world must be gathered in.
In Paul and the first three gospels, and also in Revelation, Jesus is portrayed as having the highest status, but the Jewish commitment to monotheism prevents the authors from depicting him as fully one with God.This stage was reached first in the Christian community which produced the Johannine literature: only here in the New Testament does Jesus become God incarnate, the body of the resurrected Jesus bringing Doubting Thomas to exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”
- Paul informs his readers that he is passing on what he has been told, “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, and 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.”
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