reader’s patience is requested in the fact that these Jesus
pages are in effect a kind of sub-Web, “piggy-backing” on the
principal Web, http://www.paulonpaul.org,
and thus that the As Paul Tells It . .
. designation at the top of each page is not quite accurate.
Traditions Home Page is readily accessible by clicking on Contents,
to be found at the top and bottom of each page.
in red = Mark .. in blue
.. in green = Special Matthew ..
in fuchsia = Special Luke
of Jesus Traditions
It is not surprising that doctrinal presuppositions make it difficult
to read the New Testament evidence concerning the resurrection appearances
with some degree of clarity and sympathy. It is no easy task to separate the “Jesus of Faith”
from biographical inquiry. It may be difficult to achieve a certain
perspective on the development of traditions about Jesus, and to realize
that one of our sources is close to those
early resurrection experiences, and others, more remote. Readers may not
be aware that
only one of our sources comes from a person who claims actually to have seen the
risen Christ, and that this source is not one of the gospels, but 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, written by the apostle Paul; and further
that this source is also the earliest of all. (Click on Resurrection
Appearances in Paul.)
We are reminded that not all of the Jesus traditions are to be found
in the gospels. Two quite early and quite significant traditions are to be
found in the letters of Paul: an account of the institution of the
Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), and an early summary
of the Christian proclamation (1 Corinthians 15:3-8), which
mentions the death of Jesus, and a series of resurrection appearances.
|Less happily, we note the regrettable absence of an ending to the
Gospel of Mark, our earliest gospel source: the gospel ends abruptly at 16:8,
practically in mid-sentence, with nothing of the resurrection appearances.
Whether the author left the work uncompleted, or whether an ending which
contained accounts of appearances was damaged and lost, we can only guess
(this writer prefers the latter alternative). Certain later Greek
manuscripts contain the so-called long ending (Mark 16:9-20), which attempts to remedy the
omission, but the earliest and best manuscripts have no such material.
|The synoptic source Q was evidently mostly a sayings source, and
lacked a passion narrative and a resurrection account. The remaining
sources (Matthew, Luke and John) come from the last two decades of the
first century; their resurrection reports are of uncertain lineage, and may well derive,
in whole or in part, from popular
anecdotes. In their present form they also reflect to some degree
the editorial viewpoint of the respective authors.
What We Find in Our Sources
A glance at the chart below will indicate how the various sources
differ, sometimes in matters of minor detail, sometimes in matters of
importance. Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians represents the gold
standard for reconstructing the earliest resurrection traditions, taking us back to a relatively
early stage of Christian experience. Paul probably received these
traditions within less than a decade of the resurrection appearances.
Nevertheless, we remind ourselves, his account does not necessarily represent biographical bedrock.
||No physical characteristics; spiritual body
|[no appearances; disciples, Peter, implied]
||Empty tomb, no appearances
|Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary
+ doubts, 28:17
|Two on road to Emmaus (Peter already had an
|John 20, 21
|some spiritual, some physical
The priority of a first appearance
to Cephas (Peter) seems well-grounded, not only on the earlier date of
the 1 Corinthians tradition, and the implied priority of Cephas in
Luke (24:34), and indirectly in Mark (16:7), but also on
fact that Paul had an opportunity to check such matters with Peter,
and with James the Lord’s brother, directly (First
Jerusalem Visit, Galatians 1:18-19). Attempts to
establish the priority of the women (Matthew 28:9-10) have not been successful, in this
• in part because of the late date of the Gospel of Matthew
(A.D. 80-90), and the even later date of the Gospel of John (A.D. 100);
• in part because it is doubtful whether the author
of Matthew would have had access to reliable tradition, with the passage of five or six decades,
dislocations of the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, and with the
dispersion of the Jerusalem church (see ninth
A glance at the chart above will show that 1 Corinthians 15 alone is
silent about an empty tomb. So does this qualify as a no-brainer? four
gospels against one letter? The
answer is no, unless early authentication is thought to carry no weight.
It appears that, for Paul, Jesus was believed to be alive, not because his
body was not found in a tomb, but because he was experienced as alive by
Paul himself and by other witnesses to the resurrection. In any case, the absence
of the body from the tomb proves nothing, since this fact could be
accounted for by other causes, including the body’s being stolen, as was
the rumor which was already circulating (Matthew 28:11-15).
Our earliest account of resurrection appearances, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8,
does not give the location of the appearances. The only clue is an appearance
to some five hundred people, most of whom were still alive in the early 50’s of
the first century; but if most of Jesus’ followers were
Galileans, then we might expect such an appearance in Galilee. Appearances to others are also possible
elsewhere. And we remind ourselves that the appearance to Paul took place
in or near Damascus.
Although Mark has no resurrection appearances, the disciples and Peter
are told to go to Galilee, where they will see him (16:7). Matthew has an initial appearance to certain women (28:8-10),
who have visited the tomb in Jerusalem, but Matthew also has a Galilean
appearance to the disciples (28:10, 16-20). The Fourth Gospel (John
20–21) has appearances in both Jerusalem and Galilee.
Luke, for reasons that are not entirely clear, restricts the
resurrection appearances to Jerusalem and vicinity (Luke 24:13-53;
note verse 49; cp. also Acts 1:4), in contradiction of the
other sources. John Knox (1987, 13-14) proposes a “Jerusalem
tendency” of Luke by way of explanation.
Spiritual Body? Physical Body?
For many readers, the gospel accounts, with their vivid accounts of a
resurrection body with physical characteristics, have left such an
impression that they may not realize how different the resurrection body
of Jesus was from the pre-Easter body. There was continuity, to be sure.
He was recognizable, if not always. But Jesus had been transformed at his resurrection, with a
new body appropriate to the age to come, freed from the limitations of
time and space, a body in which he could be with his
followers “always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
is this glorified body which shines through all of the accounts of
resurrection appearances, even in those gospels which mention distinctly
|In Matthew 28:16-17, when Jesus appears to his disciples in
Galilee, “some doubted,” hardly intelligible if in some way he had
not been transformed;|
|In Luke 24:13-16, 28-31, Jesus is not at first recognized by
the two followers on the road to Emmaus, and at the end of the
anecdote he disappears from sight without explanation; |
|In John 20:19, he enters the room where the disciples are
gathered, even though the door is locked (compare also the curiously
ambiguous words of 20:17, “. . . Do not hold on to me”).|
What do we find in our earliest account, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8? We have good reason to suppose that the appearance to Paul, the last
in the series, was an appearance of Christ in his glorified, spiritual body;
click on appearance,
and spiritual body. No physical characteristics of
Jesus are mentioned in this passage. Hence we may conclude that for Paul the seeing does not
necessarily involve a physical seeing. (And since Paul uses the same Greek verb, ôphthê
[“he appeared”], that he uses for the appearances to Cephas (Peter),
the twelve, and others, it is likewise doubtful whether their experiences
necessarily involved a physical seeing.)
The references in our other sources to physical characteristics of the resurrection body of
Jesus are generally well known:
|In Matthew 28:9, as the women return from the empty
tomb, “Suddenly Jesus met them and said,
‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his
feet, and worshiped him.”|
|In Luke 24:36-43, when Jesus appears to the eleven disciples
and companions, |
37They were startled and
terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He
said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in
your hearts? 39Look 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.” 40And
when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While
in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to
them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him
a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate
in their presence.
|In John 20:27-29, Jesus invites Thomas to touch him, “Put
your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in
my side.” (We are not told whether Thomas really does touch him,
though the command to do so implies that there was something to touch.
Curiously, Thomas is invited to touch, but not Mary Magdalene.)|
Faced with this array of evidence, (a) one might decide to attempt to
harmonize and reconcile the data that we have in the resurrection
narratives. To a degree, such an approach might be possible; for
example, one could propose that Christ’s resurrection body, though a
spiritual body, could when appropriate take on physical characteristics,
enabling him to be touched, or to eat food. While one might acknowledge
that such a capability is without parallel in human experience, it could
also be affirmed that Jesus was unique, and therefore is not to be judged
by otherwise normal experience.
(b) Or one might take a frankly developmental view, giving due weight to
the early date of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, and recognizing that
at the earliest stage of the tradition that we can recover it was in a
spiritual body that Jesus appeared to his followers, and finally, to Paul.
How then would we explain the interest shown by our later sources in physical characteristics of the
resurrection body? Part of the answer would be an acknowledgement that the
Christian proclamation of the resurrection would sometimes be met with
skepticism, and that it was difficult for some people to acknowledge the
reality of a spiritual body. They might dismiss the appearances as
“seeing a ghost.” So the response was to describe how Jesus could be
touched, or how he ate food.
However convincing this materialization of the resurrection body might
seem, the development was not without its problems, as seen in the
scenario offered by the two volume work, Luke-Acts. Why did the
resurrected Jesus no longer appear to his followers in a physical body?
The author’s solution was an ascension of this resurrected body into
heaven. Yet what was intended as a solution becomes, with the advent of the
Copernican universe, a problem. See further, The
Resurrection Appearance to Paul, in the Letters and Acts.
of Jesus Traditions
December 17, 2004
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