Post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus

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Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio depicted the moment the disciples recognize Jesus.

The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus serve as proof of the Resurrection of Jesus and his identity as Messiah, seated in heaven on the right hand of God (the doctrine of the Exaltation of Christ).[1]

There is a strong early tradition that the family and immediate followers of Jesus, and the apostle Paul, had visionary and mystical experiences of Jesus after his death.[2] Several decades later, when the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John were being written, the emphasis had shifted to the physical nature of the resurrection, while still overlapping with the earlier concept of a divine exaltation of Jesus' soul.[3] 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.[4]


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according to the Gospels
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The resurrection of the flesh was a marginal belief in Second Temple Judaism, i.e., Judaism of the time of Jesus.[5] The idea of any resurrection at all first emerges clearly in the 2nd century Book of Daniel, but as a belief in the resurrection of the soul alone.[6] A few centuries later the Jewish historian Josephus, writing roughly in the same period as Paul and the authors of the gospels, says that the Essenes believed the soul to be immortal, so that while the body would return to dust the soul would go a place fitting its moral character, righteous or wicked.[7] This, according to the gospels, was the stance of Jesus, who defended it in an exchange with the Sadducees: "Those who are accounted worthy ... to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they ... are equal to the angels and are children of God..." (Mark 12:24-25, Luke 20:34-36).[8]

The Greeks by contrast had long held that a meritorious man could be resurrected as a god after his death (the process of apotheosis).[9] 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.[9] 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;[10] 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.[11]

The experiences of the risen Christ attested by the earliest written sources – the "primitive Church" creed of 1 Corinthians 3-5, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:8 and Galatians 1:16 – are ecstatic visions of the soul alone; the stress on a physical resurrection begins with Mark, with the empty tomb and the women witnesses (Paul and the "primitive creed" of 1 Corinthians mention neither).[2][12][Notes 1] 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.[4] 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.[13]

Biblical accounts[edit]

Supper at Emmaus by Matthias Stom, c 1633–1639. The "breaking of bread" is the precise moment of the disciples' recognition that they are in the presence of the risen Christ

Pauline epistles[edit]

The earliest report of the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus is in Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians.[14] 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.[14] 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.[14] 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").[15][Notes 2]

In Galatians 1 Paul 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").[16] 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;"[17] Combined with references elsewhere in the Epistles to "glory" and "light" and the "face of Jesus Christ;" while language is obscure, it is plausible that Paul saw Jesus exulted as Christ, enthroned in heaven at the right hand of God.[17]

Gospels and Acts[edit]

The earliest narrative accounts of the Resurrection and the subsequent appearances of Jesus begin with the Mark, written about 68-70 CE.[18][19] The oldest manuscripts of this gospel end at Mark 16:8, and scholars are in near-universal agreement that the so-called "longer ending" telling of appearances to Mary Magdalene, to two unnamed followers walking in the countryside, and to "the Eleven" (the eleven remaining disciples), is is not part of the original Mark.[20] Mark therefore originally contained no post-Resurrection appearances, 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.[21]

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.[22][23] 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.[24] Luke does not mention any of the appearances reported by Matthew,[25] explicitly contradicts him regarding an appearance at the tomb (Luke 24:24), and replaces Galilee with Jerusalem as the sole location.[21] 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 miraculous catch of 153 fish by Duccio, 14th century. Jesus is standing on the left, in the fourth resurrection appearance in John's gospel.

The Gospel of John was written some time after 80 or 90 CE.[26] 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.[27] Chapter 21, the appearance in Galilee, is widely believed to be a later addition to the original gospel:[28] John 21:14 cites it as the third post-resurrection of Jesus, although there are already three appearances in chapter 20.

Visionary vs. physical appearances[edit]

Visionary revelation of the glorified exalted Christ was essential to the faith of Peter, James the brother of Jesus, John and Paul, and the other founders and members of the earliest Christian community, and even when the later New Testament writers shifted the emphasis the physical body of the risen Jesus, the earlier visionary model continues to appear, in, for example the visionary experience of Stephen the Martyr, and John of Patmos's vision of the resurrected Christ at the end of the New Testament period is couched in the same language Paul uses at the beginning.[3]

Theological implications[edit]

The resurrection is central to Christian faith, but the gospels contain no account of the resurrection itself, only of post-resurrection appearances.[29] David Friederich Strauss (1808-1874), while believing the event to be mythical, pointed to it as the proof of Jesus' identity as Messiah, entitled to sit in heaven on the right hand of God;[1] the resurrection appearances, in turn, are the proof of the resurrection itself.[30] In the context of the New Testament authors, the resurrection of Jesus had moved Daniel's promise of eternal life (Daniel 12:1) from the end of time into the immediate present.[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Women were not permitted as witnesses in legal cases under Jewish law, but there was no objection to their serving as witnesses in religious contexts: see Women as Witnesses, IVP Women's Bible Commentary, p.560.
  2. ^ 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."



  1. ^ a b McGrath 2011, p. 310.
  2. ^ a b De Conick 2006, p. 6.
  3. ^ a b Finney 2016, p. 181.
  4. ^ a b Finney 2016, p. 183.
  5. ^ Endsjø 2009, p. 145.
  6. ^ Schäfer 2003, p. 72-73.
  7. ^ Finney 2016, p. 79.
  8. ^ Tabor 2013, p. 58.
  9. ^ a b Cotter 2001, p. 131.
  10. ^ Cotter 2001, p. 133-135.
  11. ^ Collins, p. 46.
  12. ^ Finney 2016, p. 181-182.
  13. ^ Finney 2016, p. 182.
  14. ^ a b c Taylor 2014, p. 374.
  15. ^ Plevnik 2009, p. 4-6.
  16. ^ Pate 2013, p. 39, fn.5.
  17. ^ a b Chester 2007, p. 394.
  18. ^ Perkins 2012, p. 19.
  19. ^ Telford 1999, p. 140.
  20. ^ Parker 1997, p. 125.
  21. ^ a b Telford 1999, p. 149.
  22. ^ Charlesworth 2008, p. unpaginated.
  23. ^ Burkett 2002, p. 195.
  24. ^ Cotter 2001, p. 127.
  25. ^ McEwen, p. 134.
  26. ^ Cross & Livingstone 2005, p. 887-888.
  27. ^ Quast 1991, p. 130.
  28. ^ Cross & Livingstone 2005, p. 888.
  29. ^ a b Van Voorst 2000, p. 430.
  30. ^ Geisler 2004, p. 206.


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