We have four lines of evidence for the historical reliability of Jesus’ appearances to people after His death.
1) *Paul’s testimony shows that the disciples saw appearances of Jesus.* In I Corinthians 15, Paul lists several people to whom Jesus appeared after his death, beginning with Peter individually and the Twelve Apostles (as part of the traditional formula) and ending with Paul himself (ca. AD 36). Again, the early date of the traditions destroys any chance that the appearances were part of legend. Plus, Paul says that many who saw the appearances were still alive to verify the accounts, and Paul was likely acquainted with several of them (e.g., Peter and James). Many of these were eventually executed because of their belief in Jesus’ resurrection, including Peter, James, and Paul himself. This is historically reliable evidence. So, according to Paul, we know that Jesus appeared after His death on separate occasions to different individuals and groups.
2) *Gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances are historically, essentially reliable.* It may not be possible to historically *prove* any particular appearance, but the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels in general suggests that the appearance traditions within them are substantially, historically credible. This is supported by three basic considerations (which may look a little familiar):
a) Given the short amount of time and geographical distance from the events to the accounts, there just was not enough time for much accrual of legends. According to Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White, even two generations are not enough time for “the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of oral tradition.”
b) Rising of legends would be impeded by the continued presence of eyewitnesses in the Christian community. By the same token, if the early appearance traditions were false, it is hard to imagine how they could develop and persist in the face of opposition from first-generation believers who knew better.
c) Authoritative control by the apostles would tend to keep fictitious appearance stories from gaining a foothold as long as they were alive. There may have been discrepancies in certain secondary details, and they may have been influenced by the theology of the “Evangelists”, but the basic traditions could not have been legendary.
So, if the central traditions on which the Gospels rely are historically dependable, then the appearance stories within them are essentially accurate accounts of what happened.
3) *Several of the postmortem appearances have particular historical credibility.* Specifically, these would be the appearances to:
a) The women at the tomb. As stated before, if these women weren’t the actual witnesses, why not make it be someone more “qualified”? (In fact, Paul probably omitted them from his formula because of their lack of legal status.)
b) Peter. Though it is not described in the Gospels, both Luke and Paul attest to this appearance. Peter likely told Paul about it when they met. Virtually all NT scholars recognize its historicity.
c) The Twelve. Both Luke and John (one of the Twelve) relate separate traditions about this appearance. Based on their agreement, it probably happened in Jerusalem on the first Sunday after His crucifixion. The early nature of the traditions and Paul’s personal contact with the disciples prevent these appearances from being mere legend.
d) Disciples fishing on the Lake of Tiberias (aka Sea of Galilee). This early appearance to, and commissioning of, a handful of disciples (John 21) is unusual and indicates an early and accurate tradition. Plus, the eyewitness of John himself stands behind it.
e) An assembly of believers in Galilee. This appearance is predicted by both Jesus and the angels in the pre-Markan Passion story. It is most likely that the event occurred and was referred to in Mark’s source material, which would have been very early in the Christian fellowship.
f) 500+ believers. There is no Gospel account of this, but Paul mentions it and likely refers to those still living for their availability to corroborate the story. Given the size and timing, it was probably an outdoor gathering in Galilee sometime before the disciples went back to Jerusalem.
g) James, brother of Jesus. The Gospels show that Jesus’ family was not exactly sympathetic to His ministry while He was alive, yet James later becomes a leader in the church at Jerusalem. This about-face was probably due to conversion following Jesus’ appearance to him, as referred to by Paul. They may well have discussed it when Paul visited Jerusalem in AD 36.
h) Paul. In Acts 9:1-9 we have Paul’s own account of his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, which radically changed his life. Not only is it extremely difficult to doubt that this happened, but most scholars acknowledge the basic historical reliability of the account.
Thus, from these individual incidents we find that Jesus appeared to varying numbers of His disciples, under varying conditions, in the city of Jerusalem and the nearby region of Galilee.
4) *The ‘resurrection visions’ were physical, bodily appearances.* It is widely conceded by NT critics that Jesus’ disciples did indeed experience “appearances” of Him after the tomb was found empty. But, the more liberal and skeptical of them claim that because it was a “spiritual” body, the visions did not involve any physical manifestations. However there are two good lines of evidence that the resurrection appearances actually were physical.
First, Paul implies that they were of a physical nature. Some scholars claim the opposite, though. They state that, since Paul teaches that the future resurrected bodies of Christian believers will be modeled after Jesus’ resurrection body and they will be spiritual (I Cor. 15:42-49), then Jesus’ resurrection body must be spiritual. True enough, but the error lies in the understanding of what Paul means here by “spiritual”. It does not mean intangible or immaterial. Further study of the Greek words used for “spiritual body” (soma pneumatikon) shows that the “spiritual” aspect has more to do with orientation than with substance. In other words, the transformation of the earthly body is from mortal to immortal, which does not necessitate a change from material to immaterial. It will be a powerful, glorified body prepared for living in the New Creation. It would not have made sense to Paul for an immortal soul to try to inhabit a “body” with no substance.
There are other ways to demonstrate that Paul believed this. Whenever Paul describes a vision, whether “subjective” or “objective”, it was purely a mental experience, whereas resurrection appearances that were recounted involved something “real world”. For example, Paul’s own conversion experience involved audible speech and a bright light. Also, if the appearances were only visions, how would one account for the direction and development of Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection body? If Christ’s resurrection body was not physical, how could Paul teach that Christians’ resurrection bodies, modeled after Christ’s, would be physical?
The second reason is that the Gospels attest that the appearances were physical and bodily. As with Paul, every Gospel mention of a resurrection appearance was of a physical, bodily nature. For example, people touched Jesus or watched Him take a piece of food and eat it. There is no trace of nonphysical visions in any of the various and independent resurrection traditions represented.
Then, as mentioned before, there is the overall, historical reliability of the Gospel resurrection narratives, and the physicalness of Jesus’ risen body is apparent in them all. It is inconceivable how a bunch of stories of visions could be so thoroughly twisted into stories of physical appearances in so short a time and in the presence of eyewitnesses to the events, as well as under the watchful eyes of the apostles responsible for preserving the integrity of the Gospel message.
We have seen that some critical scholars purport that these postmortem appearances were subjective visions (i.e., hallucinations). But this view has some big problems. First, it loses credibility in light of points (2) thru (4) above. Second, the ‘subjective vision’ approach is improbable due to the number and variety of circumstances of the appearances noted by Paul alone. Third, while this hypothesis could explain a belief in Jesus’ translation and exaltation, a bodily rising was inconsistent with Jewish conceptions of resurrection. (More on this in the next section.) Finally, it doesn’t account for the full range of evidence, since it provides no clues for the empty tomb.
To be continued in Part 4…
Happy Easter and a Blessed Resurrection Day!
Credit where credit is due: The material for defending the historical burial & resurrection of Jesus was primarily adapted from William Lane Craig’s “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in the book Jesus Under Fire, eds. J.P. Moreland and Michael J. Wilkins.