The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the canonical gospels (and to a lesser extent other books of the New Testament) are reported to have occurred after Jesus' death, burial and resurrection, but prior to his ascension.[note 1] Among these sources, most scholars believe the First Epistle to the Corinthians was written first. Most Christians point to the appearances as evidence of his bodily resurrection and identity as Messiah, seated in Heaven on the right hand of God (the doctrine of the Exaltation of Christ). Others, including Liberal Christians, interpret these accounts as visionary experiences.
The resurrection of the flesh was a marginal belief in Second Temple Judaism, i.e., Judaism of the time of Jesus. The idea of any resurrection at all first emerges clearly in the 2nd-century-BC Book of Daniel, but as a belief in the resurrection of the soul alone. A few centuries later the Jewish historian Josephus, writing roughly in the same period as Paul the Apostle 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 to a place fitting its moral character, righteous or wicked. 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..." .
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 , Paul in and - 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.
The earliest report of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus is in Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians. This lists, 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".[note 2]
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 from God ("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 from 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.
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 - c. 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, explicitly contradicts him regarding an appearance at the tomb (Luke 24:24), 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. Relatedly, Acts has appearances of the ascended Jesus to Paul on the Road to Damascus, to the martyr Stephen, and to Peter, who hears the voice of Jesus.[note 3]
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 recognize 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 28:16-17) 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!"
The appearances of Jesus are often explained as visionary experiences, in which the presence of Jesus was felt. A physical resurrection was unnecessary for the visionary mode of seeing the risen Christ, but 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. 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.
Furthermore, New Testament scholar James Dunn argues that whereas the apostle Paul's resurrection experience was "visionary in character" and "non-physical, non-material," the accounts in the Gospels and of the apostles mentioned by Paul are very different. He contends that the "massive realism' [...] of the [Gospel] appearances themselves can only be described as visionary with great difficulty - and Luke would certainly reject the description as inappropriate," and that the earliest conception of resurrection in the Jerusalem Christian community was physical.
David Friedrich Strauss, in his Life of Jesus (1835), argued that the resurrection was not an objective historical fact, but a subjective "recollection" of Jesus, transfiguring the dead Jesus into an imaginary, or "mythical," risen Christ. The appearance, or Christophany, of Jesus to Paul and others, was "internal and subjective." Reflection on the Messianic hope, and Psalms 16:10,[note 4] led to an exalted state of mind, in which "the risen Christ" was present "in a visionary manner," concluding that Jesus must have escaped the bondage of death. Strauss' thesis was further developed by Ernest Renan (1863) and Albert Réville (1897). These interpretations were later classed the 'subjective vision hypothesis'.[note 5]
According to Ehrman, "the Christian view of the matter [is] that the visions were bona fide appearances of Jesus to his followers", a view which is "forcefully stated in any number of publications." Ehrman further notes that "Christian apologists sometimes claim that the most sensible historical explanation for these visions is that Jesus really appeared to the disciples."
According to De Conick, the experiences of the risen Christ in the earliest written sources - the "primitive Church" creed of , Paul in and - are ecstatic rapture events.
According to Hurtado, the resurrection experiences were religious experiences which "seem to have included visions of (and/or ascents to) God's heaven, in which the glorified Christ was seen in an exalted position." These visions may mostly have appeared during corporate worship. Johan Leman contends that the communal meals provided a context in which participants entered a state of mind in which the presence of Jesus was felt.
According to Ehrman, "the disciples' belief in the resurrection was based on visionary experiences."[note 6] Ehrman notes that both Jesus and his early followers were apocalyptic Jews, who believed in the bodily resurrection, which would start when the coming of God's Kingdom was near. Ehrman further notes that visions usually have a strong persuasive power, but that the Gospel-accounts also record a tradition of doubt about the appearances of Jesus. Ehrman's "tentative suggestion" is that only a few followers had visions, including Peter, Paul and Mary. They told others about those visions, convincing most of their close associates that Jesus was raised from the dead, but not all of them. Eventually, these stories were retold and embellished, leading to the story that all disciples had seen the risen Jesus. The belief in Jesus' resurrection radically changed their perceptions, concluding from his absence that he must have been exalted to heaven, by God himself, exalting him to an unprecedented status and authority.
According to Helmut Koester, the stories of the resurrection were originally epiphanies in which the disciples are called to a ministry by the risen Jesus, and at a secondary stage were interpreted as physical proof of the event. He contends that the more detailed accounts of the resurrection are also secondary and do not come from historically trustworthy sources, but instead belong to the genre of the narrative types.
According to Gerd Lüdemann, Peter had a vision of Jesus, induced by his feelings of guilt of betraying Jesus. The vision elevated this feeling of guilt, and Peter experienced it as a real appearance of Jesus, raised from dead. He convinced the other disciples that the resurrection of Jesus signalled that the endtime was near and God's Kingdom was coming, when the dead who would rise again, as evidenced by Jesus. This revitalized the disciples, starting-off their new mission.[web 1]
According to Biblical scholar Géza Vermes, the resurrection is to be understood as a reviving of the self-confidence of the followers of Jesus, under the influence of the Spirit, "prompting them to resume their apostolic mission." They felt the presence of Jesus in their own actions, "rising again, today and tomorrow, in the hearts of the men who love him and feel he is near."