Inspired largely by N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, I am examining the earliest statement of the Christian faith, which is found in I Corinthians 15:
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 Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers 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.
The latter part of this statement emphasizes witnesses to something called an “appearance.” I am told that the original language from this text does not suggest a ghostly, or spiritual visitation. Instead, it is the same word that would be used to describe the actual, physyical presence of a person.
By all accounts, an appearance by someone who had “died” and who had been “buried” would seem impossible. Ghostly visitations were not unheard of in this culture, but physical ones – actual bodily “appearances” by someone known to be dead – were completely unheard of (as they are today).
It simply cannot be said that these witnesses claimed to have some vague, abstract “experience” of Jesus. Jesus was present – physically – among them. And in I Corinthians 15 Paul invites the recipients of his letter to interrogate not only himself, but any number of the 500+ people who all claimed to have seen the same thing.
Yet, when they are read in detail, there is something a little troubling about the accounts of these witnesses. Jesus would sometimes “appear” in the middle of a locked room. He would be unrecognizable one moment, and then instantly recognized the next. He would come and go as he pleased, seemingly on a whim. He would speak of “returning” to God. There is great confusion about who got to his tomb first, and about what they found when they arrived. (Such chaos, I believe, was completely understandable given the nature of their experiences.)
Jesus “appeared” in something like a physical body to be sure, but he was also something more.
Tomorrow, we’ll examine what something more was all about.