When Jesus was resurrected many of those who saw him did not recognize him immediately. When Mary Magdalene encountered him at the empty tomb, she thought he was the gardener. At first, the disciples on the road to Emmaus thought that he was just a stranger who had caught up with them on the road.
Why did Jesus appear to his friends and disciples in some unfamiliar form after his resurrection? Why didn’t he simply appear to his beloved people in the same human form he had before he died?
Well, what would have happened if he had? Then there certainly would have been people who were convinced that he had not been resurrected, wouldn’t there? They would have thought only that he had never died, or that he had been resuscitated after seeming to die. The testimony of those people who saw Jesus in some unfamiliar bodily form after his resurrection wards off one of the ways in which the Gospel message can be broken. They are a witness against the falsehood that Jesus was not resurrected, but only resuscitated.
But this is not the only falsehood that can do damage to the Gospel. Another destructive falsehood is the claim that Jesus only seemed to suffer on the cross. After the resurrection there were people who argued that Jesus had never suffered or died. They recognized that there were many witnesses to his crucifixion, but they claimed that the appearance of Jesus on the cross was just a cleverly crafted illusion. On this view, which is the heresy called ‘docetism,’ God does not love human beings enough to suffer and die for them.
If Jesus had looked exactly the same in his resurrected state as he did before his death, it would surely have been much easier for this heretical view to have gained currency, wouldn’t it?
So there were people who recognized the resurrected Jesus by something other than the familiar human form he had before his death. Mary Magdalene knew that it was him only when he said her name. The disciples recognized him only in the breaking of the bread. To all these people, Jesus was miraculously both greatly different from before and yet the same person. In consequence, the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection were given a powerful witness. It was clear that he had died. It was evident that the cross was no illusion.
The love that led Christ to the cross and death also lies behind his mode of resurrection. In this, too, he is the Truth, the Life, and the Way.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University