The empty tomb was just the beginning of the cosmic weirdness of Easter. It’s understandable: There’s no doubt the Resurrection of Christ totally freaked out his followers. After all, no matter what Jesus claimed what would happen before Good Friday, the Romans expertly nailed him up in public that day until he died, and then stuck a spear into his side just to make sure. And on Sunday morning according to one account, the women find the empty tomb, with glowing strangers who told them Jesus was risen. So they had plenty of reason to be thoroughly disturbed before he ever shows up on the scene.
But there was something else that probably caused nearly as much consternation once they did see him: Nobody could recognize Jesus.
Mary Magdalene, the first to encounter Jesus, thought he was the gardener. Jesus then walked down a road talking with several disciples “in a different form“, as Mark put it. According to Luke, he wasn’t recognized by them until he broke bread with them and vanished. Then Jesus appeared in the closed room to his remaining followers, and they naturally thought he was a ghost.
He showed them his wounds to prove it was him, and then ate a piece of fish to show he was alive before disappearing again. Peter is universally said to have seen him privately, but that doubtless-fascinating conversation is nowhere recorded. But when Peter and the other disciples saw him later at the Sea of Tiberius, neither Peter nor the others knew who Jesus was until his fishing advice came true. Maybe knowing how to catch “153 big fish” – so impressive the evangelist actually mentions the number – is the only sure way to tell. However, that, as we shall see is not just a minor detail, but a surprising anomaly in itself.
Why could they neither recognize him nor his voice? If Jesus somehow survived the crucifixion, he would have been unable to hobble, much less hike seven miles down a road a later that weekend. Moreover, he would have stood out anywhere because of his terrible wounds, which would make him instantly identifiable. But nobody said, “Jesus you look like shit!” nor for that matter, did anyone remark on anything special about his appearance.His face did not glow like Moses or appear strange. And his wounds did not appear healed, as he invited Thomas to stick his finger in his side, but neither did they bleed.
Even Thomas Aquinas wrestled with the problem. The answer theology settled upon was that the risen Jesus had a “glorified body” that could move freely through other dimensions and change appearance. And maybe he deliberately retained his scars as a badge of honor.
It’s hard to tell if being unrecognizable is a sign of the uncanny nature of the event or not. Yet that’s not a detail the early preachers would have any reason to make up, and plenty of reason to suppress as an embarrassment. Was it something completely under his control, or did it simply take some familiar gesture to break the spell, as it were? In any case, Mary did not recognize him until he spoke, as did the beloved disciple later on the fishing boat, while the disciples at Emmaus did not realize it was him until he broke the bread and vanished.
But there’s another thing that is highly strange about all this, that just might indicate something about the mysterious glorified body of the resurrected Lord. For Jesus would not allow Mary to hug him, because, he said, “I have not yet ascended to my Father.”
Yet he invited Thomas to stick his finger in his wounds. Could this mean that Jesus and Mary had been intimate at one time but could never be again? Or perhaps, he had ascended and returned between seeing her and the disciples.
But there could have been a spookier, yet more practical reason. One person who, as we shall see, may have had access to the secrets of the Early Church, Clement of Alexandria, (that name again!) in his Commentary on the First Epistle of John, after admitting that “He who came in the flesh became capable of being touched,” then wrote: “It is accordingly related in traditions, that John, touching the outward body itself, sent his hand deep down into it, and that the solidity of the flesh offered no obstacle, but gave way to the hand of the disciple.” (Emphasis added).
Again, why admit such a strange thing that would only cause disbelievers to doubt the story even more? Thus, the risen Jesus wasn’t quite a ghost, or even a hologram (holygram?) The resurrected Christ was something else, and a “glorified body” is as good a description as any. But as we will see in the next post, that was not the only weirdness going on at the first Easter.