The Disciples’ Argument For Why Jesus Wasn’t a Ghost or a Zombie
Easter Sunday commemorates the resurrection of Jesus following his crucifixion on Good Friday. To many Christians what happened on that day is the heart of the Easter message and the foundation of their faith. To some non-Christians it’s a somewhat macabre folk tale invented by the traumatized disciples of Jesus. But to both groups the question: “What, if anything, did the disciples see?” is of critical importance.
The Gospel writers seem sure that something happened: each of the four evangelists agree that when the women went to the tomb where Jesus was laid it was empty. Paul, too, tells us that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Whether or not you believe that Jesus appeared to the disciples, it’s clear that the tradition about it is very early. But it also wasn’t that remarkable; in the ancient world, unlike today, it was fairly common to have an encounter with one’s loved one after their death. As Dr. Meghan Henning, an assistant professor of Christian origins at the University of Dayton, told me, “In the ancient world if someone told you they saw their dead mother you would reply ‘Cool, what did she say?’” There was a broad consensus that you might see your loved ones, but that didn’t mean that they had been resurrected or that they were even that special.
After all, just like in modern science fiction and horror, there was a whole host of ancient supernatural and ghostly figures in the ancient world. What if Jesus was just one of them? You can sense the anxiety about this in the Gospels of Luke and John. In Luke 24:39 Jesus displays his “hands and feet” to the disciples as proof that he isn’t a “spirit” or ghost. John uses Thomas to linger over the contours of the resurrected body. Thomas was evidently missing at the earlier appearance and famously declares, according to the NRSV translation, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). The ambiguity of the language yields a variety of possible interpretations. What do the “marks of the nails” look like? The dominant interpretation of this scene is one in which Jesus is still openly wounded and Thomas demands to insert his finger into Jesus’s hand and side. That idea is reinforced by crucifixes and sculpture that highlight the wounds that Jesus received during the crucifixion. The rich legacy of medieval artwork has led us to believe that we can see through the holes in Jesus’s hands but the phrase “marks of the nails” is much more ambiguous and peculiar than that.