Last week's column generated a comment and another view from the Rev. Dr.Quentin Hand, retired Candler School of Theology professor. As you may remember, the question raised last week was, "Why did so many people not recognize Jesus after the resurrection?" I attributed the difference to possible changes in the resurrected Jesus. However, Dr.Hand offered another possibility.
The disciples of Jesus were human, just like the rest of us, and Jesus himself was fully human as well, though with a special relationship with God. During the previous three years the disciples had come to believe Jesus was the Messiah who would free the Jewish people from the oppressive Roman government. However, when Jesus was arrested, tried, and ultimately put to death by crucifixion the hopes of the band of disciples were smashed--their beloved leader was dead.
That's the way the disciples believed during those first few fateful days following Christ's death. Jesus was dead, the revolution was over and there was little left to do except go back to fishing. Then suddenly, the disciples heard Jesus was alive. But according to Luke's gospel, "these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them" (24:11). Dead people weren't supposed to come back to life--and let's be honest, they still aren't.
Then, according to John 20:19, Jesus appears suddenly in an upper room with the apostles sans Thomas. This is the first recorded appearance to the disciples in general (though Luke records an appearance to two disciples, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, on the road to Emmaus) so it is no wonder they did not recognize him; as stated above, Jesus was supposed to be dead. The surprise and the shock of seeing a close companion, or anyone else for that matter, who was supposed to be dead, would be enormous. Then, a week later, Jesus appears in the upper room again, but this time to all eleven apostles (John 20:26). Again there is surprise and disbelief, and again who could blame them. I imagine they must have been doubting their own sanity, even though they wanted badly to believe.
According to John 21:1 Jesus came to the disciples once again, though this time at the seaside in Galilee. Here again the disciples don't seem to fully recognize Jesus, and the text indicates they weren't fully convinced: "Now none of the disciples dared to ask him,'Who are you?' because they knew it was the Lord" (John 21:12). This is the third recorded time Jesus appeared to the disciples so there may be some desire to castigate them for their lack of faith. However, let us remember the disciples did not have the 2,000 year tradition of resurrection we have. Instead, for these few men and women, they had only their eyes to depend on--and as much as they wanted to believe that their beloved rabbi had returned from the grave, we can hardly blame them for doubting what rational minds would reject--even though their own eyes had seen him.
So the Rev. Dr.Hand has offered another possibility to Debra's question: it may not have been the appearance of the resurrected Jesus that kept the disciples from recognizing him, instead it may have been the rational minds of the disciples that kept them from believing what their own eyes beheld.