This week's query comes from Debra in Loganville, one of my regular Coffee & Blessing patrons. She asks, "Why did so many not recognize Jesus when he appeared following the resurrection?"
One popular answer is there was no real resurrection, and so the reports of Christ's appearances were only legendary, hysteria, or out and out lies. Certainly there is much scholarship and little historical data to render a report different from this answer; however, I'm not wholly convinced--by one fact.
Though people may choose to be martyred for their faith, no one knowingly dies for a lie. The traditions of the church account of how most of the apostles were martyred for their faith in a resurrected Christ. If the resurrection stories were indeed only legends, hysteria or lies, some, if not all of the apostles, would have recanted the story to save themselves from death. And so, we have to examine other possible reasons why the resurrected Jesus was unrecognized.
There are three stories in two gospels recounting resurrection accounts where Jesus is unrecognized. If we look at each story individually we can possibly account for the lack of recognition. In the Emmaus Road story (Luke 24) Christ appears to two disciples who were returning home from Jerusalem on Sunday afternoon. Christ walks with them and engages in conversation about the events that took place over the weekend. Christ relates the events to Old Testament scriptures and then they stop for dinner. Up until this moment the disciples have not recognized him. But when he breaks the bread and blesses it, suddenly they know who he is. Christ summarily disappears and the disciples go to share the news.
Why did they not recognize Jesus? One answer comes to mind. Although counted as disciples of Christ, it is not certain that these were regularly in the presence of Christ, so perhaps they would not have generally recognized him unless he did or said something that was unique.
In John 20 we find Mary weeping in the garden because she does not know where the body of Jesus had been taken. When Christ appears to her, none should be surprised that he was not recognized given he was seen through swollen, tear-filled eyes. Thus the account in the garden in easily explained.
The final account, however, is not so easily resolved. In this account the apostles return to Galilee to fish (John 21). Christ appears on the shore in the early morning and tells the unlucky fishermen to throw their nets over the side of the boat. They do so and the haul of fish is incredible. Peter recognizes Christ at this point, but the others seem unsure, even after they get to the shore to eat breakfast with him. It might be easy to explain this, except John writes this is the third time Christ has appeared to these men since the resurrection! There seems to be no good physical or logical answer to the 11 not recognizing the one with whom they'd spent the past three years.
Perhaps none of the above answers wholly satisfy Debra's question. The reason for the unrecognized Christ could be more universal. Jesus, as the risen Christ, might not have been recognizable because he might not have looked like he did before his death. Certainly Paul writes of the resurrection body as being different from the body of life, and if this is so, there is little reason to believe otherwise of Christ. A resurrected Christ who looked different would account for the two disciples en route to Emmaus not recognizing him. It would account for Mary's confusion. And if the fishermen had on two other occasions only briefly seen the Christ, it seems hardly necessary to add further conjecture.
If the resurrection accounts are to be taken seriously, then the unrecognized Christ is an important question. Theologically there is a difference between the pre- and post-resurrected Jesus, and seems only natural there could be physical differences too.