I affirm the crucifixion and burial of Jesus as historic events datable to the third decade of the first century. But what about the Easter event, the resurrection?
The church’s theology and worship certainly affirms it.
It is a little more problematic than the crucifixion because it is a unique and extraordinary event. Death and burial are all too ordinary. But resurrection is a unprecedented event that seems like a myth or a fantasy story.
For some contemporary believers it is a kind of metaphor for the resurgence of life and and hope against all odds. But it is not literal and objective. It is figurative, inward and subjective.
If you read the first several verses of 1 Corinthians 15, I think you will have to conclude that Paul and, through him, the mainstream of the early church understood the resurrection as, in some sense, an outward and objective event.
The Bible does not contain a single, easily harmonizable account. Each of the gospels tells the story with details that sometimes resist falling into a single, orderly narrative. How many women were at the tomb? Were the appearances on that first Sunday in Jerusalem? Or were they later in Galilee?
Since the women in Mark 16:7 (Matthew 28;10) told the disciples that they would see Jesus in Galilee, that is where we should look for the appearance to Peter and growing conviction that Jesus lived. At some point Peter and others returned to Jerusalem. There they encountered some confused stories. Matthew 27:52-53 may express this. There were rumors that tombs had opened. Many people claimed to have seen the dead alive. Nobody knew quite what to make of this.
The statement that the tombs were opened may point to the amazing story of the tomb having been found empty.
From these testimonies later storytellers constructed dramas like the appearance to Mary Magdalene in John 20 and the appearance on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13 ff.
But the definitive appearances most likely were in Galilee as Matthew 28 and John 21 testify and 1 Corinthians 15 implies (also there is an appearance to Peter in Galilee in the fragmentary, noncannonical Gospel of Peter). Luke centers the appearances in Jerusalem because it fits his geographical way of ordering things. For him, the move of the gospel toward Rome must start in Jerusalem. He clearly has the wording of Mark in front of him when he just blatantly changes Mark 16:7 from Jesus telling the disciples he would see them in Galilee to Jesus telling them that he would rise again “when he was still in Galilee” (Luke 24:6).
I think the appearances were real and objective. By “objective” I mean that they didn’t just happen in the disciple’s heads. Some of the later stories stressed this by showing Jesus allowing himself to be touched and showing him consuming food. But the appearance to Paulon the Damascus road is a matter of a light and a voice–powerful, but not quite as corporeal.
For what it is worth, I have found the use of the idea of “appearance” in Colossians 3:3-4 helpful. Our true life is now hid with Christ in God. But at the second coming, Christ, who is our true life will appear (see also the use of “appearance” in Titus 2:11-14). Like the Transfiguration (which Raymond Brown suggested might have been a post-resurrection experience in Galilee projected back into the middle of Jesus’ ministry) an “appearance” reveals the hidden glory of Jesus.
So it is more than a vision and it has a meaning deeper than a resuscitated body. A resurrection appearance by Jesus pulls back the veil on reality. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, we now see poorly as though a polished metal mirror, but then we shall see face to face. Now we know in part. But with the appearance of Christ we shall fully know. Was Paul reflecting on his own experience of a resurrection appearance?