various gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances
reflect a variety of traditions that are not easy to reconcile.
Today’s reading is set “on the evening of that first
day of the week,” but the “disciples” (v.
19; are there more than Eleven?) gathered together seem unaware
of Peter’s, John’s, and Mary Magdalene’s experiences at the
empty tomb “early” on that same day (as recounted
in vv. 1-10).
Scholars recognize that the evangelists received a diversity of traditions which
they proceeded to interpret still further according to the “situation of
the churches” for which they wrote and the particular purpose each author
set for himself (Pontifical Biblical Commission Instruction on the Historical
Truth of the Gospels, 1964, no. 9).
John the evangelist reported the tradition
of frightened disciples gathered behind locked doors and added to it a story
he created about “doubting Thomas” (vv. 24-29; see the reflection on
this passage in cycle C for details). This new composition formed a larger scene
to explain how the risen Jesus commissioned the disciples to bring new members
into the community.
Why do the resurrection appearances receive such diverse interpretations in the
Gospels? To answer this question, we need to understand the pan-human experience
known as altered states of consciousness and the distinctive function or role
this experience plays in individual cultures.
Appearances and MediterraneanCulture
Ninety percent of the world’s cultures normally and routinely experience altered
states of consciousness; that is, they get a glimpse of an alternate reality
that is richer than the reality they experience most often.
Eighty percent of
the Mediterranean societies investigated by researchers, including the Hebrews,
Greeks, and ancient Egyptians, have had these same experiences.
observe that Western societies in general, and the United States in particular,
appear to have successfully blocked out this normal human capability.
Still, even in these societies, dreams are one familiar and common experience
of alternate reality. Dreams are not bounded by time.
From the dreamer’s perspective,
the dead consort with the living, and experiences separated by clock and calendar
in waking consciousness flow together. Bible readers know that dreams are commonly
reported in Scripture (e.g., Gen 37:5-11; Matt 1:20-24; 2:12; 2:13-14; etc.).
Visions are another experience of alternate reality reported frequently in the
Bible (Num 12:6; 1 Sam 3:16; Ezek 8:3; 40:1-2; Matt 17:9; etc.). It is culturally
plausible to include appearances of the risen Jesus in the category of experiences
of alternate reality, or states of altered consciousness.
Function of Resurrection Appearances
Church guidelines remind Bible readers of the necessity to distinguish various
layers or stages of tradition in interpreting the Gospels.
At rock bottom
lies the tradition of the events of the life of Jesus, the
apostles and all who interacted
The second stage of tradition is what the apostles preached about
what they remembered of Jesus’ words and deeds.
And the third stage is that
of the evangelist writing between forty to sixty years after
Jesus’ lifetime on
Since the experience
of alternate reality is normal and common in Mediterranean
societies, it is possible that those who
saw the risen Jesus experienced him
in an altered state of consciousness. They caught a glimpse of risen life,
a reality that truly exists and includes much more than
does ordinary human consciousness.
The function of such experiences in the Mediterranean world
is to guide people through otherwise insoluble difficulties
and problems. When in doubt about a
course of action, or the proper solution to a problem,
seek help and enlightenment in alternate reality. They
know how to enter and exit
this dimension of human experience as easily as Westerners know how to drive
a car, program VCRs, and enjoy their CDs.
At the second and third levels of tradition reflected in
the Scriptures, the preachers and evangelists sometimes
reported the tradition they received (the
appearances of the risen Jesus) and at other times created a tradition that
would reflect common, Mediterranean cultural experience
(the doubting Thomas story).
While modern science has blessed Western believers many
times over, today’s gospel highlights one area of human
it may have impoverished. Efforts to
regain this gift of God could pay rich spiritual dividends.
John J. Pilch is a biblcal scholar and facilitator of parish renewals. Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch
exploring the “cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to find out more.
Copyright © 1996
by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, MN.
All rights reserved.
Used by permission from The Liturgical
Press, Collegeville, Minnesota 56321
The complete text of the above article can be found in:
The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B
John J. Pilch. The Liturgical Press. 1996. pp. 70-72.
Art by Martin Erspamer, O.S.B.
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C).
Used by permission of Liturgy Training Publications. This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection
in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go to: http://www.ltp.org/