By Reverend John Piderit, S.J.
In an age of video, TV, camcorders, and iPhones, adept users can capture important events in a digital medium that can be transmitted quickly to people around the world. What would a resurrection appearance of Jesus have looked like if an alert apostle had an iPhone and, assuming the apostle was not immediately told by Jesus to “put that iPhone away”, the apostle captured a minute of Jesus’s appearance with the iPhone video running? Of course, this is a hypothetical and no answer could possibly be definitive. But the question raises interesting issues.
Before we get to the video of Jesus, let’s start with what we know. Although Jesus appeared in many different situations to the disciples, the appearances share some common characteristics, all of which have to be taken into consideration when addressing the issue of an electronic transmission of the appearance of the risen Lord. Hundreds of scholars have poured over the resurrection appearances and subjected them to critical analysis. The most important findings are summarized in the following observations, which are supported by a large majority of biblical scholars.
First, the risen Jesus never announced beforehand that he would be appearing at some particular time to a group of people. He just appeared and after a while disappeared.
Second, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles indicate there were several appearances of Jesus. According to the evangelist Luke, these extended over a period of about forty days and, with the exception of the appearance to Saul (later Paul), ended with the Ascension of Jesus into heaven.
Third, in some accounts the disciples did not initially recognize Jesus.
Fourth, Jesus’ resurrected body was very similar to his earthly body, such that the apostles were certain they had encountered Jesus they knew and loved risen from the dead.
Fifth, in some appearances Jesus ate food.
Sixth, although his body had the wounds in his hands and feet from the crucifixion, other scrapes and bruises were cleaned up or healed. That is, he bore the deepest marks of his passion, but not all of them.
Seventh, Christ’s resurrected body looked like a normal body but it had some special characteristics. For example, when he entered a room, he just appeared. He did not knock and wait for someone to open the door. Similarly, when people saw him outside, for example on the shore of Lake Galilee, he was truly there, he interacted with them, but then he disappeared. The gospels do not report that he walked away from the group or said good-bye. He just vanished. He did not stay overnight in anyone’s house. He did not appear to need sleep or food, though it is recorded that he did eat. All this indicates that this resurrected body, though appearing the same as his terrestrial body, had different ways of interacting with the environment.
A few more observations gleaned from the Gospel accounts of the resurrection are relevant to the issue of the video.
Eighth, no follower of Jesus ever viewed the resurrection. They saw the empty tomb, but they were not present at the resurrection itself.
Ninth, with the exception of the appearances to the disciples on the way to Emmaus, the appearances of Jesus seem to have occurred after people learned about the empty tomb. However, the disciples did not rejoice over the empty tomb; on the contrary, they were confused by it. On learning the tomb was empty they wondered where the body was. They did not suspect or “conclude” to the resurrection. On the other hand, it is likely they would not have believed Jesus was alive unless the tomb had indeed been empty.
Tenth, when they encountered the resurrected Lord, they were overjoyed and understood immediately both that God had raised Jesus up and that, as followers of Jesus, they too would be raised up. This was their belief and conviction. The appearances suggested this as plausible, but, to a nonbeliever or a person not open to belief, they did not prove that Jesus was with the Father. Even if his enemies had acknowledged the validity of the appearances, they would probably have said Jesus is now with the devil, where he belongs!
And eleventh, the resurrection of Jesus is obviously a great miracle, indeed, together with the Incarnation, the greatest of miracles. His followers understood it was God the Father who loved and glorified Jesus and raised him up.
The appearances, with two exceptions, were to believers. Indeed, not just believers but in most instances, to people who loved Jesus deeply. They had spent years together travelling around and eating together with Jesus. They were intent on his words and awed by his miracles. Although the general pattern was appearances to believers, Jesus also appeared to one reluctant disciple as well as to a declared enemy of both Jesus and those Jews who believed Jesus was divine. Jesus spoke to doubting Thomas, and later he appeared to Paul, who described himself “as one born out of due time” because Jesus’ appearance to him occurred much later than the other appearances.
Given all the information from the gospels about the apparitions of Jesus, now let’s consider what would have happened if the alert apostle who quickly took out his iPhone had captured a minute of the risen Lord on his video. When the apostle played it back after Jesus disappeared, what would the video look like? The correct answer, true to Catholic teaching, is that we don’t know.
The gospels (and the Church) affirm that the resurrection appearances were genuine and real, not visions. That is, the actual risen Jesus was present to the disciples. They really did see him and they recognized him as the same person who used to teach them and with whom they worked regularly. As noted above, the Gospels pointed out that the resurrected Lord ate with the disciples. This detail is included because it was convincing proof to them that they were not seeing a ghost. Ghosts don’t eat. If all this is true, why the hesitation about what would appear on the video?
Would anything other than the disciples themselves show up on the video? Maybe, maybe not. The reason for uncertainty comes from what was said above about the special qualities of Jesus’ body. In the Gospel appearances, Jesus as resurrected had to register in the retina of the eyes of his disciples, otherwise they would not have really seen him. But the body of Jesus had special qualities. We do not know whether those special qualities — which allowed him to pass through walls or ceilings — would change the type of rays he emits such that a camera would register anything or would register only random rays. On the other hand, if the camera were running during the breakfast that he shared with the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, whatever food Jesus ate would have had to be visible at one point and then disappear, since the disciples saw Jesus eat the food.
Let’s up the ante and pose a second hypothetical. If a Jewish reporter with an iPhone wanted to speak with Jesus, would the resurrected Jesus, if indeed he did create an image on the iPhone, have been willing to be interviewed? The belief of the Church suggests no. The reason is, according to Christian belief, Jesus is already the fullest possible revelation of God in human form. In history some 2000 years ago God the Father spoke the one Word (as Jesus is referred to in John’s Gospel), who is his only begotten Son. This Word, along with his teachings, miracles, and life, is more than fully sufficient for all people of all times. An interview would not increase divine revelation in the risen Jesus. One might argue practically against such an interview, perhaps because an iPhone-recorded interview would be interpreted in thousands of different ways, raise numerous additional questions, and generate a demand for further interviews. But the correct response is that, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, what Christians have from the Bible and the traditions that Jesus generated in the Church is the way they gain access to deep participation in divine life.
So, iPhones are great. But they would not facilitate faith in God made man nor would they enhance revelation. Scripture and tradition are the historical witness offered to all potential believers, and Easter celebrates both the greatest miracle and God’s powerful endorsement of His only begotten Son.
An economist and theologian by training, Father Piderit taught economics for many years, was president of Loyola University of Chicago, and now is president of the Catholic Education Institute in New York. His two most recent books are Teaching the Tradition: Catholic Themes in Academic Disciplines and Sexual Morality: A Natural Law Approach to Intimate Relationships.