The Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus
Q: Why Jesus is unrecognizable to his closest friends after the Resurrection?
A: In the case of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32), it was because they were deliberately stopped from recognizing him. The text explicitly tells us that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:19). In order to teach them a lesson and make a big impact with it, Jesus stopped them from recognizing him so that he could do what a cinematographer would call a “dramatic reveal.” (There is also a likely element of playfulness here.)
As the text seems to present it, he looked the same as he always did, but used his divine power to keep them from drawing the inference of who he was from the information their eyes were feeding him. Similarly things often happens with people, either because they aren’t paying attention to things right in front of them or because they have a temporary problem with their memory or because they have had a brain injury. Philosophers call the kind of situation where you look at something but don’t notice or recognize it “non-cognitive seeing.”
(I will always remember this because once I was searching for a box of magic markers in a drawer in the philosophy office at the University of Arkansas, where I got my degree, and I was frustrated trying to find them even though I was looking right at them. A professor who was in the office pointed to the magic markers, got excited and said, “This is great! This is an example of non-cognitive seeing!”)
In any event, it appears from the text that Jesus used his divine power to induce a case of non-cognitive seeing in the disciples. Either that or he miraculously changed his appearance, which doesn’t seem to be suggested by the text, for in verse 31, while they are breaking bread, we read: “And their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (this suggests the change was with them rather than with his appearance).
Besides the encounter on the Emmaus road, there are two other places when the disciples do not immediately recognize Jesus, and the explanation may be the same, but not necessarily.
In the first case, John 20:11-18, Mary of Bethany is weeping and may not recognize Jesus because she had tears in her eyes, was likely averting her gaze or even covering her eyes with her hand rather than openly cry in front of a strange man, and so may not have gotten a clear or full view of him. That, plus the fact she was not expecting to see Jesus (she thought he was the gardener and asked him if he had moved Jesus’ body), may have kept her from recognizing him for entirely natural reasons.
In the same way, in second case, John 21:4-7, the disciples are out fishing on the Sea of Galilee and so must be some distance from shore (far enough out that the water would be deep enough to make it worth casting one’s nets), and so when Jesus appears off in the distance, in the twilight of dawn (when the text says he appeared), it is entirely understandable that they didn’t recognize the far-off man who was shouting to them from the shore, in dim light or possibly even silhouetted by the sun’s light. And so this failure to recognize him may have also had purely natural causes.
It is significant that both Luke and John stress that, once the identification was made, it was obvious. John tells us that when they got to shore and finally saw him up close,
“Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord” (John 21:12).
Similarly, Luke indicates that when he appeared to them, alive and in his same body (thus with his same appearance), they were so stunned they thought they must be seeing a ghost since the body with which they were familiar was obviously dead (they had helped bury it). Jesus thus took pains to show them that his body was not illusory, but that the flesh underlying his familiar appearance was real and living:
“As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them” (Luke 24:36-43).
The point is obvious: Ghosts don’t eat fish. They are intangible, and so he proves to them that his body and appearance are not an illusion; he has his real, physical body brought back to glorious life.
This is a point which Luke also stresses at the beginning of the book of Acts, and, indeed, all in all of the resurrection appearances except the three we have mentioned, Jesus is immediately recognized for who he is. The bottom line is that in only one case (the road to Emmaus incident) do we have an unambiguous case where the disciples, for other than purely natural reasons, failed to recognize him, and in that case we are told it was because on that occasion they were specifically kept from recognizing him.