Does Paul's claim that Jesus appeared to him establish that Jesus was resurrected?

Paul claims that Jesus appeared to him. Does this present a reliable witness to the Christian claim that Jesus was resurrected? Let's find out. 


In 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul refers to his alleged encounter with a risen apparition of Jesus on the road to Damascus. The description of this visitation as found in Acts 9:1-6 is very different from the allegedly physical, visible manifestation supposedly experienced by what he calls "the twelve" (that is, the eleven disciples).

In 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul describes his alleged encounter with a phantom voice using the same verb (ophthe kamoi, "he appeared also to me") as he uses for the encounter allegedly experienced by "the twelve" (1 Corinthians 15:5). However, the account of Paul's alleged experience with this phantom voice recorded approximately fifty years later, by the author of the Book of Acts, shows that he did not see anyone. In this description of the alleged event, it is claimed that Paul heard the voice of Jesus call out to him. There is no claim that Jesus met him in the flesh. In the midst of a seizure Paul hallucinated, believing that out of a blinding light he heard a voice which identified itself as that of Jesus (Acts 9:3-7, 22:6-9, 26:13-15). In Acts 9:7 the men with Paul are said to hear the voice, but see no one: "And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man." In Acts 22:9 the claim is made that those accompanying Paul "saw the light, but did not hear the voice." In Acts 26:13-14 Paul is quoted as saying that all those present saw the light, but mentions that he alone heard a voice. The light, it is claimed, blinds Paul. However, no one else but he is said to have been effected by the light.

Paul is the only New Testament author to refer to what he claims are his own personal encounters with the risen Jesus (for example, 1 Corinthians 9:1, 15:8). He does so, however, in the context of his claims for apostolic authority and not to prove the resurrection's occurrence. To advance his claims to apostolic authority Paul found it expedient to describe his meeting with the "Jesus apparition" with the same verb he used to describe the alleged earlier encounters between the disciples and the supposedly risen Jesus. In so doing, Paul unilaterally raises his encounters and, most important, his apostolic authority to a level equal to that of the disciples. Perhaps, Paul deliberately uses the verb ophthe ("appeared") since it is used in the Septuagint in reference to divine theophanies.

1 Corinthians 15:5-8, chronologically the first New Testament mention of Jesus' alleged appearances, does not indicate how Jesus supposedly manifested himself to the disciples after his death. The verb ophthe simply expresses Paul's claim that Jesus "appeared" too them. The manner in which Jesus was allegedly made manifest is not mentioned. In Paul's description there is no claim that Jesus appeared in any kind of bodily form that the disciples could see or touch, nor does it say that Jesus spoke to the disciples. In 1 Corinthians 15:8 Paul claims that "Last of all he appeared to me." A reading of Acts 9:3-7, 22:6-9, and 26:13-15 shows that in those passages it is claimed Jesus "appeared" to Paul, but only in a blinding light and a disembodied voice.

Apparently, Paul, in claiming the same "appearance" experience as that of the disciples, is not saying that the disciples saw a resurrected Jesus in actual bodily form. Quite the contrary.

The use of ophthe within the context of Paul's statement is significant. Paul's use of ophthe in expressing both his own visionary experience and those allegedly seen by the disciples is significant because his supposed encounters with the risen Jesus are never with a tangible form. In claiming the same experience for himself as experienced by the disciples, Paul is relating that "what was seen" by the disciples is also a visionary experience devoid of any physical component. Paul's objective is to show that his apostolic authority is equal to that of the original disciples through his having received the same type of "appearance." If he did not have the same experience, Paul's claim to apostolic authority is nullified because it derives not from direct contact with a physical Jesus, but from an ephemeral vision.

The author of Acts records Paul as having made one claim to seeing Jesus in some actual form. In Acts 22:17-18 it is said that Paul "saw" (idein) Jesus while in a "trance" (ekstasei) in the Temple. The word ekstasei is a combination of stasis, "standing," and ek, "out." It suggests the idea of standing out of oneself, that is, the nature of a trance. In this description, Paul uses a different verb for seeing the apparition then he uses when describing the experiences of the disciples.

For his and the disciples' experience, Paul used the word ophthe ("appeared to"). Yet, when he described his vision while in a trance in the Temple he used the word idein ("saw"). "Have I not seen [heoraka] Jesus our Lord?" Paul asks rhetorically in 1 Corinthians 9:1. Paul could not be referring to the observation of a material personage for he saw no one on the road to Damascus and during the trance in the Temple he claims to have seen an intangible vision not a physical being. Thus, in every case, Paul's supposed encounters with the risen Jesus are never with a tangible form. According to Paul, both his experience and that of the disciples were respectively not with a material bodily form. One would have to await the writing of the Gospels for the elaborate and mythological apparition-narratives with their alleged appearances by Jesus in actual body form to the disciples.

© Gerald Sigal