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It is worth noting that there a similar questions on this website, and numerous articles that cover this topic, however most of these seem to adress the question from a standpoint of refuting Bible skeptics and give rather short answers, dismissing it as a non-issue for the authenticity of Jesus' ressurection. I agree with their conclusion, however their arguments don't seem to do justice to the textual evidence that the disciples (and others close to Jesus) did not recognize him.

The reason I am intersted in this is because I am interning at a youth group going through the book of John. The first evidence in the book of John that someone who knew Jesus well did not recognize him after his ressurection is Mary in Jn. 20:14-18. At least once more in this chapter, and then again in chapter one it is mentioned that someone (or a group of people) do not recognize Jesus immediately. At first it did not seem that this idea of those close to Jesus not recognizing him was significant to the meaning of the text, however, due to the repitition, I am questioning whether it may be more important than I thought.

First, it is worth noting that there are a number of passages that mention that people did not recognize Jesus do have simple and reasonable explanations. The three main places where it is mentioned are in John 20:14, John 21:4, and Luke 24:15-16. In the first passage, John 20:14, Jesus appears to Mary near the tomb and she does not recognize him at first, until he says her name. The argument goes that Mary did not recognize him because she was weeping, it was early in the morning, and Jesus may have been far away (see 20:1, 15-16). In John 21:4 Jesus meets seven of the disciples while they are fishing and calls to them from the shore. The text mentions that the disciples were about 100 yards from the shore (verse 8) and, again it was early in the morning (verse 4). It is argued that at a distance of 100 yards with bad lighting, the disciples would not have recognized Jesus. In the third passage, Luke 24:15-16, Luke specifically mentions that "their eyes were kept from recognizing him."

These are the three texts that specifically mention that people close to Jesus did not recognize him after his resurrection. However, with the exception of the passage in Luke, the other two explanations do not seem convincing, especially when considered alongside Jesus appearing to his disciples in the second half of John chapter 20 where it is implied at least once, if not twice, that the disciples did not recognize Jesus. Those instances are discussed below. As to the two explanations for passages in John, the explanation of Mary not recognizing Jesus is not convinving because in the passage it says that Mary first goes to the team while it was still dark, but then runs to tell Peter and John (verse 1) and then apparently returns (either walking or running, presumably behind Peter and John) and at least some time has passed. It very well may have been light at this point. Furthermore, it seems doubtful that it was still dark since Peter looks into the tomb and sees the head cloth folded up in a place by itself. This would be difficult to do if the sun had not yet risen (although admittedly not impossible). If it was light out, Mary should have been able to recognize someone she knew as well as she knew Jesus, even if he was not standing next to her but many yards away. The explanation of John 21 is even less convincing. I can recognize anyone I know well at a distance of 100 yards, even without perfect lighting. Even if Jesus did look significantly different after his resurrection the disciples at this point had already seen him on two different occasions in John chapter 20.

On its own, this does not seem like any reason to raise questions as to why Jesus was unreconizable, the reasons for why Jesus was not recognized at first seem reasonable, but when paired with the record of Jesus' appearances to the disciples behind locked doors in John 20, these explanations seem less reasonable. In John 20, Jesus appears to Mary, and then to the disciples while they are behind locked doors (Luke's gospel records that in between these events Jesus talks with the two men on the road to Emmaus, this will be considered below). When Jesus appears to them, he says "peace be with you," and then he shows them his hands and his sides (John 20:20-21). John then says "then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord." This seems to indicate that they did not recognize him until they saw the holes in his hands and his side. Why was he unrecognizable before this?

The parallel passage in Luke comes to bear on this as well. Luke records that on the road to Emmaus two of Jesus disciples (or followers, one of whom was cleopas) do not recognize him (see Luke 24:13-16, 18). As mentioned before, Luke specifically records that "their eyes were kept from recognizing him." This, on its own, seems to raise the question of whether Jesus looked different after his resurrection. John 20 tells us that he still had the wounds, but the disciples on the road to Emmaus dont recognize him, which seems to indicate he does not look the same as he does in the passage in John, and in the passage immediately following the story of the road to Emmaus.

After they make it to Emmaus, Jesus shares a meal with him, and "their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight" (Luke 24:31). John then records that they return to Jerusalem and tell "the eleven and those who were gathered with them" what had happened (verse 35). Furthermore, Luke records that the Lord had appeared to Peter (verse 34). Luke then records Jesus appearing to the group of them in the room with the locked doors and showing them his wounds (parallel to John 20). Luke says in verse 37 "But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit." It does not seem that they recognized Jeus either. In this room were at least four people who had recognized Jesus post resurrection, Mary, Cleopas, the other disciple on the road to Emmaus, and Peter. While it could be true that these four recognized Jesus, Luke simply records that the group as a whole was "startled and frightened," an unlikely response for people who recognize their Lord!

The question remains. Why did those who knew Jesus not recognize him? It seems that something must have been different about him. Mark 16:12 records that Jesus "appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country." This is a possible explanation, that Jesus changed forms, however, the last twelve verses of Mark are suspect, and may or may not have originally been part of the book of Mark. That being said, many scholars who believe that these verses were not originally included still believe that they record things that actually happened. This could possibly be a good explanation of why those closest to Jesus did not recognize him.

Is anyone aware of any other possible explanations? Are there any scripture passages that come to bear on this?

Edit: I forgot to mention that in John 21, John goes out of his way to say in verse 12, "Now none of the disciples dared asked him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord." This should be obvious, that they reconize the man they spent three years with, but John takes the time to mention it. It seems Jesus looked different from before he was crucified and rose, and possible even different from the first two times he appeared to them after his ressurection on John 20.

  • I answered a similar question at the following link, but answered it when the question was no longer very active: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/34952/… – Perry Webb Nov 29 '18 at 9:03
  • Mary Magdalene (not the disciples) is the model for Jesus’ followers. When the disciples had walked away, Mary’s love for Jesus kept her weeping, staying close to the tomb, still seeking the one whom she thought was lost forever. When He appeared, she couldn’t believe it was Jesus. However, she did “know his voice” (John 10:4). Therefore, when He said “Mary”, she replied “Rabboni!”. Jesus speaks in the other passages, but the disciples who also “knew his voice” didn't, not being as close to Jesus as Mary. It took them much longer to accept Jesus’ presence. – John Martin Dec 6 '18 at 14:23
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It would seem that somehow Jesus has been fundamentally changed in a way that makes Him unrecognizable, even to those who knew Him best, after His resurrection. We know from the gospels that Jesus' wounds from His ordeal on, and prior to, the cross have remained in his resurrected body:

27 Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

John 20:27 (KJV)

I find it very interesting that Jesus does not reference His face at all, as far as proving His identity is concerned. This would seem to indicate that His face was changed so greatly from His ordeal, that it was no longer the face they had known:

14 As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:

Isaiah 52:14 (KJV)

From the evidence given in these two passages, with the second being prophetic, of course, I believe that Jesus was so changed by His experience on the cross, that He was unrecognizable in the way that His friends and acquaintances would have known Him before.

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This is a difficult question to answer because I don’t believe there is a definitive body of evidence in scripture to be certain. Scripture is limited in speaking about this but there are a few verses that give you an indication. So, my answer will be one of “best guess” based on what we see in the NT.

My best answer would be that Christ after His resurrection took on a glorified body. Per 1 Corinthians 15, this glorified body was not the same as the one he had before the resurrection. Also, 1 John 3:2 (at bottom) gives you the sense that when we are changed to be like Him, we will finally be able to recognize Him as He is. This could be the reason those in non-glorified bodies could not recognize Christ with a glorified body.

John 7:39 (KJV):

(But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)

1 Corinthians 15:38-54 (KJV):

38 But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body. 39 All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds. 40 There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. 42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: 43 It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. 45 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. 46 Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. 47 The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven. 48 As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. 49 And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. 50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.

1 John 3:2 (KJV):

Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.

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I asked a similar question and accepted this answer which I think is on point.

In my own research I found that David Guzik in his Genesis Study Guide points out that Joseph, a type of Christ was also not recognized by his brothers but he recognized them.

Dimness of light and other natural causes are clearly not the reason they did not recognize him any more than better lighting would have allowed them to recognize him because God is said to have closed their eyes and God is said have opened them (through divine passives).

Given all that I think we need to look at the symbolism instead of then natural causes. So expanding on Nigel's on target answer, the point seems to be that knowing Jesus in the flesh was not the same as knowing him as a resurrected son of God:

[Rom 1:3-4 CSB] 3 concerning his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh 4 and was appointed to be the powerful Son of God according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead.

Paul says that the Jesus that Peter and the Twelve knew, he not only did not know, he doesn't even want to know. He wanted to know him in the power of his resurrection:

[Phl 3:10 CSB] 10 My goal is to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death,

[2Co 5:16-17 NET] 16 So then from now on we acknowledge no one from an outward human point of view. Even though we have known Christ from such a human point of view, now we do not know him in that way any longer. 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away - look, what is new has come!

But no one can know the risen Christ unless God reveals him to them:

[Jhn 6:44 KJV] 44 No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.

[Mat 11:25-27 YLT] 25 At that time Jesus answering said, 'I do confess to Thee, Father, Lord of the heavens and of the earth, that thou didst hide these things from wise and understanding ones, and didst reveal them to babes. 26 Yes, Father, because so it was good pleasure before Thee. 27 'All things were delivered to me by my Father, and none doth know the Son, except the Father, nor doth any know the Father, except the Son, and he to whom the Son may wish to reveal [Him].

James says that God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith:

[Jas 2:5 YLT] 5 Hearken, my brethren beloved, did not God choose the poor of this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the reign that He promised to those loving Him?

Please see my answer at this link for more on "poor":

So Jesus directs his gospel to the powerless, because the rich are (as a rule) uninterested in a savior:

[Mat 11:28-30 YLT] 28 'Come unto me, all ye labouring and burdened ones, and I will give you rest, 29 take up my yoke upon you, and learn from me, because I am meek and humble in heart, and ye shall find rest to your souls, 30 for my yoke [is] easy, and my burden is light.'

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