Can the Greek word “ophthe” in First Corinthians 15 be translated “to experience a presence” in a non-visual sense?

A reader named “Celsus” on Bart Ehrman’s blog left this very interesting comment regarding the Greek word “ophthe” found in the Early Creed of First Corinthians 15 which most English Bibles translate as “appeared to”.  If this translation from the Greek to English is correct, this passage lists a number of persons to whom Jesus allegedly “appeared in a visual sense” after his death.  But is this translation correct?

“Celsus”:  Can’t the word “ophthe” that Paul uses in 1 Cor 15:5-8 be used to denote that the 500 just “experienced his presence” in some sense? Just like people in church today who pray, sing, or speak in tongues have a collective shared experience? The word ophthe does not necessarily mean that they actually “saw” anything and by Paul placing his own vision in the same list without a distinction it seems he’s saying these were all some sort of spiritual encounters anyway.

Bart Ehrman:  As you probably know, it is the aorist passive of οραω (ORAO) which means “to see,” so technically it means “he was seen.” I’m not sure offhand if it is ever used less literally to mean “he was experienced” — I can’t think of a place where it does, but maybe someone can correct me.

“Celsus”:  I found online what seems to be an excerpt from the TDNT.

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. V, p. 358) points out that in this type of context the word is a technical term for being “in the presence of revelation as such, without reference to the nature of its perception.” In other words, the “seeing” may not refer to actual sensory or mental perception. “The dominant thought is that the appearances are revelations, an encounter with the risen Lord who reveals himself…they experienced his presence.”

H. J. de Jonge in “Visionary Experience and the Historical Origins of Christianity” notes that the word is used for God “appearing” in a dream – Gen 31:13 LXX, 35:1 LXX as well as two other ways in which nothing is actually “seen.”

“There are references to appearances in some cases in which nothing at all could be seen, but a voice alone uttered the divine message The voice which restrained Abraham from killing Isaac is referred to in the Septuagint in the words “the Lord appeared” – Gen 22:4 LXX. Further examples occur in Gen 12:7 LXX, 26:2 LXX.

Finally, there are references to God’s appearances when there is no indication of any visible form or of the hearing of a voice, but that God’s power and favor were made manifest in the course of earthly affairs. A psalm says, for example, that when God has taken away the indignity from Jerusalem and freed it from its enemies, “he will appear in his glory” – PS 101:17 LXX, 83,8 LXX See also Isa 40:5 LXX, 60:2 LXX, 66:5 LXX, Jer 38:3 LXX (31:3 MT) All these passages describe the coming of a period of salvation, but Jer 38:3 LXX has the aorist (κύριος ωφΟη) instead of the future tense Isa 60:2 LXX shows that there is no difference between the appearance of God’s glory and that of God himself. This is not a suggestion of a theophany in the strict sense. The word “appear” (όφθήναι) is purely metaphorical.”

(Bart Ehrman found this comment very interesting but did not comment further on the subject.)

Gary:  Who knows if “Celsus” is right, but he gives good evidence that his position is at least a possibility.  To me this demonstrates the obvious:  There are many, much more probable, natural explanations for the early Christian resurrection belief than that individuals and groups of people actually did see a walking, talking corpse (a zombie).

BTW:  I’m pretty sure I know who “Celsus” is, however, I will not reveal his identity without his permission.  I’ll let him do so, if he chooses.


One thought on “Can the Greek word “ophthe” in First Corinthians 15 be translated “to experience a presence” in a non-visual sense?

  1. If it was just a word out of context, then not knowing Greek well I could think that.
    But there is enough context to make it look like the appearances/manifestations/materializations/arrivals of Jesus were not purely emotional or “sensual” or “inner feelings”.


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