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.

 

14 thoughts 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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  2. Ophthe can be used to say something like “I’ve seen the light”. Or, using it to answer a question in the way we do in English, by saying “I see”.

    It’s just a word, used in a lot of different ways, just like we use the verb “to see” in a lot of different ways.

    In the NT, with no exceptions, if a person has had a “vision”, it specifically says they had a vision.

    Luke 1:22 But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple

    Luke 24:23 and did not find His body, they came, saying that they had also seen a vision

    Acts 2:17 ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, And your young men shall see visions

    Acts 9:10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision

    Acts 9:12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias

    Acts 10:3 About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel

    Acts 10:17 Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be,

    Acts 11:5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision

    I could go on, but I won’t.

    In 1 Cor 15, Paul writes that Jesus “…was seen…”, often translated “appeared”. But every single one of the examples I’ve listed above uses the exact same verb: Ophthe. If Paul wished to say that “Jesus appeared (or was seen) in a vision”, then I would suggest that that’s exactly what he would have written.

    Compare the above examples to those below:

    Matthew 2:7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.

    Mark 1:4 John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness

    Luke 12:58 For while you are going with your opponent to appear before the magistrate

    Luke 19:16 The first [ servant ] appeared, saying, ‘Master, your mina has made ten minas more.’

    Acts 13:31 and for many days He appeared to those who came up with Him from Galilee

    As you see in these examples, Ophthe is translated as “appeared”, yet there is no “magical” quality to it.

    It begs the question as to why any translator even bothers to translate the verb as “appeared”. In every case in the examples above, the sentences could just as easily use a version of “was seen”, or “to be seen”, etc. “The first servant was seen, saying….”, “John the Baptist was seen in the wilderness”, “going with your opponent to be seen by the magistrate”.

    You can check this out for yourself, but, you will find, with tremendous consistency, that if the writer is intending to say a person “has seen” an *objective reality”, the writer will simply say “Ophthe”. If the writer intends to say a person has seen a vision, he will say something like “Optasian heOraken” – “he saw a ‘seeing’ [vision]”

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    1. I assume that you would agree that whatever it was that the other witnesses experienced, Paul claims in First Corinthians 15 that his experience (of an appearance of Jesus) was similar to theirs.

      The author of Acts QUOTES Paul as saying that his appearance experience was a “heavenly vision”. How do you explain that?

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  3. Your assumption is incorrect. Paul saw a post-ascension Jesus; Peter and the others did not. I cannot say specifically what differences these “encounters” may have entailed, but I do not believe that Paul’s encounter was, by any necessity, the same as that of Peter and the others. If I saw you, as an old man, it will be a different thing than someone who had seen you as a child. Yet, both I and they would have equally seen you.

    Regarding your Acts quote, I do not regard Acts as an historically reliable document. The differences in the accounts of Paul’s conversion experience in that book cause me great hesitance to accept any one of them with any amount of confidence.

    Paul himself, though, claims to have seen the Lord (Galatians). He does not claim to have “seen a vision” of the Lord.

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    1. “Paul saw a post-ascension Jesus; Peter and the others did not.”

      This assumes that if they even exist, a resurrected body has a different appearance than a post-ascension body. You have no basis for this assumption whatsoever.

      However, I am very happy to hear that you believe that it is possible that Paul’s appearance experience was different than that of the others. Therefore, it is possible that all Paul saw was a talking bright light in a “heavenly vision” and all the other appearance claims are based on other sightings of bright lights, cloud formations, shadows, mistaken identity (seeing “Jesus” in a crowd or in the distance who is really someone else but who looked like Jesus), and even a few hallucinations.

      Yes, Paul claims to have seen the Christ. But since ophthe CAN mean to see someone or something in a vision, it is still possible that this is the case and that this is why the author of Acts refers to Paul’s appearance experience as a “heavenly vision”. It is also possible that Paul really did SEE something, but all he saw was a shadow, bright light, or cloud formation and misperceived what he was seeing (an illusion).

      In 2017, thousands of devout Christians in Knock, Ireland claimed to have “seen” the Virgin Mary. I saw the video. All I see is a bright light and clouds. Hysterical, superstitious, religious zealots have claimed to have “seen” a lot of bizarre things. I suspect that you do not take any of these claims seriously, so why do you believe ONE claim from a religious zealot living 2,000 years ago??

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  4. ““Paul saw a post-ascension Jesus; Peter and the others did not.”

    This assumes that if they even exist, a resurrected body has a different appearance than a post-ascension body. You have no basis for this assumption whatsoever.”

    I made no assumptions. I clearly stated ” I cannot say specifically what differences these “encounters” may have entailed, but I do not believe that Paul’s encounter was, by any necessity, the same as that of Peter and the others. ”

    “But since ophthe CAN mean to see someone or something in a vision”

    Show me one example from NT Greek that demonstrates this. I haven’t found one. And, I suspect that neither will you. Ophthe, by default, means to see an objectively-existent thing. And, as I pointed out in my original post, it is also used as “to see” in other manners, just as we do in English: “I see”, said the man.

    But there are no instances of Ophthe being used to signify a “vision” in the NT unless it is stated to be a vision – as in Peters vision of the “sheet” with unclean food.

    Therefore, whatever it was that Paul and Peter and the others claimed, it is stated that they saw whatever that was as an objective thing, or at least, believed to have been an objective thing. Whether it was an objective thing, or something like an hallucination, cannot be determined by the text. I would suggest strongly, though, that it can be determined, from the text, that these “viewers” did not understand their “seeing” of Jesus to be a “vision”.

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    1. “I would suggest strongly, though, that it can be determined, from the text, that these “viewers” did not understand their “seeing” of Jesus to be a “vision”.”

      Incorrect.

      All that can be determined from the text (of First Corinthians 15) is that the author of this letter, Paul, states that someone (whose identity is never stated) told him that the Christ had “appeared” to a certain number of persons; all these persons, except possibly one (James), were already members of this sect. Paul then adds his name to this list.

      How do you know what the people on this list (other than Paul) originally claimed to have experienced?

      How do you know this didn’t happen:

      –Sunday night after Jesus’ crucifixion, while in deep emotional despair, grieving horribly, exhausted from not sleeping the last three nights, not eating, and not sleeping, Peter has another one of his “trances”; a bizarre experience which leaves Peter wondering whether or not it really happened.

      In this “experience”, Jesus appears to Peter; tells Peter than he is forgiven for denying him, and tells him that he will be the rock upon which Christ will build his Church. Peter asks Jesus if he is having a dream or if Jesus is real. Jesus responds that he is very real, “Just reach out and touch me, Peter”. Peter does so and takes hold of Jesus’ hand. Jesus tells Peter that God has raised him from the dead! Jesus tells Peter that within a very, very short period of time, he will come to establish the New Kingdom, placing Peter and the other ten on thrones of gold next to him. But…in order for all this to come to pass, they must follow him without fear, preaching the Gospel to anyone who will listen.

      Peter is ecstatic!!!

      The Kingdom WILL come! The Romans WILL be defeated. Jesus will rule the world from Jerusalem! The misery and suffering of the Jewish people will soon end!!!

      –Peter tells the other disciples. The small group is gripped by joyful hysteria! Sunday morning, they travel to Jesus tomb and find it empty. (The Sanhedrin had only buried Jesus in that particular tomb since it was close to Golgotha, using it temporarily since the sun was setting and they didn’t want Jesus’ body above ground, defiling the Sabbath). Saturday evening, after the Sabbath had ended, they moved the body to an unmarked pauper’s grave without telling Jesus’ family or his disciples).

      The empty tomb confirmed (in the minds of the disciples) that Peter was telling the truth! God has raised Jesus from the dead! The once timid, fearful disciples now become proud evangelists, fearing nothing. (Jesus is coming very, very soon. We are going to rule the world as princes! So why worry?)

      –Soon other believers are having “trances”, visions, illusions, and false sightings of Jesus.

      —Years later (we don’t know how many years, even though evangelicals think they know), someone formulates a “Creed”; a list of alleged eyewitnesses to the original appearances of Jesus. This author really, really wants people to believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. So he spices up the story. He embellishes some of the details. Why not, if it brings sinners to Christ???

      And this new “creed” repeatedly uses the word “ophthe” for every alleged appearance, even though this was not necessarily what the original claimants had said.

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  5. Incorrect.

    This is the Greek of the 1 Cor 15 verse:

    “…kai oti ophthe kepha eita tois dodeka…”

    As you can plainly see, the verb ophthe is 3rd person – meaning – it’s something KEPHA did, not Jesus. Jesus isn’t mentioned in this phrase, not even referenced as “he” (ie, “he appeared”).
    Kepha “saw”. This literally says “and that saw Peter thereafter the two-ten”. And, I personally would argue that the best translation to English that we could make is “..and that Peter saw, thereafter the twelve”.

    Just look at the grammar for “John appeared in the wilderness”. That’s not what it says at all. It says that John was seen in the wilderness. That verb isn’t something John did (appearing); it’s something others did (seeing).

    It is ENGLISH translators that throw the “he” (“…he was seen”) in the 1 Cor 15 verse, and equally, it is ENGLISH translators (some of them, but hardly all) that take a verb (ophthe) – something that Peter is doing – and switch it around to something Jesus is doing (appearing).

    Even Ehrman says “it is the aorist passive of οραω (ORAO) which means “to see,” so technically it means “he was seen.” And to my disappointment, even Ehrman throws the “understood ‘he'” in there – but, that’s English translators for you.

    So, you’re arguing about some English translation. I’m just telling you what the Greek says.

    I have no comment on the rest of your post. I deal in linguistics.

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    1. As I said in my previous comment, even if we were to agree that the Early Creed’s use of the word “ophthe” should be properly translated into English as “to literally see with the eyes” that doesn’t tell us what the actual witnesses originally claimed to have experienced. The only confirmed eyewitness testimony we have for ANY sighting of Jesus is Paul’s…and he tells us nothing!

      For all we know, Paul is the only witness who claimed to have seen (ophthe) Jesus with his eyes (all the rest had visions, hallucinations, dreams, trances). And all Paul actually saw was a bright light (He experienced an illusion). Years later, whoever formulated the Early Creed then embellished the story and claimed that all the witnesses had originally claimed that they had literally seen (ophthe) Jesus with their eyes.

      The evidence for this supernatural claim is poor—very, very, very poor.

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  6. And likewise so is the evidence for visions, hallucinations, dreams, etc.

    Am I to understand that you accept the Book of Acts as a reliable historical source? You say “all Paul actually saw was a bright light”, but, that is found only in Acts. The same author wrote that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead (in the Gospel of Luke). So, I’m curious: Why do you accept the account of Paul’s experience in Acts, but not what the same author says about Jesus’ resurrection? That seems quite inconsistent to me.

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    1. You left out illusions…the most probable cause of these tall tales…just like what happens when devout Christians today claim that the mother of Jesus has literally appeared (ophthe) to hundreds of them!

      You sound like someone very familiar to this blog. You aren’t…the infamous FT Bond, are you???

      I do not accept any collection of supernatural tall tales as “fact”, my friend.

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  7. I used “etc”. Perhaps you missed that?

    I’m afraid I’ve not become acquainted with an FT Bond, and whomever he or she might be, it isn’t me. I am a grad student in Koine Greek studies.

    It’s well to note that you don’t accept any collection of supernatural tall tales as fact.

    However, that doesn’t answer my question.

    Let us consider the whole of the New Testament to be tall tales, or, some type of “derivatives” of tall tales. We can call the Gospels and Acts “tall tales”, and the Epistles as derivative teachings based on the tall tales (which makes them even worse than the tall tales themselves). In this fashion, we are approaching the NT texts in the same fashion that “fans” of the Lord of the Rings trilogy approaches them.

    If Book Two of the Lord of the Rings trilogy says that Frodo was from the Shire, and Book One says Bilbo was from the Shire, then since both books were written by the same author, it would seem rather silly to say that either Book One or Book Two had it’s facts wrong.

    So, taking the Gospel of Lukes and Acts – both written by the same author – why do you say Paul saw a bright light, and accept that part that is written by the author, yet, you reject the same author saying that Jesus was bodily resurrected?

    That makes about as much sense as saying Tolkien was right about Bilbo, but wrong about Frodo….

    PS – it doesn’t matter to me whether you believe anything about the NT in a religious sense. My real interest is just the language. But, I’m asking about this Luke / Acts business because you seem to be placing a high degree of acceptance on what Acts says, but, at the same time, disregarding what Luke says, and they’re both written by the same person. I just don’t get that.

    I’ll leave the last response to you. I’d be very interested in what you had to say about this inconsistency, but, I don’t really have any reason to ask except purely from curiosity.

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    1. We’ve been through this before: My blog is devoted to exposing the assumptions and inconsistencies of fundamentalist/conservative Trinitarian Christians—people who believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. I am not interested in debating liberals or non-Trinitarians (like Mr. FT Bond). Therefore, when discussing the Bible, I argue from the point of view of fundamentalist Christians, all of whom believe that the Book of Acts is inerrant in all statements of fact.

      If you are not FT Bond, please briefly describe yourself and your views so that I can know where you are coming from.

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  8. I’m just a student of Greek. I don’t have an interest in arguing much about someone’s theology. I just get tired of bad English translations. It seems the translators are more interested (at times) with pushing their own view (or that of their denomination) rather than just translating what is actually said, and I find that frustrating.

    Regarding Ophthe, here’s some info regarding the root, ὁράω • (horáō):

    (intransitive) To look with the eyes [+ εἰς (accusative) = at something or someone]
    (intransitive) To be able to see; (with negative) to be unable to see, to be blind
    (copulative) To look a certain way [+accusative adjective or adverb]
    Infinitive is added to an adjective, adverb, and so on to indicate that the description relates to sight: to see, to look at, to behold
    δεινὸς ἰδεῖν
    deinòs ideîn
    horrible to look at
    (transitive) To see, perceive, observe [+accusative and participle = someone doing something, that someone is doing something]
    (transitive) To find out [+indirect question]
    ὅρᾱ εἰ …
    hórā ei …
    see if/whether …
    (transitive) To make sure [+infinitive = that …]
    (intransitive and transitive, figuratively) To see with the mind, understand
    ὁρᾷς; ὁρᾶτε;
    horâis? horâte?
    Do you see?
    (transitive) To provide [+accusative and dative = something for someone]

    As you can see, the verb has nothing to do with “appearing”.

    In Greek grammar, a subject is the one who does an action, and the verb is the action done.

    If a subject does horao, the subject “sees” or “looks at” something. The subject doesn’t do “appearing”.

    It is only in English translations that this “appear” idea appears. For some unknown reason, English translators will translate “Jesus was seen” as “Jesus appeared”. But, the fact is, if “Jesus was seen”, then the verb should be an action of Jesus. However, this is not the case any usage of Ophthe in the NT: it is always, without exception, someone “having seen” something – or, something “was seen” BY someone. Again, for reasons unknown to me, these are often translated as “something appeared”.

    The actual (ancient) Greek word for “appearing” is φαίνω • (phaínō)

    (transitive) I cause to appear, bring to light; I show, uncover, reveal
    (transitive) I make known, reveal, disclose
    (of sound)
    (transitive) Ι show forth, expound
    (transitive) I denounce
    (intransitive) I shine, give light
    (passive) I appear; I shine
    I come into being
    I come about
    (copulative or control verb) I appear (to be)
    (φαίνεται as interjection) yes; so it appears; apparently
    (late, impersonal) it seems

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