NT Wright Agrees that the Greek Word “Ophthe” Can Mean to See in a Vision

Paul's Vision of Jesus — Latter Day Light

Vision or reality?

New Testament scholar NT Wright, in his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 322-323:

But it is not enough for Paul, or the early tradition, simply to declare that the Messiah was in fact raised.  Witnesses must come forward:

and that he was seen by/appeared to Cephas, then the Twelve, then he was seen by/appeared to more than five hundred members of the family at one time, of whom most remain alive to this present day, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he was seen by/appeared to James, then by all the apostles.

As this carefully ambiguous translation shows, the verb ophthe, occurring three times here, and then again with reference to Paul in verse 8, can in principle be translated either way.  Some, wanting to stress the ‘visionary’ nature of the appearances, and hence to insert the thin end of a wedge with which to force a ‘non-objective’ understanding of Easter, have emphasized the meaning ‘appeared to’ may be marginally preferable.  However, the verb is passive, and its normal meaning would be ‘was seen by’.

The use of ophthe is in fact quite varied, as a glance at the LXX concordance will show.  The word occurs 85 times, of which a little over half refer either to YHWH, or YHWH’s glory, or an angel of YHWH, appearing to people.  The remaining 39 occurrences refer to people appearing before YHWH in the sense of presenting themselves in the Temple, or to objects being seen by people in a straightforward, non-visionary sense; and to people ‘appearing’, in a non-visionary and unsurprising way, before someone else.  The classical background does not give much more help; the passive of the verb is not found in Homer, and the usage elsewhere more or less mirrors what we have seen in the LXX.  It is in fact impossible to build a theory of what people thought Jesus’ resurrection appearances consisted of (i.e. whether they were ‘objective’, ‘subjective’, or whatever—these terms themselves, with their many philosophical overtones, are not particularly helpful) on this word alone.  The word is quite consistent with people having non-objective ‘visions’; it is equally consistent with them seeing someone in the ordinary course of human affairs.  Its meaning in the present context—both its meaning for Paul, and its meaning in the tradition he quotes—must be judged on wider criteria than linguistic usage alone.

Gary:  Very interesting.  So when our English Bibles say that Jesus “appeared” to Cephas, etc., we cannot be sure just from this passage whether it infers a vision or a real ‘sighting’.

I wonder if Rev. Wright will explain why this ancient Christian “formula” or creed lists the order of Jesus resurrection “appearances” very differently than those recorded in the Gospels.  None of the Gospel accounts say that Cephas was the first to receive an appearance (the word ‘then’ that follows mention of Cephas  infers that there is a chronological order being presented).  Even if we limit the post-resurrection appearances to the male disciples of Jesus, this order is not consistent with the Gospels.

Also, if Paul is simply reciting a Creed composed by earlier Christians, how do know that Paul knew for sure that some of the witnesses were still living if this was simply part of a Creed?  Paul explicitly states that this is information which he had received from someone else.  Nowhere in this passage does Paul state that he has met and conversed with witnesses to the resurrected Jesus.

Not quoted above but an interesting point:  Rev. Wright poo-poos the criticism by skeptics that Paul does not mention an ’empty tomb’ in this passage.  He asserts that “being buried” infers a tomb and the statement that “he was raised” infers the tomb was found empty.  He gives the comparison that if one says that he is going to walk down the street, you do not need to clarify by adding “on my feet”.  It is assumed that you will be walking down the street on your feet.  I have to agree with him on this point.  That fact that Paul does not mention an empty tomb in this passage is immaterial.  However, the fact that Paul never mentions an empty tomb in any of his epistles is another matter altogether!

Imagine a modern day pastor never mentioning the empty tomb.

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End of post.

3 thoughts on “NT Wright Agrees that the Greek Word “Ophthe” Can Mean to See in a Vision

  1. Another example of the problems of a religion that was only supposed to last a generation or so, and hence not a pressing need for rigorous documentation and records, stretching on for thousands of years.

    Liked by 2 people

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