In the earliest reference to the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15.3-8, we read:
“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
Paul includes himself in his list of those to whom the risen Jesus “appeared”. He makes no distinction, but in fact equates, the appearance of Jesus to him and the appearances to others. The Greek verb Paul uses for all these appearances he mentions is the same one – ὤφθη (Greek - ōphthē) meaning “appeared, was seen” – in each case.
“The choice of this word is significant because it does not necessarily imply the actual appearance of a person, but may only indicate an unusual phenomena…the use of the word ὤφθη in enumerating other visions in the Pauline lists…excludes such details as prolonged conversations, meals and resumption of ordinary life, on which the gospels dwell.” – Charles Guignebert, “Jesus” pg. 523
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.”
There are many instances where it’s used of spiritual “visions”. For example: Acts 16:9-10 “And a vision appeared (ōphthē) to Paul in the night; there stood a man of Macedonia…And after he had seen the vision (horama), immediately we endeavored to go into Macedonia”
Is there anyone who actually thinks the Macedonian man’s body was actually standing in front of Paul when he “appeared” to him?
Same thing in Mark 9:4/Matthew 17:1-3, Moses and Elijah “appeared” (ōphthē) to Peter. Did they physically appear? Should we start looking for their empty tombs as well?
The word is used in the LXX (Greek translation of the OT) to describe how the Lord God appeared to the patriarchs (e.g., to Jacob in a dream, in Gen 31:13). In the LXX stories that use this word, the emphasis is more on the presence of God and on its power to reveal than on the “reality” of the experience. Even in Luke 24:34 “ophthe” is used as the verb for the appearance of Jesus to Peter.
“When Paul classifies the Damascus appearance with the other in 1 Cor 15:5 this is not merely because he regards it as equivalent…It is also because he regards this appearance similar in kind. In all the appearances the presence of the risen Lord is a presence in transfigured corporeality, 1 Cor 15:42. It is the presence of the exalted Lord from heaven. This presence is in non-visionary reality; no category of human seeing is wholly adequate for it. On this ground, the appearances are to be described in the sense of revelation rather than making visible.” - Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Vol. 5 pg. 359 books.google.com/books?id=rkjytdtGRW0C&lpg=PP1&pg=PA359#v=onepage&q&f=false
We know from the book of Acts, Paul’s description of his encounter on the Damascus road makes it clear that this was a vision – a light from heaven and a disembodied voice – not an encounter with a physically-revived former corpse returned to life.
“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him….”
“About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me….”
“About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions….”
“So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.”
We also know that the companions of Paul did not see or hear the vision/voice properly.
“The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.”
“My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.”
As far as the appearances go Paul makes no distinction, but in fact equates, the appearance of Jesus to him and the appearances to others in 1 Cor 15.
So if we’re to take the accounts Luke portrays in Acts 9:3-8, 22:6-11, 26:13-18 as accurate then the appearances mentioned in 1 Cor 15 were “visionary” in nature.
In the earliest manuscripts of gMark there are no resurrection appearances. Therefore, it follows that the physical appearances were later inventions by the early church which grew out of differing beliefs. These accounts were depicted later in the Gospels by Matthew, Luke, and John.