Jesus = Everyman

In assembly yesterday I talked about how we can learn from Israeli grandmothers and treat others how we would wish to be treated. The Golden Rule is an ethical universal but so very difficult to do.

I want to take this idea further. Listen to this strange tale from the New Testament (Luke 24: 13-16):

Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.

For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is a foundational story. But there is something disturbing in the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. If Jesus was raised from the dead, why did he no longer look like Jesus? Why did the disciples not recognise him?The account leaves Christianity open to a most worrying accusation (and the idea that they were prevented from recognising him doesn’t really solve the problem): maybe the man didn’t look like Jesus because he wasn’t Jesus. Maybe he was a decoy and the resurrection is a fraud.

If any of you grow up to be New Testament scholars you will learn the term “Criterion of Embarrassment.” Simply put, it is used to suggest that the more a story runs counter to the message of the narrative, the more likely it is to be true. If you were inventing the story of Jesus’ resurrection, you would not want to subvert your efforts by including difficult, embarrassing details. Thus the tale of Jesus’ changed appearance is likely to be true because you wouldn’t include it otherwise.

Now, if Jesus had the power to raise himself from the dead, surely he had the power to choose the appearance of his resurrected body. Why, then, did he look different? (Different enough that Mary Magdalene also didn’t recognise him.) The answer may lie in an earlier parable in which Jesus teaches that if we are to serve him we must treat others as if they were him. Jesus deliberately disguises himself as the Everyman so that we learn that he is every man, or could be.

It’s even more radical than that: Jesus is the executed criminal and thus equally the murderer, the thief, the terrorist. If you can love them as you love Jesus — and you cannot tell from their appearance that they are not, in fact Jesus — then you become what Jesus wants you to become: changed. If you’re a Christian, try it. If not, then swap Jesus with someone else you love and admire and would never dream of treating shoddily and apply it to both your friends and enemies. Even the guy who steals your toothpaste in the boarding house.

This video (at 6:20, especially from 8:20) demonstrates what I mean:

Given at boarders’ chapel at LGS on 22.ix.10 and largely stolen from the head of Bradley Kramer, esq.


  1. I love you, Ronan.

  2. Which means you love Jesus! Hurrah!

    (Sorry for stealing your idea, but you were never going to write it down this side of 2013.)

  3. More Kramer-Head collaborations, please.

  4. Haven’t seen the video, but this is a great interpretation of an odd story. Has this not been argued before by NT scholars? If not, you slackers should totally write this up for a print medium. (I still love that hymn The Stranger for very similar reasons)

  5. This is what the original “The Forgotten Man” by Maynard Dixon evokes, especially if viewed in conjunction with Matthew 25:40: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

    I know it’s cheesy but as a teacher in the MTC I actually gave out postcards of Dixon’s Forgotten Man (bought at gift shop at the BYU Museum of Fine Art) with this scripture written on the back as a spiritual thought. After two years of teaching at the MTC, I had given out a lot of Maynard Dixon postcards.

    I figured this could help them treat all those they encountered, including the downtrodden, as people worthy of their pure service dissociated from ulterior motives.

  6. Thanks for that, Messrs. Head and Kramer.

  7. Great post, Ronan.

    The “Criterion of Embarrassment” sounds a whole lot like the “declaration against interest” exception to the hearsay rule. Which just goes to show, I suppose, that some frustrated trial attorney must have given up the practice and turned to his first love, biblical criticism.

  8. Velikiye Kniaz says:

    I surmised that these two disciples didn’t see the Savior because of a lack of faith on their part. Since the record states that they were talking to each other about “everything that happened”, the possibility is opened that there was a pro & con in their discussion. The Savior did not withold His Presence from them, their doubting and cynicism would not allow them to see Him. This could well be why the Gifts of the Spirit are not as often manifested in the modern Church as they were in pioneer times; we simply lack sufficient faith. Ironically, greater faith is what we will all need to face the forthcoming trials and tribulations of the these last days.

  9. Interesting. Do you think the criteria of embarrassment also applies to Cain/Bigfoot and other shaggy Mormon stories?

  10. Good ol’ Criterion of Embarrassment. Great thoughts RJH.

  11. I don’t understand your assumption that he did not look like Jesus, since the verse says “they were kept from recognizing him,” suggesting some external force (perhaps their own conversation as suggested by #8, or perhaps their need first to have a spiritual witness, as the continuing story reveals they had).

    As for Mary, Luke’s account makes clear that she was crying and did not recognize him.

    While the Savior clearly teaches the concept you have offered here (that the Savior is Everyman, that is that we should see Him in each person we encounter), the metaphysics of changed appearance is not clear.

    Do we have evidence, for instance, that the apostles did not recognize him in John 20?

  12. Paul,
    I deal with your first point parenthetically in the post.

  13. 12 – Your parenthetical suggests it’s more awkward that they were somehow kept from recognizing him than that his appearance had changed? That’s the very part I don’t get. There are plenty of people I don’t recognize “up close”. We do not know the role of these two — they were not apostles; were they simply disciples who might have seen him from a distance? The KJV suggests their eyes were restrained, and even the translation that you use suggests they were kept from recognizing him.

    Now I suppose one way to keep them from recognizing him is that his appearance had changed. But is it equally likely that it is something within them that did not allow them to have “eyes that could see”?

    Ultimately (in v. 31) their eyes were opened. And in v. 32 they confirm a spiritual witness which preceded the physical one.

  14. This is a great OP. But can we really safely conclude the following as you say: “surely he had the power to choose the appearance of his resurrected body.” Like Paul (11) suggests, what if it was not up to Jesus, and was up to the Father, on the way Jesus appeared? What if Jesus was instructed to not “appear” to them yet? Too many loose ends with the story to draw conclusion IMHO. Can we be satisfied in accepting that we just don’t know?

    I thought of another alternative: the reason that no one recognized him at first is because I can imagine that you or I would look much more, er, nicely groomed and visible as resurrected beings than our earthly image. I’m just guessing that there is a very physical transformation (not to mention clothing cover) that takes place. So impoversished, famished, cut up, tortured Jesus (the last version they had seen) looked very different than resurrected and transformed Jesus. Who knows?

    But the point of the OP–that Jesus should and could be everyman to us–is great, thank you. This will stick with me for sure.

  15. I’m gonna let Brad answer these questions. He needs to do some work.

  16. Short answer, then England sleeps:

    Mark 16:12-13
    Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country.

    Nothing here about his form being kept from them, his form simply was different. Mark was written first. Luke’s is a gloss.

  17. Julie M. Smith says:

    Ronan, are you sure about the date on the longer ending?

  18. Does anyone know of any place where Joseph Smith (or other modern or ancient prophet) described the detailed physical features (hair length, hair color, height, estimated weight, beard/no beard, etc.) of the Savior and the Father as they appeared as resurrected beings? For all we know, the “different form” could mean a totally different looking person than the way he appeared in mortality and in modern depictions. What if part of resurrecting was a short hair cut and a shave (if bearded in mortality)? I’m guessing he was not all bloody at the point either. We are just left speculating in Sunday school at this point about what this all means. We just know there was some sort of “difference” but nothing else.

  19. Eric, God has blue eyes. Really.

  20. If Christ had some deformaties, scars or the like during his life (hardly surprising for someone in the ancient world who died at age 33) then I suspect one might not recognize him. Maybe he suddenly had good white teeth, removed scars and birthmarks, and the like.

    I’m not pushing that. I’m just suggesting that if one takes the folk view of resurrection literally (i.e. that infirmities are fixed) then the older you are the less like your death body you’ll look in the resurrection. I mean I think I’ve avoided most problems but I hope I look like me at 25 in the resurrection and now me now.

  21. All I can say is that if I’m granted power to resurrect myself, you can bet I’m not going to look like I do now.

  22. I guess I’ve always imagined that how we look eternally refelcts our spirit more fully. The beauty of holiness kind of thing…not the beauty of vogue perfect body kind of thing

  23. The physiological mechanics are immaterial. It doesn’t matter if He consciously altered the incidental properties of his physiognomy or visage in any objective sense. What matters is the subjective, experiential, social fact of non-recognition. Those closest to Him were unable to recognize Him, in plain sight. This was a phenomenon over which He freely exercised control. And true recognition seems to have emerged in part through intimate encounters with His body—Mary’s attempt to touch Him, the Apostles’ handling of the marks of His execution, the disciples who shared the eucharistic meal (“My body…”) with Him. (It’s probably also worth noting that when He appears to the Lehites, He doesn’t just tell them who He is but has each of them participate in each of these activities, to truly know Him, despite the fact that recognition in the traditional sense was an irrelevant factor for people who did not know Him in mortality).

    His power to disrupt and consciously manipulate the semiotics of personal identification seems to be a feature of celestial, resurrected bodies (an idea supported by other canonical Mormon texts, including the temple drama). On experiencing the transition from non-recognition to recognition, I would imagine that His disciples remembered, with transformed implications, His admonition that as they administered unto the very least of us (the social refuse, prisoners, homeless, beggars, etc.) they would, in fact, be ministering unto Him.

    This startling, and generally unremarked upon, feature of the resurrection narratives has profound ramifications for those who take it, and Him, seriously. It creates and sustains a kind of reverse paranoia, one whose generative and cumulative effects can potentially be an exponential increase in charity. It’s one thing to feed the vagrant or visit the imprisoned criminal because Jesus said we should treat others like we would treat Him; it’s quite another to consider performing such acts out of a back-of-the-mind, inescapable, nagging awareness that the vagrant in question might, in fact, be Jesus. And, in some sense, is Jesus, if only because s/he cannot be definitively shown not to be.

    Have you received His image in your countenances?

  24. I do love this post very much, Ronan (and Brad).

  25. To translate Brad:

    Whatever the metaphysics of Jesus’ changed appearance — and whether the change only existed in the disciples’ eyes under the power of some kind of divine conjuring — the fact is that it was a conscious act on God’s part. So the question is, why appear differently? There are a number of possibilities, reverse paranoia being one that we like, one that seems consistent with Jesus’ teachings (cf. parable of the sheep and goats).

    Brad, we should write this up.

  26. Because I’m incapable of being as isnsightful as Brad or as clear as Ronan I offer this instead:

  27. In Mary’s defense, the text clearly says that when she went to the sepulchre, “it was still dark.” That may have something to do with her lack of recognition of Jesus–after all, she didn’t have bionic vision.
    Excellent post.

  28. 23/24: Peace.

  29. (22) Brad, good stuff! I like how you connect the audio/visual with physical contact, and the Savior’s scars in particular. We learn in many places that the audio/visuals of spiritual phenomenon can be confirmed by touch. It’s like law enforcement credentialing. I guess most of us have no clue what these beings could look like, and I agree that it doesn’t matter as you suggest (my query re details above in (18) stems more from what I think is a telling pattern: no prophet has described these details, and I’m guessing it may be, among several other speculative reasons, because these details probably do not matter and God might not want us to think that these details matter as he can identify himself in other ways). And I definitely did not appreciate the concept of day-to-day ‘recognition’–with all of its queues (voice, visual, scent)–until I read and thought about this. How do we ‘know’ who someone is?

    Personal lesson learned: I will be kinder at the DMV next time.

  30. “How do we ‘know’ who someone is?”

    That’s exactly it, Eric. These are things we utterly take for granted. But the resurrection narratives and what little other authoritative texts suggest about celestial bodies and modes of recognition seriously complicate the taken-for-granted of our experience.

  31. Haven’t you ever seen someone you know in a context that you did not expect? It is very common not to recognize people you know.

    I once did not recognize my own grandmother. I only knew her in the context of Malad ID, and basically just in her kitchen. When I entered the mall where I worked in high school there was this lady staring at me and I wondered if I had forgotten an important piece of clothing, or something. Nope. Unbeknownst to me, she flew to Washington DC and stopped by the mall to catch me in between sessions at some conference she was attending. It was very disconcerting.

  32. Also, I loved the post guys.

  33. Yes to everything. Plus, our mortal appearance is dependent on the physical DNA we get from our parents. I imagine that Jesus looked like Joseph and Mary to a certain extent. Who is to say that this is what our spirit / resurrected body looks like? I’ve always been under the impression that we will recognize our loved ones in the hereafter by their essence, rather than their external features.

  34. Yes, please- more RJH/Kramer collaborations.

  35. I’ve been thinking about this idea since you guys related it to me (eat your heart out people, I broke bread with each of them, and my eyes were opened that I recognized them). It makes me take seriously, not only how I treat others directly, but how I think of them. Jesus could be any of the vilified of our day. What a different world we would live in, if we recognized Jesus in each other.

  36. Hey guys, it’s quite obvious to be resurrected you have to adopt BYU grooming standards. Resurrected Jesus looks like a freshly shaven Donny Osmond. It’s only natural they didn’t recognize him.

  37. Neal A. Maxwell:

    “[T]he more we become like Jesus, the more we come to know him. There may even be, more than we now know, some literalness in his assertion ‘When ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). We lack deep understanding of the implications of that remark of Jesus. As with so many things, he is telling us more than we are now prepared to receive.”

  38. Love it. I miss Elder Maxwell.

  39. this thread is such a strange amalgamation of brilliant tidbits (like the Elder Maxwell remark) and an image of Jesus wearing socks with his sandals dancing to “White and Nerdy”

  40. Not to take away anything from this great post. But I am now reconsidering my vote:

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