CLAIM: Even after seeing the risen Jesus, Mary “did not know that it was Jesus” (Jn. 20:14). Skeptics claim that this is a good reason for questioning the reliability of the resurrection account. Cultists (who deny the physical resurrection) claim that Jesus was no longer a physical body, and perhaps looked totally different. Are these claims reasonable?
RESPONSE: A careful reading of the passage reveals that there were several understandable reasons why Mary did not recognize Jesus at first glance:
It was still dark outside. The text tells us that Mary came to the tomb very early in the morning “while it was still dark” (v.1). So she could probably hardly see Jesus’ face.
She held the assumption that Jesus’ body had been stolen. She frantically told the disciples that someone had “taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him” (v.2). Remember, she had seen Jesus killed, so she probably assumed that someone had moved the body. She wasn’t expecting Jesus to show up. If you watched a loved one die, would you be able to recognize them at first glance if they had been raised from the dead?
Mary was disoriented, weeping and grieving. When she was looking in the tomb, the text tells us that she was “weeping” (v.11). Were Mary’s eyes blurred with tears? Was she (understandably!) traumatized at the death of Jesus? Jewish people took grave desecration very seriously.
Context reveals that Mary wouldn’t have recognized the risen Jesus for good reasons. For all of these reasons, we see no reason to think that this text discounts the physical resurrection of Jesus. For further reading, see “Defending the Resurrection.”