Apparitions of Jesus

The Resurrection as Ghost Story

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Robert Conner
  • Valley, WA: 
    Tellectual Press
    , May
     194 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


According to the Gospel of Matthew 14:25-26, when the disciples first saw Jesus walking on water, they mistook him for a ghost. Intrigued by this episode and others like it in New Testament literature, Robert Conner purports to explore the influence of ancient Greco-Roman ghost stories on the gospel depictions of Christ’s appearance after the resurrection. To what degree, he asks, did pagan folklore about the returning dead influence the accounts of Jesus’s rising from the tomb in the gospels? The book is comprised of five short chapters. Chapter 1 provides some useful background on traditions of Jewish necromancy but ends with the dubious assertion that the early Christian cults of relics were necromancy “by definition, if not by name.” Chapter 2 treats the theme of the nature of the power of Jesus over spirits, particularly demons, and entertains the notion, vaguely expressed in Mark 6:14-16, that Herod may have considered Jesus to have been a necromancer who had control of John the Baptist’s unquiet ghost. In chapter 3, Conner organizes the post-mortem appearances of Jesus into three categories—visions, epiphanies, and apparitions—but this chapter quickly bogs down with a long digression on the causes of hallucinations, which has no bearing on the author’s intention to study cross-cultural literary influences. Chapter 4 is the heart of the book. Here Conner presents a detailed comparison of the gospel accounts of the appearance of Jesus after the resurrection, but the chapter lacks any discussion of Greco-Roman folklore about necromancers or the lingering spirits of the dead, particularly the grisly account of the activities of the necromancer Erichtho in Lucan’s Pharsalia and Pliny the Younger’s famous letter (Book 7.27) concerning the ghost that haunted the philosopher Athenodorus in Athens. Chapter 5 is a very short and undeveloped treatment of the magic power inherent in Jesus’s name due to his violent death.

Apparitions of Jesus entertains some interesting ideas about the gospel accounts of the appearance of Jesus after the resurrection, but it ultimately fails to engage meaningfully in any comparative analysis with Greco-Roman ghost stories. Moreover, it does not meet the critical standards of a scholarly monograph. To be precise, the book does not follow up fully on its initial claims; its chapters lack structure and argument; it quotes primary source texts and works of secondary scholarship verbatim at great length; and it often digresses far from its arguments. For a firmer introduction to the issues addressed by Connor, scholars of New Testament Christianity can turn more profitably to Deborah Thompson Prince, “The ‘Ghost’ of Jesus: Luke 24 in Light of Ancient Narratives of Post-Mortem Apparitions” (Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29 [2007]: 287-301). Students will benefit from the useful glossary of terms (13-15) as well as the up-to-date bibliography (157-81) but would be advised to treat the rest of the book with caution.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott G. Bruce is Professor of Medieval History at Fordham University. He recently edited The Penguin Book of the Undead: Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters(Penguin Classics, 2016).

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert Conner studied Greek and Hebrew at Western Kentucky University from 1975 through 1977. Since 1983, he has published books and articles on electrocardiography, a novel, three books on magic in early Christianity, and a study of the "Secret" gospel of Mark controversy. He has always been fascinated with languages and enjoys reading the gospels in their original tongue.


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