Luke’s resurrection narrative, though similar in many ways to that in Matthew, contains substantial differences that originate from an independent tradition. A fascinating story unique to Luke is contained in Luke 24:41–43, which describes how Jesus ate some broiled fish in order to convince the disciples that he was not a ghost but was truly raised “flesh and bones”. This story is widely quoted by apologists in order to argue against the idea of a disembodied “spiritual resurrection”. Indeed, it is clear that in this passage Luke means to demonstrate that Jesus’ resurrection body was unambiguously physical and that he really was present with the disciples after the crucifixion. However, unless one is willing to claim that the story is an authentic account of a historical event preserved by those who witnessed it, it is obvious that the passage does not demonstrate that the earliest disciples believed in a physical resurrection. Rather, it merely demonstrates the existence of this belief among Christians towards the end of the first century. I believe that the historicity of the story can be refuted with a reasonable degree of certainty and that the story is therefore not good evidence for the existence of the belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus among those who claimed to experience resurrection appearances.
The most significant difficulty in accepting the historicity of the resurrected Jesus eating fish is that it seriously conflicts with the understanding of the resurrection body found in the letters of Paul. In Paul’s description of the kind of body we can expect at the general resurrection he argues that although our present bodies are weak and perishable flesh and blood, orientated towards and grounded in natural, earthly things, our bodies will become strong and imperishable, orientated towards and grounded in heavenly, spiritual things (1 Corinthians 15:35-50). The resurrected body is one that has had its nature radically transformed – our resurrected bodies will be liberated from any earthly limitation and will instead be sustained entirely by God. And since Paul emphasised that the resurrected Jesus was the “first fruits” of those who had died – that his resurrection body was to be the model that all others would follow (1 Corinthians 15:20, Philippians 3:21, 1 Corinthians 15:16), we can apply his description of the resurrection body to the resurrected body of Jesus.
It is clear that food is one of the earthly things upon which our natural bodies currently depend. One might reasonably infer from this that Paul believed that after the resurrection our bodies will depend on food no longer. Indeed, Paul clearly seems to endorse this view in 1 Corinthians 6:12-13. In this passage, Paul is responding to the Corinthians’ attempt to justify their sexual immorality, which appears to be based on the idea that just as our bodies have an appetite for food, our bodies have a sexual appetite and to satisfy oneself sexually is no different to eating. In other words, just as “Food is for stomach and the stomach is for food”, one could say that sex is for the body and the body is for sex. Paul responds by saying that although food is designed for the stomach and stomach for food, this relationship is temporary and will be “destroyed by God” in our resurrected body. Paul then asserts that sexual immorality is not something for which the body is made, and unlike the stomach, the body will not be destroyed by God but will be resurrected.
Even if we do not take Paul literally when he suggests that food and the stomach will be destroyed, it is evident that in Paul’s eyes the idea that the resurrected Christ would eat some broiled fish in order to demonstrate his physicality would be outrageous. Eating would be an act degrading to the resurrection body. It is reasonable to argue that if the story of Jesus eating the fish is historical, Paul’s understanding of the resurrection body is incorrect. And given Paul’s proximity to the original disciples and their broad agreement about the Gospel (Galatians 2:6), it is unlikely that Paul’s understanding of the resurrection body was radically different to that of those who claimed to have experienced resurrection appearances themselves. Naturally, it is far more likely that Paul’s understanding is accurate.
Historicising the broiled fish story gives rise to all sorts of other awkward problems. What happened to the fish next? Did God divinely intervene in the digestive process before it came to its inevitable conclusion? Taking the story literally has even given rise to the absurdity of vegetarians who like to root their diet in Jesus being forced to attempt to explain the story away. All of these difficulties, and the conflict with Paul, are resolved by recognising that the story is likely to be a later development that has no root in historical truth. While one must recognise the intention of Luke to demonstrate the physicality of Jesus, one must also recognise that the story can prove no more than this intention.