It’s a little-known fact that the Bible tells three ghost stories, and two of them are about Jesus.
It’s hard to say how common ghost stories were at the time of Jesus and earlier, but we have quite an ancient ghost story in 1 Samuel, and we have two ghost stories in the gospels.
Let’s look at the ancient ghost story first, because it might possibly be related to one of the stories about Jesus.
The Ghost of Samuel
The first king of Israel was Saul, a very tall man who was chosen king by the prophet Samuel. The usual dating for this would be a few decades before the year 1000 BC.
Samuel anointed Saul as king, but the two never got along very well. That’s a long story for another day, but eventually the prophet Samuel died.
Saul had always been terrified of Samuel, but he respected him and looked to him for advice. Now that Samuel was dead, Saul had nobody to turn to.
Then the Philistines came out to make war on Israel. Saul’s duty as king was to lead his men into battle. Literally lead them, which was a not-so-clever tradition of kings in ancient times.
The night before the battle, Saul was so terrified, he decided to violate his own law and consult the advice of a witch woman. He went to her in disguise and begged her to bring up the prophet Samuel from the underworld.
It’s not clear if the woman really thought she could bring up a spirit of the dead, but the story told in 1 Samuel 28 says that she did her incantations and was shocked when Samuel appeared.
It wasn’t Samuel in the flesh. It was some sort of apparition. A ghost.
This ghost of Samuel warned Saul that he would die the next day, along with three of his sons.
Saul had been terrified before. Now, he was practically catatonic.
He staggered back to his army camp under cover of darkness. The next day, he led his men into battle, and he was killed, along with three of his sons.
That’s the first ghost story in the Bible, and it’s definitely a weird one. Biblical scholars don’t really agree on how to interpret the story, but there’s no doubt that the story was well known to all Jews at the time of Jesus.
And that brings us to the next ghost story, which features Jesus.
The Ghost on the Water
All four gospels tell the story about Jesus feeding five thousand men, along with some women and children, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In the time of Jesus, this sea was more commonly called the Lake of Ginosar, and it’s shown in the map below.
The exact location of the story has been debated a lot. People have suggested two different locations. I’ve been to both, and the one that makes the most sense to me is the one on the east side of the lake, just a bit north of the village of Kursi. This location is across the lake from Capernaum at a distance of about 5 miles, and it fits the story very well.
All four gospels tell the story of this miraculous feeding. In the telling of the gospel of John, the people were extremely excited and tried to make Jesus king by force.
Jesus sent his twelve disciples back home in a boat while he sent the crowds away. The gospels don’t explain how he convinced them to leave when they were so excited, but I have a theory on that, which I’ll share in my next novel about Jesus (Son of David, the sequel to my novel Son of Mary, which is Book 1 in my Crown of Thorns series.)
But now Jesus had two problems. First, he was on land, with a long walk ahead of him to get back to Capernaum. Second, his disciples were rowing across the lake, but the wind was against them.
The gospel of Luke doesn’t say how he solved these problems, but Mark, Matthew, and John all say that Jesus simply walked across the lake on top of the water until he caught up to his disciples.
Mark and Matthew add a remarkable detail. They say that the disciples saw Jesus coming and were terrified because they thought he was a ghost.
That is, they saw something mysterious on the water, but didn’t recognize it as Jesus—until he spoke up and told them it was him. Then they let him in the boat.
Why would they imagine he was a ghost? That’s a weird idea. What put that in their heads?
I have a guess on that. It’s a very wild guess, and I can’t prove it, but it explains the facts we have, and it’s at least plausible.
My guess is that the disciples were telling stories while they rowed across the lake, and one of them was telling the story of King Saul and the Ghost of Samuel just when they spotted Jesus.
Why would they tell that particular story just then?
Because the story of King Saul and the Ghost of Samuel happened just before King David became king of Israel. The death of Saul made it possible for David to become king. And remember what we know from the gospel of John—that very day, the people of Israel had tried to make Jesus king.
So the story of King Saul might have been very much on the minds of the disciples.
As I said, it’s just a guess, but if you put yourself in the skin of the disciples, they were certainly thinking about how and when Jesus would be made king of Israel. So there’s a connection there.
Make of it what you will.
The Ghost in the Secret Room
There’s a third ghost story in the Bible, and this one also features Jesus.
In Luke 24, we read the story of the very first Easter. Jesus had been crucified two days earlier on Friday. Early on Sunday morning, some of his women followers came to finish their burial rituals and found his tomb empty. Two men in “clothes that gleamed like lightning” appeared to the women and told them Jesus was risen from the dead.
The women went back and told the men, and the men didn’t believe a word of it.
Later that day, they were all gathered together in a room, hiding out for fear of the authorities, and an apparition of Jesus appeared to them out of the blue.
That was their first thought anyway—an apparition. A ghost. And they were terrified.
But the apparition spoke to them, and they recognized his voice—the voice of Jesus.
In the story, Jesus has a hard time convincing them it’s really him. He finally asks them to give him something to eat, and they produce a broiled fish, which he then eats before their eyes.
And that seems to convince them that Jesus is really alive again, after being brutally executed.
This ends the gospel of Luke, but the story isn’t quite over.
The book of Acts was written by the same author as the gospel of Luke, and it continues the story. In Acts 1:6, we read an absolutely remarkable question by the disciples. Jesus is with the disciples for the very last time. They’re on the Mount of Olives.
And the disciples ask Jesus if right now is the moment when he’s going to restore the kingdom to Israel.
They were not asking about some spiritual kingdom, as modern Christians think of it. They were thinking like normal, everyday Jews of the first century, looking for a very physical kingdom of Israel to be restored, right here, right now.
The kingdom of David, ruled over by the son of David, Jesus of Nazareth.
So all three ghost stories in the Bible seem to be tied in very closely to the kingdom of David.
An interesting coincidence, isn’t it?
Make of it what you will.