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Making Sense of the Resurrection Accounts – Are there Discrepancies?

April 26, 2011

When we read the various accounts of the Resurrection in the four Gospels, Acts and Pauline Epistles we can easily be puzzled by some apparent discrepancies in the details.

The Pope in his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth (Vol II) says, We have to acknowledge that this testimony [of Scripture] considered from an historical point of view, is presented to us in a particularly complex form and gives rise to many questions. (P. 242)

The Pope goes on to explain what he considers to be the reason for this complexity and apparent divergence in some of the details.

What actually happened? Clearly for the witnesses who encountered the risen Lord, it was not easy to say. They were confronted with what, for them, was an entirely new reality, far beyond the limits of their own experience. Much as the reality of the event overwhelmed them and impelled them to bear witness, it was still utterly unlike anything they had previously known. (p. 242).

The Pope then reminds us that Jesus’ resurrection was experienced by them as something far beyond the resuscitation of a corpse. Rather, Jesus had taken up a wholly new and transformed humanity that was beyond anything they could fully describe or had ever experienced.

With all this in mind we are better able to appreciate the ecstatic qualities of the resurrection accounts and appreciate why all their details do not perfectly line up. The accounts have a rather crisp, “lets get to the point” quality;  especially the accounts of the first day of the appearances. Frankly, one would be surprised if every detail in the account of an astonishing event were exactly the same. One might even suspect a story that was too controlled and wonder as to a kind of brainwashing or conspiracy having taken place. But as they are, these accounts have every hallmark of the accounts of people who experienced the events truly, but, due to their ecstatic and disorienting quality, recall the details differently or emphasize different facets.

It is important to recall that the Scriptures record the things Jesus actually said and did but they are not written like history is today: Today we attempt or think we write history as an exact chronological and comprehensive analysis of an event or era. But the Scriptures are selective, story based accounts rather than our modern journalistic approach to history. They will often collect the sayings and deeds of Jesus around certain theological themes, rather than follow an exact time line. They do not intended to be an exhaustive account of everything Jesus said and did in exact detail (cf Jn 20:30; 21:25). Rather the Evangelists select what is suited to their theological purpose. And yet, despite these distinctions we must be clear that the gospels are historical accounts, in that they recount the things Jesus actually said and did.

Now, for the record, there are some apparent, and also real discrepancies in the accounts. The word “apparent” is important though, because not all the discrepancies are real or substantial if we take a closer look at them. Some who wish to cast doubt on the historicity of the Resurrection often wish to make more of these differences than necessary. Many, if not most of the differences can be dealt with quite easily and we are able to ultimately stitch together a reasonably clear account of the resurrection, if we are disposed to do so.

So, lets consider some of the apparent conflicts that emerge in the accounts:

  1. How many women went out to the tomb that morning, one (Jn 20:21) two (Matt 28:1), or three (Mk 16:1)?
  2. Did Magdalene alone go to just Peter and John (Jn 20) or did the several women go to the Apostles (Matt 28; Mk 16)?
  3. How many angels did they see there that morning, one (Matt 28:2; Mk 16:5) or two (Lk 24:4; Jn 20:12)?
  4. Did the women run to the other disciples and tell what they had seen (Mt 28:8; Lk 24:9) or did they say nothing out of fear (Mk 16:8)?
  5. Did Jesus see them first in Galilee (Mk 16:7; Mt 28:9) or in Jerusalem (Jn 20; Lk 24:36)?
  6. Among the Apostles, did he appear to Peter first (Lk 24:34), all eleven at once (Mt. 28:16), or the eleven minus Thomas (Jn 20:24)?
  7. Did Jesus appear to them in a room (Jn 20:19) or a mountaintop (Mt 28:16)?
  8. Lastly, did Jesus ascend on Easter Sunday (Lk 24:50-53; Mk 16:19) or forty days later (Acts 1:3,9)?

At one level some react that some of these details are picky. Who cares really who many women went or how many angels? Perhaps but it does not seem wise to simply dismiss the differences this way. Some of the differences ARE quite significant. For example, did Jesus appear to them first in Jerusalem? Luke and John are quite clear that he did. But why then do Mark and Matthew completely ignore this and tell the angel instruct the women to have the disciples go to Galilee where they will see him? Now, as has been stated, these differences can be addressed in a thoughtful manner but they should not be simply dismissed as of no account.

In what follows I propose to address these difference and give possible resolutions. I am also aware and expect to hear from some who consider any attempts to resolve these matters “simplistic.” But I and others who have pondered these matters are not simpletons and would prefer if those who might have a different explanation or view would avoid dismissive, demeaning or ad hominem argumentum. If something seems wrong state why and give evidence or an alternative point of view. So, on to possible solutions.

  1. How many women went out to the tomb that morning, one (John 20:21), two (Matt 28:1) or three (Mk 16:1) and how many angels were there, one (Mk 16:5, Mat 28:2) or two (Lk 24:4, Jn 20:12)? One solution here is to recall that neither John’s Gospel nor Matthew’s absolutely deny that three women went to the tomb that day. They simply do not mention three whereas Mark does. John especially wishes to focus on Mary Magdalene and may have found it unnecessary to mention the others. Additionally, Matthew and Mark’s mention of one angel need not be seen as an absolute denial that there were two as described in Luke and John. Another solution is simply to acknowledge the discrepancies in the accounts but underscore the fact that the number of women and the number of angels is not the central point. The point is that the tomb was discovered empty by one or several women and they were instructed to tell the apostles what they saw and heard.
  2. Matthew (28:8) and Luke (24:9) indicate that the women went and told the disciples of the empty tomb but Mark (16:8) says they were afraid and said nothing. True but in the verses that follow in the appendix to Mark’s own Gospel (Mk. 16:10) Mary Magdalene does in fact tell the apostles. Rather than conflicting with the other texts, Mark may merely supply additional detail about the startled nature of the women, that at first they were startled and said nothing but soon after went on, as Mark in fact says, a did tell the apostles.
  3. Mark (16:7) and Matthew (28:9) indicate, according to the angel’s instructions, that Jesus would see them in Galilee but Luke (24:36 and John 20) describe the first appearances in Jerusalem. In addressing this difference we must recall that the gospels are not written as chronological or complete histories. The evangelists selected events from among the many things Jesus said and did and may also have altered the order. John (20:30 & 21:25) explicitly states that his account is selective. Hence we ought not conclude that any one gospel completely details all the resurrection appearances. It is true Mark and Matthew speak only of appearances in Galilee. Thus these accounts might only include the angelic instructions to go to Galilee since that they did not intend to describe appearances elsewhere. In other words it is possible to speculate that the angelic instructions were more elaborate and included instructions as to being prepared to meet Jesus first in Jerusalem. Matthew and Mark however paired these details down in their accounts since they did not intend to include the Jerusalem appearances in their accounts. This may not satisfy our notions of historical accounts wherein we expect and want a complete accounting of all the details. But, as has already been noted the Scriptures simply do not record history in this way. Rather they are selective accounts that open windows on history but do not claim to exhaustively report it. Note also that Matthew and Mark are not clear as to the time frame of the appearances they describe. Luke and John however, set the first appearance in Jerusalem and are rather clear that the day is the same day as the resurrection. Hence we reasonably conclude that the first appearances took place in Jerusalem and later appearances took place in Galilee. In other words the Jerusalem appearances do not conflict with the Galilean appearances in any way. Rather they simply add details that Mark and Matthew, for reasons of their own, chose not to include. Such a conclusion is speculative to be sure. It does, however, help us to see that the accounts do not absolutely contradict each other.
  4. Among the Apostles, did Jesus appear to Peter first (Lk 24:34), all eleven at once (Mt. 28:16), or the eleven minus Thomas (Jn 20:24)? There seems to be a good case for the fact that the Lord appeared first to Peter even though we do not have a direct account of this appearance in the scriptures. The Gospel of Luke makes mention of it, And they [the disciples traveling to Emmaus] rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”(24:33-34). Paul also records it [The Lord] was raised the third day in accordance with the scriptures…he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time…Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles (1 Cor 15:3ff). So it seems a pretty good case can be made that Peter did see the risen Lord before the other apostles. This quote from Paul also helps us recall that the gospel accounts are selective in terms of which resurrection appearances they report. Thus, as we read the various accounts, we get from each of them only a part of the full picture (see John 20:30). According to Paul there were appearances to Peter, to five hundred disciples, and to James. The details of these appearances are left to our imagination. It also follows that we do not need to see the accounts of John and Matthew cited above as conflicting. They may well be describing different appearances.
  5. Did Jesus appear to them in a room (Jn 20:19) or a mountaintop (Mt 28:16)? Again, we need not place these texts at odds with one another. Most likely they are describing different appearances. Since the time frame of John is clear that the appearances in the upper room took place on Resurrection Sunday and then a week later we can presume that these appearances took place first. The mountaintop appearance was in Galilee and the time frame is not clear. It may have been days or weeks later.
  6. Did Jesus ascend on Easter Sunday (Lk 24:50-53; Mk 16:19) or forty days later (Acts 1:3,9)? At first glance the texts from Luke and Mark do seem to imply that the ascension was the same day as the resurrection. However, a closer look will show that they are rather vague as to the time frame. Mark begins the passage leading up to the ascension with the word “afterward.” How long after the previous appearance is uncertain. Luke’s passage is also vague regarding the time. However Acts (1:3,9) also written by Luke is quite specific that the time of the ascension was forty days later. Thus, Acts need not be seen to conflict with the gospel accounts; it merely supplies the details that are lacking in them. This case is made stronger when we note that Luke is generally accepted to be the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles and it seems unlikely that Luke would directly contradict himself.

So here then is a short tour of some of the apparent discrepancies and possible ways to resolve them.

In the end we simply have to accept that the Gospels do not record history in the same systematic and strictly chronological manner we moderns prefer. But they DO record history. It is for us to accept the evidence and accounts as they are given. The fact is that to develop a precise time frame and blow by blow chronological description may not be fully possible. However, careful study of the texts can help somewhat in this regard.

In tomorrow’s blog I would like to propose a somewhat chronological account that attempts to weave the many strands into one narrative. Such an attempt as we will see involves some speculation given the nature of ancient historical accounts. But it can help us to sort our the many details by trying to order them. So stay tuned for tomorrow.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Nick says:

    Reading the Church Fathers makes it obvious that many of the questions we face today were faced since the early days of the Church. So you have Fathers like Saint Augustine who wrote a book on the harmony of the Gospels.

    Chapter 25 concerns the accounts of the Resurrection.

  2. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    There is a game played at parties or in group work sessions where one person wispers a brief series of events or tells a story to one person and each individual whispers their version to the next until the story is passed around the group and everyone compares their version from the original. Discrepencies happen as a matter of fact.

  3. peppin the short says:

    “One solution here is to recall that neither John’s Gospel nor Matthew’s absolutely deny that three women went to the tomb that day. They simply do not mention three whereas Mark does. John especially wishes to focus on Mary Magdalene and may have found it unnecessary to mention the others. Additionally, Matthew and Mark’s mention of one angel need not be seen as an absolute denial that there were two as described in Luke and John.”
    Excuse me, no; this (typical) perversion of logic and of the way people normally think and talk about what they see is just not on and, in my opinion, causes more harm than good to the Church within the enemy camps. Choosing to see an omission as unimportant to the central consideration may be justified, but to say that in spite of the omission, so-and-so could have actually been the case, is unacceptable.
    Who, in his right mind, would report back to his friends that he had sighted only one shark swimming around his boat on a recent fishing trip when, in actual fact, he would have seen two? Same goes for the angels, just to pick one of the discrepancies you chose to highlight. You cannot explain away discrepancies by what is not said. Not in this day and age… Theologians and people who explain the bible need to be more careful with their words; It is easier to say “We just don’t know and we probably never will”, than to try to fill in the blanks with what, at the end of the day, is pure conjecture. At the end of the day, what really counts, is Jesus’ resurrection. How many women, angels or whether or not there were frightened soldiers is less important…

    • Alright peppin relax a little. You don’t need to be quite so hostile.

      Perhaps this theory to which you obviously object could be something less than a “perversion of logic” and be true only if the evangelist was not “in his right mind.” What people do not say is often of great significance and the Evangelists clearly did select and omit material based on their purposes.

      You seem to have missed the world “absolutely” in the quote which serves to accentuate that the theory is a possible explanation. You are obviously free to reject this but you don’ t have to be quite so anxious. I rather doubt that the Church is going to be frowned upon by “this day and age” because of my little blog post.

      While you are dismissive of angels and women et al. being of any account, they are things that cause wonderment to some of the rest of us who live in less rarefied air and need to field “impertinent” questions about things like this. In fact, you might even be surprised that many people from “this day and age” raise just these points in order to scoff at the historicity of the resurrection accounts. They are worth addressing even if you think such matters trivial.

      Hmm…it also occurs to me that it could be a good thing to be less anxious about how “this day and age” might take this line of argument when we are already proclaiming something so “unlikely” to this day and age as a dead man, who by the way is God, stepping out of tomb.

      • peppin the short says:

        Touche’ for your last paragraph. I didn’t mean to come across as being hostile or that I live in a rarefied atmosphere (believe you me, I don’t 🙂 ) It’s just that I have often come across instances of the Church coming under attack exactly because of these ‘nebulous’ explanations (which, through successive repetition, get more and more corrupted and used out of context) . They offer very interesting possible alternatives to people who are fascinated and moved by what’s in the Gospel, but to skeptics, they form the ideal stuff to use to ridicule the Church. And (this is my main reservation) once the alternative possible explanations have been placed ‘out there’, they are there forever and will continue to provide endless ammunition. There is no calling them back…
        Make no mistake, I really love your blog. I will try t be less confrontational in future…