Are There Discrepancies in the Resurrection Accounts? If so, can they be resolved?

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. The Gosples 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 (cf Dei Verbum # 19)

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 record that the angel instructed 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 differences and give possible resolutions. I am also aware, and expect to hear from some who consider any attempt to resolve these matters “simplistic.” You of course are free to propose other solutions and demonstrate how attempts at a resolution fall short. This is what comments are for. 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.

17 Replies to “Are There Discrepancies in the Resurrection Accounts? If so, can they be resolved?”

  1. You made this point, but just to emphasize: However one reconciles the discrepancies between the resurrection accounts, one thing that they definitely prove is that the accounts were not made up, because, if they were, the discrepancies would not be there.

  2. Its not a discrepancy, it is the account being told by different peoples point of views.

  3. In “Easter Enigma” John Wenham speculates that there were two groups of women, different evangelists basing their texts on different testimonies.

  4. Even though there is no scriptural account, I have always believed that the risen Christ would have appeared to His mother first. Just a thought.

  5. One thing is clear: all four Gospel accounts were sufficiently accurate for the early Christians.–some of whom were witnesses of the Resurrection, also. Happy Easter to Monsignor Pope and to all readers of this blog!–also thanks for helping me, and I am sure mahy others, get through Lent.

  6. Interesting post Father, I’d been wondering about these in the days leading up to Good Friday (#3 still confounds me). I would just like to let you know that I attended Easter Vigil and made a good confession and received Holy Communion. This would not have happened if it were not for your incessantly solid preaching on this blog, and probably a miracle. Thank you, and a very blessed Pascha to you and all your readers!

  7. That Jesus rose from the dead I have never been in dispute. What I find mysterious is in the use of the word, “appears.” Christ risen is not immediately recognized by many to whom he appears and there seems to be no explainations of where Jesus goes inbetween appearances, how He departs, or where he stays inbetween appearances. Does He ascend back to heaven inbetween appearances or stay with His Family or the deciples? Is it a bodily manifestation of His Holy Spirit which comes and goes through metaphysical transubstantiation? Does the Church have a position on this. The Lord appears in many ways through the Holy Spirit but inorder for his followers to prove and fulfill His Promise of salvation that their faith be fulfilled, He had to manifest Himself in the risen physical form and yet His appeances come and go up to His ascention.

  8. In John’s Gospel he only mentions Mary Magdalene seeing the tomb empty, but when she comes to tell the disciples she says “They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and WE know not where they have laid him.”


  9. One possible explanation to at least some of the apparent discrepancies: bilocation. May we not admit that as God, Jesus is able to be present in more that one place at one time? Once Resurrected, Jesus is no longer subject to time in the same way that his followers are, which may explain the apparent chronological discrepancies in their accounts.

  10. Msgr.,

    The easiest “discrepancy” to resolve is the “Go to Galilee” one, followed by the appearance at the Cenacle. I think it was my own pastor who pointed out — Jesus had to go to the Cenacle because, when Mary Magdalne told the still-scared Apostles “Meet Him in Galilee,” they bravely stayed behind locked doors.

  11. Hey, the bit about Peter being the first to see the Risen Lord. Doesn’t one gospel account have Mary magdala as being the first? When she thought He was the gardener and then He called her by name “Mary?” Msgr. could you address that? Thanks.

    1. Check out my blog tonight. But for here the fact is Mary and several women did see Jesus first. But Peter was the first of the apostles to see Jesus risen. Interesting though, it would seem that John believed first, though without seeing.

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