When we encounter the resurrection accounts in the New Testament, we face a challenge in putting all the pieces together in such a way that the sequence of events flows in logical order. This is due to the fact that no one Gospel presents all or even most of the information. Some of the accounts seem to conflict. I have opined before (HERE) that these apparent conflicts are usually not in fact true conflicts. Another difficulty with putting all the facts together in a coherent manner is that the timeline of the events is unclear in some of the accounts. Luke and John are the clearest as to the timing of the events they describe; Matthew and Luke give us very few parameters. Both Acts and Paul also supply accounts in which the timeline is not always clear.
Nevertheless, I want to propose to you a possible, dare I claim even likely, sequence of the resurrection events. The work is my own and I make no claim that this scenario is certain or backed up by recognized ancient authority. St Augustine has done quite a lot of work in this matter and you can read that by clicking HERE. My proposition here is simply the fruit of 25+ years of praying over and pondering the events of those forty days between the Lord’s resurrection and His ascension. My reflections are based as solidly as possible on the Bible, with a sprinkling of speculation.
I realize that my attempt to do this will irritate some modern biblical scholars who seem to insist that it is wrong to attempt any synthesis of the texts since the authors intended no such synthesis.
Nevertheless, I press on boldly, hoping that the average believer will benefit from it and find such a synthesis interesting. Take it for what it is: the work of an obscure pastor who has prayed and carefully sought to follow the sequence of the forty days. You may wish to offer correction or an alternative interpretation; I encourage you to do so in the comments. I have posted a PDF of this document here: The Resurrection Appearances Chronologically Arranged.
In this year’s version I have included hyperlinks to the biblical texts so that you can simply click on them to read the text and then press back to return here.
- I. The morning of day one
- A. Very early in the morning a group of several women, including Mary Magdalene, approach the tomb to complete burial customs on behalf of Jesus (Matt 28:1; Mk 16:1; Jn 20:1).
- B. They behold the tomb opened and are alarmed.
- C. Mary Magdalene runs off to Peter and John with the distressing news of likely grave robbers (Jn 20:2).
- D. The women who remain at the tomb encounter an angel, who declares to them that Jesus has risen and that they should tell this to the brethren (Mk 16:5 Lk 24:4; Mt 28:5).
- E. At first the women are filled with fear and depart from the tomb afraid to speak (Mk 16:8).
- F. Recovering their courage they decide to go to the Apostles (Lk 24:9; Mt 28:8).
- G. Meanwhile Peter and John go to the tomb to investigate Mary Magdalene’s claim. Mary follows behind them, arriving back at the tomb while Peter and John are still there. Peter and John discover the empty tomb; they encounter no angel. John believes in the resurrection; Peter’s conclusion is not recorded.
- H. The other women report to the remaining Apostles what the angel at the tomb said to them. Peter and John have not yet returned from the tomb and these remaining apostles are at first dismissive of the women’s story (Lk 24:9-11).
- I. Mary Magdalene, lingering at the tomb, weeps and is fearful. Peering into the tomb, she sees this time two angels who wonder why she weeps. Jesus then approaches her from behind. Not looking directly at Jesus, she supposes Him to be the gardener. When He calls her by name, Mary recognizes His voice, turns, and sees Him. Filled with joy she clings to Him (APPEARANCE 1) (Jn 20:16).
- J. Jesus sends Mary back to the Apostles with the news to prepare them for His appearance later that day (Jn 20:17).
- K. The other women have now departed from the Apostles and are on their way, possibly back home. Jesus appears to them (Mt 28:9) (after having dispatched Mary). He also sends them back to the Apostles with the news that He has risen and that He will see them (APPEARANCE 2).
- II. The afternoon and evening of day one
- A. Later that day, two disciples on their way to Emmaus are pondering what they have heard about rumors of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus comes up behind them but they are prevented from recognizing Him. First Jesus breaks open the word for them; then He sits at table with them and celebrates the Eucharist, whereupon their eyes are opened and they recognize Him in the breaking of the bread (APPEARANCE 3) (Lk 24:13-30).
- B. The two disciples return that evening to Jerusalem and go to the Eleven. At first the Eleven disbelieve them just as they had the women (Mk 16:13). Nevertheless they continue to relate what they have experienced. At some point, Peter draws apart from the others (perhaps for a walk?). The Lord appears to Peter (APPEARANCE 4)(Lk 24:34; 1 Cor 15:5). Peter informs the other ten, who then believe. Thus the disciples from Emmaus (still lingering with the Apostles) are now told (perhaps by way of apology) that it is in indeed true that Jesus has risen (Lk 24:34).
- C. Almost at the same moment, Jesus appears to the small gathering of Apostles and the two disciples from Emmaus (APPEARANCE 5). Thomas is absent (although the Lucan text describes the appearance as being to “the eleven,” this is probably just shorthand for the Apostles as a group). They are startled but Jesus reassures them and opens the scriptures to them (Lk 24:36ff).
- D. There is some debate as to whether He appeared to them a second time that night. The Johannine and Lucan accounts have significantly different descriptions of the appearance on that first Sunday evening. Is it merely a different recounting of the same appearance or is it a wholly separate appearance? It is not possible to say for sure. Nevertheless, since the descriptions are so different we can call it APPEARANCE 6 (Jn 20:19ff), though it is likely one and the same as “Appearance 5.”
- III. Interlude
- A. There is no biblical account of Jesus appearing to anyone during the week that followed. The next account of the resurrection says, “Eight days later,” namely the following Sunday.
- B. We do know that the apostles exclaimed to Thomas that they had seen the Lord, but that he refused to believe it (Jn 20:24).
- C. Were the apostles nervous that Jesus had not appeared again each day? We do not know; there are no accounts of what happened during this interlude.
- IV. One week later, Sunday two
- A. Jesus appears once again (APPEARANCE 7) to the gathered Apostles. This time Thomas is with them. He calls Thomas to faith, and Thomas now confesses Jesus to be Lord and God (Jn 20:24-29).
- V. Interlude two
- A. The apostles had received instructions to return to Galilee (Mt 28:10; Mk 16:7) where they would see Jesus. Thus they spent some of this interlude journeying 60 miles to the north, a trip that would have taken a considerable amount of time. We can imagine them making the trek north during the intervening days.
- VI. Sometime later
- A. The time frame of the next appearance is somewhat vague. John merely says “after this.” It is likely a matter of days or a week at best. The scene is at the Sea of Galilee; not all of the Twelve are present. They have gone fishing and Jesus summons them from the lakeside. They come to shore and see him (APPEARANCE 8). Peter has a poignant discussion with Jesus and is commissioned to tend the flock of Christ (Jn 21).
- B. The Appearance to the 500 – Of all the appearances, you might think that this one would have been recorded in some detail since it was the most widely experienced. It would seem that many accounts would have existed and that at least one would have made its way into the Scriptures. Yet there is no account of it other than that it did in fact happen. Paul records the fact of this appearance in 1 Cor 15:6: Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep (APPEARANCE 9). Where did this take place? What was it like? What was the reaction? We simply do not know. Proof once again that the Bible is not a history book in the conventional sense. Rather, it is a highly selective telling of what took place, not a complete account. The Bible makes no claim to be something it is not. It is quite clear that it is a selective book (Jn 20:30).
- C. The Appearance to James. Here again we do not have a description of this appearance, only a remark by Paul that it did in fact happen 1 Cor 15:7: Then he appeared to James (APPEARANCE 10). The time frame of this appearance is not clear, only that it happened after the appearance to the five hundred and before the final appearance to the apostles.
- VII. The rest of the forty days
- A. Jesus certainly had other appearances to/with the disciples. Luke attests to this in Acts when he writes, To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).
- B. During this time there is perhaps the one appearance we can attribute specifically to this time period as recorded by both Matthew (Mt 28:16ff) and Mark (Mk 16:14ff). It takes place on “a mountaintop in Galilee.” Mark adds that they were reclining at table. I refer to this appearance (time frame uncertain) as APPEARANCE 11. It is here that Jesus gives the great commission. Although Mark’s text may seem to imply that Jesus was taken up from this mountain, such a conclusion is rash since Mark only indicates that Jesus ascended only “after he had spoken to them” (Mk 16:19).
- C. Evidently Jesus had also summoned them back to Jerusalem at least toward the end of the period of the forty days. There they would be present for the feast of Pentecost. We can imagine frequent appearances with ongoing instruction, for Luke records that Jesus “stayed with them.” Most of these appearances and discourses are not recorded. Luke writes in Acts, And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4).
- VIII. The final appearance and ascension
- A. After forty days of appearances and instructions we have a final account of the last appearance (APPEARANCE 12) wherein He leads them out to a place near Bethany and gives them final instructions to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit is sent. And then He is taken up to Heaven in their very sight (Lk 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11).
So here is a possible, and if I do say so myself likely, chronology of the resurrection appearances. It is a synthesis that attempts to collect all the information and present it in a logical sequence. There are limits to what we can expect of the Scriptural accounts; fitting perfectly into a logical sequence is not what the texts primarily propose to do. Yet such a chronological sequence can prove helpful and it is in that spirit which I present it.
Here is a video I put together based on a song performed here at my parish on Good Friday. It is sung by one of our Sopranos, Marjorie Boursiquot. It is arranged by our director, Kenneth Louis, and composed by Long and Pote. The song is entitled “You Love Me.” Prepare yourself for a real treat!