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 word “apparent” is important because 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 pretty clear account of the resurrection if we are disposed to do so. Sadly today, some are not. Some are downright hostile to the claim of the Church that Jesus rose. Others, many modern day Scripture Scholars among them, like to insist that the Scriptures are not history as we mean the term today (an exact chronological and comprehensive analysis of an event or era). Hence they like to leave the apparent discrepancies unresolved and consider attempts to resolve them as “simplistic” and “fundamentalist.” While I agree that the Scriptures do not convey history as modern histories do (for example they are selective, story based accounts rather than our modern journalistic approach to history), I will not concede that they are not historical. In fact they do convey what Jesus actually did and said. Hence apparent conflicts ought to be explored and explained.
What are the apparent conflicts that emerge in the accounts? They are these:
- How many women went out to the tomb that morning, one (Jn 20:21) two (Matt 28:1), or three (Mk 16:1)?
- Did Magdalene alone go to just Peter and John (Jn 20) or did the several women go to the Apostles (Matt 28; Mk 16)?
- How many angels did they see there that morning, one (Matt 28:2; Mk 16:5) or two (Lk 24:4; Jn 20:12)?
- 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)?
- Did Jesus see them first in Galilee (Mk 16:7; Mt 28:9) or in Jerusalem (Jn 20; Lk 24:36)?
- 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)?
- Did Jesus appear to them in a room (Jn 20:19) or a mountaintop (Mt 28:16)?
- 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 does Mark completely ignore this and have 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 travelling 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.
- 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.
- 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.
In this video Fr. Robert Barron does a good job of describing the sophistication that is necessary when approaching Scripture. Since the Bible is not A book but is rather a collection of books with many different genres we cannot simply read it all in the same way. We have to approach the scriptures on their own terms and understand the way they speak to us.