People are sometimes confused by the differences in the Gospels’ infancy narratives and their resurrection narratives. Sometimes it is claimed that they contradict each other.
I’ve already written about how the infancy narratives fit together. You can read that here.
Now I’d like to show how the Gospels’ resurrection narratives fit together, not only with each other but also with information about this period from Acts and 1 Corinthians.
When I first began studying this issue, I was startled by how easily the resurrection narratives fit together.
To see how this happens, one needs to bear in mind a few aspects of the way the Evangelists wrote, because the ancient Greek genre of a bios (“life”) worked differently than a modern biography.
In particular, it is important to note that the Evangelists had the freedom to:
- Choose which details they will record or omit
- Choose the order in which to present events
- Present things Jesus said on different occasions in a single, particular location in their work
- Reconstruct scenes to make implications clear
In what follows, we will use the material from the Gospels after Jesus has been buried. We will also deal with material from the beginning of Acts and from 1 Corinthians 15.
One passage of special note is the longer endings of Mark. The original narrative of Mark cuts off at Mark 16:8. Whether Mark stopped writing at this point or whether he composed an ending which has been lost is debated by scholars.
However, it is generally agreed that the material which follows (Mark 16:9-20) was composed afterwards—either by Mark or by another author. We will refer to it as the longer ending of Mark. Even if it was not produced by Mark’s hand, it represents traditions about Jesus that were of very early date and in circulation in the first century Christian community.
1) Securing the Tomb (Matt. 27:62-66)
Matthew records that, after Jesus was buried, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate and asked for a guard to be posted at the tomb. This is an event recorded only by Matthew, and it does not contradict anything contained in the other accounts, which simply do not mention it.
This is not a problem, because the Evangelists were free to choose which traditions about Jesus they included in their accounts. The sheer number of traditions made it impossible to include them all—a point that John makes explicitly (see John 21:25).
2) The Moved Stone (Matt. 28:1-4, Mark 16:1-5, Luke 24:1-4, John 20:1)
All four Evangelists record that, after the Sabbath, on the first day of the week, certain women went to the tomb.
Matthew says it was “toward dawn” (Matt. 28:1), Mark says it was “very early . . . when the sun had risen” (Mark 16:2), Luke says it was “at early dawn” (Luke 24:1), and John says it was “while it was still dark” (John 20:1). This last statement need not mean it was completely dark, just that it wasn’t full daylight yet.
These all point to the same basic time of day, and it is likely that the women left before dawn and that the sun came up while they were involved in this effort.
All four Evangelists mention Mary Magdalene as being among the women (Matt. 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10, John 20:1). Matthew adds that “the other Mary” was there (Matt. 28:1). This person seems to be identified in Mark and Luke as “Mary the mother of James” (Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10). Mark also adds that Salome was there (Mark 16:1), and Luke adds that Joanna and “the other women with them” were present (Luke 24:10).
There is no contradiction involved in the variation regarding which women are mentioned as being present, per the principle that the Evangelists can choose which details they will record.
We can conjecture why each Evangelist mentioned the particular women he did. For example, Richard Bauckham has pointed out that named people in the Gospels often indicate the bearers of the traditions that were drawn on by the Evangelists (see his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses), and so it may be that the named women were ones whose traditions of the event were used by the respective Evangelists. (After all, no men were there.)
Literary concerns may also be involved. For example, John mentions only Mary Magdalene, and it may be because he wants to keep his narrative streamlined, simple, and focused on her, because he is going to record information from her that is not preserved by the other Evangelists.
Mark and Luke mention that the women brought spices for the body (Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1).
Mark also records that the women were trying to figure out who would roll the stone away from the tomb for them (Mark 16:3).
We now come to one of the points where many people wonder how to reconcile the Gospels. According to Matthew, “there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it” (Matt. 28:2), but the other three Evangelists say that the women saw that the stone was rolled back (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1).
There is certainly a difference in how Matthew describes this event compared to the other three, but before we seek to explain it, we should note that the other three do mention there being angels involved (Mark 16:5, Luke 24:4, John 20:12). This will be important to understanding the reason that Matthew recounts the incident in the way he does.
All four Evangelists also describe the angels in similar terms. Matthew says his angel’s appearance was “like lightning” (i.e., dazzling) and his clothes were white as snow (Matt. 28:3). Mark says the angel wore a white robe (Mark 16:5). Luke says there were two angels “in dazzling apparel” (Luke 24:4). And John says they were “in white” (John 20:12).
All four also mention the angels’ posture. Matthew says his angel sat on the rock outside the tomb (Matt. 28:2). Mark says he sat inside the tomb, on the right side (Mark 16:5). Luke says they stood by (Luke 24:4). And John says they sat in the tomb where the body of Jesus had lain, “one at the head and one at the feet” (John 20:12).
We thus see considerable convergence among all the Evangelists. They all agree that the stone was moved back and that there was at least one angel in white/dazzling clothes there.
The differences in the descriptions are minor and concern whether the angel was seen rolling away the stone, whether there was one or two angels, whether he/they were seated or standing, and—if seated—where.
All of these details fall within the liberty that the Evangelists have in how they record events. For a start, Matthew and Mark may have chosen to mention only one of the two angels to simplify their narratives.
The angels may have sat during part of the encounter (as in Matthew, Mark, and John) and also stood (as in Luke). More likely, the angels may have sat inside the tomb (as in Mark and John), while Matthew depicted the angel sitting outside as part of his reconstruction of the scene (see below), and Luke simply recorded them being present, without meaning to imply a particular posture (the Greek verb—ephistēmi—can mean “to be present” or even “to appear”).
It is also worth noting that Mark’s description of the angel sitting on the right and John’s description of the angels sitting at the head and foot of where Jesus lay are compatible. In fact, if you enter the tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the place where Jesus lay is on the right, and the angels could have sat at its head and foot.
The most significant difference in the accounts is between Matthew’s presentation of the angel rolling away the stone and the other Evangelists’ presentation of the stone as already being rolled away when the women arrive.
Matthew’s statement (“And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it,” v. 2) could be taken to mean that the angel descended in front of the women but that the events of vv. 2-4 occurred while they were going to the tomb, and the angel did not interact with the women until they arrived in v. 5. While this reading is possible, it is unlikely in view of Matthew’s statement that the angel sat on the stone, which seems to suggest the women as witnesses of his descent.
Since Matthew used Mark and therefore had read Mark’s account of the tomb being found already open, his sequencing events is likely due to literary reasons to make the implications of the event clearer to readers: Someone rolled away the stone, and the other Evangelists do not record who.
Matthew describes the incident the way he does to make it clear that it was not any ordinary, human agency that moved the stone. Neither did Jesus do so (he was already gone). Instead, the stone was moved by angelic agency, specifically to allow the women access to the tomb.
Matthew thus depicts this happening to make what is implicit in the other Gospels clear to the reader. (This is similar to the way that Matthew reconstructs the account of the Centurion’s Servant to make it clear that Jesus and the Centurion were the prime actors, not the intermediaries recorded by Luke; see Matt. 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10). Having reconstructed the scene thus, Matthew then records the angel sitting on the stone.
Having already mentioned the presence of the tomb guards (Matt. 27:62-66), Matthew now (Matt. 28:4) records their fainting in reaction to the arrival of the angel and the moving of the stone (even if, chronologically, this happened before the women arrived).
3) Peter at the Tomb (Luke 24:12, John 20:2-10)
Both Luke and John record a visit by Peter to the tomb. John’s account, which is much longer, records significantly more detail. The most notable additional detail is the presence of the beloved disciple, from whose viewpoint the incident is recounted. The absence of the beloved disciple from Luke’s version is accounted for by the Evangelists’ freedom to choose which details to include.
The other significant difference is the fact that, in John’s account, the visit to the tomb occurs before any of the women have met the angels. In his version, as soon as the empty tomb is discovered, Mary Magdalene—thinking that Jesus’ body has been stolen—runs and informs Peter and the beloved disciple, who then rush to the tomb to investigate.
In Luke’s account, however, Peter’s visit occurs after the women have seen the angels and reported their message.
The difference is accounted for by the Evangelists’ freedom to choose the order in which the material is presented.
Because of John’s interest in exact chronology elsewhere in his Gospel, and because he is giving eyewitness testimony, it is probable that his version of the event is the chronologically exact one. Luke places the visit to the tomb later either for literary reasons or simply because he knew the tradition of Peter visiting the tomb but did not know or wasn’t sure where in the sequence it occurred.
Another, very minor difference in the accounts is that in Luke Peter stoops and looks into the tomb, seeing the discarded grave clothes, while in John he enters the tomb. The omission of Peter’s entry into the tomb may be caused by Luke having a lack of specific details about the event: He knew Peter went there, he knew Peter saw the grave clothes in the tomb, and he knew Peter went home, but he may not have known that Peter actually entered the tomb.
Both Luke and John record the need to stoop to see or enter the tomb (Luke 24:12, John 20:5, 11), suggesting an authentic tradition of the tomb’s physical structure.
Both Evangelists also record a confusion or lack of faith in connection with this incident. Luke records that Peter went home, “wondering what had happened” (Luke 24:12), and John remarks that the disciples “did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9).
(John also says that the beloved disciple “saw and believed” at this point; John 20:8; this is usually taken to mean that the beloved disciple came to faith earlier than the other disciples; alternately, it may mean that he had a kind of incipient faith but did not fully understand or simply that he believed Mary Magdalene that the body was gone.)
4) The Angelic Message (Matt. 28:5-8, Mark 16:6-8, Luke 24:5-8, John 20:11-13)
All four Evangelists record the angel(s) giving a message to the women:
- Luke reports that the women were terrified and bowed low (Luke 24:5a)
- In Matthew, the angel tells the women not to be afraid (Matt. 28:5a), while in Mark he tells them not to be amazed (Mark 16:6a).
- In Matthew and Mark the angel says that he knows the women are seeking Jesus, who was crucified (Matt. 28:5b, Mark 16:6b).
- Luke says the angels asked why the women were seeking the living among the dead (Luke 25:5b).
- All three Synoptic Evangelists report the angel(s) saying, “He is not here” and “He is risen” (Matt. 28:6a, Mark 16:6c, Luke 25:5c).
- Matthew and Mark then record the angel inviting them to see where Jesus lay (Matt. 28:6b, Mark 16:6d).
- Luke records the angels reminding them that, when he was in Galilee, Jesus had predicted his crucifixion and resurrection (Luke 24:6-7). He also records the women remembering this (Luke 24:8).
- Matthew and Luke record the angel instructing the women to go and tell the disciples (Matt. 28:7a, Mark 16:7a; Mark mentions Peter in particular).
- In Matthew, the angel says to inform the disciples that Jesus has risen (Matt. 28:7b).
- In both Matthew and Mark, the angel says to tell the disciples that Jesus is going before them to Galilee, where they will see him (Matt. 28:7c, Mark 16:7b).
- All three Synoptic Evangelists then report the women leaving to tell the disciples (Matt. 28:8, Mark 16:8, Luke 24:9). (NOTE: In Mark’s version, v. 8 ends saying that the women didn’t say anything to anyone because they were afraid. It is at this point that the original version of Mark breaks off. However, given what the women were told and what the reader knows about what happened next, this certainly means that they didn’t say anything to anyone while they were on their way to the disciples. They were not disobeying the angel; they were leaving to fulfill his instructions. They simply weren’t joyously announcing the news to passers-by as they went.)
All of these variations are within the Evangelists’ freedom to paraphrase and choose which details to record. They are clearly different accounts of the same event.
John’s account of the angelic message is significantly different, and it is the briefest. In his version, the angels ask Mary Magdalene why she is weeping, and she replies that she does not know where Jesus’ body has been taken (John 20:13). He does not preserve further interaction with them.
The reason is likely twofold: First, John expects the reader to already know the Synoptic tradition (as illustrated by the fact that he seems to have built his Gospel to interlock with the outline of Mark’s Gospel; see Richard Bauckham, “John for Readers of Mark” in The Gospels for All Christians). He thus doesn’t feel the need to repeat everything that was said.
Second, John is setting up Mary’s unexpected meeting with Jesus himself, and to convey the emotional force of this in literary terms, he transitions from the briefest account of her interaction with the angels to her unexpected, face-to-face encounter Jesus.
My assumption, in this and each of the encounters involving the women, is that they were all present, though sometimes only Mary Magdalene is mentioned because she was the major preserver of the tradition that the evangelists drew on since they weren’t there for the encounter.
5) Meeting Jesus (Matt. 28:9-10, Mark 16:9, John 20:14-17)
Matthew, John, and the longer ending to Mark record that, after the angelic encounter, Jesus himself appeared.
In John and the longer ending of Mark, it is to Mary Magdalene that Jesus appears (John 20:14, Mark 16:9). In Matthew, it is the same women who went to the tomb (Matt. 28:9).
The longer ending of Mark does not preserve any information about what happened during this encounter.
John’s account, which is lengthy, includes significant interaction with Mary Magdalene.
In Matthew’s version, the women take hold of Jesus’ feet and worship him (Matt. 28:9), while in John, Jesus tells Mary not to hold him (John 20:17).
In both Matthew and John, Jesus tells the women/Mary Magdalene to deliver a message to the disciples (Matt. 28:10, John 20:17). In Matthew the message is to go to Galilee, where they will see him. In John it is that he will be ascending to the Father.
While the Gospels are in agreement about the occurrence of this encounter, its specific chronology is harder to pin down. Matthew gives the impression that the women first left the tomb and then Jesus appeared to them, including Mary Magdalene (cf. Matt. 28:1). John gives the impression that Mary (presumably with the other women still there) encountered Jesus at the tomb and then left.
It is possible that all the women except Mary Magdalene left the tomb and that Jesus appeared to both. However, this seems overly complex—particularly when the issue of touching or clinging to Jesus appears in both Matthew and John’s accounts.
John’s account is the most detailed—and certainly draws on traditions from Mary Magdalene herself. John is also demonstrably more interested in specific chronology than the other evangelists. Consequently, it seems probable that the picture presented by John reflects the specific chronology of what happened.
6) Explaining the Empty Tomb (Matt. 28:11-15)
Matthew reports that, while the women are on their way to the disciples, the guards from the tomb return to those who sent them and an explanation for the empty tomb is concocted.
7) Telling the Core Disciples (Mark 16:10-11, Luke 24:9-11, John 20:18)
Luke, John, and the longer ending of Mark report that Mary Magdalene/the women delivered the message to the disciples in a body (Mark 16:10, Luke 24:9, John 20:17).
Luke and the longer ending of Mark record that the message was not initially believed (Mark 16:11, Luke 24:11).
8) Jesus Appears to Two Disciples (Mark 16:12-13, Luke 24:13-35)
Both Luke and the longer ending of Mark record Jesus appearing to two disciples in the country, without them recognizing him.
Luke’s account is much more detailed, and the account in the longer ending of Mark may well be based on Luke’s version.
In Mark, Jesus is said to appear “in another form” (Mark 16:12), while in Luke it is said that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16). These need not be understood in opposition, for appearing in another form would keep others’ eyes from recognizing one. (Alternately, the miracle may have been one of induced prosopagnosia, with the resulting effect of Jesus manifesting in another apparent form to them.)
Both accounts agree that, when Jesus manifested himself, the two disciples returned and told the others.
The longer ending of Mark says that “they did not believe them” (Mark 16:13), while in Luke the other disciples have already believed the message of the resurrection (Luke 24:34).
Even in Luke, however, it is clear that the issue of the resurrection is not fully settled in the disciples’ hearts, as the forthcoming appearance to the core disciples shows. This may be the reason that the longer ending of Mark reflects doubt on their part at this juncture.
9) Jesus Appears to Peter (Luke 24:34, 1 Cor. 15:5a)
At this point in the narrative, Jesus has appeared to various women and to individual disciples, but he has not yet appeared to the apostles as a group.
Both Luke and Paul indicate that, before Jesus appeared to the twelve, he appeared to Peter in particular.
We can’t know whether this appearance occurred before or after the appearance to the two disciples in the country (or whether it happened concurrently, since God’s power transcends space and time).
Assuming Jesus wasn’t bilocating, he presumably appeared to Peter either before he appeared on the road to Emmaus or while the two disciples were coming back from Emmaus.
Since Jesus was not still with Peter and the disciples when the two returned from Emmaus, it suggests that some time has passed. It therefore seems probable that this appearance occurred before the encounter on the road.
10) Jesus Appears to the Core Disciples (Mark 16:14, Luke 24:36-43, John 20:19-23, 1 Cor. 15:5b)
Luke and John report that Jesus appeared to the core disciples on the evening of the day he rose (Luke 24:29 with 24:36; John 20:19).
In both, Jesus greets the disciples by saying, “Peace to/be with you” (Luke 24:36, John 20:19).
Though Luke previously depicted the core disciples as having acknowledged the resurrection (Luke 24:34), when Jesus stands before them, he tells us that “they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit” (Luke 24:37).
Jesus assures them that he has risen bodily (Luke 24:39), and shows his hands and feet to them (Luke 24:40). In John, he shows them his hands and his side (John 20:20).
In Luke, Jesus also asks for something to eat, and he eats fish in their presence (Luke 24:41-43). (This may also be a reflection of the fish-eating scene by the Sea of Galilee in John 21:9-15; Luke may have placed the tradition here to avoid a reference to Galilee—see below—or because he knew it happened but wasn’t sure when.)
The longer ending of Mark also records that Jesus appeared to the eleven “as they sat at table” and reprimanded them for not believing the reports they had heard (Mark 16:14). This appears to refer to the same event. It may be based on Luke’s account.
In John, he imparts the Holy Spirit to them and commissions them to forgive and retain sins (John 20:21-23).
Paul refers to Jesus appearing to the twelve, but gives no other details about the event. Based on the sequencing of events in 1 Corinthians 15, it is likely this appearance that he refers to (see below).
In both longer-Mark and Paul’s case, “the eleven” and “the twelve” are used as customary ways of referring to the group of apostles, even though Judas Iscariot and Thomas were not there, as indicated elsewhere (Matt. 27:3-5, John 20:24).
11) The Encounter with Thomas (John 20:24-31)
John, uniquely, records that Thomas was not with the other disciples during the previous encounter, and he records that Thomas did not initially believe the other disciples’ report (John 20:25). However, “eight days later” (John 20:26), Thomas is with them, and Jesus invites him to inspect his wounds (John 20:27).
12) Encounter at the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-25)
John records a subsequent encounter in Galilee on the Sea of Tiberias, during which Jesus (apparently) eats fish in the presence of the disciples (John 21:9-15).
This tradition may be reflected in Luke’s reference to him eating fish in his account of the evening appearance (Luke 24:41-43), in which case Luke likely knew the tradition of Jesus eating fish and placed it in the previous encounter since he knew they were at table on that occasion.
13) Appearance to Five Hundred Brethren (1 Cor. 15:6)
St. Paul depicts the appearance to five hundred as occurring after the appearance to the twelve and before the appearance to James. We do not know precisely when it occurred, but this is a reasonable place to locate it.
14) Appearance to James (1 Cor. 15:7a)
St. Paul indicates that the appearance to St. James the Just occurred after Jesus appeared to the five hundred brethren and before his appearance to “all the apostles.”
We do not know precisely when it occurred, but this is a reasonable place to locate it, particularly in view of the fact that the scene has shifted to Galilee, where Jesus’ brothers presumably lived at this time (not yet having become believers; cf. John 7:5; and not yet having come to live in Jerusalem; cf. Acts 15:13).
15) Jesus’ Evangelistic Instructions (Matt. 28:16-20, Mark 16:15-18, Luke 24:44-49; 1 Cor. 15:7b)
Matthew, Luke, and the longer ending of Mark record Jesus giving the disciples a set of final, evangelistic instructions. As we will see, these instructions may have been given during a series of occasions (cf. Acts 1:3) that cannot be untangled. This is similar to the way Matthew draws together Jesus’ ethical teachings, which were given many times throughout his ministry (and which are found at different places in Luke) and presents them together in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).
In Matthew, Jesus’ final evangelistic instructions are delivered on a mountain in Galilee (Matt. 28:16). In Luke and the longer ending of Mark, the place is not specified but would appear to be the same location as the evening appearance described above, in which case it would have taken place in Jerusalem. Particularly noteworthy is that in Luke’s account Jesus tells them to “stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
These locations—Galilee and Jerusalem—are considered one of the more challenging differences in the resurrection narratives, but they are not problematic. There are several possibilities:
First, one could say that, just as the Evangelists have the freedom to present material in a non-chronological manner for literary reasons, they also have the freedom to present it in a non-geographical manner for literary reasons.
If so, Matthew might present his final evangelistic instructions on a mountain in Galilee because of the literary suitedness of this setting. Mountains are frequent places of encounter with the divine, and we have multiple significant mounts in Matthew alone. Galilee, for its part, was Jesus’ home base during the bulk of his ministry, and a return to a mountain in Galilee could make an apt literary setting for Jesus’ final evangelistic instructions.
However, there are other options.
Second, it may be noted that Luke—and Mark’s longer ending—do not expressly state that this is occurring in Jerusalem. This is simply the appearance generated by the fact that the last mentioned location was Jerusalem. Jesus could have given these instructions in Galilee (even the comment found in Luke telling the disciples to remain in “the city”—meaning Jerusalem—which would imply that they were to make a trip back to Jerusalem).
Third, there is no need to choose between having the disciples both visit Galilee and Jerusalem during this period. Indeed, this is the tradition represented by John. In John, Jesus appears to the disciples both in Jerusalem (John 20:19-23) and in Galilee (John 21:1-25). The same thing seems to happen in longer Mark, where a visit to Galilee is implied in the original ending (Mark 16:7) and Jesus also appears, apparently, in Jerusalem (Mark 16:12-14).
On this view, Matthew would have chosen to omit the Jerusalem traditions because of the way he wanted to end his Gospel, with the appearance on a mountain in Galilee.
By contrast, Luke would have chosen to omit the Galilee traditions because of the way he wanted to end his Gospel and begin Acts, with the Ascension, which occurred in the Jerusalem area (Luke 24:50-52, Acts 1:4, 8-12).
It may be noted that Luke used Mark and, even if he had access only to the shorter version of Mark, he thus would have been exposed to the tradition that Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee after his resurrection. Since Luke does not preserve this tradition, we may infer that he chose not to use it because of the way he wanted to end his Gospel and begin Acts.
Indeed, since Luke tells us that Jesus appeared to the disciples multiple times during a period of forty days (Acts 1:3), it is likely Jesus spent much of this time preparing them for their upcoming mission by giving them evangelistic instructions, and—in keeping with the traditions preserved in the four Gospels and Acts—some of these instructions were given in Galilee and some in the Jerusalem area.
Luke also says that Jesus “presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs” to the disciples, which may be a deliberate gesture to traditions preserved in the other Gospels and in 1 Corinthians, even if they are not found in Luke/Acts. In view of this statement, we should thus seek to read Luke/Acts in harmony with the other materials.
Given the fact that Jesus likely gave evangelistic instructions on multiple occasions in this period, we should not too closely tie particular remarks with particular locations. He likely reiterated the same things on multiple occasions, and the eyewitnesses were not interested with noting precisely which things he said in precisely which locations. It would be overtaxing the Gospel narratives to expect that kind of precision, just as it would be to expect most of Jesus’ parables to have been said in particular locations on particular occasions, rather than simply being things that Jesus said which the Evangelists needed to put in appropriate places in order to record them.
Finally, we may note that Paul records that Jesus appeared to “all the apostles” after he appeared to James (1 Cor. 15:7b). This is an interesting statement, since he recorded an earlier post-resurrection appearance to “the twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5b).
It is presumably to be explained by the fact that not all of the apostles were members of the twelve. Barnabas and Paul, for example, were not (Acts 14:14). While Paul separates out the appearance Jesus made to him as a separate encounter (1 Cor. 15:8), which occurred after the Ascension (Acts 9:3-7), it is possible that Jesus made a collective appearance to the twelve and others who counted as apostles, such as Barnabas. If so, this presumably would have happened before the Ascension, and so we place the event here, in the same forty days that Jesus gave evangelistic instructions to his core disciples.
On the other hand, Paul (and the creed he is thought to be quoting) may not intend a single appearance to “all the apostles.” The thought may be that Jesus appeared to all the apostles in one way or another, at one time or another, in which case a single event is not in view.
16) The Ascension (Mark 16:19-20, Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:3-11)
The post-resurrection narratives come to a conclusion with the Ascension, which is recorded in Luke, Acts, and the longer ending of Mark.
In Luke, this event occurs when Jesus has led the disciples “as far as Bethany” (Luke 24:50), while in Acts Luke says that they afterward returned “from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away” (Acts 1:12). This is not a contradiction, because Bethany was located near the east foot of the Mount of Olives.
In the longer ending of Mark, no location for the event is stated. It is simply presented as occurring after Jesus gives his final evangelistic instructions. The author therefore does not assert any particular location for it.
One thing that may not be obvious from a quick reading of the preceding commentary is the way in which the material from the different sources—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, and 1 Corinthians—fits together.
While individual sources may omit particular traditions, they almost never resequence them. The material they present dovetails together in such a way that, with a few very small exceptions, all of the material fits together in sequence.
Examine the verse numbers in the section headings above, and you will see how they proceed forward through each Gospel.
Acts, having only one element in the above treatment—the Ascension—can’t help but fit this pattern, but the material from 1 Corinthians does also.
The fact that the pattern holds for each of the other sources is very remarkable, and it reveals that they are each describing the same chronological sequence of events, with only minor variations.
The variations are as follows:
- Matthew 28:2 appears to relate the descent of the angel later than it happened chronologically, to make the it clear to the reader who rolled the stone away.
- Matthew 28:8-9 seems to suggest that the women left the tomb and then encountered Jesus, while John 20:14-18 seems to suggest that the women encountered Jesus at the tomb and then left it. Both are possible if the group split (i.e., most of the women left while Mary remained at the tomb), but it seems more likely that John’s account reflects the strict chronology of what happened.
- Luke 24:12 records Peter’s visit to the tomb. For reasons explained above, we have grouped this verse with John’s account of the visit, which is the one more likely to be presented in the chronologically exact order.
- Luke 24:41-43 may record the tradition of Jesus eating fish out of its chronological sequence, which is preserved in John 21:9-15. However, this is uncertain, since Jesus may have eaten fish in the disciples’ presence more than once (it was a very common dish, especially for fishermen), and John 21 does not explicitly say that Jesus ate fish on that occasion, though it seems to be implied by their common breakfasting on fish.
(Luke’s reference to Jesus’ appearance to Peter, preserved in Luke 24:34, might seem to be an exception, but it is not, because it is described within the narrative as having already happened, making it a kind of flashback, and thus an event Luke knowingly presents out of sequence.)
The fact that the material from the resurrection narratives so easily fits together, with only a tiny number of minor details seeming to be resequenced, is a startling and unexpected testimony to the fundamental harmony of these accounts.
Based on the above, I would propose the following chronology for the overall sequence of events:
- (Good Friday) A guard is set over the tomb (Matt. 27:62-66)
- (Between Saturday night and Sunday morning) Jesus is resurrected and leaves the tomb
- (Easter Sunday morning) An angel descends and rolls away the stone to allow the women access (Matt. 28:2-3)
- The guards faint (Matt. 28:4)
- The women leave for the tomb (Matt. 28:1, Mark 16:1-2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1a)
- They find the tomb open (Mark 16:3-4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1b)
- The women—or at least Mary Magdalene—run and tell Simon Peter, who then visits the tomb, sees that it is empty, and returns home (Luke 24:12, John 20:2-20)
- The women, including Mary Magdalene, remain at the tomb. Upon entering it, they encounter angels, who speak to them (Matt. 24:5-7, Mark 16:5-7, Luke 24:3-8, John 20:11-13)
- Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and the other women (Matt. 28:9-10, Mark 16:9, John 20:14-17)
- The women leave to inform the disciples what has happened (Matt. 28:8, Mark 16:8, Luke 24:9a)
- Some of the guard leaves to inform the authorities what has happened (Matt. 28:11-15)
- The women tell the disciples what has happened (Mark 16:10-11, Luke 24:9b-11, John 20:18)
- Jesus appears to Peter (Luke 24:34, 1 Cor. 15:5a)
- Jesus appears to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12-13, Luke 24:13-35)
- (Easter Sunday night) Jesus appears to the core disciples but without Thomas (Mark 16:14, Luke 24:36-43, John 20:19-23, 1 Cor. 15:5b)
- (The next Sunday) Jesus appears to the disciples with Thomas present (John 20:24-31)
- (Also between Easter and Ascension Thursday) The encounter at the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-25)
- The appearance to five hundred brethren (1 Cor. 15:6)
- The appearance to James (1 Cor. 5:17a)
- Jesus gives evangelistic instructions to the disciples (Matt. 28:16-20, Mark 16:15-18, Luke 24:44-49, Acts 1:3-5, 1 Cor. 15:7b)
- (Ascension Thursday) Jesus ascends into heaven (Mark 16:19-20, Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:6-11)