Good Question...

Do the Resurrection accounts HOPELESSLY contradict one another?

[Updated 3/5/97]
I have received several queries like this one:
maybe you could help me. My attention has been drawn to a thing from the freedom from religion group... An atheist friend has challenged me to take this one gentleman's challenge, which is an extensive project at best. The challenge is this, using all the information given in the Bible, construct a chronological timeline of the events leading to, during and closely following the resurrection, up until the ascension, I think he wants. he says it can't be done. I already know he is not taking into account the fact that John is not a synoptic gospel, and therefore will not fit in a chronological reconstruction. Any way, this guy at freedom from religion has issued this challenge to any and all Christians. He says he will accept estimates for some things, and any plausible explanations, but apparently some have been sent in, and he does not accept them.
(Now, whereas THIS specific 'challenge' allows for 'plausible explanations', I have seen similar challenges that do not allow ANY speculation or conjecture--supposedly 'just the facts'...)

Accordingly, I want approach this in several points:

  1. The absolute necessity of conjecture in historical reconstructions;

  2. The significance of different details in the accounts (from the standpoint of evidence)

  3. The legitimacy of harmonization attempts relative to historical material;

  4. The issue of "plausibility" of explanations.

  5. Several specific reconstructions/sequencing of the post-resurrection events (or appearances of Christ);


  1. The absolute necessity of conjecture in historical reconstructions

    Anybody that has "done" any history knows that the "just the facts" position above is simply absurd. History is reconstructive in its concrete practicality. To show this, it is sufficient to simply cite passages from standard works/textbooks on historical method.

    • "Science deals with concrete things that can be touched, weighed, measured, and evaluated under laboratory conditions. Science deals with concrete, verifiable objects. History, on the other hand, does not deal with materials that can be touched, weighed, and measured. History is inferential i.e., it infers the past on the basis of partially known facts. True, the historian makes use of some concrete materials in his work, such as documents, diaries, newspapers, and contemporary accounts in his investigations, but from these he must infer the past. He cannot weigh or measure these materials as the scientist can weigh or measure his materials." [History: Meaning and Method, by Donald V. Gawronski, Scott Foresman:1969 (rev. ed), p. 4.]

    • "Characteristically historical explanations can be described in the first instance as such explanations of the deeds of men (individuals, groups, nations, etc.) as conform to the logical pattern and evidential conditions which define characteristically genetic explanations. As with characteristically genetic, so with characteristically historical explanations: there are some in which the antecedent is among the facts already known to or accepted by the historian, and others in which it has to be inferred. Cases of the latter sort are no doubt more characteristic of history, since they include the great majority of those in which the emphasized necessary antecedent is a motive or a belief or a decision or a communication received or a principle or policy or precept adhered to by some agent; and certainly such explanations involve important features and difficulties of their own. But for the purpose of establishing and articulating the general function of characteristically historical explanations, it will be best to concentrate at the outset upon cases of the former sort, i.e. those in which the emphasized antecedent necessary condition is a fact already known.." [W. B. Galle, "Explanations in History and the Genetic Sciences" in Patrick Gardiner, ed., Theories of History, The Free Press: 1959; p. 395]

    • "Inference is the process of reasoning from facts that are not entirely connected. It is used to fill gaps in the record or to supply connections between bits or classes of evidence. To call it 'informed invention' is possibly overly-pessimistic. At any rate, it should be done tentatively, provisionally, even modestly. Although this type of reasoning or interpretation is as chancy as the assignment of causes, in most investigations it must be used. Remember, that all inferences are probabilistic. An inference may even be thought of as a hypothesis; that is, a suggestion as to relationships between facts.

      The process is to some extent intuitive, undemonstrable, partially free of fact; but it should cling to whatever facts are available. It is not mechanical, but a creative process. It is not, however, inventive in the sense that fiction is contrived. The historian may not move the first voyage of Columbus to 1516 to suit his whim."
      [A Guide to Historical Method, Edited by Robert Jones Shafer, Dorsey Press: 1974 (rev. ed.); pp. 182-183.]

    This demonstrates the widespread use of inference in historical inquiry. Now let's look at how inference actually works in historical reconstructions.
    The following somewhat generalized model of inquiry illuminates some substantive methodological, issues in history. John Dewey first formulated this model, but Karl Popper has subsequently, with slightly altered and more formal emphasis, adopted and refined it. By it, one should be able to say that a historian, confronted with, and in some way baffled or disturbed by, disparate phenomena that seem to give evidence for some human past, begins to construct imaginary accounts or narratives, perhaps including within them several causal judgments, in an attempt to unify and make some sense out of all the confusing phenomena; that he constantly checks each invented story against a residue of acquired knowledge (vicarious verification) as well as against the focal phenomena, that he keeps up this game until he finds a story consistent with what he already knows, and which gives some pattern to his phenomena (or most of them); that his narrative also almost inevitably implicates other, as yet unexperienced phenomena; that he then, either directly or by inferential, deductive chaining (desired phenomenon A necessitates B, and B necessitates C, which if found will have the same evidential significance as A) seeks out the specifically indicated evidence, knowing always that one unpredicted and noncoherent phenomenon will falsify his story; that he keeps restructuring his story until, finally, with the most diligent search of all evidence then available, he has so integrated the original phenomena and the induced phenomena as to have a quite unified, plausible, and supported account (as well as, we hope, an eloquent and dramatic story), although he knows that falsifying evidence could turn up at any time and that, most often, his story is most tentative because of the many probable inferences that had to go into it....How does this model fit historical practice? Perhaps better than the working historian thinks. [The Heritage and Challenge of History, Paul K. Conkin and Roland N. Stromberg, Dodd, Mead, & Co.: 1971; pp. 214-215)
    The "Net": What this means for us is simple: we are SUPPOSED to come up with 'glue' explanations, plausible conjectures, and hypothetical 'narratives'--to weave the historical facts into a comprehensible whole. It is simply historical method that dictates that we will try to integrate (via interconnections and "induced" facts) the various historical data we have. It is not 'special pleading' or 'speculation'--anymore that constructing a history of Tiberius from the disparate and wildly divergent sources of Tacitus, Suetonius, Velleius Paterculus, and Dio Cassius would be. History is composed of inferential thinking and hypotheses.

  2. The significance of different details in the accounts (from the standpoint of evidence)

    No one disputes that the surface structure of the Easter narratives contains a large number of differences in details. The narratives themselves are not complete, of course, since each author selected only the details relevant to his literary purpose; so we would expect SOME LEVEL of complementary information (which is sometimes interpreted as 'contradiction'!), but the amount of these surface differences has historically been quite a discomfort to the casual reader or beginning student.

    In actual fact, however, these differences serve both to (1) 'tip us off' to the author's intended purpose (e.g. what facts from a shared body of information did the author SELECT to include)--VERY important to exegesis; and to (2) lend additional weight to the credibility of the accounts! While it might seem odd to a reader to say that the apparent discrepancies between the narratives ENHANCES THE CREDIBILITY of those narratives(!), this is exactly what experts in evidence say.

    So, retired judge and lawyer/solicitor/barrister Herbert C. Casteel (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, College Press: 1992, 2nd rev.; p. 211ff):

    "The internal evidence of the resurrection accounts: Each of the four Gospels gives an account of that first Easter Sunday when Jesus arose from the tomb. When we first read these accounts it appears they are in hopeless contradiction. Matthew says it was Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who went out to the tomb. Mark says it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Luke says it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them, and John mentions only Mary Magdalene. Furthermore, they all mention different people to whom Jesus appeared on that day.

    Does this mean that these are false reports, made-up by dishonest men to deceive us? On the contrary, this is good evidence that these are truthful accounts, because people who conspire to testify to a falsehood rehearse carefully to avoid contradictions. False testimony appears on the surface to be in harmony, but discrepancies appear when you dig deeper. True accounts may appear on the surface to be contradictory, but are found to be in harmony when you dig deeper."

    Indeed, legal writer Clifford, in discussing the "minor variations test" for authenticity of evidence, notes that differences are EXPECTED from witnesses (Leading Lawyers' Case for the Resurrection Canadian Institute for Law, Theology, and Public Policy, Inc: 1991, 1996; p. 61):
    "The minor variations test. ... Whilst truthful witnesses complement each other, a judge would not expect them to describe the same incidents in precisely the same way. If they did, that would point to conspiracy. Sometimes there may not be total uniformity in the order of events. One anticipates variations when two or more people testify about the same incident."
    It is interesting that the most in-depth recent work on these events, by John Wenham, a biblical scholar (Easter Enigma, Baker: 1992, rev. ed.) describes a SIMILAR pattern. So, pp.10-11:
    "I first became interested in the subject in 1945 when living in Jerusalem not far from the old walled city. I got to know the sites in and around the city intimately. I had no real doubts that the gospel writers were honest and well informed people, providentially equipped by God to give the church a sound account of these events, but I was by no means committed to the view that the accounts were correct in every detail. Indeed I was impressed in my early studies of the resurrection stories by the seemingly intractable nature of the discrepancies.

    It is by no means easy to see how these things can be fitted together while remaining strictly faithful to what the writers say. But an insatiable curiosity made me want to know who did what and why each writer put things so. Reading all I could and studying the Greek text carefully, I gradually found many of the pieces of the jigsaw coming together. It now seems to me that these resurrection stories exhibit in a remarkable way the well-known characteristics of accurate and independent reporting, for superficially they show great disharmony, but on close examination the details gradually fall into place."

    Finally, consider the comment by German classical historian Hans Stier:
    "the sources for the resurrection of Jesus, with their relatively big contradictions over details, present for the historian for this very reason a criterion of extraordinary credibility."

    (Cited in BLOM:103, who points out that we would 'prefer' to add the word "apparent" in front of his word choice of "contradictions"...)

    The point should be clear--the surface structure IS puzzling; but instead of casting doubt on the passages, this structure actually turns out to be a reason to accord the narratives higher credibility. Now, this credibility can only 'last so long' as the accounts can still be reasonably and honestly synchronized. And Wenham, who is a biblical scholar and NOT a legal practitioner, is aware of the patterns of credible reporting.

    Thus, the differences in the accounts are very IMPORTANT to us--they give us additional reason to trust the testimony of these men who died to get this message of Jesus to us, and they give us important assistance in helping us understand this message!

  3. The legitimacy of harmonization attempts relative to historical material;

    We have already seen above that building an "imaginary narrative" that is essentially integrative, from "all the confusing phenomena," is the essence of historical method. So, 'harmonization'--the attempt to render a unified narrative from disparate narratives--should be understood as a legitimate step in this process. But even though it is standard practice in classical historiography, many biblical scholars in the modern vein scorn such methods (BLOM:8-9):

    "In today's academic world, any biblical scholar who sets out to harmonize the gospels risks severe criticism from his or her colleagues. Some of this criticism is justified; some is not. On the one hand, it cannot be stressed too strongly that seeking responsibly to reconcile seemingly discordant testimony is the task of every historian, whether dealing with the biblical literature or with any other work of purported history, ancient or modern. Although the traditional desire to harmonize the gospels stems from a belief in their uniquely sacred nature, secular historians also regularly fit together apparently conflicting testimony in a way which vindicates the integrity of all the witnesses involved. Gilbert Garraghan's standard historiography textbook emphasizes that 'almost any critical history that discusses the evidence for important statement will furnish examples of discrepant or contradictory accounts and the attempts which are made to reconcile them.' [the note cites Gilbert Garragha, A Guide to Historical Method (Westport CT: Greenwood, 1973, p. 314)]."
    Not only is harmonization a basic and standard tool of the historian; it is likewise a rigorous and DAILY tool of those who "get paid" to evaluate evidence--the legal profession! So, the biblical scholar Gleason Archer (who was ALSO a law graduate!!) points out how far from 'reality' many of the biblical critics are (Ency. Of Bible Diff., p. 315):
    Bible critics who have never had any training in the laws of evidence may decry the 'harmonistic method' all they wish; but, like it or not, it is essentially the harmonistic method that is followed every day that court is in session throughout the civilised world. This method has a very definite bearing on valid procedures in biblical criticism as well as in the practical conduct of a tort or criminal action, or even a contract case in a court of law, today. Then the critics would find that most of their artificial, logically fallacious and basically biased approaches to the text of Holy Scripture would be successfully challenged by even the most inexperienced attorney and thrown out by the presiding judge.
    Evangelicals agree that forced harmonizing (of which there are many, many comical and/or deplorable examples!) is illegitimate, but that the opposite extreme of dismissing exegetical efforts to follow standard historical praxis is likewise foolish.

    Wenham points out the sad situation that occurs when scholars "give up too easily" and do not do the necessary spadework and required historical investigation to build a true view of an event (EE:128):

    "Of course, the individuality of different writers must be respected, and the distinctive aims of different works (where these can be discerned) must be taken into account. Forced harmonizing is worthless. The tendency today, however, is the opposite--to force the New Testament writings into disharmony, in order to emphasize their individuality. The current analytical approach to the gospels often has the effect of making scholars more and more uncertain at more and more points, till eventually their view of Jesus and his teaching is lost in haze. The harmonistic approach, on the other hand, enables one to ponder long and conscientiously over every detail of the narrative and to see how one account illuminates and modifies another. Gradually (without fudging) people and events take shape and grow in solidity and the scenes come to life in one's mind. Such study is beautifully constructive and helps to vindicate the presuppositions on which it is based. It is sad and strange when immense learning leads to little knowledge of the person studied. One thing is certain: Jesus was a concrete, complex and fascinating figure of history, and any method of study which fails to reveal him as such is working on the wrong lines"
    Notice that Wenham points out that the differences in the accounts CAN BE important clues to the aims of the writers, and that harmonization must not be 'forced' or 'fudged.'

    As an example of harmonization 'done right,' let's look at an example by Wenham himself (EE:p.128):

    "Matthew mentions Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at the burial and as setting out for the tomb. The angel speaks to "the women," who "ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them."(27:55f.,61;28:1,5,8f.) If we had only Matthew we should take "the women" and "them" to be the Marys. But complicated movements of five women were apparently involved--Mary Magdalene left before the women entered the tomb, and the notifying of disciples required visits both to John's house and to Bethany. Probably only "the other Mary" was present at every point in the story and "the women" and "them" do not refer precisely to the two mentioned by name. Matthew is giving the detail necessary to convey his message, further elaboration would have been pointless distraction. He could of course have avoided any question by saying at verse 1 'certain women', but this would have been unnecessarily vague. His mention of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Clopas would have been suitable for three reasons: 1. It was they who set out together from Bethany as described at the beginning of his account. 2. Mary Magdalene was of special importance since she was the first person to see Jesus. 3. Mary of Clopas, however, was the one who was present throughout his whole narrative. Although he leaves out many details his is a judicious and accurate statement of what happened."
    Notice that this account has all the elements of historical inquiry--both conjectural and "imaginary" as well as supportive--e.g., the "three reasons". It does NOT assume that the authors were under some kind of constraint to provide a list of all the incidental characters in the story--they only needed to marshal the relevant details for their specific literary intent and purpose.

    The point should be clear by now: harmonization is a standard, essential part of BOTH historical inquiry AND legal assessment of testimony of witnesses. As such, it is not 'alien' to the biblical students task, nor is it something to be practiced woodenly. The student of ANY history (not just 'biblical' history) is not only sanctioned in the praxis of harmonization, but he or she is literally compelled to do--under the methodological norms of historiography.

  4. The issue of "plausibility" of explanations.

    "Plausibility" is a notoriously subjective concept, and one that engages epistemologists to no end. Oxford dictionaries define "plausible" as "seeming reasonable or probable", but this will not get us very far. What seems "reasonable" to one may seem unreasonable to another. "Reasonable" could entail simply the notion can I can make a "rational" argument--one in which a conclusion is supported by some appeal to accepted premises or evidence. In the case of "reasonable", all one has to do is demonstrate that the explanation under question is POSSIBLE, given what we know about the situation and players in the scenario under study.

    "Probability" is, however, of somewhat more strength, but is still very loaded. Probability would need to be greater than 25-30%, say, for something to be considered 'plausible', but even the determination of some "threshold" percentage will be difficult in historical events.

    Given this somewhat ambiguous criterion, let's examine two skeptical passages to see how this 'plausibility' criterion plays out.

    First, let me advance a passage from Dr. Robert Price's work Beyond Born Again, who is quite vocal in his insistence that the accounts cannot be harmonized (and that harmonization attempts are evidence AGAINST the evangelical position). [I am going to insert [letter marks] in the quote to facilitate my comments.] From his Chapter 6:

    "The most embarrassing divergence between the narratives revolves around the spectacular scene in Matthew. [A] In this version, the women are treated to the sight of a luminous angel flying down, causing an earthquake, and heaving the stone away from the empty tomb, and all this in full view of posted guards! [B] The problem is that the other evangelists somehow seem to have forgotten to mention the guards and the whole sequence of events! Certainly if all this had really taken place, the women could not help but have included it in every telling of their story, and no gospel writer could have failed to use these facts had he known them. [C, D] In a gospel otherwise known for midrashic expansion (e.g., the addition of Peter walking on the water), it would not seem improbable that we have an unhistorical addition here. "[E]

    "The reader has probably seen some attempts to harmonize some of the discrepancies between the gospel accounts. The precarious and contrived nature of the result should make anyone hesitant to base much on it. [F] But let us suppose these texts could all be harmonized. The value of the accounts as evidence for the resurrection would still be greatly lessened. The very admission of the need to harmonize is an admission that the burden of proof is on the narratives, not on those who doubt them. What harmonizing shows is that despite appearances, the texts still might be true. This is a different thing than saying that the texts as they stand probably are true, that the burden of proof is on the person who would overturn this supposedly unambiguous evidence for the resurrection. Conservative apologists often ignore all the discrepancies, or after they have harmonized them, they continue to pretend the texts constitute unambiguously positive evidence." [G]

    Now let me make a few comments about this passage.

    For a second example, I would like to use an issue raised by Farrell Till.

    [Again, I will use [Letter] to act as markers for my comments below.]

    "If there were two, then there had to be one, inerrantists will say, but in a matter as vitally important as the testimony to a resurrection, inspired by an omniscient, omnipotent deity, this kind of "explanation" has dubious merit at best. However, it is the stock explanation of inerrancy defenders in matters like these, so I will simply mention it, leave it to the readers to judge its merit, and go on to other discrepancies that no stretch of imagination can satisfactorily resolve."[A]

    "After the women arrived at the tomb, Matthew said that a "great earthquake" occurred and "an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it" (28:2). Mark, Luke, and John, however, disagreed. Mark said that the women found the stone already rolled away when they arrived at the tomb (16:2). Luke agreed with Mark and said that the stone was "rolled away from the tomb" when the women arrived (24:2), and John said that the stone had been "taken away from the tomb" when Mary Magdalene arrived (20:1). So who was right? Matthew or the other three? It simply could not have been that the stone was both in place and rolled away too when the women came to the tomb? Our rule of evidence demands one of two conclusions: Matthew was right and the other three were wrong, or the other three were right and Matthew was wrong. Both versions of the story cannot be right."[B].

    "Gleason Archer, in his typically far-fetched style, has offered this answer to the question (Why did Mary think the body had been stolen when the angels had already told her "He is risen""):

    She apparently had not yet taken in the full import of what the angel meant when he told her that the Lord had risen again and that He was alive. In her confusion and amazement, all she could think of was that the body was not there; and she did not know what had become of it. Where could that body now be? It was for this reason that she wanted Peter and John to go back there and see what they could find out (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, pp. 348-349).
    That sounds pretty thin to me, but inerrantists are famous for this kind of circumlocution when they are confronted with obvious discrepancies in the Bible text. Luke flatly stated that the women at the tomb, who would have included Mary Magdalene, 'remembered his (Jesus') words' when the angels reminded them that Jesus had predicted his resurrection while they were 'yet in Galilee' (24:7-8). Despite the clarity of this statement, Archer wants us to believe that the obvious discrepancy between it and John's depiction of Mary in his resurrection story was only 'apparent,' because she 'had not yet taken in the full import of what the angel meant when he told her the Lord had risen again.' As an explanation of the problem, it is too transparent to deserve serious comment. What 'full import' was there to take in? The angels said, "He is risen," as he had promised while he was 'yet in Galilee,' and the women 'remembered his words;! "[C]

    "So it is with the resurrection accounts in the four gospels. If Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--all four of them--had really been guided and directed by an omniscient, omnipotent deity while they were writing their gospels (as the inerrancy doctrine claims), there would be no maze of inconsistencies in the juxtaposition of their stories. There would be that perfect unity and harmony that fundamentalist preachers talk about so much--but which doesn't really exist." [D]

    Mr. Till's arguments deserve more attention that I can give them tonight, but I want to make a few observations about the above assessment of 'plausibility' of harmonistic efforts by evangelicals.

  5. Several specific reconstructions/sequencing of the post-resurrection events (or appearances of Christ)

    I have assembled here several harmonizations or sequences of appearances of Christ. Some are extended entries (e.g. Archer), some are short lists (e.g. Ryrie, Willingham), some are merely statements of how specific difficulties are to be resolved (e.g. Blom), and still others are detailed summaries (e.g. Harris). Most of these harmonizations will differ in some details, indicating the reality that there are MULTIPLE WAYS to harmonize the accounts! The Christian need not be concerned over whether or not THERE IS a defensible and "plausible" answer; the tough question is "of the 10 plausible reconstructions, WHICH ONE is the best, in my opinion?"--a radically different situation.

    1. Casteel:
      Such is the case with these Gospel accounts. With further study, the apparent contradictions disappear. For example, all four accounts are in harmony with the following sequence of events: Very early a group of women, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, and Joanna set out for the tomb. Meanwhile two angels are sent; there is an earthquake and one angel rolls back the stone and sits upon it. The soldiers faint and then revive and flee into the city. The women arrive and find the tomb opened; without waiting, Mary Magdalene, assuming someone has taken the Lord's body, runs back to the city to tell Peter and John. The other women enter the tomb and see the body is gone. The two angels appear to them and tell them of the resurrection. The women then leave to take the news to the disciples. Peter and John run to the tomb with Mary Magdalene following. Peter and John enter the tomb, see the grave clothes, and then return to the city, but Mary Magdalene remains at the tomb weeping, and Jesus makes His first appearance to her. Jesus next appears to the other women who are on their way to find the disciples. Jesus appears to Peter; He appears to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus; and then appears to a group of disciples including all of the Eleven except Thomas.

      [Casteel, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, pp.212-213]

    2. Gleason Archer
      The Women's First Visit to the Tomb

      On Saturday evening three of the women decided to go back to the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, where they had seen Christ's body laid away on Friday at sundown. They wanted to rewrap His corpse with additional spices, beyond those which Nicodemus and Joseph had already used on Friday. There were three women involved (Mark 16:1): Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife (or mother) of James, and Salome (Luke does not give their names; Matthew refers only to the two Marys); and they had bought the additional spices with their own means (Mark 16:1). They apparently started their journey from the house in Jerusalem while it was still dark (skotias eti ouses), even though it was already early morning (proi) (John 20:1). But by the time they arrived, dawn was glimmering in the east (te epiphoskouse) that Sunday morning (eis mian sabbaton) (Matt. 28:1). (Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1 all use the dative: te mia ton sabbaton.) Mark 16:2 adds that the tip of the sun had actually appeared above the horizon (anateilantos tou heliou--aorist participle; the Beza codex uses the present participle, anatellontos, implying "while the sun was rising").

      It may have been while they were on their way to the tomb outside the city wall that the earthquake took place, by means of which the angel of the Lord rolled away the great circular stone that had sealed the entrance of the tomb. So blinding was his glorious appearance that the guards specially assigned to the tomb were completely terrified and swooned away, losing all consciousness (Matt. 28:24). The earthquake could hardly have been very extensive; the women seemed to be unaware of its occurrence, whether it happened before they left Jerusalem or while they were walking toward their destination. There is no evidence that it damaged anything in the city itself. But it was sufficient to break the seal placed over the circular stone at the time of interment and roll the stone itself away from its settled position in the downward slanting groove along which it rolled.

      The three women were delightfully surprised to find their problem of access to the tomb solved; the stone had already been rolled away (Mark 16:34)! They then entered the tomb, sidestepping the unconscious soldiers. In the tomb they made out the form of the leading angel, appearing as a young man with blazing white garments (Mark 16:5), who, however, may not have shown himself to them until they first discovered that the corpse was gone (Luke 24:2-3). But then it became apparent that this angel had a companion, for there were two of them in the tomb. The leading angel spoke to them with words of encouragement, "Don't be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified" (Matt. 28:5). Nevertheless they were quite terrified at the splendor of these heavenly visitors and by the amazing disappearance of the body they had expected to find in the tomb.

      The angel went on: "Why do you seek the living among [lit., 'with'--meta with the genitive] those who are dead? He is not here, but He has risen [Luke 24:5-6], just as He said [Matt. 28:6]. Look at the place where they laid Him [Mark 16:6], the place where He was lying [Matt. 28:6]. Remember how He told you when He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man had to be betrayed into the hands of sinful men, crucified, and rise again on the third day" (Luke 24:6-7).

      After the angel had said this, the women in fact did remember Christ's prediction (especially at Caesarea Philippi); and they were greatly encouraged. Then the angel concluded with this command: "Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead!" Then he added: "Behold, He goes before you into Galilee; there you will see Him. Lo, I have told you" (Matt. 28:7). Upon receiving these' wonderful tidings, the three delighted messengers set out in haste to rejoin the group of sorrowing believers back in the city (possibly in the home of John Mark) and pass on to them the electrifying news. They did not pause to inform anyone else as they hurried back (Mark 16:8), partly because they were fearful and shaken by their encounter at the empty tomb. But in their eagerness to deliver their tidings, they actually ran back to the house (Matt. 28:8) and made their happy announcement to the disciples who were gathered there

      Mary Magdalene took pains to seek out Peter and John first of all; and she breathlessly blurted out to them, "They have taken the Lord away from the tomb, and we don't know where they have laid Him!" (John 20:2). She apparently had not yet taken in the full import of what the angel meant when he told her that the Lord had risen again and that He was alive. In her confusion and amazement, all she could think of was that the body was not there, and she did not know what had become of it. Where could that body now be? It was for this reason that she wanted Peter and John to go back there and see what they could find out.

      Peter and John at the Tomb

      The synoptic Gospels do not mention this episode, but it was extremely important to John, who therefore took pains to record it in detail. As the two men got closer to Joseph's tomb, they began to run in their eagerness to get there and see what had happened (John 20:34). John arrived there first, being no doubt younger and faster than Peter. Yet it turned out that he was not as perceptive as Peter, for all John did when he got to the entrance was stoop down and look into the tomb, where he saw the shroud, or winding sheet, of Jesus lying on the floor (v.5). But Peter was a bit bolder and more curious; he went inside the chamber and found it indeed empty. Then he looked intently at the winding sheet, because it was lying in a very unusual position. Instead of being spread out in a long, jumbled strip, it was still all wrapped together in one spot (entetyligmenon eis hena topon). Moreover, the soudarion ("long kerchief") that had been wound around the head of Jesus was not unwound and tossed on the shroud but was still wrapped together and lying right above it (vv.6-7).

      In other words, no one had removed the grave-clothes from the corpse in the usual way; it was as if the body had simply passed right out of the headcloth and shroud and left them empty! This was such a remarkable feature that Peter called John back and pointed it out to him. All of a sudden it dawned on the younger man that no one had removed the body from that tomb. The body had simply left the tomb and left the grave-clothes on its own power, passing through all those layers of cloth without unwrapping them at all! Then John was utterly convinced: Jesus had not been removed by other hands; He had raised Himself from the dead. That could only mean He was alive again. John and Peter decided to hurry back and report to the others this astounding evidence that Jesus had indeed conquered death and was alive once more.

      The Private Interviews With the Women and With Peter

      For some reason, Peter and John did not tell Mary Magdalene about what they had deduced before they left. Perhaps they did not even realize that she had followed along behind them at her slower pace. In fact, she may not have gotten back to the tomb until they had already left. She arrived all alone, but she did not immediately reenter until she had paused to weep for a little while. Then she stooped down once more to look through her tear-stained eyes into the tomb (John 20:11). To her astonishment it was ablaze with light; and there she beheld two angels in splendid white robes, sitting at each end of the place where Jesus had lain (v. 12). Immediately they--the very same pair that had spoken to the three women at their earlier visit--asked her wonderingly, "Why are you crying?" Had she not understood the glorious news they had told her the first time? But all Mary could think about was the disappearance of Christ's body. "They have taken my Lord away, and I don't know where they have laid Him," she lamented. To this the angels did not need to give any answer, for they could see the figure of Jesus standing behind her; and they knew His response would be better than anything they could say.

      Mary could sense that someone else had joined her, and so she quickly turned around and tried to make out through her tear-blurred eyes who this stranger might be. It wasn't one of her own group, she decided; so it had to be the gardener who cared for this burial ground of Joseph of Arimathea. Even when He spoke to her, Mary did not at first recognize Jesus' voice, as He kindly asked her, "Woman, why are you crying? Whom are you looking for?" (v.15). All she could do was wail at Him accusingly, "Sir, if it is you who have taken Him away, tell me where you have laid Him; and I will carry Him off"--as if somehow her womanly strength would be equal to such a task.

      It was at this point that the kindly stranger revealed Himself to Mary by reverting to His familiar voice as He addressed her by name, "Mariam!" Immediately she realized that the body she was looking for stood right before her, no longer a corpse but now a living, breathing human being--and yet more than that, the incarnate God. "Rabbouni!" she exclaimed (that is to say, "Master!") and cast herself at His feet. It was only for a brief moment that she touched Him; for He gently withdrew Himself from her, saying, "Don't keep touching Me [the negative imperative me mou haptou implies discontinuance of an action already begun], for I have not yet ascended to My Father." Whether He did so later that afternoon and then returned afterward to speak to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and the rest of the group back in Jerusalem that evening is not altogether clear. But if Mary was asked not to touch Him at this point in the day and the disciples were freely permitted to touch Him that evening, it must be inferred that He did report briefly back to God the Father in heaven before returning to earth once more for His post-resurrection forty day ministry.

      This private interview with the risen Lord did not continue much longer, so far as Mary was concerned; for He commissioned her to hurry back to the group in the city and prepare them for His coming to join them in His resurrection body. "Go to My brethren," He said, "and tell them I am going up to My Father and your Father, My God and your God" (John 20:17). This definitely confirms the deduction that Christ did in fact make a brief visit to heaven during the middle of Easter Sunday before reappearing to Cleopas and his companion on the Emmaus road.

      Nevertheless Jesus did not make ]His ascent to heaven at this precise moment, for He waited around long enough to meet with the other two women who had earlier accompanied Magdalene to the tomb at daybreak. Apparently Mary the mother (or wife of James, and Salome with her, had decided to go back once more to visit the empty tomb. Presumably they noticed that Mary Magdalene had slipped away again after conferring with Peter and John, and they must have guessed where she had gone. Very soon after Magdalene had left Jesus and headed back toward the city (but not so soon that they actually met one another on the way), the two women drew near to the same spot where they had encountered the two angels on their first visit (Luke 24:4).

      We are not told whether the women actually entered the tomb once again, or whether they met Jesus just outside; but at any rate He apparently accosted them after they had arrived, and He greeted them (Matt. 28:9). (The Greek chairete here probably represents either the Hebrew shalom or the Aramaic Se lama'. Literally the Greek means "Rejoice!" whereas the Hebrew means "Peace!") Their reaction at seeing their risen Lord was similar to Magdalene's they cast themselves at His feet and kissed them as they clung to Him. Jesus reassured them as they were adjusting to the shock of seeing Him alive again, "Don't be afraid." Then He continued with a mandate similar to the one He had given to Magdalene: "Go and pass on the word [apangeilate] to My brethren that they are to depart for Galilee, and there they will see Me." It is highly significant that our Lord first revealed Himself in His resurrection body, not to the men, the eleven disciples themselves, but rather to three of the women among the group of believers. Apparently He found that they were even readier in their spiritual perception than the eleven men of His inner circle, on whom He had spent so much of His time during the three years of His teaching ministry. Be that as it may, it seems quite clear that Jesus chose to honor the women with His very first post-resurrection appearances before He revealed Himself to any of the men-- even to Peter himself.

      Yet we must gather that Peter was the first of the male disciples to see his Lord alive after the Resurrection; for at some time after Mary Magdalene came back from her second visit to the tomb and her confrontation with Jesus there, Simon Peter must have had a personal reunion with Jesus. This we learn from Luke 24:34, where we are told that the disciples in the house of John Mark in Jerusalem had learned from Peter that he had already seen Jesus and had talked with Him, even before the two travelers returned from their journey toward Emmaus and reported back that they had broken bread with Jesus at the inn. They found as they came back with their exciting news and expected everyone there to be surprised at their account of talking with the risen Lord that the rest of the group were already aware of the stupendous event. The two travelers were delighted to meet with ready acceptance by all who heard them, for they were assured by all their friends, "Yes, yes, we know that Jesus is alive and has returned to us; for He has appeared to Simon Peter as well" (Luke 24:34). Presumably they were already aware (cf. v.22) of the earlier interviews reported to them by Mary Magdalene (who told them, "I have seen the Lord," and then relayed His announcement about ascending to the Father in heaven; cf. John 20:18) and by the other Mary and her companion, Salome, who had passed on His instructions about the important rendezvous to be held up in Galilee.

      As for this personal interview between Christ and Peter, we have no further information; so we cannot be certain as to whether it was before or after His ascension to the Father and His subsequent return in the afternoon of Easter Sunday. All we can be sure of (and even this is perhaps arguable) is that He talked with Peter before He met with Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus. It is interesting to note that Paul confirms that Christ did in fact appear to Peter before He revealed Himself to the rest of the Eleven (1 Cor. 15:5).

      The Interview With the Disciples on the Way to Emmaus

      The next major development on that first Easter Sunday involved two disciples who were not of the Eleven (the number to which they were reduced after the defection of Judas Iscariot). Cleopas was relatively undistinguished among the outer circle of Jesus' following; at least he is hardly mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament record. As for his companion, we are never even told what his name was, even though he shared in the distinction of being the first to walk with Christ after His resurrection. Jesus apparently chose these two disciples outside the circle of the Eleven in order to make it clear to all of His church that He was equally available or accessible to all believers who would put their trust in Him as Lord and Savior, whether or not they belonged to any special circle or had come to know Him at an earlier or a later date. Perhaps He also felt that for their future testimony to the world--that they had become convinced of His bodily resurrection even in the face of their initial assumption that He was already dead and gone--such a manifestation would be of special helpfulness to future generations.

      One thing is certain: a true believer does not have to belong to the original band of chosen apostles in order to experience a complete transformation of life and the embracing of a new understanding that life with Jesus endures forever, in spite of all the adversities of this life and the malignity of Satan and the terrors of the grave. The Emmaus travelers replied, "Did not our hearts glow within us on the way and as He opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:32). They thus became the first example of what it means to walk with Jesus in living fellowship and hear Him speak from every part of the Hebrew Scriptures.

      This account is contained only in the Gospel of Luke, that Evangelist who took such special interest in the warm and tender personal relationships that Jesus cultivated with individual believers, both male and female. We may be very grateful to him (and the Holy Spirit who guided him) that this heart-stirring record was included in the testimonies of Jesus' resurrection; for this encounter more fully than the others shows how life may be transformed from discouragement and disappointed hope into a richly satisfying and fruitful walk of faith with a wonderful Savior who has conquered sin and death for all who put their trust in Him.

      One interesting feature about this interview deserves comment. As in the case of Mary Magdalene, Jesus did not appear to the Emmaus travelers at the first with His customary form, features, or voice; and they failed to recognize His identity. They took Him for a stranger who was new to Jerusalem (Luke 24:18). It was not until after He had taught them how the Old Testament had clearly foretold how Messiah would first have to suffer before entering into His glory--and indeed not until after they had sat down for a bite to eat at some roadside cafe and heard Him give thanks to God for the food--that they realized who He was. And then, at the moment of recognition, He suddenly left them, vanishing from their sight. This sudden disappearance showed them that this new friend of theirs, who had flesh and bones and could use His hands to break bread with them, was a supernatural Being. He was the God-man who had triumphed over death and had risen from the grave to resume His bodily form, a marvelous new body with power to appear and disappear according to His will and purpose, as He saw fit.

      As soon as Jesus had left them, the two wayfarers sped back to Jerusalem as fast as their legs could carry them. They lost no time in making their way to the assembled believers and sharing with them the electrifying news of their lengthy encounter with the risen Lord. "And they began to relate their experiences on the road, and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread."

      The Interviews With the Assembled Disciples

      Luke tells us that while the Emmaus travelers were finishing their report to the assembled believers, the Lord Himself entered through the locked doors and appeared in their midst (Luke 24:36), much to the amazement of all those who had not previously seen Him risen from the dead. Graciously He greeted them with His customary "Peace be with you" (the Greek eirene hymin doubtless represents the Aramaic S'e lama' 'am'e kon (John 20:19]). Then He hastened to allay their fears by showing them physical evidence of His bodily resurrection and restoration to life. "Why are you troubled and why do doubts arise in your heart?" He asked (Luke 24:38), as He held out His pierced hands for them to see and removed His sandals to show the nail holes through His feet (vv.3940). He even uncovered the scar of the gash that the Roman spear had made in His side as He hung lifeless on the cross (John 20:20). "Look at My hands and feet," He said to them, "for it is really I. Feel Me and see, for a mere spirit does not have flesh and bones such as you behold Me to have" (Luke 24:39).

      How many took advantage of Christ's offer to touch Him, we cannot be sure. But numbers of those in the room found even this evidence too amazing to be believed; so He offered a yet more dramatic proof. "Do you have anything to eat?" He asked them. They gave Him a piece of broiled fish, and He proceeded to eat it as they looked on with wonder and delight (Luke 24:4243).

      Having thus demonstrated that He was none other than their beloved Master risen from the dead, Jesus proceeded to explain to them, as He had explained to the two on the road to Emmaus, that all the amazing occurrences of Passion Week were fully predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures--all the way from Genesis to Malachi. The portions referred to were threefold: Moses (i.e., the Pentateuch), the Prophets, and the Psalms. (Notice that by this period all the Old Testament books other than the Pentateuch and the Psalms were included under the classification of "Prophets"--including all the books of history, Daniel, and probably the wisdom books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as well, unless "Psalms" is intended to represent all five books of poetry.) The entire Hebrew Bible is about the Son of God. But His particular focus was on those predictions of His ministry, sufferings, and death found in the Pentateuch (Gen.3: 15; 49:10; Deut.18: 15-18, and all the types of priesthood and sacrifice contained in the Torah), the Prophets (e.g., Isa. 7:14-9:6; 52:13-53:12), and the Psalms (esp. Ps. 16:10 and Ps. 22), which foretold all the events that found their culmination on this Easter Day (Luke 24:44-46). Thus He assured them that all the apparently tragic events of the last few days were in exact fulfillment of the great plan of human redemption that God had decreed from before the beginning of all time. Instead of feeling intimidated and disappointed by the shame of the Cross, they were to see in it the greatest victory of all time; and they were to trumpet abroad the good news of salvation, which by His atonement He had purchased for repentant sinners everywhere.

      This led Jesus quite naturally to the earliest pronouncement of the Great Commission. He told the disciples that repentance was to be preached in His name to all nations for the forgiveness of sins, beginning from Jerusalem, and that they as eyewitnesses were under special obligation to carry out the proclamation of this message.

      (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Zondervan: 1982, pp. 347-352)

    3. Wenham (EE:139)
        1. Easter Sunday morning --to Mary Magdalene.
        2. Easter Sunday morning --to other women.
        3. Easter Sunday midday --to Cleopas and companion.
        4. Easter Sunday afternoon --to Peter.
        5. Easter Sunday evening --to ten apostles and others.
        6. Following Sunday--to the eleven, including Thomas.

        1. To the seven by the lake of Tiberias.
        2. To more than five hundred brothers in the hills.
        3. To James, the Lord's brother.


        1. To the eleven, followed by the Ascension from the Mount of Olives.

    4. Geisler and Howe:
      1. Mary (John 20:10-18)
      2. Mary & Women (Matt. 28:1-10)
      3. Peter (1 Cor. 15:5)
      4. Two Disciples (Luke 24:13-35)
      5. Ten Apostles (Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-23)
      6. Eleven Apostles (John 20:21 31)
      7. Seven Apostles (John 21)
      8. All Apostles (Matt. 28:16-20; Mark 16:14-18)
      9. 500 Brethren (1 Cor. 15:6)
      10. James (1 Cor. 15:7)
      11. All Apostles (Acts 1:4-8)
      12. Paul (Acts 9:1-9;1 Cor. 15:8)

      [Geisler, WCA: p366]

    5. Ryrie Study Bible
      1. Resurrection at first dawn
      2. The women, coming with spices, find the sepulcher open and empty. Mary Magdalene returns to tell Peter and John
      3. The other women, remaining, see two angels, who declare the Lord's resurrection.
      4. Mary Magdalene returns to the sepulcher. Jesus reveals Himself to her. She reports to the disciples--First appearance
      5. Jesus meets the women (Mary mother of James, Salome, and Joanna) on their return to the city--Second appearance
      6. Peter and John find the sepulcher empty
      7. Report of the guards to the chief priests, who bribe them
      8. Jesus seen by Peter (Cephas, 1 Cor. 15: 5)--Third appearance
      9. Seen by the two disciples on way to Emmaus--fourth appearance
      10. Jesus appears to the ten, Thomas being absent--Fifth appearance
      11. Evening of Sunday after Easter day. Jesus appears to them again, Thomas being present--Sixth appearance
      12. The eleven go into Galilee, to a mountain appointed. Jesus appears, and commands them to teach all nations--Seventh appearance
      13. Jesus shows Himself at the Sea of Tiberias--Eighth appearance. Charges Simon to feed His lambs, sheep, and young sheep
      14. Seen of above five hundred brethren at once (1 Cor. 15:6), probably along with the eleven-- Ninth appearance
      15. He is seen by James, then by all the apostles (Acts 1: 3-8; 1 Cor. 15:7)--Tenth appearance.

      (Ryrie Study Bible, ppp.1931-2)

    6. Willingham
      • First: Mary Magdalene as she remained at the site of the tomb (John 20.11-17)
      • Second: to the other women who were also returning to the tomb (Matt 28.9-10)
      • Third: to Peter (Luke 24.34; I Cor 15.5)
      • Fourth: to the disciples as they walked on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-31)
      • Fifth: to the ten disciples (Luk 24.36-51; John 20.19-23)
      • Sixth: to the 11 disciples a week after the resurrection (John 20.26-29)
      • Seventh: to the seven disciples by the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21.1-23)
      • Eight: to 500 (I Cor 15.6)
      • Ninth: to James, the Lord's brother (I Cor 15.7)
      • Tenth: to the 11 disciples on the mountain in Galilee (Matt 28.16-20)
      • Eleventh: at the time of the Ascension (Luke 24.44-53; Acts 1.3-9)
      • Twelfth: to Stephen just prior to his martyrdom (Acts 7.55-56)
      • Thirteenth: to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9.3-6; 22.6-11; 26.13-18)
      • Fourteenth: to Paul in Arabia (Gal 1.12-17)
      • Fifteenth: to Paul in the temple (Acts 9.26-27; cf. 22.17-21)
      • Sixteenth: to Paul while he was in prison in Caesarea (Acts 23.11)
      • Seventeenth: to the apostle John (Rev 1.12-20)

      H.L. Willmington, The Complete Book of Bible Lists , Tyndale: 1987, p.168-169.

    7. Murray Harris
      1. After the actual resurrection had taken place, but before dawn, an earthquake occurred, an angel rolled away the stone from the entrance of the tomb, and the guards trembled and fled (Matt. 28:2-4).
      2. As Sunday morning was dawning, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome approached the tomb, intending to anoint Jesus with the perfumed oil brought by other women who evidently set out later (see #7) . To their amazement they found the stone rolled away (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1-4; John 20:1).
      3. One or more of the women entered the tomb and announced that the body was not there (an inference from John 20:2, where Mary Magdalene does not simply say, "The stone has been taken away").
      4. Mary Magdalene immediately returned to tell Peter and John that the body had been removed (John 20:2).
      5. Mary (the mother of James and Joses) and Salome saw an angel ( = "a young man" in Mark) inside the tomb who announced the resurrection and directed the women to tell the disciples that Jesus would meet them in Galilee (Matt. 28:5-7; Mark 16:5-7).
      6. These two women returned to the city without greeting anyone on the way, for their holy awe rendered them temporarily speechless (Matt.28:8; Mark 16:8).
      7. Certain women from Galilee, along with Joanna (cf. Luke 8: 3), arrived at the tomb, carrying perfumed oil to anoint the body of Jesus. They met two "men" (= "angels"; cf. Luke 24:4, 23) and then returned to report the angels' message of the resurrection "to the Eleven and to all the rest" (Luke 24: 1-9,22-23) who had evidently now gathered together (cú Matt.26: 56) .
      8. Meanwhile, informed by Mary Magdalene, Peter and John (and others?; Luke 24:24) ran to the tomb (without meeting Mary and Salome), observed the grave-clothes, and returned home (John 20:3-10; and Luke 24: 12, if this is the correct textual reading).
      9. Mary Magdalene followed Peter and John to the tomb, saw two angels inside, and then met Jesus (John 20: 11-17; cf Mark 16:9).
      10. Mary Magdalene returned to inform the disciples that Jesus had risen (John 20:18; cú Mark 16:10-11).
      11. Mary (the mother of James and Joses) and Salome met Jesus and were directed to tell his brethren to go to Galilee (Matt. 28:9-10).
      12. The disciples had now had reports concerning the empty tomb or the resurrection from three sources (viz., Mary Magdalene, Joanna and the women from Galilee, Mary [and Salome]), but they refused to believe these reports (Luke 24:10-11; cf. Mark 16:11).
      13. During the afternoon Jesus appeared to two disciples on the way to Emmaus. They then returned to Jerusalem to report the appearance to the Eleven and others (Luke 24:13-35; cú Mark 16:12-13).
      14. Jesus appeared to Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15 :5).
      15. That evening Jesus appeared to the Eleven and others (Luke 24:33), Thomas being absent (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23; 1 Cor. 15:5; cf Mark 16:14).
      16. One week later Jesus appeared to the Eleven, Thomas being present (John 20:26-29) .
      17. Seven disciples had an encounter with Jesus by the Sea of Tiberias in Galilee (John 21: 1-22).
      18. The Eleven met Jesus on a mountain in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20; cf Mark 16:15-18).
      19. Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people (Luke 24:44-49; 1 Cor. 15:6).
      20. He appeared to James (1 Cor. 15 :7) .
      21. Immediately before his ascension, Jesus appeared to the Eleven near Bethany (Luke 24:50-52; Acts 1:6-11; 1 Cor. 15:7; cf Mark 16: 19-20).
      (Murray Harris, TCQ:107ff)

    8. Craig Blomberg:
      "Finally, it is remarkable to observe how often the alleged contradictions among the gospels are cited without a discussion of the many proposed solutions which can fit them together in a very plausible and natural manner. John Wenham has quite recently devoted an entire book to a harmonization of the accounts and few of his proposals are entirely new. There is scarcely room to summarize all his main points, but in the case of the sample 'contradictions' mentioned above, one can offer the following brief replies: (a) angels generally appear in Scripture as men, and if one of the two were the primary spokesman, it would not be surprising if sometimes only he were mentioned; (b) it is likely that Jesus appeared to the eleven in Jerusalem, then later in Galilee when they had gone home after the Passover, and then once again in Jerusalem upon their return in preparation for the feast of Pentecost; (c) if Salome is both the 'mother of James and John' and the sister of Mary, Jesus' mother, there is no irreconcilable problem with the lists of women; and (d) it is not unfair to describe the world as still rather dark at the first glimpse of morning daylight. The apparent discord among the gospels can be alleviated, but it must be admitted that any reconstruction of the events is speculative. "


Let me try to make a few summary points here at the end:

Glenn Miller, 3/4/97
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