The resurrection of Jesus – Part 5 – A consistent record
It is well known that each of the gospels was written for a different group of Christians, and with a different emphasis. In particular, St John’s gospel stresses the divinity of Jesus, while the synoptic gospels focus more on his humanity. It’s also worth remembering that St John’s gospel is the only one written by an eye witness (I’m accepting that although St John’s gospel took its final form at the end of the first century AD, much of it was written by St John in about 70 AD).
I’ve prepared a timeline to compare the accounts. When I started, I fully expected to find significant differences between the gospels, and I’ve been surprised at what I’ve found. There are certainly differences, but they’re much fewer than I expected, and there are no contradictions. There are many details where the gospels are in complete agreement.
So here’s how it looks.
The Day of Preparation
Jesus dies on the cross.
All four gospels say that Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate and asks for Jesus’ body. St Mark adds the detail that Pilate is surprised at Jesus early death, and questions the centurion before releasing the body to Joseph.
All four gospels say that Joseph takes Jesus’ body. In St John’s account, he is helped by Nicodemus. They wrap the body in linen strips. (St Matthew says the linen cloth is clean. St John says Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen.)
The synoptic gospels all say that the burial was witnessed by some of the women who had supported Jesus in his ministry. For example, St Luke says “The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. (Luke 23: 55). St John’s account doesn’t mention the presence of the women, but it says nothing to contradict it either.
The women. ‘Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.’ (Luke 23: 56)
Although Luke is the only writer who says explicitly that the women observed the Sabbath, it is implicit in the other accounts.
The chief priests. The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, “After three days I will rise again.” So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’
‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.(Matthew 27: 62 – 66)
Matthew is the only writer who speaks of a guard on the tomb; however, the other gospels don’t contradict this. Yesterday’s post discusses whether such a guard was set.
I don’t know whether the actions of the chief priests and Pharisees were technically breaking the Sabbath, but by comparison with the women, resting obediently, they seem mighty busy!
The first day of the week – angels and an empty tomb
All the gospel writers agree that Mary Magdalene and other women were at the tomb early in the morning; Matthew says at dawn, Mark says just after sunrise, Luke says very early in the morning and John says while it was still dark. The synoptics are explicit that Mary Magdalene had companions; in John’s account, it is implicit in the plural pronoun and verb, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’
The synoptics say that the women saw an angel (Matthew 28: 2 – 3); a young man dressed in white (Mark 16: 5); two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning (Luke 24: 4). John says that Mary saw the stone had been rolled away and told Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved. (Using the phrase ‘the disciple Jesus loved’ is a way of saying that the author of the gospel, St John, was present).
Thus, there is disagreement between the gospels on the matter of the presence of angels on the occasion of Mary’s first visit to the tomb.
However, St John’s gospel then tells us this:
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’
‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’ At this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.
He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’
She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).
Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her.
St John places this immediately after his account of the visit to the tomb made by Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved. It is still early morning, and here we have two angels speaking to Mary Magdalene. This resolves the conflict between the gospels as to the presence or otherwise of angels.
The first day of the week – the risen Lord
St Matthew tells us that the first appearance of the risen Jesus was to Mary and the other women. They met him as they were going to the disciples in response to the command of the angel. The women worshipped him. He told them not to be afraid but to tell his brothers to go to Galilee, where they would see him. This is very much in line with St John’s account that we’ve just read.
St Luke tells the story obliquely. Having had Simon Peter see the empty tomb, he gives us an account of two disciples walking to Emmaus, and how Jesus walked with them, explaining the Scriptures about himself. They didn’t recognise him until he broke bread at table, when the familiar gesture opened their eyes. On rushing back to Jerusalem they found that Jesus had appeared to Peter.
St Luke and St John continue the narrative of that first day. In both their accounts, Jesus appears suddenly in the room in which the disciples are talking.
St Luke describes how they are frightened by Jesus’ sudden appearance, wondering whether he is a ghost. They need to see, hear, and touch him before they are convinced, and even then Jesus needs to eat a piece of broiled fish to reassure them of his corporeal nature. He explains the Scriptures about himself to them, and commands them to remain in Jerusalem until they have been clothed with power from on high.
St John’s account is shorter, and emphasizes the disciples’ joy. Jesus symbolically gives them the Holy Spirit, and gives them the authority to forgive – or retain – people’s sins.
A detailed comparison of St Matthew’s account with St Luke’s throws up a discrepancy as to where the disciples were to meet Jesus. St Matthew says they were to meet him in Galilee, while St Luke says they were to remain in Jerusalem until they were clothed with power from on high.
It seems to me, though, that the commands may simply refer to two separate but significant events. St Luke’s is clearly a reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. St Matthew’s may refer to the occasion described in St John’s gospel when Jesus forgives Peter.
Two loose ends
There are two important additional matters.
The first is the mystery of Mark 16: 9 – 20. A note in the NIV says “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9 – 20”.
The verses are a collection of snippets of narrative, some of them confirming resurrection accounts from other gospels, others being more about the manifestation of spiritual gifts in the early church. They don’t seem to belong, but if you remove them the gospel finishes with the women trembling and bewildered and telling no one about what they had seen. I have no easy explanation for this.
The second is the forgiveness of Simon Peter. St John writes about a resurrection appearance in Galilee. Jesus forgives Simon Peter for his denial. Simon Peter was obviously racked with guilt over the betrayal, and Jesus takes great care to ensure that Peter can really experience his forgiveness. Jesus sets the scene in Galilee, by the lake, where Peter had been raised and plied his trade as a fisherman. He prepares breakfast on the beach. He even goes so far as to repeat the miracle of the great catch of fish. All of this is saying emotionally to Peter ‘This is you, Peter, and I’m here with you, like we used to be. And I am your Lord, and you are my friend, and I want you to nurture my chosen ones. Will you do this?’ Three times he asks Peter whether he loves him, and three times Peter affirms that he does. Of course he does. Lord, yes, of course I love you! And with the three-fold repentance, Peter is freed of his feelings of guilt, and he is fit to take on the task that Jesus has set for him.
But, you know, although Peter’s love for Jesus was very great, Jesus’ love for Peter was even greater. And Jesus’ love is not restricted to Peter, or to the heroes of faith, it extends to all of us, and is greater than we can possibly imagine.
Praise the Lord!
Thank you for your great love for all of us. Thank you for the care and thoughtfulness you spend on each and every one of us.
In Jesus name, Amen.