The following was posted by me a few years back, though here it is expanded and edited slightly from that original post.
This is the season once again to reflect on the sacred mysteries of Holy Week and Pascha.
I suggest we work backwards from the Resurrection. If Jesus had died on the cross and that was the end of his life, what would his legacy have been? Not much, I suggest. A paragraph, perhaps, in the history of impact-making rabbis of Israel under the Romans, mentioning some notable healings and memorable insights into the rule of God in the world. Maybe today scholars of Judaism would produce a monograph or two on ancient magicians among the rabbis, notably Jeshua ben Joseph. Perhaps there would be a brief headline-making news item that the Teacher of Righteousness at Qumran had been identified by an unusually radical scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls as that same Jeshua ben Joseph.
It is the resurrection which makes the difference here, which sets the Jesus movement on a trajectory which will see Christianity separate from Judaism and which drives the leaders of that movement to see in Jesus things which were not obvious to them when they walked the dusty roads of Palestine with him. We read the gospels historically forwards from Jesus' beginnings to his end because that is the way the narrative is told, but theologically we should begin with the resurrection and read backwards. What was it about the resurrection which led to the telling of the story of Jesus in the way that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and, also, Paul told it?
That is why, to offer a first reflection this Resurrection Week first week of Eastertide), the question of the witness to the resurrection is vital to Christianity. Deny the resurrection and everything about our claims to truth falls over. Personally I find the variations between the gospels, 1 Corinthians 15 and, say, Acts 10:34-43 puzzling. Why isn't the account of that collective written witness, bound in the one New Testament, more consistent?
Modern skeptics have driven a horse and cart full of doubts through the lack of consistency (even, some might say, "actual inconsistency if not downright contradiction"). Yet closer inspection yields more consistency than some are prepared to allow. At the bedrock of each gospel narrative is the empty tomb. They are consistent on the fact that the crucified body of Jesus was placed in the tomb, on the third day the tomb was empty, and thereafter the risen (i.e. raised up from the tomb) Jesus appeared to people.
This, further, is consistent with two accounts which do not explicitly mention the emptiness of the tomb, Acts 10:34-43 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. What is 'raised on the third day' phrasing in these passages about but an act of raising from the dead, a raising of the physical body of Jesus which leaves the tomb empty. (I suggest we can talk in this way and still have a debate about what kind of "body" the earthly body of Jesus was transformed to, in the act of resurrection, noting that the resurrection accounts attest to a new body of Jesus which is different to the former body, e.g. appearing at will in an otherwise locked room).
Acts 10:40 beautifully distinguishes between the raising and the subsequent appearances, 'God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear.'
So also 1 Corinthians 15:4-5, 'he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve'. If the tomb was not empty why mention the act of raising from the dead and not proceed straight to the accounts of the appearances of Jesus?
Running these accounts together, with all their variations, I suggest we can account for the variations in a couple of ways.
First and foremost, Jesus appeared on a number of occasions to a range of witnesses. Between the four gospel writers and Paul's 'tradition' account in 1 Corinthians 15 we receive a set of accounts with heavy selection at work. Paul's tradition is focused on the appearances to the leadership of the Jesus movement, with the exception of the appearance to 'more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time'. The four gospels uniformly emphasise the immediate witnesses to the resurrection, women. Matthew, Mark and Luke (distinct from Acts 1) move quickly from the immediate experience of the risen Jesus to his departure (albeit somewhat implicitly in Mark). Only Acts 1 and John 21 imply a period of more than a few days or weeks in which Jesus remained with his disciples. Together these witnesses to the variety of Jesus' appearances do not provide anything like a coherent account of the history of Jesus between resurrection and ascension. That, perhaps, leads us to a second reason for the variations between accounts.
Secondly, the gospel writers in their gospels are focused on providing for their readers an account of the ordinary human life of Jesus, prior to death. The continuing presence of the risen Jesus in his ongoing movement, via the Holy Spirit, perhaps made unnecessary a prolonged account of the period between resurrection and ascension. (Luke, in his 'sequel' to the life of Jesus unveils in Acts many ways in which the risen Jesus post-ascension continues to engage with the movement). What their accounts needed was a wrap up and what we find is that the accounts of the resurrection are overlaid with conclusions to the gospels as a whole (or, in the case of Mark 16:1-8, we might say, denuded of a conclusion via intentional abruptness in the closing of the account - a kind of anti-conclusion).
Thus Matthew draws us rapidly to the Great Commission and Luke does so similarly, but in a challenging manner because in Luke 24 he almost conveys the impression that a long day (of about 25 hours?) elapses from raising to commissioning-and-ascending whereas Acts 1 is explicit that the period was 40 days. (Luke also manages the most flagrant rewriting of gospel tradition when he converts Mark's "you will see him in Galilee" into "as he said in Galilee", Mark 16:7//Luke 24:6, in the cause of emphasising the resurrected Jesus in Jerusalem and its immediate environs).
John works in a different manner, having proposed through his gospel that everything is going on all at once ("my hour"): death and departure, cross and glory, descent and ascent. Thus his Pentecost occurs on the day of Resurrection but there is a epilogue or two as a week elapses before the appearance to Thomas and further time before the appearance to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. But, like his evangelical colleagues, John is always wrapping up his gospel through the last chapter of the narrative (20) and through the epilogue to the main narrative (21): so there is a closing word to skeptics among the believers via the encounter with Thomas, then there is a word, via John 21, to Christian groups divided over leadership of the church as the first century comes to a close.
In the end, then, I am arguing that the accounts of the resurrection, between the gospels, Acts and 1 Corinthians have a coherency when we dig beneath the varied ways of wrapping up the narratives of Jesus' earthly life, acknowledge the basic facts which are shared (principally the emptiness of the tomb and the sheer multiplicity of appearances), and allow that different things mattered to different writers.
We need not doubt that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. That is the witness of the apostles. But what was the impact of the resurrection on understanding who Jesus was prior to death and who Jesus is after resurrection? Jesus rising from the dead in the midst of ancient Judaism in Israel in the first century AD was like a fox in a chicken coop. A certain theological mayhem ensued. The epistles effectively tell us about the mayhem and that it was a good kind of mayhem!
My own Epilogue to this post: I am fascinated by what - after many years of study - still strikes me afresh from familiar scriptures. In this case, preparing to preach from John 20:1-18, the three occasions in which Mary fixes on the explanation for the empty tomb that the body of Jesus has been removed by a group of people (20:2, 13, 15). I had not previously noticed that this is a threefold "fixation" of Mary.
On the one hand Mary is being reasonable: if the tomb Jesus was buried in was one found at short notice, then it likely was temporary, and thus some expectation of him being moved to a permanent tomb.
On the other hand, through repetition, John the narrator shows that he is aware that there are various explanations for a tomb devoid of the body which was placed in it. (Matthew 28 provides another one: that the body has been stolen, rather than intentionally placed elsewhere by those who care for Jesus). Thus the narration John provides is an assertion of a contrary possibility: the tomb was empty, the grave clothes were found folded in a certain manner, because the "impossible" had happened, Jesus' body was raised to new, resurrection life.
But theologically John is also making another point: the resurrection is about what we see and are prepared to believe. Mary keeps seeing the empty tomb and believing the explanation is quite humanly ordinary: the body has been moved to another tomb. Even when she sees Jesus, she does not see him but believes she is seeing the gardener; and the gardener, surely, knows what has happened to the body. Jesus both invites and provokes Mary to see differently and thus to believe differently. With one word, her name, he alters her perception. She sees Jesus, not the gardener. She believes he has been raised from the dead. And critical to the transformation of her sight and her belief is the intervention of Jesus: he creates belief in her.
Implicitly, John is saying to his readers, perhaps some six to seven decades after the death of Jesus: you do not need to have experienced the physical or "physical" Jesus for yourself: even if you had, you might not have recognised Jesus. Mary did not. What you need is to be brought to faith in Jesus as risen and eternally alive to God and to you. And this gift of faith comes from the risen Jesus himself and is available to all whom he calls by name.
Explicitly this is also brought out in the encounter with "doubting" Thomas: Blessed are those who have not seen me, yet believe in me (20:29).
Of course this is not so good for "apologetics" to the extent that apologetics works hard to prove that Jesus was raised from the dead as an historical fact and thus we ought to believe in Jesus as the one who is vindicated by God through resurrection as the Son of God, as the Saviour of the world. This is much more "existential" and a bit tautological: I believe Jesus was raised from the dead because the living (raised) Jesus has met me and called me to him self.
Apologetics is important! So is a lively regard for existential encounter with the risen Christ!
An Epilogue to an epilogue ...
Partly prompted by this Psephizo post on the resurrection narratives, I have done some more thinking about the five accounts of the resurrection (Matthew to John, 1 Corinthians 15).
1. Whatever we make of common historical threads running through the five accounts, we have to take account of literary freedoms being exercised.
2. A starting point for recognising such literary freedoms is Luke 24:6 where Luke manipulates Mark 16:7, from the angel's direction to head to Galilee and there to meet the risen Jesus (so, also, Matthew 28:7), to "Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee ...". Why does Luke make free with Mark? Luke could be the more accurate historian and think Mark is wrong (i.e. Mark has received and passed on wrong information) but Luke does seem intent in his gospel on making Jerusalem the "centre" of God's great work through the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. By altering Mark's account, he offers a coherent account of the empty tomb (in Jerusalem) and appearances of the risen Jesus (in Jerusalem, or nearby, at Emmaus) on the same day as the empty tomb is discovered.
3. By contrast, Matthew offers an incoherent account in Matthew 28:7-10. In verse 7 (as noted above), Matthew follows Mark: head to Galilee to see the risen Jesus. But in verses 9 and 10, the risen Jesus meets the women on their way home from the empty tomb. Matthew, like Luke and John, knows of at least one Jerusalem-based appearance of the risen Jesus and it occurs before the disciples encounter the risen Jesus in Galilee (28:16-20).
4. But is Matthew himself being literarily creative when he offers an account of a dramatic earthquake leading to multiple resurrections of the dead (27:51-53)? No other resurrection account includes this story, yet it must have been a significant impact on the situation in Jerusalem.
5. Then we might note that despite Matthew, Luke, and John offering commissioning scenes with Jesus and the disciples, not one of the scenes matches another in respect of location or words said by Jesus. (Various explanations can be brought to bear on these discrepancies, so we can accept them as less than "contradicting" each other; but they are discrepancies which Christian apologists - in my view - are liable to skirt over. As I often do myself!)
6. What about John in his accounts in chapters 20 and 21? Apart from a few features such as at least one woman going to the tomb and discovering it was empty, Jesus appearing unexpectedly in the presence of the disciples and greeting them with "Peace ...," and chapter 21's encounter being located in Galilee, not one aspect of his accounts tallies directly with the other three gospels or with 1 Corinthians 15. How much of these chapters is "history" and how much is "literature"?
7. Nevertheless, the combined testimony of all the accounts (including Mark 16:9-20) is to the conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead and that the raising was not a resuscitation but a raising to victorious, new and everlasting life, exalted/ascended to the presence of God the heavenly Father of Jesus.