Prelude: Listen to this wonderful Easter hymn to a lovely and well known tune (Woodlands)
The differences in the resurrection narratives of the four canonical gospels (and what Paul writes in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 15) are at best a puzzle and at worst a provocation against a sense of the coherency of the biblical narrative at its most important and exciting point. When many people doubt the resurrection happened as an "historical event", the least we might expect is greater coherency in the four accounts. How did these differences between the accounts come about? This is my explanation.
- Mark’s Gospel is written first; then Matthew and Luke both use it when writing their gospels;
- John’s Gospel is written last; and has either direct or indirect knowledge of Mark, Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.*]
The role of Mark's Gospel
Mark's Gospel is the pioneer in a form of ancient biography in which Jesus is presented as Saviour of the world by telling his life story with a significant portion of the "life" being about his death.
In what follows I presuppose that Mark provides the key ingredients of the gospels that follow his lead, Matthew, Luke and John: Jesus' ministry begins with baptism, followers are called to journey with him, there are miracles performed, teaching is frequent and some excerpts are given, opposition against Jesus mounts, then the events leading to Jesus' death are told and the concluding event is discovery that Jesus has been raised from the dead. (Whether Mark is a direct or indirect source of the other three gospels is immaterial to this point which is about the contents of Mark's Gospel being generally known in the Christian communities of the Mediterranean region as the other gospels were being composed.)
Apart from including these "key ingredients", what do Matthew, Luke and John have in common relative to Mark’s Gospel? They add to what they know from Mark’s Gospel. While not always incorporating everything they know is there. (Matthew and Luke, almost certainly using Mark as a written source, tend to tell a shorter version of what they find in Mark’s Gospel). Most obviously all three Gospels expand Mark through adding in extensive teaching by Jesus. Matthew and Luke are fairly similar for some of this expansion (raising the question whether a common source, Q, is used by both).
All three Gospels also expand on Mark's beginning of the life of Jesus. Mark begins with John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. Matthew and Luke go much further back, with differing conception/birth/infancy narratives that share a few common details (Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem as birthplace, Nazareth as home). Each provides a genealogy for Jesus, Matthew's going as far back as Abraham, the father of Israel and Luke's as far back as Adam, the father of all humanity and the son of God. John's Gospel begins with a theological prologue which locates Jesus' beginning in his pre-existence and not in his conception/birth.
Mark's resurrection narrative (16:1-8) is well known for its brevity and spare details: the tomb of Jesus is discovered as empty; the risen Jesus is not seen; and the women who discover the situation do not even tell anyone about it. There is, however, a strong hint that Jesus will be seen, in the near future, in Galilee.
Despite some pretty tight commonality in respect of Jesus’ burial (all four gospels agree that Joseph of Arimathea is responsible for Jesus’ burial; only John’s Gospel differs by adding Nicodemus into the burial party), when it comes to the resurrection narratives, each of Matthew, Luke and John expand on Mark's account and in doing so proliferate differences across the these expanded narratives.
The common details, incidentally, are that there is a visit to the tomb early on Sunday by at least Mary Magdalene; the tomb is discovered to be open and empty of Jesus’ body, and an angel or angel-like guide offers guidance to the tomb discoverers.
The four gospels were composed sometime after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15, his famous chapter on the Resurrection (of Jesus and of us), and set out in a few verses a traditional narrative of the sequence of appearances of the risen Jesus. While Paul clearly mentions that Jesus was “raised”, he does not directly connect this action with the emptiness of the tomb. But Paul’s concern is the appearances - he wants to add his own experience of an appearance of Jesus to the list. It is completely plausible that when Paul writes of Jesus "died ... buried ... raised ..." that "raised" means raised in a physical action evidenced by the emptiness of the tomb."
Mark 16:1-8 has no appearance of the risen Jesus, only an anticipation of an appearance in Galilee. From a narratival perspective, for the story he tells of Jesus to end with resurrection, Mark needs a connection between the burial of the corpse of Jesus and the anticipation of an encounter with the risen Jesus which is not to be an encounter with a ghost. Hence the tomb needs to be empty of the dead body of Jesus and this is what is discovered. (Note that this is not a claim that the empty tomb was a matter of narrative and not of history. Explaining that is a post for another day, suffice to say here that the smoke of Christianity is well explained by the fire of conviction that the tomb was empty, Jesus' body was raised to a new form of life and his appearances to those first witnesses were not appearances of a ghost.)
Expanding Mark's Bare Narrative with Narratives of Appearances
Now the obvious move to make if one were to expand Mark's account, with a nod to the traditional narrative which Paul inherited, would be to describe some appearances of the risen Jesus. Matthew, Luke and John do this. Not one of those appearances is exactly like the other (and we need to say something about that in a moment).
There are two other obvious moves to make. One is to dispel some counter-narratives.
Matthew does this by dealing to a rumour that the body of Jesus was stolen.
Luke does this by emphasising Jesus eating and drinking, presumably to dispel murmurs that Jesus didn't "really" rise - it was just a ghost which people were experiencing. (There is an element of this emphasis in John's story about Jesus and Thomas, though John's greater point is that it is possible to believe in the risen Jesus without direct experience of the risen Jesus.)
Thus we find further differences at work in these accounts.
Another obvious move to make is to provide a concluding scene in which the followers of Jesus are commissioned to continue his ministry and mission in the world. Matthew and Luke both do this as the very last part of their respective gospels (and somewhat disturbingly place this scene in different locations and report different words).
John provides a commissioning scene but it is not the last part of his gospel (though intriguingly it is the last part of the resurrection day). It hardly needs saying but John's commissioning scene involves different words to Matthew and Luke's respective commissioning scenes and adds in a bestowing of the Spirit. Yet more difference.
We can look at such differences from a slightly different perspective. Let's compare Matthew and Mark: Matthew hardly expands on Mark's concise account in Mark 16:1-8. His differences with Mark are: the women do encounter the risen Jesus; there is a brief story which puts paid to the idea that the body of Jesus was stolen; and there is an encounter between Jesus and the disciples (as anticipated by Mark's account) when he commissions them in Galilee for global mission.
Luke, as a fellow user of Mark as a source, is very different to Mark and has nothing in common with Matthew's expansion of Mark save for a commissioning scene as the very last part of his Gospel.
With respect to Mark, Luke both improves Mark (by clarifying that the women did tell others about the empty tomb) and alters Mark to suit a Lukan agenda which appears to include a robust portrayal of the risen Jesus as one who has been bodily raised to a new life. Not only is the tomb empty but Jesus eats and drinks.
Expansive Expansions: Luke and John
But there is more to the Lukan agenda than providing a robust portrayal if the "nature" of the risen Jesus. First, Luke wants everything about the resurrection of Jesus focused on Jerusalem. Jesus does not go to Galilee and, somewhat glaringly, Mark's "he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there he will see you, just as he told you" (16:7) becomes Luke's "Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee ..." (24:6). Jerusalem (albeit on its outskirts) is where the commissioning takes place (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-12) and thus Luke's narrative of the mission of the apostles will be from one capital to another, from Jerusalem to Rome rather than from an obscure region, Galilee to the centre of the Empire.
Secondly, Luke is happy to upend Mark's "barebones" or minimalist detail approach to his resurrection narrative, in contrast to Matthew's (actually) very light extension of Mark, by telling a sumptuous, long, theologically dense/thick/rich story of an encounter between two disciples and the risen Jesus. This is the "Road to Emmaus" story, Luke 24:13-35. It is for another occasion to wax eloquent on the wonderful aspects of this story, suffice to say here that Luke not only reports this extensive encounter, he also develops this encounter so that it becomes a model for post Ascension Christian life: the risen Jesus is encountered in the exposition of the Scriptures and in the breaking of bread together. (For even an other occasion, this story is paradigmatic of worship based on the twinning of the ministry of the word and the ministry of the sacrament).
Reading Luke, in contrast to Mark and Matthew, prepares the way for reading John and reflecting on the differences between his resurrection narrative (or, we might even say, three narratives) and those of Mark, Matthew and Luke. John also knows how to tell beautiful, long theologically dense stories of Jesus and he doesn't stop when revealing to us the significance of the Resurrection.
First, what does John say that is similar (and different) to at least one of the three Synoptics? (This is broadly speaking - no attempt at minute detailed comparison).
- Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, seemingly alone (but two male disciples actually enter the tomb).
- Mary has an encounter with angels and with Jesus (but her dialogue with Jesus is different to that recorded in Matthew, though Jesus in both encounters directs the woman (women) to talk to the male disciples).
- On the evening of the first day of Resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples (but the dialogue with the disciples is largely different to that reported in Luke; then, because Thomas is missing (according to John), there is a "repeat encounter" a week later, unknown to the Synoptics). Within that first Sunday evening appearance is a commissioning scene (with words unknown to Matthew and Luke).
- Finally, John tells the story of a final encounter between Jesus and the disciples in Galilee (but Matthew and Mark know nothing of this narrated event, a fishing expedition and a barbecue breakfast).
Thus we see some significant continuity between John and the Synoptics:
- Like Matthew, John seemingly takes a cue from Mark and there is an appearance of the risen Jesus in Galilee;
- Like Luke, John takes time and trouble to offer (not one but) three elaborate narratives featuring encounters between Jesus and disciples (Mary, disciples & Thomas, Peter & the Beloved Disciple);
- Like Matthew and Luke, John has a scene in which Jesus commissions the disciples for future mission;
- Like Matthew (who deals to the claim that the body of Jesus was stolen) and Luke (who deals to the claim that the "risen Jesus" was merely the "ghost of Jesus"), John deals to some things: first, to those who think that "if only I could have been present when the risen Jesus was bodily present on earth" (the Thomas narrative); and, secondly, to those upping some kind of rivalry between the Petrine church and the Johannine church (the Great Catch of Fish epilogue in John 21).
Finally, to those beautifully, theologically dense narratives in John's Gospel. If Luke sets the standard with his Road to Emmaus, John keeps it up with his encounters between Jesus and Mary, Jesus and the disciples then Thomas in the upper room, then Jesus, Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Everyone's favourite resurrection narratives.
But what is John doing? We have no idea what basis in "history" he has for these narratives (e.g. there are no other witnesses to the dialogues between Jesus and his disciples in John 20 and 21; and where there is a chronological cross over, on the evening of the first Sunday of Resurrection, Luke 24:36-43 and John 20:19-23 have very little in common), but we see the John of developed dialogues between Jesus and others (e.g. Nicodemus, John 3; the Samaritan woman, John 4; Mary, Martha and the disciples re Lazarus' death, John 11) doing what he does so well: using dialogue within narrative to make profound theological points.
John is doing at the end of his Gospel what he does at the beginning and in the middle: he presents, or better, reveals the truth about Jesus, the one who lives, has always been alive since before time, and for a season dwelt among us as a fellow human being in whom the Logos made his home. We cannot peel away a husk of theology here in order to determine the seed of history. The meaning of Jesus' life is inseparable from the story of his life and this is no less true in the final chapters of John's Gospel as in the remainder.
So then, why significant differences between the Gospels' resurrection narratives?
The differences arise, I suggest, because each Gospel writer uses the opportunity of the bare detail of the resurrection as an event in history (the body of Jesus is raised to a new form of life, the tomb is thus empty of the corpse of Jesus, there are appearances of the risen Jesus to his followers) to speak to their respective communities. (This is not to say that the Gospel writers have a vision for the reception of their Gospels which is narrowly limited to (say) their local church or (say) one people group such as early Jewish Christians. It is only to say that local concerns make their way into Gospels intended for a wide audience.)
Mark, it seems, is content that his community needs no further information about the risen Jesus: he lives in their midst, they know this. They may even have among them those who were witnesses to the risen Jesus.
Matthew, we may surmise, wants to record for posterity that the risen Jesus did make appearances, to two groups in particular, female disciples and to the Twelve; but also has a need to deal with a counter-explanation for the empty tomb, that the body of Jesus was stolen and hidden somewhere else.
While Luke appears to need to nail down that the risen Jesus is not a ghost (he eats and drinks) while testifying to the extraordinary nature of the risen Jesus (who comes and goes at will), his standout need as narrator is to confine all resurrection narratives to Jerusalem and it environs. It is not, in my view, at all clear why he so steadfastly eschews the possibility of depicting Jesus in Galilee. But there is no puzzle about Luke's use of the resurrection narratives to draw the story of Jesus to a rounded end. The Scriptures foretold his coming; the risen Jesus now teaches, twice, that the Scriptures are fulfilled.
John places the two most important disciples - Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple - in his Gospel near the beginning of his resurrection narratives and they are back at the end. Is John saying something about two great streams of primitive Christianity, the Petrine and Johannine churches? (And if he is, what is he saying? That they are both important? That contrary to the view the Petrine is most important, the Johannine church is as important?). Nevertheless Mary Magdalene is highly honoured: she has the only one-to-one encounter with the risen Jesus. Through each of the encounters John draws his gospel to a close: salvation comes to those who believe in Jesus the Son of God and follow him. All may believe, whether readers of this Gospel at the end of the first century or those who were privileged to have personal encounters with Jesus when he dwelt on earth (before and after his death).
There are differences across the four Gospels (and the Pauline account I have barely touched on, 1 Corinthians 15) but they are resolutely united: Jesus rose from the dead.
In closing we might make this observation: are the differences between the Gospels at their endings greater than the differences at their beginnings?
*Addendum: why I think this assumption re John’s knowledge of the Synoptics is reasonable.
John’s Gospel has this outline:
Introduction (John 1, very intriguingly, has within it all the important titles for Jesus found in the Synoptics) (There is no birth narrative, unlike Matthew/Luke) (Including Baptism of Jesus, though here is it presumed and not recounted, unlike the Synoptics).
Sign 1: Wedding at Cana (not in Synoptics, but they have material about old/new wine; weddings)
Sign 2: Cleansing of the Temple [this is controversial as one of the signs but has been argued]
Sign 3: Healing of an official’s young male son/servant (similarity to healing of centurion’s servant in Matthew/Luke)
Sign 4: Healing a Lame Man on a Sabbath
Sign 5: Feeding the Five Thousand (and, some, walking on water; others, this is a separate sign)
Sign 6: Healing a Blind Man
Sign 7: Raising Lazarus from the Dead (only John’s Gospel) (but this incident is critical to John’s explanation of why the authorities decided to have Jesus’ killed. Thus it is intriguing that the Synoptics’ key “late” such incident, the Cleansing of the Temple, is not replaced by John, just displaced (see above).
Followed by the Entry of Jesus to Jerusalem, Last Supper, Betrayal, Arrest, Trials, Sentencing, Crucifixion, Burial, Resurrection.
If the bulk of John’s Gospel was thus and so, it would read more like a slimmed down Synoptic Gospel than a different Gospel to the Synoptics. But the bulking out of this outline is in the Johannine discourses and dialogues, which have a very different flavour to the Synoptics when they report to us the sayings, teachings and conversations of Jesus.