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Are There Contradictions in the Resurrection Accounts?

This week’s question comes from Uche in London. He writes, “The post resurrection appearances in the Gospels appear to be contradictory. Luke implies that Jesus only appeared in Jerusalem, Matthew, Mark, and John imply that he appeared in Galilee. How do you understand the contradiction?” Let’s look at each of the accounts in turn to unravel this mystery. 

Matthew’s account is found in chapter 28. There we find the two Marys coming to the tomb and an angel appears to the them. The angel tells them to take a message to the disciples that Jesus is risen and that he would meet them in Galilee (28.7). The eleven find Jesus there and worship him (28.17). The account ends with verses 18-20 as Jesus gives final instructions.

Matthew’s version seems to take place exclusively in Galilee, but there are several alternatives. For one, the trip from Jerusalem to Galilee took several days, so the disciples would not have set out on Sunday afternoon across the dangerous, unpatrolled roads to Galilee. Thus the appearance of Jesus to the disciples in Jerusalem as reported in the other gospels in certainly possible during the intervening time. Another thought is that Matthew’s version leaves open the possibility of further appearances, since Jesus does not ascend, as he does in other accounts.

Next, we turn to Mark’s account in Mark 16. Scholars have found that the oldest manuscripts end at verse 8. In this post resurrection account, an angel appears to a group of women that includes the two Marys and Salome (1-5). The angel instructs them to go tell his disciples and Peter that Jesus will meet them in Galilee (7). The account ends with the women fleeing from the tomb and telling no one at all because they were frightened (8). 

In the longer ending of Mark, Jesus appears to Mary and she tells the disciples, but they don’t believe her (9-11). Later he appeared to two others as they walked in the country. They too report their experience, but the disciples again refuse to believe (12-13). Later, Jesus appears to the eleven and rebukes them for their lack of faith and refusal to believe their associates (14). Then he gave his final instructions and ascends into heaven (15-20). 

In Mark’s case it seems that Jesus may have appeared to the disciples in both Galilee and Jerusalem, though he does not specify a location of any of the appearances. The appearance to Mary is assumed to be in the garden, but the text doesn’t really say. The road is unidentified, as is the disciple’s location when Jesus appears to them. But in verse 7 Jesus instructs the disciples to go to Galilee and there is no good reason to doubt that they were obedient.

Next we’ll look at John. In John 20, Mary goes to the tomb, but discovers it empty (1-2). She reports this to the disciples and Peter and John investigate and see the tomb empty as Mary had reported. Mary remains in the garden and Jesus appears to her (14-16). On Sunday evening, Jesus appears to all the disciples except Thomas, apparently in Jerusalem, though the location is not specifically mentioned (19). One week later, Jesus appears “in the house again” (26), this time to all the disciples. The assumption remains that this in Jerusalem, but the text is actually silent on the location. Then in chapter 21 Jesus appears to the disciples while they are fishing in Galilee. The resurrection account ends with Jesus giving a final teaching to Peter about Jesus’ return (20-22). John’s account contains resurrection appearances in Galilee and there’s an assumption that there are appearances in Jerusalem, but again the text is not specific.

Finally, there’s Luke chapter 24. Luke is certainly the most scholarly of the gospel writers and he is very specific about the resurrection appearance locations. There is no mention of Mary’s encounter with Jesus, but Cleopas and a companion were walking on the road to Emmaus Sunday afternoon and encountered Jesus on their walk (13-31). They returned to Jerusalem and “found the eleven.” They recounted their experience and Jesus appeared there with them (36). Jesus instructed them in a number of things and then “when he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany” (50) he ascended into heaven (51). This is where the account ends.

Except it really isn’t where the account ends. Luke is the author of the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. The appearances in Luke takes place on a single day in the vicinity of Jerusalem. However, in Acts 1.3 we read that Jesus appeared to the disciples over a period of forty days. In other words, the 24th chapter of Luke is only the beginning of the end. Jesus could have joined the disciples as the fished in Galilee any number of times during that period.

So, are the accounts contradictory? It doesn’t really seem so. None of the accounts specifically rules out Jesus’ appearances in Jerusalem nor in Galilee, so we’re left with the assumption that the accounts must be valid reports from varying viewpoints, but not contradicts the others.

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