Making Sense of the Resurrection Stories

Excerpt from Chapter 15 of Beyond Shallow Faith, copyright 2018, 2019

The authors of the New Testament agree that Jesus was crucified by the Romans and raised from death several days later. Yet the stories they tell about his post-resurrection appearances seem, at first glance, confusing and even conflicting. In Luke and Acts, everything occurs in or near Jerusalem, but Matthew and John describe events in Galilee as well. What we have of Mark’s original gospel stops at Mark 16:8, before the risen Jesus even appears.[1] We also have a brief passage in 1 Corinthians in which Paul recounts what he learned about Jesus’ resurrection appearances.

Mark was probably not an eyewitness to any of these events. Early Christian writers say that he was Peter’s interpreter and based his gospel on what he heard Peter say. Luke and Paul were certainly not eyewitnesses, since they came to the faith well after Jesus’ ascension. Luke and Paul both candidly admitted that they were reporting what people had told them—in Luke’s case, after “having investigated everything carefully from the beginning.” (Luke 1:3)[2]

The author of John’s gospel tells us that he was an eyewitness,[3] and early Christian writers say that the gospels of Matthew and John were written by the two apostles who bore those names. If true, then both were eyewitnesses to some, but not all, of what they describe. Even those two apostles had to rely on other witnesses’ accounts for some details, such as what the women discovered at the empty tomb.

The purpose of this chapter is to reconcile these different accounts and set forth what actually happened—at least as far as we can determine. As we do so, please keep in mind that different people perceive events differently, depending upon their perspective and their unconscious biases, and when they recount what occurred they often remember or emphasize different aspects of the event. If you doubt this, just listen to a Democrat, a Republican, and an Independent describe the same political event, or the same politician.            

As I stated in the Preface, my starting point in biblical interpretation is that the New Testament writers were honestly reporting what they knew or believed to be true. But to find the truth, we must be prepared to piece together their different accounts, much like the testimony of witnesses in a courtroom, each of whom knows or tells only a portion of the whole. . . .

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[1]. Mark 16:9-20 is not part of the earliest manuscripts we have of Mark’s gospel. Assuming the original gospel contained something after Mark 16:8, those additional verses have been lost to history.

[2]. For Paul, see 1 Corinthians 15:3.

[3]. See John 21:24.