My previous post began an attempt to look at the historicity of the resurrection, or at least to weigh the evidence for it. I considered the women visiting the tomb (about whom Paul seems to know nothing), and discussed the inconsistencies, and whether these documents could be considered extraordinary evidence. In this post I will look at the appearances and the ascension.
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I remind you again that Mark was the first of the gospels to be written, followed by Matthew and Luke which were both written with a copy of Mark in front of then (and another document Q, which is not extant). The author of Luke also wrote Acts. John was written much later. There is no evidence outside of the bible for the resurrection. I’ve broken this discussion into two sections.
- The women visit the tomb – dealt with in the previous post
- The appearance and ascension – discussed below
The appearances and ascension
The earliest manuscripts of Mark stop at 16:8, when the women are afraid and say nothing to anyone. Mark 16:9:20 then describes Jesus rising early (from where and witnessed by whom? – it’s hard to imagine Jesus relating this banal fact given the solemnity of the rest) and appearing to Mary Magdalene (from whom he cast seven demons, as a casual aside). She tells those who were with him, who don’t believe. Jesus then appears “in a different form” to two of them in the country. They report it and are again not believed. Later Jesus appears to the Eleven (not Paul’s Twelve, note) and rebukes them for their lack of faith. He sends them out, saying that the signs accompanying those who believe will include picking up snakes with their hands and drinking deadly poison. Then he is taken up into heaven and seated at the right hand of God. It doesn’t really say where all this happened, and there’s no indication that Jesus is physical: there’s no eating or touching, and his appearances are all somewhat sudden; he is simply taken up into heaven.
Matthew 28:9 has Jesus meeting the women and telling them to go to Galilee (which is what the angels just told them) – in this case they clasp his feet and worship him. Then 28:16-20 has the eleven (not twelve) go to a mountain in Galilee. When they see him, they worshiped him, but some doubt. He gives them the great commission and the book ends. 28:17 says “When they saw him”, and 28:18 has Jesus arriving, so it’s not clear whether Jesus was waiting for them or came later. It is difficult to describe the scene with any accuracy from the verses.
Luke 24:13-53 has a much longer expansion. Two of them are walking seven miles from Jerusalem, and are met by Jesus but don’t recognize him. Jesus pretends he doesn’t know what’s going on (v19), and so they explain it to him briefly. Jesus then explains to them “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself”. They invite Jesus in with them, and at the table Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks and breaks it. At that point they recognize him and he disappears. They immediately return to Jerusalem and find the Eleven and “those with them” who are already talking about Jesus appearing to Simon (though no appearance is recorded (see 24:12)). The two tell their tale, and suddenly Jesus is among them. At first they think it’s a ghost, but he shows them his hands and feet (no wound in the side, of course – that only happens in John) and eats some fish. He then tells them to stay in the city until they have been clothed with power from on high. He then takes them out near Bethany (a village near Jerusalem, we suppose) and is taken up into heaven. It seems that this all happens on the resurrection day: v13 states “that same day”; v33 “returned at once”; v36 “[w]hile they were still talking”. There’s no indication of any time passing between v49 and v50, or that there were any appearances in Galilee. In fact, they are explicitly told to stay in Jerusalem from when Jesus meets them (clearly on the day of his resurrection) until they “have been clothed with power from on high” (v49).
Acts 1 (by the same author as Luke), begins by saying that his previous book (Luke) told them all about Jesus until the day he was taken up to heaven. It then adds that he was actually with them for forty days giving “convincing proofs that he was alive” (which appears to be new information since writing Luke, and embraced readily since a couple of appearances could be hallucinations). It does, however, re-iterate that they are not to leave Jerusalem. It also adds a little more to the ascension story, with an angelic visitation while the men are looking into the sky (Acts 1:10-11).
John has two stories back to back, chapter 20 which has a very final sounding last couple of verses, followed by chapter 21, which appears to be a later addition, and an attempt to reconcile the Jerusalem/Galilee discrepancy introduced by Luke and Matthew.
John 20: After Mary Magdalene’s visit, but that same day, Jesus appears to the disciples who were locked in a room and shows them his hands and side (only John records the wound to the side). He breathes on them and says “Receive (the) Holy Spirit.” Eight days later, Jesus again appears in a locked room, this time with Thomas present (he’d missed the first visit). Thomas then believes, and Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” It then states that Jesus did many other signs and the chapter ends.
John 21 has seven disciples fishing in the Sea of Tiberias (or Sea of Galilee), and Jesus appearing to them, but not being recognized. He tells them to cast out their nets on the other side and suddenly they catch 153 fish. It says that this is the third time that Jesus appeared to his disciples. After breakfast, Jesus reinstates Peter, and then the author is at pains to clarify that Jesus didn’t say that the author wouldn’t die until the second coming. The chapter ends with another vague statement about many other things that Jesus did.
Again a summary of all this is quite impossible. The different accounts are quite irreconcilable. Mark has a late addition with Jesus appearing to two unspecified people, and then at a table, presumably in Galilee and then ascending. Matthew has the eleven on a mountain in Galilee, with no ascension. Luke has him appearing to the two near Jerusalem and then appearing through a locked door to the eleven in Jerusalem. Jesus gives strict instructions not to leave Jerusalem, and ascends apparently on the day of his resurrection. Acts (by the same author) has the ascension 40 days later, but also in Jerusalem. John has them in Jerusalem twice (8 days apart) and then in a boat in Galilee. These are all supposed to be eyewitness accounts, from the same group of witnesses who experienced the same thing at the same time.
So Mark has no resurrection appearances in the original, and has some known untruths (such as the drinking of poison) in the additions, which also have no indication of physicality. Mark is also edited by Matthew and Luke, meaning that they also don’t believe that Mark is a completely reliable source. Matthew and Luke have appearances in Galilee and Jerusalem respectively. Luke specifically states that the disciples are not to leave Jerusalem. Luke implies (20:22-24) that the women did not see Jesus; Mark, Matthew and John say they did. Matthew is alone in all scripture in his improbable accounts of
the hanging of Judas (27:1-10, cf Acts 1:18-20);
Pilate’s wife’s dream and his hand washing (27:19-24);
the tearing of the curtain and the raising of “many holy people who had died” (27:51-53); and of the guards (27:62-66; 28:11-15). John clumsily uses the Miraculous Draught of Fishes (related in Luke 5:1-11 at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry), as a post-resurrection appearance in Galilee – as though the disciples after all that happened in John 20, simply gave up and went back to their fishing. Can all this really be considered evidence in any meaningful sense?
We have the ‘mystery’ of Jesus’s physicality. He is able to appear and disappear at will, even into locked rooms. He can sometimes be touched and sometimes not. He is often not recognized, even by those who knew him well. He ascends into heaven, which is presumably (now) understood to be done for symbolic reasons, but actually is just hard to understand – would God really just pretend that heaven is above the clouds to play into the preconceptions of people at the time? I guess you could wrap some nice sounding, theological words around that (and I’m sure people have!) to make it work, but it does seem oddly deceptive. But the essential point is that, once again, we have an increasing level of detail over time, papering over issues that may have existed in earlier accounts. Mark and Paul have nothing that can’t be dismissed as a ghost or hallucination. Matthew has the women clasping his feet, but nothing else. Luke still has some of the sudden appearances and disappearances, but is also at pains to include physical touching and eating. By the time John is written, Jesus is cooking the fish on a beach in Galilee. Is it not possible that these kinds of legends grow from conjecture to fact as a response to the objection that the resurrection experience may just have been an hallucination?
We have no disinterested parties attesting to any of this (Acts 10:40-41). We have the theme of doubt being a sign of weakness, while faith without sight is held up as a great virtue, with the obvious implication for the reader. Yet the disciples are constantly doubting the claims of the other witnesses until they get to see for themselves. If those who knew the witnesses best don’t believe them, it’s unclear why we should be held to a different standard. I know that different witnesses can give different accounts, but you would expect the essentials to be the same. To give an analogy (adapted from CJDTS): suppose I lined up eleven people and then asked four other people to ask them about an event and report back. Then the four returned with a story of a car crash which occurred either in New York or New Haven. There’s no other evidence, and they report that they don’t recognize the driver at first despite talking to him at length and knowing him well. You might be excused for doubting that any crash had occurred at all.