Evidence for the Resurrection

bertram_kruis_grtWhen considering the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, we need to separate two issues. First, what are the historical facts that require an explanation? And, second, what is the best, most plausible, explanation for those facts?

What are the facts to consider in relation to the resurrection?

First, Jesus died on the cross, a victim of Roman execution as a common criminal. The Romans were very experienced at this, and knew how to check that someone was dead. If they had not died soon enough, then they broke the legs of the victim who would then suffocate, unable lift themselves up on their legs to take a breath. In John’s gospel, this is recording in some detail.

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. (John 19.31–34)

What is fascinating about this account is that the writer sees the water and blood as having symbolic significance; it proves that Jesus promises, of giving ‘living water’ to those who believe (John 4.10) and that ‘living water will come from his side’ (John 7.38). We now see this as medical evidence of Jesus’ death, as the red blood cells and serum have separated after the heart has stopped beating—which John has quite inadvertently recorded.

Secondly, Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and influential member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish Council, who was also a secret follower of Jesus. This is attested in all four gospels, in slightly different ways (Matt 27.57, Mark 15.43, Luke 23.51, John 19.38). This would have been an odd thing to make up; if Joseph were invented, or Jesus not buried here, then it would have been an easy thing to refute. Given that the Council were hostile to the early Jesus movement, it would also be an unlikely invention.

Thirdly, on the Sunday morning the tomb was found to be empty. There are several striking things about this fact and the way that it is related in the gospel accounts.

First, the tomb was guarded by Jewish temple guards; in Matt 27.65 Pilate tells the Jews to post their own guard, and in Matt 28.11 the guards report back to the Jewish leaders. This was quite understandable; anyone who looked as though they might lead a rebellion against Roman rule could cause real trouble. Such a rebellion in 66–70 led to the destruction of the temple, and another in 136 led to the expulsion of all Jews from the land of Judea. Matt 28.11–15 recounts the bribing of the guard to say that Jesus’ disciples stole the body—but this is never subsequently brought up as an accusation, in NT or Jewish literature of the time. And if the disciples had gone to the wrong tomb, the Jewish leaders could simply have produced the body from the right tomb to end the movement.

Secondly, it is clear from the gospel accounts that, despite Jesus’ teaching, none of his followers expected to find anything other than his dead body in the tomb when they went to anoint it. This is not surprising; their expectation is that the dead would be raised at the end of the age (see John 11.24 for a typical expression of this), which would involve all of humanity. No-one expected an individual to be raised from the dead now. All the signs were that Jesus’ death meant the end of all their hopes (see Luke 24.19–21)

Thirdly, John’s account includes a curious note about the cloths that had been used to bind Jesus’ body in the customary way.

Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. (John 20.6–7)

AUFERSTapostelNot much is made of this, and it appears to be an allusion to the earlier account of Lazarus being brought back to life in John 11.44. But it is a sign of what had happened to the body; if it has been stolen, then there would be no grave clothes, or they would have been taken off and left together. The fact that the soudarion from Jesus’ head was separate from the othonion, the linen shroud for his body, meant something else must have happened. Each piece of material was still in the place that it would have been when wrapped around Jesus.

Fourthly, all the gospel accounts agree that women were the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb, and that they reported this to the male disciples. In a culture where women’s testimony was not accepted in court, this would have been a silly thing to have made up—their word counted for nothing.

In recounting all this, it is striking that the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb are quite different, each with their own perspective. In fact, their reports diverge in their details more than at any other point in their recounting of Jesus’ life. Despite this, they all agree on the core details: that women went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning; that the stone had been rolled away and the guard gone; that the tomb was empty; and that various of Jesus’ followers believed that they met him, bodily alive again. This is entirely consonant with the gospels being independent accounts based on different eyewitnesses to these events. (Note, for example, the mention of ‘Peter’ in Mark 16.7; there is a strong case for reading Mark’s gospel as based on Peter’s own testimony.) And there is now an overwhelming consensus amongst scholars that all four gospels were written in the lifetime of eyewitnesses, and widely circulated amongst the early Christian communities.

Lastly, it is also striking that none of the gospel accounts actually record the resurrection—they simply record the fact of the empty tomb. A legendary fabrication of the event would surely do something else—as in fact the Gospel of Peter, an invented account written in around 125, does in some detail.

Fourthly, there was a long list of eyewitnesses who believed they had met the bodily, risen Jesus, which Paul recounts in 1 Cor 15.3–8. Paul notes that this was ‘handed to him’ as an early statement of belief, and it is most likely that he received it from Peter three years after his conversion (Gal 1.18). (Note that Paul’s experience of meeting Jesus was quite different; his was visionary, whereas the earlier witnesses all believed that Jesus was bodily, since he ate and drank with them.) Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was written in the early 50s, just 20 years after Jesus’ death, and as he notes, most of the eyewitnesses were still alive.

And the remarkable thing about these people is that, whatever they experienced, it transformed them from a small, dispirited and disillusioned group to being the start of an extraordinary movement that, within a few decades, had a following across the civilised world of its time. This group became sufficiently important that, by AD 49, they seem to have caused Claudius to expel a good number of Jews from Rome, the capital of the Empire.

JesusTomb-1200x760This raises a wider question about the Jesus movement altogether: how do you explain the rise of this religious movement, following an otherwise unknown itinerant preacher from an obscure province on the edge of the Roman Empire? When you compare this with other religious movements, it is notable that Jesus lived a short life, never travelled far, never wrote anything, left a relatively small body of teaching, died young, was executed as a criminal, never held any political or military office, and never had a large following. No other religious or political movement had such unpromising and unlikely beginnings.

So those are the historical facts, which are well attested: Jesus died; he was buried; his tomb was found to be empty; and the small group of dispirited followers were transformed into the confident beginnings of a world-wide movement in a remarkably short time.

Alternative explanations either contradict well-established facts, or they cannot explain these phenomena. The only plausible explanation is that something quite extraordinary happened, and the notion that Jesus was raised back to life is the only one that fits these facts.

Here is Tom Wright on what difference the resurrection makes:

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30 thoughts on “Evidence for the Resurrection”

  1. As I’ve said here before, I don’t believe that historiography’s equipped to test miracle claims, since probability judgments require a stable frame of reference, & miracles, by definition, overturn that frame of reference.

    As for non-miraculous events like an empty tomb, quite a few biblical scholars (Crossan, Ehrman, Casey) consider it improbable, and others, like Sanders and Allison, allow that a good case against it can be made. I’ve yet to see Wright discount any confessional essential.

    Most interesting to me is why so many Christians seek to prove this, instead of accepting it on faith.

      • Hey David that links does not work :(. Could you kindly email me the link please. David AT SDPhotos.com.au It’s my personal and Biz email. Thanks

    • Hello James:

      My recently released text, The Resurrection: A Critical presents the reader a detailed and scholarly examination of Jesus’s purported physical, bodily resurrection. This text examines 120 contradictions and 217 speculations. It also includes a healthy 85 page bibliography.


      Michael J. Alter

  2. “…probability judgments require a stable frame of reference, & miracles, by definition, overturn that frame of reference.”

    Nonsense. You’re back with Hume’s tired old shibboleths. If you believe in God, try entering that into your equations. If you don’t, nothing will convince you. Read Plantinga.

    “As for non-miraculous events like an empty tomb, quite a few biblical scholars (Crossan, Ehrman, Casey) consider it improbable”

    And? What do you expect from agnostics like these three? Crossan denies Jesus was buried in Joseph’s tomb; he thinks Jesus’ body was thrown in a shallow grave and eaten by dogs. All of this is standard old liberal historiography of the Gospels.

    “and others, like Sanders and Allison, allow that a good case against it can be made.”
    No one is exempt his presuppostions about the way the world is, not even the liberal protestant.

    “Most interesting to me is why so many Christians seek to prove this, instead of accepting it on faith.”
    I suspect you already know the answer to this. Go back and read 1 Corinthians 15.1-11. “If Christ is not risen, your *faith* is in vain and you are still in your sins.’ Our faith is based on history, not wishing.

    • Your faith is based on history? And your history is based on the bible, a non historical fiction book? Way to go mate…

  3. My reading of the NT is that the resurrection although central to faith, is only indirectly responsible for the growth of the church. After all, the apostles were still scared and holed up much of the time. Plus, Jesus told them to wait until the Pentecost Festival – and the power from on high came on them.

    Then the NT records times of fast and not so fast growth, with a warts and all church. Christians tend to explain the ‘rapid growth’ of the church due to the supernatural element of the message, together with remarkable love. The sociological data does seem to back up the love and caring particularly in times of plagues. From memory, when a plague was really bad, killing 90% – in Christian cared for areas, it was around 70%. Three times the survival rate. Apparently, with no medical protection (unlike nurses in Ebola areas today – who are still remarkable in my opinion) Christians used to stay and care, even though about seven out of ten of them died.

    An atheist might question the supernatural veracity of the NT by questioning the resulting church. Was it ever verifiably supernatural? Did it do miraculous healing after the NT was written? Does it still do miraculous healing which can be verified medically?

    My limited experience of the charismatic leaning church in the UK, is that in some churches healing is expected listening to the preachers – but that mainly, folk are prayed for sensitively – and that’s it. Sometimes a miracle is claimed but not verified. I have asked several leaders if they have ever seen a physical miracle that’s verifiable. So far, one has seen one and another seen two. I’ve come across many many more who claim healing but it turns out to be within normal expectations of medical intervention.

    So what has the church to say about lack of supernatural power today?

    • Hi Jim, it would be worth your while to at least grab a copy of Craig Keener’s two volume work on miracles. He makes a good case for their plausibility both in the NT period and today. He offers a good argument against Hume too. May not be a slam dunk argument but deserves serious consideration.

      • Thanks David
        I bought the two volume set and read through it all.

        Lots of evidence for miracles. But as I inferred, not very many in each Christians experience. A few go a long way though! In other words, it must be encouraging for somebody to be healed/witness one true miracle, even if they only see that one.

        In my view, a shame that things are over reported – which I think Craig agrees with.

  4. Actually Josephus wrote that Pilate put Jesus to death on the cross and Josephus wasn’t even a Christian so his is one of the independent accounts.
    See Josephus, book 18, chapter 3 section 3. I haven’t got a copy of Tacitus here to check what is said in that, but really it is not only Christian accounts that confirm that the Roman military put Jesus to death on a cross contrary to Jewish traditions.

    I read today people who simple call the Bible hysterical and made up and yet there is both more evidence for Jesus than for Julius Caesar and independent non-Christian sources confirm the accounts.

  5. Ah, David, the infamous Ehrman-Craig debate, which culminated in WLC abandoning reason entirely and appealing to the Holy Spirit. Rarely has a mask slipped so utterly. Demagogic tricks like Craig’s insulting alliteration don’t explain how probability’s established when anything goes, anymore than does attempting to dazzle with arithmetic. Ehrman cleaned Craig’s clock.

    Brian, if anything goes, how do we know that Jesus wasn’t, say, reanimated by a time-traveler? We don’t. It’s not about personal belief, but what the evidence can support. Maybe Jesus was raised bodily, but if so, it must be believed on faith. As for whether Christianity can survive without a physical resurrection, I’d say it can, and on this, as on so much else, Paul was simply wrong.

    • James,

      Indignation over insulting alliteration aside, you’ve not explained that, instead of supplying an adequate naturalistic explanation of Craig’s four facts, Ehrman simply claims that the miraculous explanation would be, by definition, improbable and, ipso facto, historically improbable.

      Criag’s counter was that the probability is not simply measured against the background of prior naturalistic experience, it must also factor in the relative probability of a naturalistic explanation of the event itself.

      As Ehrman did, you’ve simply resorted to bluster and assertion that Paul was wrong without proof.

      Most of all, you’ve also succumbed to the fallacy of insisting on deduction (i.e. your time-traveller hypothesis), where induction is the normative process of historical reasoning. In that case, we might say that the Queen ‘could’ be an alien impostor.

      The issue is that, unlike resurrection, the time-traveller hypothesis not the most probable explanation of the evidence that is supported by the independently attested facts.

      • David, historiography doesn’t have standardized methods for evaluating miracles, and if it did, using an alternative wouldn’t automatically be fallacious.

        What Craig couldn’t answer with his formulaic Gish Gallup is how the probability of even the most improbable naturalistic event can be set against an event that, by definition, violates all norms of reality. In the debate, Ehrman illustrated this by concocting a scenario a good deal less out-there than time travel: Jesus’ body’s stolen by grave robbers subsequently ambushed and killed by a Roman patrol. Unlikely? Yes. More unlikely than a miracle? No.

        There are, in any case, no independently attested facts; there’s stories in Christian hagiography, written decades after the events in question. If there were independent references to a resurrection, we’d be at liberty to say, simply, that we don’t know what happened, and historiography should do just that.

        • James,

          Let’s consider just such an example of ‘an event that, by definition, violates all norms of reality’: an encounter with extra-terrestrial intelligence.

          According to the Drake equation, it would be a miracle if we found any. Yet, there was enough scientific consensus behind this probability to justify the commitment of millions of tax-payers money to the S.E.T.I. with little overt criticism.

          In contrast, it’s surprising how the resurrection that also violates naturalistic norms causes the rationalist penchant for deductive certainty to rear it’s ugly head.

          Inductive reasoning only seek is to supply strong evidence (and not absolute proof) in support of a conclusion. It may prompt us to displace our moral self-satisfaction with an attitude of self-examination. It still takes belief for a person to appropriate Christ’s words to their own daily moral dilemmas.

          As an example of this needless deductive scrutiny, the Pharisees took pains to emphasise alternative explanations for Jesus’ miracles. They claimed it was only a coincidence by which God’s miracle of healing a man born blind was being attributed to Jesus. In another instance, they attributed Jesus’ power to expel demons to Satan.

          As we both know, they persisted in demanding far more impressive and incontrovertible evidence than Jesus had already demonstrated. They wanted something considerably more representative (to them) of divine intervention, like a sign from heaven.

          Their desire for incontrovertible evidence was born of a self-serving reluctance, rather than a genuine interest in absolute proof. Despite their rationalist misgivings, they happily exercised moral certainty in routinely dismissing Christ’s scriptural criticisms of their own framework of ethical reasoning. And we see that selfsame hypocritically defiant moral certainty today.

          The irony here is that, in one breath, you encourage us to abandon the inductive approach in favour of what you call ‘belief’, while, in the next, you laud Ehrman, who amply demonstrates that the end-result of that approach is unbelief.

          • David, I’m not demanding “incontrovertible evidence,” I’m saying that historiography is categorically incapable of assessing miracle claims, borne out by the fact that it only arises in the context of apologetics.

            Even if Drake is accurate (many dispute it), it’s a bad analogy, as contact wouldn’t be miraculous, merely (depending on several variables) unlikely.

            I encourage no-one to abandon the inductive approach: the same issues of probability apply to it as apply to everything else.

          • James,

            You assert that ‘even if Drake is accurate (many dispute it), it’s a bad analogy, as contact wouldn’t be miraculous, merely (depending on several variables) unlikely.’

            Fortunately, your friend, Ehrman, clarifies the miraculous by stating: ‘I’m just going to say that miracles are so highly improbable that they’re the least possible occurrence in any given instance. They violate the way nature naturally works. They are so highly improbable, their probability is infinitesimally remote, that we call them miracles. No one on the face of this Earth can walk on lukewarm water. What are the chances that one of us could do it? Well, none of us can, so let’s say the chances are one in ten billion. Well, suppose somebody can. Well, given the chances are one in ten billion, but, in fact, none of us can.’

            By comparison, on the basis of the Rare Earth hypothesis, Drake’s equation would sets the probability of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence at 8 x 10 power -20. Far less than one in ten billion. Of course, there are far more optimistic predictions that spurred on the likes of Carl Sagan et al.

            So, actually the analogy between the probability of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence and Ehrman’s description of the miraculous is quite valid.

            The only real difference is resorting to subjective distinctions that relegate the miracle of resurrection to outright impossibility: something that even Ehrman doesn’t do.

        • HI James, have you read and interacted with Mike Licona’s massive study on the resurrection taking into account the specific issues raised by historiography. He addresses the particular questions you raise.

  6. Dear Ian,

    Thanks very much for this blog, which helps people like me to plug into a discussion on the resurrection.

    One question strikes me in relation to the responses? What is the relative place of historical proof or fact in the resurrection and miracle? And a subsidiary question which resurrection appearance best illustrates the significance of the resurrection, thus most substantially directing our search for continuing answers.

    First of all, I reject the idea that historiography is not equipped to test miracle claims. What stable frame of reference is referred to by James Byron. NONE can be found in this life alone since death awaits all, and so Wright’s personal example is a very good one.

    Faith and facts work together in all disciplines. e.g. a scientist is directed by his theories etc. However, I wonder whether we are still rather more caught up in the Enlightenment than we care to admit. The crafty David Hume was accurate to attack miracles as a central tenet of Christianity, and systematically undermine it in western thinking. The devil knows that Christianity without miracles is no such thing.

    In reading Wright I have found him to be rather too tied to historiographical method. As such one line of proof is envisaged- one that is the line of history! However, whilst the historical line of proof is necessary, it needs to be wedded to the miraculous proofs of the resurrection, which is a fundamental aspect of their reality. Thus, I believe philosophy also needs to be engaged.

    But the frame is biblical. This verse is great- full of miracle- and yet with a very definite historical focus. Acts 4 v.33 ‘With great power the apostles continued to testify of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the dead’. Miracles and power. There is no getting round them. They are in history and Jesus died so they would testify to him and only to him. And so he would receive glory is every conceivable discipline of human enquiry! Let it roll on!

  7. Hi Ian,

    I always look at the flurry of “evidence for the resurrection” posts around Easter time with interest. When I was at college, studying apologetics I came across this: “The impropriety of evidentially arguing for the resurrection”. http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pa003.htm

    I’m just curious to know what you make of it?

    I’ve spent a good deal of time discussing the resurrection online with atheists, and I don’t think I have ever once convinced anybody. When I read that article, and other things from the presuppositional school of apologetics, it does make sense of my experience. When you argue from historical evidence, you are essentially conceding ground to the skeptic that rational/historical inquiry is the way to the truth, whereas as that article points out the root of unbelief is spiritual and not from a lack of facts.

    When I used to discuss things with atheists I used to find it a very frustrating experience – everything is contestable, and I used to have to end up saying things like ‘well, the evidence probably points in this direction…’ And so on. From within their own worldview, it does make a kind of sense not to believe in the resurrection.

    I’m sure not everyone falls into the typical online atheist stereotype – there are probably many who would respond to an evidence based approach – but I think it’s hard to find a way which does that while still acknowledging that the roots of unbelief are spiritual.

    Apologies if this comes across as critical – not intended to, just some issues I’ve been thinking about over the last few years!

    • Phill, this is exactly the approach I’d like to see more of, arguing for religious events in religious terms. (Not all belivers share those terms, of course; liberal Christianity would see no contradiction between reason and evidence.)

      In his appeal to the Holy Spirit at the close of his debate with Ehrman, William Lane Craig let slip that he thought in these terms, and all his appeals to evidence are just a means to an end. It’d be better if he openly made his care like this. So long as he and those like him frame positions rooted in one mindset in the vocabulary of another, we’ll just talk past one another.

      • James,

        No doubt, that approach might even make the case among liberals to promote yet another ‘two integrities’, whereby a faith organisation, like the church, would be expected to fund provision for a safe space in which ‘death of God’ theological views can mutually flourish alongside the apostolic faith.

        The trouble is that liberal church-goers would never put enough resource behind such an idea and conservative church-goers really aren’t interested in fringe causes. So, apart from it’s high-brow philosophical appeal, I doubt that there will ever be sufficient political will for your aspiration to succeed.

        Evangelical Christians are not obsessed on winning over rationalists with cold logic. We are concerned when they misrepresent the Christian faith as blind misguided superstitious mumbo-jumbo.

        • As they don’t hold to authoritarianism or magical sacramentalism, I don’t think liberals are that interested in “two integrities,” David, although they may of course be pushed into one by parties who are so concerned.

          Theological liberalism may indeed be a victim of its own success, as many who would’ve been liberals in previous lives are now straight-up atheists. Some conservatives may of course welcome the clarity.

      • Hi James,

        Thanks – it’s good to see agreement from your perspective!

        When you say ‘liberal Christianity would see no contradiction between reason and evidence’, do you mean reason/evidence and faith? I would also say the same from a conservative point of view, with the caveat that the Fall has affected our capacity to reason. There is no contradiction between reason and faith, but we do not always reason correctly – which is also why we need revelation.

        I think an evidence based approach does buy into the myth that there is some neutral ground to stand on upon which we can both stand to assess the truth claims of religion. I would say rather that there is no neutral ground, there is no such thing as an objective fact which can be assessed independently of worldview.

        I’m not saying, by the way, that I think the evidence doesn’t support the resurrection – just that one’s worldview will determine how one interprets the evidence.

        • Phill, by no contradiction between reason and evidence, I meant we don’t have to defer to miracle claims. You could also frame it as reason/faith, yes. 🙂

          We all have biases, but we can counter them, and evidence exists independently of us. I don’t believe in a post modernist tyranny of subjectivity, although it’s interesting to note that many conservatives do!

          I accept that the “Fall = corrupted reason” argument is internally consistent, and underpins much evangelical and conservative thinking, which is why I wish it was made openly more often.

  8. Phil, You make biblical revelation sound like an also ran amidst corrupted human reason. And James is very happy to agree with you on that score. I think you misunderstand the relationship between reason and revelation. It is ultimately reasonable, rather than reasonable to the convinced sceptic like James. Nothing is reasonable to those who have abandoned it, and those who stop believing in God will believe in anything. I would say that looking for a spirituality without presenting the evidence is a lost cause. I refer any reader to the original post which is about the EVIDENCE for the resurrection. My point is that there are different types of evidence, miracles and reason that ultimately have their source in a single God and are most uniquely presented by the resurrection. My objection would be to physicalism and a weddedness to certain types of proofs, rather than evidence, which is a very sound reality. There has been abundant evidence provided in this blog for those who are really interested to respond, especially perhaps in the responses from David. The impropriety only lies in not holding to an evidential framework for the resurrection. AMEN.

    • Hi Nicholas,

      I’m sorry if I made it sound like revelation is an ‘also-ran’. I do agree with you that evidence for the resurrection is ultimately reasonable. However, as I do think there is a danger when presenting such evidence for the resurrection that we concede to the sceptics that this is the correct way of determining whether God exists or not – and I don’t agree to those terms. I would say rather that we all know and live as if God exists (as truth suppressers, Rom 1), and so it makes sense to set evidence within that framework. Tim Keller is a prime example of this kind of apologetics. I’m sorry if this doesn’t make much sense, typing this in a rush!


  9. Matthew is the only Gospel that mentions guards at the tomb. John’s Gospel says nothing about guards. If John was an eyewitness, as Christians claim, isn’t that a pretty important detail to leave out of your story? The missing Roman guards in the Book of John raises an important issue. Christians often contend that it would have been impossible for anyone to have surreptitiously removed Jesus’ corpse from the tomb because there were guards posted at the tomb who would have prevented such an occurrence. Therefore, they argue, without any possibility for the body to have been quietly whisked away, the only other logical conclusion is that Jesus must have truly arisen from the dead. A stolen body hypothesis is impossible.

    This argument completely collapses in John’s account, however, because according to the fourth Gospel, this is precisely what Mary thought had occurred! Mary clearly didn’t feel as though the scenario of Jesus’ body being removed was unlikely. In fact, according to John, that was her only logical conclusion. Clearly, Matthew’s guards didn’t dissuade John’s Mary from concluding that someone had taken Jesus’ body because Roman guards do not exist in John’s story.

    To further compound the problem of the conflicting resurrection accounts, John’s Gospel continues to unfold with Mary returning to the tomb a second time, only to find two angels sitting inside the tomb. Mary is still unaware of any resurrection as she complains to the angels that someone had removed Jesus’ corpse. As far as John’s Mary is concerned, the only explanation for the missing body was that someone must have removed it, and she was determined to locate it.

    But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying12 , one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

    (John 20:11-13)

    Although in Matthew’s account the angel emphatically tells Mary about the resurrection (Matthew 28:5-7), in John’s Gospel the angels do not mention that anyone rose from the dead. The angels only ask Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary responds by inquiring whether the angels removed Jesus’ body. Then, Mary turns and sees Jesus standing before her, but mistakes him for the gardener. Mary is still completely unaware of any resurrection, and therefore asks the “gardener” if he was the one who carried away Jesus’ body. It is only then that Mary realizes that she was speaking to the resurrected Jesus.

    When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” which means Teacher.

    (John 20:14-16)

    It is at this final juncture of the narrative that the accounts of Matthew and John become hopelessly irreconcilable. The question every Christian must answer is the following: When Mary met Jesus for the first time after the resurrection, had the angel(s) already informed her that Jesus had arisen from the dead? According to Matthew, the angels did inform Mary of the resurrection, but in John’s account they did not. As we survey the divergent New Testament accounts of the resurrection, we see that we are not just looking at contradictory versions, we are reading two entirely different stories!

    • ‘This argument completely collapses in John’s account, however, because according to the fourth Gospel, this is precisely what Mary thought had occurred!’

      ‘According to Matthew, the angels did inform Mary of the resurrection, but in John’s account they did not.’

      Writing about Mary almost succumbing to the apostles’ blanket incredulity does not by itself make the case for the latter.

      John reported Mary as saying: ‘“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

      Hopelessly irreconcilable with the synoptic gospels, you say. And perhaps, if there was nothing else in John’s gospel to go on, we could accept your assertion.

      However, with respect to the disciples, St. John further explained that: ‘They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.’ (John 20:9) This gives a context for her words.

      So, it’s wrong to assume that when John reported Mary’s words: ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb’, that meant no more than her acceptance that Christ’s body was stolen.

      In fact, in the absence of seeing Jesus alive for herself before going to the apostles and in the face of relentless opposition from them to her account, Mary’s words to the ‘gardener’ reflect how much the apostles had undermined her faith in the angelic message.

      As Luke explained: ‘When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary , Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.’ (Luke 24:9 – 11)

      So, John was not collating every chronological detail, but he does mention their incredulous reaction to the relayed angelic message because it is instructive.

      So entrenched was the rejection of that announcement that the only part of Mary’s explanation that finally hit home, spurring him and Simon Peter from hopeless passivity to rush to the grave-site, was the thought that an even further indignities might have been perpetrated against Jesus’ corpse.

      Varying emphasis and thorough divergence are not the same thing. There no evidence that John’s gospel does the latter

  10. You said, ” And there is now an overwhelming consensus amongst scholars that all four gospels were written in the lifetime of eyewitnesses, and widely circulated amongst the early Christian communities.”

    I was not aware of this consensus. Do you have a source? Most scholars believe that the Gospels were written in the second half of the first century, from circa 70 CE to circa 90 CE. That in no way infers that any eyewitness to the crucifixion was still alive during this time period. Aren’t you simply making an assumption? It is possible that some eyewitnesses were alive in 70 AD and it is possible that they were all dead. We cannot know for sure. So it is possible that when the first Gospel, Mark, was written and published, all eyewitnesses to the crucifixion of Jesus were dead and therefore no one was alive who could “proof-read” the text for errors or embellishments. Isn’t that a possibility?


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