Now, just to be clear, the story I told in the preceding chapter wasn’t extracted from a secret gospel uncovered in a desert cave somewhere, but was simply a work of the imagination. However, it harmonizes with all four gospels, if we accept that the accounts of the Resurrection Story in each gospel differ because each author focused on different aspects and relied on a different subset of eyewitnesses.
The gospel writers weren’t trying to tell a detailed story of the resurrection and the characters involved. They weren’t trying to write fiction. If they were, they did a poor job. Instead, their aim was to report the events in a succinct manner.
Mark’s account of the resurrection is the shortest, and gives only a brief outline. In his version, the women see a young man clothed in white, sitting on the right side of where Jesus should have been. Only Mark’s version names Salome as one of the eyewitnesses. If she remained near the entrance to the tomb, maybe she only saw one of the men, so couldn’t confirm there was a second man in the tomb.
In the oldest manuscripts, Mark’s gospel ends by describing how the women felt, which was fear, and the result, which was to say nothing to anyone. The abrupt ending, if the earliest manuscripts are correct, asks a few unspoken questions of its readers: What happened next? And how do you respond to these events?
Matthew’s version of the Resurrection Story is the only one to mention that the angel who spoke to the women was also responsible for rolling the stone away. Assuming for a moment the event really happened, how did Matthew know this? Maybe he inferred it from the women’s testimony. However, another possibility is that one or more of the soldiers privately told him what had happened, even though, according to the account, they had been paid to tell a different story. If they really did see an angel open the tomb, perhaps one or two of them may have realized there are more important things in life than money. Maybe they even became Christians later.
Matthew is also kinder to the women than Mark. He only touches on their fear, and there is no indication that they said nothing to anyone. I would suggest this was an editorial decision on Matthew’s part, to move the narrative on. If the author intended his account to be serialized in Judea Today, it would perhaps be intriguing to have several chapters covering the time when the women said nothing to anybody.
Then again, what would the author write? They said nothing to anybody! I know this probably wouldn’t stop a determined journalist, but ultimately, the gospels are about Jesus and his ministry, not a biography of the disciples.
Matthew focuses on what gave the women the boost of courage they needed. According to his version, after they came out from the tomb, Jesus met them and told them to have no fear, but to report to his brothers so they may go to Galilee and see him there.1 In other words, the emphasis is on the idea that Jesus gave them the courage they needed to overcome their fear.
In Luke’s version the women see two men in shining garments, and from a comment later in the same chapter, it is clear the women thought they were angels.2 Luke introduces a new woman to the list of eyewitnesses: Joanna, whom he had earlier identified as the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward.3
If Matthew and Mark had been written earlier, Luke would have known that those gospels mentioned only one man or angel, with Mark saying the man was sitting on the right of where Jesus should have been. Luke names Mary the mother of James, as well as Joanna and Mary Magdalene as the eyewitnesses. These could have been his sources. As in my “Untold Story,” if the first two women were the ones who went deeper into the tomb and saw two men, perhaps Luke considered their testimonies to be more informative.
This would be the hallmark of a man who had “followed all things accurately from the start” as he claims. Not that the other two gospels were inaccurate. Matthew and Mark may have been aware that, say, Mary Magdalene said there were two men. But if the majority of women hadn’t gone very far into the tomb, and only saw the man on the right, perhaps Mark cautiously reported one man because all of the women agreed there was a man on the right, but not all of them saw the man on the left.
Luke’s version focuses on the statement made by the angels, reminding the women that Jesus said he would be executed and rise on the third day. Then the women remembered Jesus’ words, returned from the tomb, and reported those things to the others.
That the disciples “returned from the tomb” is perhaps also a hint that, as the first people to believe in the resurrected Jesus, they were formerly “dead” but now “alive” in a spiritual sense, just as Paul describes Christians as “alive” though they were formerly “dead” in their sins.4 This doesn’t cancel out the literal resurrection of Jesus, but simply adds an extra layer of meaning for the disciples to understand. Believing in Jesus meant returning from the tomb themselves, both in an immediate spiritual sense and also later, if necessary, through an actual resurrection from the dead.
John’s version of the Resurrection Story is different from the others in many ways. The only woman mentioned is Mary Magdalene, perhaps because she is the one who ran to him and Peter, assuming John is the other disciple mentioned, because John never actually mentions himself by name. Furthermore, Peter and John are the only apostles who ran to the tomb, based on Magdalene’s report about it being empty. Therefore, maybe John never got to hear the testimony of the other women when they first delivered it, which is perhaps why he left them out.
John is the only gospel writer to suggest that Mary Magdalene was on her own when she saw the angels. The other gospels simply group her with the other women. I think this was an editorial decision by Matthew, Mark and Luke. Mary essentially saw the same thing as the others, even if it was at a slightly different time, so there was no real need to place her separately. Her testimony was the same as the other women.
John simply gives us more details relating to the story as he recalled it. Mary Magdalene was on her own when she came to him and Peter, and then both apostles ran to the tomb. Mary must have followed them, because when the apostles went home, she remained there, and then saw what the other women saw.5
John’s version also mentions Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man and a secret disciple out of fear of the Jews; and Nicodemus, a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews who had previously come in the night to hear Jesus, and had now come bringing a mixture of scents.6 Nicodemus wasn’t a substitute for the women bringing their spices. He was simply another person who had come to pay respect to Jesus’ dead body.
However, John is perhaps also highlighting an interesting contrast. Here were two prominent men, one rich and one powerful, too afraid to be open disciples of Jesus, standing in contrast to one woman, Mary Magdalene, probably from a lowly background, who had boldly followed Jesus from the days of his early ministry, who had ministered to him from her belongings from Galilee onward, and who had ran to tell Peter and John about the empty tomb.
With my Untold Story, what I have demonstrated is that the differing accounts aren’t contradictory. Instead, they each tell a smaller subset of a larger story. When put together, the four versions paint an almost three-dimensional picture, reflecting the differing perspectives of the eyewitness testimonies each writer drew upon.
Now, there is another curious feature of the Resurrection Story that few people notice, even though it becomes obvious once it is pointed out. The women and the men see different things! According to Luke’s account, while the women were in the empty tomb wondering what had happened, they saw two men who were supposedly angels. However, nowhere are we told that the apostles saw them. Peter also went to the tomb, but he saw only the linen cloths.
John’s account makes this contrast even more explicit. Peter and John ran to the tomb, and saw only the linen cloths. After they went home, Mary Magdalene, who was the only disciple left at the tomb, stooped forward to take a look in, and she saw the two angels.
Why is there a difference between what the men saw and what the women saw? I would suggest there are two good reasons. First of all, a woman’s testimony wasn’t valued as much as a man’s at the time. If the angels really did appear only to the women, this left the men with the problem of how much credence to give to their testimonies. Luke admits that the other disciples thought the women were talking nonsense. But since their statements became part of the gospels, the underlying message for the Christian community was that a woman’s testimony was of equal value to that of a man.
The second reason is even more subtle. It effectively created two separate groups of witnesses. An important principle found in the Law given to Moses was that “at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be established.” 7 The women saw one thing, and the men saw another thing, but neither group actually contradicted the other, making both groups independent witnesses, and both corroborating the story that Jesus had been raised.
Indeed, this two or three witnesses principle can also be seen within each of the groups. Matthew focuses on Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses as being the two principle witnesses. These were perhaps the disciples he relied on to tell his version of the story. Mark’s account focuses on the two women mentioned by Matthew, and also Salome. Luke’s account names three women – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Joanna, along with “the rest of the women.” John only mentions Mary Magdalene, but to fulfill the two or three witnesses principle in a different way, he has Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus involved in the preparation of Jesus’ body, and both John and Peter are also eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and the linen cloths.
In my Untold Story I showed that the accounts imply two different groups of women in the tomb. One group was perhaps deep inside, and could see two men; the other was near the entrance, and could only see one man on the right side of where Jesus was supposed to be. These two groups become two witnesses.
The apostles are also split into two groups of at least two. Peter and John are the only apostles reported to have even gone directly to the tomb. The others didn’t believe the women’s testimony. There were also two disciples on the road to Emmaus, where they had an encounter with Jesus.
Even the fact that there are four gospels in the New Testament may reflect the two or three witnesses principle. Three of the gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – are quite similar, and for this reason they are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels, “synoptic” being connected to Latin and Greek words related to togetherness and sight. These three gospels form three witnesses because they are separate. But in another sense they make only one witness because they are quite similar. John’s gospel, which is quite different from the others, makes a second witness.
In other words, the subtle use of the two or three witnesses principle provides evidence that each gospel writer took this law seriously for their version of the Resurrection Story, and suggests that each version was based on the eyewitness testimony of at least two people. If this is true, it would be harder to simply make them up without a conspiracy; and if the apostles Matthew and John really were the authors of the gospels bearing their name, they were also eyewitnesses to many or even most of the events they were writing about.
Similarly, if Matthew’s story about the angel rolling the stone away is true, it would also have had at least two witnesses, since his account implies there were several soldiers guarding the tomb at the time.
Incidentally, why did the women not see the guards? According to Matthew, when the guards saw the angel, they “shook, and became like dead men.” 8 Dead people have a tendency to fall down to the ground. Presumably then, they fell so that they couldn’t be seen by the women, whose attention was focused on the opened tomb. However, the guards weren’t actually dead, and must have been able to see what was going on, because some of them later reported to the chief priests everything that had happened.
Now, regardless of the women and angels, in the Resurrection Story there are also multiple appearances of Jesus to the apostles. Two disciples also had a long conversation with Jesus on the way to Emmaus, although they didn’t recognize him at first. In other words, all these things seem to have been orchestrated, either by human conspirators as in my Church Conspiracy hypothesis, or alternatively by divine inspiration, to prevent the accusation that one person was making it up.
Of course, the skeptic still has the toolkit of deception, delusion and exaggeration to account for some of this. Perhaps the women were making up the story about the angels, or were deluded. Maybe the two men on the road to Emmaus mistook a stranger for Jesus. And the apostles, emotionally traumatized and in a hysterical state, had mass delusions of Jesus appearing to them in a locked room and having theological discussions with them over a period of forty days.
But perhaps the later Church made parts of it up. If so, where is Peter’s encounter with Jesus? Why couldn’t Luke add a simple story of this encounter, since he is the only gospel writer to even mention that Jesus appeared to Peter alone? Could we accept the radical possibility that Luke was honest, and didn’t know of such a story, and therefore couldn’t add one to his gospel? But if he couldn’t even make up a simple story about Peter, we should be skeptical that he could put words in Jesus’ mouth, as many scholars assert.
In the end, I argue that, assuming there was a teacher called Jesus who had disciples and apostles, it’s highly improbable that the later Church was the source of the Resurrection Story.
There must have been an empty tomb from the beginning, to provide the apostles and disciples with a basis for believing in Jesus’ resurrection. Otherwise, they could eventually doubt their own sanity.
The eyewitness testimony of the apostles must have been there from the start, otherwise what authority would they have? How could they claim to be eyewitnesses if they hadn’t encountered the risen Christ? They might have been deluded or even lying, but they must at least have told the stories of their encounters. Furthermore, later disciples of Jesus would have wanted to know the details of Jesus’ resurrection. If the apostles couldn’t supply those details, what credibility would they have?
The stories of the women and angels probably didn’t change either. Perhaps they only saw men in white, and some Christians later assumed they were angels. This is plausible if considered in isolation. But then John, who most scholars and even the early Church agree was written last, rather than correcting the fallacy, reinforces it by linking himself to Mary Magdalene, who saw two angels, even though he and Peter did not!
If John was just making up or exaggerating his version of events, this would have surely been the perfect time for him and Peter to have seen two or perhaps even a whole host of heavenly beings. Since Peter was likely dead by the time John wrote his gospel, executed by Nero according to Christian tradition, there would be nobody around to contradict John’s version of events. But instead, according to John, he and Peter had a race to the tomb, which John won by the way, and after all that, they only saw the linen cloths. They then left Mary Magdalene alone at the tomb, and went home. It was only then that Mary saw the two angels, suggesting John was relying on her testimony as well as his own.
In addition, if John was making it up, why not place Jesus’ mother in the Resurrection Story? She was there at Jesus’ death, and Jesus even interacts with John and Mary just before his death, so John could have created a powerful and touching scene involving Jesus’ mother at the empty tomb. But maybe she wasn’t there for whatever reason, and John couldn’t or didn’t want to make such a story up.
He had the opportunity to fabricate supernatural sights at the tomb involving him and Peter, but all he does is reinforce the story that only the women saw angels. What this suggests is, the ingredients that went into the Resurrection Story were already so well-known by the Christian community, the gospel writers couldn’t just make things up.
Of course, this doesn’t mean the women didn’t make up their stories. Maybe they did it because they knew a woman’s testimony wasn’t valued as much in their day. Maybe they thought that adding angels would give them more credibility. If so, the strategy backfired to begin with, although I suppose it worked in the long run, since the stories became part of our gospels. But then, they clearly didn’t get their stories straight, because Matthew says it was one angel, Mark says it was a man sitting on the right, Luke says it was two men standing by them, and John says it was two angels sitting at the head and feet of where Jesus had lain, based on the testimony of Mary Magdalene. If the women were making these things up, wouldn’t they all tell the same story?
I have already shown how the differing accounts can be harmonized, if we simply recognize that different women had different perspectives of what they saw. It seems they weren’t conspiring to say the same thing.
Besides, these were some of Jesus’ most devoted disciples. They had ministered to him out of their belongings, and had followed him to Jerusalem from Galilee. If one of Jesus’ teachings had been, “Feel free to make stuff up about me as you go along,” perhaps a supernatural sight of angels was just the kind of thing Jesus had in mind.
But if Jesus didn’t teach that, and instead taught them not to be hypocrites, that by their words they would be judged, and to let their yes mean yes and their no no, then perhaps the women didn’t make up their stories after all. But whether they did or not, it’s highly unlikely their stories would have changed from the start, and so probably also existed from the start. In other words, I have demonstrated that it is highly improbable the later Church was the source of the Resurrection Story.
Now, an important side note I’d like to make at this point is: in all of this, nobody was being asked to have blind faith. Some have argued that faith is the opposite of proof; that if we have proof of something we can’t have faith. They use this reasoning to explain why we can’t prove Jesus rose from the dead. How could we have faith in it, they argue, if we could prove it to be true?
I would argue that, technically speaking, nobody can really prove anything. God could turn up on your doorstep tonight, but you could still dismiss this as a trick of the mind. A letter written by Jesus himself could turn up in a desert cave tomorrow, but skeptics would dismiss it as a forgery, unless Jesus had said something controversial or that appeared to overturn the Christian faith, in which case it would be accepted as gospel and turned into a movie. Perhaps everybody and everything else is a delusion of your own mind, including this letter. Can you prove that it isn’t?
In other words, at best, all we ever have is evidence, which is then weighed up, and depending on our own beliefs, assumptions, preconceptions and prejudices, is accepted or rejected, or perhaps just ignored. And this human law of how we weigh up evidence applies to all, both skeptic and believer.
But let us suppose for a moment that Jesus was who he said he was, and that he really did rise from the dead. There was no need for the stone to have been removed, because Jesus could have simply walked through it. There was no need for him to appear to his disciples. They should have simply believed the words he spoke to them when he was alive.
However, if the Resurrection Story is true, those things took place to provide his disciples, and even the skeptics of his day, with extraordinary evidence of his resurrection. They weren’t expected, or even asked, to have blind faith. Extraordinary evidence was presented to them, to demonstrate the extraordinary claim Jesus made about himself, that he was the Son of God who would rise from the dead. Of course, the problem for us, living such a long time after the events described by the disciples, is that we only have their word for it.
Indeed, in terms of physical evidence, we can really only have their word for it. I have already shown that the only evidence for Jesus’ resurrection would need to have been preserved by the apostles and disciples, because nobody else had the motive to preserve it. Besides, what was there to preserve? All that remained were linen cloths and an empty tomb.
Jesus’ tomb may have been preserved to this day at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but we don’t know for certain it was actually his tomb. As for the linen cloths, the most famous claim to be one of them is the Shroud of Turin.
Now, this provides a good example of the human law of evidence at work. When the Turin Shroud was initially dated, the evidence indicated it was a forgery from the Middle Ages, and this became widely believed. However, later evidence suggested the prior dating was based on a piece of material added in the Middle Ages, but that the shroud itself was actually much older, perhaps even dating back to the time of Christ after all. Indeed, at least one skeptical scholar who examined the shroud became a believer in Christ after studying it.
However, the earlier evidence that it was a forgery came to prevail in the minds of skeptics, and this is what they came to believe without examining the later evidence. I won’t look at the evidence in this letter. I simply wish to point out that most skeptics have probably heard only one side of the story, based on older evidence.
But shrouds and tombs aside, the most important thing Jesus’ disciples would have wanted to preserve would be his teachings, and the stories about him that the Christian community agreed upon as being true.
This is perhaps also the strongest argument for why the gospels were likely to have been written earlier, not later as skeptics would prefer. Early believers may have been eyewitnesses, and have been satisfied with the oral stories they heard about Jesus. But as they died off, the best way to preserve those stories for future generations would have been to write them down. As the message spread further, it would also need to be written down, in order to be transmitted accurately, which the apostles and early disciples had a responsibility to ensure. But if, as skeptical scholars claim, the gospels were written later, then the apostles failed in their mission to transmit Jesus’ teachings and deeds faithfully.
However, according to Church tradition, they didn’t fail. Matthew’s gospel was accepted as being written or compiled by the apostle Matthew, also called Levi. Mark’s gospel was written by Mark, an associate of Peter. Luke’s was written by Luke, an associate of Paul. John’s gospel was written last, and was accepted as being written by the apostle John. But to the scholars and skeptics who ignore both this tradition and the testimony of the Church writers living much nearer the time who tell us these things, the authors of the gospels are a mystery.
For example, the gospel of John, skeptics say, couldn’t have been written by the apostle John, because he must have been illiterate. Ironically, John writes about the Word. Perhaps, therefore, John learned to write and appreciate words after all, despite the insistence by scholars that he remain illiterate throughout his entire life, and that nobody could be found to help the apostle write a gospel. Is it possible that early Christians had a better idea of who wrote the gospel of John than scholars living a few thousand years later?
Incidentally, this is also why the Christian community rejected some gospels. The community must have had a strong oral tradition relating to what Jesus said and did, based on eyewitnesses; and they were led by apostles who had an obligation to faithfully communicate Jesus’ teachings.
This obligation was also included at the end of Matthew’s gospel, in what many Christians call the Great Commission: “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying: ‘All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all of the things I have commanded you; and look! I am with you all the days until the end of the age.’” 9
Other groups, perhaps related to the Christian community but wanting to add their own teachings or interpretations, didn’t necessarily feel the same obligation, and so they created their own gospels.
Those gospels were rejected by the Christian community, because they were written much later, and it was usually obvious that their purpose was to promote the secret teachings of the particular group, rather than proclaim the good news about Jesus. This is why they often used the names of apostles, such as Peter or even Judas. But this at least demonstrates the high regard given to the apostles, if even other groups, wanting to be credible to the Christian community, but teaching things that were often unrelated or even contradictory, still wanted to use those names.
1 Matthew 28:9,10. 2 Luke 24:4,22,23. 3 Luke 24:10; 8:1-3. 4 Ephesians 2:1. 5 John 20:1-18. 6 John 3:1,2; 19:38-40. 7 Deuteronomy 19:15. 8 Matthew 28:4. 9 Matthew 28:18-20.