Resurrection: Response to Wright, 4

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by Neil Godfrey

Revised May 8 2008

Continuing from a previous post:

Wright argues that the narratives of the resurrection appearances in our canonical gospels are based on traditions that were set and hardened well before the gospels came to be written. Discussed one in previous post and attached comments. Two more to go:

  • the different gospel accounts do not betray any textual or narrative interdependence
  • I will include here Wright’s reasons for thinking it noteworthy that the gospel authors did not describe the resurrected Jesus as a shining resplendent star or such — this fact supposedly demonstrates that the early “traditions” were based on some real historical experience

Textual and narrative interdependence

(Following I use Matthew and Mark interchangeably as both the authors of the gospels and as the titles of the gospels attributed to them.)

Matthew clearly used (either copying directly or re-writing) the narrative of Mark. It is said that Matthew repeats about 600 of Mark’s 661 verses. Mark has no resurrection appearance, but that does not hide the fact that Matthew’s resurrection appearance scenes grew out of Matthew’s use and knowledge of Mark.

How Matthew built on Mark’s narrative for the resurrection appearances:

Mark created a narrative in which:

  • Jesus was reported as arranging to see his disciples, after his resurrection, in Galilee.
  • This message was conveyed through a mysterious “young man”,
  • who instructed the women at the tomb to pass it on to the disciples.
  • These women had come to anoint the corpse of Jesus even though it belatedly dawned on them that they would not be able to enter the tomb with its massive stone obstructing its entrance.
  • And when these women heard the message from the young man, they were said to have run off immediately without even telling the disciples after all.
  • They were said to have been too fearful to say a word to anyone. And that is where the original text of Mark’s gospel ends.
  • See Mark 16:1-8.

Matthew then, after reading Mark, wrote a revised narrative:

  • Like Mark, he wrote that Jesus would see his disciples, after his resurrection, in Galilee.
  • But this message was made more authoritative by being conveyed, not by a mere young man whom readers might wonder if he was an angel or not, but by an unambiguous angel who came down from heaven and with superstrength rolled aside the massive stone from the tomb’s entrance
  • As in Mark, this angel instructed the women to pass the message on to the disciples
  • But Mark’s nonsense of the women coming to anoint a body when they knew they could not enter the tomb is removed by Matthew. Matthew re-writes the more sensible account that the women merely came to see the tomb.
  • And when these women heard the message from the angel, they were said to have run off immediately — just as Mark also said —
  • but unlike Mark’s account, they ran off to tell the disciples after all. Matthew had added to Mark’s Fear the emotion of “great Joy” to drive the women to break through the silence barrier and not remain silent after all.
  • See Matthew 28:1-8.

So Matthew followed Mark’s script with a few modifications up to verse 8. At the critical verse 8 (not that the original gospels were written in our verse numberings of course) Matthew essentially copied Mark’s final verse but added a twist to it. The women ran off not only with Mark’s fear, but with fear tinged with a dash of joy. And, contra Mark, they ran off to tell the disciples, as commanded by the angel.

But having twisted Mark’s tail thus, how was Matthew to narrate that meeting? Mark’s original gospel ended at verse 8. The closest Mark offered for a resurrection appearance was the account in an earlier chapter of Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountain.

Matthew began by having Jesus make his first resurrection appearance to the women mourners who had come to see his tomb. But he was clearly floundering. He had no model on which to draw. Only Mark’s narrative where the young man had told the women that the disciples could see Jesus in Galilee. So what does Matthew narrate? Matthew’s Jesus zaps down to the women as they flee from the tomb. The women stop, look and listen. Even hold Jesus by the feet. And Jesus proceeds to utter his first words as a resurrected saviour. They are verbatim what Mark’s young man and Matthew’s angel had already told the women. “Go and tell my disciples they can see me in Galilee.” Yes. We have read that already. Matthew is clearly at a loss here. He is floundering when left to his own imagination.

Next, Matthew finally has that long awaited contact between the disciples and Jesus in Galilee. Again Matthew’s creative imagination is limited. The best he can offer readers is a Moses-like departure on a mountain top. He charges his successors to carry on the good work, just as Moses charged his successor Joshua to do likewise. And it is all done on a mountain top — the same topography where Jesus had earlier been transfigured, and where Moses spent his final moments.

Matthew is grasping at his bland unimaginative straws. All he knew was that he had to do better than end is gospel the same way Mark had ended his. If Mark had more subtle themes to convey with his ending of the women fleeing dumb in fear, they were wasted on Matthew. Matthew re-wrote Mark to give it a more positive ending:

  • The women were not so stupid as to come to the tomb to anoint a body when they knew they couldn’t enter the tomb. They came to just visit the tomb, as mourners do.
  • No mysterious “young man” was there to deliver a message to these women. None other than an angel came down. He was so unambiguous that the tomb guards fainted on the spot at the sight of him.
  • And the women did not run like scared, um, girls, at the sight of him, too scared to say a word to anyone. No, they ran with fear and joy to tell the disciples!

Mark and Matthew share the same characters, the same scene, the same words, the same setting and narrative point of view or vision (camera angle) of events. That last point, the camera angle, is a vital key to establishing a Matthew-Mark interdependence. Authors without any contact would most likely imagine different points of view from which to portray a common event — the mind and/or experience of one of the women, or of a disciple who saw the women, or of someone who first saw or heard from the women, etc.

Matthew owes his resurrection appearance narrative to Mark. From Mark he derived the setting and the words and the characters. When other gospel authors disagreed with both Matthew and Mark, their disagreements were on theological and literary (not eyewitness) source grounds, as already discussed.

The textual and narrative ties between the resurrection appearances in Luke and John

The narratives of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples in Luke and John share the same structure:

  1. Jesus appearance to the disciples takes place in Jerusalem, not Galilee
  2. Jesus appears suddenly in the midst of the disciples
  3. Jesus shows his body (hands and side/feet)
  4. Disciples react with joy to the appearance
  5. Immediately after appearing to the disciples, Jesus speaks to them with identical words: “And said [historical present in both gospels] to them, ‘Peace with you'”
  6. At the appearance Jesus presents his body as a verification [– verification that he is risen, in Luke who may well have been expressing an anti-docetic or anti-Marcionite agenda here; verification that he is indeed Jesus, in John –] and uses very similar wording: “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet” in Luke; “When he had said this, he showed them his hands and side” in John.
  7. In both gospels the authors are said to be in fear. In Luke, however, it is fear that they are seeing a ghost when they see Jesus; in the more anti-semitic John, they are hiding in fear of the Jews.
  8. Both gospels speak of the disbelief of the disciples. In John the disbelief is a theological issue, and is packed into his discussion of Thomas and the need of all believers to have faith; in Luke, with a different theological agenda, the disbelief is a narrative colouring — they were confused when they saw unexpectedly Jesus, and finally were so overcome with joy that they could scarcely believe that what they were seeing was really happening.

(Adapted, with significant modification of point 6, from Matson’s In Dialogue With Another Gospel (pp. 422-424)

Matson discusses many more verbal and stylistic similarities between Luke and John’s resurrection appearance accounts.

Written sources for the Emmaus narrative in Luke

I have already discussed Luke’s use of Genesis and Judges in his construction of the Emmaus Road encounter with the resurrected Jesus. See points 6 to 10 in the Emmaus post. What follows is adapted from Matson, pp. 410-421.

But there are other indications in the text that Luke’s Emmaus narrative has been edited from other text. (I suspect that the final redactor/author of Luke-Acts has re-worked an earlier Luke, also discussed in other posts here.) The dramatic climax of the story, when the two who had just been with Jesus run off to tell the disciples of their experience, collapses into anti-climax when they completely fail to tell of their experience and instead bring in an entirely new thought nowhere before hinted at, that Jesus had appeared to Peter. Readers are left wondering how and when that could have happened, and are also left with a bland taste in place of savouring a narrative climax.

The author of the gospel was normally capable of much better than this. Indeed, his structure of staged steps to the final appearance of Jesus demonstrates his literary competence: moving from an empty tomb and confusion, then to a meeting and confusion and a mere glimpse of recognition; and finally to the full bodily appearance before all. If this is how a Jesus really did show himself and if the narrative is read as history instead of narrative drama, it reads as if he is having a joking game of hide-and-seek before revealing his resurrected self. A bit like a playfully teasing ghost?

The (final) author has awkwardly inserted the message of the appearance to Peter into an existing narrative. He was probably attempting to give life to the claim in 1 Corinthians 15 that Peter had been the first to see Jesus. (That tradition or passage in 1 Corinthians may well be a later pastoral insertion and not original to Paul anyway. If so, this would tie in with the final redactor of Luke-Acts himself giving narrative form to several Pastoralist ideas.)

Another textual anomaly in the Emmaus account is its tension against an earlier passage where the author claimed the disciples scoffed at the reports of the women about the angels at the empty tomb (24:11). Luke 24:24 in the Emmaus story contradicts that, saying that several of the disciples did pay enough attention to the women to go and investigate. Note that this is scarcely a reference only to Peter running to the tomb. Peter ran alone in Luke. In the Emmaus narrative several of the disciples took the women seriously.

While the Emmaus narrative is woven with Lukan wording and style, the evidence suggests that Luke was struggling with an earlier written story. He did not have eyewitness reports and traditions to help him piece what he wanted to say all into a seamless whole.


So when Wright says that the different gospel accounts do not betray any textual or narrative interdependence, he is “overstating” the case. One may disagree with some of the specifics of the arguments for narrative interdependence, and dispute the interpretation of some of the above passages. But it is misleading to insist that there is no evidence for such interdependence among the gospels in their resurrection appearance accounts.

There are clear structural and verbal links between the gospels in these narratives, and where there are differences, they are readily explained by the larger theological interest of the authors.

One more post to go to finish this mini-series . . . .

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Neil Godfrey

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