The Evolution of the Resurrection Appearances

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by Neil Godfrey

Here’s an Easter post. Never let it be said I ignore the season.

I can’t recall where I first was introduced to the fact that the Gospel resurrection scenes show a distinct development of details according to the relative dates of the Gospels. Look at how each one appears to build on or surpass what had been written before.

Take One: Off-stage

Not Jesus’ tomb, but a tomb none the less. (Photo credit: callmetim)

The Gospel of Mark, the earliest Gospel, actually has no resurrection scene at all. The women come to the tomb, see a young man in the tomb, then run off in fear. (Bibles that continue the story past verse 8 are incorporating what most scholars acknowledge is a passage that was not original to the Gospel. Someone much later attempted to cobble details from both Matthew and Luke to create what they presumably thought was a more satisfying conclusion.) The young man does tell the women that Jesus can be seen again in Galilee if they go there. And that’s it. There is no actual appearance of a resurrected Jesus in this Gospel.

[5] And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.

[6] And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.

[7] But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.

[8] And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.

Take Two: On-stage

Resurrection. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then we have the Gospel of Matthew that used the Gospel of Mark. The writer of this later Gospel clearly was not satisfied with Mark’s ending so he added a scene where Jesus did literally appear to his disciples in Galilee. This was no longer an off-stage scene. In Matthew Jesus keeps an appointment with his disciples:

[16] Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them.

[17] And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.

[18] And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.

[19] Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

[20] Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

Before that scene the author struggled to find a way to have Jesus appear near the tomb itself. After an angel (Matthew transformed Mark’s “young man” into an overpowering and glorious angel) told the women to go tell the disciples to find Jesus in Galilee, Jesus himself appears in front of them and robotically repeats the same message. Or is this so crudely done that we must suspect a later redactor of adding this vignette?

Take Three: Add some feeling

Jesus represented as telling Mary not to touch him, by Hans Holbein the Younger. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So we can say “Matthew” created the first resurrection scene. He based his scene on “Mark’s” young man’s announcement of what the disciples could expect to see when they returned to Galilee. However, later evangelists seemed to have found that rather bland.

There is debate over whether the next Gospel chronologically was Luke or John. Most go with Luke, but I have problems with that. Few scholars are prepared to seriously consider the possibility that Luke and Acts as we know them were products of the mid second century. (There was certainly an earlier version of Luke’s gospel, but there is reason to doubt that in its early form it contained the resurrection details we read in it today. I have posted on this in reviews of Tyson’s work and others on this blog.)

So for this exercise I am placing the Gospel of John as third in line. (It doesn’t matter much, really, since both Luke and John are keen to add quite a lot more detail than had been found in Mark and Matthew.)

There are quite a number of indications of Markan and Matthean influence in John’s Gospel. (Some believe its author knew all three synoptic gospels — Mark, Matthew and Luke.) Clearly its author was not happy with the resurrection appearances in either Mark or Matthew.

He had the resurrected Jesus appear to Mary and here we find for the first time some personal drama added to the event. Mary is moved enough when she recognizes Jesus for Jesus to quickly order her not to touch him. (Matthew’s two Marys had worshipfully held the feet of Jesus.) He has yet to ascend to heaven and return again before any mortal is allowed to touch him. It’s morning when this happens. After an all day return trip to his Father’s throne just above the clouds he returns in the evening by materializing in the middle of a closed room to be seen by his disciples. This time the disciples are also said to be very happy, and Jesus then breathes on them to give them the Holy Spirit. So we are now getting pretty close to physical contact.

Then Thomas the latecomer is the next to see him and Jesus tells him to touch him, even to put his whole hand in the spear-hole in his side. Thomas refrains from doing so, it seems, since Jesus commends him faintly for believing merely on seeing him.

All these scenes happened in Jerusalem. (Was “John” drawing upon an early version of Luke’s Gospel that contained a Jerusalem appearance?) But he apparently felt he had to do something to match the Mark and Matthew accounts of Jesus appearing in Galilee. (I know, many readers may be thinking it was a later redactor who added this final chapter. Possibly. But we can’t be certain of that, especially once we learn more about ancient literary styles.) So this time Jesus does more than just appear to his disciples: he starts a fire and then feeds them all some breakfast.

The resurrection appearances of Jesus are becoming much more “substantial” now. Jesus is still very much a spirit, but he is mixing more with his folks, being confused for a gardener at first by Mary, doing substantial things to prove his post-mortem real existence.

Take Four: Let’s get physical

Michelangelo da Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus; ...
Michelangelo da Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus; painted for Ciriaco Mattei in 1601-02. Size: 77 by 55 inches (195 by 139 cm). National Gallery (London) (UK). The picture is dominated by an awkwardly beardless Jesus. Picture prepared for Wikipedia by Adrian Pingstone in April 2003. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now for the final redaction of Luke. This was when its story was developed in a way that segued into Acts.

Luke builds up the scenes in step-by-step dramatic stages. First Jesus appears as an unrecognized country wanderer. He is invited in by strangers for a meal and overnight stay, and once again Jesus breaks bread for them but then disappears.

His two hosts run back to tell the other disciples and add that Jesus had also made an off-stage appearance to Simon Peter.

Jesus himself scares them out of their wits by suddenly appearing out of nowhere. Luke’s portrayal of emotional responses is a little more realistic than what we read in John. Jesus then reassures them all by inviting them to touch him, though they seem too coy to actually go that far. He even says they can touch him because “a spirit has not flesh and bones — as you see I have”. So he orders some fish and honeycomb for dinner and then eats it all up while they watch. So he presumably had a stomach and an appetite, too.

Not only that, but Jesus stayed with them for forty days like this. Finally he was taken up into heaven on a cloud. Ten days later the Holy Spirit fell upon them all.

(So Luke has separated out into three distinct events what the other evangelists had more or less rolled into one: the resurrection, the ascension, and his or his Spirit’s ongoing presence.)

Evolution happening before our eyes!

So we can see how a story grows with the telling. Successive authors appear to have built upon frameworks that had been constructed by those before until we go from a mere reported appearance yet to happen right through to a series of appearances with physical and personally dramatic interactions and even suggestions that the resurrected body is not even a spirit.

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Neil Godfrey

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20 thoughts on “The Evolution of the Resurrection Appearances”

  1. Matthew’s contribution is more like punctuated equilibrium since it does have Jesus appear to Mary: ‘And they [Mary Magdalene and the other Mary] left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples. And –get this— Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus says to them, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to my brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see me.”’

    1. I hope this knee-jerk comment isn’t overlooking evidence that vv.9,10 is an interpolation. I, by the way, translated “behold” (a Matthewism) as “get this” (or “see”, or “take note”, “look”, etc.)

  2. Of course 1 Corinthians: 15 goes back much earlier than the Gospels? And is reckoned by many scholars (academic rather than internet scholars!) to include material going back to within 5 years of the death of Jesus?:

    3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; 4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: 5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: 6 After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. 7 After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.

    (But of course no doubt Paul is a myth as well as Jesus!).

    1. Are you offended that my post incidentally gives cause for some doubt as to the historicity of the resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Gospels?

      Unfortunately your bigotry seems to have led you into a reading comprehension problem. You have missed the entire point of the post. It has nothing to do with your obsession with historicity or otherwise but everything to do with how the literary documents work. (As I intimated in the post itself, I wish I could recall the scholarly work it all came from.)

      And of course the point of 1 Corinthians 15 is to establish for readers that Paul’s experience of the resurrected Jesus was no different in any way from that of the other apostles. So unless we want to argue Paul’s experience was something more than either a vision or inner revelation . . . .

      (For the benefit of other readers the person I am responding to here goes under the name M. Gould in other threads. I can understand why he wishes to be coy about his identity.)

    2. And we know from 1 Corinthians 15 that early Christian converts must have openly scoffed at the very idea of their god choosing to raise corpses.

      Paul calls such people fools and tells them that Jesus ‘became a life-giving spirit’.

      To Paul , it was simply idiocy to reject Christianity just because the body of Jesus was still in a grave. ‘If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body’.

      The Corinthians still didn’t understand so Paul wrote again, explaining that the earthly body will be destroyed and they will get spiritual bodies. ‘ For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.’

      Paul often uses ‘tent’, or ‘clothing’ metaphors to describe resurrection – both imply leaving one thing and moving into another thing.

      Even N.T.Wright recognises the force of this and has to write ‘Did Paul, perhaps, believe that Jesus’ new body, his incorruptible Easter body, had been all along waiting ‘in the heavens’ for him to ‘put on over the top of’ his present one?’

      How do you put a new body on top of a corpse?

      Normally, when you change clothes, you take the old clothes off and put the new ones on.

  3. IMO the origin of the resurrection saga concerning the Christ began as a story told about James the Just. The story is partially preserved in The Recognitions of Clement, 1.70 — Tumult Raised by Saul: “And when matters were at that point that they should come and be baptized, some one of our enemies,63 entering the temple with a few men, began to cry out, and to say, ‘What mean ye, O men of Israel? Why are you so easily hurried on? Why are ye led headlong by most miserable men, who are deceived by Simon, a magician?’

    “While he was thus speaking, and adding more to the same effect, and while James the bishop was refuting him, he began to excite the people and to raise a tumult, so that the people might not be able to hear what was said. “Therefore he began to drive all into confusion with shouting, and to undo what had been arranged with much labour, and at the same time to reproach the priests, and to enrage them with revilings and abuse, and, like a madman, to excite every one to murder, saying, ‘What do ye? Why do ye hesitate? Oh sluggish and inert, why do we not lay hands upon them, and pull all these fellows to pieces?’ “When he had said this, he first, seizing a strong brand from the altar, set the example of smiting. Then others also, seeing him, were carried away with like readiness. Then ensued a tumult on either side, of the beating and the beaten. Much blood is shed; there is a confused flight, in the midst of which that enemy attacked James, and threw him headlong from the top of the steps; and supposing him to be dead, he cared not to inflict further violence upon him.”

    1.71 — Flight to Jericho.

    “But our friends lifted him up, for they were both more numerous and more powerful than the others; but, from their fear of God, they rather suffered themselves to be killed by an inferior force, than they would kill others.”

    This story was evolved by oral tradition and later on engulfed by pagan christian mythologists and added to the their Jesus mythology. The real Christ of the era, James the Just, was degraded to be the brother of Jesus. If you care to remove christian interpolations from the books of Josephus you´ll find that James was widely known as the Christ.

    The real Jesus, the samaritan prophet, was most likely beheaded on Mount Gerizim when his rebellion attempt failed: His story, as told by Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews – Book XVIII, chapter 4.1, BUT the nation of the Samaritans did not escape without tumults. The man who excited them to it was one who thought lying a thing of little consequence, and who contrived every thing so that the multitude might be pleased; so he bid them to get together upon Mount Gerizzim, which is by them looked upon as the most holy of all mountains, and assured them, that when they were come thither, he would show them those sacred vessels which were laid under that place, because Moses put them there (12) So they came thither armed, and thought the discourse of the man probable; and as they abode at a certain village, which was called Tirathaba, they got the rest together to them, and desired to go up the mountain in a great multitude together; but Pilate prevented their going up, by seizing upon file roads with a great band of horsemen and foot-men, who fell upon those that were gotten together in the village; and when it came to an action, some of them they slew, and others of them they put to flight, and took a great many alive, the principal of which, and also the most potent of those that fled away, Pilate ordered to be slain.”

    We can also learn from Josephus that it was Vitellus who rode in to Jerusalem during passover and was magnificently received.

  4. Tangential question: I’ve heard it said the NT doesn’t contain the Trinity Doctrine, but the commandment (The Great?) in Matthew seems close enough to challenge that statement. What saith the Vridar?

    1. You are referring to the “Great Commission”:

      Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

      It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything on the trinity and I don’t know what current scholarship has to say about it. My understanding is that it only becomes an issue well after Christianity has established itself. I’m more interested in the controversies over Christian origins and the background to the appearances and worship of the Jesus figure. Tim may know more about the relevance of the passage in Matthew 28:19 to your question.

  5. Speaking of evolution: in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus only stays 1 day with the disciples. It’s not spelled out as such, but that’s the impression the text gives: “Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus […] That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; […] While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them […] Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them“.

    In Acts we’re told he stayed “many days”, “But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem” (Acts 13:30-31). In fact (as we all know) Jesus stayed 40 days (Acts 1:3) before flying away, not from Bethany (Luke 24:50), but from “the mount called Olivet” (Acts 1:12).

  6. That photo of a tomb? The first time I saw that photo, years ago, my immediate, visceral reaction, was that it was the sort of place out of which zombies were about to come shambling.

    Some time after that, I was thinking about a scene in a fictional work I was dabbling in. A believer is having a vision-like experience; there’s a soft, misty, golden light everywhere, and a figure in a gleaming white shroud standing facing away. The believer approaches, the shrouded figure begins turning, it all proceeds slowly and dreamlike, such that as the believer reaches the figure, ready to embrace it, the figure has just completed turning around, and it can be seen inside its shroud to be a rotting animate corpse, leaning in to kiss with foetid breath.

    Ever since, I can’t get those two images out of my head whenever I think about Christianity.

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