The Timeline of the Resurrection -
People who have heard about Jesus rising from the dead but have never read the New Testament often have hazy ideas about what that really entailed. Was He really dead? Did He really come to life again? Did his disciples just imagine it? There is confusion even among some circles that call themselves "Christian," who reject a literal resurrection, but like the warm, fuzzy feelings that Easter celebrations give them.
by Paul Race, from Family Christmas OnlineTM
An open-minded reading of the New Testament will dispel all of the "airy-fairy" stuff in a hurry. Four different authors, writing from four distinct points of view, using four distinct vocabularies, each write accounts full of details that demonstrate that - to these authors at least - Jesus was not a myth but a man, and that His resurrection was real. It was also as unforeseen by his followers as it is dismissed by the faithless today.
Students of the New Testament know that the contents of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) mostly overlap, but each book has at least a few bits that aren't repeated in any of the others. This can cause confusion for folks who don't see how the pieces fit together. In the accounts of the resurrection, it's worth knowing that:
- In some New Testament events where a group of people were involved, some authors (especially John) name one or two of the individuals to "stand" for the group, a sort of synecdoche. For example, Luke explains that "the women who had come with [Jesus] from Galilee," along with other women, went to the tomb to prepare Jesus' body for entombment (Luke 23:55, 24:1)." So there were apparently at least five women in the group that went to the tomb. Mark names three of them, Matthew names two, and John uses only one name to represent the whole group. Just because John names only Mary of Magdala in his account doesn't mean there weren't other women there, too. Focusing on individuals who were part of an unnamed larger group was just part of John's writing style, shown in several other passages.
- Not every event in the life of Jesus was recorded. So it's possible (I'd say probable) that when two gospels report similar events with slight differences that there were two separate events. For example, some of Jesus' teaching in the "Sermon on the Mount" (Matt. chapters 5, 6, and 7) is repeated in Luke (6:20-49) as part of a sermon that was given on a plain. While some writers suggest that the passage in Luke is simply a shortened version of the Matthew passage, others suggest that Jesus may have used the same material more than once. Similarly, many preachers like to discuss the "Great Commission" as if it were a single event. If that's the case, the gospels conflict, because Matthew places it in Galilee, and Luke seems to place it in Judea. On the other hand, Luke reports that Jesus appeared to his disciples in several places over a 40 day period. Is it too hard to consider that Jesus would have given the same instructions more than once, in more than one place?
So if you can avoid getting hung up on details like worrying about why some writers name more of the women who came to the tomb than others, you'll see that the gospels, together, provide a single narrative of the day's events, a narrative that bristles with realistic details, despite the miraculous content.
The News Trickles In
Here's an exercise for folks who think that the gospels are fiction. Think about how the news "trickles in," the same way it does in a modern major news story. First several female disciples return from the tomb making fantastic claims. Second, two of Jesus' chosen "Twelve" apostles run to the tomb to find it empty. One returns with his head spinning, while the other is beginning to believe what the women have reported. So far nobody has actually seen Jesus; they've just had reports. Then Jesus appears to some of the women who have followed the two apostles back to the tomb. There is no report on what they said when they returned to the larger group this time. But then there's a report that, later in the day, two other disciples, on their way to a nearby town, meet and eventually feed a stranger who seems to know a lot about Messianic prophecies. When the disciples realize that the stranger is Jesus, He disappears. Although evening is approaching, the two trek all the way back to Jerusalem. By then, Jesus has appeared to the larger group of disciples, probably about twelve hours after the women's first report.
How the Resurrection Might be Reported Today
Frankly, the whole thing sounds a little like the way news stories about some catastrophic event in some hard-to-reach place are reported. Imagine if you had a news truck outside the disciples' residence that morning.
"We've just received a report that a number of ladies have returned from Jesus' burial site claiming that the tomb is empty and that they have seen an angel."
"On further questioning, we have learned that the ladies are claiming that the angel said Jesus has risen from the dead."
"Two of the male disciples - as they call themselves - were just seen running toward the tomb. According to bystanders, they were both among Jesus' inner circle, what these people call 'the twelve.' Apparently, one of them is Simon Bar-Jonas, AKA Peter. We're not sure who the other man is." [Pause]
"Look, they're coming back. Excuse me, sir, what did you see at the tomb?"
"It was empty."
"Do you believe the women's report?"
[Panting] "I don't know what to think."
"What about you, sir? What do you think?"
"It's true. Jesus is risen!"
"Have you seen him? Sir, have you seen Jesus alive?"
"I don't have to. I know it's true."
"How do you know?"
"It's called faith. He told us this was going to happen, we just didn't understand what He meant. Don't you get it? He is the temple. Now please excuse us; we have to get back to our friends."
"Well, you heard it here first. Apparently one of his disciples has clearly gone over the edge. 'He is the temple.' What could he possibly have meant?" [Pause]
"We've just heard from one of our technical advisors that Jesus of Nazareth claimed that if the temple was destroyed he could rebuild it in three days. Of course most people thought he was talking about the big Jewish temple in Jerusalem. But some people think he was talking about his body being 'the temple.'" [Pause] That raises a new difficulty doesn't it? Because anybody who called his body 'the temple,' much less claimed that he was going to come back to life after being dead three days, would either have to be crazy, or he'd have to be . . . "
"Wait a minute. I see a group of women coming back from the direction of the tomb. Apparently some of them made another trip down after their first report. They're out of breath, but clearly running this way." [Pause]
"Pardon me, ma'am, what is so urgent?" [Pause]
"We've seen him."
"Who have you seen?"
"We've seen Jesus of Nazareth. And He spoke to us."
"I bet you can't wait to tell your friends."
"Sure. Only. . . . "
"Only it didn't go so well the last time. Come on Mary, let's try again."
"The women are going back inside." [Pause]
"Now two of the disciples are apparently setting out on a journey. They have their walking sticks and packs, so they're not going anywhere nearby. They've refused to talk to us but one of their friends told us they are going to Emmaus, a small town about six miles from here."
Hopefully you get the idea. In our age, we understand how a major news story could break a little bit at a time. We've even seen movies that worked this way, using fake news reports to feed you a little bit of information at a time, so you're "prepped" for Godzilla or whatever long before it makes its appearance.
The Problem with the Deliberate Fiction Scenario
A similar technique has been used in fiction writing since about 1600. There are hints of it in several of Shakespeare's plays. It was more highly developed by Jane Austen's day, when Elizabeth Bennet learns gradually about Darcy's role in Lydia's wedding: Lydia accidentally drops a hint, then Mrs. Gardiner fills in most of the details, and finally, Darcy explains his motivation. But if that event had been reported as soon as it had happened, the last several chapters of the book would have held no interest for readers.
This device is related to foreshadowing, in which a future major event (like Julius Caesar's assassination in the play of that name) is hinted at before it happens. But in this case, the major event has already occurred, and the protagonist(s) only learn about it a little at a time. It's a much rarer device than foreshadowing. And much more modern.
What does that have to do with the gospels? Simply that people didn't write that way in the first or second century AD. Especially in religious writings. If you had something to say, you said it. Right up front. If the gospels are a work of fiction, then the story of the resurrection is the most clever and original piece of fiction ever written in the history of mankind.
What would really set them apart is the way they dovetail, with none of the books having quite the whole story or quite the same vocabulary or point of view. As a sometime literature professor, and a reader of many ancient writings, I would say that if the gospel accounts of the resurrection are a work of fiction, this would be the literary equivalent of finding Einstein's formulas buried in the Great Pyramid - so far out of time and space that words like "anachronistic" don't even begin to cover it.
Quoting Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous character, "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." I would believe that cave men reached the stars before I would believe that the gospels' account of the resurrection are a deliberate fake, or the writings of deluded or hallucinating authors.
Now lets get on to our chronology, the way I've sorted it it out, as least (others may sort it in slightly different ways):
Before the Resurrection
- Jesus has been convicted on false charges.
- Jesus was beaten and tortured.
- Jesus died on the cross.
- Two rich men made certain Jesusí body was buried. (Matt. 27:57-59, Mark 15:43-46, Luke 23:50-53, John 19:38-42)
- Female disciples watched to see where Jesusí body was taken. (Matt. 27:61, Mark 15:47, Luke 23:55)
- Guards were set over the tomb. (Matt. 27:62-66)
The Women at the Tomb
- An angel has rolled the stone from the door. (Matt. 28:2-4)
- Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethel, and Salome lead a party of women to anoint Jesusí body for burial. (Matt. 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1, John 20:1)
- An angel tells the women that Jesus is risen. (Matt. 28:5-8, Mark 16:4-8, Luke 24 2-8)
The Apostles at the Tomb
- The women rush to tell the apostles. (Matt 28:8, Luke 24:10-11, John 20:2)
- Peter and John rush to the tomb. John believes, but Peter doesn't know what to think. (Luke 24:12, John 20:3-8)
- Mary of Magdala sees Jesus face to face. (Matt. 28:9, Mark 16:9, John 20:11-18)
- The Sadducees bribe the guards to say they fell asleep and Jesus' disciples stole Jesus' body - a "confession" that would have earned their execution if their centurion had taken it seriously. (Matt. 28:11-15)
Jesus Appears to the Disciples
- Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. (Mark 16:20, Luke 13:32)
- Jesus appears to the gathered disciples. (Mark 16:14-18, Luke 24:33-34, 36-49, John 19:19-23)
- Jesus appears again to the gathered disciples. (John 20:24-29)
- Jesus appears to the disciples at the sea of Galilee. (John 21:1-24)
- Jesus appeared to many others. (I Cor. 15:5-8)
I hope this reconstruction helps you sort out a day that must have been even more confusing to the disciples than it is to modern readers. If nothing else, it should give you food for thought, and maybe for a biblical understanding of an event that many dismiss as fiction or delusion, but - based on the way it unfolds - could not really be either. "Paul, are you saying you really believe this?" With all my heart.
May God bless you and your loved ones with grace and protection this season.
- Paul Race
For more information about Easter, Easter traditions, and related subjects:
- Introduction to Easter - A brief introduction and links to our other articles.
- Easter: Frequently Asked Questions - Want to know why Holy Week wanders around the calendar? What the Stations of the Cross are? Why we call Easter "Easter" when almost every other culture calls it "Pasch"? And many more.
- The Timeline of the Resurrection - If you read the gospel accounts one at a time, they can be confusing. This shows the timeline, as most people see it.
- Why Easter is Sacred to Me
- The Myth of the Myth of the Easter Bunny - Where did the Easter Bunny really come from and how did it get attached to so many urban legends?
- Timeline of Easter Traditions - how far back in time do Easter Eggs, or the Easter Bunny go? Did the church really start celebrating the Resurrection as late as the fourth century AD, as certain writers would have you believe? Was the ancient Teutonic deity some folk claim was the original source of all of our doctrine and celebrations of the Resurrection really - for all intents and purposes - invented eighteen centuries after Jesus' crucifixion?
- Eostre: Frequently Asked Questions - Why do we "know" so much about Jacob Grimm's hypothetical ancient Germanic goddess today when all we have is a single allusion ancient writings, and research has turned up no new facts since 725AD?
- Bede's Statement about the Saxon Name for Pasch (Easter) - A brief look at the only mention of anyone named anything like Eostre or Ostara in anywhere before 1835.
- Jacob Grimm - A brief look at Grimm's research and why this fairy-tale collector and linguist invented a hypothetical "ancient" Germanic goddess in 1935 and dubbed her Ostara (the German equivalent of the Saxon "Eostra").
- Pope Gregory's Letter to Mellitus - a look Pope Gregory's 601AD letter to a missionary trying to reach the Saxons in Britain. We list it here only because so many writers misrepresent its contents.
- To My Pagan Friends at Easter - A side note to folks who need to believe in something.
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