Asher Norman lists 24 alleged discrepancies in the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. There is a definite similarity between his objections to the resurrection accounts and those found on an anti-Christian atheist website ‘Jesus never existed.’ Asher Norman does not include of course what that website says about Judaism: ‘Much of the mythology of Christianity is a rehash of an older and even more transparent fabrication – Judaism.’
I have dealt with the 7 discrepancies he finds in the crucifixion account in our article The crucifixion accounts so now we will look at the resurrection account.
He says that ‘Christianity stands or falls by the so-called resurrection accounts in the Christian Bible. There is no concept in the Jewish Bible that the Messiah ben David will die before completing his mission, be resurrected or be a deity.’ He comments on the verse in John 20.9 ‘For as yet they did not know the Scripture that he (Jesus) must rise again from the dead.’ They ‘did not as yet know the Scripture’ because it does not exist in the Jewish Bible.’
As we have shown in our article The crucifixion accounts it is not strictly true to say there is no concept of the Messiah dying and being resurrected in Judaism. Asher Norman, in common with most rabbis today, completely deletes the concept of ‘Messiah ben Joseph’, the Suffering Messiah, who according to some Jewish commentaries is to be found prophesied in Isaiah 53 (See our article Isaiah 53 – The Suffering Servant). This one does suffer, die and be resurrected.
Commenting on Zechariah 12:10, where the prophet says Israel will ‘look upon me whom they have pierced’, Rabbi Alshech writes: ‘For they shall lift up their eyes unto me in perfect repentance when they see him whom they have pierced, that is Messiah, the Son of Joseph. For our rabbis of blessed memory have said that he will take upon himself all the guilt of Israel, and then shall be slain in the war to make an atonement, in such a manner, that it shall be accounted as if Israel had pierced him, for on account of their sin he has died, and therefore in order that it may be reckoned to them as a perfect atonement, they will repent, and look to the Blessed One, saying that there is none beside him to forgive those that mourn on account of him who died for their sin; this is the meaning of ‘They shall look upon me.’’ That this passage (Zechariah 12:10) refers to the Messiah is admitted by Aben Ezra and Abarbanel, and also by Rashi in his commentary on the Talmud.
Some Talmudic sources (Sanhedrin 97a; Ketubot 111b) imply that Messiah Ben Joseph, the Suffering Messiah, was to be resurrected from the dead. This resurrected Messiah is the Messiah with David-like conquering characteristics. ‘Messiah Ben Joseph will be pierced through by Armilus, after which there will be much tribulation. Then, the Messiah, called Menahem Ben Ami-El, appears to the remnant of Israel. He, together with Elijah, brings to life Messiah Ben Joseph, and then the rest of the dead’. See Galut, p. 315, quoted by Rachmiel Frydland ‘The exalted Messiah ben David’ http://www.menorah.org/tembd14.html
As to prophecies of the resurrection, Isaiah 53 speaks of ‘the Servant’ who will be put to death (Isaiah 53.8 ‘He was cut off from the land of the living’) and yet who will ‘see His seed, He shall prolong His days’ (Isaiah 53.10). The only way someone who has been put to death can do this is if he is resurrected. The Psalm which Peter quotes in connection with the resurrection of Jesus in Acts 2.25 also speaks of one who is resurrected from Sheol, the place of the dead.
‘For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will you allow Your Holy One to see corruption. You will show me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures for evermore.’ Psalm 16.10-11.
As Peter pointed out in his Pentecost speech David remained in the tomb, but Jesus did not. In terms of the general resurrection of the dead, in the understanding of the prophets ‘Sheol’ is the place where all the dead go, with an implied separation between the wicked dead and the righteous dead. For someone to rise out of Sheol implies an unusual or miraculous event taking place.
Discrepancies in the Gospel accounts?
Asher Norman goes on to enumerate a number of alleged discrepancies in the accounts in the Gospels which he says show that the story of the resurrection is not credible.
The main issues he raises are these:
- When was the stone placed over the tomb where Jesus was laid removed? Before the women arrived at the tomb (John 20.1, Mark 16.4, Luke 24.2) or after they arrived (Matthew 28.1-2).
- How many women went to the tomb? One (John 20.1), three (Mark 16.1), four (Luke 24.10).
- How many angels appeared at the tomb and what did they tell the women?
- Where and to whom did the risen Jesus first reveal himself? Mary Magdalene at the tomb (John 20.1, 11-14), Mary Magdalene on the way to Galilee (Mark 16.7,9), Cleopas and another (Luke 24.13, 18), two Marys on the way to Jerusalem (Matthew 26.16), Cephas (Peter) at an unknown location (1 Corinthians 15.5).
- How many disciples were present when the risen Jesus appeared to them? Eleven (Matthew 28.16, Mark 16.14, Luke 24.33) or ten (John 20.24) or twelve (Matthew 27.5, Acts 1.18, 1 Corinthians 15.5).
- Did the angels / Jesus tell Mary he would appear in Galilee? Yes (Matthew 28.7-10, Mark 16.6, Luke 24.5). No (John 20.12-18). Where did Jesus post resurrection appearances take place? Jerusalem (Luke) or Galilee (Matthew).
- A number of issues about the women’s state of mind and actions following the news that Jesus had risen. Mary Magdalene was either ‘grief stricken’ (John 20.13,15) or ‘joy filled’ (Matthew 28.8-9). The women ‘kept the news to themselves’ (Mark 16.8) or ‘rushed to inform the disciples’ (Luke 24.9, Matthew 28.8). Was Mary Magdalene permitted to touch Jesus after the resurrection? Yes (Matthew 28.9, Luke 24.39). No (John 20.17).
- How many times did Jesus appear after the resurrection? Four (John), three (Mark), two (Luke), two (Matthew), six (1 Corinthians 15).
- When did the disciples receive the Holy Spirit? On the first day of the resurrection (John 20.22). On the day of Pentecost, fifty days later (Acts 1.5, 2.1-4).
- Matthew’s account of the dead rising out of their tombs (Matthew 27.50-53) is a highly unlikely event and should have been reported in Josephus, Philo, the Talmud and the other Gospels.
Asher Norman is correct to say that the resurrection is crucial to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Paul wrote:
‘For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Messiah died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.’ 1 Corinthians 15.3-8.
To those who questioned whether there is a resurrection from the dead, Paul wrote:
‘And if Messiah is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Messiah, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Messiah is not risen. And if Messiah is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Messiah have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Messiah, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Messiah is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Messiah all shall be made alive.’ 1 Corinthians 15.14-22
From this we can conclude that faith in Jesus as Messiah and Saviour depends on His resurrection from the dead. If he did not rise from the dead, this faith is futile. If he did then those who put their faith in him will also experience resurrection after death. This ties in with Jesus’ promise of eternal life to all who believe in Him as Saviour and Lord.
We have accounts of the resurrection appearances of Jesus in all four Gospels (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20-21) with additional material to be found in Acts 1.1-12, 1 Corinthians 15. For a reconstruction of the events of the resurrection from all of these accounts please go to our article Resurrection Reconstruction. The accounts are ‘telescoped’, especially in Matthew and Mark, which may give the impression that the Gospels teach that all these events happened in one day, or followed on immediately from each other, whereas in fact they took place over a period of 40 days in different places – the Jerusalem area, then in Galilee and finally back to Jerusalem.
This ‘telescoping’ of events applies especially to Luke 24.50-53 which describes the ascension of Jesus. A critic could read this to mean that Luke was saying that Jesus ascended after His appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem on the day of the resurrection. In this case Luke would be contradicting himself, since he also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. Here he states that Jesus appeared to the disciples over a period of forty days (Acts 1.3), at the end of which He ascended into heaven (Acts 1.9-11). Even unbelievers in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus should be able to credit Luke with enough intelligence not to mean two radically different things about the same event in his writings.
Witnesses testifying at the scene of an accident or in a court case often give similar but not identical accounts of what happened. That is because they see the event from their individual viewpoint, highlighting details which are important to them, but which another may leave out. If all their stories are identical in every detail it makes them more suspect.
All the Gospel writers agree on the basic facts of the crucifixion:
- That Jesus rose on the third day.
- That the stone was rolled away and the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb.
- That the first to go to the tomb early in the morning of resurrection day were women.
- That there were angels at the tomb who told them that Jesus was risen.
- That the women and the disciples saw Jesus bodily risen from the dead (not as a spirit or a figment of their imagination).
- That Jesus communicated with them.
Because one writer gives added information does not mean his account contradicts another writer who leaves out this information. Taking the four accounts together we see that Jesus appeared over a period of 40 days to the disciples
- In Jerusalem
- In Galilee
- Again in Jerusalem prior to his ascension.
Matthew and Mark major on the appearance in Galilee, Luke in Jerusalem and John in both Jerusalem and Galilee.
It is quite logical that there should be appearances in these locations during this time. Jesus was crucified at Passover time, becoming a type of the Passover sacrifice. The lamb was slain and its blood placed on the door posts of the Israelite homes to protect from the Angel of Death as he passed through the land of Egypt. So Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, shedding His blood at Passover time. Those who put their lives under the blood of the Messiah pass over from death to eternal life.
The disciples were in Jerusalem for the Passover week when Jesus rose from the dead on the first day after the Sabbath during the Passover week. According to Leviticus 23.9-14 this is the Feast of First Fruits, the day for waving the sheaf for the first fruits of the harvest. So in the typology of the Jewish feasts, Jesus was raised on the day of ‘first fruits’, something which Paul picks up in 1 Corinthians 15 when he refers to Messiah as the ‘first fruits’ of the resurrection. The disciples remained in Jerusalem for the Passover week with the second resurrection appearance taking place at the end of this week (John 20.26).
Following this they returned to Galilee where further appearances took place. Then at the end of the 40 day period during which Jesus appeared several times in His resurrection body, they returned to Jerusalem and witnessed the ascension of Jesus from the Mount of Olives. At the command of Jesus they remained in Jerusalem for the feast of Shavuoth (Pentecost) when the Holy Spirit was poured out on them. The festival of Shavuoth remembers the giving of the Torah. At this festival the Lord poured out the Holy Spirit on the disciples by which they received the law written on their hearts.
Specific points (as outlined in Asher Norman’s objections above).
1. When was the stone moved?
Asher Norman says Matthew 28.1-2 says that the stone was moved after the women arrived at the tomb, whereas John 20.1, Mark 16.4 and Luke 24.2 say it was moved before they arrived.
It is correct to say that Mark, Luke and John’s account all place the moving of the stone before the women arrived at the tomb. Mark 16.3-4 says that ‘they said among themselves, ‘Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?’ But when they looked up they saw that the stone had been rolled away – for it was very large.’
Matthew creates a problem with this issue when he may be seen to say that this event happened after the women ‘came to see the tomb’ (Matthew 28.1). The next verses read, ‘And behold there was a great earthquake for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone from the door and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men.’ (Matthew 28.2-3)
So did Matthew say that the stone rolling away happened after the women arrived and they saw it happen? Or is he putting in the detail of what had already happened – that the stone was already rolled away when the women arrived at the tomb? In this case there is no contradiction with the other gospels.
Matthew adds a detail not found in the other Gospels of the guards being shaken with fear by what they saw. Presumably the women too would have been shaken with fear at such a sight, but Matthew does not mention this. Since Matthew alone mentions the guards this is not out of place in his account. It is likely that Matthew had some inside information from one of the guards which he puts into the Gospel at this point. Concerning the timing of the event he is saying that it had already happened when the women arrived at the tomb.
2. How many women went to the tomb?
Asher Norman says that John 20.1 contradicts the other Gospels by saying that Mary Magdalene went alone to the tomb, rather than being accompanied by other women.
John’s account centres on Mary Magdalene and her encounter with Jesus at the tomb. He does not definitely say that she was alone. He says it was dark when she left, and it is unlikely that a woman would have ventured out alone in the dark. Also, her statement in 20:2 indicates the presence of others: ‘They have taken the Lord’s body from the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.’ She did not say ‘I do not know where they have laid Him’ which would be the logical thing to say if she had been alone at the tomb.
Mark’s account does list three women who went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning: ‘Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices that they might come and anoint Him’ (Mark 16.1). They went to the tomb in order to bring ‘spices and anoint Him’ (Mark 16.1). This was necessary to complete the burial rites which had been hurried up on Friday because of the short time before the Sabbath, and they had bought the additional spices which they had prepared (Luke 24.1). Luke 24 indicates more women being at the tomb. According to Luke 24.10 Joanna, accompanied by ‘the other women’, had also gone to the tomb and then told these things to the apostles.
This can be explained as follows. Mary Magdalene went to tell Peter and John what had happened (for more on this see point 4), leaving Salome and Mary the mother of James at the tomb where they were joined by Joanna (and other female followers of Jesus). They had previously agreed to come to the tomb to help complete the burial rites. The angels appeared to all these women and told them Jesus had risen and they went and told this news to the disciples.
For more on the identity of all these women go to our article Resurrection Reconstruction.
3. How many angels appeared at the tomb and what did they tell the women?
Asher Norman says the Gospels conflict on a number of points about the angels.
- How many of them and were they ‘men’ or angels?
- Were they standing or sitting, inside or outside the tomb?
- What did they tell the women?
How many angels? He says that John and Matthew conflict on this point – two angels in John and one in Matthew. Also Mark and Luke do not speak of angels but men – one man sitting inside (Mark 16.5) and two men sitting inside (Luke 24.4), whereas Matthew speaks of one angel sitting outside (Matthew 28.5).
Firstly we will deal with the issue of ‘men’ or ‘angels’. Luke and Mark both do not use the term angel in their accounts but rather ‘men’ or ‘young man.’ This does not contradict Matthew, who uses the term ‘angel.’ In the Bible, angels are generally depicted in the form of men, not winged creatures. For a clear example of this in the Torah see Genesis 18-19, the appearance of two ‘men’ or ‘angels’ to Abraham and their encounters in Sodom. In Genesis 18.16-22 Abraham’s visitors are described as ‘the men’, but in Genesis 19.1 the same persons are described as ‘the two angels’.
In Mark, the awe and fear of the scene, as well as the man’s white robe, make it clear that he was a supernatural young man, and therefore angel. Also, the description in Luke 24:4 of their ‘dazzling apparel’ implies that these are supernatural beings. Later on in Luke’s gospel it is confirmed that the men were in fact angels. The women’s encounter at the tomb is described as a ‘vision of angels’ (Luke 24:23).
As to whether there were two of them or one of them it is not necessary to make an issue out of this. The angel who spoke to the women in Matthew 28.5 (‘The angel answered and said to the women’) was the same angel as described in Mark and Luke. The difference is that Mark and Luke say he was accompanied by another angel. Matthew does not rule out the fact that there may have been two angels there. He identifies one who spoke to them and does not mention the other angel who Mark and Luke do mention. As we have seen before it is quite common in the Gospels that one writer mentions something which another leaves out.
The encounter of Mary Magdalene with the angels in John 20.12 is a separate event from the encounter with the angel(s) in the other gospels (see point 4).
Sitting or standing? Asher Norman also makes an issue about whether the angels were sitting in the tomb (Mark 16.5) or on the stone (Matthew 28.2) or standing in the tomb (Luke 24.4).
When Luke says ‘two men stood by them in shining apparel’ in Luke 24.4, this does not necessarily mean that two angels stood next to the women as they entered the tomb. The word is frequently used to mean ‘to appear to,’ not implying any specific position. Mark describes the angel appearing in a sitting position, which would have minimised the alarm of their sudden presence. Also, they may not have fully manifested themselves to the women until they entered, otherwise their majestic presence might have made the women too fearful to approach and enter the tomb.
When Matthew describes the angel who rolled back the stone referred in Matthew 28.2 he is referring to an event which happened prior to the women arriving at the tomb (see point 1): ‘An angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door and sat on it.’ This event terrified the soldiers guarding the tomb and caused them to flee before the women arrived.
What did they tell the women? Asher Norman makes an issue about what the angels told the women. In Matthew 28.6-7, Mark 16.6, Luke 24.5 they say that Jesus had risen from the dead and would go before them to Galilee to meet them. He points out that in John’s account there is nothing about angels present when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb (John 20.2) and when they did appear to her in verses 12-13 they did not say that Jesus was risen or that He was going to Galilee.
John’s account is dealing specifically with Mary Magdalene and we will look at that issue in point 4. He does not contradict the other gospels, he simply supplies information which is absent from theirs. He does not repeat the information they supplied. This is consistent with John’s Gospel, which was certainly written after the other three Gospels and gives added insights and information to theirs.
Matthew and Mark do say that Jesus would go before the disciples to Galilee (although Luke does not say this in fact). We will look at the Galilee / Jerusalem issue in point 7. The fact that Jesus said he would meet the disciples in Galilee does not rule out him also meeting them in Jerusalem.
4. Where and to whom did the risen Jesus first reveal himself?
Asher Norman says the Gospels contradict each other on this point. He gives these different answers to the question: Mary Magdalene at the tomb (John 20.1, 11-14), Mary Magdalene on the way to Galilee (Mark 16.7,9), Cleopas and another (Luke 24.13, 18), two Marys on the way to Jerusalem (Matthew 26.16), Cephas (Peter) at an unknown location (1 Corinthians 15.5).
The main problem here is with John’s Gospel and the role of Mary Magdalene so we will deal with that first. As we have already seen in point 2 John does not necessarily mean that Mary Magdalene was alone when she went to the tomb, but he does not mention any other women as the other Gospels do.
John actually shows two visits to the tomb by Mary Magdalene. Firstly she goes at daybreak and finds the tomb empty. Then she goes to find Peter and John and tell them this. Then she comes back to the tomb following Peter and John. She stays there alone after they have left. Then she has a personal encounter with the risen Lord Jesus.
Asher Norman says this conflicts with Matthew who says that Jesus appeared to two Marys on the way to Jerusalem (Matthew 28.9-10) and Mark who says Jesus meets her on the way to Galilee (Mark 16.9). As a point of information Mark does not say anything about Mary Magdalene being on the way to Galilee. He says that Jesus tells her He is going to appear to the disciples in Galilee.
There is no doubt that this issue does raise a problem. In our reconstruction we point out that in John’s account Mary Magdalene jumped to the conclusion that the body had been stolen and therefore immediately ran back to tell Peter and John (John 20.2). The other Mary and Salome, the women mentioned in Mark would have remained at the tomb. According to our interpretation of Luke they would then have been joined by Joanna and possibly Susanna (see point 2). Matthew only mentions ‘the other Mary’ as accompanying Mary Magdalene, but this does not mean that could not have been other women there also.
It was to these women that the angel appeared and gave the explanation as to what had happened to the body of Jesus (Matthew 28.5-8, Mark 16.6-8, Luke 24.5-7). As Salome and Mary of Clopas were considering what to do, Joanna and Susanna arrived to help complete the burial rites, as they had previously agreed to. They went into the tomb to verify that the body was in fact missing. The angels made themselves visible and delivered their message, which included instructions to inform the disciples.
The women then went back into the city and headed for the house where the disciples stayed (most likely a house owned or made available to John’s family – see our reconstruction). Peter and John, having heard from Mary Magdalene that the body was missing, ran to the tomb with Mary Magdalene trailing behind. John knew the city well and arrived first. Joanna, being less familiar with Jerusalem, took a less direct route from the tomb to John’s house, so the two groups did not meet.
Peter and John saw the empty tomb, but the angels did not make themselves visible. Mary Magdalene lingered behind after Peter and John returned home. She saw the angels in the tomb. They did not say anything to her about the resurrection because they could see the risen Jesus standing behind her and about to make himself known to her, which He did in the way described in John 20. She returned to John’s house and joined the group staying there. According to our reconstruction there would have been some disciples still over the Mount of Olives in Bethany where they had fled to when Jesus was arrested. Some of the women headed to Bethany to tell the disciples what had happened. On the way, they were met by Jesus (Matthew 28.9-10).
According to this scenario, Mary Magdalene remains the first to see the risen Lord, as Mark 16.9 says. Then he was seen by the other women as they were on their way to inform the other disciples about the empty tomb. Luke does not say anything about Jesus appearing to the women.
Following this we have the event briefly described in Mark 16.12-13, where he appears to ‘two of them as they walked into the country.’ A much fuller description of this is given by Luke in the Emmaus road encounter of Cleopas and his companion. As we pointed out in our reconstruction Cleopas was most likely the husband of ‘the other Mary’ and the brother of Joseph, husband of Mary, mother of Jesus.
Sometime during the afternoon of Resurrection Day the Lord appeared to Peter (Simon), which the disciples by now gathered in Jerusalem were aware of (Luke 24.34). This is also the encounter which Paul reports in 1 Corinthians 15.5.
Following this the risen Jesus appeared to the assembled disciples (Luke 24.36-49, John 20.19-23). Thomas was absent, but present a week later when he appeared again to them in Jerusalem at the end of the Passover week (John 20.24-29). After this he appeared to them in Galilee.
5. How many times did Jesus appear after the resurrection?
Asher Norman says that this is another contradiction. His answer is:
Four (John), three (Mark), two (Luke), two (Matthew), six (1 Corinthians 15).
Putting all the appearances of the risen Jesus together we can actually say that there were at least ten appearances of Jesus after the resurrection:
- Mary Magdalene saw Him on the morning of the Resurrection Day (Mark 16.9, John 20.14-18).
- Several other women saw Him a short while later (Matthew 28.9-10).
- In the afternoon, He appeared to Peter (Luke 24.34, 1 Corinthians 15.5).
- Two disciples on the road to Emmaus saw Him later that afternoon (Mark 16.12-13, Luke 24.13-32).
- In the evening of the same day, He came to the remaining disciples (excepting Judas who had hung himself and Thomas who was absent) as they met in the Upper Room (Mark 16.14, Luke 24.36-48, John 20.19-23, 1 Corinthians 15.5). Luke 24.33 implies there were more people than members of the original disciples present on this occasion.
- He came again to the disciples including Thomas eight days later (John 20.26-30).
- After His disciples returned to Galilee, seven of them met Him on the shore of the sea (John 21.1-22).
- He appeared on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28.16-17). This may have been the occasion of the appearance to ‘over five hundred brethren at once’ (1 Corinthians 15.6).
- Sometime in the next few weeks, He appeared to His brother James (1 Corinthians 15.7).
- Six weeks after the Resurrection, at the time of His ascension to heaven, He was seen by approximately 120 people, including the disciples. He met them in Jerusalem and led them out along the road to Bethany until, as they were crossing the Mount of Olives, they came within sight of the town. Then, after admonishing them to evangelise the whole world, He ascended into heaven (Matthew 28.18-20, Mark 16.15-19, Luke 24.49-53, Acts 1.4-15, 1 Corinthians 15.7).
There is no contradiction here. It is simply that different events are featured in the different Gospels. Paul summarises the events in 1 Corinthians 15 adding some details not found in the Gospels. He tells us that there was an appearance to more than five hundred followers of Jesus (most likely in Galilee) and that He appeared to His brother James. Paul was acquainted with James (Acts 15) and no doubt James gave this information to Paul.
Asher Norman says this is another inconsistency because Paul says Peter was the first to see Jesus, whereas the Gospels speak of the women seeing Jesus first. Paul gives a list of encounters which excludes the witness of the women. In this passage he is giving a kind of legal statement citing witness to the resurrection. As women were not able to testify in a legal court at the time, Paul does not mention their encounters with the risen Jesus.
6. How many disciples?
Asher Norman says the Gospels are inconsistent on the question of how many disciples were present when the risen Jesus appeared to them: Eleven (Matthew 28.16, Mark 16.14, Luke 24.33) or ten (John 20.24) or twelve (1 Corinthians 15.5).
This objection revolves around the suicide of Judas before the resurrection (Matthew 27.5, Acts 1.18) and the non appearance of Thomas at the fist resurrection appearance to the assembled disciples (John 20.24).
The term ‘the twelve’ used by Paul is a loose term in the New Testament for the disciples. It does not necessarily mean exactly twelve people were present at each time it is used. In Acts 1.22 a replacement for Judas is chosen and the qualification required is that he should have been a witness of the resurrection. This means that both Matthias and Barsabbas (the two people mentioned in this verse) must have been present at one of the resurrection appearances. Luke 24.33 speaks of ‘the eleven’ and ‘those with them’ implying more than just the disciples being present. Thomas was present at the second appearance of the risen Jesus to the assembled disciples in Jerusalem, so there is not really an issue here.
7. Did the angels say Jesus would appear in Galilee?
Asher Norman says that Jesus’ post resurrection appearances take place in Jerusalem according to Luke and Galilee according to Matthew, which is an inconsistency. As we have pointed out in the introduction to this article resurrection appearances took place in both Jerusalem and Galilee. Matthew and Mark major on the appearances in Galilee and Luke on the appearances in Jerusalem. John gives appearances in both Jerusalem and Galilee. No one gospel gives all the information possible on the subject, so again there is no real contradiction here.
The difficulty is Matthew 28.10: ‘Then Jesus said to them (the women), ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me.’’ See also Mark 16.7. These verses may be read to mean that Jesus wanted the disciples to go immediately to Galilee and that this would be the only place they would see Him. Luke 24 only describes resurrection appearances in Jerusalem and John 20.26 shows that the disciples remained one week in Jerusalem after the first appearance of Jesus to them there.
However Matthew and Mark do not necessarily mean that the disciples were to leave immediately for Galilee. They would have been expected to stay in Jerusalem to observe the remaining days of the feast of unleavened bread. This was more the announcement of a thrilling promise than the issuing of a precise command. It implied that the divine triumph had begun and that Galilee was to be the place where they would re-form their ranks, calling attention back to Jesus prediction of His resurrection and promise of victory in Matthew 26:31-32: ‘You will all fall away because of Me this night, for it is written, I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered.’ But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.’
Luke 24.11 tells us that the women’s words about the resurrection were to the disciples as ‘idle tales’. One interpretation of this that I have read says that Jesus intended the disciples to go immediately to Galilee but because of their unbelief they refused to do so. As a result the resurrection appearances had to begin in Jerusalem. This was Jesus’ response to His disciples who did not believe right to the end until they were left with no choice. I am not convinced of this, because there was no way the disciples could have gone to Galilee in one day, and it would have seemed strange for Jesus to appear to the women and Cleopas and his companion only on the day of the Resurrection and not to the disciples. Since the disciples were present in Jerusalem on the first day of the resurrection it was necessary for the first appearance of Jesus to them to take place there. Following that they went to Galilee where the Lord appeared to them. (Matthew 28.16-20; John 21).
John 21:1-25 tells us about Jesus’ third appearance to the disciples as a group, when He appeared to seven of them by the Lake of Tiberias (Galilee). It is possible that on this occasion He commanded them to organise a meeting with the 500. The appearance to more than 500, recorded in 1 Corinthians 15:6, was probably the appearance recorded in Matthew 28:16-20 in the hills of Galilee (since 500 people would require such a large, outdoor meeting spot), when Jesus gave the Great Commission.
This was in fulfilment of Jesus’ command to His disciples to go to Galilee. Here, they reformed their ranks for the awesome task of making the gospel known to the whole world. It is also possible that the appearance to the 500 was a separate appearance which occurred at some other time. The statement in Matthew 28:17 that some were doubtful seems to imply a greater group of disciples than just the inner twelve. Since this was the first time for the larger group to see Jesus, it is not unreasonable to believe that some of them would have doubted, while the disciples would have been confident by now that Jesus had really risen.
8. Inconsistencies with the women’s testimony.
Asher Norman raises a number of issues about the women’s state of mind and actions following the news that Jesus had risen.
He says Mary Magdalene was either ‘grief stricken’ (John 20.13,15) or ‘joy filled’ (Matthew 28.8-9). The simple explanation of this is that in the timing of events John 20.13-15 was before her encounter with the risen Jesus and Matthew 28.8-9 was after. This is why she went from being ‘grief stricken’ to being ‘joy filled.’
Asher Norman’s next objection is that the women ‘kept the news to themselves’ (Mark 16.8) or ‘rushed to inform the disciples’ (Luke 24.9, Matthew 28.8).
Mark 16.8 reads: ‘Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.’
Luke 24.9 reads: ‘Then they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest.’
In Mark’s Gospel we find that expressions of fear and awe at evidence of supernatural things happening are quite common. For example see Mark 4.40-41 with regard to Jesus stilling of the storm, Mark 5.15 – the healing of the demoniac, Mark 5.33 – the woman with the issue of blood and Mark 6.50 – Jesus walking on the water 10.32.
These women had already been through traumatic events over the past three days. Now they had seen the empty tomb and heard this remarkable news from the angel. Psychologically it is entirely plausible that they would have been so awestruck that they did not even talk to each other, or anyone they met, as they hurried on their way. This does not mean they never said anything to the disciples when they reached them. Mark 16.8 is the immediate reaction of the women to the news, not their long term reaction.
There is a question about the ending of Mark’s Gospel at this point, with many ancient manuscripts not having verses 9-20 in them. Clearly verse 8 is not a satisfactory place to end the Gospel and it may be that something happened to prevent Mark finishing the Gospel, or that the original ending was lost and another editor added verses 9-20, or that Mark himself wrote them. This is something scholars debate about. My view is that it is most likely that Mark wrote verses 9-20.
Matthew does tell us the sequel, (his account follows a similar pattern to that of Mark), that as they hurried to tell the disciples Jesus Himself met with them. As they worshipped Him, He told them to inform His disciples that they were to go to Galilee where they would see Him (Matthew 28.8-10).
Was Mary Magdalene permitted to touch Jesus after the resurrection? Asher Norman claims there is a contradiction between Matthew 28.9 and Luke 24.39 where Jesus allows himself to be touched and John 20.17 where he forbids this. This objection of Asher Norman is based on the Authorised Version translation of John 20.17: ‘Jesus saith unto her (Mary Magdalene) ‘Touch me not for I am not yet ascended to my Father.’ The original Greek indicates the discontinuity of an action already begun. Mary’s instinctive reaction to seeing Jesus resurrected would most likely have been to embrace Him. He was not giving a command that he should never be touched but giving her assurance that she need not fear to leave Him at that moment and should not cling on to him. She should go to the disciples with then news of His resurrection. She would see Him again because His ascension to the Father was not going to happen straight away. The New American Standard Bible translates this ‘Jesus said to her, ‘Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.’’
In this case there is no contradiction with Matthew 28.9, Luke 24.39 or John 20.27 where the risen Jesus allows or invites the women and the disciples to touch Him.
9. When did the disciples receive the Holy Spirit?
Asher Norman alleges a discrepancy on this subject. According to John it was on the first day of the resurrection (John 20.22), but according to Acts on the day of Pentecost, fifty days later (Acts 1.5, 2.1-4).
Asher Norman’s objection is based on John 20.21-23: ‘So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
The background to this issue is the promise Jesus gave to the disciples that after His resurrection, the Comforter (or the Holy Spirit) will come to them (John 16.7). He will teach the disciples and bring to remembrance all the things Jesus had taught them (John 14.26), testify of Jesus (John 15.26) and guide the disciples into all truth (John 16.13).
In John 20 Jesus breathes on the disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit and gives them the authority to forgive or retain sins in His name. We can see this as a foretaste of the coming of the Holy Spirit in power on the disciples on the day of Pentecost. The disciples now believe that Jesus has died and risen from the dead and are ‘born again’ of the Holy Spirit.
Through faith in Him their sins are forgiven and they have received the Holy Spirit. Through their faith in Jesus as risen from the dead and receiving the Holy Spirit they will be able to bring the message whereby others can have their sins forgiven – through repentance and faith in the Messiah who died and rose again as a sacrifice for our sins.
Luke 24.46-49 tells us that Jesus explained to them the next phase of their ministry: ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Messiah / Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things. Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.’
In Acts 1 (which follows on from the Gospel of Luke) Jesus promised the disciples that they would be baptised with the Holy Spirit: ‘For John truly baptised with water, but you shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ … But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’’ (Acts 1.5-8).
This means that there was another experience of the Holy Spirit which the disciples should wait for and would come after Jesus had ascended into heaven. In Acts as a result of the Holy Spirit coming on the Day of Pentecost (the Jewish Feast of Shavuoth), the disciples are baptised or filled with the Holy Spirit. They receive supernatural gifts – speaking in languages they had not learnt, the ability to do miraculous signs and wonders and to preach the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus with power.
On this occasion there would have been about 120 people present (Acts 1.15) and this event caused a stir amongst the people present in Jerusalem. This means they must have seen something visible happening as a result of which a crowd gathered together. Peter then explained to this crowd the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As a result of this we are told that around 3000 people believed the message that Peter preached and were baptized and added to the fellowship of believers. Acts 2.41.
The Holy Spirit had come upon the disciples with power and enabled them to do miraculous signs which caused the message to spread throughout Jerusalem and then into Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth as Jesus had promised.
It is interesting that the gift of the Holy Spirit is seen by believers as the way God fulfils the new covenant promise of Jeremiah 31.31-34. This includes the verse ‘I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’
The feast of Shavuoth (Pentecost) remembers the time when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people. So at this feast God gave the Holy Spirit to the disciples.
According to certain rabbinic traditions the giving of the Law at Sinai was associated with visual elements such as ‘tongues’ ‘fire’ and wind. Philo opines that fire was transformed into languages that the people could understand. ‘Since God does not have a mouth, He decided that by a miracle an invisible sound should be produced in the air, a breath which articulated words which turned the air into fire with the form of flames. It made a voice resound in such a way that those who were furthest away could hear it clearly as those who were nearest. A voice resounding from the midst of the fire which came down from heaven and became articulate in the native language of the hearers…The day was known as the day of the Assembly’ Philo: De Decalogo 9,11,13.
According to a parallel rabbinic tradition these flames of fire are seen not only as God’s speech, they also imply that God’s word was divided into different tongues comprehensible to all nations. Rabbi Johanan (active between AD 90 and 130) said ‘The voice of God divided itself into seventy languages.’ According to this tradition God first revealed the Torah in seventy languages since seventy if the number of all the nations in the world (cf Gen.10) Exodus Rabbah 5; 9; 28:6; Midrash on Psalms 92:3.
Significantly in the Book of Acts the description of the gift of the Holy Spirit is similar: ‘When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.’ Acts 2.1-4.
There is then no contradiction between John and Acts. The two passages speak of different works of the Holy Spirit, firstly in John to seal the disciples in their faith in Jesus as the Messiah through whose death and resurrection we receive forgiveness of sins, and secondly in Acts to empower them to take this message into the world.
10. Matthew’s account of the dead rising out of their tombs (Matthew 27.50-53).
Asher Norman says this is a highly unlikely event and should have been reported in Josephus, Philo, the Talmud and the other Gospels.
In Matthew 27.51-3 we read ‘Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.’
There is no doubt that this is a difficult passage and many commentators have come to different conclusions about it. One view is that verses 52-53 are an insertion into the Gospel by a later editor. In support of this view it is pointed out that verse 51 flows naturally into verse 54: ‘So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’
However against this view it has to be said that there are no manuscripts of Matthew in Greek, Latin or Aramaic that omit these verses and they are referred to in the writings of early Christians including Ignatius, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen and Eusebius.
The difficulties raised by this passage in Matthew are several:
- Why was this event not mentioned in the other Gospels or in the Acts?
- What happened to these resurrected saints?
- Did they come back to life as Lazarus did when he was raised from the dead?
- Did they go back into their graves?
- Did they ascend to heaven?
- Who did they appear to and why is there no mention of the event of such a sensational event in other writings of the period?
A possible explanation for this passage is as follows. Matthew records this event because he was a witness of what happened. From a theological point of view the New Testament teaches that Jesus overcame the power of death when He died on the cross (Acts 2:24, Hebrews 2:14). This incident shows that this has happened by resurrecting those who have died as believers in the past age. It also looks forward to the future resurrection of all believers.
There certainly seems to be an inference from Ephesians 4.8-10 that the resurrection of Jesus from the grave and into Heaven was more than just one Man ascending to the Father. Paul quotes Psalm 68.18 as saying: ‘When [Jesus] ascended on high He led a host of captives and He gave gifts to men’ explaining the quote by noting that ‘In saying ‘He ascended’ what does it mean but that He had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is He who also ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things’
In the Tenach the dead are said to go to Sheol which is described as a place located below man’s existence, at the opposite end of the universe from Heaven, deeper than anything else known to man. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus alludes to two divisions of Sheol (given its Greek equivalent Hades in the text). There is a place where the wicked go and are punished, and a place where the righteous go and await being taken up to heaven (See Luke 16.19-31). The day would come when God would break free the saints in the Old Testament from Sheol and take them to Heaven: ‘For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will you allow Your Holy One to see corruption. You will show me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures for evermore.’ (Psalm 16.10-11).
The implication of this is that after He had completed the work of redemption on the cross, Jesus went immediately to Sheol (the righteous compartment) and opened it up so that the Old Testament believers could be taken into the presence of God in Heaven. Some of these saints appeared temporarily in Jerusalem, as a witness of the resurrection of the dead. We are not told to whom they appeared, how many there were or any other details and as there is no other record of this event we can say no more about it.
Jesus is risen from the dead. Because He is risen He is alive today. Because He is alive today He is able to raise us from spiritual death and separation from God and bring us into a living relationship with God through which we have new life here on earth and eternal life in the world to come.
In John 11.21-27 we read of a conversation between Jesus and Martha at the time of Lazarus’ death, before he was raised from the dead:
‘Now Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord if You had been here my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’
Martha said, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’
Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me though he may die, yet shall he live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?’
She said to Him, ‘Yes Lord, I believe that You are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.’
If you believe that Jesus died and rose again from the dead and put your trust in Him for eternal salvation you will know that you will live eternally in the resurrection day. Don’t listen to those who want to blind you to this truth and fill your mind with unbelief and rejection of the only way you can find salvation. Believe on the Lord Jesus (Yeshua) the Messiah and you will be saved. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. John 3.16.
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