One of the most common objections to the New Testament's resurrection accounts is that there are too many differences among them. There are a lot of ways to respond to that objection. For example, I wrote a series of posts earlier this year that's partly about how the gospels' differences are often similar to what we see in other ancient literature, including other ancient biographies. On some of the principles involved in harmonizing the resurrection accounts, see Steve Hays' posts here and here. And we've offered some potential harmonizations of the resurrection accounts, like here. But what I want to focus on in this post is how much the resurrection accounts have in common.
What I'll be citing is agreement between two or more resurrection accounts in a way that's consistent with the others. Since some of the accounts, like the closing of Mark's gospel and Paul's material on the resurrection at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15, are so brief, there's a lot they don't address. If two or more other accounts agree with each other on a point, but that point isn't discussed in Mark or 1 Corinthians 15, the agreement among those other accounts is significant anyway.
There are good reasons to accept material that's only found in one resurrection account. For example, when Matthew (28:9-10) and John (20:14-7) narrate resurrection appearances to one or more of Jesus' female followers before any appearances to his male disciples, that prominence given to female disciples in such a male-dominated society provides us with some good evidence for those accounts. Likewise, the earliness of the material Paul cites referring to an appearance to more than five hundred people (1 Corinthians 15:6) and Paul's knowledge of the ongoing status of those witnesses give us good reason to accept the historicity of that resurrection appearance. There's good evidence for the appearances in Matthew 28:9-10, John 20:14-7, and 1 Corinthians 15:6, even if each appearance is only mentioned in one source. But my focus in this post will be on material found in multiple resurrection accounts.
There are more agreements among the accounts than what I'm going to list. These are just some examples.
Since the resurrection accounts in the gospels start with the tomb of Jesus, I'm starting there as well:
- Jesus' body was placed in a tomb rather than left on the cross, placed in the ground, etc. (Matthew 27:60, Mark 15:46, Luke 23:53, John 19:41-2, Acts 13:29, 1 Corinthians 15:4)
- The body was placed there by a man named Joseph (Matthew 27:59, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50-2, John 19:38).
- He was from Arimathea (Matthew 27:57, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50-1, John 19:38).
- He was a member of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50, Acts 13:29).
- He was a disciple of Jesus to some extent (Matthew 27:57, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50-1, John 19:38).
- The tomb was cut out of rock (Matthew 27:60, Mark 15:46, Luke 23:53).
- No other body had been placed in the tomb (Matthew 27:60, Luke 23:53, John 19:41).
- The entrance to the tomb had been covered with a rock (Matthew 27:60, Mark 15:46, Luke 24:2, John 20:1).
- Something had happened to move the rock and allow entry into the tomb (Matthew 28:2-6, Mark 16:3-5, Luke 24:2-3, John 20:1-6).
- A group went to the tomb (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1, John 20:2).
- They were women (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 23:55).
- They were followers of Jesus (Matthew 27:55-6, Mark 15:40-1, Luke 23:55).
- One of them was Mary Magdalene (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1-10, John 20:1).
- One of them was another Mary (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1-10).
- They came to anoint his body (Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1).
- They weren't expecting a resurrection, as evidenced by their coming to anoint the body, their having to be informed about what had happened (Matthew 28:6, Mark 16:6, Luke 24:5-8), and Mary Magdalene's belief that the body had been moved (John 20:2, 20:13-5).
- It was a Sunday (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1).
- It was early in the day, before full daylight (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1).
- They found the body missing from the grave (Matthew 28:6, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:3, John 20:2).
- A messenger appeared to them to explain what had happened (Matthew 28:5-7, Mark 16:5-7, Luke 24:4-7).
- During at least some of the time when the tomb was first discovered to be empty, there was another messenger as well (Luke 24:4, John 20:12).
- Jesus is described as resurrected, even though there were other categories of survival of death or appearances of the dead in ancient Judaism, such as apparitions, visions, resuscitations, and assumptions (Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:6, Luke 24:7, John 21:14, 1 Corinthians 15:4, Hebrews 13:20, 1 Peter 1:3).
- Jesus' male disciples weren't expecting a resurrection, but instead were in a state of unbelief, fear, and hiding (Matthew 26:31, 26:56, 28:17, Mark 9:10, 9:31-2, 14:50-2, Luke 22:54-62, 24:11, 24:38, John 16:32, 20:9, 20:19, 20:25).
- Peter went to the tomb to see what had happened (Luke 24:12, John 20:3).
- He went on Easter Sunday (Luke 24:1, 24:8-13, John 20:1-3, 20:19).
- He ran (Luke 24:12, John 20:4).
- Somebody else was with him (Luke 24:24, John 20:4-6).
- He had to stoop at the entrance to the tomb (Luke 24:12, John 20:5).
- When he looked in the tomb, he saw the grave clothes that had covered Jesus, even though the body was gone (Luke 24:12, John 20:6-7).
- Peter didn't see Jesus when he went to the tomb (Luke 24:24, John 20:9-10). That agreement between Luke and John is especially significant in light of John's narration of the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene while she was at the tomb around the same time (20:11-8).
- The resurrection appearances to Jesus' original apostles occurred over weeks of time, not some shorter period (John 20:26, Acts 1:3).
- Jesus appeared to Peter (Luke 24:34, 1 Corinthians 15:5).
- Jesus appeared to his most prominent disciples as a group (Luke 24:36, John 20:19, 1 Corinthians 15:5).
- The appearance to that group occurred after the appearance to Peter (Luke 24:34-6, 1 Corinthians 15:5).
- Regardless of whether 1 Corinthians 15:5 is referring to the appearance described in Luke 24:36 and John 20:19, those passages in Luke and John seem to be referring to the same event. For example, it occurred on Easter Sunday (Luke 24:13, 24:21, 24:33, 24:36, John 20:1, 20:19).
- Luke and John both refer to the time of day as the evening (Luke 24:29, John 20:19).
- The appearance seems to have occurred indoors. The availability of cooked fish makes more sense in an indoors context (Luke 24:42), and John states that the disciples were indoors (20:19).
- Jesus appeared in their midst (Luke 24:36, John 20:19).
- He was standing (Luke 24:36, John 20:19).
- He gave them a greeting of peace (Luke 24:36, John 20:19).
- He showed them his crucifixion wounds (Luke 24:39-40, John 20:20).
- The wounds Jesus retained included his hand wounds (Luke 24:39, John 20:20). These details in the accounts are significant in that resurrection is associated with healing, power, and immortality, and we therefore would expect the risen Christ to not have any wounds. It would be unexpected for even one source to report that Jesus retained any of his wounds. For two to do so, even mentioning some of the same wounds and placing Jesus' showing of them on the same occasion, is even more significant.
- Jesus appeared to his most prominent disciples as a group more than once (Luke 24:36-51, Acts 1:2-9, John 20:26, 21:14, 1 Corinthians 15:7).
- Those most prominent disciples he appeared to were close to twelve in number (Matthew 28:16, Luke 24:33, John 20:24, 1 Corinthians 15:5). Group names, like "the Eleven" and "the Twelve", can be used even when not every member of the group is present. There would be reason to retain a number like twelve, even after Judas' death, since the parallel to the twelve tribes of Israel was so significant and since the group name ("the Twelve") had been used for so long. Some people would want to refer to eleven instead, to distance the other disciples from Judas or for some other reason, but others might keep referring to the Twelve. Similarly, John refers to "the disciples" (John 20:19), as if all are present, even though he later explains that Thomas was absent (20:24). Craig Keener cites similar examples from non-Christian sources, such as Xenophon and Plutarch, noting that "numerical group titles were common, and often remained even when numbers fluctuated" (1-2 Corinthians [New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005], 124, n. 272 on 124). The use of a group designation doesn't require that every member of that group is being included. Still, the numbers used in these resurrection passages give us a rough idea of how many people were involved.
- James' conversion and prominence in Acts are best explained if he saw the risen Christ. He's portrayed as if he has the authority of an apostle (Acts 12:17, 15:13-21, 21:18), and he would have to have seen the risen Christ in order to have had that status (Acts 1:21-2, 10:40-2, 1 Corinthians 9:1). The references to "apostles and elders" (Acts 15:2, 15:4, 15:6, 15:22-3, 16:4) seem best explained if James is in the "apostles" category with Peter. The two of them together would explain the plural. Elsewhere, James is distinguished from "the elders", even if he was an elder in some sense (Acts 21:18). Acts 9:27 refers to Paul's visiting "the apostles", and Galatians 1:18-9 explains that he only met with Peter and James on that occasion, so Acts seems to be identifying James as an apostle there as well. It looks like Acts agrees with 1 Corinthians 15:7 that there was a resurrection appearance to James.
- Jesus appeared to Paul (Acts 9:3-5, 1 Corinthians 15:8).
- The appearance to Paul occurred after the other appearances (Acts 9:1-5, 1 Corinthians 15:8).
- The appearance to Paul was late enough to allow for his advancing a long way as a persecutor of the church (Acts 7:58, 8:1-4, 9:1-5, Galatians 1:13).
- The resurrection appearances were of a physical nature (Matthew 28:6, 28:10, Mark 16:6, Luke 24:6, 24:30, 24:39-43, John 20:2, 20:6-7, 20:27, 21:12-3, Acts 9:3-8, Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 15:4, 15:20, 15:36-8, 15:51-4).
- Jesus' resurrection body before the ascension was highly ordinary. At some points, he's not recognized as Jesus or is mistaken for somebody else. By contrast, resurrected individuals and other exalted figures are portrayed much differently in other sources written prior to and after the gospels and Acts and even within those five documents themselves. As Jonathan Kendall explains:
"This is another feature mitigating against the possibility of legendary embellishment, especially since even the angels in the post-resurrection narratives are in a couple of places described as wearing very radiant, white garments (Matthew 28:2-3; Luke 24:4)....[Jake] O'Connell notes that Second-Temple literature regarding the exaltation of saints, the appearances of the exalted Jesus to Paul, Stephen, and John of Patmos, Jesus' coming as the glorious Son of Man (cf. Mark 13:26; 14:62), as well as his role per the early church as the High Priestly Messiah would make fabricated or legendary accounts of Jesus' resurrection all the more likely to come in the form of heavenly visions....Rather, playing on the fact that collective visions invariably carry as a pre-requisite the role of expectation, O'Connell argues at length that at least some of the disciples should have seen Jesus in exalted, glorious form (e.g. Acts 9:3; Revelation 1:9-20) if they were hallucinating....O'Connell utilizes numerous texts to demonstrate that the resurrection body was generally expected to be glorious in nature." (in J.P. Holding, ed., Defending The Resurrection [United States: Xulon Press, 2010], 327, 352)
Think of Daniel 12:3, 2 Maccabees 15:13, Matthew 13:43, or Mark 9:3, for example. The passages in Luke's writings are particularly striking. The resurrected Jesus prior to his ascension is described much differently than the Jesus who appears to Paul. Even the angels at the tomb are described by Luke in more glorious terms than the resurrected Jesus at that stage. Every gospel author describes one or more individuals other than the resurrected Jesus in glorious terms in his writings (e.g., Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus at his second coming, believers in the afterlife, the angels at the tomb), yet describes the resurrected Jesus in non-glorious terms. The best explanation for why the gospel authors agree in portraying Jesus' initial appearance after the resurrection as so ordinary, despite the fact that such a portrayal went against mainstream expectations, is that the resurrection witnesses thought Jesus appeared to them that way.