Easter Morning: Sorting Through the Sources and Traditions

Most people raised in our Christian culture have a vague story in their heads as to what is supposed to have happened Easter morning, whether drawn from attending church services, reading the Bible themselves, or even from various “Jesus” films. Around Easter Jesus usually makes the cover of some of our major magazines. Even one who is non-Christian or secular can’t help picking up on the basic story-line, which goes something like this:

Early Sunday morning after Jesus’ Good Friday crucifixion several of his women followers went to his tomb only to find the heavy stone blocking the entrance removed and the tomb empty with the grave clothes left behind. They were told by two dazzling angels dressed in white “He is not here, he is risen, come see the place where he lay.” They were dumbfounded, as were the other apostles to whom they reported these strange events. Later that day Jesus appeared to the apostles and allowed them to examine his body with its wounds, assuring them it was him, and that he had been raised from the dead. Various other appearance of Jesus followed over a period of weeks until Jesus departed this earth, taken up in the clouds of heaven.

What will come as a complete surprise to many people is that our historical sources for this scenario offer wildly differing accounts of Easter morning. Historians work with sources and evidence and when it comes to Easter all we have are six ancient texts–our four New Testament gospels, namely Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and the fragments of the more recently discovered Gospel of Peter. I have written recently about the Gospel of Peter here, and I have offered an extended analysis of Paul’s understanding of resurrection of the dead with a lot of historical background here.

What I want to do in this post is take closer look at our earliest three sources, taken in chronological order–Mark, Matthew, and Luke, viewing them side-by-side, in “Synoptic” fashion, when it comes to their accounts of the empty tomb of Jesus and the subsequent “appearances” of Jesus to his various followers. Readers who have never bothered to do this will find much of surprise I think. All you need is a copy of the Bible with the New Testament included, any translation will do fine.

Most scholars are agreed that Mark is our earliest gospel. What few non-specialists realize is that Mark’s account of the empty tomb stands in the sharpest contrast to those written after him.

Mark 16:1-8 provides the early core account with what scholars consider to be the original version of Mark ending abruptly with verse 8:

And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Salome, bought spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun was risen. And they were saying among themselves, “Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the tomb?” and looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back–it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, Be not amazed: you seek Jesus, the Nazarene, who has been crucified: he has been lifted up; he is not here: behold, the place where they laid him! But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goes before you to Galilee: there you will see him, just as he told. And they went out, and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them: and they said nothing to any one; for they were afraid.

This is how our earliest manuscripts of the gospel of Mark end!

Later copies of the Mark supply one of several added endings, clearly finding such an abrupt ending to the gospel story inadequate, so you will find in most Bibles the additional verses 9-20, which were composed by in the 3rd or 4th century by someone who wanted to round the story out and make it more in harmony with the endings of Matthew, Luke, and John[1]

Please note the rather astounding fact that Mark’s original ending has no appearances of Jesus. A young man, not an angel, tells the women Jesus has been “lifted up,” with a promise that they will “see him in Galilee,” which is in the north of the country.[2] This was apparently the earliest faith of Jesus’ first followers–namely, that Jesus had been taken up to heaven, and that the disciples would see him at a later time in Galilee. I have argued, see the post noted above, that this is also the understanding of Jesus’ resurrection we find in Paul, and ironically, it is the view of resurrection we find in the newly discovered Talpiot tomb inscription about God “lifting up” (Greek hupso/υψω) the dead–see our book, The Jesus Discovery. Paul reports Jesus was transformed into a “life-giving spirit,” and the subsequent “sightings” of Jesus, by him and the earlier apostles, were seeing Jesus in his heavenly glory (1 Corinthians 15:42-50, compared with vv. 3-7). To be “lifted up” in this way is to leave the physical body behind, like old clothing, and thus to be “absent from the body,” but present with God (2 Corinthians 5:1-10). This was the earliest Christian resurrection faith.

As far as the age old question, “What happened to the physical body of Jesus,” the most likely explanation is that it was reburied by Joseph of Arimathea after being placed temporarily in an unused tomb near the site of crucifixion. I have written extensively about this “first burial” of Jesus here.[3]

Matthew and Luke, written a decade or more after Mark, are clearly not satisfied with Mark’s abrupt ending. Even though Mark is their basic narrative source, they are bound and determined to expand the tradition and supply expanded versions of his ending that will be more dramatic and impressive, and in the case of Luke and John–introduce a wholly new understanding of the resurrection of Jesus as the resuscitation of his physical corpse. One has to keep in mind this is not an idea that Paul supports, in fact he speaks emphatically against the notion of confusing the “body of dust” with the “spiritual body” or “life-giving spirit,” as noted above.

Both Matthew and Luke recast this core scene of the women’s visit to the tomb and they are each clearly relying on Mark as their source. What obviously bothers them about Mark’s story is the final line, about the women fleeing the scene and saying nothing to anyone, end of story! That Mark has no appearances of Jesus is a huge problem for them. Both Matthew and Luke are keen to expand this abrupt and problematic ending. Each of them recasts that final line, so that it can lead into what comes next, notice carefully:

“So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Matthew 28:8).

“And returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest” (Luke 24:9).

At this point their dependence on Mark drops off.  Matthew has his one “sighting” of Jesus in Galilee, taking his cue from Mark’s line about “there you will see him,” while Luke removes that line about Galilee entirely and adds a string of “appearances” in Jerusalem.

What this means, in terms of the Synoptic tradition is that Matthew and Luke only follow their source Mark up to the point where the women flee the tomb, and thereafter, they are presenting their own independent and quite differing traditions of what the “resurrection of Jesus” meant within their separate communities and traditions.

It is altogether striking that at this point there are absolutely no parallels whatsoever between what they quite separately relate. It is not the case of differing witnesses to the “same event” reporting slightly differing accounts, as Christian apologists often insist. It is the case of both Matthew and Luke at this point losing their core source Mark, leaving it behind, and going their separate ways entirely!

What this means for our historical reconstruction is that Matthew and Luke reflect independent witnesses to the growth and apologetic (in the sense of defense) development of traditions defending the notion of Jesus being raised from the dead for the post-70 CE generation. Mark is content to relate his story with no appearances of the risen Jesus, and yet nonetheless attest to resurrection faith, looking forward to the Parousia (return of the “Son of Man” in the clouds of heaven), probably expected in Galilee. But both Matthew and Luke have other concerns that they have to address.

What is clearly the case is that neither Matthew nor Luke are relating history, but writing defenses against charges that are being raised by opponents who are denying the notion that Jesus literally rose from the dead. Luke is clearly worried about claims that any so-called “appearances” of Jesus were simply hallucinatory apparitions–in other words, “ghost stories.” He has good reason to worry. We know various pagan critics of Christianity were beginning to heap fun on the Christians for naïvely swallowing the unstable fables of women and ignorant peasants. [4] He is keen to show that Jesus, though not always readily recognized, nonetheless could be touched, and that he ate with his followers, clearly showing his “bodily” existence. He is interested in what he calls “proofs,” and he repeats this concern in Acts 1:3.

What we can be quite sure of, from a historical point of view, is that none of these so-called proofs has any historical basis whatsoever. Mark knows nothing of such stories, nor does Matthew. They are not part of any early and core tradition of Jesus’ resurrection and they have no correspondence to the type of visionary “appearances” claimed by Paul for himself and for others.

And just as important, notice, Luke is also concerned to shift the emphasis to Jerusalem, away from Galilee, where the family of Jesus originated. Mark’s focus is on the apostles seeing Jesus in Galilee, as is Matthews. They know nothing of any Jerusalem appearances.

Matthew has two concerns. First, he wants the resurrection to be a dramatic cosmic event, and second he wants to refute the story that is being spread in Jewish circles that Jesus’ followers came Saturday night and moved the body to another location. At the death of Jesus he has already added earthquakes, tombs splitting open, and multiple corpses of the dead coming alive and appearing to various people in the city (Matt 27:51-53). So here, to Mark’s stark account of the empty tomb discovery, he adds another earthquake, an angel as bright as lightning descending from heaven and moving the heavy stone from the tomb entrance. He also relates that Pilate, the Roman governor, had authorized a band of soldiers to seal and guard the tomb against the possibility that someone might take the body and claim he was raised. At the sight of the angel they fell as dead for fear of the terrifying heavenly being. None of this is in Mark. Matthew’s account is quite patently a theological and apologetic embellishment on Matthew’s part. What we need to ask is what Matthew intends to address with such a dramatic retelling of his source Mark? Unlike Luke, he knows nothing of multiple appearances of Jesus in the city of Jerusalem, and he has only one mountain top sighting of Jesus by the apostles in Galilee, where Jesus gives to them the so-called “Great Commission” with some of them doubting what they saw! Those are obviously the most theologically constructed set of verses in his entire gospel, but even at that he notes that some of the Eleven “doubted” that they were really seeing Jesus, a most telling admission (Matthew 28:16-20).

It is obvious that for Matthew, unlike Luke, “appearances” are not much on his radar screen. Rather what really concerns him is refuting the story that “is told among the Jews to this day,” that followers removed Jesus body and reburied it on Saturday night. To do this he needs the earthquake, and the angel from heaven descending with blinding light, and a tomb sealed and guarded by Roman soldiers–none of which can possibly have any historical basis whatsoever. They are clearly constructed, even imposed on the bare account of Mark, to address this “Jewish” story.

What Matthew unwittingly provides is a witness that a generation after Jesus’ death it was being claimed in certain Jewish circles that Jesus’ body had been taken from the initial tomb into which it had been temporarily put by Joseph of Arimathea and presumably reburied. What the historian must consider is whether that “story,” to which Matthew provides such a definitive witness, is in fact based on what actually happened. This would not mean that the disciples “stole” the body to perpetuate a lie, as Matthew frames the story against his Jewish opponents, but only that the core story itself, that they removed the body Saturday night, is our best account of how the tomb became empty. What makes this possibility all the more likely is that it fits in with the initial, temporary, emergency burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea as the Passover Seder approached the afternoon of the crucifixion. A Saturday night removal to a place of permanent burial is precisely what one would expect.

I have recently noted how the Gospel of Peter, particularly with its broken off ending, gives strong support to the early account of Mark, see “Weeping Through Easter, An Alternative Tradition.” There we read clearly that the disciples wept and mourned for Jesus in Jerusalem for the entire eight day Passover week–hardly compatible with Luke’s dramatic appearances in Jerusalem the very day the empty tomb was found–before returning to their fishing business in the Galilee. What is quite amazing is that the appended chapter 21 of the gospel of John parallels this account. This version has to be read independently of John’s account of multiple appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem on Easter morning including the famous encounter with “doubting Thomas,” in chapter 20–the original ending of John’s gospel. An editor has added what he claims is an early “eyewitness” account of an “apparition” of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee when the disciples have returned to their fishing business. One can tell from the tone of the account that this is obviously presented as their first “sighting” of the risen Jesus.

I understand how pious readers of the New Testament are not comfortable with this sort of critical readings of our historical sources but once one takes a close look at the texts, and the clear and obvious elements I have gone through in this post, there is hardly any other recourse. Ironically, for believing Christians, rather than such an analysis being a threat to resurrection faith, it turns out to provide an glimpse of the original version of that faith–namely that Jesus left his body behind, that he was transformed into a “life-giving spirit,” and was  “lifted up” to God’s right hand.

Postscript: Until very recently these six texts were all we had in attempting a historical evaluation of the origins of faith in Jesus’ resurrection. With the 1980 discovery of the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb, and the recent exploration of the “Patio” tomb nearby, I believe we have for the first time, archaeological evidence that potentially supplements what we had from our texts. I am speaking in particular of the “Jonah and the fish” image, on one ossuary, and the Greek inscription celebrating “lifting up” from the tomb, on another. I am convinced that the earliest understanding of Christian faith in resurrection, as seen in Paul, Mark, and John 21, has now been corroborated by these findings. See our book, The Jesus Discovery for full details and arguments.

  1. In fact, this unknown editor simply drew from stories in the other three gospels, as is quite obvious if one examines the interpolation carefully. The appearance to Mary Magdalene is lifted from John, the appearance to the two disciples on the road as well as Jesus sitting with the apostles for a meal from Luke, and the “Great Commission,” from Matthew, and the ascent of Jesus into heaven, again, from Luke. In addition to this interpolated ending there are two others that achieved less popularity but some translations of the Bible put them in footnotes. []
  2. The verb used here, egeiro/εγειρω means “to lift up, raise up” or even “be carried away. It is used in Mark 2:12 for the paralyzed man whom Jesus heals and tells to “lift up” his bedroll and walk. []
  3. On this idea of a first burial see Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” Biblical Archaeology Review (Sept/Oct, 1999), who argues that the tomb used by Joseph of Arimathea was a borrowed or temporary cave used for a limited time, pressed by the arrival of the Sabbath, with the intention of completing the rites of burial after the Passover holiday. See also Richard Carrier, “Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day,” as well as his revised version of this article in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, edited by Robert Price and Jeffrey Lowder, pp. 369-392. []
  4. See “The Christians as the Romans Saw Them,” as well as the important study of Deborah Thompson Price, “The ‘Ghost’ of Jesus: Luke 24 in the Light of Ancient Narratives of Post-Mortem Apparitions,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament (2007) 29:287-301. []