I have been doing a sermon series called “Creation, Cradle, Cross, Crown” since the first of November. It was rooted in a story we told in Africa called “Creation to the Cross” which tells the Bible story from Creation to the Fall to the Law, to the Cross, and so on. I thought it might make an interesting sermon series. With a couple of preliminary sermons in November, I covered the Christmas story and then hit the highlights of the life of Christ leading up to Easter. Now, I am taking a few weeks to look at the post-Resurrection appearances of Christ and seeking to finalize the series on June 5, Pentecost Sunday.
This week, I was studying the four Gospels and their accounts of Jesus’ appearances and activities after his resurrection and before the ascension. I did my own “harmony of the Gospels” this week, trying to work the details out. It was very frustrating.
Before I say what I am going to say, let me make one thing perfectly clear. I am all-in on inerrancy. When there is something I don’t understand, that doesn’t make sense, that doesn’t seem to fit together, I do not reject the truthfulness of God’s word. I assume that I do not have all knowledge yet (I know, that is a shock for some of you, but I don’t). I assume that “his ways are higher and his thoughts are higher” and when I stop seeing through a glass darkly, and all is made clear, I will understand. I believe in the truthfulness of the Bible, 100%.
Having said that, and having tried my best, here’s my conclusion.
With the information we have now, there is no way to reconcile the various accounts of the post-Resurrection appearances and activities of Christ.
There are other places where harmonizing the Gospels is problematic, but the post-Resurrection period is the worst. The problems range from slightly difficult to “I can’t see how to overcome this one.” Again, I am not rejecting the faith or the word, but there are some real questions here.
- How many women went to the tomb? John seems to hint it was just Mary Magdalene. Matthew says there were two, Mark says three, and Luke indicates there were several. This can be explained, perhaps, but it is odd that the stories diverge so much.
- How many angels were there and where did they meet the women? Matthew seems to indicate the Angel that rolled away the stone sat on it and spoke to the ladies as they arrived. Mark has the ladies seeing the stone, but only seeing the angel when they enter the tomb and see him sitting on the right, where Jesus had been buried. Luke also has the angelic appearance inside, but there are two angels. John has Mary Magdalene going in by herself, evidently seeing NO angels, reporting to the disciples who have a footrace to the tomb, finding it empty. Then, Mary Magdalene “comes to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses” and encounters Jesus. Meshing the Synoptic accounts is difficult, but syncing up the Synoptics with John is beyond me.
- Did the women tell the disciples? In Matthew, the women were terrified but rushed to tell the disciples of the resurrection. In Mark, they were so terrified that “they said nothing to anyone because they were too frightened.”
- In Matthew, Jesus ordered his disciples to go to Galilee. Did they? Matthew gives little post-Resurrection coverage. Jesus meets with the women who come to his tomb on their way back and gives them a message. “Don’t be afraid! Go tell my brothers to leave for Galilee, and they will see me there.” The disciples then left for Galilee, met Jesus on a mountain, and received the Great Commission. However, Mark, Luke, and John all record several appearances of Jesus to his disciples in Jerusalem. Why did Jesus tell the disciples to go to Galilee and that he would see them there if he was going to appear to them THAT NIGHT in the locked Upper Room?
- Just for kicks, take a piece of paper and the four gospels and try to work out the movements of the 11 disciples and the women (Mary Magdalene and however many others there were) on Resurrection Day – coming and going to the tomb, seeing angels, seeing Jesus. Trying to work all that out is mind-boggling.
- There are other issues. These are the main ones. In general, there are slight, sometimes troubling variations within the Synoptics. John is, as usual, off in his own little world. His account is very difficult to reconcile with the Synoptic accounts.
What is the solution? I don’t really have one. I have some suggestions, but not solutions.
- We should not pretend we have all the answers when we don’t. Skeptics will always find grounds for their skepticism. We do not practice blind faith, but neither does God answer all our questions. There comes a place at which we have to simply say, “I believe” even when we cannot say, “I understand.”
- Perhaps the old “Six blind men and the elephant” story sheds some light. Six blind men touched an elephant and described it. One touched the side and described it as a wall. One touched the horn and called it a spear, another the tail and said it was a rope. Another touched a leg and called it a tree, another the trunk and assumed it was a snake. The last man touched the ear and called it a carpet or a giant leaf. Each man reported his part of the story, what he saw. It wasn’t the whole story.
- Inerrancy does not require each telling of a story to be the “whole truth.” The facts should be true, but likely some will be left out. Each person’s experience was different.
- Our culture is not an orality-based culture in which story-telling is a primary mode of communication. Stylistic and thematic elements are key here. Perhaps part of the problem is that we just don’t understand the way things were. Maybe we are looking for something we shouldn’t.
Maybe you have a solution I don’t have. I know that in glory we will understand and it will all make sense. I believe in the attempt to figure it all out, even if we come to a point where we have to say we can’t work out every detail today.
- Have you struggled with harmonizing Gospel accounts?
- How have you worked out the details?