The Resurrection: Why are there four Gospel accounts?Written by Subby Szterszky
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The Resurrection of Jesus is the central event on which Christianity stands or falls. It was the core message proclaimed by the apostles and their followers. It was the truth that turned the Greco-Roman world upside down, capturing the hearts and minds of people from every background: Jews and pagans, women and men, servants and elites.
And small wonder. The empty tomb testified that everything Jesus claimed about himself was true. He was indeed God in the flesh, with absolute authority over life and death and everything else in creation. He had the right and the power to forgive sin and grant eternal life to everyone who trusted in him. His Resurrection proved that death had been defeated and the penalty for sin paid in full.
In fact, the Apostle Paul went so far as to argue that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then the entire Christian faith is pointless, and people might as well go on living for the moment, because they have no hope of anything beyond (1 Corinthians 15:12-34).
Given the centrality of the Resurrection, it may seem counterintuitive that it’s recorded in four separate Gospel accounts whose details vary substantially. Why would God choose to preserve it in this form? To answer that, it’s necessary to consider the diverse emphases and purposes of each Gospel account.
Matthew: Sovereign authority
Matthew wrote his Gospel primarily for a Jewish audience, speaking into a cultural context rife with Messianic expectation. His main theme was to show that Jesus was that long-awaited Messiah, a powerful royal figure descended from David, an ultimate monarch who would rule a limitless, eternal kingdom.
That theme of royal divine power pervades Matthew’s account of the Resurrection. Alone among the Gospels, he records the earthquakes that accompanied the death of Jesus as well as his rising, when an angel came down to roll away the massive stone from the tomb. Also unique to Matthew is his description of the other tombs being broken open, with many deceased saints emerging from them and appearing in Jerusalem after Jesus had risen.
Bracketing the Resurrection is the story of the Jewish leaders receiving a squad of Roman guards from Pilate to secure the tomb, and afterward bribing those guards to say that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body. Matthew’s record not only subverts that bit of deception, but it also serves as a symbol of Jesus’ triumph over earthly Roman authority.
Matthew’s theme of sovereign Messianic power finds its climax in the Great Commission. Jesus’ command to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the clearest trinitarian formula in Scripture, an unambiguous claim that Jesus is God himself, equal with the Father. Moreover, Jesus makes the astounding assertion that all authority in heaven and on earth – over galaxies and molecules, angels and humanity – has been given to him, and he promises to be with his disciples eternally, until the end of the age. Although it’s a familiar passage, its implications are staggering.
Mark: Straight to the point
In many places, Mark’s Gospel is as notable for what it omits as for what it includes. Mark was an associate of the apostle Peter and likely wrote his Gospel as a collection of Peter’s memoirs, probably while the apostle was in Rome. With Peter’s voice and a Roman audience in mind, Mark’s writing is more direct and pared down, focusing on action with fewer details and explanations than the other Gospels. Mark’s version of the Great Commission doesn’t mention the Trinity or Jesus’ omnipotence. It merely records the command to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world.
For all that, Mark does provide some details that are unique to his account. While Matthew focuses on the Roman guard at the tomb, Mark mentions that Pilate sent a centurion to make sure Jesus was dead before releasing the body. In so doing, he subverts another bit of popular misinformation, the so-called swoon theory. Mark trusts his readers to know that Roman soldiers could tell the difference between a living body and a dead one.
Despite Mark’s terse style, his Resurrection account contains unique touches of Jesus’ grace. The other Gospels record the conversation between the angels and the women at the tomb, including the command to tell the disciples that Jesus had risen. But only Mark adds the small detail, “tell his disciples and Peter.” It’s a gentle offer of forgiveness to Peter, who had denied Jesus three times on the night of his arrest.
Speaking of the women at the tomb, Mark offers a short discourse on Mary Magdalene, affirming that she was the first person to see the risen Lord, and that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her. In a culture that didn’t value the testimony of women, highlighting one with Mary’s troubled past not only illustrated the grace of Jesus, but also underscored the truthfulness of Mark’s account.
Luke: Many convincing proofs
Luke was an educated gentile, the beloved physician of the apostle Paul, writing to a wider Hellenistic culture using some of the most polished, articulate Greek found in the New Testament. Unlike Mark, he didn’t just stick to the bare essentials. His interest was in gathering historical details and eyewitness accounts and setting them in order to provide incontrovertible evidence – many convincing proofs, as he called them – for the certainty of the Gospel narrative.
This approach carried over into his account of the Resurrection. Luke recounts the scene at the tomb in more detail than either Matthew or Mark. He describes the angels as two men in dazzling apparel. His record of their interaction with the women is fuller and more naturalistic than the other Gospel writers. In addition to Mary Magdalene, Luke lists Joanna, the wife of a high official in Herod’s court, as well as other women who reported back to the disciples. This is the same group of prominent, affluent women whom Luke had mentioned earlier, who had accompanied Jesus and financially supported his ministry. Contrary to cultural bias, Luke presents them as credible witnesses who corroborated the Resurrection.
After this comes the episode on the road to Emmaus, one of the longest descriptions of a post-Resurrection appearance by Jesus, rich in realistic detail. Luke then moves to an account of Jesus’ interaction with the eleven disciples in the upper room. He focuses on the physical evidence as Jesus presents his hands and feet for the disciples to touch, noting that spirits don’t have flesh and bones. To drive home the point, Jesus eats a piece of fish in front of them. As everyone knows, ghosts don’t eat, and if they tried, the food would fall through them and hit the floor.
Luke concludes his Gospel with a brief account of Jesus’ Ascension from the Mount of Olives near the town of Bethany, in the presence of the disciples. He goes into more detail in the book of Acts, reporting that Jesus was lifted up from the ground and disappeared into the clouds. Luke is also the only Gospel writer to mention the Second Coming, in the form of two angels (men in white) who appeared and promised the disciples that Jesus would return from heaven the same way they’d seen him depart into heaven.
John: That you might believe
In contrast to the other Gospel writers, John is an outlier, following a radically different framework for his Gospel than the other three. Writing for a general audience, he expresses the biggest theological concepts in the simplest language. He has much to say about Jesus’ deity, his role as the creative Word of God, and his divine attributes of pre-existence and omniscience. And yet he also paints the most human portrait of Jesus, focusing on his everyday interactions with his disciples and friends.
This emphasis on intimate human moments is on full display in John’s Resurrection account. He shares a memory of his and Peter’s visit to the empty tomb, peering inside before going in, finding the burial cloths and believing that Jesus had risen. He then offers a tender picture of Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb, the first to see Jesus alive, but only recognizing him after he simply says her name, “Mary.”
Similar to Luke, John describes Jesus’ encounter with the disciples in the upper room, showing them the wounds in his hands and side. But John alone recounts the episode with Thomas a week later, who had been absent the first time and refused to believe. Jesus graciously invites Thomas to touch his wounds, after which Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” From this eminently human exchange comes the most overt confession of Jesus’ deity found in the New Testament.
John appears to conclude with a summary statement of his purpose for writing the book: to inspire faith in Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God. But then, he tacks on an epilogue about a fishing trip and breakfast on the shore, after which Jesus reinstates Peter with a series of questions to offset his earlier denials of the Lord. John ends with a quiet, self-effacing anecdote about his own experience with Jesus.
Conclusion: A mosaic of testimony
Why are there four Gospel accounts of the Resurrection? The simple answer might be that the event is too big, with too many implications, to be recorded by one human author. To be sure, the accounts share many common elements: the empty tomb, the testimony of the women, the slowness of the disciples to believe, the importance of Mary Magdalene as the first witness of the Resurrection, and of course, the various appearances of the risen Jesus.
But each Gospel also speaks with its own voice and has its own emphases. Matthew presents the royal power of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of David. Mark cuts to the chase with an unadorned account that rings with truth and the grace of Christ. Luke marshals a wealth of realistic detail to make his persuasive case for the risen Lord. And John paints a warm, human-divine portrait of Jesus interacting with his disciples and friends, so that readers might believe and find life in his name.
This variety of perspectives, agreeing in essence but diverse in details, is exactly what one would expect from any credible set of eyewitness accounts. Taken together, they offer a compelling mosaic of testimony, inspired and preserved by God, to the most important event in the history of the world.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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