The Many Appearances of the Risen Jesus
The first person to see Jesus alive was Mary Magdalene, a woman in the band of followers who had accompanied Him to Jerusalem (Mark 16:9; John 20:1-18). It is altogether surprising that the Gospels should give Mary the role of first witness to the Resurrection. She was, after all, a woman, and few readers would attach much credit to female testimony (1). Moreover, she had a dubious background. She had been possessed by seven devils (Luke 8:2), and as a result she had no doubt descended to crazy, immoral, or sinister behavior. In their zeal to convince readers that Jesus actually rose from the dead, the Gospel writers surely preferred to offer a witness who would command greater respect. Yet rather than conceal Mary's past, Mark is not abashed to say,
Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.
Since stories crafted as religious propaganda would have omitted Mary, her prominence in the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection shows two things: the Gospel writers had respect for truth, and the truth in their judgment was that Mary was in fact the first to see the risen Jesus.
Jesus' encounter with Mary was not at random, but deliberate. For several sound reasons He gave her an honored place among witnesses of the Resurrection.
- Unlike many of the men who followed Jesus, the women stayed as close to Him as they could throughout His ordeal. They accompanied Him to the cross and stood by during the Crucifixion. After He died, they watched as His body was removed from the cross and laid in the tomb (Luke 23:55). Matthew suggests that some of the women including Mary Magdalene kept vigil at the tomb throughout Friday night and perhaps the next day as well (Matt. 27:61). Mary's privilege in being the first to see Jesus was therefore a reward for her faithfulness.
- Mary was in a state of emotional turmoil on Sunday morning (John 20:11-15). Perhaps her grief was more severe than anyone else's. So, we may imagine that Jesus came to her before the others because she had the greatest need of His comfort. As always, He was attentive to the special needs of each person.
Mary was by no means the only person who saw the risen Christ, however. Paul, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, gives a partial list of other witnesses.
1 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;
2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.
3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:
6 After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.
7 After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.
8 And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.
1 Corinthians 15:1-8
Here, Paul rehearses the post-Resurrection appearances of Christ in chronological order. Christ appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve, then to five hundred brethren at one time, then to James, then to all the apostles, and lastly—after a long interval—to Paul. Notice that Paul mentions men only. But though he disregards women, he can direct the reader to more than five hundred witnesses of the Resurrection.
The Gospels note several appearances of the risen Christ that Paul overlooks. When we enlarge our view to take in all the accounts of the Resurrection, we discover that Jesus was seen on at least ten occasions within weeks after His death (2).
- Mary Magdalene saw Him on the Sunday morning following the Crucifixion (Mark 16:9; John 20:14-18).
- Several other women saw Him a short while later (Matt. 28:9-10).
- On the same Sunday, He appeared to Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5).
- Two disciples on the road to Emmaus saw Him late Sunday afternoon (Mark 16:12-13; Luke 24:13-32).
- In the evening of the same day, He came to the eleven remaining disciples (excepting Thomas) as they met in the Upper Room (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36-48; John 20:19-23; 1 Cor. 15:5).
- He came again to the Eleven eight days later—that is, on the next Sunday (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 in Galilee to a gathering of more than five hundred followers (Matt. 28:16-17; 1 Cor. 15:6).
- Sometime in the next few weeks, He revealed Himself to His brother James (1 Cor. 15:7).
- Six weeks after the Resurrection, at the time of His ascension to heaven, He was seen by approximately 120 people, including the Eleven. 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 (3). Then, after admonishing them to evangelize the whole world, He rose into the clouds (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-19; Luke 24:49-53; Acts 1:4-15; 1 Cor. 15:7).
In summary, more than five hundred people saw Jesus after His dead body had been deposited in a sealed tomb. The eyewitnesses included several who left written testimony to the Resurrection, among them Matthew (Matt. 28:16-20), Mark (Mark 16:9-19), John (John 20:19-21:22), Peter (1 Pet. 1:3), and Paul (1 Cor. 15:8).
Harmony of the Four Gospel Accounts
To bolster their assertion that the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection have no historical basis, critics point to discrepancies. For example, Matthew says that several women saw Jesus as they were running to tell the disciples about the empty tomb (Matt. 28:8-9). None of the other Gospels mentions this appearance. Also, whereas Mark says that these women fled from the sepulcher in so much fear that they told no one what they had seen (Mark 16:8), Luke says that they carried the information about the tomb straight to the eleven disciples (Luke 24:9). John, ignoring the other women, reports that after Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found the stone rolled away, she fetched John and Peter, and that after all three returned and looked inside the tomb, she met the Lord in the garden nearby (John 20:1-18). But the discrepancies are merely superficial. Many commentators have shown that the disparate accounts can be blended into an entirely natural harmony. John Wenham's proposals for resolving the discrepancies are the most thoroughgoing and convincing (4).
The Gospel record of the Resurrection must be read with the understanding that Easter Sunday brought forth a complicated and chaotic scene. Many people among both the friends and the foes of Christ were excitedly rushing about, seeking or carrying news. Since each Gospel writer pared down his narrative of this day to convenient simplicity, the four narratives differ and overlap at the same time. To get a full picture, we must fit them together. All the discrepancies disappear if we make three reasonable assumptions.
- Mary Magdalene went to the tomb before dawn with the other women, but as soon as they all spotted the open doorway, she parted from her companions. While they approached and entered the tomb, she fled to find Peter and John (5). After she returned, she met the Lord (6).
- On this same morning the eleven disciples were separated into two groups. Peter and John were together in Jerusalem, where they had come to watch Jesus' trial (John 18:12-16). The other nine were in hiding outside the city, as they had been since their flight on the night of Jesus' arrest (Mark 14:50). They were probably at the house of Mary and Martha in Bethany (7).
- Mark's statement that the women told no one means that they told no one in Jerusalem. As they rushed through the city, they said nothing to the curious on every hand about the amazing sights which had greeted them in the garden—the empty tomb, the great stone heaved aside, and the mighty angel who spoke of Jesus' resurrection. Rather, without dawdling in conversation, they went straight to Bethany, reserving their news for the main band of disciples. Along the way they met Jesus (8). A short while before, He had appeared to Mary outside the tomb, but He could traverse great distances in a moment. After the Lord dismissed the women, they fulfilled their errand. They found the disciples and gave them an account of what they had seen (9).