Why Are There Multiple Accounts of Jesus’s Resurrection in the Bible?

The four Gospels contain somewhat different accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus.

There are differing details about how many women go to the tomb—just Mary Magdalene in John, Mary along with others in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There are different numbers of angels reported at the tomb—one in Matthew and Mark, two in Luke and John. The sequence of whom Jesus appeared to differs somewhat in the various Gospels. Then there’s the question of where Jesus appeared—in Galilee according to Matthew and Mark, or around Jerusalem according to Luke.

What should we do about these (and other) variations—or even discrepancies—between the Resurrection accounts?

We might try to harmonize them, coming up with an ordered and comprehensive list of events from Jesus’s rising from the dead through his various appearances to his ascension. Some have done with, with varying degrees of persuasiveness.1

On the other hand, we need to be aware that while the Gospels testify to historical events, they are filtered through the memories of those who were there and those who recorded these memories in writing, possibly at second hand. The variations of detail about Jesus’s Resurrection are precisely the sort that are typically found in eyewitness accounts of real events, and suggest that there was no collusion between witnesses.

This, of course, doesn’t “prove” that the Resurrection really happened; there is simply no way to demonstrate absolutely that a unique historical event occurred. There are just varying degrees of plausibility.

We should also be wary of trying to get behind the written record of the Resurrection to the “truth” of what really happened. After all, Christians confess that it is the Scriptures (and not the events behind them) that are inspired by God and meant to lead us to salvation.

One particularly troubling example of an attempt to get at the supposed events behind the Gospels is Harold Lindsell’s reconstruction of Peter’s denial of Jesus in The Battle for the Bible. Given the different Gospel accounts of this event, Lindsell proposed that Peter really denied Jesus six times (and not three times, as the Gospels claimed). And all this was in the name of harmonizing an “inerrant” text.

I am content with what the theologians of the early church called the Fourfold Gospel—four overlapping and coherent (though not quite harmonized) accounts of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus (four chosen out of the multitudes of “gospels” that were available in the first centuries of Christianity).

Since no two people (not even believers in the Resurrection) ever see things in exactly the same way, I find that the very complexity and variation of the Gospels (including the Resurrection accounts) ring true to life.

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Dear Reader,

As Christians, we know through God’s Word how much he loves us—that we are ”fearfully and wonderfully made” and to be image bearers among his expansive, divine creation.

Sadly, this view isn’t always accepted among the church and the world.

Many Christians today still don’t accept the findings of modern science, and that affects everything from caring for God’s creation to getting vaccinated. Many are also departing or rejecting the faith over the perceived science and faith conflict.

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J. Richard Middleton
About the Author

J. Richard Middleton

Richard Middleton (PhD Free University of Amsterdam) is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary (Rochester, NY) and adjunct professor of Old Testament at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology (Kingston, Jamaica). He is past president of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies (2019–2021) and past president of the Canadian-American Theological Association (2011–2014). He holds a BTh from Jamaica Theological Seminary and an MA in Philosophy from the University of Guelph (Canada). Middleton is the author of Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Baker Academic, 2021); A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014); and The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005). He coauthored (with Brian Walsh) The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (IVP, 1984) and Truth is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (IVP, 1995), and has co-edited (with Garnett Roper) A Kairos Moment for Caribbean Theology: Ecumenical Voices in Dialogue (Pickwick, 2013). He has published articles on creation theology in the Old Testament, the problem of suffering, and the dynamics of human and divine power in biblical narratives. His books have been published in Korean, French, Indonesian, Spanish, and Portuguese.