Did Jesus first appear to the eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee or in Jerusalem behind closed doors?
The Gospels seem to provide conflicting information concerning the location of the Lord’s first appearance to the eleven disciples following His Resurrection.
Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had appointed for them. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted. (Matthew 28:16–17)
Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen. (Mark 16:14)
Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. (John 20:19–20)
So they rose up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, “The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” And they told about the things that had happened on the road, and how He was known to them in the breaking of bread. Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. (Luke 24:33–37)
Does Matthew’s account contradict those of the other gospel writers?
Jesus made numerous appearances after His Resurrection. A quick survey of these appearances will show why these accounts are not contradictory but are actually complementary.
Each of the gospels includes an account of the women discovering the empty tomb. Jesus appeared to the group of women (Matthew 28:9–10) and to Mary Magdalene (John 20:16–17). He also appeared to two followers on the road to Emmaus, and then he appeared to Simon Peter alone, as recorded in Luke 24.
Jesus then made two appearances to the disciples gathered as a group behind closed doors in Jerusalem. The first of these appearances occurred on the evening of Resurrection Sunday and is mentioned by Luke and John. John reveals that Thomas missed out on the first appearance. Jesus returned eight days later to all eleven as recorded in the rest of John 20. Mark 16:14 records this later meeting with the eleven. Jesus repeatedly upbraided His followers for not accepting the word of eyewitness accounts of His appearances. After all, He had already told them on several occasions that He would rise from the dead.
When the angels in the empty tomb and Jesus Himself gave the women messages for His followers, they included a promise that He would see them in Galilee at the place He had appointed. He had prophesied of His coming death and Resurrection, and He had even told His followers where in Galilee they would see Him again. In Matthew 28, both the angels and Jesus gave the women this message to deliver. Then, after a few verses describing how the Jewish leaders tried to cover up the resurrection, Matthew 28:16 states that the eleven went to Galilee.
The accounts in Mark, Luke, and John deal with events in Jerusalem on Resurrection Sunday and then eight days later.
Scripture records two post-Resurrection appearances in Galilee. One is the meeting with seven disciples on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias (Sea of Galilee). The other is the appearance recorded in Matthew 28:16–17. There is no indication of how much time had elapsed between the initial appearances in the Jerusalem area, but at a minimum, there had to have been eight days plus travel time. If the meeting on the lakeshore had also occurred before the appearance on the mountain, then even more time would have passed. The Galilean appearance is logically placed as it follows the two promises about the event mentioned both by angels and the Lord.
Who was present at this meeting on the mountain in Galilee? The eleven were certainly there, but nothing in these verses suggests that they were the only ones. This appearance was very likely the event recorded in 1 Corinthians 15:6 when Christ appeared to more than five hundred brethren at once. Given that a significant amount of time had passed since the Resurrection, hundreds of followers could have received word of the promised appearance and arrived at the pre-arranged place on a mountain there in Galilee.
The verses tell us that the people worshipped Him, but some were doubtful. By this time, Jesus had appeared to the apostles as a group at least twice in Jerusalem, and He appeared to seven of them on the lakeshore. Despite their poor earlier performance, it is unlikely that any of the eleven were still in doubt. But it would not be at all surprising to initially find some lingering doubts in the five hundred. Jesus then told this large group to go and tell the world about Him, just as He had commissioned the smaller gathering of followers back in Jerusalem.
The mountain meeting in Galilee recorded in Matthew 28 was not the final appearance of Jesus. He still had to meet with His half-brother James, according to the passage in 1 Corinthians, as well as all of the apostles. Finally, after 40 days of intermittent appearances (quite possibly more than those recorded), Jesus led His apostles as far as Bethany on the eastern slope of Mount Olivet, not far from Jerusalem, and He ascended into heaven.
Thus we can easily see that Matthew 28:16–17 does not contradict the other passages. The accounts in Mark, Luke, and John deal with events in Jerusalem on Resurrection Sunday and then eight days later. The appearance in Matthew 28 happens later when the eleven and probably hundreds of other followers had traveled to a pre-arranged mountain in Galilee to see their Lord reappearing as He had promised.