Some people assert that the Gospel accounts of the locations, witnesses, and timing of the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus are contradictory. Scripture exhorts us to be always prepared with answers (1 Peter 3:15) for the hope that is in us. Since these answers and our eternal hope rest on the authenticity of Christ’s Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:17), we need to sort through some of the “many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3) Scripture catalogs. As the annual time of our celebration of our Lord’s Resurrection draws near, presented here is a defense and proposed timeline of some of the most important events in history.
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, emphasis added)
Did Jesus appear to the eleven on a mountain in Galilee or in Jerusalem behind closed doors? Does this account in Matthew contradict those in Mark, Luke, and John?
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)
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)
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)
Following His Resurrection from the dead, Jesus made a number of appearances to his followers—no less than ten of these are recorded in Scripture. Beginning on Resurrection Sunday, He “showed himself alive . . . by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3, KJV) and instructed His apostles and many other followers periodically for forty days. He then ascended from Mount Olivet, near Jerusalem, while the apostles watched (Acts 1:9–12). To sort out the verses in question, we need to examine several appearances in terms of when and where they occurred and who witnessed them.
Paul included a summary statement in 1 Corinthians 15 that provides information about these appearances and others unrecorded in the Gospels or Acts.
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:3–7)
We know that those appearances include a visit with Cephas (Peter), to “the twelve” after that, and subsequently to over five hundred people at once, most of whom were still living eyewitnesses at the time Paul wrote his letter.
Some may point out that with Judas dead Paul was wrong in referring to “the twelve.” However, by the time Paul wrote this letter, Matthias had replaced the betrayer (Acts 1:20–26). Notably, the eleven agreed that the replacement had to be a man who had been with them from the time of the Lord’s baptism until the day He ascended.1 In fact, one of the key purposes of this appointment was that the new apostle be a witness to the Resurrection. So by the time Paul wrote his epistles, Matthias had joined “the eleven” and was himself a witness of the resurrected Christ, so it is perfectly accurate to refer to this group as “the twelve.” This scene is a reminder that Jesus had many other followers besides the select apostles.
In order to reconcile all four Gospel accounts of the women’s actions, we need to focus first on the earliest Resurrection Sunday appearances. Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20 each open with the arrival of the women (including Mary Magdalene) at the tomb.2 They find it empty with the stone rolled away.
We propose that Mary Magdalene separated from the other women after the initial visit to the tomb. It seems that she hastened off to find Peter and the “other disciple” (John). The other nine disciples were apparently not with Peter and John that morning and were informed of the empty tomb by the other women.3 John 20:1–2 tells us that Mary Magdalene told them the Lord’s body was missing. After Peter and John viewed the empty tomb and departed, Mary Magdalene remained behind weeping, saw the angels in the tomb, asked about the missing body, and then had her own conversation with Jesus Himself. In John 20:17 Jesus sent her off to tell His brethren that He is alive, and verse 18 states that she obeyed. Mark 16:9–11 adds that Mary Magdalene was the first to whom the Lord appeared and that the disciples did not believe her story.
Meanwhile, the other women, finding the stone rolled away, entered the tomb and saw an angel sitting on the right. Suddenly they realized there were two angels, as Luke recorded. Matthew and Mark just mention one of them, perhaps focusing on the one who was speaking (Matthew 28:5–7; Mark 16:5–7; Luke 24:4–8). The angel tells the women to go tell the disciples and Peter—alluding to the estrangement of Peter after his denial and suggesting he wasn’t with the larger group—that Jesus was risen and would see them in Galilee.
Matthew 28:8–10 states that the women took off running to find the disciples. They may have just missed Peter and John, who were on their way to the tomb. Evidently while these women were en route to find the disciples in the city, Peter and John viewed the empty tomb, and Mary Magdalene had her encounter with Jesus. After appearing to Mary Magdalene, Jesus visited the women who were running to the city, and He reinforced the message that they should go tell His brethren that they would see Him in Galilee. Perhaps Jesus made this personal appearance because they were so terribly afraid and too fearful to speak to anyone (Mark 16:8). After He met them, they joyfully delivered the message. Luke 24:9–11 summarizes the fact that “the eleven and all the rest” ultimately heard about Christ’s Resurrection from all the women, including Mary Magdalene. Yet no one believed them.
Matthew 28:11–15 tells us of another important event on that Sunday morning. The guards told the chief priests what had happened. With the help of bribes in the right places, the chief priests hatched and spread the tale that the disciples had stolen the body while the guards slept. In so doing they confirmed for all of history that the tomb was really empty.
The events described in the remaining verses in Matthew 28 did not occur on that Sunday. Matthew 28:16 reveals that the disciples went away into Galilee—over a day’s journey at the time—prior to the appearance recorded in verse 17. So this event followed some of those described in the other Gospels.
Jesus made two other recorded appearances to individuals before He ever appeared to the eleven as a group. The first is recorded in Luke 24:13–35 and briefly in Mark 16:12–13. After hearing the women’s report and Peter and John’s account of the empty tomb, Cleopas and his companion set out on the road to Emmaus. During their trip they met with Jesus and were treated to an eye-opening Bible lesson as Jesus explained the Old Testament Scriptures that had been fulfilled by His suffering, death, and Resurrection. When the pair discovered that they had been breaking bread with Jesus, they hurried back to the city to report to the group. Upon arrival, they learned that the Lord had also had a personal meeting with Simon Peter. That meeting with Peter is reported in Luke 24:34, but we have no other details about it.
Finally we come to the verses in question. By this time it is Sunday evening. Luke 24:33 tells us that the Emmaus road pair reported to “the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them.” But we know Thomas was not present when Jesus made His appearance to this group. Perhaps Thomas stepped out for some reason, or just wasn’t with them at the time and “the eleven” was a term used as a general description of the group of disciples once Judas had died. John 20:26 tells us that Thomas had to wait another eight days for Jesus to appear to the group again.
Matthew did not record any of Christ’s appearances on that day to “the eleven” while still in the city, but Mark and Luke contain this information. We know from Luke’s account that other people were also in attendance with the disciples when Jesus ate in their presence, proving His body was alive again (Luke 24:42). During these two Jerusalem appearances He assured His followers that He was indeed alive.
The Galilean appearances are not recorded in Mark and Luke but are described in Matthew 28:16–17 and John 21. Matthew 28:16 records that the eleven went to Galilee, evidently waiting for Jesus to appear as He’d promised in the message delivered by the women. According to John 21, Peter and six others decided to go fishing. Jesus instructed them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. When the disciples came ashore they found Jesus cooking breakfast for them. Jesus had His well-known “feed my sheep” conversation with Peter and told him about his future martyrdom. John mentions that this was “the third time Jesus showed Himself to His disciples after He was raised from the dead,” meaning that it was the third time He appeared to them as a group (John 21:14). The first meeting was with the eleven minus Thomas, and the second meeting was when Thomas was present.
The appearance on the appointed mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16–17) took place sometime after the shoreline appearance. These verses actually pick up the narrative of the chapter quite logically, since a few verses earlier Jesus had told the women to tell His brethren they’d see Him in Galilee. After the parenthetical comments about the story the Jewish leaders concocted to explain away the missing body, the account takes us to Galilee, to the appearance just promised.
Many suspect that this meeting on the mountain in Galilee was the occasion in which Jesus appeared to over five hundred people at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6). By this time word of Christ’s promised appearance would have spread among His many followers and given them time to arrive. Matthew 28:16–17 does not specifically state that others were present with the disciples, nothing in the verse precludes the possibility that more followers had gathered there. Seeing Jesus there, the disciples worshiped Him, although others still were doubtful. The eleven had by now seen Jesus more than once, and some had even eaten with Him, so “some doubted” likely refers to others who had not seen Him before.
We learn from 1 Corinthians 15:7 that Jesus met with His half-brother James after appearing on the mountain. While we cannot be sure of the place of this meeting, it makes sense that it would have happened in Galilee, since that is where Jesus and James grew up, and where James shows up in the Gospel narratives (Matthew 12:46–50; cf. Matthew 13:55). Wherever this occurred, it seems to have been a catalyst for James, who was a skeptic (John 7:5), to believe that his half-brother truly was and is the Son of God.
1 Corinthians 15:7 also explains that Christ was seen by all the apostles one more time after His visit with James. This event is recorded in Acts 1 (cf. Matthew 28:18–20; Mark 16:14–19; Luke 24:44–53), Jesus led the apostles as far as Bethany on the eastern side of Mount Olivet near Jerusalem. There He gave them their final instructions before He ascended into heaven.
The Apostle Paul stated, “Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.” This appearance occurred while Paul (then called Saul) was traveling to Damascus on a mission to persecute Christians (Acts 9:1–9; 1 Corinthians 15:8).
As the proposed timeline above shows, there are absolutely no contradictions in the accounts of the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus. Like a good reporter piecing together a story from reliable eyewitnesses, we must examine all the eyewitness accounts recorded in God’s Word, realize by faith that for Scripture to be reliable they must all be true, and then see how they fit together without any contrivances. Together, these accounts tell us about the most important truth in the history of the world: Jesus Christ the Son of God died for our sins and rose again, conquering sin and death for our salvation and for the glory of God. And those who did not see Him—like us—have also been called to believe on Him and are promised the incredible blessing of eternal life for that belief (1 Peter 1:8–9).