During my recent friendly and enjoyable conversation with skeptic Matthew Hartke, I mentioned that I might have some “shower thoughts” after our discussion. We were talking about contradictions in the resurrection stories, and while I think I did an okay job defending my points, I got a bit stuck at one spot. We were discussing a chapter in Lydia McGrew’s book Testimonies to the Truth called “Unexpected Harmonies,” which explores the concept of reconcilable variations.
In the 19th century, the apologist T.R. Birks (there I go quoting another long-deceased apologist) defined a reconcilable variation as follows:
“The entire sameness of the narrative, in two or three distinct works, would weaken, and almost destroy the authority of all, except the earliest, since it would be a strong proof that they were mere copies, and that the writers had no independent means of information. On the other hand, positive contradictions would prove that one or other work was inaccurate, and if very numerous and important, would go far to convict them of utter and willful falsehood. And hence the very test of historical truth, in such cases, is found in the substantial unity of the various narratives, their partial diversity, and the reconcilable nature of that diversity, when due allowance is made for the purpose of each writer, and the individual character of their separate works.”TR Birks, Horae Evangelicae pp 269-270
Matthew was arguing that Luke purposefully makes changes to Mark’s Gospel when it comes to the resurrection narratives, and even contradicts himself when it comes to Jesus’ ascension.
What were the women told?
The essential question raised was, “What were the women actually told?” concerning the appearances. Here’s the issue: in Matthew 28:7, the angels inform the women, “Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead. And behold, he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him. See, I have told you.” In Mark 16:7, it says, “But go tell his disciples and Peter that he’s going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”
And when did he tell them that? So, in Matthew 26:32, it says, “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” So, Matthew and Mark record the reminder Jesus gave them and follow it up with an instruction to go to Galilee. Matthew 28 and John 21 report post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus in Galilee.
Luke leaves out the reminder and the instructions. So, here’s the account from Luke 24, verses 5-8: “As they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the man said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen. Remember how he told you while he was still in Galilee that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.’ And they remembered his words and, returning from the tomb, they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest.”
Hartke suggests that changing “while he was still in Galilee” is his way of editing Mark and removing any mentions of appearances in Galilee, and that this is a big strike against his reliability. So to sum it up, let’s see what the synoptic gospels include and leave out:
- Mark reports the reminder of Jesus’ words and the instruction to go to Galilee.
- Matthew reports the reminder of Jesus’ words, the instruction to go to Galilee, and the subsequent appearance in Galilee.
- Luke gives a partial reminder of Jesus’ words, the appearances in Jerusalem, and the ascension.
So, how can we give an account of the omissions? Let’s take a look:
- Mark: The text of the Gospel is either incomplete or intentionally concludes at 16:8. Scholars have different views on this.
- Matthew: Having recorded Jesus’ promise to meet his followers in Galilee, Matthew includes both the instruction to meet him there and the appearance there. His gospel terminates rather abruptly, perhaps due to limited space.
- Luke: Like Matthew, Luke likely filled one scroll with his gospel and compressed many events into one narrative. He could afford to do this since he had a volume two, the book of Acts, which provides a clearer sense of the timeline.
Disappearing Galilee appearances?
Now, to press the objection further: Why does Luke leave out the appearances in Galilee and the instruction to go there? It seems pretty clear that, according to Hartke, that this is a clear indication of Luke deliberately changing the resurrection appearances to be limited to Jerusalem only.
In response, I would simply say that we just don’t know for sure. Luke was not an eyewitness and relied on sources. He may have given priority to material not found in Mark. Luke’s gospel is about the length of one full scroll, so there may not have been space for more.
Another question comes up: Did the disciples head to Galilee? Matthew and John confirm they did, while Mark’s account doesn’t cover this. Luke, on the other hand, doesn’t explicitly mention Galilee, but he doesn’t deny it either. It’s important to note that Luke doesn’t say that his account is a super-comprehensive record of everything that happened after Jesus’ resurrection, contrary to Hartke’s apparent interpretation.
In Acts 1:3, it says, “After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” So, it seems quite clear that Luke is not giving us an exhaustive account of everything that Jesus did after his resurrection. I’ll return to this later because Hartke says that Luke contradicts himself. But we might still wonder, where was the first meeting? Where was the first encounter with Jesus? Was it in Galilee or was it in Jerusalem? Luke 24:36 and following, describes an appearance of Jesus in Jerusalem on the evening of the same day that Jesus rose. John 20:19-29, describes two such meetings in Jerusalem separated by eight days. The rest of these meetings is almost certainly the same one reported by Luke 24, and that’s the one according to John where Thomas was absent.
Plausibly, then, Jesus’ instruction to remain in Jerusalem in Acts 1:4, was said to the disciples after they had returned to the Jerusalem area from Galilee during the forty days in which Jesus remained on the earth. And by all accounts, the ascension occurred from the region of the Mount of Olives near Bethany, so evidently, they went to Galilee and then they came back.
What’s with the disciples doubt?
To steelman this objection, we can press the objection further. In Matthew 28:16-17, it says, “The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, and when they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Now, if the eleven had already met Jesus in Jerusalem, why would some still be doubtful?
There’s yet a further problem, because in Mark 16:7, it says, “Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” If Jesus was going to see his eleven disciples, including Peter, later that evening in Jerusalem, why would the angels tell the woman to take a message to the disciples about meeting him in Galilee? But Jesus could just tell them himself when he met them in Jerusalem later that day.
Here’s a possible explanation, and it’s the one McGrew suggests in her book: At the Last Supper in Matthew 26:32, only the twelve disciples were present when Jesus talked about going to Galilee. So, when the women mentioned seeing Jesus in Galilee, it could have been like a secret code or password because they wouldn’t have known this info otherwise. It served as proof that they had really met the risen Jesus. Also, it’s likely that more than just the eleven disciples were part of the meeting in Galilee.
So, in Matthew 28, when it describes the appearance in Galilee, which was apparently by prior appointment, this was to a larger group than merely the eleven. In Matthew 28:16-17, we read, “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
To wrap it up, I believe that many instances of reconcilable differences in the gospel accounts support the idea that they come from independent sources. Altogether, these differences suggest that the gospel authors are reliable and closer to the actual facts. But, naturally, there will be some pretty stiff resistance to this.
Obviously, Hartke doesn’t find this explanation convincing at all. He and his friends find this to be contrived and say that combining these accounts amounts to “creating another gospel.” Scholars often say that Luke directly copies sections of Mark’s Gospel, adding some extra details from oral tradition or other sources. Occasionally, he trims down Mark, likely because he disagrees with some parts. While I don’t agree with all these claims, they are somewhat reasonable and modest enough.
But, in the resurrection account, Luke takes a hard right turn away from Mark. He introduces a few additional women, totaling five, instead of three. He also changes the location from Galilee to Jerusalem, seemingly without a clear reason. This choice raises questions that redaction apologists should answer. They need to clarify why Luke made these alterations and why he preferred Jerusalem over Galilee. On the other hand, John implies both aspects without directly mentioning Mark or Luke. This is what I tried to emphasize to Hartke.
Hartke’s response was that this change might have fulfilled prophecy. He argued there could be several reasons for Mark’s alteration. Jerusalem held significant prophetic importance in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially in messianic prophecies. By siting the resurrection appearances in Jerusalem, Luke might have aimed to highlight the connection between Jesus as the Messiah and the fulfillment of these prophecies about ruling on David’s throne. Alternatively, it could be suggested that Jerusalem was the religious and political center of Judaism at that time. By having Jesus appear to his disciples in Jerusalem, Luke might have wanted to emphasize the central role of Jesus’ message and authority within Judaism. This theological move might have aimed to strengthen the connection between Jesus and the religious leadership of his time. Another explanation we could cook up would to suggest that Jerusalem was linked to eschatological expectations in Jewish thought. By placing the resurrection appearances in Jerusalem, Luke might have wanted to underscore the eschatological significance of Jesus’ victory over death and the establishment of God’s kingdom. There are tons of reasons one could come up with that are plausible-sounding enough.
In response to this, I’d say that while it’s true that some theologians and scholars have proposed heavy theological reasons for Luke’s decision to move the resurrection appearances to Jerusalem, these explanations are rather speculative and lack explicit textual support within the Gospel of Luke. I believe it’s a good principle not to attribute theological motives to the evangelists when they don’t explicitly state them. The Gospel writers typically don’t shy away from specifically mentioning Old Testament parallels or the fulfillment of prophecies, so why speculate about private intentions for which we have no textual evidence? (For some of Luke’s explicit references of the OT, see Luke 3:4-6, 4:16-21, 22:37, Acts 1:20, Acts 28:25-27, etc.)
In addition, we have to wonder about Luke’s choice to include more women in the narrative, even though their testimony was seen as less reliable in the cultural context. On the other hand, John mainly focuses on Mary Magdalene, even though his Gospel is often seen as the most embellished. He doesn’t seem to bother with emphasizing appearances in both Galilee and Jerusalem or harmonizing Mark’s mentions of forthcoming appearances in Galilee in Mark 14:28 and 16:7 with Luke’s account.
Moreover, if Luke was really putting in the effort to elaborate and enhance the resurrection appearances for apologetic reasons, it’s quite puzzling that we don’t get more details about Jesus’ initial appearance to Peter or James. The mention in Luke 24:34 is rather brief considering how important it is. Additionally, there’s no explanation for why Mary is present at Pentecost, despite numerous chances for Luke to add embellishments or provide some clarity. If Luke’s goal was to create interesting and fanciful stories, you might expect him to include an account of Jesus appearing to his own mother, especially given his early emphasis on Mary. At the very least, he could tell us why she was there. Instead, he shows a lot of restraint.
Most importantly, the redaction view of “he told you while he was in Galilee” in Luke is highly implausible, as it hinges on the assumption that Luke was motivated to keep some reference to Galilee but still felt driven to change it to something other than predicted appearances. But why assume that? It implies a rather weird, unexplained attachment to the word “Galilee” on Luke’s part. If Luke didn’t want to mention Galilee appearances for the reasons Hartke suggests, it would have been much simpler to leave them out entirely instead of inventing an alternative reference to Galilee. Isn’t it possible to think that the angel said both things? No evangelist is claiming to provide a complete account of everything the angel said, and the women who were with Jesus in Galilee are explicitly mentioned elsewhere in the Synoptics.
By my lights, the attempt to uncover theological or literary motives for these differences may seem more ad hoc and less plausible than reasonable harmonization offered by Christians. It appears that Luke is merely recounting what he knows, possibly from sources like Cleopas and others, and the inclusion of additional women, such as Joanna mentioned in Luke 8:3, may be due to his own knowledge he gained while in Jerusalem (Acts 21) rather blatantly contradicting Mark.
So what about the ascension narratives in Luke?
In Luke 24, Jesus rises from the dead and meets his disciples on the same day. However, in Acts 1, also written by the same author, Jesus doesn’t ascend on that day or from the same place. Instead, he spends forty days proving his resurrection to his disciples and then he ascends. So Luke tells the same story twice but with significant differences, suggesting historical accuracy may not be his top priority. Hartke says Luke is obviously contradicting himself, and the forty days represents theological motifs we see elsewhere in Jesus’ wilderness temptation, or Noah’s flood lasting for forty days, or Moses being on Mt. Sinai for forty days, etc.
In response, I’d argue that Luke is doing is telescoping the events, which is a standard rhetorical method of the time. We often condense stories for brevity without altering the facts. Think if you were summarizing a vacation. For instance, you might say, “We hiked, climbed a mountain, went whitewater rafting, and saw bears.” Does that mean you did all that in a day? No. Did you specify different days? No. Did they occur in the exact order you mentioned? Not necessarily. But that doesn’t make it untrue. Luke is doing a similar condensing in his narrative. This practice of telescoping events is common among ancient historians, including Sallust, Lucian, Cicero, and Quintillian. (Historiae, Vera Historia 56-57, De Orateore 3.27.104-105, Institutio Oratoria 8.4) Luke uses this non-fact changing technique elsewhere. He also leaves a four year gap between Acts 12 and 13, for instance.
Furthermore, at the end of Luke, there is some obvious rush happening and a lack of specifics about time. For starters, Luke 24:29 states that the men on the road to Emmaus pressed Jesus to stay with them for dinner because it was already evening and the day was “far spent.” We do not know what that means exactly, but it can hardly mean 3 pm. Jesus then goes inside with them, they take the time to make and eat dinner. That would certainly take some time.
They then recognize him as he breaks bread and disappears. They then immediately go back to Jerusalem, a distance of 60 stadia (Lk 24:13), which is about 6-7 miles. This walk would take more than an hour, if not two. They then talk with the disciples for a while and tell their story (Lk 24:35). Then Jesus appears and reveals himself and they give him some food to show that he’s not a spirit (Lk 24:42-43). Only after all of this does Jesus begin talking to them about the Scriptures, preaching to them a sermon about how his death was predicted in the Scriptures (Lk 24:45). How long did that take? Probably not a few minutes.
Jesus then leads them out to Bethany, a mile or two walk (cf. Jn 11:18). If someone tries to put this all on the same evening, it would probably already be dark by that time, making it difficult for them even to witness the ascension into heaven (Luke 24:51). During that time of year, darkness falls around 7 in the evening. So just going by Luke 24 alone, it doesn’t at all look like all of this happened in one day.
Either Luke is running out of scroll or in a hurry at this point, or he doesn’t appear to have full knowledge yet of exactly how long Jesus was on earth after the resurrection. Luke simply keeps it non-specific and then later clarifies in Acts 1. This doesn’t seem too difficult to explain. If Jesus decided to create another forty-day period to align with other biblical patterns, that fact alone doesn’t necessarily indicate that the accounts are unhistorical. He also appeared to orchestrate his death to coincide with Passover, and while this carries symbolic meaning, the historical fact that he was crucified on Passover is well-established.
When historians reconcile differences in sources like Suetonius, Tacitus, and Dio Cassius, no one accuses them of creating a different history. So why apply this to the Gospels? Harmonizing discrepancies doesn’t mean one is “creating a new Gospel” – that’s a baseless claim. The evangelists aimed to record historical events, and we have many, many reasons to believe they did it well. Exploring their harmonization with the Gospels is a valuable practice, just as it is in secular history. The accusation of “creating a different gospel” through harmonization because you are “doing some religious thing” to make it work out right smacks of scholarly bias against a sound historical approach. It’s a terrible habit of NT scholarship to treat harmonization as mostly worthless and some “apologetics” thing.
In conclusion, I don’t think Luke’s omission of the Galilee appearances is good evidence that the Gospel writers were distorting the facts or creating stories based on theological or literary motives. Harmonization is a reasonable historical practice and not merely a last-ditch effort to uphold inerrancy.
Erik is the creative force behind the YouTube channel Testify, which is an educational channel built to help inspire people’s confidence in the text of the New Testament and the truth of the Christian faith.