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Jesus in the First Three Gospels by Millar Burrows


Millar Burrows was for many years Professor of Biblical Theology at Yale University Divinity School. He received his M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary, New York, and a PhD. in biblical languages, literature and history from Yale University. He is widely known as the author of The Dead Sea Scrolls and More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and is a contributor to The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, published by Abingdon.

Jesus in the First Three Gospels was published in 1977 by Abingdon. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Chapter 18: The Resurrection


According to all the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus had repeatedly foretold not only his rejection and death but also his resurrection from the dead (Mk 8:31: 9:31: 10:34 and parallels: cf. 14:28; 16:7). Did he indeed expect to be raised from the dead? The evangelists had no doubt that he did. He was the risen Lord, now seated at the right hand of God in heaven and eagerly expected to return at any time. It would not have occurred to them to question his ability during his earthly ministry to foresee what had happened since then. A modern student of the Gospels, however, must consider the development of the tradition and the presuppositions and procedures of the evangelists themselves. We cannot enter into the mind of Jesus. We can and must examine the records.

The idea of resurrection was more familiar to Jesus contemporaries than it is to us — not only the general resurrection for judgment at the end of the age, but separate individual resurrections which we might call reincarnations. Herod Antipas had thought that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead. while others thought that he was Elijah or some other prophet (Mk 6:14-16; 8:28 and parallels). Matthew’s story of the saints who left their tombs and entered the city after Jesus’ resurrection (27:52-53) is another case in point. Against this background it is quite possible that Jesus would tell the disciples that after his death he would rise again.

Is it likely, however, that he went to his death with such an expectation? Why should Peter so violently reject Jesus’ warning of suffering to come if it ended with a promise of joyful victory? The words "and after three days rise again" or the like, which Luke omits in one instance (9:44). seem almost casual and out of keeping with the emotional tone of the predictions of rejection and death.

Within a very few years at most the resurrection had become so prominent and so firmly joined with the crucifixion in Christian faith that Paul would speak of "Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead" (Rom 8:34), and would give as the substance of the gospel he had received and passed on "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures . . .and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve," and to others (I Cor 15:3-5). It would then be entirely natural for a preacher or teacher or writer, reporting Jesus’ predictions of his death, to add almost as a matter of course, "and after three days rise again."

However that may be, the evangelists agree on the fact of the resurrection. All tell of the finding of the empty tomb (Mk 16:1-8; Mt 28:1-10; Lk 24:1-12; cf. Jn 20:1-18), with just enough differences among them to prevent an assured reconstruction of exactly what happened, while at the same time demonstrating the existence of independent traditions. All agree in naming Mary Magdalene as a witness. Mark names with her Mary the mother of James; Matthew says "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary." Luke, having said that the women from Galilee saw Jesus buried and went home to prepare spices and ointments, continues: "On the sabbath day they rested according to the commandment. But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb." Later he names "Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them" as those who told the disciples of their experience at the tomb.

According to Mark, the women were wondering as they went to the tomb who would roll the stone back for them. Finding the tomb open, they entered and "saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed" (Mk 16:5). The "young man" then told them that Jesus had risen, and instructed them, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you" (cf. 14:28).

Matthew’s account is more full. There was another earthquake, he says, and an angel of the Lord came down, rolled back the stone, and sat on it. In the customary language of angelic or divine apparitions (cf. Dan 7:9: 10:6), Matthew describes the angel as "like lightning, and his raiment white as snow." The guards. Matthew continues, "trembled and became like dead men"; but the angel reassured the women in practically the same words as given in Mark. According to Mark, the women fled from the tomb and "said nothing to any one, for they were afraid." Matthew. however, says, "So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples."

Luke’s account is quite different. The women entered the tomb, he says, but did not find the body. "While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel." They said to the women, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" Most manuscripts add, "He is not here but has risen," as in Matthew and Mark. They did not say, however, that Jesus was going to Galilee, but, "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." The women, Luke says. "remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest." After naming the women, Luke continues, "but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them."

Most of the manuscripts and versions have here a verse (Lk 24:12) not found in the "Western" text and therefore omitted by the RSV and the NEB. It reads, "But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves: and he went home wondering at what had happened." Apparently this is a condensed account of an incident reported at greater length in the Gospel of John (20:1-10). where "the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved," goes to the tomb with Peter.

As the women were running to tell the disciples about the resurrection, Matthew says, Jesus "met them and said ‘Hail!’ And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.

Jesus then repeated what the angel had said: "Do not be afraid: go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me (Mt 28:9-10). The Fourth Gospel relates an appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene. who did not recognize him but supposed he was the gardener (Jn 20:11-18).

The guard at the tomb, Matthew reports, went to the chief priests and told them what had happened (Mt 28:11-15; cf. 27:62-66). After taking counsel with the elders, the priests gave the soldiers money and instructed them to say that while they were asleep the disciples had come and stolen the body from the tomb. This, Matthew explains, was the origin of the story still current in his time among the Jews.

Matthew’s final paragraph (28:16-20) records the reunion of Jesus and the eleven disciples in Galilee, according to his promise. When the disciples saw their risen Lord, Matthew says, "they worshiped him; but some doubted." Jesus then delivered to them what is often called "the Great Commission" (cf. Mk 16:15-20): "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." This promise recalls an earlier saying (Mt 18:20): "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

Luke (24:13-35) reports an entirely different series of appearances of Jesus after the resurrection. After mentioning the incredulity of the disciples on receiving the news brought by the women, Luke continues, "That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened."

Assuming that there is some historical basis for this incident, we face a difficult question when we try to determine the location of Emmaus. The indicated distance of about seven miles (literally sixty stadia) from Jerusalem would narrowly limit the possibilities if its accuracy were not made doubtful by a different reading in a few important manuscripts, which read a hundred and sixty stadia, i.e., about eighteen miles. Corresponding to these two readings, traditions have attached themselves to two different places. One, about seven miles northwest of Jerusalem, was venerated at least as far back as the time of the Crusades. About eighteen miles from Jerusalem, however, in the plain near the mouth of a valley, there was a town named Emmaus in the time of the Maccabees (1 Macc 3:40, 57; 4:3-25; 9:50); and it still bore the Arabic name Amwas until it was destroyed a few years ago. In spite of the greater weight of textual evidence, it seems to me practically certain that the latter place was the one referred to by Luke. Eighteen or twenty miles is not too much for a day’s walk. All this applies to the geographical background of the story even if the incident is not historical.

As the two walked along, Luke tells us, Jesus joined them but was not recognized. When he asked what they were discussing, one of them expressed surprise that even a stranger in Jerusalem would not have heard of the events of the past few days. When Jesus asked what had happened, he was told about the prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, and his crucifixion. The disciples had hoped, they said, that he was the Messiah. They told also of the news brought by the women, and said that some of their companions had confirmed the fact that the tomb was empty but had not seen Jesus. Jesus reproved them for not believing what the prophets had foretold. The Messiah, he said, had to suffer these things; and he "interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself."

On reaching Emmaus the two disciples urged the unknown traveler to lodge with them, and he went in and joined them at the table. Only when he "took the bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them," did they recognize him, whereupon he vanished. Returning at once to Jerusalem, they reported their experience and were told that the Lord had appeared also to Simon. Only here and in 1 Corinthians 15:5 is there any mention of an appearance to Simon (Paul calls him Cephas).

An appearance to the group assembled in Jerusalem now follows in Luke (24:36-43). This too is mentioned elsewhere only in 1 Corinthians 15:5, unless Paul refers there to the appearance in Galilee related by Matthew (28:16-20). While the men who had been to Emmaus were telling their story, Luke says, "Jesus himself stood among them." He told the frightened disciples to look at his wounded hands and feet and touch him, and ate a piece of broiled fish.

In the Fourth Gospel there is a similar account (Jn 20:19-29), according to which Jesus showed the disciples his hands and side, and they were convinced. Thomas was not present on that occasion and declared that he would not believe unless he could see and feel Jesus’ wounds for himself. Eight days later Jesus appeared again to the disciples, and Thomas was convinced by the evidence of his own senses.

Luke’s account of the appearance to the disciples at Jerusalem ends with what may be called his equivalent of Matthew’s Great Commission (Lk 24:44-49; cf. Acts 1:1-5; Mt 28:18-20). Jesus reminds the disciples that what was written about him must be fulfilled, and continues: "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high." This looks like a deliberate correction of the immediate return to Galilee stressed in Mark and Matthew. Luke’s final paragraph (24:50-53) says that Jesus led the disciples "as far as Bethany," where he blessed them and "parted from them, and was carried up into heaven." This is more fully related in the book of Acts (1:6-1 1).

We do not know how the Gospel of Mark originally ended. If verse 8 of chapter 16, ending with the clause, "for they were afraid," was not Mark’s concluding sentence, what followed it was lost very early. The oldest manuscripts have different endings. What is commonly called the longer ending (16:9-20) appears in most but not all of the oldest and most important manuscripts and versions and became the standard text of later centuries. Instead of it, however, or combined with it, a few important manuscripts have a shorter ending, which reads: "But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation." Both endings differ notably in style from the rest of the Gospel of Mark and can only be considered attempts to supply a suitable conclusion to what seemed incomplete.

The longer ending includes a unique promise that those who believe will cast out demons, be immune to the venom of serpents and to poisons, and heal the sick by laying their hands on them (Mk 16:17-18). A brief statement of the ascension (v 19) ends with the assertion that Jesus "sat down at the right hand of God" (cf. Ps 110:1; Mk 12:36; Acts 2:33-35; 7:56; Rom 8:34). The last verse (v 20) says that the disciples "went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen."

The Fourth Gospel has another appearance of the risen Jesus in Galilee (In 21:1-23), not on the mountain mentioned in Matthew but by the Sea of Tiberias (that is, the Sea of Galilee). It is told in the appendix (chapter 21). Seven disciples, including Nathanael, who was not one of the twelve, and two others, whose names are not given, participated in a miraculous catch of fish with the help of the risen Christ, whom they did not recognize until "that disciple whom Jesus loved" said, "It is the Lord!" Reaching the shore, the disciples found a charcoal fire burning, and Jesus bade them bring some of the fish and have breakfast. He then gave them bread and fish, but it is not said that he ate with them.

With these varied accounts we must compare Paul’s survey of the tradition that he had received (1 Cor 15:5-8). After recording that Jesus "appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve," Paul continues: "Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me." The appearances to James and to more than five hundred people are not referred to anywhere else in the New Testament. Paul’s account was written only about twenty years after the death of Jesus, and is thus probably earlier than the earliest of the Gospels by ten years or more. This makes it all the more noteworthy that Paul includes his own vision on the road to Damascus among the resurrection appearances, with no suggestion that it differed in kind from the others (1 Cor 9:1; Gal 1:15-17; cf. Acts 9:3-9; 22:6-11; 26:12-18).

Through all this confusing conglomeration of traditions three emphases stand out distinctly. The first is the stress on the incredulity of the disciples when confronted with the manifestations of the risen Christ. Such surprise may seem strange if Jesus had told them that he would rise again, but perhaps it was only natural.

Another emphasis in several of the stories is the reality and identity of Jesus’ body. To convince the disciples that he was not a ghost, he showed them his hands and feet, or his side, and told them to touch him and satisfy themselves that he had flesh and bones. He is even said once to have eaten in their presence (Lk 24:43; cf. Acts 10:41).

At the same time, equal stress is laid on the difference between the risen Christ and the Master the disciples had known. Repeatedly they failed to recognize him. In Luke (24:18) the disciples on the road to Emmaus think the traveler who has joined them is a visitor to Jerusalem.

The Synoptic Gospels do not say, as the Fourth Gospel does twice (Jn 20:19, 26), that the doors of the room where the disciples assembled were shut when Jesus "came and stood among them." Luke does say that as soon as the two at Emmaus recognized him "he vanished out of their sight" (24:31); and while they were relating their experience to the others at Jerusalem (vv 36-37) he "stood among them" so suddenly and silently that "they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit." In short, the body in which Jesus appeared was the one that had been laid in the tomb, but altered.

What may be called the standard view of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:3, 9; 2:24, 32-33) involves three stages: the empty tomb, the forty days of intermittent association with the disciples, and the ascension to the right hand of God. Paul, our earliest witness, mentions none of these. He tells of appearances to many but speaks of "Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God," as though the resurrection and the exaltation to heaven were immediately connected (Rom 8:34). In fact, apart from the circumstantial account in Acts, the ascension is mentioned only at the end of Luke’s Gospel (where the text is doubtful) and in the longer ending of Mark (Lk 24:51; Mk 16:19).

Such are the records. What really happened? It has been fashionable lately to shrug that question off with platitudes about the inevitable subjectivity of historical judgments. As a preventive of dogmatism such considerations have their value, but they should not be used to evade responsibility for defining the limits of our knowledge and determining as far as we can the possibilities of the matter.

When we try to clarify our ideas on this subject, there are several important points to be kept in mind. One is that if we wish to come as close as possible to historical fact, we shall not do it by supposing that the faith of the first Christians was based on imposture and fraud. Of all conceivable explanations, that is the least plausible. In the history of religions there are demonstrable instances of oracles and miracles fabricated by professional religious promoters and officials. Far more often, however, legends and superstitions have been and are caused by wishful thinking and self-deception.

If we approach the narratives in the spirit of serious research, recognizing that they are at least in part legendary, but rejecting the assumption of deliberate imposture, we can hardly avoid the impression that something extraordinary must have happened to convince the disciples that Jesus had been dead but was alive again. That they did believe this, few if any competent historians would deny.

The question whether Jesus really came back to life cannot be answered by historical evidence. It is outside the area accessible to historical research. In all probability the Christian church would never have existed or survived without the conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead. It is hard to believe that the whole history of Christianity is grounded in a delusion, but we cannot prove that this was not so. Each person’s position on that question necessarily depends on his presuppositions, his understanding of the kind of universe we live in and God’s relation to it.

On that basis, speaking only for myself, I cannot believe that Jesus came back to life with the body that had been crucified and buried. What matters, after all, is that he is not dead but alive now. If he belonged to a different order of being from mankind, what is incredible and impossible for us might be possible for him; but then what bearing would his resurrection have on what is in store for humanity? How could it have such significance as Paul (1 Cor 15:12-15) insists it has? In explaining the resurrection of believers. Paul emphasizes the distinction between the physical body. which is buried, and the spiritual body, which will be raised (vv 35-50); and he says that Jesus has risen as "the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (v 20).

Assurance that Jesus was alive again was found by the disciples in experiences which they took to be personal encounters with him. What were these experiences? What was Paul’s experience? Were they merely hallucinations brought about by mental and emotional stress? We do not have sufficient data for a psychological or physiological analysis. Even if we did, such an analysis would not necessarily be a full explanation.

The more the disciples endeavored to convince others of the reality of their experience, the more they would stress the identity of the risen Lord and the crucified Jesus. This might easily lead to emphasis on the physical reality of his body. The idea of his bodily presence might then suggest a bodily translation to heaven and a physical, bodily return (Acts 1:1 1).

Perhaps the tradition of the empty tomb grew out of this chain of ideas. That the tomb was actually entered and found empty is of course not impossible. The use of a new tomb near the place of execution might have been only a temporary measure taken in view of the approaching Sabbath. Guesses of this sort, however, are unnecessary. If it was believed that Jesus had appeared bodily to the disciples and had been taken up bodily to heaven, this would imply that he had left the tomb, and that inference would be read back into the accounts of what had happened when the women went to the tomb. At some time, somehow, the realization of what the angel is reported to have said to the women was borne in upon some of the mourners: "He is not here: he is alive."

To the disciples the resurrection meant that all was not lost; Jesus was not dead but living, not defeated but triumphant; he was Messiah after all. They were not forsaken and alone; he was with them (Mt 28:20). He was also reigning with the Father in heaven (Acts 2:33; 7:55-56); and at the end of this age he would return to judge the world (10:42; 17:31) and inaugurate the eternal kingdom of God on earth. Paul and later writers found also in the resurrection of Jesus assurance of resurrection for believers (I Cor 15:12-23).

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