Did the Resurrection Really Happen? – Program 4

By: Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, John K. Naland; ©1989
Do Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all give different accounts of who visited the tomb that first Easter Sunday morning? What about when and where Jesus appeared to his disciples? Is there any way to reconcile the accounts?

Who Went to the Tomb Easter Sunday Morning?


What proof is there that Jesus Christ really rose from the dead? John’s guests for this debate are U.S. Diplomat Mr. John K. Naland, who is a foreign service officer currently assigned to the United States Embassy in San Jose, Costa Rica. Mr. Naland is skeptical about Jesus’ resurrection and has argued against the historical accounts in his article in The Free Inquiry, America’s primary secular humanist magazine.

Presenting the evidence for the resurrection will be Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, a practicing trial lawyer both in Great Britain and in America. He holds two Ph.D.s, first from the University of Chicago, and a second doctorate from the University of Strasbourg, France, plus seven additional graduate degrees in law, theology, library sciences and other fields. He has written over 125 scholarly journal articles and authored 40 different books.

We invite you to stay tuned to find out for yourself if there is solid historical evidence that will convince a skeptic that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Ankerberg: Welcome. During this part of our debate, you’ll hear three questions many non-Christians ask about the resurrection accounts. First, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who went to the tomb on Easter morning and when did they go? Second, after Jesus’ resurrection, do the accounts contradict each other in stating where He appeared to His disciples? Third, do Matthew, Mark and Luke contradict each other in reporting the message the angels gave concerning Galilee?
Now, of these three questions, let’s begin with the first. Here’s how our guest, Mr. John K. Naland, put it during the debate:
Naland: As I said in a previous program, the problem is, in this case, from the Christian point of view we have too many facts. Okay, the first question: Who went to the tomb? Was it Mary Magdalene alone? Was it Mary Magdalene with another woman? Was it Mary Magdalene with three women? Was it Mary Magdalene with five women?

Ankerberg: Now let’s examine this. The critics cannot see any way to harmonize four specific passages concerning who came to the tomb Easter morning. Those passages are: Matthew 28:1, where Matthew states, “After the Sabbath at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.”
Mark reports one more woman visited the tomb for we read in Mark 16:1-2: “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.”
Luke reports in Luke 24:1: “On the first day of the week very early in the morning the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.”
And finally, John 20:1 the apostle John writes, “Early on the first day of the week while it was still dark Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.”
Reading these accounts, the critics conclude that the writers contradicted each other concerning the number of women who went to the tomb. Matthew mentions two women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary; Mark mentions three women – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome; Luke simply mentions the women in general; while John mentions only one woman – Mary Magdalene.
Now, the critics believe there is no way to harmonize these four accounts. But notice, none of the gospel writers say it was just “one” woman or “only” two women, or “only” three women who went to the tomb. Each writer describes those he wants to recognize, either because of a specific emphasis he has or because that is all the information he knows. If one of the four writers had said, “Only so and so went to the tomb” and another writer said, “Only somebody else specifically went to the tomb,” then we would have a contradiction.
Now, in writing our letters today, we describe people the same way the gospel writers did back then. Suppose after a day long family gathering your grandmother, mother, and sister all write a letter to your brother at college describing what happened at a birthday party. In writing about the party, probably your grandmother would say something like, “I was so glad Sue’s family and Tom’s family were able to come to the party.” Whereas your mother in her letter would probably write a little more specifically, identifying both the husband and the wife. For example, she might write, “Sue and Jim were there; Tom and Karen came later.” But even then, your mother probably wouldn’t mention all the children that came to the party.
Finally, your sister in her letter would probably mention nothing about the adults or little kids but concentrate only on describing the dates that the other cousins had brought to the party.
Now, the brother in receiving the three different letters at college would not expect his grandmother, mother, or sister to each list all the individual people present at the party before making their general comments. So why do the critics insist the disciples must do so in their accounts? The gospel writers are not giving a complete description of every single person that went to the tomb but only those persons they think important to mention in describing what happened when Jesus arose from the dead. Can their accounts be harmonized just the way they stand? The answer is, “Yes.” Here is just one way to do so.
Probably all five of the women mentioned in the accounts planned Saturday to meet at Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning. Early Sunday morning, each of them leave their homes at approximately the same time. Mary arrives first, just a bit ahead of her friends. She sees that the stone is rolled away and that the tomb is empty and immediately decides to run and tell Peter and John. She leaves before her friends arrive. Now, if this happened, John would be correct in reporting that Mary had reached the tomb first. Luke, in talking generally about all the women, Matthew choosing to refer to two of the women, and Mark, choosing to identify three of the women going to the tomb on Sunday morning, would also be correct. This way all the accounts would agree and complement each other.
But next, the critics allege that the writers contradicted each other in reporting the specific time the women went to the tomb. Matthew says the women went at dawn, while Mark says they went very early, just after sunrise. The critics insist this is a contradiction. But the words “at dawn” include “just after sunrise.” If you say you went to the beach at dawn, those hearing you would understand you were talking about anytime from several minutes before sunrise till several minutes after sunrise. There is no contradiction between Matthew and Mark.
But then, the critics charge that Luke disagrees with Matthew and Mark because he states it was “very early in the morning,” not at dawn or just after sunrise. But doesn’t “very early in the morning” include dawn and just after sunrise, the very descriptions given by both Matthew and Mark? When one gets up very early in the morning, this can include a significant span of time, certainly at least half an hour before dawn until just after sunrise; therefore, Luke does not contradict anything Matthew or Mark says.
But finally, the critics charge John certainly contradicts the others. John states, “While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.” How can this phrase be compatible with “at dawn” or “just after sunrise”? Well, consider the normal use of language. “While it was still dark” can describe conditions that exist at dawn. Anyone who has been up at dawn certainly knows it is not the full light of day. In fact, you know that depending on the weather conditions, it can be quite dark when the dawn is just breaking or just after sunrise.
Also, keep in mind that each gospel writer does not tell us whether he is describing the period of time at which the women left their houses or that period of time in which they were traveling from their houses to the tomb, or the point in time when they actually were arriving at the tomb. We will get a consistent and coherent picture if we allow the first departures of the women as being in the dark, and the last arrivals as being before full sunrise.
In conclusion, whether we are considering the number of women at the tomb or the time at which it was said they went to the tomb, it is clear that there is no contradiction between the gospel accounts. They complement each other.

Naland: As I said in a previous program, the problem is, in this case, from the Christian point of view we have too many facts. Okay, the first question: Who went to the tomb? Was it Mary Magdalene alone? Was it Mary Magdalene with another woman? Was it Mary Magdalene with three women? Was it Mary Magdalene with five women?
Montgomery: All of the personages mentioned in those accounts were there at one time or another.
Naland: It must have been a pretty busy scene with people going back and forth.
Montgomery: It undoubtedly was.
Naland: Did Peter go to the tomb?
Montgomery: As far as we know, yes.
Naland: You see, I could run through this whole permutation here, but…
Montgomery: But you yourself have made it unnecessary to do this because you’ve said in your article that, “Even though there may be some difficulty in reconciling the details, there obviously is something behind this.” You’ve said that the experiences that these disciples had certainly point to something veridical that brought the whole thing about. So, you mustn’t go back and get bogged down in the question of details.
Naland: Okay. Let’s go forward then. Okay. What I’ve written in there is that the only thing the sources disagree on is who, when, where, and how, which is quite a bit. They agree on what: that someone experienced a risen Jesus. But they totally disagree on who it was, when it was, where it was…
Montgomery: Excuse me, that is in your phraseology. What the accounts agree upon is that He rose again from the dead. You have translated this into “that people had an experience of.” The accounts do not present it subjectively, the accounts present it objectively. In fact, they see the disciples as going back to fishing, totally discouraged, and it’s only as a result of the impact of the resurrection that they come around and they become the missionaries that turned the Roman world upside down.
Naland: Okay, I’ve got you right here. Okay, you admit that at least one of the authors says that the disciples went back to Galilee to continue their previous occupations.
Montgomery: Sure! And they’re confronted by Jesus there.
Naland: So that was the first time He appeared to them, or was it Jerusalem?
Montgomery: Oh, heavens, I don’t know whether it’s the first time or the second time.
Naland: Well, see here, you see? One book says He appeared on Easter in Jerusalem.
Montgomery: But you see, these are complementary; that is to say, there’s no reason why the risen Jesus couldn’t have turned up in Cleveland if He’d wanted to.
Naland: Okay. But…
Montgomery: I mean, He can turn up in Galilee as well as in Jerusalem. I don’t know in what order He turned up in the two places.
Naland: Well, the gospels tried to tell us, and one says that He appeared on Easter, the day of the resurrection, in Jerusalem.
Montgomery: Fine. No problem.
Naland: But then why would they go back to Galilee and start fishing again?
Montgomery: I have no idea.
Naland: The reason you have no idea is because you are not able to properly read the gospels because you have this fixed view.
Montgomery: To the contrary! My view is that you’ve got at least eleven apostles plus a whole slew of other disciples. And it isn’t required in the least to say that all of them were there in Jerusalem at one point, Jesus saw them all, and therefore there was no reason for any of them to go off to Galilee. The fact is, some went to Galilee, some stayed there, Jesus appeared to both of them and maybe to many others who were in different places. You see, you’re reading this – and you’ll pardon my saying so – in a “wooden Fundamentalist manner.” I’m trying to take these accounts as one would take several accounts of any event as given by a number of witnesses. And so, of course, they’re going to be describing different groups under different circumstances. They are complementary, they are not contradictory. And none of them is complete. None gives the total picture.
Ankerberg: On the post-crucifixion appearances as they are recorded, you make a dichotomy, you make a differentiation between the Jerusalem appearances, in other words where Jesus is said to have appeared in Jerusalem to His disciples, and that about in Galilee. And you actually said, and I want you to tell me why you said it, “This author [referring to Luke] actually reworked a key section of his received source material in order to delete any hint of a Galilean appearance and later specified that the risen Jesus ordered the apostles not to leave Jerusalem until after his ascension.” Now, this…
Naland: What don’t you find in the Bible?
Ankerberg: Well, that was what I was going to ask you: what you were saying…
Montgomery: I’ve never come across a passage that said, “And now I reworked the material in the following fashion.”
Naland: Okay, let me give you the assumption behind that.
Ankerberg: Yes.
Naland: I’m assuming, with most scholars, that Mark came first. Okay? And so if Mark came first and if Luke had a copy of Mark, and if we know that Luke borrowed or used Mark as a source, so you take, and you have to do this side-by-side, you take what Mark says about that event, and you take what Luke says about that event. And if Mark says, “Go to Galilee and you will see me” and Luke says, “You will see me as I told you when I was in Galilee.”

Ankerberg: Now, do the gospel accounts contradict each other in reporting where Jesus appeared to His disciples? Mr. Naland says in his article that Luke places all of Jesus’ resurrection appearances in Jerusalem, whereas Matthew places them all in Galilee. Then Mr. Naland concludes the writers don’t agree and are contradicting each other in reporting these different geographical locations.
Well, examine the evidence for yourself and see what you think. First, Luke reports in his second book, the book of Acts, that “Jesus, after His suffering, showed Himself to these men 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.” [Acts 1:3]
Now, if Luke flat out states that Jesus appeared many times over a period of 40 days, why do the critics charge that the gospel writers can’t possibly be telling the truth when they report Jesus appeared in different places at different times? Let’s look at what the four gospel writers reported. Matthew records both a Jerusalem appearance and a Galilean appearance. In Matthew 28:9 he states, “Suddenly, Jesus met them [speaking about the women in Jerusalem].” In Matthew 28:16 we read, “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go, and when they saw Him, they worshipped Him.”
Now, John knew of at least three appearances Jesus made to His disciples because he says so. In John 21:14 we read, “This was now the third time Jesus appeared to His disciples after He was raised from the dead.” John records both Jerusalem and Galilean appearances.
In John 20:14 we read that Mary, while at the tomb, turned around and saw Jesus standing there. Later that evening, according to John 20:19, Jesus appeared again in Jerusalem, but this time to the disciples. We read, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them.” Then a week later, John reports another appearance of Jesus to the disciples, again in Jerusalem, but this time Thomas was present with the others.
In John 21:1 we find John describing a fourth appearance of Jesus, but this time Jesus appears to the disciples in Galilee. Seven disciples met and talked with Jesus there and John describes who they are. In brief, John knows about and reports both Jerusalem and Galilean appearances of Jesus in his account.
Now, Luke in his gospel records appearances of Jesus that take place both inside and outside of Jerusalem. First, he writes of Jesus’ appearance to the two men on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13. Then we read in Luke 24:36 of Jesus appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem. No critic should conclude that because Luke only cites these two appearances he is unaware of Jesus’ other appearances or is saying Jesus only appeared in and near Jerusalem. Why? Because in his second book, the book of Acts, Luke specifically states he is aware that Jesus appeared to people over a period of 40 days, giving many convincing proofs that He was alive.
Now, Mark includes Jesus’ appearances in Jerusalem to the women. In Mark’s appendix we read of Jesus’ appearances to the two men on the road to Emmaus, His appearance to the eleven disciples as they are eating, and finally we learn of Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven.
In order to criticize Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the critics have falsely accused them of saying Jesus “only” appeared in Jerusalem or “only” appeared in Galilee. If any of the writers had stated this, then, of course we would have had a contradiction. But not one of the four sets limits of Jesus’ appearances nor demands by what they record that Jesus could not appear in some other geographical location.

Naland: I think you’re completely missing what happened.
Ankerberg: Okay, tell me what happened.
Naland: Look at Luke and Acts and you will see that the author of those two, if it was one person, put the appearances in Jerusalem, and in Acts Jesus is said to charge the apostles “not to depart from Jerusalem while I am with you.”
Ankerberg: Yes, there’s a question that you have here. You have assumed that you have the time frame exactly the same in each one of those places where…
Montgomery: And Jesus was around for 40 days after His ascension, isn’t that so?
Naland: That’s what Acts says, but Luke says that He went to Heaven on Easter.
Montgomery: Well, hang on, hang on. Hang on. The time period is not given there. The time…
Naland: But there are connecting phrases, albeit in English, maybe you can tell me in Greek it’s different, but in English the connecting phrases are…
Montgomery: “He did such and such and He ascended into heaven.”
Naland: Right.
Montgomery: Which, of course, is perfectly true, but…
Naland: They had been walking down a road, and then they say, “And He ascended to heaven.”
Montgomery: Oh, but you can’t assume that those events didn’t occur at the end of the 40-day period. I mean, you’ve got to deal with these passages in order to see them as integrative. I mean, look, they were written by people who knew each other.
Naland: Right.
Montgomery: They were in circulation among those same people. Therefore, to assume that one person is saying “40 days” and another is saying “24 hours,” and that that wouldn’t have bothered anyone is utterly unrealistic. These are complementary accounts.

Ankerberg: The critics ask, “Why would the disciples go fishing when Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem?” Luke records Jesus’ statement to the disciples. “‘But stay in the city [that’s Jerusalem] until you have been clothed with power from on high’. When He had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He left them and was taken up into heaven and they worshipped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” [Luke 24:49-52]
Jesus’ command to the disciples to stay in Jerusalem obviously occurred on the 40th day after His resurrection when He ascended into Heaven. But the disciples went fishing sometime in the immediate days after the resurrection. Jesus’ command to stay in Jerusalem had to do with the promise of the Holy Spirit which occurred to the apostles on Pentecost a few days after He ascended into Heaven.
There is no conflict in reporting the disciples went fishing earlier.

Naland: And my contention in the article is that this is the most critical, the most important claimed event in world history. You know. Forget World War I, World War II…
Ankerberg: Yes.
Montgomery: Right on! Right on!
Naland: …and if this is the event, the pivotal event of world history, why can we not pick up and see that on a certain day, at a certain place, that Jesus appeared to certain people? Now, we have a whole mishmash of…
Montgomery: Listen, there is no correlation between the importance of an event and the amount of historical description of the event. That is to say, the event that you referred to earlier, Constantine’s success in turning the Roman Empire into an officially Christian situation…
Naland: Right.
Montgomery: …the amount of historical data we have concerning the events of the Milvian Bridge and so forth are relatively slight. Likewise, in the case of Charlemagne’s activity. You can’t judge, first of all, the importance of the event, and then say “I’m not going to believe the event unless I have a kind of transcript of every single aspect of the event presented uniformly by all the people who had contact with it.”
Naland: But you believe…
Montgomery: All you need is probability. All you need is good, reasonable historical probability. And that’s determined by the way in which you establish any other events.
Naland: If I’m not incorrect, you believe that God does intervene in history…
Montgomery: Right on!
Naland: …and that in this case He intervened in history…
Montgomery: Yes.
Naland: …and that He chose witnesses?
Montgomery: Right.
Naland: Okay. Well, why couldn’t the witnesses that He chose give us witness that made sense? That was not contradictory…
Montgomery: They aren’t contradictory, but you asked, “Why didn’t God choose witnesses that would give us stuff that ‘makes sense’?”
Naland: Right.
Montgomery: Now, this is really important…
Naland: Right.
Montgomery: …and you’ll pardon me if I’m awfully direct with you. What you have done is to establish a criterion, a personal criterion, as to what God Almighty should have done in order to bring you to believe in these events. And because God Almighty doesn’t do what you expect Him to do, therefore, you say, “I don’t have to take these events seriously.” What you ought to be doing is this. You ought to be asking yourself, “What kind of historical evidence do I require when I handle the general events of human history? How much data, and what kind of data do I need to determine that Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater and didn’t slip on a banana peel in Peoria?” And when you analyze those data, you do not find that all the witnesses give everything. You’ll find one witness giving one thing, one giving another, but the confluence of data point and lead you to a certain conclusion. It isn’t one hundred percent certain; it’s a probability conclusion, but it’s on that kind of reasoning that you base all of your ordinary activities of life.

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