Yesterday as I was contemplating the holiday we’re celebrating, I read the account of the Resurrection in each of the four gospels. This time, for the first time ever, I was struck by the differences among them.
Take a look. And I warn you ahead of time — this is long.
The Resurrection according to St. John
Mary Magdalene shows up at the tomb before dawn on Sunday. She sees the stone has been rolled away. She goes and tells Peter and John that the body is missing and that “we” (a confusing plural reference) don’t know where to find it.
Peter and John show up at the tomb. Then the story rewinds a bit and shows them running to the tomb, with John getting there first. John stoops down and looks in, sees the burial clothes lying empty, but stays outside. Peter then gets there and goes in, after which John follows him in. They see that the body isn’t there and John believes (though it doesn’t say what). Then they go home.
Mary stays at the tomb to cry a while. She stoops down to look in the tomb and sees two angels sitting in the spot where the body had been laid. They ask why she’s crying and she says someone’s taken the body and she can’t find it.
Then Jesus shows up and asks her why she’s crying. She thinks he’s the gardener and asks him to tell her where he took the body — if he was the one who took it.
Jesus calls her by name. Mary turns and sees him for who he is. Jesus tells her not to touch him but to go to the disciples and tell them he’s ascending to heaven. She does it.
That night, Jesus shows up where his disciples are having dinner in Jerusalem, apparently passing through walls to do it. He gives them the Holy Ghost (rather than waiting until Pentecost) and the power of absolution. Then he goes.
Thomas missed it, but the following Sunday, Jesus comes back, again phasing through the walls. Thomas feels his resurrected body. The story seems to end there, but there’s another chapter where Jesus comes to his disciples again on the Sea of Galilee.
The Resurrection according to St. Luke
Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James (not just Mary Magdalene) prepare some embalming spices on Friday evening, rested for the Sabbath, and very early Sunday morning show up at the tomb, where they find the stone has been rolled away. They went into the tomb and found that the body was missing.
While they were confused about that (not distraught), they saw two angels standing by them (not sitting). The women got afraid and bowed down with their faces on the ground (rather than weeping and looking around). The angels ask them why they’re looking for the living among the dead and then quote Jesus’s teachings (instead of asking why they’re crying).
The women remember the teachings and decide to tell these things to the disciples (they didn’t see Jesus and no one told them to tell the disciples anything).
But the disciples didn’t believe the women. Peter ran to the tomb anyway (without John), where he stooped down and looked in (but didn’t go in) and saw the burial clothes empty and walked away confused.
Later on that day, two of the disciples are on a seven-and-a-half-mile walk to Emmaus. They see Jesus but don’t recognize him. He asks them why they’re so glum and they talk about their master being killed and his body being stolen. He then launches into a lengthy scriptural exposition showing how the entire Hebrew Tanakh testifies of him.
He stays with them until close to sundown, he gives them the Eucharist, they recognize him, and he disappears. They get up right away and head the whole seven and a half miles back to Jerusalem, where they find the other disciples and tell them what had happened.
While they’re telling them the story about how they recognized him because of the Eucharist, Jesus appears in the middle of the group. They’re terrified and think they’re seeing a ghost. He tells them to relax and feel his body so they know he’s real. Then he asks for some food and eats it.
Then he goes into another scriptural discourse about his mission, tells them to hang out in Jerusalem until they get the Holy Ghost (which happens a few weeks later in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles), walks with them out of town a ways, and then blesses them and ascends into heaven.
The Resurrection according to St. Mark (Version I)
Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome (not Joanna) got some embalming spices and very early Sunday morning, they go to the tomb, showing up at sunrise (not before dawn).
While they’re wondering who they’ll get to roll away the stone, they look and see that it’s already rolled away. They go into the tomb and see a young man sitting there (just one young man).
They’re afraid. The man tells them not to be afraid (rather than asking why they’re crying or teaching them Christian doctrine), tells them they’re here to see Jesus but that he’s stepped out, and to go tell the disciples to head to Galilee and that Jesus will catch up with them in Galilee.
They run out, run away, and are so terrified by the experience that they don’t say anything to anyone.
Then it looks like the story reboots. Kind of like an alternate ending in a DVD’s special features. That leads us to . . .
The Resurrection according to St. Mark (Version II)
In the alternate ending, Jesus gets up early Sunday morning and appears to Mary Magdalene (maybe at the tomb, maybe in town). She goes and tells the disciples while they’re crying (not her). They don’t believe her.
Two of them are walking in the countryside and see him. They tell the disciples. The disciples don’t believe them either.
So he shows up to the Eleven in the middle of dinner and chastises them for not believing (instead of giving them the Holy Ghost or comforting them by letting them touch his body).
He then tells them to go into all the world and tell every creature the good news, baptizing everyone who believes it. And he promises them that those who believe will be able to exorcise devils, and speak new languages, and be immune to poisons, and heal the sick. Then he ascends into heaven.
The Resurrection according to St. Matthew
At the break of dawn on Sunday, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary show up at the tomb. The tomb has been sealed shut and a stone rolled in front of it. There are guards placed in front of the tomb to make sure none of Jesus’s followers try to steal the body (instead of there being no one there who could roll away the stone for the women).
Then there’s a big earthquake, caused by an angel who comes down out of heaven and rolls away the stone and sits on top of it. The guards are terrified and pass out. The angel calls out to the women and says, “Don’t you be afraid, though. Because I know you’re here to see Jesus.” He tells them that Jesus has stepped out and instructs them to go back into town and tell the disciples to head to Galilee, and that Jesus will catch up with them in Galilee.
They’re afraid and happy at the same time and run off to tell the disciples, but on the way there, they come upon Jesus. He says hey, y’all, and they all grab his feet and worship him (instead of not touching him because he is not yet ascended unto his father). He tells them to tell the rest of the gang to head up to Galilee and that he’ll catch up with them there.
So the Eleven go to Galilee and climb a particular mountain where Jesus arranged to meet them. There they see him and worship him. Well, most of them do. Some see him and still have some doubts.
Then he tells them to go teach all the nations (instead of all the creatures) and baptize them all (whether they believe or not) and teach them to keep Jesus’s commandments. And he promises to be with them forever.
Those are five totally different Easter stories. Not only are the events and details really different (did Jesus see the disciples in Jerusalem or Galilee? was the stone rolled away or not? did the women tell anybody or not? did he give them the Holy Ghost on Easter or on Pentecost?), but the feel is really different.
John is all about love and mysticism: Christ’s mystic power fills the world with love. The story is full of loving emotion — bereavement at first among the mortals, then consolation from the immortals, then joy for all. And when Jesus comes, he’s really mystical: don’t touch me; receive the Holy Ghost; let me phase through walls; &c.
Luke is about confusion and doctrine: Christ’s clear teachings dispel all confusion. The angels have no concern for the women, but just teach. Jesus comes and there’s no mysticism — even anti-mysticism as he tells them to feel him and he eats with them to prove his reality. Instead of magic, he’s ever the teacher, taking all day to explain all the Christology of the Old Testament. And this account highlights the Eucharist, the ritualization of internalizing his teachings.
Mark I is just weird. I can see why there’s an alternate ending. Christ is resurrected and his own disciples are too afraid to tell anyone about it. One wonders how we got billions of Christians.
Mark II is also weird, though. Christ is resurrected and no one believes it, so he comes in person and chews them out for unbelief. (No wonder the original ending had his disciples so afraid.) He teaches credobaptism and charismatic gifts as a sign of belief and goes. It’s a sterner image of Christ than we usually focus on, but the theme of the story is definitely strong on individual faith.
Matthew is perhaps the most unusual. It shows a God who’s heavily invested in his followers’ lives. Angels make the earth shake. Christ pre-arranges a meeting that’s at least several days down the road on a mountain at the other end of the country. There he teaches paedobaptism and his enduring faithfulness to a perpetual, obedient church and goes. Matthew’s Christ heads a mighty, universal organization whose power comes from the top down.
What kind of Christian you are might have a lot to do with which of these Easter stories you tend to prioritize.
Whichever of the five you prefer, though, Happy Easter!