Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Casey on Jesus (4) – Inconsistencies and Deliberate Changes in the Gospel Post-Resurrection Accounts

Casey - Jesus of NazarethReview of “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching. London and New York: T&T Clark (Continuum), 2010.

Part 4: Inconsistencies and Deliberate Changes in the Gospel post-Resurrection Accounts

Of all the episodes in the four Gospels which are recorded in parallel, none are more radically at odds than the accounts of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. 

The typical conservative evangelical rejoinder at this point is to argue that each of the four Evangelists recorded different aspects of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, and that they can all be seen to fit together perfectly if we just spend some time considering how they may be harmonized. Sometimes this argument is accompanied by the analogy of independent witnesses at a crime-scene. We would ordinarily expect different witnesses to recall different aspects of the whole, to disagree on the minor details, but to be in fundamental agreement about the story as a whole.

However, such arguments are not so much interested in reconstructing what really happened, that is, the historical details (if any) of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Rather, they are primarily interested in saving the credibility of the story for believers, and a certain type of believer at that. What is more, the harmonizing approach to the Gospels runs into at least two significant problems. First, and Casey also makes the point (p. 464), the resulting harmonization looks nothing like any of the individual accounts. In order to incorporate the details of each of the different stories, the resulting harmonization almost inevitably ends up in tension with the overall picture offered by each individual Gospel. Second, the “independent witness” analogy simply does not apply here, because none of the Synoptic Gospels are independent from the others; unlike the scenario of independent witnesses, neither Matthew nor Luke provide a witness which is “independent” of their common source, Mark. According to the most widely accepted account of the evident literary dependence between the Synoptic Gospels, Mark was the first Gospel to be written, and it was used extensively as a source by Matthew, and almost as extensively by Luke. While John records independent traditions, the problem with the Fourth Gospel is precisely the opposite: the traditions are so developed and expanded and bear so little relationship with the traditions in the three Synoptic Gospels that they cannot begin to corroborate the detail in the other Gospels; in fact, it looks as if John did not even know the other traditions. These points provide caution against the naive, uncritical approach of harmonizing the Gospel accounts.

Casey makes one further and decisive argument against attempting to harmonize the Gospels: when we compare the parallel accounts in the Gospels, it is clear that Matthew and Luke not only produce inconsistent accounts, but they deliberately change what Mark wrote.

Maurice Casey: "the Resurrection narratives in our Gospels are not reports of real facts"

Maurice Casey: "the Resurrection narratives in our Gospels are not reports of real facts"

One example of these deliberate changes concerns Mark’s conception that Jesus was going ahead of the disciples, to meet them in Galilee (Mark 14.28; 16.7). For Mark, the first appearance of Jesus was not in Jerusalem, outside of which Jesus was crucified, but in the region that Jesus commenced his movement: Galilee (p. 461).

Matthew agrees with Mark that the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples was to occur in Galilee (Matthew 28.7; cf. Mark 16.7), and Matthew consequently narrates Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples as occuring in Galilee (28.16-20). Yet in Matthew we find that two facts have been deliberately changed. First, instead of “saying nothing to anyone” (Mark 1.8), Matthew narrates the women as leaving Jesus’ tomb with the express intention of telling the disciples what the angel had commanded them to tell. Secondly, Matthew includes a single post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, in Jerusalem, to the women. In this appearance, Jesus repeats what the angel had said to the women, instructing the women to inform his disciples that the disciples will see him in Galilee. As Casey notes, Matthew inserted this post-resurrection appearance into the narrative received from Mark

only so that Jesus could tell them to tell other people to get to Galilee for the most important appearance. He was not anticipating the later tradition of appearances in Jerusalem. (p. 463)

So, as Casey observes, the two earliest Gospels are unanimous in placing the major post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, to his disciples, in Galilee. But Luke has deliberately rewritten the tradition “to put all the appearances in Jerusalem” (p. 463).

Maurice Casey: Luke has deliberately rewritten the Galilean post-resurrection appearances "to put all the appearances in Jerusalem"

Maurice Casey: Luke has deliberately rewritten the Galilean post-resurrection appearances "to put all the appearances in Jerusalem"

In Luke’s account, Jesus no longer goes ahead of the disciples to Galilee in order to appear to them there. Instead, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem. Casey carefully explains how Luke has deliberately changed the Markan tradition in order to effect this change of locations. Whereas the angel in Mark says to the women at the tomb,

But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you (Mark 16.7),

the angel in Luke, at precisely the same point of his address to the women at the tomb, says,

Remember how he [Jesus] told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again (Luke 24.6-7).

Luke has deliberately changed the significance of “Galilee” in the angel’s speech about Jesus’ earlier prediction of his death! In Mark, the point of Jesus’ mention of “Galilee”, according to the angel, is to let the disciples know where they should meet him after the resurrection. But in Luke, by contrast, the angel only mentions “Galilee” as the location at which Jesus’ made the prediction of his death. While Luke has retained Mark’s mention of Galilee, he has changed it to prepare for his subsequent narrative, in which Jesus innovatively appears to his disciples in Jerusalem, not in Galilee! Therefore, between the writing of Mark and Luke, a whole series of post-resurrection appearances have been created which centre on Jerusalem, rather than at Galilee (as in the earliest tradition). As Casey notes, Matthew may have been aware of a tradition of appearances at Jerusalem when he created an appearance of Jesus there to the women. But Matthew reserved the major post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, that is, to the disciples, to Galilee. As Casey summarises, with Luke, we have the “deliberate replacement of one tradition with another” (p. 463). Not only that, but Luke proceeds to narrate every one of the appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem, followed by Jesus’ ascension to Heaven (Jesus’ “resurrection-after-resurrection-after-death”). As Casey notes, this leaves “no room for any appearance in Galilee” (p. 463). Luke has deliberately changed the narrative of post-resurrection appearances in his major source, Mark, and he does this so as to include a series of traditions in which Jesus appears to the women and to his disciples in Jerusalem rather than Galilee (p. 464). The stories of post-resurrection appearances in Luke are creative inventions which have little to do with the earlier tradition (noted in Mark, recorded in Matthew), in which Jesus’ disciples first imagine they have seen Jesus at some stage after fleeing Jerusalem and returning to their homes in Galilee.

Luke rewrote the early tradition of appearances in Galilee, and replaced it with his own tradition of appearances in Jerusalem… Consequently, we cannot expect much early history in Luke’s tradition of appearances. (p. 481)

Apart from the location, the stories in Matthew and Luke do not contradict each other so much as give an impression of total disassociation, as if neither of them knew the traditions to which the other had access (apart from the story of the empty tomb, which both of them took from Mark. (p. 463)

The question remains: why was Luke determined to deliberately change the Galilee appearances to Jerusalem appearances? One probable reason is that Luke had uncovered many of these stories about Jesus’ appearances in Jerusalem, during his “careful investigations” (Luke 1.3). That is, Luke encountered the testimonies of certain Christian faithful who claimed that they had personally “witnessed” (Luke 1.2) the resurrected Jesus in visions, and Luke then assessed which of these accounts were true and real, and his assessment resulted in”eyewitness” stories we now have recorded in Luke’s Gospel. For if Luke’s reference to “careful investigations” of the reports of “eyewitnesses” means anything, it probably does not refer to his copying of two-thirds of Mark, a Gospel not claimed to be written by an eyewitness, and indeed already forming a secondary stage of the transmission of the tradition. It may possibly refer to some of the oral or written material shared with Matthew and not Mark (i.e.  Q), if these traditions were associated with eyewitnesses, and some of the special Lukan material – but in most cases we would have no way of telling which of these sources might be considered to derive from “eyewitnesses”. However, Luke’s “careful investigations” of traditions attributed to eyewitnesses must at minimum refer to his recording of post-resurrection sightings experienced by Christians. For in these post-resurrection visions we certainly have something that Luke would have considered to be a true and first-hand eyewitness tradition.  

For as shown in the historical works of Josephus, our only other extant example of first-century Jewish-Greek “historiography”, vision reports were widely accepted as a legitimate historical source. As Robert Gnuse explains (in Dreams and Dream Reports in the Writings of Josephus, 1996), Josephus considered that by virtue of the revelations that he received in dreams, he was also a prophet, and treated his revelatory experiences on a par with other historical sources. Josephus believed that “the best historians were the prophets who interpreted events under divine inspiration” (Gnuse, p. 23), and also believed that he was creating an “inspired” historiography based on his own revelatory experiences. This only goes to show us how different Luke’s historiographical criteria would have been from our own modern standards. Richard Bauckham then (in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 2006) only tells half the story when he tries to argue that some of Luke’s traditions go back to traditions of eyewitnesses. Sure some of them probably do go back to eyewitnesses – but at least some of this “eyewitnessing” was “seen” during a visionary experience that had nothing to do with reality!

Casey provides a further reason for Luke’s transference of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances from Galilee to Jerusalem. In Luke 24.46-49, Jesus designates Jerusalem as the centre and sending-point of the Gentile Mission (p. 463), a designation unique to Luke’s Gospel and revealing Luke’s special interest in Jerusaelm. Therefore, by assigning all of Jesus’ appearances to Jerusalem, he heightens his idealization of Jerusalem as the hub of the Christian movement. When we turn to John’s post-resurrection appearances, Casey makes the interesting observation that John is written “as if its authors did not know the tradition of Galilean appearances” (p. 464). That is, by the time that John was written, Jerusalem was simply accepted as the location of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, and – in contrast to Luke – John does not narrate the appearances as though he is deliberately excluding the Galilean tradition. Even when Galilean appearances are included in John 21 (possibly a redacted appendix to the book), they barely overlap with the earlier Galilean tradition found in Matthew (p. 464).

As Casey summarizes:

It has become clear from scholarly analysis that the Resurrection narratives in our Gospels are not reports of real facts (p. 461).

Casey’s astute analysis demonstrates that the post-resurrection traditions were still developing some time after Jesus’ death, as a result of new visionary experiences and the different interests of later Gospel authors. The Gospels, far from constituting a harmony of different aspects of the appearances of Jesus, should be understood as deliberately contradicting each other.

Next part: (5) Did Jesus consider himself to be “The Son of Man”?
Previous part: (3) The Gospel of Mark’s Missing Ending

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