Background on the Eyewitness Affidavits
Though the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all synchronize with each other, and John seems to stand alone in what it recounts, all four gospels agree on the main events concerning Jesus’s trials, crucifixion, death, and resurrection. Many have sought to create a timeline of events, poring through these four eyewitness accounts, as I will also do, today.
- The Gospel of John is widely accepted as the Apostle John’s testimony, based on textual evidence.
- The Gospel of Mark has an independent early second century attestation (Papias) quoted by a fourth century historian (Eusebius) as the Apostle Peter’s testimony. Both Gospels also have an oblique confirmation in Luke’s wording of their depositions, found in Acts 4:19-20. “[John and Peter together said] for we cannot keep from speaking [A Marcan phrase] about what we have seen and heard [A Johannine phrase].”
- The Gospel of Luke is the first of two books written by the Apostle Paul’s companion, Luke. In it, the writer reassures its recipient,
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.Luke 1:1-4 (NRSV)
The Book of Acts provides textual evidence for the author of both books, and it seems Luke had access to both Peter’s and John’s testimony.
- The Gospel of Matthew also has an independent early second century attestation (Papias) quoted by a fourth century historian (Eusebius) as the Apostle Matthew’s testimony, but it is much less certain than the attestation for Peter’s gospel (Mark). Some think it possible the actual writer of Matthew’s gospel took Matthew’s collection of sermons and parables from Jesus and combined them with the timeline of events found in Mark’s gospel.
The identity of that writer might be embedded in Jesus’s statement,
“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”Matthew 13:52 (NRSV)
This might be a reference to the writer as a converted scribe, Pharisee, or perhaps teacher of the Law, who would have had a close working knowledge of the scriptures, and who would have heard Jesus teach at the temple. If this is true, he may have been among that first wave of believers in the days of the Pentecost described in the early chapters of the Book of Acts.
So! Reading the gospels side-by-side, and treating them as eyewitness testimony, here is the timeline that seems to work best, to my mind:
Timeline on the Day of Jesus’s Resurrection
DARK BEFORE DAWN
The Roman Cohort
A massive aftershock to the earthquake that occurred the day of Jesus’s crucifixion now marked the moment of Jesus’s resurrection, and the appearance of angelic beings who then rolled back the stone sealed to Jesus’s tomb. The Roman cohort standing sentry were flattened by the experience, but quickly recovered and made haste to the temple mount to report the incident. Their lives were on the line, because they had failed to prevent the disappearance of Jesus’s body.
This had, of course, been the whole point of them being there, and of the tomb being sealed. The chief priests were quite concerned about this very thing happening, which is why they had gone to Pilate in the first place.
Because it was Annas and Caiaphas who had been given charge of them, they reported back to these chief priests. Another emergency meeting was called with elders from the Sanhedrin, and it was decided to bribe the soldiers into circulating the story the disciples had stolen Jesus’s body. Part of the bribe included the chief priests’ assurance they would themselves meet secretly with Pilate to tell him the truth, thereby protecting the lives and reputations of his soldiers.
The temblor also wakened the women who had prepared ointments and spices to bring to the tomb, that Jesus might have a proper burial—perhaps complete with mourners and viewing, as was done with Lazarus, and as was the custom of their day. They had been held back by two Sabbaths, one for the Passover and one for the Sabbath day, but as soon as the dawn broke, initialing the first day of the week, they would be able to go to the tomb.
Mary of Magdala, Peter and John
However, John notes Mary of Magdala did not wait for the dawn. She left while it was still dark, and therefore was the first to see the stone rolled away, rightly ascertaining Jesus’s body was gone. She immediately ran to where Peter and John were staying to tell them. And they, in turn, ran back to the tomb. Presumably, she ran with them.
Once at the tomb, they too rightly ascertained Jesus’s body was missing, then returned to where they had been staying.
Meanwhile, the sun’s early rays had begun glowing above the horizon, and the other women had begun walking to the tomb, not realizing all that had transpired. When they arrived, they also saw the stone rolled away. Angelic beings explained Jesus is risen, urging them to return to the other disciples with an important message, Jesus is headed for Galilee, where you will see him. Rattled and confused, the women headed back to Jerusalem, or perhaps a nearby community, where the others had hidden.
In my mind’s eye, the women come to the tomb before Peter, John, and Mary of Magdala have returned, and are already heading back to the other disciples before the three themselves come to the tomb. Jesus has not yet appeared, and the angels had not yet revealed themselves to Mary. Interestingly, it is only the women who ever see the angels—none of the male disciples see them.
Mary of Magdala
After the two disciples left the tomb, one bewildered, the other believing, I see Mary sinking down to her knees, and perhaps simply weeping with emotional and physical exhaustion and despair.
Those Returning to Jerusalem, or Parts Nearby
Though Peter and John were unencumbered, they had much to talk about. Perhaps they walked together. Perhaps Peter, as he sometimes did, indicated he wanted to walk alone. But the women, remember, were encumbered. They had carried all the things they needed to have a true burial ritual. Now they needed to carry all those things back, and what is more, they had conversed with angels and been given much to deliver to the disciples. I see them walking slowly, deep in conversation.
Jesus and Mary of Magdala
It is now that Jesus appeared to Mary, affirming her discipleship, and giving her the good news that would make her the Apostle to the Apostles. Her story comes tomorrow.
In my mind’s eye, I see Jesus urging her to hasten back to the gathering of followers and supporters, and she complies, full of the astounding news of the rabbi’s resurrection. She arrives before the other women, for by this time she is running on the clouds of joy.
Jesus and the Women
Then, I think, Jesus appears to the other women who are walking more slowly with their burdens. Jesus corroborates the angels’ message, and they, too, now have the good news from Jesus himself. It is not long after Mary’s entrance that the other women come bursting in with the same news.
Unsurprisingly, the men did not believe the women.
Jesus and Peter
We learn from Luke and the Apostle Paul that Jesus also appeared to Peter alone, before coming to the other disciples.
Jesus and the Two Disciples on the Emmaus Road
Luke alone relays this account, saying one of the disciples was Cleopas (who some think might be the “Clopas” one of the Marys was married to, making her “sister” to Mary the mother of Jesus)
Jesus and Ten of the Disciples
It is possible the disciples had gathered together alone, in the Upper Room, where they had eaten their last meal with Jesus, to discuss the day’s unsettling, even surreal events. They had locked the door, fearful the temple authorities would storm in and arrest them all. Strangely, Thomas was not with them.
Into this scene Jesus simply appeared, and showed them the marks of his crucifixion.
THROUGHOUT THE DAY
According to Matthew’s gospel,
…and the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who have fallen asleep, arose,
and having come forth out of the tombs after his rising, they went into the holy city, and appeared to many.Matthew 27:52-53 (NRSV)
Evidently, when Jesus died, that earthquake shook the dead from their graves. The subsequent aftershock shook them out of the graveyard! We can only imagine what a shock all of Jerusalem had, seeing those whom they had wailed and mourned over, whom they had tucked into their tombs for their eternal sleep.
THE NEXT FORTY DAYS
According to Luke’s gospel, and later Paul’s account, Jesus appeared to upwards of five hundred people, eating with them, walking, conversing, touching, breathing over, and teaching. Much, much teaching!
In that time, Jesus opened the whole of the Hebrew scriptures and taught them how these sacred writings were fulfilled in him, and had been written concerning him. It was from this intensive month and a half institute that Peter and the others gained their astonishing authority and learnedness.
[Jesus appears to Peter | The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain]