What Actually Happened on Resurrection Day? A Clear and Simple Account

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Peter Bolt

Many detractors of the Christian message claim that the four accounts of Jesus’ resurrection contain discrepancies that are irreconcilable and so fatal to the Gospels’ authenticity and truth. Contrary to these claims, the extraordinary events of that amazing day can be told in a clear and simple account. 

It was Sunday, the 5th April AD 33[1],  and the action began around dawn with exactly three women involved. 

1. Mary of Magdala was one of several women who had followed Jesus in Galilee, and who supported his mission financially (Lk 8:2–4; Mk 15:41a). Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene, and she stuck with him until the cross and his burial (Matt 27:55, 61; Mk 15:40–41, 47; Jn 19:25).

2. The second woman, also named Mary, was the mother of James (the younger) and Joseph (Matt 27:56; Mk 15:40; 16:1). John’s Gospel also tells us that she was the wife of Cleopas, and the sister-in-law of Jesus’ own mother (John 19:25). That is, the ‘other Mary’ (Matt 27:61; 28:1) involved on this amazing day was Jesus’ Aunty. According to sources outside the New Testament, Jesus’ Uncle Cleopas was the brother of Joseph, his earthly father.[2] 

3. The third woman on that crazy morning was Salome, the wife of Zebedee and the mother of two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John (Mk 15:40, cf. Matt 27:55; Mk 16:1). The Zebedee family had a fishing business on Lake Galilee, based at Capernaum (see Mk 1:16–20), but they also had a home in Jerusalem (Jn 19:27; cf. 18:15). There is some evidence that, before he became a disciple of Jesus, son John may have conducted the business at the Jerusalem end— that is, selling the fish— and this was probably how he became well-known to the High Priests.[3]  The Zebedee’s Jerusalem home was probably used for Jesus’ Last Supper, and as a base of operations for his disciples within the city of Jerusalem (Jn 19:27).

Even before first light, Mary (Jesus’ friend) and Mary (Jesus’ Aunty), and Salome (the mother of Jesus’ friends) went to Jesus’ grave to put some perfumes on the body (Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1)[4].  They knew they were going to have trouble with the huge stone across the entrance, and they talked about this on the way (Mark 16:2–3). But, when they got there, they saw that the stone had already been rolled away (Mark 16:4; Luke 24:2; John 20:1).

At this point, Mary Magdalene takes off to tell the disciples (John 20:2) — assuming that someone had taken the corpse. Probably in the southwestern corner of the city, John’s house was not a great distance away— less than a kilometer. On seeing the grave open, her immediate thought must have been, “We better tell Peter and the others!”, and they were close enough for her to do so.

Her two companions, Aunty Mary and Salome Zebedee, take the next step. They enter the tomb. They were astounded to find no body and an angel (Matt 28:5;Mk 16:5; or two, Luke 24:4) sitting there, ready to explain what had happened. “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified? He is risen, see the place they laid him” (Matthew 28:5–6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:3–6). The women bowed down to the ground, so overwhelmed were they with fear and perplexity (Luke 24:5). 

The angel helps them to process what they have encountered, reminding them that Jesus had said this would happen when he taught them in Galilee (Luke 24:7). At the angel’s words, the women remembered this previous teaching (Luke 24:8).

The angel(s) also clearly and directly told the women to go to tell the disciples that they will see Jesus in Galilee (Matthew 28:7; Mark 16:7; Luke 24:6), another echo of Jesus’ previous teaching (Matthew 26:32; Mark 14:27).

No doubt already deeply traumatized by watching Jesus so brutally crucified on Friday, the two women now have to cope with an empty grave and a heavenly visitor. Little wonder that, as Mark (16:8) tells us, ‘Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid’. 

Since this introduces other people into the sequence of events, people that they could have told something to, presumably they have left the grave and entered back into the city. They plunge into the morning crowds that are beginning to set up their market stalls ready for the hubbub of ordinary commercial life, at the beginning of yet another very ordinary week. But they are so stunned and frightened, perplexed and trembling, that they pass through the crowds and say nothing to anyone, for they were so afraid.

But that silent state would not last for too long. It could not last too long. The angel had given them a command. They had a mission. They had to tell the disciples, to get them ready to go to Galilee to see Jesus! But how will that message go down?? 

What happened next can be guessed at by a little clue in Luke’s account of events. Jumping ahead a little in the sequence of events, when the women eventually get to the disciples to tell them what happened, at the report-back their little band includes a woman called Joanna (Luke 24:10). She wasn’t with the women at the grave early in the morning, but she is at their report-back. Now, where did she come from??

Joanna is not a complete stranger to the Gospel accounts, for she was also amongst that circle of female followers and supporters of Jesus in Galilee (Luke 8:2–4). Luke also noted that she was the wife of Chuza, the manager of the household of Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee. When Herod came to Jerusalem, Chuza would have come too, to look after the domestic arrangements in Herod’s Jerusalem lodgings. Herod and his household manager had apartments in the Praetorium, that is, the Roman Governor’s palace on the Western side of Jerusalem, just five minutes leisurely stroll from the crucifixion site, and about one third of the way to where the disciples would have been. 

Trembling and frightened, saying nothing to anyone, Aunt Mary (wife of Cleopas), and Salome Zebedee, heading south to where their friends were, seem to have made a short call at Joanna’s place, which was on the way. How better to settle down after their shock, than to download in the company of their female friends from Galilee? 

Being outside of the situation somewhat, Joanna no doubt provided some sanity and common sense. It was not as if she didn’t know Jesus’ power, for she and Mary Magdalene and Susannah had been healed and delivered of demons up in Galilee. And she had heard Jesus’ teaching and, yes, she remembered along with her friends, that he had said something strange, that on the other side of his death, he would rise. There was only one thing they had to do now. The angel had given them an instruction. They have to tell the disciples.

And so, as a result of their brief stopover (was it 15 minutes? half an hour? surely not more than an hour?), the women continued the ten minute walk south to the disciples. And, for moral and emotional support, Joanna also came with them.

When they arrived, they immediately hooked up with Mary Magdalene again, who had previously rushed off to tell Peter and John what she had seen when they first arrived at the grave (Luke 24:10). With Joanna standing by in support, our three eyewitnesses gave their combined testimony. Not only was the stone rolled away (what all of them, including Mary Magdalene saw), but the tomb was empty and the body gone and an angel was saying to meet Jesus in Galilee (as Aunt Mary and Salome Zebedee could report).[5]  

At first, the disciples responded predictably—with disbelief for the women’s words sounded like nonsense (Luke 24:11). But then, Peter started thinking. Shortly before, Mary Magdalene had burst into the room and reported to him and John what she had seen (John 20:2). Now these two eminently respectable women, with Joanna in support, had added to her story. Suddenly Peter knows just what he had to do. He jumps up, races off to the tomb, only about 800 m to the North, to check it out for himself (Luke 24:12a; John 20:3–5). John Zebedee was also privy to Mary Magdalene’s initial report of events (John 20:2), and now, after hearing what his own mother had seen, he too leapt to his feet and ran after Peter. Perhaps younger and fitter, or more eager to see what had happened, he actually outruns the big lumbering fisherman, arrives at the tomb and finds it open. He bends over and looks in, seeing only the strips of linen used to wrap Jesus’ corpse, and he stops there and he doesn’t go in (John 20:5). Puffing and blowing, then Peter arrives and rushes straight inside the tomb and sees not only the strips of linen, but also their arrangement (John 20:6–7; Luke 24:12b). The body of Jesus had gone. With Peter’s arrival, John, too, enters the tomb and sees the body had gone, and they both believed (John 20:8), at last realizing what Jesus meant when he taught that the Scriptures said he must rise from the dead (John 20:9). Both men then returned to where they were staying, amazed, and wondering to themselves about this most extraordinary set of events (John 20:10; Luke 24:12c).

At this point (John 20:11), we learn that Mary Magdalene had also run after the two men, back to the tomb. Peter and John were probably so caught up in themselves, that when they took off, they left Mary crying outside the grave. Despite all that had gone on that crazy morning, she still did not know for sure what had happened, and where Jesus’ body had gone. She still thought someone had taken it.

As she wept, she bent down and looked inside, and saw two angels seated where the body had been (Jn 20:12–13). Why are you crying, they asked. And she said, ‘they have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him’. But, at that point, she turned around, and she saw Jesus himself —although she didn’t recognize him at first, thinking he was the gardener (John 20:14–15). Then, to help her in her distress, Jesus simply said ‘Mary’ (Jn 20:16), and she immediately recognized him and fell at the feet of the teacher who meant so much to her (Matt 28:9–10; Jn 20:16–17), and he told her to go back to the disciples and tell them. So Mary raced back to the disciples and told them she, too, had seen the Lord (John 20:18).[6] 

And the amazing craziness of that day didn’t stop there. Later that afternoon, Cleopas, the husband of ‘the other Mary’ who found the tomb empty, Jesus’ Uncle, was walking to Emmaus with another person. Jesus also appeared to them, and spoke with them at length (Lk 24:13–32). They raced back to Jerusalem, now in the evening, to find that Jesus had also appeared to Simon Peter sometime earlier in the day (Lk 24:34). And then, when the whole crowd of them was together, Jesus then appeared to all of them together (Lk 24:36–49; Jn 20:19–23).[7]  And this amazing day had, at last, come to an end. 

But that end was really only the beginning. Despite their enormous implications, there is absolutely no trouble presenting a clear and consistent account of the events of that amazing day. The trouble comes in remembering that, on that amazing day, the world changed forever.

[1]           H.W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan [Academie], 1977), Chapter 5.

[2]           Eusebius of Caesarea, HE 3.11, cf. 4.22, quoting the 2nd century historian Hegesippus.

[3]           J. Wenham, Easter Enigma. Are the Resurrection Accounts in Conflict? (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1984, 21992), 39, 138–139. John may have spent much of his time in Jerusalem because: 1) he may himself have been a priest, as stated by Polycrates, the bishop of Ephesus (where John spent the last part of his life) (Euseb. HE 3.21, 5.24); and, 2) he may have looked after the family business through selling their fish in the city; for, according to a 14th century manuscript: ‘In the Gospel of the Nazareans [=2nd century] the reason is given why John was known to the high priest. As he was the son of the poor fisherman Zebedee, he had often brought fish to the palace of the high priests Annas and Caiaphas’; Wenham, Easter Enigma, 41–42.

[4]           There is no reason to believe that the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee knew anything about Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, for these prominent Jerusalemites were only disciples of Jesus in secret at this stage (Matt 27:57; Jn 19:38–39). The women saw the two strangers, but did not see what they did to the body.

[5]           Matthew’s account presents the testimony of the women as a combined witness, with that deriving from Aunt Mary and Salome (Matt 28:5–8) and that deriving from Mary Magdalene’s later encounter (Matt 28:9–10; Jn 20:11–18) being treated from ‘the women’ en bloc.

[6]          Mark 16:9—not part of the original Gospel—also speaks of Mary Magdalene being the first to see the risen Christ.

[7]          Thomas was not present on this occasion (Jn 20:24–25), but his doubts were laid to rest eight days later (Jn 20:26–29).