James McDevitt (Head Teacher, Holy Cross Primary School, Edinburgh)
All Christians are aware of the basic story of Easter. Jesus died on the Cross on Good Friday, and on Sunday, the third day, he rose from the dead. The stone had been rolled away, the tomb was empty and the Risen Jesus appeared to his disciples on a number of occasions thereafter.
This is where things become a little unclear. Who did Jesus appear to? When and how did he appear to them? If we stick closely to the accounts given in the four Gospels one thing which stands out is how confusing these are. Creating a chronology is one way to help get a clearer picture of the appearances of the Risen Jesus to his disciples.
The first part of the chronology is Easter Sunday morning, which is covered in all four Gospels. All four Gospels agree that the tomb was empty but from that point the accounts differ. Matthew tells us Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. An angel tells them that Jesus has been raised and that they need to go quickly and tell the disciples. On the way back from the tomb, they meet Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene, whilst Luke’s Gospel mentions the appearance at the tomb of two men in dazzling clothes but not an appearance of Jesus. John’s Gospel again describes Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene.
Part two of the chronology takes place later the same day, either in late afternoon or early evening. Luke tells the story of Jesus’ appearance to two disciples whilst they are on the road to Emmaus. After they recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread, they rush back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples. Whilst these same two disciples were talking about their encounter, Jesus himself stood among them all. Jesus spoke to them and ate in their presence. Luke 24:34 refers to another separate appearance to Peter earlier that day but no detail is given.
The third part to the chronology of events is eight days after Easter Sunday, when Jesus again appears to the disciples in Jerusalem but, crucially this time, Thomas is also present and makes his famous declaration of faith, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20: 28).
The final part of the chronology is that period between the appearance to Thomas and up to and including the Ascension. Here, the timings become more difficult to place in time. At some unspecified point during the forty days, Jesus appears to seven of his disciples on the shore of Lake Tiberias (John 21:1-23). During the same period, we hear in Acts 1: 3 that “He had shown himself alive to them after his Passion by many demonstrations: for forty days he continued to appear to them and tell them about the kingdom of God.” Only on the 40th day after Easter Sunday do we again have an exact time to work with, when Jesus appears to all his disciples before ascending into heaven (Luke 24: 44-51).
What lessons can we draw from this chronology? First, it is essential for all of us to have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the events of Easter Sunday and how these unfolded. This requires a careful reading of the relevant chapters of each of the four Gospels.
Second, many scholars would argue that the lack of consistency in the Gospel accounts adds to the credibility of the stories. The apostles clearly did not get together to agree a uniform version of the same events! Rather, the Gospel accounts are stories of personal experience, where an emotional interpretation shapes the details recalled in the passing on of the accounts.
Third, all of the Gospel writers tell us that Mary Magdalene and some other women were the very first witnesses to the resurrection. It is they who tell the apostles that the tomb is empty. This is much more significant than it would appear to us at first glance. At the time of Jesus, women were not allowed to be witnesses in a Jewish court because they were not regarded as reliable witnesses. This is another example of the veracity of the Evangelists. Most other authors of the time would simply have omitted the presence of the women as only the men would have been regarded as proper witnesses. Why attribute such testimony to women, unless that was what actually happened?
During this Eastertide, we should read and re-read the accounts of the Resurrection to deepen our own understanding of the incredible events of two thousand years ago, and to remind us of the joy and hope of Easter.