As Paul tells it ...

Jesus Traditions

The reader’s patience is requested in the fact that these Jesus pages are in effect a kind of sub-Web, “piggy-backing” on the principal Web,, and thus that the As Paul Tells It . . . designation at the top of each page is not quite accurate. The Jesus Traditions Home Page is readily accessible by clicking on Contents, to be found at the top and bottom of each page.

Material in red = Mark .. in blue =   Q   .. in green = Special Matthew .. in fuchsia = Special Luke


Contents of Jesus Traditions


Resurrection Narratives


Our Sources

It is not surprising that doctrinal presuppositions make it difficult to read the New Testament evidence concerning the resurrection appearances with some degree of clarity and sympathy. It is no easy task to separate the “Jesus of Faith” from biographical inquiry. It may be difficult to achieve a certain perspective on the development of traditions about Jesus, and to realize that one of our sources is close to those early resurrection experiences, and others, more remote. Readers may not be aware that only one of our sources comes from a person who claims actually to have seen the risen Christ, and that this source is not one of the gospels, but 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, written by the apostle Paul; and further that this source is also the earliest of all. (Click on Resurrection Appearances in Paul.)

We are reminded that not all of the Jesus traditions are to be found in the gospels. Two quite early and quite significant traditions are to be found in the letters of Paul: an account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), and an early summary of the Christian proclamation (1 Corinthians 15:3-8), which mentions the death of Jesus, and a series of resurrection appearances.

Less happily, we note the regrettable absence of an ending to the Gospel of Mark, our earliest gospel source: the gospel ends abruptly at 16:8, practically in mid-sentence, with nothing of the resurrection appearances. Whether the author left the work uncompleted, or whether an ending which contained accounts of appearances was damaged and lost, we can only guess (this writer prefers the latter alternative). Certain later Greek manuscripts contain the so-called long ending (Mark 16:9-20), which attempts to remedy the omission, but the earliest and best manuscripts have no such material.
The synoptic source Q was evidently mostly a sayings source, and lacked a passion narrative and a resurrection account. The remaining sources (Matthew, Luke and John) come from the last two decades of the first century; their resurrection reports are of uncertain lineage, and may well derive, in whole or in part, from popular anecdotes. In their present form they also reflect to some degree the editorial viewpoint of the respective authors.

What We Find in Our Sources

A glance at the chart below will indicate how the various sources differ, sometimes in matters of minor detail, sometimes in matters of importance. Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians represents the gold standard for reconstructing the earliest resurrection traditions, taking us back to a relatively early stage of Christian experience. Paul probably received these traditions within less than a decade of the resurrection appearances. Nevertheless, we remind ourselves, his account does not necessarily represent biographical bedrock.




Empty Tomb


Spiritual Body?

1 Cor 


Cephas/Peter No reference Possibly Galilee No physical characteristics; spiritual body implied
Mark 16:1-8


[no appearances; disciples, Peter, implied] Empty tomb, no appearances
(young man)
Galilee, anticipated [no appearances]
Matthew 28


Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary Empty tomb
+ Galilee
+ doubts, 28:17
Luke 24


Two on road to Emmaus (Peter already had an appearance) Empty tomb
(two men)
Jerusalem only physical characteristics 
+ non-recognition
John 20, 21


Mary Magdalene Empty tomb
(two angels)
+ Galilee
some spiritual, some physical


Initial Appearance?

The priority of a first appearance to Cephas (Peter) seems well-grounded, not only on the earlier date of the 1 Corinthians tradition, and the implied priority of Cephas in Luke (24:34), and indirectly in Mark (16:7), but also on the fact that Paul had an opportunity to check such matters with Peter, and with James the Lord’s brother, directly (First Jerusalem Visit, Galatians 1:18-19). Attempts to establish the priority of the women (Matthew 28:9-10) have not been successful, in this writer’s opinion:
   • in part because of the late date of the Gospel of Matthew (A.D. 80-90), and the even later date of the Gospel of John (A.D. 100); and
   • in part because it is doubtful whether the author of Matthew would have had access to reliable tradition, with the passage of five or six decades, with the dislocations of the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, and with the dispersion of the Jerusalem church (see ninth decade).


Empty Tomb?

A glance at the chart above will show that 1 Corinthians 15 alone is silent about an empty tomb. So does this qualify as a no-brainer? four gospels against one letter? The answer is no, unless early authentication is thought to carry no weight. It appears that, for Paul, Jesus was believed to be alive, not because his body was not found in a tomb, but because he was experienced as alive by Paul himself and by other witnesses to the resurrection. In any case, the absence of the body from the tomb proves nothing, since this fact could be accounted for by other causes, including the body’s being stolen, as was the rumor which was already circulating (Matthew 28:11-15).


Galilee? Jerusalem?

Our earliest account of resurrection appearances, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, does not give the location of the appearances. The only clue is an appearance to some five hundred people, most of whom were still alive in the early 50’s of the first century; but if most of Jesus’ followers were Galileans, then we might expect such an appearance in Galilee. Appearances to others are also possible elsewhere. And we remind ourselves that the appearance to Paul took place in or near Damascus

Although Mark has no resurrection appearances, the disciples and Peter are told to go to Galilee, where they will see him (16:7). Matthew has an initial appearance to certain women (28:8-10), who have visited the tomb in Jerusalem, but Matthew also has a Galilean appearance to the disciples (28:10, 16-20). The Fourth Gospel (John 20–21) has appearances in both Jerusalem and Galilee.

Luke, for reasons that are not entirely clear, restricts the resurrection appearances to Jerusalem and vicinity (Luke 24:13-53; note verse 49; cp. also Acts 1:4), in contradiction of the other sources. John Knox (1987, 13-14) proposes a “Jerusalem tendency” of Luke by way of explanation. 


Spiritual Body? Physical Body?    

For many readers, the gospel accounts, with their vivid accounts of a resurrection body with physical characteristics, have left such an impression that they may not realize how different the resurrection body of Jesus was from the pre-Easter body. There was continuity, to be sure. He was recognizable, if not always. But Jesus had been transformed at his resurrection, with a new body appropriate to the age to come, freed from the limitations of time and space, a body in which he could be with his followers “always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). 

It is this glorified body which shines through all of the accounts of resurrection appearances, even in those gospels which mention distinctly physical characteristics:
bulletIn Matthew 28:16-17, when Jesus appears to his disciples in Galilee, “some doubted,” hardly intelligible if in some way he had not been transformed;
bulletIn Luke 24:13-16, 28-31, Jesus is not at first recognized by the two followers on the road to Emmaus, and at the end of the anecdote he disappears from sight without explanation
bulletIn John 20:19, he enters the room where the disciples are gathered, even though the door is locked (compare also the curiously ambiguous words of 20:17, “. . . Do not hold on to me”).

What do we find in our earliest account, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8? We have good reason to suppose that the appearance to Paul, the last in the series, was an appearance of Christ in his glorified, spiritual body; click on appearance, and spiritual body. No physical characteristics of Jesus are mentioned in this passage. Hence we may conclude that for Paul the seeing does not necessarily involve a physical seeing. (And since Paul uses the same Greek verb, ôphthê [“he appeared”], that he uses for the appearances to Cephas (Peter), the twelve, and others, it is likewise doubtful whether their experiences necessarily involved a physical seeing.)

The references in our other sources to physical characteristics of the resurrection body of Jesus are generally well known:

bulletIn Matthew 28:9, as the women return from the empty tomb, “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.”
bulletIn Luke 24:36-43, when Jesus appears to the eleven disciples and companions, 

37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence.

bulletIn John 20:27-29, Jesus invites Thomas to touch him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” (We are not told whether Thomas really does touch him, though the command to do so implies that there was something to touch. Curiously, Thomas is invited to touch, but not Mary Magdalene.)

Faced with this array of evidence, (a) one might decide to attempt to harmonize and reconcile the data that we have in the resurrection narratives. To a degree, such an approach might be possible; for example, one could propose that Christ’s resurrection body, though a spiritual body, could when appropriate take on physical characteristics, enabling him to be touched, or to eat food. While one might acknowledge that such a capability is without parallel in human experience, it could also be affirmed that Jesus was unique, and therefore is not to be judged by otherwise normal experience.

(b) Or one might take a frankly developmental view, giving due weight to the early date of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, and recognizing that at the earliest stage of the tradition that we can recover it was in a spiritual body that Jesus appeared to his followers, and finally, to Paul. How then would we explain the interest shown by our later sources in physical characteristics of the resurrection body? Part of the answer would be an acknowledgement that the Christian proclamation of the resurrection would sometimes be met with skepticism, and that it was difficult for some people to acknowledge the reality of a spiritual body. They might dismiss the appearances as “seeing a ghost.” So the response was to describe how Jesus could be touched, or how he ate food.

However convincing this materialization of the resurrection body might seem, the development was not without its problems, as seen in the scenario offered by the two volume work, Luke-Acts. Why did the resurrected Jesus no longer appear to his followers in a physical body? The author’s solution was an ascension of this resurrected body into heaven. Yet what was intended as a solution becomes, with the advent of the Copernican universe, a problem. See further, The Resurrection Appearance to Paul, in the Letters and Acts


Contents of Jesus Traditions


Revised December 17, 2004


You may return to Jesus Traditions: Narratives (3)
 or continue, with Jesus Traditions: Sayings (1) 


Copyright © 2000-2005 by J. Peter Bercovitz. All rights reserved.
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