He summarises the first believers’ testimony very simply as: ‘We saw him killed, then a few days later we had breakfast with him on the beach’ – a reference to the story in John 21 in which Jesus appears to his disciples while they are fishing on Lake Tiberias (another name for Lake Galilee), causes a miraculous catch of fish, and cooks breakfast for them on the shore. Unfortunately for the argument for the resurrection, researching this story quickly leads to uncovering one of the major discrepancies between the gospels when it comes to their resurrection narratives – whether Jesus appeared to his disciples in Jerusalem or in Galilee.
On first inspection, the Galilee breakfast in John 21 fits with the narrative presented in Matthew and Mark, in which the angel gives the following instruction to the women at the tomb:
“Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” (Matthew 28:5–7)
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” (Mark 16:6–7)The implication of this instruction is that the disciples won’t see Jesus in Jerusalem. Accordingly, in Matthew, while Jesus himself does appear immediately to the women, it’s in Galilee where Jesus appears to the male disciples and gives them his last instructions:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16–20)However, in Luke, the words of the angel(s) have been subtly altered. They still mention Galilee, but this time it is a reference to the time Jesus was there with the disciples in the past:
“Why are you looking in the place of the dead for someone who is alive? Jesus isn’t here! He has been raised from death. Remember that while he was still in Galilee, he told you, ‘The Son of Man will be handed over to sinners who will nail him to a cross. But three days later he will rise to life.’” Then they remembered what Jesus had said. (Luke 24:5–8)And so in contrast with Matthew, in the remainder of Luke (and in its second volume, Acts) Jesus appears to his disciples while they are still in Jerusalem, before giving them his final instructions and ascending to heaven from the Mount of Olives just outside the city. There is no return to Galilee; the disciples are instructed to stay in Jerusalem until the day of Pentecost. It seems Luke, generally reckoned to have used Mark as a source, subtly altered the words of the angel because he wanted to place the appearances of Jesus to the disciples in and around Jerusalem instead of in Galilee. If Matthew and Luke cannot agree on where the disciples saw the risen Jesus how can we trust either as composed from eye-witness accounts?
To further complicate things, coming back to John where we started, John 20 has Jesus appearing to his disciples in Jerusalem, but then John 21 includes this breakfast appearance in Galilee. John 21, however, is widely recognised as being a later postscript, the original conclusion being at the end of chapter 20. Maybe the author of the postscript is trying to harmonise both sets of stories from Matthew and Luke, but in doing so he only succeeds in highlighting the discrepancy.
In an attempt to harmonise Matthew and Luke it is claimed that the disciples simply must have travelled to Galilee and then back to Jerusalem again, between Passover and Pentecost, and that Jesus appeared to them in both locations. It just happens that each gospel only records some of these occasions. But if that were the case, why does it also happen that each gospel, as originally written, only selects one of the locations? Even more to the point, why does each gospel structure its narrative to the point of apparently excluding the possibility of appearances in the other location? Matthew excludes the possibility of any Jerusalem appearances by means of the words of the angel, while Luke excludes the possibility of any Galilee appearances by keeping the disciples in Jerusalem until the ascension.
This attempt at harmonisation also has to imagine there were two separate sets of ‘last words’ of Jesus on a mountain – in Galilee recorded by Matthew, and on the Mount of Olives recorded by Luke. This stretches credulity to breaking point.
It seems clear that each author has their own agenda when it comes to their resurrection narrative, to set the focus either on Galilee or on Jerusalem, for theological or political reasons, and that they place this agenda more highly than reporting accurately. We therefore have to conclude that we do not have unspoilt access to any original eye-witness accounts.