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To Galilee or Jerusalem? A Response to Apologetics Press


Recently, a Christian acquaintance referred me to an article published by Apologetics Press in conjunction with his brave attempt to answer the following apparent Bible discrepancy: after the Resurrection, were the disciples supposed to stay in Jerusalem (Luke) or go to Galilee (Mark and Matthew)? The explanation offered by Apologetics Press basically boils down to the assertion that Jesus’ post-Resurrection instructions to his disciples to stay in Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24:44-49) didn’t necessarily happen on Easter Sunday, but could have happened on a subsequent day, and therefore there is no inconsistency with Jesus’ Easter Sunday instructions to his disciples to go to Galilee as noted in Matthew. In other words, the Apologetics Press article is suggesting that the events in the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel do not actually occur on the same day (the day of the Resurrection), but over the course of multiple days as in Acts. The Apologetics Press article states: “Even though many twenty-first-century readers assume that the events recorded in Luke 24:44-49 occurred on the very day Jesus rose from the grave, the text actually is silent on the matter. The burden of proof is on the Bible critic to verify his allegation.”

So what should we say about this offering from Apologetics Press? Does this at all resemble a defense consistent with a natural reading of the text? It is certainly worth noting that at least one Bible version—the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE)—provides several footnotes that flatly disagree with the position taken up by Apologetics Press. A related footnote (footnote “a”) in Luke 24 from the NABRE Bible reads: “In Luke, all the resurrection appearances take place in and around Jerusalem; moreover, they are all recounted as having taken place on Easter Sunday.” Footnote “m” from the same chapter of Luke reads: “In the gospel, Luke recounts the ascension of Jesus on Easter Sunday night, thereby closely associating it with the resurrection.” Footnote “b” at Acts 1 reads: “In his gospel, however, Luke connects the ascension of Jesus with the resurrection by describing the ascension on Easter Sunday evening (Lk 24:50-53).” I wonder what the folks at Apologetics Press would make of this. Should we now pretend that the committee of 100 or so Ph.D. (or equivalent) credentialed Christian scholars and theologians who edited and annotated the NABRE Bible are really just a bunch of “Bible critics” and skeptics?

Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, in his Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, also agrees that the dialogue at Luke 24:44-49 is a continuation of the same scene from Easter Sunday, stating: “Luke 24:44. Εἶπϵν δὲ αὐτοῖς] after the eating; a continuation of the same scene. According to the simple narrative, it is altogether unwarrantable to place an interval between these two passages. No impartial reader could do this, and how easy would it have been for Luke to give a hint to that effect!”[1] Conservative evangelical Christian James D. G. Dunn, Ph.D., who is one of the most revered Bible scholars in the world today, also appears to agree, writing: “In the Gospels there is little or no chronological separation of resurrection and ascension. Matthew does not narrate an ascension as such and gives no weight to chronological considerations in his retelling of the final episodes of his Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20). In his Gospel, Luke was evidently content to leave the impression that Christ ‘was carried up into heaven’ on the day of the Resurrection itself (Luke 24:50-51).”[2] Robert H. Stein, Ph.D. is a conservative evangelical Christian and retired Senior Professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who is widely considered to be one of the premier evangelical synoptic Gospel scholars in the world today. In his commentary on Luke, Stein writes: “The seventh and last section of Luke’s Gospel deals with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension…. The literary unity of this chapter can be seen chronologically in that all the events are placed within the framework of the same day…”[3] In other words, the Resurrection and Ascension all happened on the same day according to a natural reading of Luke’s Gospel; therefore, Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to stay in Jerusalem according to Luke’s Gospel obviously contradicts Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to go to Galilee as recorded in Matthew. I should note here that my purpose in citing Bible footnotes, as well as the commentaries of various Bible scholars, is not to fallaciously appeal to authority (though I suppose I am legitimately appealing to qualified authority). Rather, my aim is to show just how far-fetched and unreasonable the position of Apologetics Press is on this discrepancy, even judged by the standards of other evangelical Christians. Are we to otherwise conclude that some of the greatest evangelical scholars in the world today simply don’t read well, or are too daft to recognize the brilliance of Apologetics Press’ rather arbitrary and flimsy contention?

Also, notice what Apologetics Press actually concedes: “[M]any twenty-first-century readers assume that the events recorded in Luke 24:44-49 occurred on the very day Jesus rose from the grave.” Well, of course modern-day readers assume this, because that’s what the document says. Again, that’s the natural reading of the text. But it’s even worse than that because Christians in antiquity also assumed the exact same thing! Please notice that in virtually every English translation of the Bible, we find a footnote at Luke 24:51 that says something to the effect of “other ancient authorities lack the phrase ‘and was carried up into heaven.'” This tells us that there were early Christians who completely removed the ascension event from the Gospel altogether, and footnote “m” at Luke 24 in the NABRE Bible tells us why: “The Western text omits some phrases in Luke 24:51,52 perhaps to avoid any chronological conflict with Acts 1 about the time of the ascension.” This is evidence that even in the early days of Christianity, there were those who not only recognized the problem, but were also willing to completely remove the ascension event from Luke’s Gospel altogether in order to smooth over the timeline problems within Luke/Acts. In other words, it isn’t just “twenty-first-century readers” who “assume that the events recorded in Luke 24:44-49 occurred on the very day Jesus rose from the grave,” as Apologetics Press would have us believe. Again, this problem was also recognized by the early Christians themselves.

All of that aside, the place in the Apologetics Press article where things really go south is where the author, Eric Lyons, writes:

On the day of His resurrection, He met with all of the apostles (except Thomas) in Jerusalem just as both Luke and John recorded … sometime between this meeting with His apostles in Jerusalem and His ascension more than five weeks later, Jesus met with seven of His disciples at the Sea of Tiberias in Galilee … and later with all eleven of the apostles on a mountain in Galilee that Jesus earlier had appointed for them. Sometime following these meetings in Galilee, Jesus and His disciples traveled back to Judea, where He ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives near Bethany (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:9-12).

Here Apologetics Press is making the common mistake of forcing overlap between the various Gospel accounts where there is none to be found. For example, according to Lyons, Jerusalem is the first meeting place of Jesus and the disciples, and the mountain in Galilee is actually the third location where Jesus meets with his disciples sometime later. But this untenable “harmonization” of Matthew, Luke, and John reveals obvious and devastating problems for his argument. For instance, notice that the angel at the tomb (in Matthew 28:7) directs all of the action to Galilee, saying: “Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.'” Then, only moments later as the women are leaving the tomb, Jesus himself appears to them and affirms the angel’s instructions (Matthew 28:10): “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” So here we have the angel as well as Jesus himself instructing the women at the tomb to tell the disciples to go straight to Galilee. But if the first meeting place of Jesus and the disciples was actually in Jerusalem, as the Apologetics Press article would have us believe, then why didn’t Jesus or the angel at the tomb (in Matthew) just have the women instruct the disciples to stay in Jerusalem to begin with? Think about it! The first thing that both the angel and Jesus do at the tomb (according to Matthew) is instruct the women to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, almost 90 miles away, in order to see Jesus. But why would they do that if the plan was to meet the disciples first in Jerusalem (as in Luke and John)? It doesn’t make any sense. Knowing that he would see his disciples first in Jerusalem (according to Luke and John), Jesus could have just told them to go to Galilee himself. And anyway, why is Jesus running his disciples back and forth between Jerusalem and Galilee, a round-trip distance of 170-180 miles that would have taken the disciples more than a week to complete? This is where the Apologetics Press article seems to fall apart.

Again, the problem is that we have two very different stories being told here. In Matthew, Jesus meets the women as they are leaving the tomb (on the day of the Resurrection) and affirms the message of the angel instructing them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see him, and that’s what the disciples do. They go to Galilee (just as they were told) and see Jesus for the first (and presumably the only) time. Simple. But in Luke, Jesus never appears to the women at all (or anyone else at the tomb), so there obviously wouldn’t have been any instruction from Jesus (at the tomb) to go to Galilee (as in Matthew) in the first place! Also, notice in Luke that the two messengers at the tomb do not provide any instruction to the women to tell the disciples to go anywhere, nor do they provide any clue as to the whereabouts of the risen Jesus (in contrast with Matthew and Mark). We read further, in Luke 24:22-23, that two of the disciples describe the events to a random stranger (who turns out to be Jesus, though he is mysteriously unrecognizable): “Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.” But notice here what the women actually reported to the disciples—only that they had seen a vision of angels who said Jesus was alive, not that they had actually seen, spoken with, and even touched the body of Jesus themselves (as in Matthew). We read further still, in Luke 24:24: “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” In other words, at this point in Luke’s story, no one has seen Jesus yet—not the disciples, not even the women. They have no clue where Jesus is or where they are supposed to go in order to see him, or that they will even see him at all. This account is quite different from Matthew’s, where the women are told immediately where to go to see Jesus. So we quite obviously have two different stories here, and they cannot be reconciled without frantically devising an absurd timeline narrative that does not actually exist within the biblical texts. This is very clear.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but we would also do well to notice the reaction of the disciples at the meeting on the mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:17): “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Who among the eleven remaining disciples were still doubting at this point? After all, Apologetics Press tells us that this meeting in Galilee occurred after all of the other appearances/events in Jerusalem (see above). The Apologetics Press author writes: “According to Luke 24 verses 1, 13, 21, 29, and 33, the events recorded in the first forty-three verses of that chapter all took place on the very day of Jesus’ resurrection.” In other words, the period covered in the first 43 verses of Luke 24 represents a single day, the day of the Resurrection, and would have also included at least one appearance to all eleven remaining disciples (which would have included Thomas, as Judas was apparently already dead) in Jerusalem (Luke 24:33-36) on that day. And if we are to accept Apologetics Press’ claim that the meeting on the mountain in Galilee (Matthew) took place after all of the events in Jerusalem (Luke and John), and if we’re going to try to harmonize the Gospels in earnest, then we must also acknowledge that even Thomas’ doubts would have been satisfied at this point, as the events described in John 20:24-29 would have to have occurred during the meeting described in Luke 24:33-36. So again, who among the remaining eleven disciples were still “doubting” at the meeting on the mountain in Galilee (in Matthew);—even after all of the many and varied appearances of Jesus to his disciples in Jerusalem (in Luke/Acts and John), even after witnessing the resurrected Jesus eating broiled fish, even after touching his wounds, and even after witnessing his fishing miracle at the Sea of Tiberias? The only way to make sense of this “doubt” in Matthew 28:17 is to accept Matthew’s account as Matthew intended it. In other words, according to Matthew, the meeting on the mount in Galilee was the first (and presumably only) meeting between Jesus and the disciples. Matthew, closely following Mark’s narrative, knows nothing of any previous appearances to the disciples in Jerusalem, which is precisely why he records the angel at the tomb, as well as Jesus himself, as immediately directing the disciples to Galilee, and then portrays some of the disciples as “doubting” (or “hesitating”) upon their initial witness of the resurrected Jesus on the mountain in Galilee. According to Matthew, this is the disciples’ first (and only) experience with the resurrected Jesus.

In summary, the intellectually honest reader recognizes there is an obvious discrepancy between Matthew and Luke as to whether the disciples were to stay in Jerusalem or go to Galilee. This is further emphasized by the fact that nowhere in Luke or Acts is there even the slightest hint of an appearance of Jesus in Galilee after his resurrection. But look at what Luke actually tells us in the prologue to his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4 NLV): “Those who saw everything from the first and helped teach the Good News have passed these things on to us. Dear Theophilus, I have looked with care into these things from the beginning. I have decided it would be good to write them to you one after the other the way they happened. Then you can be sure you know the truth about the things you have been taught.” The related footnote (footnote “a”) from the NABRE Bible reads: “As a second- or third-generation Christian, Luke acknowledges his debt to earlier eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, but claims that his contribution to this developing tradition is a complete and accurate account, told in an orderly manner, and intended to provide Theophilus (“friend of God,” literally) and other readers with certainty about earlier teachings they have received.” But that’s not really what Luke does, is it? He doesn’t give us “a complete and accurate account” at all, does he? In fact, he leaves all of the appearances in Galilee completely out of his texts!

Of course, Apologetics Press argues that “none of the accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances contradicts another. Rather, each writer supplemented what a different writer left out.” But this argument is simply fallacious. There are plenty of other stories and details found in Matthew that are also present in Luke. In fact, 70% of Matthew’s content is shared with Luke, and the majority of this shared content was copied directly from Mark (according to the current scholarly consensus). So why would Luke choose to repeat a majority of these other stories and details, but then purposely choose to leave out the most important details in all of the Gospels—the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus, i.e., the “proof” that the Resurrection actually occurred? It’s inexplicable! Surely Luke would have included the postmortem Galilean appearances of Jesus in his gospel had he known them to be true, wouldn’t he? After all, Luke explicitly tells us that he has investigated everything with care, and is now providing his reader, Theophilus, with a complete and accurate historical account of everything that happened. But not only does Luke not mention the Galilean appearances of Jesus in his gospel, and not only does he completely omit the angels’ instructions to the disciples to go to Galilee, but he also omits the prediction made by Jesus during the Last Supper that he would in fact appear to his disciples in Galilee after his resurrection. In Mark 14:28 we see Jesus predicting during the Last Supper that “after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Matthew 26:32 follows this narrative almost word for word. But this prediction is completely absent from Luke’s entire gospel, which is highly suspect because we know that Luke had access to Mark, and that he repeated 80% of Mark’s material. So it seems rather obvious that Luke went out of his way to remove any and all traces of a postmortem Galilean appearance of Jesus. Luke is intentionally drawing us away from Galilee in his recounting of the post-Resurrection appearances. Clearly, there is something about these alleged appearances in Galilee that does not sit well with Luke (or perhaps he has determined that they are not true). In any case, and make no mistake about it, Luke has not given us an orderly and complete account of everything that happened, his claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Luke is not supplementing Matthew’s account here—he is outright disputing it!

World renowned New Testament scholar Raymond Brown, who is widely considered one of the greatest American Bible scholars of the 20th century, summarizes the issues well, writing:

The situation is even clearer in Luke. Jesus appears to the Twelve on Easter Sunday night. At the end of the appearance (Luke 24:50) we are told that Jesus led them out of Jerusalem as far as Bethany and departed from them, ascending into heaven. One gets the same picture in the Marcan Appendix 16:7. No room whatsoever is left for subsequent Galilean appearances. Indeed, a study of how Luke (24:6) changes the import of Mark 16:7 indicates a desire on Luke’s part to erase any mention of appearances in Galilee…. Is the Galilean tradition of appearances chronologically more reliable then? Just as the Jerusalem tradition leaves little or no room for subsequent Galilean appearances, the Galilean narratives seem to rule out any prior appearances of Jesus to the Twelve in Jerusalem. The angel’s directive in Mark 16:7 and Matthew 28:7 bids the disciples to go to Galilee to see Jesus—a command that would make little sense were they to see him first in Jerusalem! When Jesus does appear to the disciples on the mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-17), they express doubt; and such hesitancy is elsewhere associated with initial appearances (Luke 24:37; John 20:25; Mark 16:13,14). There would be no reason for doubt if the disciples had already seen Jesus in Jerusalem and knew of his resurrection.”[4]

This is the inescapable problem with trying to harmonize and reorder these discrepant Gospel accounts. It’s like playing whack-a-mole: every time you knock one problem down, three new ones pop-up in its place. I don’t know what more can really be said here. It is very clear that the various resurrection narratives in the Gospels cannot be harmonized, nor were they intended to be.


[1] Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, trans. Peter Christie (Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1880-1881).

[2] Craig A. Evans (Ed.), The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (London, UK: Routledge, 2010), p. 41.

[3] Robert H. Stein, Luke (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), p. 602.

[4] Raymond Edward Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1973), pp. 102-105.

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