Did “Jesus appeared to Mary & the women!” originate honestly (not as lie/legend)?

  • Our question

    According to the Gospels of Matthew and John, Mary Magdalene personally witnessed Jesus appear to her on Sunday morning after having found his tomb empty. Whenever this story was actually formed, was it formed in an essentially honest way rather than as the result of someone simply fabricating the whole thing? Practically speaking, we are asking whether the story of Jesus’s appearing to Mary found its origin in the experience and memory of Mary Magdalene herself, having witnessed and experienced Jesus appearing to her that morning.

“Yes, after all…
  • The “Jesus visited Mary!” report spews early content

    The report that Jesus made a personal appearance to Mary Magdalene and the women features several classic hallmarks of being early—e.g., dating to within a few days (as reported) or a few years of Jesus’s crucifixion.

    Some reasons to agree include:

    • There is no trace of early Christians disputing the story1 (e.g., nothing from Mk, 1 Cor 15, or Lk despite plenty of opportunity)2, and yet claims of a woman demoniac like Mary being a first witness would—if anything—be ripe for dispute.3
    • The story super-fits AD 30 Jerusalem (see below) in a way that cannot be explained by chance or legend formed far-removed from the time and place.
    • John’s report interlocks with Matthew’s in an undesigned way, regarding Mary grabbing Jesus’s feet,4 and rather than citing coincidence, it is easier to say the reports converge on a common memory and therefore fill out details of an authentic remembered event that the other reporter simply omitted. At worst, this is evidence of multiple attestation and therefore the report's earliness.

    This helps show that the “Mary saw Jesus” report isn’t a legend because, while simple lies and rumors can appear quickly in some contexts, the full-blown development of legends that both propagate and stick takes time. Stable dishonest or legendary content would tend to form more at later times and only tend to stick around later, meaning we should generally not expect much of any legend from Christians around AD 30 Palestine; it would form and stick more easily in AD 80 Corinth with a significant number of Christians and significantly fewer witnesses or people who knew better.

    1. The women are explicitly depicted as “first” witnesses of the risen Jesus in Matthew and John, insofar as they are told to break the news of Jesus's resurrection to all the apostles and other disciples. By contrast, no other reports or traditions historians know of indicate that the women did not see the risen Jesus, or even that some alternative appearance to alternative witnesses is first (though the Gospels of Mark and Luke admittedly do not address the issue). See next footnote for a discussion of Mk, 1 Cor 15, and Lk.
    2. One might try to argue that the omission of Jesus’s appearance to women in Mt, Lk and 1 Cor 15 are competing traditions (see Contradictions in the Resurrection Story), but they are not.
      • First consider Mark: he intentionally ended his Gospel at v8, despite him and his audience knowing that unnarrated appearances of Jesus occurred later (since the angel foretells it in 15:7 -- “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you”). Mark (or his traditioin) simply prefers to end the story with the empty tomb discovery and proclamation of Jesus’s resurrection wherein some believers are tasked with sharing the news. Why Mark chose the ending he did, instead of narrating what else he knew, is a matter of speculation we don't have room to discuss here.
      • Second, consider Luke: he does not mention the appearance to the women, and in doing so arguably gives the false impression that Peter & Cleopas are first witnesses in his account since they are narrated. But Luke's choice here can easily be explained as a stylistic and apologetics-oriented choice. After all, the appearance to women was not necessary to the story and would certainly detract from the more evangelistically and apologetically significant appearance to men shortly. While one might fairly expect Luke to narrate the event regardless insofar as he is an historian (as Matthew and John did), we should remember that Greco-Roman biographers were more selective than modern day biographers, and this omission seems to be within the permissible range. The concern for focusing on male witnesses is understandable in this ancient context, and Luke never claims to give a comprehensive recounting of every detail he knows.
      • Third, consider the 1 Corinthians 15 creed: Paul cites this list of witnesses to Jesus. It appears to even be chronological. However, there is no mention of Mary Magdalene or the women with her. However, this is not surprising. It is far easier to explain than the omission in Luke because 1 Corinthians 15 is not even a history/biogrpahy. As many scholars have noted, it is only natural that in a list of witnesses used for evangelistic/apologetic purposes, women would be omitted. See: 1 Cor 15 omitted female witnesses precisely because they were women.
    3. One reason it is particularly ripe for dispute is that the first witnesses of the risen Jesus, and presumably the first believers in it, would stand out historically in the Christians' narrative and their identity. Given the androcentric bias held by Jews, Greeks, and Romans in that time, many would have found this feature of its origin unpleasant if not outright embarrassing. It looks like women started Christianity!
    4. See undesigned coincidences for more examples of this. There is a fascinating interlocking between the report in John and the report in Matthew of Jesus’s appearing to the women, wherein both in their own way suggest the women clung to his feet. See Mt 28:8 — And they came up and took hold of His feet. Compare Jn 20:17 — Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended.” Notice that Mt and Jn both leave part of the story out. Mt does not explain WHY they took hold of Jesus’s feet; Jn does not explain HOW she “clung” to Jesus (i.e., his feet). This sort of complimentary interlocking of details is symptomatic of a more vivid core—generally an authentic memory, both retellings of which capture a part that fortuitously fits the other (like the proverbial blind mice describing different parts of the same elephant).