Were reports of Jesus’s appearing to Mary’s group based in their own testimony?

  • Question

    The gospels report that Jesus predicted his death and resurrection, and that he did in fact die on the cross. While the Gospel of Mark ends at the empty tomb (where the angels says Jesus will mass-appear to the women—and all his followers—in Galilee), the Gospels of Matthew and John actually narrate the immediately subsequent events where Jesus’s allegedly appears to the women as a group before even the apostles. The named witnesses always include Mary Magdalene’s name first (which is an indicator of her prominence). Our question is this: were the women and/or Mary ultimately the source of this report? Were they confidently maintaining that Jesus appeared to them near Jesus’s tomb when they visited it? If we asked them, would they answer, “yes, we did experience him appearing to us on that morning on Sunday after his crucifixion”?

  • Historians

    Gerd Lüdemann: “It seems to be historically certain that Mary Magdalene experienced an appearance of the risen Jesus. … But the tradition of a first appearance to Mary arose relatively late (see above, 64ff.), whereas that to Peter is among the earliest pieces of tradition. This is a good reason for regarding the first appearance to Mary as unhistorical.” [What really happened to Jesus, Trans. by Bowden (Westminster, 1995), 80-81.]
    Craig Keener: “Most thus judge the report that the women were the first witnesses of the resurrection message to be historically accurate.” [The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Eerdmans, 2009), 331.]
    Gerald O'Collins & Daniel Kendall: “One who accepts this tradition [that Jesus appeared alive after death] should agree that women were the first or among the first witnesses. In the tradition women, especially Mary Magdalene, have a lead role. Above all, in John 20 Mary Magdalene is the human figure who holds the events together. [“Mary Magdalene as Major Witness to Jesus’ Resurrection” Theological Studies 48 (1987), 645.]

“Yes, after all…
  • E.g. AD 35 Christians: “He visited Mary and women”

    The earliest Christians (i.e. those in c AD 30-35) were testifying that the traditional Easter women—including Mary Magdalene—were saying Jesus had appeared to them alive from the dead.

    A forthcoming page will consider these 7 reasons to agree:

    • Mary was very prominent early on, and this prominence is best explained by her advantage of being a first witness and proclaimer of Jesus’s resurrection.
    • Mary and co. are cited as first witnesses of Jesus's resurrection in Mt and in Jn, and this is absolutely not something later Christians would want to invent.
    • Mt’s content in general date back to AD 30, and Mt 28:9-10 reports that Jesus appeared to Mary.
    • Jn’s content in general date back to AD 30, and Jn 20:14-18 reports that Jesus appeared to Mary.
    • Mt & Jn’s reports are independent of each other, which indicates branching from a common older source—e.g. from AD 30-35.
    • There is no trace of dispute; Despite a good sample size, no counter-tradition exists
    • In general, only witness-based Jesus-bio pervaded in AD 30-80, and there is no good reason to think this is an exception.

    If Christians in AD 30-35 were proclaiming that Jesus appeared to Mary and the women, it becomes hard to deny that Mary herself was also affirming it because of Mary’s ability to easily control—through the Jerusalem church of which she was a member—the stories that were circulating about her.1

    But no...

    • The reported appearance to Mary is absent from the early 1 Corinthians 15 creed which lists recipients of Jesus's appearances.2
    1. In general, only witness-based Jesus-bio lived/predominated in the first several decades after Jesus’s death (and this seems especially certain for the first few days or years after his death). Some of the reasons to agree are particularly strong in the case of Mary Magdalene and the women with her on Easter Sunday morning. For example, in the case of the women, we can say the apostles were particularly well-acquainted with them as witnesses of Jesus because the women were deeply involved and were in fact members of the Jerusalem church which was headed by the apostles. And given Early Christianity's biographical beliefs about Jesus were a subset of 1st church’s in AD 30-70, we can say Christendom’s beliefs about Mary was a subset of the 1st church’s which was in turn a subset of Mary’s, and therefore Christendom’s view on Mary’s involvement was a subset of Mary’s. It is worth noting that this story is not some peripheral detail either; it was central to the origin story of Christianity.
    2. The idea here is that, if Jesus had appeared to Mary, she would be on this list. But in response, this list of appearances in 1 Corinthians 15 comes in the form of a well-known and rather quick creedal statement that Paul is reciting. And the creedal statement appears to function at least in part as evidence for the truth of Christainity. Insofar as a woman's testimony was of relatively little worth, and in fact insofar as women being primary witnesses could be an embarrassing association for early Christians, their evangelistic creedal statement quite understanably omitted it. The list only includes men. The Gospels, however, are Greco-Roman biographies and more concerned with the progression of real historical events. There is much a higher probability that they would choose to not omit their presence or role in the story.
  • The Mary-visit reports spew witness-based content

    A book is open and has several eyes on it. Two of the eyes have speech bubbles that have nothing in them, the last eye has a speech bubble that has Jesus in it.

    Various aspects of the reported appearance to Mary and the women seem to be witness-based (which is a common feature in the gospels). The report in Matthew is only 2 sentences, so most of the examples by necessity are from John’s report which is 8 sentences.

    In particular:

    • Much of the material is clearly non-legendary,1 and the only feasible alternative to “legend/lie” is “eyewitness recounting.” (E.g. accidental ink-splotch on the manuscript which bled into forming letters-words-sentences is not a feasible explanation.)
    • Mary’s “Rabboni” expression super-fits the time-place.2 This adds verisimilitude to the account, and—while far from proof—fits moderately better with memory than alternatives like legend.
    • The tomb description super-fits the time-place,3 which is easier and more natural to attribute to authentic memory than to legend.
    • Mary’s reaction to angels is unexpected for any legend-maker,4 and better fits the hypothesis that this was Mary’s peculiar but genuine reaction; it is slightly more difficult to explain it as the choice of a legend-maker.
    • Jn’s report interlocks with Mt’s in an undesigned way,5 and rather than citing coincidence it is easier to say the reports converge on a common memory and fill out details the other omitted.
    • Peter“race-to-the-tomb” episode is witness-based,6 and it is easiest to say it came from the same traditional stream/witness-memory as the narration of Jesus’s appearing to Mary which is immediately follows in the story.

    The existence of witness-based bits of content inside the appearance-to-Mary story matters in part because of how many of them appear in such short reports (put together, Jn and Mt provide about 10 verses total on the account). It becomes difficult to deny that the appearance ostensibly happened given that the ostensible witness-based elements are largely essential to the report. Parsimony recommends accepting the 10 verses ultimately come from an original singular source, and the witness-based elements suggests that source is a witness—presumably Mary Magdalene or those who know her story—recounting the event.

    1. Early, “First day of the week.”
    2. We read in, Jn 20:16 — “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni!’” And sure enough, this expression— meaning “teacher”—super-fits Jewish Palestine.
    3. She “stoops” to look in, and an arcosolia bench is described, exactly fitting the time and place. (Jn 20:11-12 -- "she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying")
    4. Historians with a grasp on what legend and testimony sound like, do not feel it sounds like legend; and some think it sounds like testimony. (E.g. Consider Godet’s comment on the episode; Jn 20:12-13 — “she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they put Him.” Given she truly knew these were angels and that this is not a truncation of what took place, we’d sooner expect a legend-maker to give her a more realistic and expected response. • Frédéric Louis Godet: “Mary answers the question of the celestial visitors as simply as if she had been conversing with human beings, so completely is she preoccupied with a single idea: to recover her Master. Who could have invented this feature of the story?” [Commentary on the Gospel of John, with an Historical and Critical Introduction, translated by Timothy Dwight (Funk & Wagnalls, 1886), vol. II, p. 416.] Similarly,

      C.H. Dodd: “I confess that I cannot for long rid myself of the feeling (it can be no more than a feeling) that this pericopé has something indefinably first-hand about it.”

    5. 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 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).
    6. This has elements suggestive of veridical eyewitness testimony, and this is relevant because it came from the same traditional stream as the narration of Jesus’s appearing to Mary immediately afterwards.
  • Gospel authors checked “Jesus visited Mary!” with Mary

    In relaying the story of Jesus’s appearance to Mary and the women, Matthew and/or John got it directly witness-approved by Mary herself or at least someone who knew her and her story well.

    Consider 3 reasons to agree with this:

    • We know historiographers at this time-place got witness-approval or close. (E.g. they identify as witness-grounded, and even being 1st hand as possible. We see how the authors felt 2nd hand+ was generally unacceptable. We can also test to see how well they stuck with sources, and how well their biographies on similar characters (e.g. Ortho) cohere, thereby demonstrating faithful methods of checking up on facts.) Since the Gospels are Greco-Roman biographies (i.e. historiography), we likewise have reason to think they were responsible investigators who checked sources, as 1st hand as possible. And again, Mary was certainly accessible.
    • The Gospel authors tended to get witness-approval. (E.g. we know they strove to know/relay true Jesus-bio and that traveling and consulting witnesses and critically examining documents when necessary was the expected means of knowing; we know that Justin Martyr [c. 100 -c.165] and ostensibly his contemporaries understood and oft called the Gospels “recollections” of the apostles; Lk directly claims to be eyewitness testimony in its first verses where he says he “investigate everything carefully” (Lk 1:1), and the Gospels in general tend to cite witness names (e.g. “Mary Magdalene) in strategic locations and ways that are designed to indicate—in Greco-Roman biographies—that they are relaying the named witness’s testimony. We also know that merely 60 year old events did not usually elude historians; witnesses were easily accessible, and Mary in particular was easily accessible. Focusing in on the Easter events here, we have strong reason to believe Mark got Mary Magdalene’s witness-approval/testimony for the Empty Tomb story (e.g. in Mk 15-16 they functioned as witnesses, and in ch 15-16 Mark was echoing or relaying what the Apostolic/Jerusalem church was already saying, and Mary Magdalene was a prominent member there. Given this Gospel tendency to obtain witness-approval, and the easy accessibility of Mary, we should be biased in favor assuming Matthew and or John consulted Mary directly (or at least through those who knew her) on the topic of her seeing Jesus appear to her before putting it in their gospels.
    • We know the “visited Mary” report wasn’t fabricated, and the only plausible alternative to legend/fabrication is witness-testimony. While this does leave room to wonder if it was several-hands down, the points above should mitigate against that possibility.

    Matthew and John checking their report with Mary Magdalene herself helps show that the women were testifying to seeing Jesus appear to them because, after consulting with them, Mt1 and Jn2 clearly reported the event as such. Given the very purpose of a Greco-Roman biographer checking with the actors themselves (or those who knew them), we may consider the biographical report to have been a faithful representation of Mary’s own telling.

    1. Mt 28:9-10 — And behold, Jesus met them [“Mary Magdalene and the other Mary”, v1] and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him. Then Jesus said to them, …”
    2. Jn 20:14 — “When she [“Mary Magdalene”, v1] had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her,…”
  • The visit reports formed honestly (not a lie/legend)

    The report of Jesus appearing to Mary Madalene, alive from the dead, is based in honest testimony rather than being a Christian invention.

    Consider 6 reasons to agree:

    • The report spews early content.
    • The story super-fits the time and place.
    • Christians felt the "Mary saw Jesus visit" report was undesirable. It was full of self-embarrassing content (where women were primary witnesses, inextricably caught up in Christianity’s origin story, and wants more—they were witness-heralds of Divine revelation to the men, which was nearly unthinkable in Jewish culture. This is a far cry from something that a Jewish-Christian would invent (or any Christian in the ancient world)!
    • It was overtly doomed-if-fake content.
    • It spews liar self-exposing content.
    • In general Christians did not lie-invent Jesus-bio.

    But it really was a lie...

    • E.g. It is an evolved angelophany.
    • Mary's appearance is absent in sources that would've mentioned it (i.e. Mk 16, Lk 24, 1 Cor 15).
    • Christians had motive to invent appearances.
    • The Mary-visit accounts contain contradictions.
    • The Mary-visit accounts contian absurdities.
“No, after all…
  • The reports is a dishonest legend

    The report that Jesus appeared to Mary and the women is in fact a dishonest report. (Note: this has identical pro-con evidences in Green's inversed version of the bubble above.)

    There are five reason to think this report is a legend:

    • It is an evolved angelophany.
    • Mary's appearance is absent in Mk 16, Lk 24, 1 Cor 15, which are sources that would've mentioned it if Mary and the women were actually saying it themselves.
    • Christians had motive to invent appearances, and Mary was a plausible or best candidate to invent a story around.
    • The Mary-visit accounts contain contradictions, and this is best explained by it being a legend that is not grounded in witness reporting.
    • The Mary-visit accounts contian absurdities, and this too is best explained by it being a legend. Absurdities naturally crop up in legends, after all, since they are often written in contexts that are divorced from the time and place of the alleged event.

    This suggests the report was not based on Mary's testimony because the most likely source of a dishonest report is legend (outside of Mary's own testimony).

    But no, the report is not a legend. After all...

    • The report spews early content.
    • The story super-fits the time and place.
    • Christians felt the "Mary saw Jesus visit" report was undesirable.
    • It was overtly doomed-if-fake content.
    • It spews liar self-exposing content.
    • In general Christians did not lie-invent Jesus-bio.