Sunday, 3 June 2018

The conversion of Saul / Paul: multiple accounts - multiple discrepancies and contradictions?



How good was Luke as a historian of the first century church? I can’t attempt a full answer in one post. So here is just one issue along those lines, often asked about in such a way as to disparage Luke’s competence. It’s about the story of the ‘conversion’ of Paul, which Luke tells three times in Acts. Two questions about it:

  • Does Luke present the story clearly so that the reader can understand what is supposed to have happened?
  • Does Luke’s Book of Acts incompetently contradict itself when it comes to telling it? Is it an embarrassing litany of discrepancies, when the three accounts of it are compared?

These are the three passages:

  • Acts 9 features what Luke as a historian believes about Paul’s conversion.
  • In Acts 22, Luke reports Paul making a speech about it.
  • An Acts 26, Luke reports Paul giving another speech, but with far less detail from Paul this time.

Although some sceptics claim there are supposedly dire inconsistencies between the three passages, I can’t see that. I explain why in this post. (In the passages, Paul is called Saul, but for this study, I refer to him as Paul throughout, the name more familiar to the general reader.)

By the way, what this post is not about is explaining the supernatural elements in the story. For the record, there are two: firstly a flash of light like lightning which blinds Paul; and secondly the voice of an unseen Jesus. Interesting as those two things may be, this post is not about that, but simply about whether or not the three tellings of the same story contradict each other.


Quick note for Greek geeks

Further down, you’ll find notes on two Greek words that are significant to any reconstruction of this episode: 1) a flash like lightning, the Greek word περιαστράπτω; and 2) the Greek word for ‘hear’ or ‘hear with understanding’ in Acts 22:9, ἤκουσαν.


Luke’s task

 If we are interested in judging Luke’s ability as a historian of his day, then the questions can be put differently:

  • in Acts 9, does Luke report fairly and coherently what he has been told (if we can measure that in any way, perhaps by comparing the other two passages with it)?
  • and in Acts 22 and 26, does Luke report fairly (or accurately) what Paul himself is saying (if we can measure that in any way)?

If the story is clear to the reader, it gives a better impression of Luke as a writer who wants his readers to understand the story he is relating. But it is difficult to formulate a method to answer those questions. What was Luke told, after all?

But if Luke did report fairly what he was told, then it follows that he passes the test of what a historian or reporter is reasonably expected to do as a starting point. Report what he’s told and start from there.

Luke’s job as a historian isn’t to make three passages tell the same story regardless of what he’s been told by Paul or whoever. Whether or not Paul gets things right or wrong when making speeches is a question about Paul, not about Luke, and not how we test Luke (so long as Luke as a historian accurately reports Paul). If Luke had accurately recorded Paul misremembering, this would tell us a little about Paul’s memory, but nothing else. I don’t recall anyone saying that Paul was meant to be infallible!

So, whether there are inconsistencies or not, Luke’s job is precisely not to doctor Paul’s versions to fit. He’s a reporter. If he can dig deeper than reporting, great, but only if he can truthfully. He would aim to be fair and coherent, and tell the story meaningfully.


Basis for a harmonised text

Of course, people’s main interest is trying to get a fix on the story itself. If the data is a mess or consistent makes it harder or easier to get a fix on the story.
As I will show with a harmonised text in a moment, judging from what the narratives do and don’t tell us, the narrative of Paul’s conversion plays out quite simply, like this:

On the road to Damascus, Paul and his travelling companions have a two-stage encounter with the supernatural. First, a mysterious flash of light like lightning blinds Paul. Paul and his companions fall to the ground in awe. Nobody new seems to be seen by anyone. After the flash of light passes, there is nothing more to see. The men get up. All except the one who’s now blind. But their encounter with the supernatural is not over just yet. A voice in Aramaic starts to be heard, coming from nowhere. Paul can understand the voice, but it is just noise to the men standing. Paul on his knees converses with an unseen Jesus in Aramaic, which continues until he understands Jesus (in Aramaic) telling him to get up. The men, learning that Paul is blind, assist him and lead him on by the hand.

That is my reconstruction in outline.


The three accounts of Paul’s conversion harmonised

This is my harmonisation of the text, and you can find the three passages in full at the foot of this post for ease of reference. So, fine detail of Acts 9, 22 and 26 harmonised. It is straightforward, except for two bits that needs a bit more knowledge of the Greek language. The biblical words are all from the NIV translation, except one thing from the ESV translation where the Greek will be explained. My comments are in square brackets like this [x]. Passages in speech marks are Paul’s words, except for the obvious place where Jesus is speaking.

About noon

As he neared Damascus on his journey

on the road

suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him

[Note that the light ‘flashed’, not long-lasting.]

a bright light

“brighter than the sun, blazing around me”

“the brilliance of the light had blinded me

[Paul is instantly blind due to the flash of light. So from hereon, he is blind and does not know if the light has stopped or not, nor if there is anyone there to be seen.]

and my companions saw the light”

but did not see anyone

[So all have seen the flash of light. Despite what is often supposed, no-one has seen Jesus in the flash of light.

Indeed, there is no mention here of Paul seeing Jesus. Although this is often assumed, it has not been demonstrated. In fact, there is no mention of Paul seeing Jesus in any of the three accounts – bear in mind that he was blind!

By way of contrast, to emphasise the point, Acts tells of times when Paul actually saw Jesus, in a vision in Acts 22:17-21, and seemingly also in Acts 23:11.This last seems to speak of Jesus physically standing near to Paul. These latter two occasions are notably a very different picture from being blind from a flash of light. It seems reasonable to suppose that Paul experienced a number visual experiences of Jesus over the years, given what Paul says in 1 Cor 15:8. We should hesitate to claim without evidence that Paul saw Jesus at his conversion. It says he heard Jesus, not that he saw him.]

“I fell to the ground”

“We all fell to the ground”

[There is no contradiction here. There is no report that Paul did not fall to the ground, nor that the men did not fall to the ground. Nor is there a report that only Paul fell to the ground. Such reports would be contradictions to what Acts says above. It’s precisely such contradictions that we don’t have. It’s just another two statements that complement each other, much as commonly happens in normal speech.

So then, there is no further mention of any light. It stopped at some point obviously, consistent with being a flash of light, so the place in the narrative where it stops is very early in it. The light has served its purpose. It has got Paul’s attention to listen to a voice that he is really not expecting. Coming up.

Although we will be told when Paul stands up, instructed to do so, we are not told when the men stood up. The narrative includes the memorable business of falling to the ground, but does not detail the uninteresting business of them standing up. This is unsurprising.

Then to their surprise comes a voice that they don’t understand. Here, it becomes clear that for these men the Aramaic just sounds like noise.]

“I heard a voice in Aramaic”

The men traveling stood there speechless;

[The logic of the text is that the men had stood up before Paul did. Paul getting up is mentioned later.

By the by, since Paul is blind at this point, he can only know that the men had stood up if he heard something that gave him that impression, or if they told him so afterwards (and there is no reason to imagine that they were not telling Paul the truth about this).]

they heard the sound 

“but they did not hear with understanding [ESV*] the voice who was speaking to me” 

[Again, for Paul to know that about the men would mean that the men later told Paul the story from their point of view. Regardless of whether or not they told him the truth of course!

Paul and Jesus then converse for a bit in Aramaic, which only he understands, including this:]

‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus.’

[That’s the last of Jesus speaking in this story. Again, note the obvious, that there is nothing saying that the light stopped shining when Jesus stopped speaking. The flash of light had passed earlier. The traditional artistic depictions of Jesus appearing and speaking bathed in heavenly sunlight are completely wrong.]

Saul got up from the ground

[Note there is no mention here of the other men getting up. Saul/Paul is the only one who needs to be told to get up. The fellow-travellers stood up in a different moment, as indicated above.]

when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. 

he was blind

they led him by the hand into Damascus. 


That’s it. Anyone claiming there is definitely a contradiction in that doesn’t have a case.

Why do some say there are contradictions?
Generally, the notion that there are contradictions arises from blindly assuming things in the text that are not actually there to be found. For example, the errors of

  • Supposing that the blinding light lasted a long time like sunlight, whereas actually one passage calls it a flash of light and the others don’t mention duration.
  • Supposing that Paul saw Jesus, whereas none of the passages say that (and he’s supposed to be blind from the flash anyway!).
  • Supposing that the light was seen and the voice were heard at the same time, whereas none of the passages say that (and as we’re only told that it’s a flash like lightning [περιαστράπτω] anyway, it is not much of an opportunity for something else to be happening at the same time).And following from the last supposition:
  • supposing that some of the passages record that the men were on their knees when the voice was heard, whereas none of the passages say that.

How did four suppositions that are so unfounded get to be commonly assumed? Well, perhaps it’s got something to do with artist’s impressions. Unfortunately, pictures that present simultaneous long-lasting light and voice, including Paul seeing Jesus, are lovely pictures but actually not remotely close to the flow of the text of Acts. They freeze everything into one moment, and such paintings have probably affected how some people have come to read the passage.

  • Fifthly, there is contention about what it means where passages say that the other men did hear the voice but did not hear it. This one is covered in my notes about the Greek below.

How did I do my reconstruction?

Working out what order the men stood up and what order events happened is the key. Simply working out points in the narrative when the men standing actually fits in with the text more or less resolves it all. If the men knelt down, then it is a given that at some point they stood up again, but that is the one thing that Luke doesn’t tell us. We have to work it out, if we want to read a sequence of events as detailed as, say, a cameraman’s shooting script for a movie.

As we are told that the men arrived and left, the only physically possible sequence is that the men were first standing, then they were kneeling on the ground, then they were standing again. The passages say that they fell on the ground in response to the flashing light, and then they were standing to hear the voice. So that helps. This is straightforward in pointing to the men getting up after the flash of light has passed. To understand the narrative, you actually have to picture the scene moment by moment from what we are told.

Notes for Greek geeks

1) 'flash of light'
About that flash like lightning, the Greek word is περιαστράπτω. Split it into two and it’s περι-αστράπτω. That is, περι meaning ‘around’, and αστράπτω being ‘the flash like lightning’.

By the way, it’s also elsewhere used without περι, just as αστράπτω, such as in Luke 17:24: ‘as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other’. It will be important to remember that because the passage is often misunderstood along the lines of mediaeval paintings that depict a continuous light, more like sunlight than a lightning flash.


2) ‘hear’

Some sceptics insist that there must be a hopeless contradiction in that the passages say that the men did hear but did not hear the voice/noise. Bible translators have long seen that there is a clear solution with the Greek word consistently used to mean to hear in these passages.

An ESV translation footnote for Acts 22:9 gives the meaning for ἤκουσαν as “hear with understanding” rather than just “hear” in inferring “they did not understand [hear with understanding] the voice who was speaking to me”. Needless to say, people’ hearing’ and not understanding is an everyday occurrence for us all. But there are two valid reasons for classing it with that meaning here:

  • When looking at more than one version of the same story by the same author in the same short book, the first thing should be to see if the author understands it as a harmonious story (with a legitimate grammatical reading of the text in view). We should appreciate the author before rushing off to find reasons to disallow a legitimate reading.
  • In particular, this meaning of “hear with understanding” applies here, as in other places in the gospels and Acts, in response to either Jesus’ own voice or a supernatural voice, or the two things combined (as in this case). We see this repeated usage in a consistent pattern. Here are five similar examples of it:
    • Multiple times, Jesus used the same Greek verb to mean that his voice was ‘heard with/without understanding’, particularly in his famous saying, “Whoever has ears to ear, let them hear”. To the point here (because we are talking about Luke’s Acts) is that Luke definitely records that exact usage by Jesus in Luke 8:8; and again in Luke 14:35. Jesus uses ‘hear’ twice in the saying, the same word, changing the meaning the second time.
    • Again, Jesus reflects on people hearing him but not with understanding in John 8:43 Thus, "Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say."
    • Similarly, by Jesus, Mark 4:33: “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.” This is a feature about hearing Jesus with/without understanding which we find across the gospels.
    • Paul talks about people hearing without understanding the supernatural gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:2.
    • And in Acts 22:9, it is Jesus’ supernatural voice from heaven that the men hear but hear without understanding. Paul alone hears with understanding.

We are really left with nothing at all that anyone can call a definite contradiction in the three versions of Paul’s conversion.


Footnote: Paul’s conversion in Galatians chapter 1

Finally, for the sake of completeness, it’s worth adding that Paul in his letters never quite gets to telling the story of the moment of his conversion. The nearest he seems to come is in Galatians 1:13-17, and even here Paul does not say that God showed him a vision of Jesus. Rather, Paul in Galatians strangely says that God was ‘pleased to reveal his son in me’. It’s difficult to say what that means. But what it certainly is not is a claim to have seen Jesus at the moment of his conversion. In fact, nowhere in the New Testament is there any claim that the moment of conversion was when Paul first saw Jesus. But then, if he was blind at the time, why would he?




The three accounts in Acts of Paul’s moment of conversion

Now, here are the three accounts of Paul’s ‘conversion’ in full, in turn.


Acts 9

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.


Acts 22

“About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’

“‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.

“ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. 

My companions saw the light, but they did not understand [NIV. Greek = ἤκουσαν] the voice of him who was speaking to me.

10 “‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked.

“ ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ 11 My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because.


Acts 26

 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic,[a] 

‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
19 “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.

Selected further reading


Saturday, 12 May 2018

Resurrection Sunday in Matthew's Gospel: where on earth are the men?

Compare the resurrection stories of Matthew and Luke and you know that some strange business is going on.
In Matthew's Gospel, on resurrection Sunday, there is no sight of the male disciples whatsoever. They are neither seen or heard. Not a whisper. They are conspicuous by their absence. Meanwhile, all of the gospels have the women as witnesses to the empty tomb. But only one of the gospels (Luke) has the moment where they tell the twelve disciples (apart from one or two), only to be disbelieved. Why is that scene only in Luke? I’ll come to a final answer further down.
Consider the evidence.

Matthew does a bizarre edit. He has the women run from the empty tomb and meet Jesus, get his instructions... and then Matthew cuts to the men suddenly arriving in Galilee and having a wonderful time with Jesus there. Matthew disguises this awkward edit by slapping an anecdote about the tomb guards in the middle. Go and have a look at Matthew 28 from beginning to end. Without the anecdote in the middle, this is how Matthew actually links together the stories of the women and the men after the resurrection:

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

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.

Once pointed out, it’s glaringly obvious that something that should be in the middle has been deliberately left out by Matthew. It actually reads as if the men escaped to Galilee before the women had a chance to find them. But Matthew has slipped an anecdote in the middle so that we don’t notice his awkward join.

By not telling us anything about what happened when the disciples receive the women’s message, Matthew implicitly leaves a flattering impression that the disciples must have simply believed the women, simply heard and obeyed their instruction to go to Galilee, and had no issues about Jesus being risen from the dead. Is that all there is to the story, or is there another agenda at work?

Compare this with Luke. He too edits something out. He had read Mark. Therefore Luke, like Matthew, knew that the disciples were instructed to go to Galilee. But Luke edits the instruction out. What? Yes, indeed. And having done so, he completes the erasure by not mentioning the trip to Galilee at all. Even though he’s read Mark. Thank you, Luke.

What is going on? Strange omissions. What might these omissions by Matthew and Luke tell us about how the early Christians told and received these stories?


Another omission by Matthew: “Peter and the disciples”

Paul mentions that Jesus first appeared to Peter, then to the twelve in that order. Paul set that out explicitly when he was writing in the middle of the 50s of the first century, before Matthew was written. Paul had written:

“that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve.”

For that to be the case, Peter must have been in a different geographical location from his fellow disciples at first. This also seems to have been known to Mark, who also wrote his Gospel before Matthew’s was written.

“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.’”

So there were actually going to be at least two meetings with Jesus according to that. Matthew erases at least one of those meetings from the story by giving us a short version:

“Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.”

Matthew has just shortened it and skipped mention of Jesus’ meeting with Peter. Matthew is going to miss something out of the story, isn’t he? You bet your life he is. So now you would think that the only meeting with Jesus to recount was the one in Galilee with the whole group. But Matthew's edits are a smoking gun, especially the awkward join. When you see the join, you know he’s left something out. It gradually emerges that there is a gaping hole in the way that Matthew tells the story. We are not told how the women’s resurrection message was received by the men, or how any initial doubting about it played out, let alone any meeting with Peter. That’s a big omission. The women were up at the crack of dawn on the Sunday, and excited at meeting Jesus, but – as if the rest of that Sunday is not worth a mention, which has a famous moment to come - Matthew sharply switches the scene to about five days later, to Galilee. Matthew isn’t going to make up something cheerful to happen on the Sunday to involve the men and fill the gaping hole. He doesn’t do that at all. He just leaves the men out of Sunday. Entirely. This is hardly what you'd expect.

This leaves question wrapped inside question. We might ask why the scene of the women meeting the men is absent. But that question is wrapped within the bigger question of why the men are blotted completely out of the whole day. We might ask why the appearance of Jesus to the men in the Upper Room is absent. But again that question is wrapped within the bigger question of why the men are blotted completely out of the whole day. And so on. One question within another. To try to understand why one scene with the men is missing, we need to try to understand why all the scenes with the men are missing.

Curious omissions

So we have deliberate edits by Matthew. Let's focus for a moment on the first ones. He’s skipped a prediction that there would have been a meeting of Jesus and Peter, and having skipped the prediction, he can complete the erasure by skipping straight to the group in Galilee – which is about five days walk away! And with it he also skips the reaction of the men to the women’s news. In other words, the whole of the rest of resurrection Sunday is shielded from view, skipping every second of the men’s involvement in the day.

Even though Christians believed these things had happened! Yes, Paul and Mark had already made knowledge of that meeting with Peter freely available, only for Matthew to shorten the story, skipping the women’s big moments in Jerusalem and Bethany, of the women briefing Peter and the disciples, and Peter’s subsequent meeting with Jesus, skipping any involvement of the men that day, and anything else momentous that day. Odd.

We can figure some of it out without even knowing any other gospel. It has to be assumed that the men got involved, that the women did their job and told the men to go to Galilee (otherwise the men never would have got there). We can safely assume that there must have been some kind of reaction from the men to the women’s news. But that’s all we could guess. Matthew also omits anything that might have been said or done on the five days’ walk from there to Galilee, even though Galilee is his big finish. No record of any of the disciples’ reaction to anything until Jesus appears to them in Galilee.   

There has to be a reason for that.

Let’s backtrack, and remember something about Luke’s Gospel, that Luke has read Mark. But Luke skips any mention of Galilee, editing out both the prediction of Galilee altogether, and also the meeting on the mountain with Jesus there.

What’s going on?

To recap the omissions then:

  • Matthew’s story skips any sight of the male disciples, skipping the rest of the Sunday, skipping the women doing their job and the men’s reaction to them doing so, and skirting around any hint of an individual meeting with Peter (even though Paul and Mark and Luke don’t skip mention of it), all with the effect of screening out the entire day after the empty tomb and after the fleeing women meet Jesus.
  • Luke skips the instruction to go to Galilee and the event in Galilee itself.

These seem to be deliberate omissions by Matthew and Luke, given that both have read Mark. What is happening, when information that they all had is differently treated, a bit left out here, a bit there?

When we examine closer, nothing really untoward is happening here, but you have to see how they complement each other. It gives us reason to be thankful that there are four gospels rather than one! A closer look at them will pay rich dividends.

Now, of course, writers make editorial decisions for a matrix of reasons, not necessarily for only one reason, in real life. So we’d have to think, what things does Luke get out of editing out Galilee? Well, one reason is that if he leaves in the instruction, he has to devote space to telling how the instruction was (eventually) carried out. A second reason is Luke’s own agenda, which has much to do with keeping the reader’s eyes on promises fulfilled in Jerusalem, starting and finishing his Gospel there. It’s a mix of reasons that would persuade a writer to edit something out.

And what does Matthew get out of editing a bigger chunk out? Well, it suits his theme, which has much to do with keeping the readers’ eyes on promises fulfilled in Galilee, starting and finishing his Gospel there. But there is something more going on with Matthew than that. There’s something about erasing the men’s entire involvement in the Sunday, which of course erases Jesus’ appearance to the group on the Sunday.

Let’s start with that bizarre edit in Matthew.



So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

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.

The bizarre edit is rarely mentioned when we talk about the resurrection story in Matthew. But it’s obvious when once you know about it. There are eleven verses about the women’s experience at the empty tomb outside Jerusalem, where they are commissioned to tell Peter and the disciples to go to Galilee. Then what comes next? You expect it will be a scene where the women tell Peter or the rest of the twelve that they have seen an empty tomb and Jesus and have come with a message. But no, Matthew switches the scene to an anecdote about the guards at the tomb. Five verses of that. Okay, now we’re really expecting to a scene where the women tell Peter or the rest of the twelve that have seen an empty tomb and Jesus and have come with a message. But no. There are zero verses about that. Not even a verse for the women to shout out to the men, “Hey! We just saw Jesus!” Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Instead, Matthew sharply switches the scene to Galilee, five or so days’ walk away. And then, in five meagre verses, Matthew rushes to describe an encounter on the Galilee mountain with Jesus. The end. Hang on though, what? Why only five verses featuring the men? And why leave them out earlier? No sight or sound of the men hearing from the women about the empty tomb, no description of the men’s reaction to the news… The men’s story has less than half as many words as the women’s. That’s good for feminist social justice, but come on… what has Matthew skipped?

Yes, let’s ask the big question about the smoking gun. What has Matthew edited out? Quite a bit actually. Turn to Luke 24.

Here is exactly what Matthew doesn’t tell us. Here the disciples get the message from the women. And you might be expecting something great. Actually, no… “they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” Oh dear. According to Matthew and Mark, the men’s orders are to go to Galilee, to meet the risen Jesus there, who has already gone ahead there. But they ain’t going nowhere. Awkward. Why would it be nonsense to them? Perhaps not just the business of someone being raised from the dead, as they had been primed for that. But the men may have found it impossible to believe that Jesus didn't appear to them first but rather to the women. Sexism driving unbelief. Like a lot of things about Jesus, it's more radical than men were ready for. No wonder that Luke edited out the little instruction to go to Galilee. Why advertise a cringeworthy "this is disobedience" slap in the face to the women who have just delivered the most important message of their lives? It’s bad enough that the men haven’t believed. They haven’t obeyed either. Not even to just set off for Galilee just in case it’s true. Nope. Luke is reticent about that. Why pile on the misery by telling another inconvenient truth? So Luke has edited out all mention of Galilee. (Editing it out is doubly convenient for Luke because all along, he has been wanting to start and finish his Gospel in Jerusalem.)

Let’s recap: Luke knows full well from reading Mark that Galilee is on the itinerary, but blow it, he’s just not going to mention that. But having revealed the men’s disbelief at the women, Luke can’t leave it there, because he has to explain how their unbelief was overcome. Hence the fact that the story that Matthew avoided is now laid bare: Jesus now turns up in the house in Bethany, near Jerusalem, for them.

If Luke had mentioned Galilee, it would be all the more embarrassing, as if Jesus is saying, “Hey, I’ve just had to come back to get you!”

Ignoring what he knows from Mark, Luke has effectively glossed over the fact that Plan A was for the first meeting to happen in their beloved Galilee. Luke has edited Galilee out. So it’s straight to Plan B without Luke mentioning there was ever a Plan A. The little village Bethany just earned its place in the history books. And so, although we are told that Jesus had gone ahead to Galilee, which rather makes the point of Plan A, he makes a detour. This is where Matthew’s suspicious gaps are filled in. Over to Luke’s Gospel.

So, Plan B, let’s call it “Mission Unbelief”, has Jesus back in the Bethany area, building expectations up more slowly, meeting two followers on the Emmaus Road, building up a little body of trusted witnesses, and only then meeting the unbelieving group, for them to grasp the news that they were meant to believe in the first place when the women were entrusted with the vital news.

And then it’s the moment of truth. Jesus turns up to see them together. As mentioned, Luke has glossed over the embarrassment a little bit that Jesus has had to adopt Plan B by editing out any mention of Plan A (Galilee). But it can’t entirely lift the embarrassment; it just softens it a little. Sure, where Luke picks up the scene, the eleven are now covering their embarrassment, excitedly saying that Jesus has appeared to Simon Peter (not to them, cough…), and now they hear that Jesus has also met the two on the Emmaus Road (still not to the disciples though, cough cough…):

“…they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.”

Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them…”

So the eleven say what happened to Simon, and the two say what happened to themselves. The eleven have nothing to say to anyone about how the day has gone for themselves of course. Of course.

Anyway, the group are now sounding convinced. They are not treating the news, coming from the men, the way they treated it when it came from the women.

But all the same, we know that the group could easily be shown up for ignoring the women’s vital message. Then, Jesus appears to them. And as Luke says, “they were startled.” I’ll bet they were. Luke says they thought that “they saw a ghost”. They’re really not believing are they? Jesus isn’t sparing them. Luke says “he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe”. Ouch! Double ouch! Triple ouch. Funnily enough (I’m being sarcastic), this string of cringeworthy embarrassments is what Matthew has edited out. Fancy that. He mentions not a word. With a squeaky edit, Matthew switches the scene straight from the women meeting Jesus and over to Galilee five or so days later, where the men fortunately suffer no embarrassment whatsoever, and frankly look good. How convenient. That’s Matthew for you. No mention of the women telling the men. No mention of the men’s stubborn refusal to believe. No mention of Jesus putting them well and truly in their place. Hey, guess what? Matthew skips straight to somewhere five days’ walk away, to Galilee, and says – wait for it – the “eleven… worshipped” Jesus! Who would ever know that the men weren't always so faithful? Well, if you want to give a positive uplifting account of the resurrection to chivvy up the troops in Galilee, why not skip straight to that? It makes Matthew’s account a truncated stump of a resurrection account, but it does his job.   


The men

Matthew has given us a first meeting of the women with Jesus. The women understand. They worship him. You might think that the following meeting of the resurrected Jesus to the men, in Bethany, is so momentous that you wouldn’t edit it out, would you, Matthew? Well, for Matthew, this isn’t a greatest hits collection, this is mission. And some details just sort of feel, well, you know, unnecessary (cough). Okay, the women worshipped, but the men didn’t get it. It just sort of gets in the way.

Why be troubled if you can skip straight to another very impressive meeting of the eleven with Jesus where all goes so much better, where, gloriously and without embarrassment, the disciples “worshipped him”. That’s all good then. Jesus commissions them all to go and be missionaries. The end. It’s all turned out fine. It’s just as if the men never had an issue with Jesus being resurrected. Fancy that. It’s as if the men simply got it all right, just as the women did. Just don’t look back at the smoking gun, Matthew’s complete erasure of any sight of the men on the Sunday. Razzle dazzle: the men worshipped.

Matthew’s priority: you’ve promised a resurrection appearance. You’ve given one. One is as good as the other. The women had the first appearance of Jesus anyway. So what real difference will it make? Especially as the Galilee one puts them in the desired light. Matthew isn’t writing a catalogue, and he really doesn’t care to try. He is writing something to be read out liturgically, in church, and recording a story that was surely always meant to be celebrated in Galilee in particular. And there are limits to how much you want the ultimate embarrassment to be read out in church every week.

There’s already been quite enough embarrassment for them, thank you. Look at what Jesus says on the way to and from the cross. Looks at what he says to do and what they actually do

What Jesus says to do: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

What they actually do: “Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour?””


What Jesus says to do: “He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things… and that he must be killed and after three days rise again…. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”"

What they actually do: “Then everyone deserted him and fled.”


What Jesus says: “Suddenly Jesus met [the women]. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

What happens directly after: Skip any sight of the men on the Sunday. Nothing to see here. No matter what the cost to other material! Thanks for that, Matthew.


The women

How let down by the men must the women have felt? They must have felt as let down as Jesus did.

Although Matthew has made an extraordinary omission to our eyes, the issue with telling the story about the women’s speaking to the men is that it reveals the men’s embarrassment. It means telling about the disciples being frozen, stuck in utter unbelief, on the greatest day of history. And look how the embarrassment is variously covered in different writings: Matthew skips straight from Bethany to Galilee as if he had a Tardis. Mark probably did the same originally before the ending was lost. Paul doesn’t mention the women’s discovery, and just starts with the happy news that Jesus appeared to Peter. Phew! Thank goodness there are so many ways to spare men from embarrassment.

Matthew is a Galilean with an audience to think about, including women, on which I will say more. Luke on the other hand is a bit more removed from the Galilee crowd. He’s Paul’s friend. He has no such qualms about telling the women’s story properly.

Luke spills the beans and makes it all get read out in church time and time again.

Quite what Matthew might have thought about Luke spilling the beans about the embarrassment on the greatest day in history, we shall never know. But if you want to know why Matthew unnervingly leaves out the scene where the women break the news to the disciples, if you want to know why Matthew skips awkwardly straight from the empty tomb to Galilee - even at cost of skipping the story of where Jesus removes doubt in the upper room in Bethany - now you see the issue. Matthew, cleverly, obscures what he’s left out by slapping his anecdote about the tomb guards inbetween the empty tomb and Galilee, so that you can’t see the join. Otherwise, his clumsy edit - from the empty tomb to Galilee, straight from one to the other - would be, well, it would be jarringly obvious what Matthew has done. Nice little literary trick. Nice job, Matthew. But Luke didn’t let you off the hook.

They’re all very human, you know, these disciples. If you believe God used them, then he used them just as they are.



Actually, levity aside, it takes more than embarrassment to make Matthew leave out so much, doesn’t it? Embarrassment is a fact of life. In his Gospel, the men aren’t shown on the Sunday at all. The whole day. Left out. Completely. In Matthew, Thursday and Friday was where he took them out of view. And only a week later does Matthew let them back in view. This is worse than embarrassment. This is pain. It must have been gut-wrenching sorrow and regret that a glorious moment of celebration was set up for them by their Lord, a moment of clear light and fresh air, the past erased, looking forward, honouring the women, above all honouring their Lord. Instead, they’d let the women down, let the Lord down, and let themselves down. The fresh start they could have had that morning was now forever tainted in their memories. What could have been! They brought on themselves only shame, when there could have been celebration. When there should have been. It could have been perfect. They could never get that moment back. The women could never get that moment back, and no more is heard of them in Matthew. The women were effectively robbed of one of the greatest moments in their lives by the disciples’ unbelief.   

Every family has an event in the past that you don’t talk about, and you don’t bring up. Things that hurt. You don’t cause further pain to those you hurt. Silence is the best way. It doesn’t heal. It just covers up. Gut-wrenching regret at what that moment could have been for the women and everyone involved. If you don’t understand, one thing you can be sure of. The twelve, even with the benefit of hindsight, don’t keep talking about it afterwards to the women. They don’t keep bringing it up. It’s not rehearsed week after week in their public talks. Fast forward to Galilee.

Why did it matter so much after it was written down, you might ask? Bear in mind that the gospels had limited use in those days. They weren’t made for commercial sale – you would not have found street traders selling them. It was different from how it is now. The gospels were for use within the Christian community, mainly for practical purposes such as being read out at Sunday meetings, or for training believers. This movement in the main was not flush with money, which made copies of the gospels precious, made of expensive materials, laboriously copied out by hand, and in use for a long time until they fell apart.

Go back to the earliest times when they were in use, as a written reflection of oral tellings of the same things. That’s right, the early church had no problem in believing that Mark wrote down what Peter taught. The fact that such was easy for them to believe is testament to the fact that such a thing was normal. A gospel was taken to be a record of what someone as important as Peter said. So what was being said, and what was written down, went back to the earliest days of the movement, and had all the sensitivities of people’s feelings, such sensitive feelings as you tend to encounter in new movements. Bear that in mind as background.  

In communities, there are stories you tell and stories you don’t. It’s a fact of life. You might be desperate to know what Grandad did in the war, but he’s never going to tell – that’s how it goes. You might be desperate to know why your parents really got divorced – but they are never going to tell you the whole story. Admitting that at Jesus’ arrest, he was deserted by his friends, was unavoidable – the arrest story only makes sense if their fleeing is admitted. The women discovering the empty tomb is integral to the Gospel, and can’t really be left out of a long account. The resurrection Sunday fiasco that follows doesn’t have to be told. To put it more clearly, the men’s version of the story doesn’t need to be heard. It’s only because Luke fills in what Matthew leaves out that we know how the women’s news was met. We don’t know their anger.

Luke’s Gospel, more than any other writer’s Gospel, is where you hear women’s side of stories. This is just such a moment. Theirs is the side of the story that is preserved in history, but only because Luke shares the story of the awful way that the eleven reacted to them. It is never properly heard from the men’s perspective. No other Gospel even describes the moment. (When an extra ending was tagged onto the end of Mark’s Gospel – Mark 16:9-20 - that and nowhere else is where it is given a passing mention.) The least we can do is hear it again via Luke:

“When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb.”

Luke alone, and no other Gospel, mentions Joanna, by the way. Perhaps it is her side of the story.

As for the men, that Sunday, Matthew erases their entire involvement, even at the cost of not reporting Jesus’ appearance to them. Just as well there was another appearance to tell about.

And that's what they were in Galilee to proclaim.


According to Luke, the start of those appearances of Jesus was the start of 40 days of such appearances.

At the end of Luke's Gospel and in the start of its continuation in Acts 1, there are collections of sayings which signal that they have returned again from Galilee to  somewhere in the vicinity of Jerusalem - the Mount of Olives is mentioned at one point, a "Sabbath-days' walk from the city", similarly Bethany. It's hard to pin down these movements exactly. Luke isn't asking us to. News of the resurrection had been taken to Galilee. But there are still some unfulfilled promises. In Galilee,  the resurrection was preached but there was no mention that the Holy Spirit has come. That moment is reserved for Jerusalem, the holy site of Israel's temple. That is why they are back to the vicinity of Jerusalem. "On one occasion", during the 40 days, they get the signal that the time for travelling is over. It comes at a moment with Jesus when they are not within Jerusalem itself, that they get Jesus’ signal that it is time to wait: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised" (as it is in the collection of sayings in Acts). Why that instruction to stay in Jerusalem was not given by Jesus earlier in the 40 days we can only put down to the times travelling - not just around Bethany and the Mount of Olives but in Galilee.

This casual "on one occasion" comment helps us to place some things. The 40 days is not split in two - before and after that "one occasion". After it, there is only the vicinity of Jerusalem. Before that "one occasion" becomes the only period for anything outside Jerusalem, which helps us to place the time of the trip to Galilee as being before the "one occasion". Now, going to and from Galilee uses up about ten days, and we must assume there was time there for teaching about the resurrection - so more than 10 days overall in Galilee in all likelihood. That still leaves potentially more than half of the 40 days in the vicinity of Jerusalem, but we are told little about that time except that he "spoke about the Kingdom of God." 

Now, the last of the neat collection of sayings is "I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high" (as it is in the collection of sayings in Luke's Gospel).

What is rather special is this: not just that the disciples are staying in Jerusalem at this point, but who is meeting with them: "When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying… They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus…" It looks very much like, at some point during the 40 days, some folk have been going round gathering Jesus' people back together again - not least the women. Although Matthew never mentioned the women again, Luke - writing an extra book - does do so, with an honourable mention. Witnesses to the resurrection and surely the source of some of these stories, the women are still playing an active part in the mission.

Footnote: why Galilee?

The instruction to the disciples to go to Galilee after the resurrection makes complete sense for the gospel story. The Galileans are Jesus and the disciples’ fellow countryfolk, who have heard so much about the Kingdom of God from him over many months, if not years. It will be crucial to his mission that they see and believe in him, fulfilling all the promise of the early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. For Jesus and the disciples, it’s their beloved homeland, their people, where they have always belonged and wanted to see God’s power. One thing that Matthew wants us to take away is that his ending is all about keeping the promises made in Galilee earlier in his Gospel.,which is why Matthew starts and ends his Gospel in Galilee.

How was this to work in Galilee after the resurrection? Well, for the people of Galilee to believe the disciples’ testimony, then the disciples had to be prepared to believe the women, not be professional sceptics. Believing and obeying was intrinsic to this. Their understanding of the message was crucial. It had to be their very reason for going to Galilee. It had to be such that when fellow Galileans saw Jesus on the mountain there, perhaps as many as 500 at one time, then those Galileans had to be able to understand, to believe, that Jesus had risen from the dead.

We know that the disciples often needed a nudge in the right direction from Jesus. That nudge was supposed to come through the women and the empty tomb. The men failed to believe and obey. This must have been devastating for the women. But that Sunday, the women are vindicated, as Jesus turns up at the house in Bethany and gives the men a piece of his mind. It’s only with this missing scene, found in Luke, that the end of Matthew fully makes sense.  

Matthew’s ending makes the disciples appear simplistically beholden and obedient to the women’s say-so, which seems slightly out of character – even if they are expected to rise above their failings and obey the instruction. We know their frailties and foibles. The men’s simplistic obedience to a message that has come out of the blue through the women, well, this obedience doesn’t quite ring true if Matthew doesn’t qualify it in any way at all. If we suspected that they might need help to believe and obey, well Matthew doesn’t present that to us. The messenger at the tomb speaking on behalf of Jesus obviously believed that they had the capacity to believe and obey the women. If anything did go wrong though, then Matthew has edited it out. It looks like glorious success all round in his telling of the story.  

But turn to Luke’s Gospel and the missing bit is there. The inconvenient truth that the disciples didn’t believe the women, and only after appearances nearer to Jerusalem did the disciples obey and do what they were meant to do in the first place, go to Galilee, where it all starts again, and Jesus teaches his disciples how to be missionaries, and Galilee gets to be a launch pad for the Christian mission for the Galileans.