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.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

The biblical gospels were all originally anonymous? How historically plausible is that?

Some claim that the gospels were originally anonymous. Allow me to explain why that claim is not historically plausible. Most secular scholars would say they were technically anonymous at first, but only technically in terms that authors' names might not have been fixed to the scrolls they were written on (but people knew who wrote them). Some scholars go further and say no-one ever knew who wrote them, but that argument ends up being very complicated - and that's the one that this blog is about. This is my answer. I’ve been been reading academic sources for some years, and I commend this simple thread of argument to anyone who is willing to think it through.

I’ll do another set of posts to address how very complicated secular scholars can make it. But here, things will be kept simpler.


Amongst scholars, it is generally recognised that literacy rates were low in the first century world of the early church. The large percentage of people in the Roman world in those days could write their name. A smaller percentage could read at least basic official documents. A smaller percentage still could read religious texts. There would also be copyists who could copy out a book letter by letter, not necessarily with great style. A smaller percentage still could create literature of a more than basic standard, such as the texts compiled in the New Testament.

Your small pool of writers

If you lived in a church community two millennia ago, you knew the names of the literate people, because there wouldn't be many of them. When they stood up and read from a scroll, that was a dead giveaway. But you would know anyway. People needed to know. They needed someone to read official documents to them. Literate people were of even greater value to the community if they had the additional ability to write for official purposes or to write letters for people. It would be selfish (and implausible) to keep it a secret that two or three people in a community could write well. Their services were needed, to write ordinary letters on behalf of other people to take from one place to another, and so on. You needed to know who they were. You did know who they were. If they were of greater literary ability, the fact could not be hidden.

It any small community, such as an early Christian community, only a small number of people had the education and ability to create something as sophisticated as a gospel.

If you were in a community in which, say, only four people had the level of literacy to write a book of some quality, and a book was written, the author was known to you. There was no anonymity in a close community. Let’s say it was a Jewish community, and in it only a minority were Christians, and maybe only two of them could write something as sophisticated as a gospel, then it is even more obvious that the author in your community was known to you. There was no anonymity for them. If you were in a small Christian community in which the only two people with significant literacy were, say, Luke and Paul, and one of them wrote a gospel, then everyone knew which of them wrote it. There was no hiding. If it was Luke who wrote it, you – as a member of that small community - knew it was Luke.

Tags in the library

Let’s move on from writers to readers. If you were in that community, and you had sufficient literacy to read such a book, it wouldn’t be the only book in your whole world.

In Luke’s community in particular, you would be aware that you had at least one more gospel, because Luke adapted parts of Mark’s Gospel in writing his own. So you have to count both of them. And he possibly used Matthew’s Gospel too.  Imagine being in a church in the first century, in Luke's community, with two or three of these gospels in a little library of scrolls and parchments, and they would be there together simply because of Luke using one or two gospels in the process of writing his own. Thank about that. As soon as Luke finished writing his gospel, it logically meant that Luke’s group now had two or three gospels. The community already, here in the first century, is in possession of two (Luke and Mark) or three (Luke, Matthew and Mark) gospels. That means you somehow have to tell apart things that look similar.

(It is amazing to me to see reputable scholars supposing that only in the second century did a multiple-gospel library exist, at the same time as arguing that Luke in the first century used Mark, without seeing the inherent contradiction in those two positions.)

Now imagine you are a reader in this community with a shelf of scrolls including two such gospels as well as, say, Daniel and the Psalms. As a reader, how do you know which scroll is which? Which is Mark, which is Luke, which is Daniel? What are the others? Easy. You tag them. The old way.

Sending out tagged copies

Next step. Let’s say you lack ability to write a gospel, but you are a copyist, with adequate literacy to copy a gospel out by hand, letter by letter. In that case, you are an important community asset as a copyist. Imagine a message comes to you to copy one of the gospels by hand, say Luke’s Gospel. How do you identify the right one to copy - say, Luke rather than Mark? Easy. The scroll is tagged.

And suppose you are making a copy of Luke’s Gospel, which you know is for the purpose of it being sent to another church to add to its small collection of scrolls. Naturally, they need to know what it is when they receive it. What does the copyist do? Naturally, the copyist copies does the same as he found in the library where he is based, and tags the one he sends out, e.g. simply “Luke”, to put next to their “Daniel”.

This is even more the case if you are asked to copy more than one scroll in your little library to be taken to another church’s little library. How will the receiving church know which is which? They will not want to be muddled. You tag them before the carrier takes them all off you.

Staying "on message"

Next, crucially, imagine the purpose for which the gospel scrolls are being sent. They are typically being sent out to be read to another congregation, sent as authoritative normative church teaching. Let’s say it is being sent from Rome to Antioch. On what basis would the Antioch church receive it and use it as authoritative normative teaching? Provenance. Vital teaching such as a gospel needed provenance in the first churches, and saying something like “Mark wrote down Peter’s teaching. Read it to the congregation in Antioch.” If it had no provenance, then it instantly loses any such authoritative status at the receiving church.

You wouldn’t risk wasting something so important, produced at a high cost (materials) and with such labour involved. You would make sure it was received with confidence, and would be used. How do you make that happen?

Bear in mind that the gospels were not mass-produced for commercial sale by street traders. The gospels were for insiders, a means of message control within Christian communities, in the nicest sense. Message control in a brand new movement doesn't work without something to back it up that everyone respected.

Control was particularly important for a new movement. (Being new, they didn't have the luxury of relying on a teaching guaranteed by many centuries of history. The gospels were new. Their message to the churches was barely a few decades old. In a new movement, you are vulnerable to loss of control of direction, and you take measures to address the risk. How will you try to address it? (If you are in doubt about the risk, look at the tension and stress in Paul’s letters when he has heard that churches seem to be departing from a teaching that he personally gave them. Or look at the letters to Timothy which emphasise the need to safeguard the message and pass it on as received. Control was intrinsic to spreading their movement successfully, and keep the community together.)


So how was authority asserted? Actually, we know of a key way it was done. In the early church, authority was asserted by turning up in person and/or by writing letters by named parties. Authority is only possible with provenance. Peter couldn’t turn up in person everywhere. Letters were crucial. If Barnabas turned up in Antioch saying, ‘Peter told me to tell you something,’ it might not work. Hearsay might not be accepted as good enough for a crucial message. If Barnabas turned up in Antioch with a letter of commendation from Peter, now you’re talking.

So back to the gospels. You have an important document produced with great labour and expense by one of the rare people who could write a book, carried to a church by hand. It is meant to have keep church teaching on message, with authoritative provenance, so that it cuts the ice. What is the actual evidence that letters were used that way?

The author of Luke’s Gospel and Acts reveals to us all about letters of commendation and authority (Acts 18:27, 15:22-23, 9:1-2). Paul reveals it too. That’s how it was done. Letters gave authority, provenance and approval, to safeguard the message being received by one church from another. The networks of churches were keen on control in the nicest possible sense, as said, even more so when the mother church in Jerusalem still existed and had to be respected as the mother church; and it mattered all the more when the number of Christian voices was multiplying. Maintaining knowledge of the provenance of the gospels - valuable crucial normative material - was one such means of message control. Anonymity undermines control. Provenance assures it. 

We know that letters of commendation (written on papyrus) existed but have not survived, worn out or crumbled to dust after 2,000 years in the middle east climate. But evidence they existed is abundant. Here are examples from Luke’s Acts 18:27, 15:22-23, 9:1-2:

  • Acts 18:27: “And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him.
  • Acts 15:22-23: “They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings...””

It was not a Christian invention, this practice. Luke tells us that it was already a practice known in the Jewish synagogues:

  • Acts 9:1-2 “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus”.

Here are other examples from Paul’s letters:

  • 2 Corinthians 3:1 - “do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?” (So here, we see that Paul was writing to people he knew and so did not want to have to use a letter of approval to give him the right to continue teaching them. Whereas other Christian teachers were clearly travelling with letters of commendation, their passport to a church audience.)
  • 1 Corinthians 16:3: “I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.” (This is how money was sent from one church to another.) cf 2 Kings 5:5-6.

And there is obvious evidence that important messages to churches could be circulated by letters:

  • Colossians 4:16 – “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.”
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:27 – “I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.”

Letters of authority were part of the modus operandi of church structure and teaching in those times, and the evidence for that is abundant.

Since Luke, the author of Acts, advertises the importance  of letters of approval and authority (see the quotes from Acts above), it is highly improbable that he (or his fellow church members) would splash around copies of his gospel without using the same method when despatching them, if they were meant to be used authoritatively to control teaching in churches. Gospels laboriously and expensively copied were far too important for their authority to be left to chance.

Dating the chain

Since Luke’s community was obviously in possession of Mark and Luke’s Gospels, and possibly Matthew too, it is no stretch to picture copies of Mark, Luke, or all three, being made and circulated from that community, with tags to tell them apart and letters of authority citing their provenance and commending them for church use all make sense of the picture. All in the latter half of the first century, note. That dating is significant for the next link in the chain.

Message control doesn't begin and end with the first generation of copies, or the first planting of churches. Control is an ongoing factor. If it was needed in the 60s of the first century, then it was also needed in the 70s and the 80s and the 90s. Continuously, in other words.  The early church was a continuous project. The need for control doesn't disappear as time goes on. If anything, the need for it increases, as the number of voices in Christian networks grows.

We have extra evidence that provenance mattered from another witness – at just the right time. Still in the second half of the first century, in the latter part of it, a young man was gathering sayings of Jesus. In the early part of the second century, he wrote up his findings. His name was Papias, and we have his words.

His interest in provenance is famous. He was writing a book of sayings of Jesus and he knew that it would cut the ice with nobody unless it had provenance for the sayings. Provenance mattered earlier, and it still mattered. Papias sought out oral and written tradition of Jesus’ sayings. He explained his way of getting provenance for them:

‘If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders — what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say.’


‘This also the presbyter said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ.


‘So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.’

When Papias was researching, in the second half of the first century, he was in a world where he could research sayings on the basis of provenance. 

So he is provenancing both written and orally transmitted sayings. Why? As indicated, Papias was compiling a five-volume book of Jesus’ sayings (‘logia’ in Greek), and he obviously wanted it to be authoritative. For this purpose, Papias’ interest in gospels was that they were one of the sources (along with oral tradition) from which he could extract sayings of Jesus, and publish them. (He possibly thought his compilation of sayings was more important than the gospels!)

Papias is clear that Matthew’s Gospel suited his purposes, because it was easy to extract whole chunks of well-ordered sayings from it – a huge bonus for writing a book of sayings. He was a little irritated by Mark’s Gospel: sayings of Jesus are mainly immersed in a matrix of Mark's narrative, and extracting individual sayings from Mark, going through a scroll, was a much bigger job, not to mention his task of ordering them thematically. What he goes on to tell us makes clear that Papias did not find the ordering of stories in Mark’s Gospel conducive to producing sayings in a convenient order. Not when his focus was compiling his five volume book of sayings. No wonder he preferred the chunky way that sayings are ordered in Matthew. But this is getting off the subject.

The point is this: in the second half of the first century, the church employed a system of assuring control by use of letters of authority conveying clear provenance and approval.

Matthew and Mark’s Gospels were research materials for his books. This makes sense that he mentions these two. Here's why. Matthew’s Gospel is partly copied from Mark's. Therefore, Matthew’s community had at least two gospels – Matthew and Mark - so they existed together. And – lo and behold – Papias has got the provenance of two gospels that existed together. Two facts that fit together. 


Historical context, a small pool of known writers in the community, the need for authoritative normative message control, and control of church direction, establishing provenance, commendation and authority, identification of multiple scrolls, historical chain – there are multiple sound reasons why the gospels could never have originally been issued as anonymous, and why knowledge of author-identity couldn't just disappear into thin air in no time at all. Every step of this chain indicates things that had to happen as a practical necessity.


In my studies, I have seen entirely speculative scenarios that need not of necessity happened at all, stringing together things that have no obvious causal connection. Are these rival theories about the gospel authors’ names complicated? Oh, yes! But this needs examination, and I will do so in other posts, looking at cases of liberal scholar.

They will ask questions about how a Galilean fisherman could be behind a sophisticated gospel such as John. It’s a good question. And some scholars will muddy the waters by speaking of 'formal anonymity' which is something different from the matters presented above. Further posts will address such things.