Are the Empty Tomb and Detailed Appearance Stories Literary Inventions of the Gospel Authors?


Scholars state that in the genre of literature in which the Gospels were written, Greco-Roman biography, as long as the core details about the central character were kept intact, artistic license was permitted allowing the author to invent fictional details in order to “add color” or “flesh-out” the story.

Christian blogger:

That’s a plausible answer but too much copying to be artistic license.  They obviously cared about an original template of how the story had to go.


But it wasn’t as if the four Gospels were written at the exact same time. We know that the authors of Matthew and Luke were familiar with the story of Mark, a book written sometime prior to the writing of their books. And since the Gospel of John was written many decades after the first gospel, it is possible that the author of John too was familiar not only with “Mark’s” version of the Jesus story but also with “Matthew” and “Luke’s” versions. Therefore, it is possible that in circa 65-75 CE: Mark added a fictional Empty Tomb pericope to the core historical Jesus story as told in the Early Creed; Matthew and Luke then added detailed appearance stories to Mark’s Empty Tomb pericope, loosely based on the historical appearance claims found in the Early Creed. Matthew located his appearances to the male disciples in Galilee. Luke located all his appearances in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. John simply added additional details to both stories, having appearances in Jerusalem and Galilee, along with the new stories of Thomas not being present the first time in the Upper Room, and of Jesus cooking breakfast on the shores of the Sea of Tiberius.

First century readers, who were very accustomed to seeing invented details in their historical biographies, would not have been bothered by these “discrepancies” as long as they all were consistent in the core facts: Jesus was crucified; buried; and then a short time later his disciples claimed he appeared to them.

Let’s take a closer look at the four Resurrection stories, in chronological order, and see if my theory holds any water:

In Mark, the women come to the tomb; find it empty; encounter someone who tells them that Jesus has risen from the dead; the same someone tells them to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.  The women flee the tomb in fear and tell no one.

Matthew starts out with the same basic story:  Women come to the tomb; find it empty; encounter someone who tells them Jesus has risen from the dead and who also tells them to tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee.  But Matthew has added some new twists to the core story.  There is an earthquake and the “someone” is identified as an angel, not simply a “young man” as in Mark, but the core story is basically the same as told by Mark.  Matthew even has the women running away from the tomb in fear, just as Mark did!  But then Matthew adds a stunning, new scene!  Fleeing from the tomb in fear…the women run into none other than…Jesus!  Wow!  What a great way to pick up the story right where Mark had left off a decade or so earlier:

“So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

The author of Matthew then tells the story of the Roman guards going to report to the Sanhedrin and then…the plot switches to Galilee  There are zero appearances by Jesus in Jerusalem to male disciples in the Gospel of Matthew!

Now let’s look at Luke’s story:

The women arrive at the tomb; find it empty; someone (plural) tells them that Jesus has risen  (but no mention of Jesus’ instruction for the disciples to meet him in Galilee); the women run and tell the disciples.  From there, the story is COMPLETELY different from Matthew!!! 

Therefore, to me, it is entirely possible that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Empty Tomb pericope as a template to create two completely different sets of appearance stories!

What about the story in the Gospel of John?:

As is true with practically everything else in the Gospel of John compared to the Synoptics, the Resurrection story is VERY different.  However, there is still the core Empty Tomb pericope.  But in John’s version, only Mary Magdelene comes to the tomb, finds it empty, and then runs to tell the disciples.  Notice something different right away from the other three accounts?  No one tells “the women (or woman, in this case)” that Jesus has risen from the dead.  After Peter and the Beloved Disciple have come to the tomb, inspected it, and left, Mary runs into Jesus.  This “run in” with Jesus is similar to the story in Matthew, but unlike Matthew yet like Luke, Jesus says nothing to her about telling the disciples to meet him in Galilee.  Jesus then appears in the Upper Room as in Luke, but unlike Luke, he only appears to Ten; Thomas is not present.  Then John tells us of an appearance in the same Upper Room one week later and the dramatic story of Doubting Thomas.  Notice there are no appearances in Galilee and no mention of Jesus instructing the disciples to meet him in Galilee.

However…THAT was John chapter 20.  Our Bibles do not end at John chapter 20, however.  John chapter 21 has all kinds of interesting appearances in Galilee!  It is as if someone noticed, after the fact, that Matthew’s story looked out of place and felt they needed to tie up the loose ends.  (Many scholars doubt the authenticity of the 21st chapter of John…but that’s another story.)

Therefore, I believe it is entirely possible that until the writing of the Gospel of Mark, the Resurrection story looked like what we see in the Early Creed found in First Corinthians 15.  Very bare-boned.  Not a lot of detail.  Then a skilled writer,(“Mark”), writing in circa 70 CE,  “fleshed out” the story.  This was perfectly acceptable in the genre of literature in which he was writing, Greco-Roman biography.  Then over the next several decades, three other writers added more “flesh” to the story, which again was perfectly acceptable in that genre of writing.  If this is the case, no first century reader would have been surprised or offended by reading four Resurrection stories with so many “discrepancies”.  They would have known that “discrepancies” were what made for a good story!




4 thoughts on “Are the Empty Tomb and Detailed Appearance Stories Literary Inventions of the Gospel Authors?

  1. I have a non-expert feeling that it will eventually be discovered the gospels were written far later than the dates stipulated, maybe even after the Bar Kokhba revolt.

    That Marcion especially had more to play in the construction of Luke and the epistles, and that the crucifixion was not earthly at all and everything else was simply inserted to make the story earthbound.

    But that is merely pushing the boundaries to see what is / might have been possible.
    Let’s be honest, it’s not necessarily any less nonsensical than the story we already have!


      1. I would be interested in Christian Bloggers’ responses to what you wrote in this day’s message post. (“Are the Empty Tomb and Detailed Appearance Stories Literary Inventions of the Gospel Authors?”)
        It’s interesting.


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