I've often heard that if you lay out the books of the New Testament by the chronological order of their composition, the story of Jesus' resurrection becomes more important in the later books. Some also say it becomes more supernatural.

Is there any truth to this? I do not know the order of the books by when they were written.

  • You can choose whether or not to trust the scholars who date the books, but don't most Bibles have some sort of information as to author and date before each book? If you want that info, go here and click the "int" for each book in the NT. Each book is written for a purpose, to a specific people. It would be pretty amazing if that were true.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Feb 10, 2012 at 16:30
  • 2
    Is the unwritten question here "did the story grow in the telling?" Commented Feb 10, 2012 at 23:25

4 Answers 4


Allow me the liberty to rephrase your question:

Did the concept of Resurrection develop over time?


The ancient Hebrews did not seem to have any conception of life after death. In Job and the Psalms, we start seeing hints that Israelites envisioned some existence after death, but not as anything very exciting. If you've read any Homer or the Gilgamesh epic, you'll remember that the dead go to a shadowy, dry place. But it's important to understand that, unlike the Greek concept of Hades, Sheol wasn't a place where souls existed, but where whatever was left of the dead's body and spirit was housed. It's not clear that the writers of the earlier books in the Old Testament envisioned anything more than a grave when they used the word.

By the Second Temple period, Jews began to develop more sophisticated cosmologies. We start getting hints of bodily Resurrection:

Daniel 12:2 (ESV)
2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

But even then, it's not clear if the Biblical prophets (outside of Daniel) were envisioning people actually rising from the dead. Ezekiel 37 (the dry bones passage), for instance, was probably a statement of hope for the restoration of the nation of Israel.

Jewish writings in the time between the Old and New Testaments show even more development of the idea of Resurrection, which always had strong nationalistic and (during times of occupation) revolutionary overtones. But the idea was that at some point in the future, God would gather up all of His people and restore them to life all at once. Nobody would have pictured one man rising from his grave as the (or even a) Resurrection. Certainly the Messiah would not participate in the Resurrection, except to make way for it to happen, since he wouldn't die.

When we get to the time of Jesus, we suddenly see the Christian conception of Resurrection appear on the scene. It draws strongly from the inter-testament ideas, but in a fairly radically altered format because the Messiah Himself dies, is buried, and resurrected. Sometime later, the general Resurrection as envisioned by late, Second Temple Jews was predicted—along with the return of the Messiah to complete His work on earth.

How did the concept of Resurrection develop in the New Testament?

Surprisingly little.

Our earliest church documents are Paul's letters to various primitive churches. While it does seem that Paul warms to the subject over the course of his ministry, he does not alter his theology. In Galatians 2, Paul lets us know that his theology was shared with the leaders of the Jerusalem church (James the bother of Jesus, Peter, and John). His dispute with them was not whether the Resurrection of Jesus occurred or what it meant, but whether or not it replaced the Mosaic Covenant.

In First Corinthians (ca. 53-54 AD), Paul gives us one of the earliest formulations of the Christian view of Resurrection:

1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (ESV)
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Many scholars think this represents an even earlier tradition that might have been a creedal statement. Paul goes on to affirm that there will be a general Resurrection in the future:

1 Corinthians 15:21-22 (ESV)
21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

This is also the text (remember it's one of the earliest, written 20 or so years from Jesus' crucifixion) that asserts the Resurrection to be critical to the Christian faith:

1 Corinthians 15:17-19 (ESV)
17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

If anything, the Gospels, which were written later, downplay the Resurrection by giving us more details about Jesus' earthly ministry. Mark even ends immediately after the women's discovery of the empty tomb and doesn't provide a post-Resurrection account. (Whether this was by design or was a historical accident is not known.)

Reference: I draw most of my information from N. T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God, which stands alone as the best survey of the history of the idea of the Resurrection ever written. If I don't stop now, I'm in danger of summarizing his entire book.

  • 1
    Very nice answer
    – user1054
    Commented Feb 11, 2012 at 2:16
  • It should be noted that the Ezekiel prophecy is ironic; for the 'restoration of the people of Israel' - the clear symbol in the prophecy is of course Christ, who becomes the new Israel in one man, and in his resurrection indeed 'restores the people from their exile (to death).'
    – user304
    Commented Feb 12, 2012 at 2:49

Jon Ericson has given a good summary of the development of the doctrine of resurrection. I'm going to take a different angle and look at the level of detail about Jesus' resurrection.

New Testament Chronology

You can find a reasonable chronology of New Testament writings, as well as other early Christian writings, at the aptly named Early Christian Writings website. The dates of each document are given in ranges, and are ordered by the earliest date suggested for each document.

A few of these are highly speculative. For example, the "Lost Sayings Gospel Q" is thought by many scholars to be a written source used by Matthew and Luke, but no copies of such a gospel exist, and no ancient Christians ever mentioned it.

Likewise, many scholars believe there was an early "Passion Narrative" written prior to the first gospel. If so, we can only guess what details might have been in it, because again no copies exist. The early Christians did, however, mention details about Jesus' last days, even before the gospels were written. But whether they got these details from a written document or from oral tradition, we can't really know.

Jon's answer mentions Paul's teaching about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians, one of his earlier letters. This shows the doctrine of the resurrection was fleshed out very early in the development of Christianity.

The Resurrection Story

But your question asked about the story of the resurrection, and that's something different. While Paul's letters mention scattered details about the resurrection, they do not contain a narrative about it. For that, we must look to the gospels.


The first gospel to be written, most scholars agree, was Mark. Mark's account of the resurrection is somewhat sparse. Mary Magdalene goes to Jesus' tomb with two other women with burial spices. When the women arrive at the tomb, they find the stone rolled away and the body missing. A "young man" tells them that Jesus has risen and will meet the disciples in Galilee. The women flee the tomb in fear. That's the end of Mark's gospel. (The earliest and most reliable copies of this gospel do not contain any verses beyond 16:8.)


The second gospel written was Matthew. Again, the women go to the tomb with burial spices. According to Matthew, there is an earthquake as an angel descends and rolls the stone aside. The angel tells the women that Jesus has risen, and will meet his disciples in Galilee. As the women turn around to go tell the disciples they see Jesus himself, and worship him.

In Galilee Jesus tells his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples themselves.

So you can already see a greater level of detail going from Mark's account to Matthew's.


The third gospel written was Luke. Again the women go to the tomb and find the stone rolled away and the body missing. Here they see two men who tell them he is risen. The women go back and tell the disciples.

The disciples don't believe it. Peter goes to the tomb himself to verify the women's story, and sees the empty burial clothes.

In one sense, this is less "supernatural" than Matthew's account; there is no angel, and no appearance of Jesus to the women.

But Luke's story doesn't end there. Later the same day, two disciples (but apparently not two of the 12) are walking from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus when Jesus appears and walks with them. They don't recognize him. He explains to them "the things about himself in all the scriptures". They invite him into their home, he blesses their bread, and they realize who he is. Then he vanishes.

So the two go back to Jerusalem to tell the 12 (well, 11 now), and while they are relating their story, Jesus appears again. He eats a fish, then teaches them about himself.

He leads them to the nearby town of Bethany, where he offers a final blessing then ascends to heaven.

So although Luke's account of the empty tomb is perhaps more down to earth than Matthew's, the subsequent appearances give this gospel a much more detailed account of the resurrection.


The last gospel to be written was John. Again we have the familiar story of the women going to the tomb and finding the stone removed. In this account, Mary tells Peter and John that Jesus' body has been taken from the tomb. The two disciples run to the tomb, enter, and see the burial clothes.

Mary, however, remains outside the tomb and weeps. She is met by two angels who ask her why she is weeping. She tells them Jesus' body has been taken and she doesn't know where to find it. She turns around and sees Jesus himself but does not recognize him. She asks him if he knows where the body has been moved to. He calls her name, "Mary!" She replies, "Teacher!" and goes to tell the disciples that she has seen Jesus.

That evening Jesus appears inside a locked room where the disciples have hidden (except for Thomas who is not present). When they later tell Thomas they have seen Jesus, Thomas doesn't believe them. He insists that he won't believe unless he can see and touch the scars on Jesus' body.

So a week later, Jesus appears again and gives Thomas the opportunity to do just that. Thomas believes and worships him.

Some time later, seven of the disciples are fishing. They spend much of the night on the lake but do not catch anything. About daybreak Jesus shows up on the lake shore, and tells them the fishing is better on the other side of the boat. They follow his suggestion and catch 153 fish. Peter recognizes Jesus, gets out of the boat, and goes to him.

Jesus has a conversation with Peter that is apparently meant to counter Peter's three denials of Jesus on the night Jesus was arrested. Three times Jesus asks, "Do you love me?" Three times Peter replies, "Yes." In response, Jesus gives Peter the instructions, "Feed my lambs," then, "Tend my sheep," and finally, "Feed my sheep."

Here the account of the empty tomb contains much more detail than in the first three gospels, and the number of subsequent appearances of Jesus in John's gospel equals the total from the first three gospels.


While I wouldn't say the resurrection story gets more important or more "supernatural" from gospel to gospel, it certainly gets more detailed in the later gospels.

  • 1
    Geez, we can't have two best answers... :)
    – user1054
    Commented Feb 11, 2012 at 20:41
  • Ultimately even though Jon's answer was very good well done, the answer that I was looking for was addressed by Bruce.
    – user1054
    Commented Feb 14, 2012 at 15:46
  • FYI, The "Early Christian Writings" website is anti-Christian (see their forum). It more-or-less gives the latest possible date for all canonical writings and the earliest possible dates for all non-canonical writings (a common tactic of people wishing to make the canon look arbitrary). It also generally only quotes sources very unfriendly to traditional Christian beliefs about the canon.
    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 16:50
  • For example, for Mark is says "65-80" but probably only 1 or 2 scholars (out of hundreds) actually thinks it was written as late as 80 and a significant percentage feel it was written before 65. In reality, the two most common estimates are "60-65" and "65-70", so if the site was unbiased it might say "60-70", or if covering the entire possible range "50-80". Likewise, an inflation of the upper-end and a cutting off of the lower is observed for almost all canonical books, while non-canonical sources the opposite happens.
    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 16:53
  • 1
    FWIW, surveying the modern (professional) estimates for Mark I have access to, 1/58 lists 80 as the upper end; 2 list 75; the rest are "shortly after 70" or earlier; 65-70 and ~70 are the most common estimates followed by 40-50(!) then 60-65; in total 19/58 list 65 or earlier as the upper end. I'm not sure how many of these are "serious scholars", but all are from published works.
    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 18:01


The importance of the resurrection is highlighted starting in Genesis. Jesus death was the fulfillment of "Satan bruising his heel" from Genesis 3:15. Without the resurrection, that would have counted for a lot more than a heel bruise, but with it the promise is proven true and Satan's head is crushed. Likewise, Isaac being given back alive points to a sacrifice that gives life. Many more examples could be given from just the oldest handful of Old Testament books.

The story continues to develop all through the Old Testament. By the time we come to the New Testament accounts in the four Gospels (which date as the earliest content in the NT even through penned after a few of the letters) the authors are able to talk about the resurrection as both a certain fact and the culmination of a long foretold story. Jesus himself speaks of his own resurrection as the key piece in the events that will unfold on his own life.

While no case can reasonably be made to defend the thesis on your question, it should come as no surprise that the actual language used to describe the event becomes more plain in the letters addressed to churches that did not witness the event. As neigh-sayers arose in the community, the reminders to true believers that address the importance of the core understandings of Christianity are given head on. 1 Corinthians 15 stands out in this catagory, however beyond a few letters which emphatically state the importance of the resurrection to the faith, any attempt to impose an artificial timeline on this as a developing idea will fail in light of some of the latest written texts hardly mentioning the fact and some earlier ones giving it lots of attention.

Rather, the original context of each book and writer should be examined to understand it's take on the subject. Paul had a specific reason to emphisis this doctrine is such clear speach to the Corinthians; and it wasn't that he had a new agenda to push.

  • I confess that I don't understand the "head" thing with your 3:15 reference (and how it relates to resurrection). Is there a brief overview of this anywhere? Should I ask here? Commented Feb 10, 2012 at 20:57
  • I guess I was asking for people who believe this to answer, not someone who doesn't believe it to disprove it.
    – user1054
    Commented Feb 10, 2012 at 21:16
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    Caleb, it doesn't make sense to answer this question starting with Genesis! You would start with Thessalonians, which to my knowledge is the earliest dated New Testament work.
    – user304
    Commented Feb 10, 2012 at 21:20
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    Paul's writings were certainly prior to any of the Gospels. In fact, the Gospels were among the last NT texts written. (Though they certainly draw from early, perhaps pre-Easter, oral and written material.) Commented Feb 10, 2012 at 23:46

No, given that works don't show a clear trend and were written by different people for different purposes.

This also 'begs the question' given that it seems to assume that the Resurrection could somehow be 'unsupernatural'?


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