Week of His Passion 2018
Reconciling the Resurrection accounts in the Gospels
Christ’s Resurrection led to a confusing day, as His followers raced around the city. Skeptics point to alleged contradictions to prove Scripture wrong. Can the four Gospels be reconciled?
On the surface, it seems like the Gospels can’t keep their stories straight!
- How many women went to the tomb?
- When did they leave?
- How many angels visited the tomb?
- Did Jesus appear to all the women or just Mary Magdalene?
Actual, bonafide contradictions in the Resurrection reports would raise serious concerns for Christianity. If these discrepancies are legitimate, they would be a strike against the preservation of Scripture, but errors would not necessarily prove anything against the truth of the Lord’s Resurrection or the infallibility of original records, but it would cast doubt.
Nevertheless, Christians need not worry. These accounts can be reconciled, though admittedly with the need for a little additional study and investigative footwork. Indeed, when we put all the pieces together, the wonder of the Resurrection shines out in even greater glory – not less.
Some ground rules…
First off, we must realize that the early church knew these stories…knew these gospels and in many cases knew their authors and many of those recorded in the actual accounts. Shortly after the gospels were written, they developed from these the diatessaron, which is a harmonious blending of the four gospels. So while it would be valid to assume consistency by faith alone, it is also only logical to approach this question with the assumption that the accounts are in fact accurate and do not conflict due to the overwhelming amount of early testimony…much of which was eye-witness.
Some of the things the Gospels have going for them which place them miles above any other form of religious works are:
- Early attestation
- Eye-witness testimony
- Thousands of copies with near perfect consistency between them and those few discrepancies do not in any way affect history or theology. [For more on this see – Copies of Copies…are they Reliable?]
Many people of various faiths both are and have been willing to give their lives for their beliefs, but NONE were willing to give their lives for things they NEW to be false! THIS is a pivotal difference between Christian doctrine and other religious beliefs. The letters and gospels of the New Testament were all written within the lifetimes of the events they recorded. As such, the early church was in a position to KNOW if these claims were true and they were willing to die for what they knew! THAT is important!
Secondly, as with any investigation into writings from antiquity, we have to bear in mind that people from other cultures and languages do not record things the same way we do. In this case, Jews simply thought and wrote differently in those days than a typical western-world oriented person might today. Many things were blended and in some cases chronological order was NOT as important in their stories as it is in ours. Their objective was to get the MAIN point across NOT to make sure it was outlined in a specific order.
With that little prelude in place, let’s dive in…
Early the morning of…
When did the women go to the tomb, and how many went?
The Gospels refer to different times and name different women who arrived at the tomb.
Matthew states that “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” came to the tomb as it “began to dawn” (Matthew 28:1).
Mark adds Salome to the group and claims that they came “very early in the morning” (Mark 16:1–2).
John wrote that “Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark” (John 20:1).
WHEN WE PUT ALL THE PIECES TOGETHER, THE WONDER OF THE RESURRECTION SHINES OUT IN EVEN GREATER GLORY.
Regarding the timing of the women’s trip, the sticky point is John’s claim that they went to the tomb “while it was still dark” (John 20:1).
Was it very early in the morning at dawn, or was it still dark? One plausible solution is that the phrases used in the Gospels all refer to the same general time. Much of the sky is still dark when the day begins to dawn very early in the morning.
Perhaps a better solution is that John may have described when the women initially left for the tomb, while the other Gospels described when the women arrived. If they lodged in Bethany, as they had done earlier in the week, then the women would need to travel about two miles to reach the burial site (John 11:18), plenty of time for the sun to rise.
Resolving the differences in the number of women listed is straightforward. At least five women went to the tomb, since Luke names three of them and then says “other women” went too (at least two). Notice that Matthew does not say that only two women were there. Mark does not say only three women were there. They simply focus on the women they name. Although John names only Mary Magdalene, he is clearly aware that she was not alone. Reporting to Peter and John, she said, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him” (John 20:2, italics added).
Was the tomb already open, and how many angels were there anyway?
Matthew’s wording has caused some consternation. After writing about the women going to the tomb he writes, “And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it” (Matthew 28:2). Although this description follows his mention of the women heading to the tomb, Matthew does not claim that this event occurred as the women arrived. Instead, he provides helpful details about what had already happened.
This minor difficulty is easily explained. There were two angels. Neither Matthew nor Mark claims that only one angel was at the tomb. The complete number does not appear in their accounts. It is not a problem that Mark and Luke call the angels “men,” since angels frequently appeared in the form of men and were identified as such elsewhere (Genesis 18:1–2; Daniel 9:21).
Order of Appearances
The alleged contradictions already mentioned are relatively easy to reconcile, but resolving the diverse accounts given in the four Gospels and 1 Corinthians 15:5–8 concerning the post-Resurrection appearances is more difficult. None of these accounts mentions all of the Lord’s appearances, so the information must be pieced together from all five sources. This is the beauty afforded us through the four gospels.
Many in law enforcement are better equipped to appreciate the significance of multiple accounts. Not everyone sees the same thing! You can have 4 people all offering a clear and accurate account of what they saw and still have what initially appears as inconsistencies and discrepancies in their stories. As counter intuitive as it sounds, this actually adds value and credibility to their testimony.
When and where did each woman see Jesus?
This is the most complex issue concerning the reporting of appearances.1 Matthew asserts that the women visited the tomb and saw an angel. While they were on the way to tell the disciples, Jesus appeared to them. There would be no difficulty here except that John has Mary Magdalene individually returning from the tomb to report to Peter and John that the body had been taken away. Only after her return to the tomb with the two disciples is she granted the privilege of being the first to see the risen Savior. So how can both accounts of women seeing Jesus be accurate?
Many Gospel harmonies have been written, and there are a handful of plausible solutions. I believe the following scenario makes the best sense of the available data (see map).
The Events on Resurrection Day
Mary Magdalene and the other women travel from Bethany to Jesus’ tomb.
As mentioned above, at least five women set out for the tomb in the early morning, probably from Bethany. As they neared the tomb, they noticed the stone had been removed. Apparently, Mary Magdalene left the other women to alert Peter and John. Based on her comment about not knowing the location of the Lord’s body, it seems that she was not among the women who encountered the angels at the tomb.
Meanwhile, the other women entered the tomb and encountered the angels. One of the angels proclaimed that the Lord had risen, and then “the women went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word” (Matthew 28:8–9).
Two questions arise…
- How could Jesus first appear to Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9) and then to the other women?
- As they headed for the tomb, why didn’t Mary, Peter, and John cross paths with the other women who were going to tell the disciples?
The key to resolving these dilemmas is to understand that Peter and John were probably not staying in the same place as the other disciples. Remember, although all the disciples “forsook Him and fled” at His arrest (Matthew 26:56), Peter and John were brave enough to enter Jerusalem to find out what would happen to Jesus (John 18:15). Of course, Peter fled in shame at the rooster’s crow (Matthew 26:75), but John was present at the Cross (John 19:26). At some point, John and Peter met up, and they were likely staying together in Jerusalem when Mary Magdalene came to the door on Sunday morning.
Where were the other disciples, then? We cannot be certain, but they may well have stayed in Bethany. After all, this is where Jesus often stayed on trips to Jerusalem, it is where Jesus stayed during the entire week of His Passion and Bethany was on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives (Mark 11:1), the location of Christ’s arrest. So it seems only logical that the majority of the disciples just continue to lodge in Bethany after the week of His Passion and crucifixion, since they were there already anyway.
If these suppositions are correct, then all of the difficulties are resolved nicely. Mary Magdalene first left the tomb and entered nearby Jerusalem to get Peter and John. During that time, the other women encountered the angels and then left the tomb to set out on the two-mile trip to Bethany to tell the other disciples. They may have stopped along the way to tell Clopas and an unnamed disciple about the morning’s events (Luke 24:22–24), or they may have split up so that a couple of them could inform these men. In all likelihood, “the wife of Clopas” was among these women (John 19:25).
Meanwhile, Peter, John, and Mary raced to the tomb. The men entered the tomb, saw the grave clothes, and then left. Mary stayed behind, weeping outside the tomb. When she looked into the tomb, she saw two angels (John 20:12), and after explaining her grief to them, she turned around and saw the Savior (John 20:16).
After Mary departed to tell Peter and John about seeing the risen Lord, Jesus appeared to the other women who were on their way to Bethany (Matthew 28:9).
After reading many commentators and critics’ take on the above events this seemed to me to be the one that was both most plausible and which made the fewest assumptions. Though, truth be told, there are many ways the accounts can be reconciled without embellishment or special pleading so the entire concern was of no concern to begin with.
As I said towards the beginning, it is reasonable to assume that with as many VERY EARLY copies of gospels as we have, the early writing of the book of 1Corinthians (50-54AD) and the fact that SO MANY followers and believers in Christ were eye-witnesses of His resurrection and on a first name basis with those mentioned in the gospel accounts – it is truly not credible to believe blatant and outright inconsistencies would not have been picked up by the majority. As it is however, these accounts are not very difficult to reconcile AND the fact that those closest in time to these events did not take exception with them gives us more than a reasonable basis for accepting them as written!