How many women were at Christ's tomb on that first Easter morning – 1, 2, 3, or 5? Were there two angels or only one that announced His resurrection? Did Jesus appear to His followers at Galilee or Jerusalem?
Do the gospel resurrection accounts contradict each other?
Skeptics of Christ's resurrection oftentimes claim that the various gospel accounts of Jesus rising from the dead in the New Testament contradict each other. Even some theologians question whether the gospel episodes of the resurrection can be reconciled. Do the accounts contradict each other? Or are the resurrection accounts found in the gospels historically accurate?
A Look at Some of the Issues
The gospels most certainly agree on the major facts (e.g. Christ's burial, God raising Jesus from the dead). However, there are various apparent minor discrepancies in details like those listed below:
Number of women at the tomb:
- Matthew – 2
- Mark – 3
- Luke – 5
- John – 1
Time of visit to the tomb:
- Matthew – Dawn
- Mark – Sun had risen
- Luke – Dawn
- John – Still dark
Messengers at the tomb:
- Matthew – One angel
- Mark – Men
- Luke – Men
- John – Two angels
Location of the messengers relative to the tomb:
- Matthew – Outside then inside
- Mark – Inside
- Luke – Inside
- John – Inside
Woman/women's encounter with Jesus:
- Matthew – Held Christ
- Mark – Nothing
- Luke – Nothing
- John – Told not to touch Christ
Whom the woman/women told:
- Matthew – Disciples
- Mark – No one
- Luke – Disciples and others
- John – Only Mary Magdalene told the disciples
Location of the appearance to the disciples:
- Matthew – Galilee
- Mark – Jerusalem
- Luke – Jerusalem
- John – Jerusalem
Another task is to attempt a layout of when Jesus appeared to people and where:
- Appearance to Mary Magdalene on Sunday in Jerusalem (Mark 16:9-11; John 20:11-18)
- Appearance to other women on Sunday in Jerusalem (Matthew 28:9-10)
- Appearance to Peter on Sunday in Jerusalem (Luke 24:32; 1 Corinthians 15:5)
- Appearance to Emmaus disciples on Sunday in Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35; Mark 16:12)
- Appearance to 10 disciples (The Eleven minus Thomas) on Sunday in Jerusalem (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:26-42; John 20:19-25)
- Appearance to The Eleven eight days after the Resurrection in Jerusalem (John 20:26-31; 1 Corinthians 15:5)
- Appearance to 7 disciples in Galilee (John 21:1-25)
- Appearance to 500 brethren in Galilee (1 Corinthians 15:6)
- Appearance to James (1 Corinthians 15:7)
- Appearance to The Eleven in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-18)
- Appearance to The Eleven forty days after the Resurrection in Jerusalem (Acts 1:3-12)
Some General Rules of Biblical Interpretation
Before we address the specifics of the resurrection accounts, it is good to first understand a few basics of Biblical interpretation that will aid our understanding of why some things differ in the gospels. First, it's important to remember that a partial report is not a false report. Just because each gospel author doesn't report every detail of a story doesn't mean it's inaccurate. All historians edit their accounts for various purposes and the gospel writers are no different.
Second, a divergent account is not a false account. For example, Matthew speaks of one angel at Christ's tomb whereas John mentions two. A contradiction? Not at all. Simple math says if you have two, you also have one. Matthew did not say there was only one angel; if he had then we would have a true contradiction. Instead, he just records the words of the one who spoke. Though divergent accounts can seem to cast doubt on the accuracy of the reporters, we must try and reserve judgment until all the facts are in.
These two rules should be kept in mind when examining the multiple resurrection accounts.
Reconciling the Resurrection Events
The below represents a humble attempt to succinctly lay out a reconciliation and timeline of the gospel account records of Christ's resurrection and his appearing over the following forty days to various individuals. For a more exhaustive treatment of the details and various explanations, please see John Wenham's work The Easter Enigma.
1. An angel rolls away the stone from the tomb before sunrise (Matthew 28:2-4). The guards are seized with fear and eventually flee.
2. Women disciples visit the tomb and discover Christ missing (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-4; Luke 24:1-3; John 20:1).
3. Mary Magdalene leaves to tell Peter and John (John 20:1-2).
4. Other women remain at the tomb; they see two angels who tell them of Christ's resurrection (Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:5-7; Luke 24:4-8).
5. Peter and John run to the tomb and then leave (Luke 24:12; John 20:3-10).
6. Christ's First Appearance: Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb; Christ appears to her (Mark 16:9-11; John 20:11-18).
7. Christ's Second Appearance: Jesus appears to the other women (Mary, mother of James, Salome, and Joanna) (Matthew 28:8-10).
8. At this time, the guards report the events to the religious leaders and are bribed to lie (Matthew 28:11-15).
9. Christ's Third Appearance: Jesus privately appears to Peter (1 Corinthians 15:5).
10. Christ's Fourth Appearance: Jesus appears to Cleopas and companion (Mark 16:12-13; Luke 24:13-32).
11. Christ's Fifth Appearance: Jesus appears to 10 apostles, with Thomas missing, in the Upper Room (Luke 24:36-43).
12. Christ's Sixth Appearance: Eight days after His appearance to the 10 apostles, Jesus appears to all 11 apostles, including Thomas (John 20:26-28).
13. Christ's Seventh Appearance: Jesus appears to 7 disciples by the Sea of Galilee and performs the miracle of the fish (John 21:1-14).
14. Christ's Eighth Appearance: Jesus appears to 500 on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-18; 1 Corinthians 15:6).
15. Christ's Ninth Appearance: Jesus appears to His half-brother James (1 Corinthians 15:7).
16. Christ's Tenth Appearance: In Jerusalem, Jesus appears again to His disciples (Acts 1:3-8).
17. Christ's Eleventh Appearance: Jesus ascends into Heaven while the disciples look on (Mark 16:19-20; Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:9-12).
The different perspectives in the gospel's accounts of Christ's resurrection are indicative of the veracity of the eye witness statements. Those who have seen something unexpected often report the details in somewhat of a frenetic and seemingly disconnected way, as they attempt to communicate the depth of what they have witnessed even while processing the events for themselves. Were the gospel writers or the disciples lying, they would have presented a uniform story. And the same critics who try to point out contradictions in the gospels would no doubt cry 'collusion' if they found exact verbal parallelism and a singular account of the resurrection.
In the end, the recordings of the resurrection found in the four gospels harmonize quite well upon closer examination, and perhaps most importantly, strongly agree on the one key fact that has universal life impact: Christ is risen from the dead!
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