The Key to Harmonizing the Gospels’ Easter Accounts

Given the centrality of the Resurrection, it can be troubling for Christians that there are so many seeming discrepancies in how the four Gospel writers describe exactly what happened on Easter morning: they seem to fundamentally disagree with one another on who went to the Tomb and what they saw.  For example, Matthew and Mark describe “an angel” at the Empty Tomb (Mt. 28:2, 5; Mk. 16:5), while Luke is quite clear that there were two angels (Luke 24:4).

There’s a big clue in how to understand the Gospels in John’s Gospel (John 20:1-2):

On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put Him.”

This short passage has a remarkable feature.  John 20:1 says that “Mary of Magdala came to the tomb,” which sounds as if she went alone.  But in John 20:2, the very next verse, we find out that’s not the case, since Mary says that “we” don’t know where they put Him. This reveals something about John’s style: he’s mentioning only those people who it’s important for him to mention.  Likewise, he says that Mary went to “Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved,” but that this doesn’t mean that Peter and John were alone.  They might have been, but it could have been all Eleven.

We see the same thing in Luke’s Gospel.  In Luke 24:9-12, he writes:

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. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

So the women saw the Empty Tomb and Peter went to investigate.  But then, a few verses later, Luke describes the road to Emmaus, and how the travellers said to Jesus (Luke 24:22-24):

In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.” 

What’s striking is that this isn’t some other Gospel “contradicting” Luke’s account.  This is still Luke’s Gospel, only ten verses later.  And it seems to be describing the same event.  In presenting it this way, Luke leaves no doubts that when he says “Peter” went, he doesn’t necessarily mean only Peter went.

In fact, all of the Gospel writers employing this technique: rather than compiling a list of every person who was there, they mention only the one whose presence is important to the account.  That makes sense, and we do these sorts of things all the time.  Consider a few examples.  When we say that “Nixon went to China,” it sounds to the uninformed that Nixon went by himself. In fact, he was joined by Secretary of State William Rogers, and National Security Council staffer Winston Lord.  But of course, no one, in saying, “Nixon went to China” denies that Rogers or Lord went.  Likewise, if we tell someone, “I had a history class with your daughter,” there’s not the slightest hint that the class was only the two of you.  It could have been, but it need not have been.

In both cases, there’s a reason that we’re focusing on a specific figure. Nixon and the listener’s daughter are the important characters in the stories.  Whether William Rogers went to China is an irrelevant detail.  We see the same thing here.  Look at John’s account, quoted above: of the women who went to the Empty Tomb, Mary’s the important one, because she runs back to proclaim it.  Of those who hear her, John and Peter are important as the ones who respond.  Any others, if they’re there, aren’t doing anything John finds worth mentioning.  So just because someone isn’t mentioned, it doesn’t mean they’re not there. With that feature in mind, let’s tackle two of the basic “contradictions” in the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, and showing their easy harmonizations:

I. Who Went to the Tomb First, and When?

Matthew 28:1,

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

Mark 16:1-3,

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

Luke 24:1,

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.

Luke 24:10,

It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 

John 20:1,

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.

Harmonization: at the crack of dawn, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, and other Galilean women went to the Tomb.

Remember that one of the purposes of including these details is to establish eyewitness testimony (John 19:35).  So the Gospel writers were likely to mention those witnesses who were well-known and still alive.  This might explain why only Mark (whose Gospel is believed to have been the first one written) includes Salome (Mark 15:40 and Mark 16:1).  If she died afterwards, it does Matthew little good to introduce and explain who this woman is, if his readers can’t follow up with her.  Given this, it’s possible that there were other women at the Tomb as well, women who passed away before the Gospels were written.

Luke may well have these women in mind, as he refers to them initially simply as “the women,” suggesting that his earliest readers knew which women he was talking about. In the prior chapter, Luke said that at the Crucifixion, “all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things” (Luke 23:49). And at His burial, “The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it” (Luke 23:55).  So these women were devoted followers of Christ who had accompanied Him on His journey.  They were almost certainly well-known to His other followers.  Luke does the best job of making clear that in addition to the named women, there were “others with them” (Lk. 24:10).

As for the timing, the Gospels all agree.  John says it was still dark, and Mark says it was right after sunrise, but that’s no contradiction: it’s still dark right after sunrise.  The image we see is that the sun is rising as they come to the Tomb. It’s a beautiful image, as the sun’s rising itself signifies the Resurrection they’re about to discover.

II. The Rolled-Away Stone

Matthew 28:2-4,

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

Mark 16:4,

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.

Luke 24:2-3,

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

John 20:1,

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.

Harmony: the women discovered the stone was removed.

Mark, Luke, and John make it very clear that when the women arrived, they found the stone already rolled away.  Matthew’s account doesn’t contradict this.  He never says that the women see the earthquake or the angel rolling away the stone.  Quite the contrary: the only witnesses he describes in v. 2-4 are the guards.  So Matthew explains how the stone came to be rolled away, while the others just say that it was.

Conclusion

There are a number of people who stumble over the seemingly contradictory Gospel accounts of Easter morning.  But just keep in mind that when an author mentions an angel, or just mentions two women, that he’s not saying “there was only one angel” or “there were only two women.”  Just because someone was there, doesn’t mean only they were there.  Like Luther’s translation of Romans 3:28, many skeptics go around adding “only” to their readings of the Gospel accounts.  Once you set those aside, it’s clear that many of the “contradictions” simply disappear.

Finally, it’s true that each account of the Resurrection includes unique information that the others omit.  But then again, of course that’s the case. If the other three Gospels were to do nothing more than parrot what the first Gospel said, why write them at all?  So we shouldn’t be alarmed to find, for example, that Luke mentions some things the other omit. It’s for this very reason that God blessed us with the Gospel of Luke.

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