Harmonizing the Resurrection Accounts in the Bible

Mary Magdalene-Scott FreemanI could wallpaper my house with skeptics’ claims of how impossible it is to harmonize the resurrection accounts in the Bible. Muslim apologists also use the “inconsistencies” in the four gospel accounts to prove that the resurrection of Jesus is a fabricated story. A few years ago, after hearing an overconfident atheist repeatedly proclaim the impossibility of harmonizing the resurrection accounts in the gospels, I accepted his challenge. He was so confident that the biblical accounts were hopelessly contradictory that he offered to personally help anyone who could harmonize them to claim a $10,000 reward offered by the Skeptics Society.

I sat down over breakfast, and saw how they fit together after about 15 minutes of reading. Just sayin’.

I’ll concede that these critics are all more intelligent and educated than I am. But this doesn’t seem to be about intelligence. There’s gotta be something else going on here. I’ll show you what I found, and you, be you skeptic or believer, can see what you think for yourself.

Courtesy to you prevents me from addressing all thirty-something supposed contradictions. But once I explain the key, you’ll be able to resolve them all for yourself.

The Problem in a Nutshell
For those unaware of the “glaring,” “mutually exclusive” contradictions, here are the biggest ones, supposedly making it “impossible” and “ludicrous” to attempt to harmonize the Bible’s own account of its most pivotal event:

  • How many women went to the tomb on resurrection morning? Was it one (John)? Two (Matthew)? Three (Mark)? Or more (Luke)?
  •  Did the woman/women arrive at the tomb while it was still dark (John)? Or as the sun was coming up (Matt and Mark)?
  • Who did the women see at the tomb? One person (Matthew and Mark,) or two (Luke and John)?
  • Did Mary Magdalene cry at the tomb (John)? Or were the women filled with joy (Matthew)?
  • Did Mary Magdalene recognize Jesus (Matthew)? Or not (John)?
  • Did the women tell the disciples immediately (Matthew, Luke, John)? Or did they say nothing to anyone (Mark)?

The key in a nutshell
The key to harmonizing the four gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus lies in recognizing that the Gospel of John describes a separate, earlier event from that which the Synoptic Gospels recount. The 3 Synoptic Gospels generally agree in what they report, with only minor variations. It is clear from an open-minded reading of the four accounts that Mary Magdalene, by herself, had already been to the tomb twice before the events described in Matthew, Mark, and Luke occur. By contrast, every skeptic I’ve read assumes that all four gospels are describing the same trip to the tomb. As we shall see, the answers to their criticisms have been there all along.

Is there textual evidence is to suggest that Mary Magdalene visited the tomb earlier than the other women? Yes, this is plainly stated. Two explicit references point to this scenario. First, John’s account begins, “Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark (Jn 20:1.) The three other gospels describe a group of women, and mention dawn, or sunrise. Also, John’s text indicates that Mary was alone, and does not say that the purpose of her visit was to anoint the body.

A second clear reference to Mary’s visit is found in the gospel of Mark. He begins his abbreviated account with the group of women going to anoint the body at dawn, and ends with them fleeing the tomb in astonishment (v8.) But then, in verses 9-11 he states, “Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene…She went and told those who had been with them…But when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it” (16:9-11.) This is a reference to Mary’s earlier trip described by John, and summarizes his account perfectly. To attempt to read verses 9-11 as a continuation of the first 8 verses of Mark’s account makes little sense.

Bearing this scenario in mind, following is a chronology of the resurrection story wherein we will see all supposed contradictions resolved.

Mary Magdalene’s first two visits to the tomb
We begin with John’s account, “while it is still dark.” The stone has already been rolled back, the guards have already been dealt with, and the resurrection of Jesus has already occurred. Mary arrives to find the stone rolled back. This is her first visit to the tomb that morning. She goes no further, but turns and runs to get Peter and John, telling them that the body has been taken (v 1-2.) The men race to the tomb, look inside and see the empty grave clothes. John records that he believes, but that “as yet they did not know the scripture, that He must rise from the dead” (v 3-9.)

The perplexed men return to their homes, but Mary remains, alone and weeping, outside the tomb (v 11.) This is now her second visit. She looks inside the tomb and two angels appear and speak to her (v 12.) She turns to see Jesus, but does not recognize Him (v 14.) This is understandable as it is dark, she is weeping, and she believes Him to be dead. He reveals Himself to her and sends her to the disciples with a message. Mary finds the disciples, says, “I have seen the Lord!” and delivers the message (v 17-18.) This corresponds exactly with Mark’s summary in Mk 16:9-11. Note that Mark adds the detail that the disciples would not believe Mary. We will see why this is important shortly.

The Synoptic Gospel accounts: Mary Magdalene joins the other women
Now the Synoptic Gospels pick up the story. Mary M has now seen the empty tomb, angelic messengers, and the resurrected Jesus, but no one believes her. Does she simply go back to bed? Of course not! She had made a prior arrangement with the other women to anoint the body, after the Sabbath.

We know this from Luke’s account of the burial of Jesus:
“The women who had come with Him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. They returned and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment” (Lk 23:55-56.) Since the entombment, these women had been waiting to return to the tomb to prepare the body for proper burial.

Verse 10 of the next chapter tells us who these women were: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some unidentified women. This is the most comprehensive description of the women. There were at least five. This accords with the remaining two accounts. Mark mentions the two Marys plus Salome, and Matthew only mentions the two Marys. The fact that they only name the two and three most prominent women is not a contradiction; it is simply the omission of detail. (Matthew does fill in these details earlier in his burial account, mentioning “many women” and naming “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Mt 27:55,56.) It is reasonable to assume that this group accompanied the two Marys on resurrection morning.

So we have Mary M now joining the company of women who plan to go and anoint the body of Jesus. Note however that no one believes her story. Mary M, though frustrated, goes along with them because she knows they will soon see the truth for themselves. The three accounts agree that it is now dawn. This will be Mary M’s third visit to the tomb.

Mark 16:3 says that on the way the women were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?” Is there a contradiction here? After all, Mary had already seen the stone rolled back, and Jesus Himself. There is no contradiction. Assuming Mary M has told them what she has seen, we’ve already been told that no one believes her crazy story. The picture that emerges is this: as the women rush to the tomb, most, if not all of the women are blowing off an exasperated Mary M; planning to anoint a body that Mary knows isn’t there, and asking who will roll away a stone that she knows has been rolled away.

Upon arrival, all accounts, (with the possible exception of Matthew,) say that they found the stone rolled away. We can reconcile the supposedly conflicting reports as follows:

The Stone and the Soldiers
Matthew describes an angel descended from heaven who rolled the stone back and sat upon it. The purpose of this first angelic appearance seems to have been to deal with the problem of the guard of Roman soldiers. They are not mentioned at the tomb again in any account, and it is reasonable to assume they remain unconscious (“like dead men” v4,) or have left to report to the chief priests (v11.) Obviously the earthquake and this angelic event had to have occurred before Mary M’s first visit.

There is nothing stated in Matthew’s account to contradict this scenario. Matthew states that the soldiers saw the angel roll back the stone (Matt 28:2-4.) He does not say that the women did. The angelic messenger was there, making himself visible to the women when they arrived.

We already know there were two angelic spirits present because Mary had already seen them inside the tomb earlier that morning. Notice, also, that Peter and John had been inside the tomb perhaps minutes before Mary looked in, and saw only empty burial clothes. A skeptic may think this business of angels appearing and disappearing at will is a very convenient device for someone attempting to harmonize resurrection accounts. However, if disappearing and reappearing is in the nature of what incorporeal beings do, a skeptic may not like it, but he cannot say it is inconsistent when they do it. It is therefore consistent to assume that one of the angels Mary saw earlier was the one who rolled back the stone, mentioned by Matthew.

Matthew does not tell us that the women entered the tomb, but it is reasonable to assume they did for two reasons: 1) a very shiny and fearsome angel had just commanded them to enter, and 2) the other 2 accounts say that they entered. Matthew simply omits this implied detail.

Critics see a contradiction in that Matthew has the angel giving his message outside of the tomb, while Mark has the angel giving the same message, thought for thought, inside the tomb. But at this point such criticisms are wearing thin. Given the emotional state of the women – fear, astonishment, lack of sleep – it seems completely reasonable to me that the angel would’ve repeated the message. Had I been an angelic messenger I probably would’ve written it down for them.

All of the other typically cited “contradictions” – the number of angels, whether they were sitting, standing, inside, or outside of the tomb – are easily reconcilable. The mention of only one angel when two are present is not a contradiction, but the omission of a detail. The angels were not frozen in position. Luke has the angel giving a different, but not contradictory, message. It is possible to conceive of omissions or additions that would be irreconcilable, but those in the gospel accounts simply do not fall into this category. (One such example might be: “…upon entering the tomb, they saw seven little men dressed in green, dancing around a pot of gold and singing songs to Zeus.”)

What is noteworthy is that two of the accounts have the angels insisting that the disciples see for themselves the place where Jesus lay, and the other two accounts record everyone doing just that. This is because faith as described in the Bible is evidential. The angels did not send the disciples away, saying, “Trust us. We’re angels. He’s risen.” No, they wanted human belief in the resurrection of God’s promised Messiah to be rooted in reliable, corroborated, eyewitness accounts. And, I would add, Jesus brilliantly revealed Himself to the women first, at a time when a woman’s testimony was not considered to be as credible as a man’s. This would be an unlikely strategy if a group of liars wanted to invent a popular new religion in a strongly patriarchal culture.

The Response of the Women
Finally, there is an oft-repeated “contradiction” that critics cite, which deserves a response. Upon leaving the tomb, what did the women do? Again the three accounts differ, but not irreconcilably so:
Matthew has the two Marys departing from the tomb with “fear and great joy,” running to tell the disciples. But on the way they are intercepted by Jesus. They take hold of His feet and worship Him, He reiterates the last part of the angel’s instruction, and sends them off (v 8-10.) Matthew is the only writer to recount this incident.
Luke simply states that after remembering the words of Jesus concerning His crucifixion and resurrection, they returned from the tomb and “told all this to the eleven and to all the rest” (24:8-12.)
Mark contains the seeming contradiction. He says “they fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid (16:8.)

Skeptics argue that the two Marys’ interaction with Jesus is significant and, if true, unlikely to be omitted from the other gospels. And at any rate, if Jesus met the women leaving the tomb as Matthew describes, then Mark’s account makes no sense. Mark says they told no one because they were afraid. These women had obviously not met Jesus. I’m inclined to agree.

The scriptures provide a clue for a plausible explanation. In John’s account, after Peter and John leave the empty tomb, he says “the disciples returned to their homes.” This indicates that the disciples – and there were many besides the eleven – were not staying together on a communal farm, but in individual lodging places. It is perfectly reasonable to posit that the company of women leaving the tomb split up to spread the message of the angels to the disciples. Possibly the two Marys then encountered Jesus apart from the others. It is reasonable to assert that not all of the five or more women were in the same frame of mind. Some, especially the ones who had not yet encountered Jesus, were too afraid to speak to anyone, while others felt “fear and great joy” as Matthew states.

Finally, skeptics attempt to make much of Mark’s statement, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8.) As if this must mean they never spoke of the resurrection to anyone for the rest of their lives. This is a goofy objection. Obviously, they were temporarily overcome with trembling and fear, and when they had collected themselves, they spoke of what they had seen, concurring with the other gospel accounts. Possibly, in stating this, Mark’s gospel is underlining the distinction between the fearful group of women, and the account of Mary M in the very next verse in which she immediately tells the disciples. The author wants to clarify that the Mary M event was an earlier incident.

In harmonizing the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, the most glaring inconsistencies come from attempting to read John’s account as the same incident as that described in the Synoptic Gospels. However, there are good and sufficient reasons, plainly stated in the text, which indicate that they are separate incidents. None of the accounts, recounted by four different authors, tells the entire story, yet taken together they complement each other beautifully.

Much of what Jesus did is now lost to us. One example would be His appearance to Simon which is referred to in Luke 24:34, but which is never detailed in the gospels. John plainly tells us, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” (20:30-31.) We have enough to get the picture.

As for me, I’m going to go and attempt to claim my $10,000 from the Skeptics Association, again. I’ll let you know how that goes. Until then, may our awesome Creator reveal Himself more clearly to you during this coming Passover season.

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2 comments on “Harmonizing the Resurrection Accounts in the Bible

  1. peshatbooks says:

    Excellent !!! Thank you for that analysis. The writers of the Gospels were not trained historians and their writings evidence a collection of memories, or perhaps notes, often without context: for example, large sections of Matthew. For the most part, we should consider the individual writings as complementary, although there are sections which leave me wondering – John’s failure to mention the “new covenant” at the Last Supper. From my own studies, we still have a long way to go in comprehending those events of two thousand years ago.

  2. Arkenaten says:

    The first question I would ask is why would there be a need to harmonize the accounts. Listen to the answer from the believer and proceed from there.

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