As I was celebrating Easter weekend and read the account of Jesus’ resurrection, I was reminded of how some have used the gospel described in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to reject the divinity or existence of Jesus. Some have claimed that these passages are contradictory, so I decided to go back and examine them closer.
Here’s a snapshot of the four passages often cited as the offending text.
Matthew 28: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. An angel of the Lord rolled back the stone and sat on it.
Mark 16: Mary Magdalene, Mary (mother of James) and Salome went to the tomb. When they arrived the tomb was already rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side.
Luke 24: The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they didn’t find the body. Suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told the apostles.
John 20: Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.
As you can see, they’re not exactly the same, so this has been used as evidence to refute Christianity altogether. But these skeptics have missed some basic and key points in order to arrive at their conclusion. However there are no actual contradictions. The text may be different, but that’s due to different writing styles emphasizing different details. I’d even argue that the accounts are complementary, each providing a more complete picture of the events as they unfolded.
But in order for skeptics to claim there are contradictions, they must demand each narrative be perfectly identical, something we wouldn’t expect from multiple eyewitnesses. Consider four witnesses providing testimony to a detective regarding a crime. Each witness tells what they saw from their own perspective, and each provides a similar story, however there are some differences. Let’s say one witness claims he saw two gunmen flee the scene. Another says he saw a white man jump into a green Ford across the street and speed away, nearly hitting a pedestrian. A third witness says she recognized the gunman as a student from the local community college. And a fourth says there were definitely three guys wearing masks when they burst into the minimart where he was grabbing a cup of coffee.
As you can see, each witness, if they’re being truthful, tells a slightly different story, and it’s up to the detective to piece them together and solve the crime. And that’s exactly what we can do with the Biblical passages in question. As a Christian, I believe each of the writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit and wrote according to their own personal style, and that’s why we see differences, but no contradictions.
A skeptic might argue that, according to Matthew, there were only two women, and they saw only one angel roll away the stone. But Mark writes there were three women, the stone was already rolled away when they arrived, and there was a young man dressed in white seated on the right side. Luke indicates there were a number of women present, the stone was already rolled away when they arrived, and there were two men dressed in white standing beside them. And lastly John wrote there were only two women, and the stone was already rolled away when they arrived.
Firstly, what we actually discover is that there were a minimum of four women (quite probably more) who went to the tomb. None of the writers felt it was necessary to record the name of each and every woman who had gone to the tomb (if they even knew all their names), nor did they specify the exact number of women included in the group, nor did they state that the women they named were the only women present- and they were under no obligation to do so or to provide any sort of disclaimer. To suggest that they did have such an obligation is absurd. Each writer provided a record of the event, and the details are accurate.
How about the stone? Well, it’s apparent that the stone had already been rolled away when the women arrived, and none of the four accounts specifies otherwise. Some skeptics assume that Matthew said the women saw the angel rolling the stone out of the way, but such an assumption is unwarranted. Matthew’s account tells us that an angel of the Lord had rolled back the stone, but it doesn’t specify exactly when that occurred, or that the women were present when it happened. Thus there’s no discrepancy or contradiction.
We also know there were at least two angels involved, and none of the four accounts contradicts this. Matthew mentions that one angel rolled back the stone, but doesn’t suggest there was “one and only one” angel involved. In Mark, one of the angels looked like a young man dressed in a white robe, but just because a second angel isn’t mentioned doesn’t mean there was no second angel. Neither Matthew nor Mark stated there was only one angel. So the skeptic who claims there’s a contradiction is mistaken.
It’s also important to keep in mind that we don’t know who entered the tomb first, who entered last, or if all the women entered together. So it’s reasonable to conclude that several women entered the tomb before Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of James (and possibly Salome).
Now let’s reconstruct the scene based upon what we’ve discovered:
A group of women decided to go to the tomb where Jesus had been laid to rest. The names of these women include- but are not limited to- Mary Magdalene, the other Mary (the mother of James), Salome and Joanna. When they arrive they see that the stone had already been rolled away (by an angel of the Lord). Some of the women enter the tomb ahead of Mary Magdalene, Mary (mother of James) and Salome. Those women who entered the tomb first noticed that Jesus’ body was missing, and that’s when two men in clothes gleaming like lightning stood beside them. Shortly thereafter Mary Magdalene, Mary (mother of James) and Salome entered the tomb, and when they did, they saw one of the men sitting on the right side. These women then went to the apostles and told them what they had seen, and at a later date four of the apostles recorded these events according to the eyewitness accounts provided by the women and possibly others who might have been there (including Jesus himself).
So as we can see, there are no contradictions. Each account adds complimentary information to the events that had transpired.