Some have claimed that Jesus’ empty tomb accounts by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are contradictory and impossible to reconcile. Yet such claims are riddled with underlying assumptions that are not given in the text, such as the women visited the empty tomb only once or they traveled in a pack and never separated from one another. To these wooden thinkers, the empty tomb account was very static and frozen at one point in time rather than dynamic over a longer time frame on that first day of the week. We don’t live life frozen in time, so this thinking is wholly flawed. Bart Ehrman drives this eisegetical bus with questions such as “Was there only one angel – or were there two?” “Was Mary Magdalene alone or was she with other women?”
Let’s free ourselves from these faulty assumptions that wage war on our common sense. The authors may or may not have included all of the people in each of the events. If authors made mention of one of the women, it doesn’t mean others were not present unless it says she was the only one. We don’t have a mention of “only” one or “only” two in the empty tomb accounts. If authors made mention of one angel, it does not mean another was not present. Consider the way a sports reporter may write all about the quarterback and say nothing of the safeties or linebackers in a football game. We know that other players were there, but to that reporter, they may have been minor contributors to the game and less relevant. Furthermore, note that ancient writings often were not ordered chronologically. With the exception of Luke, the other Gospel authors did not strive for an orderly account. Accordingly, if we wish to reconcile the accounts, we should start from Luke’s narrative and build out from there. Through reconciliation, we can grasp a much better picture of the events around the empty tomb. I next present my reconciliation.
While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene traveled to the tomb, where she found it to be empty, so she went to tell the disciples (John) and those who had been with Jesus wept (Mark). At dawn (Matthew and Luke), just after sunrise (Mark), she returned to the tomb with other women, including Mary the mother of John and Salome, where they found the angels (Mark). Some of the women returned to the apostles and told them about the angels, while Mary Magdalene may have lingered. At this point, the apostles had reports from multiple women that the tomb was empty and/or angels had appeared to them (Luke). These came from Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, and others. So Peter and John ran to the tomb and confirmed that it was empty (John).
Mary Magdalene started crying in front of the angels she saw in the tomb (John). Then Jesus appeared to her, telling her to go back to the apostles to let them know about Him. Mary the mother of James joined her and they left (Matthew). Jesus suddenly appeared again. Perhaps this was for Mary, the mother of James’ benefit. Mary Magdalene then reported to the apostles that she had seen the risen Lord (Mark and John).
“While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.” (Matthew 28:11-15)
Jesus appeared to Cleopas and another disciple (Mark and Luke) on the road to Emmaus and soon shared passages about Himself from the Old Testament (Luke). But when these disciples told the eleven, the eleven didn’t believe them (Mark). Jesus rebuked the eleven for their unbelief (Mark). Jesus later instructed them to make disciples of all nations (Matthew and Mark) and told them that whoever believes and is baptized would be saved (Mark). He also told them that they would be able to perform signs and wonders, casting out demons in his name and not dying from handling snakes or drinking poison (Mark).
Question your assumptions before claiming the Gospels are conflicting so you can be sure your interpretations are correct. False assumptions lead to faulty thinking, which prevents you from knowing the truth. “And then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Thank you for your time.
SJ Thomason is a wife, mom, and business professor who loves Jesus and enjoys studying Christianity.