It is Easter Season, and unfortunately along with the joy of the Resurrection of our Lord, we have to contend with a multitude of secular reports on the historicity of the Resurrection. You can be sure that anytime a secular institution does a report on the "historicity" of any mystery of the faith, we know what the verdict will be. On NPR, I heard a Jewish professor of New Testament history at Oxford repeating the tired old explanation that the Resurrection could be explained as a mass hallucination (and this explanation fails for so many reasons). He cited as his evidence for the falsity of a historical Resurrection the supposed "contradictions" in the Resurrection narratives presented in the four Gospels.
Are there contradictions in the Gospel accounts? Let's look at each of the Resurrection stories, summarized below:
Are there contradictions in the Gospel accounts? Let's look at each of the Resurrection stories, summarized below:
Mary and the women come to the tomb. As they are on their way, there is an earthquake, the stone is rolled back and an angel sits upon it (the guards apparently pass out). He sends them away to tell the disciples that Christ is risen. On the way back, they encounter the risen Christ, clasp His feet and worship Him. He reiterates the angels command and tells them to go back to tell the disciples.
Mary and the women come to the tomb. When they get there, the stone is already rolled away. They find an angel sitting inside the tomb on the right side who sends them away to tell the disciples of the Resurrection. They go. No encounter with Christ is recorded.
Mary and the women come to the tomb. They find the stone already rolled away. While they are examing the scene, two angels in dazzling apparel appear. They tell them to leave and go tell the disciples. They do, and Peter runs back to the tomb to verify the story.
Mary Magdalen, apparently alone, goes to the tomb, sees the stone turned away and the tomb empty and runs to tell the disciples. Peter and John run to the tomb together and both look into the tomb. Mary lingers outside, sees two angels, then sees Jesus, whom she at first does not recognize. Jesus and is warned by Him not to touch her. He sends her back to tell the disciples that He is truly risen.
Now, it is true that none of these accounts, taken at face value, seem to line up with each other. In two accounts we have one angel mentioned, and in two accounts two angels. In Matthew the angel sits on the rock while in Mark he is in the tomb. In Luke the two angels are simply standing before the women. In Matthew, it says explicitly that the women clutched Jesus' feet and worshiped Him; in John, Jesus commands Mary not to touch Him. In Matthew, the stone is miraculously rolled away by an angel, accompanied by an earthquake. In all of the other Gospels, the stone is presented as already having been rolled away when the women arrive. Are these true contradictions, as many claim?
The answer, of course, is no. But before we can resolve this issue, we need to understand a certain Scriptural principle that I call the Principle of Non-Exclusion. This means that when the Scriptures mention a certain event as occuring, other possible events not mentioned in the text are not not thereby excluded, unless they directly contradict what is written. For example, the Gospel of John seems to say that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone: "Now on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark." Nothing is mentioned of anybody else. However, the fact that only Mary is mentioned does not exclude the possibility that others were with her, and we know from the other Gospels that she was in fact not alone: Luke mentions "Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women" as being there, as well (Lk. 24:10). So, the fact that Mary alone is mentioned by John does not conflict with the account of Luke for one simple reason: though Mary alone is mentioned by John, John nowhere asserts that Mary only was at the tomb. This is the flip-side of the Principle of Non-Exclusion: while nothing is excluded that would not contradict what is recorded, anything that would contradict it must be excluded.
How does this apply to the Resurrection narratives? Well, we have to look not at what the accounts don't say but what they do say. Then, we fill in the gaps. Let's start with the issue of the stone.
Matthew says that the stone was rolled away miraculously by means of an earthquake and an accompanying angel. Therefore, since the Scriptures specifically assert and earthquake, we must believe that the movement of the stone was due to an earthquake. Do the other accounts contradict this? Not at all: none of the other three Gospels mention how the stone was moved, they only say that the women found it turned away when they got there. This leaves us free to make the obvious connection that the stone was rolled away by means of the earthquake mentioned in Matthew; in fact, to claim otherwise would be to accuse Sacred Scripture of being untrustworthy.
The time the stone was rolled away is also in question. Matthew seems to say that the stone was rolled away before the eyes of the women:
On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat upon it (Matt. 28:1-2).
However, if we examine the text minutely, we will see that it does not imply that these two events (the women coming to the tomb and the earthquake) were simultaneous. We only assume it to be so because of the order in which Scripture relates these events. But sentence order does not necessarily imply anything chronologically; look at a similar passage a chapter earlier from the death of Jesus:
And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. And the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, "Truly, this was the Son of God!" (Matt. 27:51-54)
Now, the sentence order of this section seems to insinuate that all of these events happened right after Jesus' death, especially since Matthew uses the word 'Behold' to draw our attention. But if you look at the section about the tombs of the saints opening, the Gospel says that they came out of their tombs "after His resurrection"; ie, three days later at least. But Matthew puts this event in the same section as the centurion's act of faith and the splitting of the temple curtain, both of which occurred at the time Christ died.
Now, applying this to the stone, we see that it is not necessary to maintain that the stone was rolled away by an earthquake in the presence of the women. Mark, Luke and John all say that they found the stone rolled away when they got there. Probably we ought to interpret Matthew as saying that while the women were setting out, or while they were on the way there, the earthquake happened, leaving the stone rolled away for them to find. Using our principle, we see that Mark, Luke and John all specifically mention that the stone was moved when the women got there, and so this we must believe. Matthew is ambiguous on the time, and so we interpret the gap in Matthew using the information provided by the other three Gospels.
What about the angels? Matthew has one, Mark one, Luke two, and John none. In Matthew, the angel sits upon the rolled back stone. In Mark, the angel is sitting in the tomb. In Luke, there are two angels, both of them simply "appearing" before the women and standing there. Well, if Luke mentions two, then there must have been two. The fact that Matthew or Mark mention one angel does not exclude the possibility of a second one not mentioned by them, as John's exclusion of any angel's does not not mean they were not there, only that he chose not to include them.
If we take Luke's statement that there were two angels, then the fact that the angel in Matthew sits on the stone while Mark's angel is in the tomb need not trouble us, for we simply agree with Luke that there were two angels, each in a different location. But what of the fact that Luke says that the angels "stood" by them, while Matthew and Mark both have their angels sitting? Well, "stood" is a pretty all-encompassing verb. For example, if I say that me and my friends were "standing" around outside my apartment, it could mean that two of us were standing, one was sitting on the front steps, one was reclining on the grass, and one was leaning up against a tree. Still, the phrase "standing around" would be appropriate for this scenario. So, the fact that Luke uses the word "stood" need not force us to accept that the angels were literally standing up.
Or, if they were, it does not compel us to believe they stood the whole time. Whose to say that the angel in Mark's Gospel, who was sitting in the tomb, could not have gotten up and stood when he saw the women walk in? We cannot derive too much from what the Gospel says about the posture of the angels. In the past five minutes, as I have been typing this, I have sat, reclined in my chair, got up, paced around, went to the bathroom, ran upstairs, etc. But if you were to ask me what I've been doing for the past ten minutes, I'd say, "Sitting around."
Another problematic issue is Mary's encounter with Jesus. Matthew records it, as does John, but the sequence is different and the events surrounding it are different. First, in Matthew, the women are specifically said to have clung to Jesus' feet. In John, Jesus tells Mary, "Do not hold Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father" (John 20:17). How can she hold Him in Matthew and be told not to hold Him in John?
Well, Matthew directly says that they did hold Jesus, so we must accept that He was touched by the women. But what does John say? Although most commentators tend to interpret John in the sense that Mary tried to touch Him but Jesus pulled away from her before she was able, the text does not actually say whether Jesus was touched or not. Actually, Jesus' words seem to imply that she did indeed touch Him. He does not say, "Do not touch Me," but, "Do not hold Me," the use of this verb "hold" seeming to imply that she had in fact been holding Him before He gave her this command (Vul: Iam noli me tenere). Therefore, Matthew and John are reconcilable. Matthew records that Jesus' feet were clasped, John records that Jesus told them to let go of Him.
Matthew's Gospel records that Mary Magdelene and the women ran into Jesus after fleeing the tomb and the encounter with the angel ( v.28:10). There He repeats the message of the angel and tells them to go tell the disicples about His resurrection.
John presents a more dfficult sequence (20:11-18). Mary comes to the tomb and sees it empty (no angels are mentioned), she runs back and tells the disciples and Peter and John race to the tomb to investigate. Mary encounters Jesus, does not know who He is, recognizes Him, and is commanded to go back and tell the disciples that He is risen.
Peter and John's race to the tomb is not problematic; this is mentioned in Luke as well. What is problematic is Mary's meeting with Jesus. In Matthew, the only other Gospel to mention this meeting, she meets Jesus after leaving the tomb the first time. He there commands her to go tell the disciples that He is risen. In John's Gospel, she apparently accompanies Peter and John back to the tomb to show them and has her encounter with Christ after they leave, which would make this her second time seeing the Risen Lord. He gives her the same command, go tell the disciples that He is risen, and she again does so. What are we to make of this?
There are only two possibilities:
1) Mary went to the tomb twice (once with the women, once with Peter and John), saw the Risen Lord twice, received the same instructions twice and carried them out twice.
2) Mary only saw Jesus once: the meeting of Jesus and Mary in Matthew is the same meeting as described in John.
I think position two is much more likely. If we look at John's Gospel, though Mary's encounter with Jesus is mentioned after Peter and John go to the tomb, it doe snot specifically say that this is when it occurred. It could have happened on her first vists and was mentioned in this place only because John wanted to emphasize Peter's visit to the tomb instead of Mary's visit from Jesus. This appears afterward, as a footnote to the episode with Peter and John.
If we postulate two appearances to Mary, we are stuck trying to explain the awkward position of Jesus commanding Mary to go tell the disicples about His resurrection, Mary doing so and bringing two of them back to the tomb, and then being again commissioned by Jesus to do the same thing she had already done and her going to tell the disciples again that Jesus rose even though they had already visited the tomb and seen it. It seems easier to simply say that John's narrative of Mary's visit with Jesus in non-sequential while Matthew's is.
Okay, so if we put them all together, what really happened Easter morning?
Mary Magdalene, Joanna, the other Mary and some other unnamed women arose early to go to the tomb. While they were on their way (but before they arrived), there was an earthquake and the stone was rolled away by an angel. The guards were striken "like dead men." The women probably heard the earthquake or felt it from a distance.
When the women arrived, they found the guards passed out and the stone rolled away. Curious, they went inside the tomb to investigate and found the body gone. At this point, two angels appeared, one on the stone, another in the tomb. They told these women that Jesus was not dead, but had risen, and that they ought to go and tell the disicples. The women fled in fear.
On the way out, they ran into Jesus and did not recognize Him (Mary thought He was the gardener). When He said Mary's name, they recognized Him and clasped His feet in worship. However, He commanded them to cease holding Him, but commanded them to go, as the angel had said, to tell the disciples the good news about the Resurrection.
The women went back, and Mary told the disciples. Most of them did not believe, but Peter and John raced to the tomb. John got there first, but he waited for Peter. They went into the tomb, saw the linen cloths, and went away marveling.
There. This account is consistent with all of the Gospels. The people who say the Gospel accounts contradict each other are people who want the Gospels to contradict each other and who have not given any time to thinking this thing out. They arrogantly assume that in 2,000 years Christians have never noticed that the Resurrection accounts are divergent. But remember the story of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant: each person has their own point of view and will describe things differently, and any police officer will tell you that four stories that line up exactly always looks suspicious.