Bible Contradictions at the Empty Tomb (Part 1 of 2)

In the interest of doing something seasonal…

Every year around this time, some atheist or agnostic author/professor will make some claim about what the Bible “really” says or that the Bible is unreliable history or the “real” Christianity teaches something different or… some such thing. Bart Ehrman already kicked things off last month by promoting his book Forged, about the supposed “forgeries” in the New Testament. I’m sure some other bright-eyed skeptic will come up with something else in the next few days (if they haven’t already).

Bible and question markOne of the common complaints about the Gospel accounts is that there are “contradictions” in those events covered by more than one book. I have already posted about this in regards to the Christmas story. Now, I’d like to do something similar with the Resurrection story — specifically, re the Empty Tomb. Since this is another excerpt from the “My Conversation with Michael the Heathen Gnostic” dialogue I had a few years back, I’ll start it off with Michael’s challenge, which was originally coupled with the one regarding the Nativity scene.

> Jesus’ ressurection at the cave. Different
> people. Different numbers. Important people
> left out some times and other have them
> there.

The unspoken challenge, of course, was, “Try to explain that one, hotshot!” As before, what I did was first read through all the relevant passages in order to gather the various facts, then tried to see how one might go about explaining any seeming contradictions.

“This one is a bit more complicated, since there are indeed 4 separate accounts: Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-11; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18. Let me see if I can put it all together and then comment on the discrepancies.

Early Sunday morning, at least three women return to the tomb where Jesus had been laid, intending to rewrap His body with additional spices. Matthew (v.1) only names Mary Magdalene (M.M.) and “the other Mary”; Mark (v.1) names the two Marys, referring to the second as “the mother of James”, and Salome; Luke (v.1,10) names the two Marys & Joanna & mentions “other women”; John (v.1) mentions only Mary Magdalene.

Sometime before the women reached the tomb, an angel of the Lord descended and caused an (apparently very localized) earthquake to role the large stone away from the entrance. The guards were so scared that they had fainted. The women entered the tomb and saw that Jesus’ body was missing. Confused, they then noticed two young men (i.e., angels) in shining garments standing by them. The women were afraid, but the lead angel told them ‘Do not be afraid… He is risen… see the place where He lay… go quickly and tell His disciples… He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him…’.”

I wonder whether the guards at the tomb were more “shaken” by the quake or the appearance of the angels! Whatever it was, it must have been quite an experience to frighten Roman soldiers.

“The women left the tomb and ran back to town, not stopping to talk to anyone. When they reached the place where the mourning disciples were staying, they told what they had seen and the message given them. No one believed them. (Women weren’t usually considered reliable witnesses in that culture.) But Simon Peter and another disciple (“whom Jesus loved”) ran to the tomb to see for themselves. They saw that the body was missing and the burial linens lying folded; they believed and returned to the city. (Apparently, the angels weren’t required to appear to them.)

Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene (and possibly other women) had followed them back to the tomb at a slower pace — perhaps tired, perhaps still afraid. It isn’t clear if Simon Peter & the other ignored M.M., or if they took a different route back and didn’t see her. Now she stood weeping outside the tomb, still thinking the corpse had been moved somewhere by someone. (She must have been so distraught, or perhaps a little airheaded, that the angel’s words hadn’t sunk in, yet.) When she stooped to look inside, she saw the two angels again, this time sitting. After a brief exchange with them, she turned around and saw another man standing there.

Mary and Jesus at the empty tombIt was Jesus, but she didn’t recognize Him — perhaps due to her tears & state of mind, perhaps his appearance was somehow altered, maybe he was in shadow or wore a hood. Thinking He might be the gardener, she questioned Him about the missing body. When He addressed her by name, she cried “Master!” and began to “cling” to Him (perhaps grabbing His feet, as told in Matthew’s account). But, He gave her a message for the disciples and sent her back to them.

There are other minor differences between the accounts, but the main questions you raised were regarding the dramatis personae. These can be summed up as follows:

1) The Women: Each Gospel writer names a different “set” or individual, M.M. being the only constant.

2) The Guards at the Tomb: Only Matthew mentions their presence.

3) First Angelic Encounter: Matthew & Mark mention only one angel; Luke mentions two angels; John doesn’t describe the encounter at all.

4) Jesus’ appearance to the women: In Matthew, it sounds like Jesus greeted the women on their way back from the tomb the first time. But, John indicates that it was after visiting the tomb the second time (and it was only M.M.).

5) Peter’s trip to the tomb: Luke & John mention it, but only John mentions the unnamed “other disciple” that accompanied him.

6) Second Angelic Encounter: Only John mentions that Mary Magdalene followed the men back to the tomb and had a second angelic encounter.

7) Who first saw Jesus?: Mark mentions that “He appeared first to Mary Magdalene”, but only John gives details on the meeting; was anyone else with M.M. at the time?

So, now we have all parts of the story and all players, as pieced together from the four accounts. Tomorrow, I’ll continue with how I reasoned through the “contradictions” and why the different Gospel writers might have included some details and not others.

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