An Examination of the Alleged Contradictions in the Resurrection Narratives-Part 1
|By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2005|
|Alleged Contradiction #1 – Who first came to the tomb and when did they arrive?|
ALLEGED CONTRADICTION NUMBER ONE: Who first came to the tomb and when did they arrive?
- After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
1. Is Matthew in error concerning the NUMBER of women who went to the tomb on Easter morning?
The critics charge that here Matthew reports two women went to the tomb at dawn. The critics allege that this conflicts with the parallel accounts in the other Gospels.
Mark 16:1, 2
- When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
2. Does Mark contradict Matthew when he reports a DIFFERENT number of women going to the tomb on Easter morning at a DIFFERENT time?
The critics charge that Mark says three women went to the tomb after sunrise. The critics claim this is a contradiction because the persons involved and the time of the event differs. Matthew says there were two women at dawn. Mark says there were three women, not two, and he didn’t say “at dawn” but “just after sunrise.”
- On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.
3. Because Luke does not identify the women, does he contradict both Matthew and Mark concerning the NUMBER of women who went to the tomb and WHEN this event occurred?
The critics charge that Luke’s account differs from Matthew’s and Mark’s. The women are not identified, and the time given is not Matthew’s “at dawn” or Mark’s “just after sunrise” but “very early in the morning.”
- Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.
4. Does John contradict the other Gospel writers in reporting only ONE woman went to the tomb at a DIFFERENT time?
The critics charge that John’s account disagrees with that of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Matthew says two women went to the tomb. Mark says three women went to the tomb; Luke does not identify the number of women. John says only Mary Magdalene, one woman, went to the tomb. Further, John does not say that they went to the tomb “at dawn” (Matthew), or “just after sunrise” (Mark), or “very early in the morning” (Luke), but “while it was still dark.”
- When the Sabbath was over [the women] bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.
- … the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.
- [Joseph and] Nicodemus brought [spices]… Taking Jesus’ body [from the cross] the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen.
5. Do Mark and Luke contradict Matthew and John concerning the ACTIONS of the women?
The critics charge that both Mark and Luke mention the women procured spices so they could anoint Jesus’ body on Sunday morning. But Matthew gives no indication of this. Further, John records it was Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who supplied the spices and anointed Jesus’ body on Friday evening (John 19:39).
6. Do all the Gospel writers contradict each other concerning the NUMBER of women, the TIME they went to the tomb and the ACTIONS of the women?
After examining the above verses, the critics conclude that the Gospel writers conflict in their accounts of
- who first came to the tomb (the number and identity of the women)
- what time this occurred and
- who supplied the spices to anoint Jesus’ body and when this anointing occurred.
Answering the Objections of the Critics Concerning the Number of Women
The first objection of the critics is that there are contradictions concerning the number of women who went to the tomb. Matthew mentions Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, i.e., two women; Mark mentions Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, i.e., three women; Luke simply mentions “the women,” while John mentions only Mary Magdalene, i.e., one woman.
But writers have every right to select facts according to their purposes. Mark obviously feels it is important to report that Salome was also at the tomb while Matthew does not. Perhaps Salome was the woman, or one of the two women, who reported the events to Mark.
Or, because Matthew learned of this event from a different source which may not have included Salome, he does not mention her. We cannot know the reason why one author selects information another author does not. Such information is simply not given, nor does anyone have the right to expect that it should be. It would make any writer’s job virtually impossible for him to meticulously list all the specific reasons for including the details he did and why he did not include other details.
The critics charge that Luke disagrees with Matthew and Mark because Luke merely mentions “the women.” But this is absurd. Notice, none of the Gospel writers say it was only two women, or only one woman, or only these three women. Each writer describes those he wants to recognize—either because of a specific emphasis he has or because that is all the information he knows. But none of the writers give wrong or contradictory information. If one of the four writers had said only so and so went to the tomb and another writer said only somebody else specifically went to the tomb, then we would have a contradiction.
Today, it is perfectly reasonable for two modern newspaper reporters to describe a women’s gathering honoring three particular ladies, and to either name the specific individuals present or to refer to one woman representative of the entire group, or to just cite the “honored women” of the occasion. Similarly, in referring only to “the women,” Luke does not contradict Matthew and Mark; he is simply less specific.
The critics charge that John contradicts Matthew, Mark and Luke because he mentions only one woman, Mary Magdalene, who went to the tomb.
There are two possibilities. First, as we discuss elsewhere, all the women set out for the tomb, and Mary arrived first. John simply records the fact of Mary arriving first. We explain why below. Or second, it may be as simple as stating John only chooses to write about Mary even though he could have written about all of them.
But again, John didn’t say only Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and no other women. There is no reason why John should not concentrate upon Mary Magdalene if he has reason to do so.
Probably the reasons John concentrates upon Mary Magdalene are because
- Jesus’ first Resurrection appearance was to Mary Magdalene, not one of the apostles according to Mark’s appendix (Mark 16:9).
- Mary had looked into the tomb and seen the two angels (John 20:11-12).
- Jesus may have appeared to Mary first because He knew of her complete dedication and earnestness in following Him. John has already recorded in 19:25 that Mary was at the cross while Jesus was dying. In John 20:1, she went to His tomb early on Sunday morning. In 20:10-14, Mary remained outside the tomb crying. All of these things reveal how much Mary loved Jesus.
- In 20:17, Mary was personally commissioned by Jesus to go and tell the disciples the good news.
Anyone who reads John 20:1-18 will see that the entire section stresses the importance of Mary Magdalene: What she did, how she came running to Peter and John, how Mary subsequently met Jesus at the tomb, and how she was commissioned to give a message to the apostles. It is not surprising then that the Apostle John should choose to single out Mary Magdalene in his reporting of these events.
We must also keep in mind that each of the writers learned their information from different sources. Luke records, “It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this [knowledge of the fact of the empty tomb and the angels’ message concerning Jesus’ Resurrection] to the apostles” (Luke 24:10).
Picture the different women, immediately after their dramatic encounter with the angels, each explaining what she had seen and what she thought was important to any one of the eleven apostles who happened to be standing by her at the moment. This would explain why certain facts are mentioned and other facts are omitted. Luke might have heard a little bit from each of the women or most of it from just one.
Cambridge graduate John Wenham in his book, The Easter Enigma, lists the following reasons why Luke and Mark, for example, might have presented different pieces of the total story. Probably, “…Luke’s is a straightforward account written from Joanna’s point of view [Joanna was a wealthy supporter of Jesus whose husband was ‘steward’ to Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee.] (Luke 8:3; 24:10), whereas Mark is an account written from the point of view of the other three women.” Similarly, John’s account could be written strictly from Mary’s viewpoint.
John might have correctly assumed that the majority of Christians already knew that this group of women went to the tomb. But he decided to share additional details of what had happened to Mary Magdalene which others may not have known.
Indeed, when Luke mentions “the others with them” (Luke 24:10), one could even assume that at that first Easter morning visit to the tomb, more than three women were present. If Luke is describing the women who were actually at the tomb, then there were at least five women (Joanna and “the others,” signifying at least one more person than Salome). It is also possible that the “other women” mentioned by Luke were present and part of those who collectively “told this [event] to the apostles.”
In conclusion, we know that at least three women were present, possibly more. We also can see none of the accounts contradict. None of the writers state “only” a specific number of women were present at the tomb. No modern critic can give a good reason why each writer was not free to select the details he, in fact, chose to record.
Answering the Objections of the Critics Concerning Who First Came to the Tomb
As noted earlier, John may have concentrated on Mary Magdalene to the exclusion of the other women. But it is more probable that Mary was actually the first person to the tomb. Thus, we believe this second option is preferable. Let’s say all the women had planned to meet at the tomb and left their homes at approximately the same time. Mary arrived first, observed the empty tomb and before her companions arrived, ran to tell Peter and John that the tomb was empty (See Q. 19, 33). Matthew, Mark and Luke could talk generally about all of the women going to the tomb. They would be correct. John could report the fact that Mary reached the tomb first. He would be correct.
If our assumption is valid, this explains John’s account as it stands. Nor does it conflict with anything the other Gospel writers assert. But here we must observe there are unannounced breaks in two of the Gospels. These occur in Mark 16 between verses 1 and 2 and in Matthew 28 between verses 1 and 2, and again between verses 4 and 5. For proof that the Gospel writers employ this abbreviated writing style see Question 16. Acknowledging these breaks permits us to see that Mary was first to the tomb and that the other women came shortly after she left. Further, in Luke 24:9-11, Luke’s inclusion of Mary with the other women who report what happened at the tomb is not in conflict with our reconstruction. (For a probable chronological sequence of events here, see that offered by Geldenhuys in Q. 35).
But there are other views. For example, noted Roman Catholic scholar John Lilly believes that Mary was first to arrive (while it was still dark), but that she was still present when the other women arrived at the tomb. Lilly adopts the view that all the women mentioned by the Gospel writers were, as a group, first to arrive at the tomb. Answering the general question, “Who discovered the empty tomb?”, he states:
- We say without a moment’s hesitation: All of them! And perhaps others besides. Each evangelist tells the story in his own particular way with his own particular plan and purpose in view.
- St. John evidently wants to lead up to the discovery of the empty tomb by [Peter] and himself, and as these got the first inkling of what had happened from Magdalene, he introduces her alone, passing over her companions in silence, for there would be no particular point in mentioning them….
- St. Matthew does not introduce details which are not strictly necessary, and since according to the Mosaic Law two witnesses were enough to establish a fact, he mentions no others, although he does not deny that others shared in the startling discovery of the empty tomb.
- Mark adds the name of Salome to the group of women who went early Sunday morning to the tomb of Jesus. The reason for Mark’s mentioning these three women is probably that he has already told us that they assisted at a distance at the crucifixion of Jesus, and his mention of them at the tomb on Sunday morning is designed to show that their love and devotion were not extinguished by the horrible death of their Master on the cross.
Answering the Objections of the Critics Concerning When the Tomb Was Visited
The critics allege that contradictions exist concerning the specific time the women went to the tomb. After all, didn’t Matthew say “at dawn,” while Mark says “just after sunrise”?
But consider modern reporting of Easter “Sunrise” Services. Who would charge a reporter with error because he stated the events began “at dawn” while another reporter said that they began “just after sunrise”? “At dawn” includes “just after sunrise.” Even 20th century reporters do not use scientifically precise chronology in their reporting; why should we expect it of the Gospel authors? Further, what if the two reporters are discussing different “beginnings”—preliminary events vs. the official start of the service? Both phrases, “at dawn” and “just after sunrise,” can involve a significant time span. If we say we went to the beach “at dawn,” the hearer understands that we could mean anything from several minutes before sunrise till several minutes after sunrise. Thus, there is no contradiction between Matthew and Mark.
The critics next charge that Luke disagrees with Matthew and Mark because Luke says, “very early in the morning,” not “at dawn” per Matthew or “just after sunrise” per Mark. But again, “very early in the morning” includes the descriptions given by both Matthew and Mark. In fact, the phrase could refer to any time after 1 a.m.! When one gets up “very early in the morning,” this can include a significant span of time, certainly at least half an hour before dawn until just after sunrise. Therefore, Luke does not contradict anything Matthew or Mark says.
But the critics charge that with John we certainly have a contradiction. John says, “While it was still dark.” This phrase the critics allege is certainly not compatible with “at dawn” or “just after sunrise” when obviously it would not be “still dark.” But consider again the normal use of language. “While it was still dark” can describe conditions that exist “at dawn.” Everyone who has been up “at dawn” certainly knows it is not yet the full light of day. In fact, depending on weather conditions, it can be quite dark even “at dawn” or “just after sunrise.”
If we only consider the manner in which language is typically used, we can see that there is no necessary contradiction between Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Even the most “discrepant” of the accounts—”just after sunrise” and “while it was still dark”—can easily refer to the same period of time.
There are other facts that must be considered which further indicate there is no contradiction between these accounts. What if each writer is describing a certain period of time at which the women either left their houses, or traveled, or the point in time when they actually arrived at the tomb? Dr. Gleason Archer carefully examined the original language used by the writers and concluded:
- They [the women] apparently started their journey from the house in Jerusalem while it was still dark (skotias eti ouses), even though it was already early morning (proi) (John 20:1). But by the time they arrived [at the tomb], dawn was glimmering in the East (te epiphoskouse) that Sunday morning (eis mian sabbaton) (Matthew 28:1). (Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1 all use the dative: te mia ton sabbaton.) Mark 16:2 adds that the tip of the sun had actually appeared above the horizon (anateilantos tou heliou—aorist participle; the Bezae codex uses the present participle, anatellontos, implying “while the sun was rising”).
So, if one reads the accounts carefully and takes note of the fact that the women were on a journey to the tomb, not only is there no basis to assume a contradiction, one actually wonders why anyone would accuse these writers of such a thing. Obviously, there could be many unstated reasons why each writer would include different details of the same event. Because he does, this does not show contradiction; rather, it shows truthfulness in his reporting.
Lilly not only observes the harmony existing among the four accounts but also supplies an additional reason explaining why they differ: the delay of certain of the women to purchase spices. This would require additional time and explain the difference between John’s Gospel and the others. In this event, Mary herself would have arrived at the tomb alone, before the other women.
- It should be noted that all four evangelists agree on the day: it was Sunday; that they all agree on the time: it was very early in the morning. The only discrepancy is that Mark tells us that the sun had already risen, while John says that Mary Magdalene went to the sepulcher while it was still dark. Pere Lagrange has an obvious solution: “It is clear that in Mark’s account the women are delayed by the purchase of spices. We may suppose then that Magdalene, leaving this matter to the other women, went alone and much in advance of the other women to the tomb,” even while it was yet dark, and that the other women who had stopped to purchase ointments did not reach the sepulcher until the sun had risen.
John Wenham provides an overall succinct summary, proving that there is no contradiction concerning the time element in the four narratives:
- There is perhaps no need to insist upon any distinction between Matthew’s “toward the dawn”, Mark’s “very early”, Luke’s “early dawn” and John’s “while it was still dark.” Darkness and light are relative terms and it would be perfectly possible, and not inaccurate, for one person to describe the time as “early dawn” which another described as “still dark.”
- It needs to be remembered, however, that it could have been undeniably dark on the women’s departure and undeniably light on their arrival, particularly if their starting point were Bethany.
- Furthermore, it should be noted that the words “went” in Matthew, Mark and Luke translate the same verb as the “came” in John and that either translation would be possible in any of the cases, it depending on what standpoint the writer is thought to be adopting. If John is thinking of Mary Magdalene setting off from Bethany, the translation “went to the tomb early, while it was still dark” would be precisely accurate.
- Similarly, Matthew’s “toward the dawn… went” suggests the same Bethany standpoint —the two Marys started their journey just before dawn. Mark’s “very early” could well represent Peter’s recollection of the Marys and Salome leaving John’s house and Luke’s “at early dawn” would fit well enough the departure of Joanna and “Susanna” from the Hasmonean palace.
- These distinctions may be too fine, but we undoubtedly get a consistent and coherent picture if we see the first departures as being in the dark and the last arrivals as being before [full] sunrise.
Whether we are considering the number of women at the tomb or the time element, it is clear that there is no contradiction between the Gospel accounts.
Answering the Objections of the Critics Concerning Who Supplied the Spices to Anoint Jesus’ Body and When This Occurred
When Mark and Luke report that the women bought spices for anointing Jesus’ body on Sunday morning, and John records that Nicodemus supplied the spices and applied them to Jesus’ body on Friday evening, the critics claim this is another contradiction.
John records that on Friday evening (before the Sabbath began), “Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about 75 pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, and strips of linen. This was in accordance with the Jewish burial custom” (John 19:39-40).
But according to Luke certain unnamed women had followed Jesus from Galilee. They saw Him crucified, saw the tomb and how the body was laid and “went home and prepared spices and perfumes” (Luke 23:56). They rested on the Sabbath, but on Sunday morning they brought the spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body (Luke 24:1).
According to Mark 16:1-2, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome purchased additional spices and went to the tomb on Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body.
This is not a contradiction because although the women were intending to anoint Jesus’ body with the spices, they never had the opportunity to do so. When they arrived at the grave, the body was already absent and Christ was resurrected.
Why the women wanted to anoint Jesus’ body after Joseph had already done so is probably easily answered. Lilly observes, “Decent burial according to the standards of the day was the most highly cherished and ardently desired lot of every Jew; its privation was deemed a frightful misfortune. Relatives and friends of the deceased considered it a grave obligation to discharge this office on behalf of their departed.” Most likely, the women felt that in the rush after the crucifixion to move Jesus’ body, it was not properly prepared before the Sabbath had started. They feared some important element might have been overlooked.
Further, the critic charges that only Mark and Luke mention that the women brought spices, whereas Matthew and John do not mention this at all. But why should anyone consider this a contradiction?
All four Gospel writers would have known that the body of Jesus required anointing according to Jewish burial custom. It is perfectly reasonable for two to mention this fact and the other two to assume it.
We must also remember that the Gospel writers are independent reporters of these events. The hallmark of independent reporting is differences in content.
For example, in a court of law, it is always true that four witnesses describing a traffic accident (or a crime) will each supply different information. Characteristically, witnesses notice and report matters which are unique, relevant or important to them. But no judge would ever instruct a jury to ignore what a dependable witness says merely because different details were reported.
The same is true for the Gospel writers. Each one devotes differing amounts of space and detail to the women coming to the tomb. Matthew and Mark supply 8 verses each (Matthew 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8), yet both mention things the other does not. Luke gives 10 verses (Luke 24:1-10) while John gives only 2 verses (John 20:1-2).
It is unreasonable to assume that every Gospel writer would record the event in precisely the same way, giving precisely the same details. This would be evidence of collusion, not independent testimony.
Consider the illustration of a group of employees at an important business luncheon. Ask each employee to file a report of the event later that day. One may recount how taken he was with the day’s speaker. Another may recall how impressed she was with the good service and quality of the food. One other individual may remember the important things discussed over lunch; another only how pretty the waitresses were. If we were to take all the reports of the employees and compare them, would we charge that they contradicted one another merely because they listed different details according to what impressed them most?
There is no reason to demand that the Gospel writers must report the same detail. When the critic charges contradictions exist merely because the accounts differ, he is being unfair. He is holding the Gospel writers to a standard to which he would not subject anyone else, least of all himself.
7. Do the critics today still use these alleged contradictions to deny the Resurrection accounts?
Modern liberal theologians and rationalistic, atheistic skeptics agree when it comes to the alleged contradictions in the Resurrection narratives. Virtually every liberal theologian and/or skeptic on The John Ankerberg Show commenting upon the issue has either denied the Resurrection of Christ or cast doubts upon the narratives because of these alleged contradictions.
For example, we shall now examine the beliefs and accusations of some contemporary critics who have appeared on our show.
8. Does Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong teach the Gospel narratives are greatly confused?
The controversial Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong stated in his debate with the late Evangelical scholar Dr. Walter Martin, “There is great confusion in the Gospel narratives themselves about a lot of the details of [the] Resurrection—great confusion! You cannot harmonize Luke with John, for example.”
In his book, The Easter Moment, Bishop Spong expands on his beliefs that the differences and alleged contradictions in the Resurrection accounts cast doubt upon the Resurrection itself:
- Something so very basic to the Christian proclamation as the Resurrection is thus the subject of great confusion and contradiction even in the writings of the gospels, the primary written Christian witnesses. Let me summarize the points of conflict.
- Who went to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week? Paul says nothing about anyone’s going. Mark says that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went. Luke says that Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, Joanna, and some other women went. Matthew says that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary only went. John says that Mary Magdalene alone went.
9. Why is Bishop Spong wrong in claiming great confusion exists in the Resurrection narratives?
Bishop Spong charges there is great confusion in the Resurrection narratives. But the evidence shows that the confusion may lie with the critic. We have just demonstrated above that, not only is there no confusion concerning who first visited the tomb, there is no contradiction concerning the time the women went to the tomb.
As to Bishop Spong’s specific charges, we should note, first of all, that there is no necessity for Paul to mention the visitors to the tomb on Easter morning. Paul was converted to the Christian faith several years after the Resurrection. It was, therefore, natural for him to leave the discussion of the particular happenings of Easter morning to those who were close to or participants in the actual events.
Further, notice that Bishop Spong is putting words in the writers’ mouths that they never stated. Bishop Spong claims Matthew and John use such words as “only” or “alone” in referring to specific people who went to the tomb. But anyone who reads the texts can plainly see that Matthew never said that it was only Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who went to the tomb. He merely mentions these two women without excluding others. Also, John does not say that only Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. As we have seen above, he selects her from among the other women for reasons central to his purpose.
10. Do critics often misconstrue exactly what the Resurrection narratives claim?
Unfortunately, critics often do misrepresent what the Bible really teaches. For example, Central American diplomat and agnostic John K. Naland, in his debate on The John Ankerberg Show with theologian and lawyer Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, also claimed the following concerning the first visit to the tomb: “The first question: Who went to the tomb? Was it Mary Magdalene alone? Was it Mary Magdalene with another woman? Was it Mary Magdalene with three women? Was it Mary Magdalene with five women?”
Here we see Mr. Naland does not have his facts straight. Notice again that no Gospel account mentions only Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. No account mentions only Mary Magdalene and another woman came to the empty tomb, or that only three other women came to the tomb.
In considering all of the above material, what may we conclude? We must conclude that no contradiction exists between the number of women who went to the tomb on Easter morning and when this event occurred.
If three or more women went as a group to the tomb, then each writer could focus on the particular women he wanted to emphasize. Each writer could focus on a particular woman, women, or the group as a whole according to his purposes.
Further, if the women lived different distances from the tomb, then when they each started their journey, the time factor would have been slightly different. Notice, each writer was free to report the time the women left their homes and started their journey, the time during any part of the journey itself, or the time when they arrived at the tomb.
Finally, each Gospel writer could have received the information from which he wrote his account from one or more of the women. Each woman would naturally tell the event from her perspective, mentioning the details that seemed relevant to her and omitting the others.
- John Wenham, Easter Enigma (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books/Zondervan, 1984), pp. 69,39.
- John Lilly, “Alleged Discrepancies in the Gospel Accounts of the Resurrection,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. 2 (1940), pp. 105-106.
- Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), pp. 347- 348.
- Lilly, pp. 106-107.
- Wenham, pp. 81-82.
- Lilly, p. 103.
- Wenham, pp. 68-71.
- Lilly, pp. 101-104.
- The John Ankerberg Show, “Martin/Spong Debate on Sexual Ethics” (Program transcript, 1989), p. 4.
- John Shelby Spong, The Easter Moment (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 127, cf. pp. 120-129, emphasis added.
- The John Ankerberg Show, unpublished transcript of a debate between Dr. John Warwick Montgomery and John K. Naland, televised April 1990, p. 42.