Bart Ehrman is distinguished professor of New Testament at UNC-Chapel Hill. He’s also an atheist. Ehrman’s admitted aim is to persuade his freshman students that the Gospel records can’t be trusted because of what he calls discrepancies. Presumably, he means contradictions: factual statements in several Gospels that can’t be reconciled. But, in practice, he seems to mean differences: factual statements in several Gospels that are, well, different. Maybe this is why he can’t always persuade his students. Reports of the same event by several reporters almost always include differences, because the reporters bring different perspectives or emphases to their writings. That, of course, doesn’t mean they disagree with or contradict each other. ABC might report that President Trump and Vice-President Pence attended a press conference on the coronavirus, while NBC reports that Trump and Dr. Tony Fauci attended the same conference. These are different but not contradictory reports. ABC simply omitted reference to Fauci, while NBC omitted reference to Pence: perhaps ABC wanted to emphasize the working relationship between the two senior executives, while ABC chose to emphasize the relationship between the president and his chief public health advisor. They are not contradictory reports; they are not discrepancies.
This essay looks at several differences in the Gospel reports of Jesus’ resurrection that Ehrman claims are discrepancies. We’ll skip his obsession with the fact that the four Gospels record different groups of women going to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body (Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:1–3; Lk. 23:55–24:10; Jn. 20:1). Ehrman apparently thinks each writer should have given the same list of women’s names for them to avoid contradicting each other: he wants ABC and NBC to name Trump, Pence, Fauci and everyone else who attended the press conference to avoid discrepancies in their news reports.
This essay will attempt to reconcile differences in the Gospel reports concerning: (1) the travels of Mary Magdalene and other women the morning of the resurrection; (2) the number of “angels” who were at the tomb and whether they were angels or “men”; and (3) where Jesus and the angels said he would meet the disciples after his resurrection. Ehrman says the Gospel reports on these three issues contradict one another.
The rest of the essay comprises my attempt at harmonizing the Gospel accounts, along with Scripture references and footnotes that provide further explanation. This is my brief effort at reconciling the alleged discrepancies that Ehrman sees — admittedly without my doing much academic study on the matters. I look forward to your critiques, corrections (especially if I got the Greek wrong!), additions, etc. Peace.
On Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and the other women who had been following Jesus went to see the tomb where he was buried (Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:1–3; Lk. 23:55–24:1; Jn. 20:1). [Note 1]
The night before, the angel of the Lord had appeared from heaven and caused a violent earthquake to roll the stone away from the tomb. As he sat on the stone, appearing like lightning, the guards had trembled in fear and became “like dead men” (Mt. 28:2). [Note 2]
As the women approached the tomb the next morning, they saw that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance (Mt. 28:2; Mk. 16:4; Lk. 24:2; Jn. 20:1).
When Mary saw the stone rolled away, she left the others and ran to tell Peter and John that someone had stolen Jesus’ body, as she apparently assumed (Jn. 20:2). [Note 3]
The other women remained and entered the tomb to look (Mk. 16:5; Lk. 24:3; cf. Mt. 28:6). There they saw two angels dressed in white, appearing like men. One of these was the angel of the Lord who had moved the stone the previous evening (Mt. 28:5; Mk. 16:5; Lk. 24:4).[Note 4]
The angel of the Lord spoke and told the women that Jesus was not there because he had risen from death. He showed the women the place where Jesus had lain. Then the angel told them to go and tell the disciples that Jesus was alive and would meet them in Galilee (Mt. 28:5–7; Mk. 16:6–7; Lk. 24:6–7).[Note 5]
The women fled from the tomb to tell the disciples. They were afraid, trembling, and bewildered (Mt. 28:8; Mk. 16:8). As they went along the way, they said nothing to anyone they met, because they were afraid (Mk. 16:8).[Note 6]
As they were going to tell the disciples, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings.” The women recognized him and fell at his feet to worship. Jesus told them to not be afraid, and to “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee where they will see me” (Mt. 28:8–10). [Note 7]
Mary Magdalene, in the meantime, had found Peter and John (Jn. 20:2). All three of them ran to the tomb. Peter and John went inside and saw that it was empty, with the burial cloth and linens folded up where Jesus’ body had lain (Jn. 20:3–8). Peter and John returned to their homes, but Mary stayed outside the tomb crying (Jn. 20:10–11). She bent over and entered the tomb, where she saw the two angels in white that the others had seen earlier (Jn. 20:12). The angels asked Mary why she was crying, and she explained that someone had taken Jesus’ body (Jn. 20:13). Then she turned and saw Jesus, but didn’t recognize him. Jesus also asked her why she was crying. Thinking he was a gardener, she told him what she’d told the angels. Then he said, “Mary”, and she recognized and worshiped him. Jesus told her to go to his brothers and tell them he was going to return to God his Father (Jn. 20:14–17). [Note 8]
Mary went to the disciples and told them that she had seen the Lord alive (Jn. 20:18). The other women, in the meantime, had returned from the tomb and also told the Eleven all they had seen and heard (Lk. 24:9). But some of the disciples did not believe (Lk. 24:11). [Note 9]
Later that day, two of the disciples went to Emmaus, a village about seven miles from Jerusalem. As they were walking, Jesus met them on the road, but they didn’t recognize him (Lk. 24:13–16). He asked what they were discussing, and they told him all that had happened to Jesus of Nazareth, and how his followers were now downcast and afraid. Jesus rebuked them for not understanding that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer to fulfill the Scriptures (Lk. 24:17–26). “So beginning with Moses and the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Lk. 24:27). But they still did not recognize him.
The two disciples asked Jesus to stay with them that evening, so he stayed for dinner. When he broke bread with them they recognized him, and he supernaturally disappeared (Lk. 24:28–31). They got up and returned to Jerusalem that evening. They found the other disciples gathered in one of their homes, and told them everything that had happened (Lk. 24:32–35).
While they were still talking, Jesus appeared to them, again supernaturally. He said, “Peace be with you.” He showed them the wounds in his hands and feet so that they might believe he was Jesus who had been crucified. Then he explained what the Scriptures said about the Christ, and how he had to suffer and die and rise from death on the third day, and how the disciples would be his witnesses to all the world (Lk. 24:36–49; Jn. 20:19–30). [Note 10]
Sometime later, Jesus appeared to his disciples in Galilee as he had said he would. The first meeting was at the Sea of Galilee, where Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, John, James and several others had returned to their homes and their jobs as fishermen (Jn. 21:1–3). Jesus appeared to them as they were fishing, and made breakfast for them on the shore. There he commissioned Peter to lead his Church (Jn. 21:4–19). Sometime later, Jesus again met the Eleven disciples at a mountain in Galilee where he had told them to meet (Lk. 24:16). He commissioned them to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. (Lk. 24:17–19). [Note 11]
- John mentions only Mary Magdalene, but he does not say that she was alone. John apparently wanted to focus on Mary and her interactions with Jesus and the disciples.
- English translations of Matthew’s account seem to read as if the angel and the earthquake rolled away the stone while the women were there on resurrection morning. But Matthew is referring to a prior event (NIV Study Bible note, 28:2). The Greek verbs here are in the 2nd aorist form, which have a past tense with a simple aspect, meaning the event happened and is over. Translators have rendered it strictly as “there was an earthquake…” (a past tense verb) rather than “had been”. This event obviously took place before the women arrived or Matthew would undoubtedly have reported the women’s fear and astonishment at the earthquake, rather than the guards’.
- That Mary Magdalene left the other women before any of them entered the tomb is not explicitly mentioned in any of the Gospels. But it is certainly consistent with each account, and explains what might otherwise seem like a contradiction in the reports of the women’s travels, especially Mary’s. The fact that it isn’t mentioned doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Critics of the Gospels’ reliability insist that the omission of details like this suggest that the reports can’t be trusted as accurate, but the critics don’t explain why this must be the case. It is simply their view of what reliable first century Jewish reporting ought to be like.
- Matthew and Mark mention only one angel: Matthew calls him “an angel of the Lord,” while Mark refers to him as a “young man”. This shouldn’t surprise us. Scripture sometimes refers to angels as men, or in the form of men. In the account of Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses refers to Abraham’s visitors alternately as “men”, “angels,” and the Lord himself (Gen. 18:1–19:29; see also Ex. 3:2–4, ff., where God appears to Moses in the burning bush and is referred to as “the angel of the Lord” and “the LORD”). So, it is even possible that the “angel of the Lord” to which Matthew refers is God himself in the form of an angel. But Luke, and later John, refer to two men or angels. How do we square this with Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts? First, we can say that neither Matthew nor Mark insist that there was only one angel, so their accounts allow for the possibility of two (or more). Second, Matthew and Mark seem to have a different emphasis than Luke and John that may explain their different numbering of angels. Matthew and Mark seem preoccupied with the security of the tomb that Pilate and the chief priests enforced on Jesus’ burial: they explicitly mention the need for security against theft by the disciples, using a stone to block the tomb, the large size of the stone, sealing the tomb, and placing a guard at the tomb, (Mt. 27:62–66; Mk. 15:46; 16:4). Perhaps, then, Matthew and Mark wanted to emphasize that the stone was rolled away by a single angel to emphasize the Lord’s power over Pilate’s and the chief priests’ (Mt. 28:2–4; Mk. 16:3). If Matthew’s reference to the “angel of the Lord” is to God himself, this makes even more sense. Luke and John, on the other hand, mention nothing during the account of Jesus’ burial about the rulers’ concern for security, or even of a stone being placed over the tomb (Lk. 23:50–56; Jn. 19:38–42). They seem more concerned not with who moved the stone, but who moved Jesus’ body (Lk. 24:3–4; Jn. 20:2). Perhaps, then, Luke and John wanted to emphasize that it was angels, not men, who were with Jesus as he left the tomb — as in the accounts of angels ministering to him after his testing in the wilderness (Mt. 4:11; Mk. 1:13).
- Luke has both of the angels speaking, but that isn’t problematic: regardless of whether both angels spoke or not, each writer was being consistent with the number of angels he had chosen to emphasize. See note 4. Luke doesn’t record the angel’s instructions to the women, but instead reminds them of the prophecy about Jesus needing to suffer, die, and then rise on the third day, which Matthew and Mark omit (Lk. 24:6–7). The writers simply chose to emphasize different aspects of the angels’ message, just as journalists today choose to report only portions of what they see and hear based on the perspectives they want to convey.
- At first glance it seems that Matthew’s and Mark’s reports conflict: in Matthew’s report the women left the tomb and immediately told the disciples, but in Mark’s they never told anyone. But this isn’t what either writer says. Matthew says they “ran to tell the disciples”, but he doesn’t say when they told them. Mark says they didn’t tell anyone, but he doesn’t say during what period of time. Since Mark omits the women’s encounter with Jesus, we can reasonably assume that they left the tomb and didn’t speak to anyone as they were going to tell the disciples, but later told the disciples after seeing Jesus. This is consistent with Matthew’s account.
- Only Matthew reports the larger group of women meeting Jesus that morning. Of course, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; again, it simply means Matthew chose to report something the other writers didn’t (others besides Trump, Pence, and Fauci were also at the press conference). Jesus instructs the women to tell the “brothers” he will see them in Galilee, while the angel of the Lord had use the word, “disciples” (Mt. 28:5–7; Mk. 16:6–7; Lk. 24:6–7). Jesus apparently wanted the larger group of disciples who had followed him during his ministry to witness his later appearing in Galilee. See ESV Study Bible note, Mt. 28:10. This doesn’t mean the angel was delivering a different instruction; the word “disciples” is often used in the Gospels to refer to anyone who followed Jesus, not only the inner circle of twelve (or eleven) (e.g., Mt 8:18–22; Lk. 6:13, 17; 14:26–33; 19:37–39; Jn. 6:60–66). That the message likely went to the larger group of Jesus’ followers is important for resolving the question of where Jesus met his disciples after his resurrection. See note 11 and companion text.
- John, like Matthew, uses the word “brother” for those whom Jesus told Mary to tell. See note 7.
- Luke lists the women who reported what they’d seen and heard from the angels and Jesus: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “the others with them” (Lk. 24:10). He summarizes the disciples’ general unbelief because the women’s “words seemed to them like nonsense” (Lk. 24:11). He also mentions that Peter ran to the tomb and saw that it was empty (Lk. 24:12). This is obviously a reference to the event in John’s account where he and Peter ran to the tomb after Mary reported her assumption that someone had taken Jesus’ body (Jn. 20:1–3). Luke doesn’t mention John going with Peter, but that isn’t problematic. John records in his Gospel that he “believed” when he saw the empty tomb and burial clothes (Jn. 20:8), but he doesn’t say what he believed. It’s possible he now believed Jesus’ prior prediction of his death and resurrection, or that someone had moved Jesus’ body. The latter seems likely since John notes parenthetically, “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead” (Jn. 20:9).
- Only Luke and John record this event. Their accounts give slightly different details, but they are consistent.
- Jesus did meet in Galilee both his inner circle of disciples and the larger group of his “brothers”, just as he had said. Jesus and the angels had instructed the women to tell the “brothers” that he would see them in Galilee. See notes 7, 8. Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:6 that Jesus appeared to more than “five hundred of the brothers” after his resurrection. This apparently happened in Galilee (see NIV Study Bible note, 1 Cor. 15:6; ESV Study Bible note, Mt. 28:10). So there is no contradiction between the angels and Jesus instructing the women to tell the disciples and the “brothers” to meet him in Galilee, and his meeting the inner circle of disciples in Jerusalem the evening of his resurrection. He did both.
© 2020 Scott Behm