So what's the problem? He's alive!

Mon, 29/03/2010 - 12:58 -- James Oakley

People sometimes worry that the 4 Gospels don't tell the resurrection story in exactly the same way. This is to worry needlessly. If the 4 Gospels told the resurrection story in contradictory ways, that would be a different matter. As it is, we simply have a difference in perspective. Look at the story from different angles, you include different details and stress different things. It couldn't be otherwise. The four Gospels are not an assortment of favourite deeds of Jesus, thrown together haphazardly. Each Gospel tells the story in the precise way that its author wanted it told, to suit the needs of those he wrote for and to say some specific things.

But are the accounts not contradictory, you ask? Well let's look at the details recorded by each author, and the order in which they occur:


1.1. Near dawn, Mary and Mary go to see the tomb
1.2. Earthquake and an angel rolled the stone back and sat on it. Guards terrified
1.3. The angel reassured the women that Jesus is risen.
1.4. Angel told the women to tell the disciples about it
1.5. They ran to tell the disciples
1.6. Jesus met them and they worshipped him. He tells them to send the disciples to Galilee


2.1. Mary, Mary and Salome take spices to anoint the body
2.2. They went very early when the son was up. Who will roll the stone away?
2.3. They see the stone already rolled away.
2.4. They enter the tomb. A young man is sat on the right side in white.
2.5. Jesus is not here, he’s risen. Tell Peter and the others to go to Galilee.
2.6. They flee, and say nothing.


3.1. The women (Mary, Mary, Joanna and others – v. 10) go at early dawn to anoint body
3.2. They find the stone rolled back.
3.3. They enter the tomb, and see two men in white
3.4. They go to tell the disciples, who don’t believe.
3.5. Peter gets up, goes to the tomb, and looks in


4.1. Mary M came to the tomb early and saw that the stone had been rolled away
4.2. She ran away, went to Peter and John, and told them that Jesus was taken from the tomb.
4.3. Peter and John ran to the tomb.
4.4. John arrived first, and looked in
4.5. Peter arrived second, and went in
4.6. They both went home.
4.7. Mary stayed, crying, and met Jesus.
4.8. Jesus tells her not to cling to him, but go and tell the disciples that he’s returning to God
4.9. Mary tells the disciples she’s seen the Lord

Putting it together

Mostly, it is pretty straight forward. All the accounts agree that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb very early in the morning. We learn from Luke that various other women were with her; in total we know that this party included at least the other Mary, Joanna and Salome; there were probably more from Luke 24:10.

Mark, Luke and John all report that they saw the stone already rolled back. Superficially, Matthew appears to present a problem here (1.2), as Matthew records the stone being rolled back. However he doesn’t say that the women saw the stone being rolled back, only that it was. He appears to imply that the women saw it, because he records the stone being rolled back after reporting that the women set out for the tomb and before reporting that they arrived there. However this need not imply that they saw the stone being rolled back; Matthew 28:2 could record background information that explains what they arrived to. The verse starts with “behold”, which need not mean that the women beheld this, but instead serves to announce to the reader that Matthew is about to say something amazing that deserves careful attention.

So they find the stone rolled back and go in, where Mark and Luke report that they speak with an angel. In fact, Luke records two of them, but that does not make Mark inaccurate to report that they saw an angel; for Mark, the fact that there was an angel is the significant fact; for Luke, the fact that there were two is significant. This allows Luke to allude to this, quite consciously, in Acts 1:10.

Matthew agrees that they see a young man in white inside the tomb. We have already read that the angel rolled the stone back and then sat on it. This does not conflict with Mark’s and Luke’s accounts. We have already said that Matthew records the stone being rolled back, but that is not to say the women witnessed this. Similarly, Matthew records the angel sitting on the stone, but that is not to say the women witnessed that either. Both of those details could have been reported by the Roman guard, or told the women by the angel they spoke to inside.

They then go and tell the disciples. Luke records that Peter went to the tomb; John records this as well, adding that he went too. We glean from John’s gospel that Mary Magdalene went with Peter and John to the tomb, and stayed behind after they had gone home. It was then that she saw Jesus, mistaking him for the gardener. He sends them to the disciples, to tell them that he will ascend, so she reports these things to them.

All of this means that Mark’s statement that the women said nothing to anyone was true only for a while, and not for that long. Mark tells us what we would not otherwise know; having seen the empty tomb, there initial response was not obedience but fear and therefore delay. Happily, Luke and John tell us that they did not keep the news to themselves forever.

This retelling of the resurrection accounts for the all the details in all 4 gospels except for the detail in Matthew (1.6) that Jesus met the women. Matthew 28:10 suggests that Jesus saw the women before Jesus saw the disciples, because Jesus tells them “there they will see me”. There are two possibilities as to how this relates to the rest of what we’ve read. It is hard to decide which, but either leaves us with a sequence of events that fits with the record in all 4 Gospels.

The first possibility is that the women went to tell the disciples, with Mary Magdalene arriving first. The other two women met with Jesus as they followed on, and he added his personal commission that they should tell the disciples. When Mary Magdalene alone stayed in the garden, she met Jesus for the first time, which is why she did not recognise him immediately.

The second possibility is that Matthew 28:9-10 tells of all the women, including Mary Magdalene, meeting the risen Jesus. This occurred after the women had told the disciples of the empty tomb, but before Jesus had yet met the disciples. It could be another retelling of Mary’s garden encounter with Jesus, told from a different perspective and telling us that the other women were present; alternatively, it could have happened after that. Either way, they had already done as the angel asked, and told the disciples that Jesus is alive; Jesus now gives them a second message, which is that they are to proceed to Galilee.


So what's the problem? Rather than worry about the fact that we have four different accounts, rejoice in the fact that we have four. Four portraits are better than one because they capture more of the person. Read each Gospel account, and listen as that writer tells the story to you in the way they want to.

He is risen indeed - Hallelujah!

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