There are all sorts of things one could say in response, about the value of multiple accounts, the presence of inconsistencies as a sign of authenticity… etc. But actually, I think it’s quite possible to draw together the various details from the four accounts to create a perfectly plausible, non-contradictory, harmonised version of what took place on Easter Sunday.
It’s important to note that all four gospel accounts agree on a number of basic points about what happened at the resurrection:
- Women visited the tomb and found it to be empty
- Jesus appeared first to the women (or a woman) and commissioned her/them to tell Peter and the other apostles
- Mary Magdalene is present in each account
- They all mention that the tomb had previously been sealed with a stone
However, there are a number of points at which the gospel accounts appear to disagree with one another. For example:
- The number and identity of the women
- The precise time that they visited the tomb
- The purpose of their visit
- What happened to the stone
- The appearance of the messenger(s) and whether he/they were angelic or human
- The precise message they gave to the women
- The women’s response
Now, I would argue that none of these discrepancies are, strictly speaking, contradictions. That is, no one account expresses the details in such a way as to make the content of the other accounts logically impossible. If one gospel were to claim that only one woman ever visited the tomb, and other authors claimed that multiple people from both genders visited the tomb, we would have an irreconcilable contradiction. But as it happens, none of the gospels claim to tell the whole story, and the fact that John claims that Mary Magdalene visited the tomb whilst Luke also mentions Joanna, Mary the mother of James and others, is no more contradictory than me having three separate conversations in which I say:
- I went to watch the football yesterday
- I went to watch the football with my brother yesterday
- I went to watch the football with my brother and three of his friends yesterday
Each retelling simply adds a further part of the story, and I might have any number of good reasons for only revealing certain bits of information in each conversation. (I should point out, I didn’t actually go to watch any sport with anyone yesterday… it was an example! Before you vociferous sceptics attempt to reject my entire argument on the basis of the football fixtures!)
So here’s my attempt at drawing together the details of what I consider to be four complementary accounts, into one retelling of the Easter story. I should point out that this is not the only way one could harmonise the stories; it is one way of many. I don’t know that this is precisely what happened. But the fact that there are many possible ways of harmonising the gospels gives me confidence that one of them is likely to be true, and that there is nothing in the gospel accounts that renders the Easter story inherently implausible.
A Harmony of the Accounts:
Easter Sunday. Two groups of women set out to the tomb. In the first group were Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Salome (Mark 16:1). The probably set off from the house of John Mark where the Last Supper had taken place.
In the second group were Joanna and her companions. (Luke 24:10 doesn’t tell us that Joanna was in the group with Mary Magdalene; merely that they all told the apostles the story.) It is possible that they set off from a different location to the first group. Joanna was the wife of Cuza, who was the manager of Herod’s house (Luke 8:3) so it is likely that this second group started their journey from Herod’s residence, in a different part of the city to the first group.
Whilst they were journeying to the tomb, one angel dazzled the guards and moved the stone (Matthew 28:2-4). He then sat inside the tomb (Mark 16:5). When Mary Magdalene’s group arrived first, Mary saw that the tomb was empty and so returned to tell Simon Peter (John 20:1-2). At this point the other Mary and Salome looked inside and met the angel (Mark 16:5) who explained to them what had happened.
Mary the mother of James and Salome then ran off ‘with fear and great joy’ (Matthew 28:8) to tell the disciples. However it appears that fear got the better of them and they were too terrified to tell anyone (Mark 16:8).
When the second group arrived at the tomb the first angel who had removed the stone had been joined by another. The two angels greeted the women, told them the news and sent them to the disciples (Luke 24:3-8).
Mary Magdalene, Peter and John ran back to the tomb (John 20:3-9) and when they found it empty, the disciples returned home, leaving Mary Magdalene weeping outside. At this point she spotted two angels inside the tomb (John 20:10-11), before turning to see Jesus himself; his first resurrection appearance (Mark 16:9). She failed to recognise him and mistook him for a gardener, but once she realised who he was she went back to the disciples, this time not only declaring that the tomb was empty, but that she had actually seen Jesus alive (John 20:14-18).
During this time, Mary Magdalene’s original group of women were cowering in fear and too terrified to tell anyone (Mark 16:8) until Jesus met them personally, told them not to fear, and sent them again to the apostles (Matthew 28:9-10). This time they went (Luke 24:10).