Resurrection differences in the Gosple Accountsby Rit Nosotro
Compare and reconcile the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection. Who first approached the empty tomb? Who did they first see at the tomb? Who first told Mary about the Resurrection? Who and where did Jesus first appear to? What did the women do when they heard the news?
All who have read the New Testament know of variations in the accounts of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew was a tax collector, Mark was an assistant to Peter, Luke a physician, and John a fisherman. In the account of Jesus’ resurrection, all four Gospels describe the event in slightly different terms. These variations have allowed skeptics to discount the resurrection as legend or allegory and given rise so called liberal Christians who do not accept a literal bodily resurrection. This despite the claim of the Apostle Paul, "if Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:17).
The resurrection is the most important event in Christianity. There are five sections to the resurrection story. This essay will compare each of these parts and attempt to explain the reason behind the differences in the accounts.
Approaching the Tomb
Mark tells the women arrived at the tomb at sunrise, while John states that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb when it was dark. The geography of the account helps with proper textual criticism since the women left while it was dark in Bethany or Jerusalem and arrived at daybreak.
The first part of the resurrection story is who approached the empty tomb first the day of Jesus’ resurrection. All the gospels say that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. In every account except for John, Mary Magdalene is accompanied by Mary mother of James. In Mark and Luke, Mary Magdalene and Mary mother James are accompanied by at least one other woman. In the gospel of Mark, this woman is Salome. In the gospel of Luke, this woman is Joanna.
It is possible that all four authors of the gospels decided to focus on Mary Magdalene as the main character in their narratives. She had figured in the gospels before; Luke mentions her as the woman “from whom seven demons had come out.” (Luke 8:2) Those hearing the resurrection story would be familiar with her name. If this was the case, the names of the other women with Mary Magdalene would not have been as important. John might have even chosen to ignore the other women with Mary Magdalene, so as to focus on her as the main character of his story. It is also possible that Salome and Joanna were the same person, merely called by different names.
At the Tomb
The second and third parts in the resurrection story tell who the women first saw at the tomb and who first told these women Jesus was alive. According Matthew and Mark, the women saw one “angel of the Lord” seated at the tomb. Luke and John say there were two angels. All four gospels mention the fact that the angles were in “clothes that gleamed like lightning” (Luke 24:4) and stress their ability to inspire awe. It is these angels, in all four gospels, who inform the women of Jesus’ resurrection. John’s account varies slightly in the fact that the first time Mary Magdalene visits the tomb, she sees no one. It is only after she returns with Peter and another disciple that she sees the angels.
Matthew and Mark might have chosen to dwell on the fact that an angel did indeed appear to the women at the tomb and weren’t concerned with how many there were. By reporting that one angle spoke to the women, they are not necessarily indicating that there was only one angel at the empty tomb.
The fact that Mary Magdalene saw no one when she first goes to the tomb in John’s account could be because the story told in John is the most complete version. Matthew, Mark, and Luke could have chosen to slim down their narrative by eliminating the women’s first trip to the tomb, when nothing happened. Also, Matthew, Mark, and Luke could have wanted to focus more on the women then the disciples.
Leaving the Tomb
The fourth part of the resurrection story is what the women did when they heard the news of Jesus’ resurrection from the angels. In every account except Mark, the women run to tell the disciples what they saw, because the angels told them to do so. Mark writes that the women said nothing “because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8) Perhaps Mark means that the women did not tell the disciples immediately after they returned from the tomb.
The fifth part of the resurrection story is who Jesus first appeared to and where he appeared to them. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and Mary mother James as they run to tell the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. In Mark, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in an unknown location. In John, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene as she grieves at his tomb. In Luke, Jesus appears to two disciples as they walk on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32).
All of the gospels could have gotten their accounts from different eyewitnesses. If Jesus chose to appear to more than one person on the day he was risen, each one of these people would likely have thought Jesus appeared to them first. It is possible that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of James first. Mark might not have mentioned Mary mother of James in his account because he was choosing to focus on Mary Magdalene instead. After appearing to Mary Magdalene, Jesus easily could have appeared to two of the disciples as they walked on the road to Emmaus.
Jesus continues to appear in His physical resurrected body which were not dreams or group hallucinations. He invites Thomas to inspect his wounds in the presence of the other disciples in the upper room (Luke 20:26-31), He eats with Peter beside the Sea of Galilee and tells him his future ministry (John 21:1-23). 1 Corinthians reports Jesus appeared to over 500 people before His final appearance to the disciples forty days after the resurrection when he ascended into heaven (Luke 24:44-49). John states the obvious that Jesus did many more things than could possibly be recorded in all the accounts. Memorizing information was endemic in the Jewish culture. It is no stretch to accept that the disciples of Jesus memorized His words and works. Furthermore, Jesus promised that after His departure, "the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you." (John 14:26)
The apparent discrepancies of the four Gospel accounts of the resurrection can be disconcerting to a believer. Christians might be tempted to wonder how they can trust a book when the accounts do not line up. However, with standard exegesis of the accounts, it is in the richness of the variation that a fuller picture of this event is presented. Closer parallel accounts might suggest author collusion or editing which would actually diminish rather than strengthen the authenticity of the Gospel accounts. Yet none of the Gospels contradict each other in essentials of doctrine and even details. They each reveal a different aspect from the author's perspective as they were inspired to write. All agree Jesus rose from the dead, that women saw the tomb empty - except for angles, and that Jesus appeared to people after he had risen.
1. Which two gospels say two angles appeared to the women at the tomb?
2. According to the Gospel of Mark, who did Jesus first appear to?
3. Do the differences between the Gospel accounts undermine the Christian faith?
The Holy Bible, NIV translation
The apostle Paul stated, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me." 1 (Corinthians 15:3-9)
"If Christ be not risen, then our preaching is vain, and your faith is
also vain, yea, and we are found false witness of God; because we have testified
of God that He raised up Christ … and if Christ be not raised, your faith
is in vain; you are still in your sins. … If in this life only we have
hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" (I Corinthians 15:14,
15, 17, 19, KJV).
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