Resurrection Day events:
Analysis, comparison, and harmonisation
of the four Gospel accounts
by Renton Maclachlan
The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is foundational to Biblical Christianity. As the apostle Paul says in his letter to the believers in Corinth, chapter 15 v12-19:
‘But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
‘In his letter to believers in Rome, Paul wrote chapter 10 v9-10:
If you read each of the gospel records and compare them, it will be seen that there are noteworthy differences in the accounts. Some of these can be easily ‘harmonised’ but one in particular is a lot more problematic. Sceptics and opponents of Christianity often point to these differences as proof that the records are not accurate and therefore should not be trusted. That in fact Christianity should be rejected on the basis of them, and that we should all go to the beach and enjoy ourselves without any thought of a God over us who will call us to account for what we say, do, and believe.
Those who profess to be followers of Christ, do not have this option available to them. They have committed to accepting the Bible as the Word of God, just as Jesus did, and thus any real or imagined significant inconsistency in the text of the Bible is a threat to what they have committed to. Ways of resolving, or dealing with, or explaining these differences, must be found to retain the coherence of the text and beliefs based on it.
So with all this in mind, I have over many years reflected on all the relevant passages, seeking to harmonise them and get to grips with the significant events they relate. The following deals only with the events from the records that describe to us what happened on what can be called ‘resurrection day’. The text used is the NIV.
Matthew 28 1-15
Mark 16: 1-14
Luke 24: 1-49
John 20: 1-20
Who of the believers went to the tomb on resurrection day?
Early Sunday morning (first day of the week), women went to the tomb.
Matthew says: ‘…at dawn on the first day of the week.’ Matt 28:1
Mark says: ‘Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise.’ Mark 16:2
Luke says: ‘On the first day of the week, very early in the morning.’ Luke 24:1
John says: ‘Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark.’ John 20:1
While there are variations in these records, from ‘while it was still dark’, to, ‘just after sunrise’, and the more general ‘dawn’ and ‘very early in the morning’, these variations are not significant and can easily be accommodated by the fact that during the time they were going to the tomb, the sun rose. While they may have left when it was dark, by the time they got to the tomb the sun had risen. Sunrise was around 6am, which meant they would have left where they were staying possibly about 5-30am. What cannot be accommodated in this part of the narrative are several trips to the tomb. There is not sufficient time for more than one trip by the group. All records at this point refer to the same trip/event.
Which women went to the tomb?
Matthew says: ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.’ Matt 28:1
Mark says: ‘Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.’ Mark 16:1
Luke says: ‘The women’…(who had come with him from Galilee Luke23:55). This is later made
more specific… ‘Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others
with them.’ Luke:1 and 10
John says: ‘Mary Magdalene.’ While Mary Magdalene alone is mentioned, in talking to Peter and
John a bit later she says, ‘we don’t know where they have laid him’, indicating she
had not been alone. John 20:1 and 2
So…the group of women who went to the tomb comprised four named women. Seeing it is Luke who refers to ‘others with them’ but only names three women, and does not include Salome, Salome would be one of the ‘others’ so with at least one other besides her, this makes a minimum of five in the group.
Mary the mother of James (the other Mary)
And at least one other…
This is so even though Matthew only mentions two, Mark mentions three, Luke mentions at least five, and John only one. If five went, then one went, so if a narrative only mentions one, that does not preclude others. Mary Magdalene is the only one common to all narratives and is mentioned first in the three cases where more than one are named.
Did all the women go to the tomb as a group, or make their way separately?
Matthew says: ‘After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.’ Matt 28:1
Mark says: ‘…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?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.’ Mark :1-5
Luke says: ‘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. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.’ Luke 24:1-3
John doesn’t mention a group of women at all, only Mary Magdalene.
Clearly the women went as a group. Mark especially indicates this because he records that they discussed together on the way, who was going to remove the stone away from the entrance to tomb.
Did all the women in the group get to the tomb at the same time?
This is where significant discordance between the records begins.
Matthew: mentions only two women at the beginning of the narrative and on the basis of this antecedent, both of them got to the tomb and had the angel talk with them.
Mark: mentions three women in a similar way, and on the basis of this antecedent, all of them got to the tomb, entered it, and had a young man speak to them.
Luke: mentions ‘the women’ at the beginning of his narrative and on the basis of this antecedent (and his later naming of them), all of them got to tomb, entered it and had a couple of angels speak to them.
Thus these three accounts have Mary Magdalene getting to the tomb with the others, seeing inside it and having the angel/angels/young man talk to her.
John: only mentions Mary Magdalene, and there is no indication that she got to the tomb at this time. In fact, I think there is very clear indication that she did not. All it says is she ‘saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance’, NOT that she went to or into the tomb, or spoke to angels etc. On seeing the stone rolled away, she ran to tell Peter and John. She said to them ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have laid him’. I think it obvious from this that she did not get to the tomb. If she had she would never have said this. If she had got there she would have seen the grave clothes still there…lying where Jesus body had been. The presence of the grave clothes, whether or not she noticed they were unsupported by a body inside them, would have indicated clearly that no one had taken the Lord from the tomb. (Although…when she finally did get to the tomb, the presence of grave clothes did not seem to figure with her at all.) More importantly, if she had got to the tomb with the others, she would have had the angels speak to her, tell her that Jesus had risen, and point out where his body had been lying…which would have drawn attention to the grave clothes which were still there. With that information she would never had said what she did to Peter and John. As it was she related to Peter and John her unverified assumption that Jesus body had been removed from the tomb. She presumed on the basis of having seen the stone rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, that someone or group had removed Jesus’ body from the grave.
So, on this basis I think Mary clearly did not get to the tomb with the other women. This being so, John’s record is out of sync with a straightforward reading of statements in the other gospels. These indicate she did. John indicates she didn’t.
The fact that she did not get to the tomb with the other women, means that she left them before actually getting to the tomb. What John’s record indicates is that she must have left the others after the tomb came into view and they saw the stone was rolled away, but, before they actually got to it and found out what was inside.
This in turns means that it was the rest of the women who went on to the tomb without Mary Magdalene, went inside, saw the grave clothes, had the angels speak to them and tell them Jesus was risen, and then leave the tomb to go home, or to tell the rest of the disciples about what they had seen.
What do the narratives say about the women at the tomb?
Matthew says: ‘…an angel rolled back the stone and sat on it. He said to the women “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” Matt 28:2
By saying; ‘Come see the place where he lay’, seems to indicate the angel was outside the tomb, out of sight of its interior, and told them to follow him in and have a look.
Mark says: ‘As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'” Mark:5-7
No angel outside the tomb in Mark.
Luke says: ‘…but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'” Then they remembered his words.’ Luke 24:3-8
Here there are two men in the tomb with the women. Whether the women had not seen them on entering the tomb and thus were surprised by them, or alternatively, they were angels appearing as men, who crossed from their world into ours at a moment in time and appeared suddenly to them, is difficult to know. If the ‘Garden Tomb’ in Jerusalem is the actual tomb described in the Gospels, it is large enough for two men to be in it yet perhaps not seen by others entering…especially if those entering were focusing on the burial chamber to the right when entering. The ‘weeping chamber’ into which the entrance opens, is large enough to accommodate the six people in this account (four women and two angels…assuming all the women went in…including the women bowing down.
John: doesn’t mention the women at the tomb because the narrative is following Mary alone, and she wasn’t there. She had left to go and tell Peter and John.
John is apparently in direct conflict with the other Gospels. Given that John is clear that Mary Magdalene did not get to the tomb with the other women…for the reasons mentioned above, this means she was not there when the other women entered the tomb and met the angels. For Mark and Luke this can be quite easily accommodated, because if one of a group of a minimum of five women leaves the group, the narrative can continue on unaffected even though the one who has left is not mentioned doing so in the narrative. There is an issue with Luke however because he names the women and includes Mary Magdalene…but this will be addressed later.
Matthew’s record is even more problematic as he names only two women, one of whom from John we know leaves the other, yet the narrative continues as though she hasn’t left.
On getting to the tomb, the women had an angel speak to them (Matthew), a young man dressed in a white robe speak to them (Mark), two men in clothes that gleamed like lightening speak to them (Luke). If the angels appeared as young men, their angelic nature would have been understood in retrospect. (In most appearances of angels recorded throughout the Bible, they just looked like regular human beings, and their angelic nature was understood, not from their appearance, but from what they did, or knowledge they had.) In this case they could be described as what they looked like at the time…young men, or by what they were later recognised to be…angels. If there were two angels, then there was one angel, so the numbers of angels is not an issue. The variation in the whiteness/brightness of their clothes…from simply ‘white’, to ‘gleamed like lightening’ may be relative terms, describing degrees of whiteness that were beyond what was normally able to be obtained from washing, dying etc, and thus stood out.
What is said about the women leaving the tomb after talking to the angels etc?
Matthew says: ‘So the women [Mary Magdalene and the other Mary] hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”‘
Mark says: ‘Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.’
Luke says: ‘When they came back from the tomb [after seeing and being spoken to by the angels], they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.’
Luke adds later, in the narrative of the two going to Emmaus,
‘”In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”‘
John: does not say anything about the group of women leaving the tomb as the narrative follows Mary alone.
Discrepancies increase. Matthew has the women [Mary Magdalene and the other Mary] running from the tomb afraid yet joyful, to tell the disciples, and seeing Jesus on the way. Mark says they were trembling, bewildered and afraid and told no one anything. Luke simply has them telling the disciples what they had experienced. The difference between Mark and Luke re the women telling or not telling anyone what they had experienced, can easily be accommodated if at first the woman did not tell anyone, but sometime later did. What is a very significant discordance however is the fact that Mary Magdalene is plainly said to have gone to the tomb with the others, and returned to tell the Eleven in the manner given in the passages. And yet John indicates that Mary was not with the other women when they did any of the things described.
Did anyone else go to the tomb and see inside it?
Matthew: doesn’t mention anyone else going to the tomb.
Mark: doesn’t mention anyone else going to the tomb.
Luke says: ‘But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.’
And later on, the two on the road to Emmaus say to Jesus…
‘”In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”‘
John says: ‘So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb [after learning from Mary Magdalene about the stone being removed etc]. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)’
‘Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.’
So…Luke has Peter only going to the tomb, but adds later that ‘some of our companions went to the tomb’, so there were at least two of them. John says that Peter and John visited the tomb in the way described, as well as the group of women.
‘… but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.’
So Mary Magdalene also eventually got there, though alone, and apparently after Peter and John had left and taken another route back home from the tomb. If Mary had met them on the way, they would have talked to her and explained their thoughts about what they had seen in the grave to her. Or, if they were still at the tomb, they no doubt would have taken her into it to show her the grave clothes and discuss what they meant. There is no indication any of this occurred, thus Mary arrives back at the tomb, and is there alone, with the same evaluation of the situation she had when she had left to go and tell Peter and John, that is, that someone or group had taken the body of Jesus from the tomb.
[Re the angels sitting ‘where the body of Jesus had been,one at the head and the other at the foot’: If the ‘Garden Tomb’ is the tomb in question, then there are low stone walls at either end of the two places in the tomb where bodies would be laid, on which the angels could have been seated.]
Who saw Jesus on the morning of resurrection day?
Matthew says: ‘So the women [the two Mary’s] hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”‘
Mark says: ‘When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.’
Regarding this passage in Mark, it comes in the ‘long ending’ of Mark over which there is some dispute. The NIV inserts the comment before it, ‘The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.’ If it is not authentic, as many claim, then Mark’s Gospel does not contain any reference to Jesus being seen alive by anyone after his crucifixion. I find this strange indeed, thus for this, and other reasons, I accept the long ending as authentic and original.
Luke: doesn’t mention anyone seeing him in the morning. In Luke the first people to see him are the two going to Emmaus late in the afternoon.
John says: ‘Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.’
Obviously, while talking to the angels…and then, without knowing it, to Jesus himself, Mary is still holding the idea that the body of Jesus had been taken away, which again indicates that she never got to the tomb with the other women, and thus was not with the other women when angels spoke to them and told them that Jesus was alive.
Clearly something is seriously out of sync here. Mark and John fit together nicely, but Matthew does not. And Luke has the puzzling fact of not mentioning any women seeing Jesus in the morning. According to Matthew, Jesus’ first appearance was to two women – the two Mary’s, which would suggest all the women as a group all saw him, even though Matthew only mentions two of them. Yet Mark explicitly says it was to Mary Magdalene only, and so does John. John’s account is the longest and most detailed, while Mark’s is briefer. Mark’s statement however is not the sort of statement that would be made if Mary Magdalene was simply one of a group, even just a group of two. It would be absurd to say that Jesus ‘appeared first’ to Mary Magdalene, if the ‘other Mary’ saw him 5 or 10 seconds later!
And then it can be asked, why does Luke not mention any appearance at this time? Why is Mary Magdalene’s report not mentioned?
I think it is clear that Matthew’s Gospel, taken at face value, is out of sync with the other three, but especially Mark and John.
What did the women describe and how was it received?
Matthew: doesn’t say anything about either of these two things, in fact he says nothing more about resurrection day except regarding the incident of the soldiers reporting back to their superiors, and the story being concocted to explain away what had happened…why there was no body. Matthew’s total account is very very short…surprisingly short.
Mark: says Mary Magdalene…
‘…went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it. Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either. Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.’
Luke: says ‘When they [the women] came back from the tomb, they told all these things [seeing angels etc] to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.’
Luke adds later, in the narrative about the two going to Emmaus who address some of these matters in their conversation with Jesus.
‘Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?” “What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. :”He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels [note not Jesus], who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.’
John: says ‘Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.’
Simon [Peter] is said in Luke to have also seen Jesus, apparently sometime in the afternoon.
So…Mark and Luke are out of sync here. Mark says the Eleven did not believe the two who ‘had been walking in the country’ (who I take it are the same two that Luke refers to), in fact did not believe that Jesus was alive until Peter said he had met him. Such was the Eleven’s lack of belief in these reports, that Jesus upbraided them for it and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him alive. The reports at this time would have been Mary Magdalene’s and that of the two he met on the road to Emmaus. Yet Luke suggests that because of Peter’s report, the Eleven already knew about and believed the reports of Jesus being alive when the two arrived back from Emmaus.
[Luke says Emmaus is about 7 miles from Jerusalem. Average walking speed is a little over 3mph, though for those who walked everywhere it could be faster. Thus at 3mph it would have taken 2 hours 20 minutes to get to Emmaus from Jerusalem. When the two arrived at Emmaus, they invited Jesus to stay, and then began a meal, during which they recognised Jesus. Immediately this happened they returned to Jerusalem to tell the others. Presumably they were walking faster on the return journey as they had an urgent message to convey, so let’s say they did 4mph going back. This would mean the return journey would have taken around 1 hour 45 minutes. Sunset was shortly after 7pm but given that the Passover occurred at a full moon, presumably there was plenty of light if some of the journey back to Jerusalem was after sunset. Let’s say they arrived at Emmaus at around 5pm, this would have meant they left Jerusalem around 2.40pm. allow 30 minutes for getting a meal underway and discovering who their guest was, that’s 5.30 > 5.45pm before they start the journey back. At 4mph this would put their arrival time in Jerusalem at around 7.30pm, just after sunset. Apparently the Eleven had not started their meal as yet.]
The types of discrepancies outlined here, Bible sceptics love to point to as proof that the Bible is not consistent, cannot be made consistent, and thus should not be believed. There is some force to the argument here which Bible believers need to face up to. Does it require us however to join the sceptics?
I don’t think so but I’m aware that my solution may be a bridge too far for some…especially those who say something like, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it!” The problem with such a cliché is that it is not always straightforward to know what the Bible says. But if some are not prepared to accept my solution, then they need to come up with a better one, one that deals with the inconsistencies…or live with them. I’m not prepared to live with such stark inconsistencies however, and propose the only solution that I am comfortable with.
Nor does it seem legitimate to me to invoke the authors ‘intentions’ and ‘audience’, for what they wrote. Even if some of these sorts of ideas are valid, and I think they are, at the end of the day, the specifics of the text have to be dealt with and it is not sufficient to wave a generalised wand over them as though that dissolves the difficulties. It is like those people who speak endlessly about God being the Creator, but never come to grips with the specifics of the Genesis narrative. Yes, authors may have different reasons for the way they organise their material, but the specifics still need to be dealt with. An example of this: Matthew, Mark, and John all speak of Mary of Bethany, at a feast held in Jesus honour a day or so before Jesus was crucified, bringing a jar of ointment, pouring it on Jesus, and wiping his feet with her hair. Luke tells a very similar story of an unnamed women who had lived a sinful life, doing exactly the same thing but has it early in his Gospel. Because of all the common elements in these stories…and not least because it is a very odd thing to happen which I simply cannot credit happening twice, I think they refer to the same event and the same woman, only Matthew, Mark and John place it in its correct chronological location…just before the crucifixion, whereas Luke places it thematically, illustrating that Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. But having said that, we still need to take account of all the specific things in all these records to build up a picture of what was occurring, and the history and character of this Mary.
I’ve addressed above the specifics of the resurrection appearance texts, and there is a serious problem that needs to be resolved. My solution has to do with the nature of the texts, and what the authors were doing with their narratives…though not at all in terms of ‘intentions’ or ‘audience’.
John’s account is quite long and is the most detailed, even though it only follows Mary Magdalene. Perhaps it’s long and detailed because John himself was intimately associated with, and an eye witness to a significant part of it. Mark and Luke’s accounts are less so. And Matthew is the shortest of them all…in fact is very short.
If you record a series of events, the longer you make the record, the easier it is for you to accommodate all the details and qualifications needed to get everything told and straight. Conversely, the shorter you make the record, the more you have to leave out, and the less precise you can make it.
So…I propose that something I call ‘conflation’ was going on, especially with Matthew’s account, but also with Mark and Luke’s.
Conflation…NOUN: the merging of two or more sets of information, texts, ideas, etc. into one.
Conflation…noun: the process or result of fusing items into one entity; fusion; amalgamation.
- the combination of two variant texts into a new one.
- the text resulting from such a combination
In regard to Matthew’s account, I suggest that he has conflated the experience of the main group of women, with that of Mary Magdalene. He had to do this because his record is so short.
The group of women, including Mary Magdalene, went most of the way to the tomb together, but then from within sight of the tomb, all except Mary Magdalene…because she left them at that point…went on to and into the tomb. This remainder of the group had angels speak to them and then they left in a bewildered state, very afraid, and initially did not tell anyone what had happened, though eventually they did. This group did not see the Lord. So…in Matthew’s conflated account, these events are those ‘the other Mary’ experienced.
Mary Magdalene, as stated, was with the rest of the women until they got to within sight of the tomb, then she left to tell Peter and John, and then returned alone to the tomb where she met the Lord. She then went and told the disciples this.
So when Matthew says the women – that is Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, met the Lord, and clasped his feet, it was Mary Magdalene’s experience that he was referring to, conflating it with what the rest of the women experienced. We could deduce from this that the reason Jesus said to Mary in John’s account, “Do not hold on to me…” was because she actually was holding on to him, clasping his feet, something Matthew records, but conflates with the others.
Both Mark and Luke also conflate some of the events. They have Mary Magdalene with all the other women all the time, even though she wasn’t.
If I am correct in this, the long and short of it is that only Mary Magdalene saw the Lord for the best part of that whole day, from early morning to late afternoon when he met the two on the road to Emmaus…and she was not believed. Where the records say the women were not believed, in fact it was Mary who was not believed. Luke indicates that the report of the rest of the women was believed…at least after being verified by Peter and companion after they had checked the tomb.
I suggest the reason Luke does not refer to Mary Magdalene seeing the Lord, was because her account was simply discounted/not believed. If all the woman had seen Jesus, that would have been far harder to discount, but it is a lot easier if the testimony is only from a single person. Thus if all the women had seen Jesus, as Matthew suggests, Luke would have mentioned that. He doesn’t. The two going to Emmaus must have known what Mary Magdalene had reported because they knew of and believed the women’s account of the empty tomb, and also that of Peter and John’s. Peter and John’s visit to the tomb was initiated by Mary Magdalene. Mary can’t have been far behind Peter and John in returning the second time from the tomb and reporting her experience of meeting Jesus. Consequently I can’’t see how her report to the disciples of having seen the Lord would not have also been known by them. But, it was not believed and thus not reported to Jesus by the two going to Emmaus. When Jesus finally met the Eleven, he berated them for not believing those who had seen him. Primarily this would have been referring Mary Magdalene.
Why was Mary Magdalene not believed?
Apart from the fact that for upward of eight or nine hours, she was the sole direct witness to Jesus being alive, her past may have made her less believable in the eyes of the rest of the disciples. There is no question whatever that she was a highly dedicated and grateful disciple of the Lord’s. It appears she may have been one of the main instigators of the visit by the group of women to the tomb, as she is mentioned first, and thus given priority, in every account where other women are mentioned. But she had been demon possessed, by seven demons, thus may have been seen by the others to be somewhat unstable and flaky, a bit suspect…and thus not as believable as some of the other women. Perhaps the fact that she was a woman may also have had something to do with it, women apparently having a lower status in the culture than men and not deemed as reliable witnesses legally as men. Rather than detracting from the credibility of the records, this all actually adds immeasurably to the authenticity of them. If these narratives had been concocted by disciples who colluded together to persuade people about the resurrection, etc, they would never have written it this way, with a woman, let alone a woman with Mary’s history, being the sole direct witness to the resurrection for so long. Further, the fact that the gospel narratives do not fit easily together as outlined above also speaks to this question of authenticity. Collusion between authors would never have resulted in the difficulties I have outlined.
While the Twelve (Actually Eleven. Judas had hung himself and his replacement had not yet been decided, or Ten, if Thomas was not there, or Nine because Peter was apparently away somewhere) did not believe Mary Magdalene’s report…for eight or nine hours, they clearly did believe Peter’s as soon as they heard it. They said to the two returning from Emmaus, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” I wonder how Mary Magdalene felt about that!
Why did God arrange the verification of the resurrection in this way?
We should be under no illusions that God choreographed the events of this day precisely and intentionally. There was no happenstance in it at all. A good question is, why did he do it this way? Why did he choose Mary Magdalene to be the first and sole direct witness of the Lord’s resurrection for the best part of the first day? I think it says something about the nature of God…choosing the foolish things, or the less acceptable things of the world to confound the wise. Also, in terms of the authenticity question, he did it to forestall and undermine all charges of collusion. For the initial appearance to be so far from anything anticipated by the culture and the widely held views even of Jesus’s own disciples, means they could never have colluded to write the accounts the way they did. There was no collusion. This was how it happened and they recorded it, perhaps even reluctantly, as Luke’s account seems to indicate. He makes no mention of Mary Magdalene’s report, or that anyone saw Jesus in the morning.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul defends the resurrection by naming people who saw Jesus alive after he had been crucified and buried.
‘Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.’
So Paul here lists Peter, the Twelve, five hundred brothers at one time, James, all the apostles (distinct from the Twelve), then Paul himself. Mary Magdalene does not rate a mention, nor do any other women. Why not? Perhaps for the reason that the testimony of women was not held highly, and for them to be mentioned would call the credibility of the claims made here for the resurrection into question. I don’t think this was because Paul did not esteem the testimony of Mary or women in general. Clearly he did because he worked closely in the gospel with women. Rather it was because the culture he was writing into did not. For pragmatic reasons then Paul did not mention Mary Magdalene, or any of the other women who I’m sure also saw Jesus late on resurrection day.
If you have any thoughts on these matters, have anything to add, or disagree and have another solution to the one I propose, let me know.