The difficulties involved in reconciling the details of the resurrection narrative of the four Evangelists are well known.
According to N.T. Wright (Resurrection of the Son of God), ‘the surface inconsistencies between Mark 16:1-8 and its parallels, of which so much is made by those eager to see the accounts as careless fiction, is in fact a strong point in favour of their early character. The later we imagine them being written up, let alone edited, the more likely it would be that inconsistencies would be ironed out. The stories exhibit…exactly that surface tension which we associate, not with takes artfully told by people eager to sustain a fiction and therefore anxious to make everything look right, but with the hurried, puzzled accounts of those who have seen with their own eyes something which took them horribly by surprise and with which they have not yet fully come to terms.’
Haley (Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible) wisely comments that none of the Gospel writers has attempted to give a comprehensive account: each has selected some features, and omitted others, according to his particular purpose.
It is often the case that when reliable witnesses each gives their own account of a particular incident, the details of their descriptions will seem hopelessly contradictory. However, when the fuller facts are known, it becomes possible to reconcile the apparent differences.
Haley cites the following from Ebard:-
‘A messenger N. by name, was sent from Zurich to Pfaffikon on the occasion of an outbreak [of a riot] in the latter place. Accordingly Ebrard was informed by one trustworthy person that N. was sent, late in the evening, with a letter to P.; another told him that N. was sent in the evening to P., but, after going a short distance, returned with the report that the alarm-bell had already been rung in P. ; a third related that two messengers had been sent on horseback to P. ; and a fourth that N. had sent two men on horse-back to P. These seeming discrepancies vanished, when Ebrard afterward learned from N. himself that he had indeed been sent, but met on the way two messengers from P., who reported the outbreak of the riot; that he turned back with them to Zurich, where he immediately procured horses for them, and sent them back to quiet the people in P.’
‘We thus see,’, says Haley, ‘that once in possession of the thread of the narrative, it is an easy matter to arrange upon it seemingly refractory and incompatible circumstances.’
In fact, it is quite possible to put together a synopsis of the resurrection story that takes account of the data offered by the four Gospels. This has been done by Robinson (also cited by Haley):-
‘At early dawn on the first day of the week, the women who had attended on Jesus, viz. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, Salome, and others went out with spices to the sepulchre, in order further to embalm the Lord’s body. They inquire among themselves, who should remove for them the stone which closed the sepulchre. On their arrival they find the stone already taken away ; for there had been an earthquake, and an angel had descended and rolled away the stone, and sat upon it, so that the keepers became as dead men for terror. The Lord had risen. The women knowing nothing of all this, are amazed; they enter the tomb, and find not the body of the Lord, and are greatly perplexed. At this time, Mary Magdalene impressed with the idea that the body had been stolen away, leaves the sepulchre and the other women, and runs to the city to tell Peter and John. The rest remain in the tomb, and immediately two angels appear, who announce unto them that Jesus was risen from the dead, and give them a charge in his name for the apostles. They go out quickly from the sepulchre, and proceed in haste to the city to make this known to the disciples. On the way, Jesus meets them, permits them to embrace his feet, and renews the same charge to the apostles. The women relate these things to the disciples; but their words seem to them as idle tales ; and they believed them not.
‘Meantime, Peter and John had run to the sepulchre ; and entering in had found it empty ; but the orderly arrangement of the grave-clothes and of the napkin convinced John that the body had not been removed by violence or by friends ; and the germ of a belief arises in his mind that the Lord had risen. The two returned to the city. Mary Magdalene, who had again followed them to the sepulchre, remained standing and weeping before it; and looking in she saw two angels sitting. Turning around, she sees Jesus, who gives to her also a solemn charge for his disciples.’
But what are we to make of the fact that according to Mark the women said nothing to anyone, whereas Matthew says that they ran to take the good news to the disciples? Ebrard (cited by Haley) suggests that the women did hurry back to the disciples with the intention of telling them the news, but that they did not do so at first through fear of ridicule and disbelief. An alternative explanation is the Matthew and Mark are referring to two different groups of women.
A proposed sequence of events
Based on the work of Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, the following sequence of events can be proposed:-
- Jesus is buried, as several women watch (Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42).
- The tomb is sealed and a guard is set (Matthew 27:62-66).
- At least 3 women, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, prepare spices to go to the tomb (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1).
- An angel descends from heaven, rolls the stone away, and sits on it. There is an earthquake, and the guards faint (Matthew 28:2-4).
- The women arrive at the tomb and find it empty. Mary Magdalene leaves the other women there and runs to tell the disciples (John 20:1-2).
- The women still at the tomb see two angels who tell them that Jesus is risen and who instruct them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee (Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:2-8; Luke 24:1-8).
- The women leave to bring the news to the disciples (Matthew 28:8).
- The guards, having roused themselves, report the empty tomb to the authorities, who bribe the guards to say the body was stolen (Matthew 28:11-15).
- Mary the mother of James and the other women, on their way to find the disciples, see Jesus (Matthew 28:9-10).
- The women relate what they have seen and heard to the disciples (Luke 24:9-11).
- Peter and John run to the tomb, see that it is empty, and find the grave clothes (Luke 24:12; John 20:2-10).
- Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb. She sees the angels, and then she sees Jesus (John 20:11-18).
- Later the same day, Jesus appears to Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5).
- Still on the same day, Jesus appears to Cleopas and another disciple on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32).
- That evening, the two disciples report the event to the Eleven in Jerusalem (Luke 24:32-35).
- Jesus appears to ten disciples—Thomas is missing (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-25).
- Jesus appears to all eleven disciples—Thomas included (John 20:26-31).
- Jesus appears to seven disciples by the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-25).
- Jesus appears to about 500 disciples in Galilee (1 Corinthians 15:6).
- Jesus appears to his half-brother James (1 Corinthians 15:7).
- Jesus commissions his disciples (Matthew 28:16-20).
- Jesus teaches his disciples the Scriptures and promises to send the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:4-5).
- Jesus ascends into heaven (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-12).
Reducing it down to a few core facts, the following emerges:-
- That women first went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning;
- That the stone had been rolled away, and that the tomb was empty;
- That there were angelic beings present;
- That some male disciples came to the tomb in response to the report of the women, and found the same;
- That the consistent response of all the disciples (both men and women) was a mixture of wonder, confusion, and fear;
- That Jesus himself appear to a wide range of people on different occasions;
- That he was both bodily, in the sense that he could be touched, and he ate, and yet he was also transformed, in that he could appear and disappear at will;
- That after a period of time, he was taken up to heaven.
Following a review of the biblical data, the following conclusions are reached in Hard Sayings of the Bible:-
1. It is possible to weave the four threads into a single coherent account.
2. Even if we do weave the four threads into a coherent story, we cannot be sure that we have the correct coherent story. The jigsaw can be put together in a variety of ways, and we cannot be sure that we have all the pieces.
3. The differences in the four accounts are just what we would expect given the different perspectives and sources of the four Evangelists.
4. If we try to put the stories together, we miss the point of the authors. Finally, when we try to put the stories together, we miss the point of the authors. The Holy Spirit inspired four complementary accounts of the life of Jesus, not a single harmony of those accounts. Each Gospel brings its own perspectives and emphases to the story. Matthew, for example, focuses on the miraculous and also takes note of a rumour that the body had been stolen. Luke stresses the fulfilment of Jesus’ words and the unbelief of the disciples. John concentrates on a single character and her intimate discussion with Jesus, showing that the promises of John 13-16 had been fulfilled.