How many women were at Christ’s tomb on that first Easter morning – 1, 2, 3, or 5? Were there two angels or only one that announced His resurrection? Did Jesus appear to His followers at Galilee or Jerusalem?
Skeptics of Christ’s resurrection oftentimes claim that the various gospel accounts of Jesus rising from the dead in the New Testament contradict each other. Even some theologians question whether the gospel episodes of the resurrection can be reconciled; for example, listen to Emil Brunner: “The sources contradict one another, and only a ‘harmonizing’ process which is not too much concerned about truth, could patch up a fairly connected account of the events, in which it is only too manifest that the later and less credible witnesses appear more important than the earlier, and more reliable ones. Such a dishonest way of dealing with the subject really has nothing to do with ‘faith in the Word of God’; it only serves to support the disastrous prejudice that Christian faith is only possible in connection with historical dishonesty.”
Is this the case? Do Christians have to be dishonest when it comes to declaring the resurrection accounts found in the gospels as historically accurate?
I don’t believe so.
A Look at Some of the Issues
In the first place, comments like Brunner’s present a more foreboding situation than what is actually present. The gospels most certainly agree on the major facts (e.g. Christ’s burial, God raising Jesus from the dead).
What we are left with are various apparent minor discrepancies in details like those listed in the following table:
|Women at the tomb||2||3||5||1|
|Visit to the tomb||Dawn||Sun had risen||Dawn||Still dark|
|Messengers at tomb||Angels – 1||Men||Men||Angels – 2|
|Messengers location||Outside then in||Inside||Inside||Inside|
|Women encounter with Jesus||Held Christ||Nothing||Nothing||Told not to touch Christ|
|Women told||Disciples||No one||Disciples and others||Only Mary M told disciples|
|Appearance to the 11||1 – Galilee||1- Jerusalem||1 - Jerusalem||2 - Jerusalem|
Another task is to attempt a layout of when Jesus appeared to people and where:
|1||Mary Magdalene||Jerusalem||Sunday||Mark 6:9-11; John 20:11-18|
|2||Other Women||Jerusalem||Sunday||Matt 28:9-10|
|3||Peter||Jerusalem||Sunday||Luke 24:32; 1 Cor. 15:5|
|4||Emmaus disciples||Emmaus||Sunday||Luke 24:13-35; Mark 16:12|
|5||10 disciples||Jerusalem||Sunday||Mark 16:14; Luke 24:26-42; John 20:19-25|
|6||11 disciples||Jerusalem||A week later||John 20:26-31; 1 Cor. 15:5|
|7||7 disciples||Galilee||?||John 21:1-25|
|8||500 brethren||Galilee||?||1 Cor. 15:6|
|9||James||?||?||1 Cor. 15:7|
|10||11 disciples||Galilee||?||Matt 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-18|
|11||11 disciples||Jerusalem||40 days later||Acts 1:3-12|
Some General Rules of Biblical Interpretation
Before we address the specifics of the resurrection accounts, it’s good to first understand a few basics of Biblical interpretation that will help understand why some things seem to differ in the gospels. First, it’s important to remember that a partial report is not a false report. Just because each gospel author doesn’t report every detail of a story doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate. All historians edit their accounts for various purposes and the gospel writers are no different.
Second, a divergent account is not a false account. For example, Matthew speaks of one angel at Christ’s tomb whereas John mentions two. A contradiction? Not at all. Simple math says if you have two, you also have one. Matthew did not say there was only one angel; if he had then we would have a true contradiction. Instead, he just records the words of the one who spoke.
Divergent accounts can seem to cast doubt on the accuracy of the reporters, but we must try and reserve judgment until all the facts are in. For example, take the following account told by Dr. Kenneth Kanzer:
“Several years ago the mother of a friend of ours was killed. We first learned of the death through a trusted mutual friend who reported that the woman had been standing on the corner of the street at a bus intersection waiting for a bus and had been hit by another bus passing by and was fatally hurt, dying a few minutes thereafter. Later, we learned from the grandson that she had been involved in a collision, was thrown from the car in which she was riding and was killed instantly. Now which would you believe?
Much later we learned that the woman had been waiting for a bus, was hit by another bus and was fatally hurt. She had been picked up by a passing car, dashed to the hospital, but in this haste, the car in which she was being transported to the hospital collided with another, she was thrown from the car and died instantly.”
These two rules, as well as a number of others, should be kept in mind when examining the multiple resurrection accounts.
Reconciling the Resurrection Events
The below represents an attempt to succinctly lay out a reconciliation and timeline of the gospel account records of Christ’s resurrection and his appearing over forty days to various individuals that followed. For a more exhaustive treatment of the details and various explanations, please see John Wenham’s work The Easter Enigma.
- An angel rolls away stone from tomb before sunrise (Matt. 28:2-4). The guards are seized with fear and eventually flee
- Women disciples visit the tomb and discover Christ missing (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1-4; Luke 24:1-3; John 20:1)
- Mary Magdalene leaves to tell Peter and John (John 20:1-2)
- Other women remain at tomb; they see two angels who tell them of Christ’s resurrection (Matt. 18:5-7); Mark 16:5-7; Luke 24:4-8)
- Peter and John run to the tomb and then leave (Luke 24:12; John 20:3-10)
- Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb; Christ appears to her (Mark 16:9-11; John 20:11-18). Christ’s First Appearance
- Jesus appears to the other women (Mary, mother of James, Salome, and Joanna) (Matt. 28:8-10). Christ’s Second Appearance
- At this time, the guards report the events to the religious leaders and are bribed to lie (Matt. 28:11-15)
- Jesus privately appears to Peter (1 Cor. 15:5). Christ’s Third Appearance
- Jesus appears to Cleopas and companion (Mark 16:12-13; Luke 24:13-32). Christ’s Fourth Appearance
- Jesus appears to 10 apostles, with Thomas missing, in the Upper Room (Luke 24:36-43). Christ’s Fifth Appearance
- Eight days after His appearance to the 10 apostles, Jesus appears to all 11 apostles, including Thomas (John 20:26-28). Christ’s Sixth Appearance
- Jesus appears to 7 disciples by the Sea of Galilee and performs the miracle of the fish (John 21:1-14). Christ’s Seventh Appearance
- Jesus appears to 500 on a mountain in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-18; 1 Cor. 15:6) Christ’s Eighth Appearance
- Jesus appears to half-brother James (1 Cor. 15:7). Christ’s Ninth Appearance
- In Jerusalem, Jesus appears again to His disciples (Acts 1:3-8). Christ’s Tenth Appearance
- Jesus ascends into Heaven while the disciples look on (Mark 16:19-20; Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:9-12). Christ’s Eleventh Appearance
Referencing the different perspectives of each gospel’s account of Christ’s resurrection, N. T. Wright says: “The stories exhibit, as has been said repeatedly over the last hundred years or more, exactly that surface tension which we associate not with tales 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.”
Wright is correct. The same critics who try and point out contradictions in the gospels would no doubt cry 'collusion' if they found exact verbal parallelism and a singular account of the resurrection.
In the end, and contrary to what Emil Brunner wrote, the recordings of the resurrection found in the four gospels are found to harmonize quite well upon closer examination, and perhaps most importantly, strongly agree on the one key fact that has universal life impact: Christ is risen from the dead!
 Emil Brunner as quoted by John Wenham in The Easter Enigma (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1992), 10
 For a more thorough discussion of understanding supposed gospel contradictions, see “Contradictions Among the Synoptics?” in Craig Blomberg’s book The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.
 N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), pg. 612.
 For a PowerPoint presentation the goes into more detail regarding the supposed resurrection contradictions in the gospels, see: http://www.slideshare.net/schumacr/the-third-day-are-the-resurrection-events-in-conflict.