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In the empty tomb stories, somebody was already there when the women arrived. But how many people and who were they?

For reference:

  • Mark: a young man
  • Matthew: an angel of the Lord
  • Luke: two men
  • John: two angels

To muddy the waters, John doesn't mention anyone at the tomb when Mary first arrives. But after Peter and the other disciple had come and gone, Mary sees two angels and then sees Jesus Himself, though she initially takes Him for a gardener. Can we harmonize these accounts? Should we?

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I've always thought a nice experiment (for someone else to do ;) ) would be to take a well known modern historical event, say for example the Kennedy-assassination, and examine all the reporting that was made about it. Look at the newspapers, look at time magazine, even look at sports illustrated and try to see of the level of harmony and detail in the reporting has any parallels to the biblical accounts of things. – andypotter Apr 2 '12 at 19:28
Next week on the Christianity.SE Blog I'll have an article that actually looks at the historicity of the first Easter in similar terms. Only, I used the example of the Great Fire of Rome, which must have had over a million witnesses, but we only have a handful of accounts. And each of them differ on important details. But using a modern event seems like a good exercise too. – Jon Ericson Apr 3 '12 at 16:35
I've added it to my google reader. Looking forward to it. – andypotter Apr 3 '12 at 20:04
up vote 6 down vote accepted

If you want to harmonize the accounts, probably there were two angels.

Were they men or were they angels?

Both Mark and Luke say they were men dressed in white robes, which can easily be understood to be visions of angels. Especially in Luke's account this is obvious, since it would be unusual to describe a man with a robe that "gleamed like lightning." In fact, while Luke initially reports in 24:3 that they are two men with gleaming robes, by 24:23 the disciples on the road to Emmaus explain that the women had seen a vision of angels. Perhaps Mark and Luke report their appearance as men, since at first the women did not seem to understand what they had seen and only later realized they were angels.

How many angels were there?

The fact that Mark and Matthew only reports a single angel doesn't preclude there from being another present. Neither insists that there was only a single angel present; they simply record that there was an angel present who spoke to the women to reassure them and to give an explanation for why the tomb was open and empty. Most scholars today think that Luke had access to Mark's account, so the fact that Luke goes his own way suggests that he saw no contradiction in giving a bit more detail.

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I'm afraid it is not possible entirely to harmonise the different accounts.

Accepting the priority of Mark, which says there was one young man in the tomb when the women arrived, it is possible to say that Mark's informant was simply unaware of the second man reported in Luke's Gospel. Going from Luke to John, the only change is that the two men in shining garments explicitly become two angels whom Mary Magdalene saw inside the sepulchre. So far, so good: we can say that there were two of them and that the authors of Luke and John became aware that Mark got it wrong.

Matthew's Gospel, working from Mark's Gospel independently of Luke, stays with the one person, but not inside the tomb as in the other gospels. Instead, the women watch an angel descend from heaven and roll the stone from the door. This miracle account can not be harmonised, if only because the angel did not arrive until the women were present.

The four gospel stories of the empty tomb are so different as to prompt Archbishop Carnley, former Anglican primate of Australia, to say in The Structure of Resurrection Belief:

The presence of discrepancies might be a sign of historicity if we had four clearly independent but slightly different versions of the story, if only for the reason that four witnesses are better than one. But, of course, it is now impossible to argue that what we have in the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb are four contemporaneous but independent accounts of the one event. Modern redactional studies of the traditions account for the discrepancies as literary developments at the hand of later redactors of what was originally one report of the empty tomb...

There is no suggestion that the tomb was discovered by different witnesses on four different occasions, so it is in fact impossible to argue that the discrepancies were introduced by different witnesses of the one event; rather, they can be explained as four different redactions for apologetic and kerygmatic reasons of a single story originating from one source."

Even for those who do not accept Markan priority, Archbishop Carnley is saying that no less than three of the authors redacted an original story for apologetic and kerygmatic reasons. We could say that because Mark, the first New Testament gospel, reported only one young man, then that is the correct number, or we can say we simply do not know how many persons there were.

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