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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

1 Answer 1

up vote 5 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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