Matthew, Luke and John say the women left the tomb and shared their news; Mark seems to be saying that they left and told no one because they were afraid. How can these accounts be reconciled?
Augustine posed almost your identical question in his Harmony of the Gospels:
It may also be asked how it is that Mark says: And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they anything to any man; for they were afraid; whereas Matthew’s statement is in these terms: And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy, and did run to bring His disciples word.1
He offers two possible explanations:
- That Mark is referring specifically to the women speaking of the angel's words, not of speaking of the fact that the tomb was empty
- That Mark is referring to the women not speaking to those men who were there at the tomb: i.e. the soldiers who were supposed to have been on guard
The explanation, however, may be that the women did not venture to tell either of the angels themselves,—that is, they had not courage enough to say anything in reply to what they had heard from the angels. Or, indeed, it may be that they were not bold enough to speak to the guards whom they saw lying there; for the joy which Matthew mentions is not inconsistent with the fear of which Mark takes notice.2
Augustine notes that Matthew records that the women experienced both (initial) fear and (then) great joy, whereas Mark only takes note of their initial fear.
As a further observation, it is perhaps worth noting that the Greek underlying neither said [they any thing] to any [man] (Mark 16:8) has "said" in the aorist aspect (οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἶπον), which does not qualify the duration or completion of the action. We might translate Mark 16:8b as "Neither did they say anything to anyone (at that moment)".
The reconciliation of the four accounts can be understood by knowing the histories of the New Testament gospels. John Dominic Crossan says in The Birth of Christianity, page 109, the theory that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were actually based on Mark's Gospel is held today by a fairly massive consensus of contemporary critical scholarship. However, Mark's Gospel originally ended at verse 16:8, with the young man telling the women that Jesus was risen and they fled in terror, telling no one. Mark's Gospel simply left its audience up in the air, wondering what happens next. In fact, a student of Mark's Gospel may see that the emphasis is not meant to be on the resurrection, but on Jesus' second coming, which will occur within the lifetimes of those to whom Jesus had spoken.
The authors of Matthew and Luke wanted to demonstrate that Jesus really had risen, but had no guidance from Mark (Mark's 'Long Ending' - verses 16:9-20 - was written long after these gospels were completed). The two evangelists, working independently of each other, therefore wrote what they felt could have happened.
- The author of Matthew wrote that an angel came down and told the women that Jesus was risen, and that they were to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where they would meet Jesus (Matthew 28:2-7). On the way back Jesus met the women and repeated the message. The disciples went to Galilee and met Jesus in a mountain and received the Great Commission to disperse and preach to all nations (Matthew 28:16-20).
- The author of Luke wrote that the women found inside the tomb two men who said that Jesus was risen (Luke 24:4-7). When they told the disciples of this, they were not believed, and Peter ran to the sepulchre and looked for himself.
- Many scholars believe that John's Gospel was inspired by Luke, but that the author of John made changes for theological reasons. Only Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, but returned to the disciples when she saw the stone had been moved, without seeing anyone or receiving a message for the disciples (John 20:1-2). She told Peter of her discovery, and Peter and the 'beloved disciple' ran to see what had happened, finding the tomb empty. Mary had come back and when she looked inside, she saw two angels. Turning around, she saw Jesus, whom she thought to be the gardener (John 20:11-16).
Archbishop Peter Carnley, former Anglican primate of Australia writes 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
The answer is straight-forward: Mark is making the point the women did not speak inside the tomb.
And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone... (Mark 16:5-8 ESV)
While it might not be reflected in the translation, Mark's "the women said nothing to anyone" (literally "to none nothing they spoke") uses the singular as to who and what they (did not) say:
καὶ οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἶπαν
Luke also describes something which took place inside the tomb:
And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. (Luke 24:5-9 ESV)
As in Mark, there is no record of the women speaking inside the tomb and like Mark, Luke states the women were afraid.
The conclusion is that the women did not speak inside the tomb because they were afraid (a natural response to the situation). In addition to Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John agree the women did not speak inside the tomb.
When they leave they told the disciples (and very likely everyone they knew) as Matthew, Luke, and the latter ending of Mark state.