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The four accounts of the empty tomb seem to differ as follows:

  1. Matthew 28:1-8 says that when the two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, went to visit the tomb, there was an earthquake and an angel came down from heaven, rolled back the stone and sat on it. He told them Jesus was risen, so they left quickly and apparently without entering the tomb, so that they could tell the disciples.
  2. Mark 16:1-8 says that when the three women, Mary Magdalene, the other Mary and Salome, went to visit the tomb, they saw the stone already rolled away. They entered the tomb and saw a young man, who told them Jesus was risen and that they should go and tell the disciples and Peter. They left and told no one of this, for they were afraid. Verse 16:9 is generally believed to be an interpolation that begins a separate tradition.
  3. Luke 24:1-12 says that when a group of women, including Mary Magdalene, another Mary and Joanna, went to visit the tomb, they saw the stone already rolled away. They entered the tomb and saw two men in shining garments, who explained that Jesus was risen. When they went to tell the apostles, Peter ran to the sepulchre and looked inside, seeing only the linen cloths laid by themselves.
  4. John 20:1-14 says that Mary Magdalene went alone to visit the tomb but as she approached, she saw the stone rolled away. She ran back, apparently without entering the tomb, and told of this to Peter and the disciple who Jesus loved. The two disciples both ran to the tomb and looked inside, but it was the beloved disciple who understood and believed. Mary Magdalene must have returned to the tomb, because she looked inside and saw two angels, then saw Jesus standing outside next to her.

Since these are descriptions of the same event, can the four accounts be harmonise and, if so, how?


Related: How many and who were the people the women found at Jesus' tomb?

  • Why do they need to be harmonized? Perhaps they can't/shouldn't be. – Dan Jul 18 '16 at 23:53
  • The answer to all your questions. :-) – Lucian Aug 1 '17 at 3:02
  • What’s interesting is, if one were faking these accounts to make a false story/religion they would ensure the accounts in these books would all align perfectly. The differences (maybe in human error or human memory, who knows) are intriguing and imply these are real accounts recollected by different people across time, not hoaxes written all at once to deceive. – Albert Renshaw Feb 23 '19 at 18:51
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Peter Carnley says in The Structure of Resurrection Belief that he believes the four accounts do originate in a single story, after redaction by the four evangelists:

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."

Although we may not be able to identify a single resurrection account from a literal reading of the gospels, Archbishop Carnley's conclusion does suggest a way of harmonising the four accounts by looking through the texts for an original version. We can most readily identify probable elaborations from the putative original by looking for theological reasons for any variations, then what is left will be very close to the original account.

Ian Wilson says, in Jesus: The Evidence, page 143, because the Matthew Gospel alone tells the story of the guard, the violent earthquake and the ‘angel of the Lord’ rolling away the entrance stone, it is probably safest to regard these as pious embroideries by an author demonstrably over-fond of the miraculous. On this view, much of what is found in the Matthew resurrection version comes from the imagination of its author.

Mark has the simplest account, with no hint of angels, and the only surprise would be that the young man knew Jesus was going to Galilee. Most of this account seems to be reflected in the other gospel accounts, apart from some miraculous material in Matthew.

Luke replaces the ordinary, young man by two men, presumably angels because of their shining garments. In this account, Peter runs to the sepulchre and confirms what the women said. The two men in shining garments certainly could be theological elaborations, especially as none of the other gospels has this scene. In ancient times, women were not readily trusted to provide reliable evidence, untainted by emotion, thus providing a reason to have Peter run and confirm what they said.

John's Gospel has elements from Luke's account, which is unsurprising as many scholars now believe that, in other respects, John was influenced by Luke. Arthur J. Droge ('The Status of Peter in the Fourth Gospel: A Note on John 18:10-11', republished on JSTOR) says a number of commentators have observed that the Fourth Gospel exhibits a marked tendency to exalt the Beloved Disciple at the expense of Peter, with frequent episodes in which the Beloved Disciple and Peter appear as rivals. This is certainly true here, as we first see the beloved disciple outrun Peter. Peter, although the first to enter the tomb, did not have enough faith to understand that Jesus had risen. However, the beloved disciple realised this as soon as he entered the tomb. The two angels could not be omitted without raising question from Christians who had seen Luke's Gospel, so Mary returns to the tomb and looks in, seeing the angels inside. This is a rather neat way of giving greater credit to the men, rather than to a woman, while retaining a superficial similarity.

In summary, Matthew, Luke and John each contains elaborations that, when stripped away bring their accounts into relative harmony with Mark's account. Nearly all critical scholars believe that Mark was the first narrative gospel to be written, which means that this account is as close as we can get to the the very first account of Jesus' resurrection.

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    When the differing accounts of any witnesses to any event are stripped of the things that make them different, you are not left with the best description of the event, but merely the things that are common to all the accounts. People are not video recording devices. Your conclusion that the differences constitute pious embellishments is simply what you prefer to believe, and you have just given us the words of someone who prefers to believe what you prefer to believe. And, what's more, you give yourself a tick for doing so. – enegue May 24 '17 at 6:46
  • @enegue I agree and would add that since the answer came within 24-hours, there is no genuine interest in what others have to say. The site is being used as a forum to present personal beliefs. I know a question can began with an answer in mind, but when no time is allowed for others to respond, IMO what comes across is both a closed mind to other answers and the intent to promote one's own beliefs. The real question is in the answer to the "straw dog" of a question. – Revelation Lad May 24 '17 at 16:51
  • You state: "John's Gospel has elements from Luke's account..." can you provide any evidence to support that claim as it relates to the resurrection? Other than an empty I do not think John has anything from Luke. John is closely aligned with Matthew on the time of day, the number of women, and lack of spices. – Revelation Lad May 24 '17 at 20:39
  • @RevelationLad The most obvious parallel between L & J in respect to the empty tomb is that, alone among the synoptics, L has Peter run to the tomb; J embellishes this by having the disciple accompany him. BTW Matthew's empty tomb is the most different of all versions - lack of spices being about the only element it shares with J. – Dick Harfield May 24 '17 at 21:35
  • @enegue I repeat what Archbishop Carnley says. There can only have been one event in which a women/several women found the empty tomb. Therefore there can not be differing accounts due to different witnesses. It is also well established that there is a literary relationship among the gospels, which ought to be taken into account in an answer that uses hermeneutic method. – Dick Harfield May 24 '17 at 21:44
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There are many apologetic websites that explains this easily such as tektonics or bethinking. It is a common objection. The summery or short answer to the questions on alleged contradiction is that they are complementary. They merely present different perspective and narration having different emphasis. For example Michael Licona explains that often different testimonies present slightly different account of the same event; for example there was extremely contradictory account of the way the Titanic sank by its survivors; but none of them contradicted about the main event- that Titanic sank.

A short quote from this Josh McDowell article :

The area which has generated the most discussion concerns the angels who were at the tomb of Jesus. Matthew and Mark relate that one angel addressed the women, while Luke and John say that two angels were at the tomb. This seems to be a discrepancy, with Matthew and Mark knowing of only one angel while Luke and John speak of two. However, Matthew and Mark do not say that there was only one angel at the tomb, but that one angel spoke to the women.

This does not contradict Luke and John, for Matthew and Mark specify that one angel spoke, but they do not say there was only one angel present or only one angel spoke. Quite possibly, one of the angels served as the spokesman for the two, thus he was emphasized. There is no need to assume a discrepancy. Though they report some of the details differently, the Gospels agree in all important points. The accounts are in harmony on the fact that Jesus was dead and buried; that the disciples were not prepared for His death, but were totally confused; that the tomb was empty on Easter morning; that the empty tomb did not convince them that Jesus had risen; that Mary thought the body had been stolen.

The Gospel writers also concur that the disciples had certain experiences which they believed to be appearances of the resurrected Christ. That the normative first century Judaism had no concept of a dying and rising Messiah is a historical fact. http://www.bethinking.org/did-jesus-rise-from-the-dead/q-dont-the-resurrection-accounts-contradict-each-other

[additional notes] In Matthew it does not mention that the women did not enter the tomb. It is implicit.

Matthew 28:6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay..v8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Secondly, in Mark it does not mention or imply that the women did not realize the young man was an angel; the "young man" is merely a way of author's reference to the angel. He is an angel is quite implicit.

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    Thanks for your answer, but it would be helpful if you would edit your post to at least summarize the content that you linked to (and/or the work of Michael Licona). We are looking for answers that can stand on their own, with links or references for those who want to pursue an answer further. – Soldarnal Sep 17 '16 at 17:42
  • Thank you for your answer, but it still leaves a lot of issues unanswered. For just one example, McDowell says, "Matthew and Mark relate that one angel addressed the women," but he does not address the fact that in Matthew the angel came down from heaven and sat on the stone, outside the tomb, and talked to the women who did not enter the tomb, whereas in Mark the woman saw the young man after they went inside the tomb and they were unaware that he was an angel (if indeed he was). – Dick Harfield Sep 17 '16 at 21:57
  • Actually, it does not say they did not go into the tomb, it just does not specifically they went in.But it seems they were directed to "see" the spot. Also it does not they were unaware of the identities, whereas Jn 20:15 does mention identity assumption – Will May 24 '17 at 5:50
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Matthew [...] says that when the two women [...] went to visit the tomb, there was an earthquake

Mark [...] says that when the three women [...] went to visit the tomb, they saw the stone already rolled away.


Let us engage in a very simple exercise of imagination :

Both Matthew and Mark interview the same witness at the at the same time, who relates to both of them the following information simultaneously :

When we/they arrived at the tomb, the stone was rolled away — there was an earthquake.

  • Matthew understands this to mean that, as they were approaching the tomb, the stone rolled away due to an earthquake occurring at right about that very moment.

  • Mark, on the other hand, regards the latter to be an apposition, meant to clarify why the stone was already rolled away by the time of their arrival. Due to his well-known fondness for brevity, he then omits the latter explanatory note entirely. (His entire Gospel, in general, is rather short on details). Later, both Luke and John follow his lead.

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