Do The Gospel Writers Contradict Each Other?

While reading (again) the last chapter of Mark, I was curious to read all four gospel accounts of the Resurrection, to see how they harmonize. As with any group of people who tell about the same event, the gospel writers chose to include some details and leave out others. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote from a personal, eye-witness viewpoint as well as documenting the accounts of others, so it makes sense their stories would overlap in some places and seem out of sync in others.

I found a document that is rather long but gives a credible harmonization of all four gospel accounts. The source website is here, and you can download the complete document at this link. I did not include the entire document.


A Harmony of Jesus’ Resurrection

All four Gospels combined give the most complete resurrection story. The following harmony requires a minimum of conjecture and flows in a coherent timeline based upon: (1) Each Gospel account is told in a chronological order. (2) Information from one Gospel can be used to fill in omission points in another. (3) Each Gospel account is accurate in regard to the details mentioned. In the following harmonization, all verses are accounted for in Matthew 28:1‒15, Mark 16:1‒13, Luke 24:1‒43, and John 20:1‒25 that describe events on the day Jesus resurrected.

The resurrection took place on the first day of the week following the Sabbath. The day of Christ’s resurrection is described in the four Gospels as: “Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn” (Matthew 28:1); “Now when the Sabbath was past . . . on the first day of the week” (Mark 16:1‒2); “Now on the first day of the week” (Luke 24:1); “Now the first day of the week” (John 20:1).

The time of day when the women went to the tomb is described as: “Early, while it was still dark” (John 20:1); “Very early in the morning” (Luke 24:1); “Very early in the morning…when the sun had risen” (Mark 16:2); “As the first day of the week began to dawn” (Matthew 28:1).

Putting these general descriptions together, we can say the women left their homes while it was dark; however, by the time they walked to the appointed meeting place, waited for everyone to assemble, traveled the remaining distance, and arrived at the tomb the sun had begun to show above the horizon. The time from dark to sunrise is around forty minutes depending on cloud cover and the phase of the moon. Some of the women may have walked the two-mile distance from Bethany, which would have taken at least thirty minutes. We should keep in mind that any meeting time selected by the women was only approximate since accurate time was not kept in the typical household. Waiting for the group to assemble, including the inevitable straggler, could have easily consumed twenty minutes or more. The total time for the entire process probably exceeded one hour.

A group of women walk to the tomb where Jesus is buried, having plans to anoint His body with spices. Individuals in the group are Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Salome, Joanna, and other women (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10, John 20:1). We can conclude the group was comprised of at least six women and probably more. Six names associated with this group of Galilean women are mentioned in Matthew 27:56, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10, and John 19:25. They include Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Joanna, and Salome (wife of Zebedee and mother of James and John). Mary the sister of Lazarus may have also been in the group.

Sometime prior to the women arriving at the tomb, an earthquake occurs. An angel of the Lord descends from heaven and rolls away the large stone from the door. The angel sits on the stone to prevent it from being rolled back in place, dominating any course of action the soldiers might consider. The angel has a countenance like lightning and is clothed with raiment as white as snow. The angel’s appearance is so frightful that the guards shake and become unconscious (Matthew 28:2‒4).

As the women approach the tomb, they discuss among themselves who will roll the stone away from the tomb entrance (Mark 16:3).

When the women arrive at the tomb, the stone has been rolled away (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1). The angel sitting on the stone has disappeared, the guards have regained consciousness and left, and the tomb site is deserted.

The women enter the tomb and see that Jesus’ body is missing (Luke 24:3).

Mary Magdalene leaves the other women at the tomb and runs to get Peter and John (the disciple whom Jesus loved). She tells them that Jesus’ body has been taken from the tomb (John 20:2). When harmonizing, keep in mind that John 20:2 and 20:18 confirm two separate events. In John 20:2, Mary Magdalene travels by herself to get Peter and John. This event should not be confused with John 20:18 when all the women return from the tomb to tell the apostles of their experiences.

Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene return to the tomb. John outruns Peter to reach the sepulcher first but remains outside. Peter arrives and immediately enters. They both verify that Jesus’ body is missing and see the linen clothes with the head covering lying by itself (John 20:3‒9). In harmonizing the resurrection accounts, it is important to realize that the visit to the tomb by Peter and John mentioned here is different from the visit by Peter alone, mentioned in Luke 24:12.

The disciples, Peter and John, leave the tomb and return to their homes (John 20:10). As typical men, they have completed their investigation, reached a conclusion, and see no need to linger. All the women remain behind at the tomb. Originally they had planned to anoint the body of Jesus with spices, a task requiring some time. Having no body to anoint, the grieving women stand outside the tomb and discuss the disappearance of Jesus’ body, being perplexed by its absence.

A weeping Mary Magdalene walks to the tomb entrance, stoops down, and looks inside. She sees two angels dressed in white, one at the head and one at the foot where Jesus’ body had lain. The angel asks “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary replies, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:11‒13). The angels appear as men. At this point, Mary believes someone has stolen the body of Jesus.

Mary Magdalene turns and walks away from the tomb. In the distance, she sees a male figure walking in the garden. Desperate to find where Jesus’ body has been taken, she walks toward the unknown man, believing him to be the gardener, and perhaps responsible for the missing corpse. She separates herself from the other women, leaving them at the tomb. Jesus sees Mary in the distance coming in His direction, perhaps looking behind bushes for the missing body. He loudly calls out, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Still not close enough to recognize Jesus, Mary calls in reply, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.” After this short exchange, Mary resumes her search of the garden. As she draws closer, Jesus speaks her name in a normal tone of voice. At that point Mary recognizes Christ, turns directly toward Him and calls out, “Rabboni” (John 20:14‒17).

As Mary Magdalene leaves the tomb to search the garden, two angels appear to the remaining women standing outside the tomb entrance. The women are frightened and bow their faces to the earth. The angels tell the women not to fear and announce that Jesus is risen (Matthew 28:5‒7, Luke 24:4‒8).

The women enter Jesus’ tomb and find a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side. He shows them where the body had lain and again announces that Jesus is resurrected (Mark 16:5‒ 6). As pointed out by Matthew, the women enter the tomb at the angel’s invitation (Matthew 28:6). The young man is one of the two angels previously observed by Mary (John 20:12). According to the women’s testimony, the angels outside the tomb had a powerful angelic appearance while those inside appeared as normal men clothed in white.

Angels command the women to tell the disciples that Jesus is resurrected. The women exit the tomb in fear and great joy, and run to tell the disciples. (Matthew 28:7-8, Mark 16:7-8).

As the women leave the tomb they are hailed by Jesus, who has been talking with Mary Magdalene in the garden. The women bow down, hold His feet, and worship Him. Jesus instructs the women to tell His brethren they will see Him again (Matthew 28:9‒10). To harmonize events at the tomb, Mary Magdalene must be separated from the other women. This permits Mary Magdalene to see Jesus first, followed by the other women.

Concurrent with the women leaving Jesus, some of the guards assigned to secure the tomb enter the city (Matthew 28:11‒15). Since Pilate approved placing the guards at the tomb, they were no doubt Roman soldiers rather than Jewish temple police (Matthew 27:62‒65). Reporting back to Pilate raised several difficulties. To admit incompetence by losing Jesus’ body, combined with an unbelievable story of a shining angel who rolled away the stone covering the tomb, was not a viable option. As Dr. Peter May says, “It could well have cost them their lives.” Seeking a more sympathetic ear, the soldiers go to the chief priests and tell of their terrifying experience. The chief priests consult with the elders and determine a course of action. They give the soldiers a large sum of money and promise to intervene with the governor if necessary to protect them. In turn the soldiers are instructed to say that Jesus’ body was stolen by His disciples at night while they slept.

Being afraid, the women do not speak to anyone on their return journey (Mark 16:8). Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, and other women in their group go straight to the apostles and tell of seeing angels and the risen Jesus (Mark 16:10, Luke 24:9‒10, John 20:18). This is separate from the previous event described in John 20:2 when Mary Magdalene told Peter and John the tomb was empty.

The women’s words are as idle tales and not believed (Mark 16:11, Luke 24:11). After all, Peter and John had earlier witnessed the empty tomb—not angels and the risen Lord. Rejection of the women’s testimony makes sense when we realize that in first century Jewish culture women were considered inferior witnesses, not as dependable as men.

Peter, one of the apostles present, hears the women’s story. Characteristically an action driven person, he runs back to the tomb for a second look, this time without John. He reexamines the empty tomb and sees the linen clothes lying as originally observed (Luke 24:12). As Simon Peter leaves the tomb he encounters the risen Christ in the garden (Luke 24:34). In 1 Corinthians 15:5, the Apostle Paul says that Cephas (Peter) saw Jesus before the twelve. We can logically conclude that Peter saw the resurrected Jesus during his solo trip to the tomb.

Later in the day, Jesus appears to Cleopas and another disciple as they walk to Emmaus, located about seven miles from Jerusalem (Mark 16:12‒13, Luke 24:13‒32). The two disciples discuss the women’s report of an empty tomb, their encounter with angels, and verification of the empty tomb by Peter and John (Luke 24:23‒24). However, the two disciples have no knowledge of Peter’s second trip to the tomb. The two return to Jerusalem and report to the eleven. During the discussion, they discover that Simon Peter saw Jesus following His resurrection (Luke 24:33‒35).

The eleven apostles and other disciples (Luke 24:33) gather together in a locked room on the resurrection night in fear of the Jews. As Cleopas and the other disciple tell their story, Jesus appears and shows them His hands and feet and side. Jesus then asks for food and eats to verify that He is flesh and bones (Luke 24:36‒43, John 20:19‒25). Thomas is absent when Jesus appears, perhaps having temporarily stepped out (John 20:24).

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