The accounts of the Lord’s resurrection appear to be different in the different Gospels. For example, Matthew says that Mary Magdalene and company saw the angel rolling away the stone (Matthew 28:2); whereas John says that Mary alone went to the sepulchre, and she saw that the stone was already taken away. Also, Mark speaks of “a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment” (Mark 16:5); whereas Luke says, “two men stood by them in shining garments” (Luke 24:4). Can you show how these accounts may be reconciled?
Before I attempt to answer your question, we should note that the apparent differences between the four accounts are due to the fact that they are different eye-witnesses’ accounts. We believe that all these accounts are correct and, as recorded in the Gospels, are without errors, through the sovereign superintendence of the Holy Spirit in their inscripturation. However, as with every eyewitness account, there will be variations between the different accounts. These accounts, moreover, were inspired by the Holy Spirit to serve different emphases, and therefore they may be studied independently without any attempt to reconcile the data. Nevertheless, it remains possible to reconcile them with quite a high degree of accuracy.
With this in mind, the specific difference between the accounts can easily be reconciled. For example, whether there were one or two angels and whether they are sitting or standing is quite easily answered: There were two angels, at first seated, but they stood up and one spoke. And, since only one of the angels spoke, Mark is not wrong to mention only one angel. Similarly, the rolling away of the stone from the sepulchre entrance definitely occurred before Mary Magdalene and her company (not mentioned by John), arrived at the scene. The statement in Matthew 28:2 has to be a parenthetical remark inserted to explain how the women gained assess into the tomb. The stone was rolled away during the earthquake, which occurred before they arrived at the tomb. Did they feel the tremors as they walk to the sepulchre? But if they were not there when the stone was rolled away, how did Matthew know that the angel sat on the rock after he rolled it away? Well, apart from divine revelation, there were the keepers of the tomb who witnessed the event (Mt 28:4). It is highly doubtful that they did not tell anyone at all about what they saw. And if they did, then it would also have circulated as a rumour amongst the early disciples. Matthew by including it in his account, written under inspiration, confirms the authenticity of the rumour.
There are other apparent ‘problems’ as well. For example, John appears to put Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the angels after Peter and John went to the tomb (Jn 20:10–12), whereas Luke puts it as before (Lk 24:4–12). How do we reconcile the ‘discrepancy’? Well, actually, if you read the account of Luke and the account of John carefully, you will realise that Luke and John are in fact describing two different encounters with the angels—the first (of Matthew, Mark and Luke) involving the women who went with Mary Magdalene, whereas the other involving Mary Magdalene only! John simply left out mentioning the first encounter whereas Luke records the first encounter. What appeared to have happened is that when Mary arrived at the sepulchre with her companions, she saw that the stone was rolled away, noticed that the Lord’s body was not in the tomb and immediately ran off to tell Peter and John (Jn 20:1–2). The other women entered the sepulchre without her and there met the angels who spoke to them (Lk 24:4–5). After they left (Mk 16:8), Peter and John arrived at the sepulchre. Mary finally came back to the sepulchre, by which time Peter and John had also left (Jn 20:10). It was then that Mary encountered the angels and then the Lord Himself (Jn 20:11–17).
Based on what we have said, we may draw out an outline chronology of event as follows (a similar chronology may be found in Benjamin Davies, ed., Baker’s Harmony of the Gospels [Baker, 1994], 168–172. This is an excellent tool for studying the chronology of the Gospel events):
Many a person antagonistic to Christ has made scurrilous charges that the Gospel accounts are fictitious on account of alleged discrepancies, such as what we have reconciled above. But the serious student of the Bible who reads the accounts with love and the illuminating aid of the Holy Spirit cannot help but notice how the accounts so beautifully integrate with one another, that the alleged discrepancies, in fact, reinforce our assurance of the authenticity of the accounts. All praise and glory to our risen Lord, “who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Rom 4:25).
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