When it comes to records of events in the Bible wherein the details are confusing and seem to contradict, there are few that are more confusing and yet more crucial than the records of the visits to the tomb after Christ’s resurrection. Here again the details among the four gospels differ greatly. Let us consider each of the records of the visits to the tomb in the order we have them in our Bibles. First comes the record of the gospel of Matthew.
Matthew 28:1. Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. 2. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. 3. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. 4. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.
5. But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. 7. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead, and indeed He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him. Behold, I have told you.”
8. So they went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word.
9. And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, “Rejoice!” So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him. 10. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me.”
Next is the record as contained in the gospel of Mark.
Mark 16:1. Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. 2. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. 3. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” 4. But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away—for it was very large. 5. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
6. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. 7. But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”
8. So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Next comes the record of these events in the gospel of Luke.
Luke 24:1. Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. 2. But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. 3. Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4. And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. 5. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6. He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, 7. saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’”
8. And they remembered His words. 9. Then they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, who told these things to the apostles. 11. And their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them. 12. But Peter arose and ran to the tomb; and stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying by themselves; and he departed, marveling to himself at what had happened.
Finally comes the record as it appears in the book of John.
John 20:1. Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”
3. Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple, and were going to the tomb. 4. So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. 5. And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. 6. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, 7. and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. 8. Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed. 9. For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. 10. Then the disciples went away again to their own homes.
11. But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. 12. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. 13. Then they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.”
14. Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. 15. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”
She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, “Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”
16. Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to Him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say, Teacher).
17. Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’”
18. Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her.
This is perhaps the most confusing and hard to figure out of our “discrepancies” yet, as will become clear as we compare the details below.
1.) The details differ regarding when the visit to the tomb took place. In Matthew 28 we have “as the first day of the week began to dawn.” In Mark 16, we have very early in the morning, “at the rising of the sun” (as it was rising into the sky). In Luke 24, we have it still very early. In John 20, we have it “still dark.”
2.) The details differ regarding who it was who came to the tomb. In Matthew, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary come to the tomb. This second Mary is not Jesus’ mother, for her name in Greek was “Mariam” or Miriam, the name of Moses’ sister in the Old Testament. But this second woman with Mary Magdalene was an actual “Maria.” In Mark, we have Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come with spices prepared (notice there was no mention of spices in the previous occurrence.) In Luke, to discover who the women were, we must go back to Luke 23:55, where we learn that these were “the women who had come with Him from Galilee” (Luke 23:55) along with certain other women. In John, the only woman mentioned is Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb.
3.) The details differ regarding where they saw the angel and how many angels there were. In Matthew, they found the angel who had rolled away the stone sitting on the stone. (Compare verse 4 with verse 5, “the angel.”) In Mark, they are worried about rolling the stone away, not knowing that this has already been done. When they find it already rolled away, they enter the tomb and find a young man clothed in a white robe sitting on the right side. In Luke, they come to the tomb bearing spices (Mark mentioned they had bought spices, but did not say if they had brought them with them.) They find the stone rolled away, but not Jesus’ body. They stand around greatly perplexed, but at this time two men in shining garments stand by them. In John, Mary Magdalene sees the stone taken away, and runs to tell Peter and John without seeing any angel at all.
4.) The details differ regarding what the angel said to them. In Matthew, the angel who rolled away the stone invites them to see the place where the Lord lay, and then instructs them to go and tell the disciples that a.) He is risen and b.) He is going before them into Galilee, where they will see Him. In Mark, the women are alarmed at the presence of the young man in the white robe, but he tells them not to be alarmed, invites them to see the place where he was laid, and tells them a.) He is risen and b.) He is going before them into Galilee, where they will see Him. In Luke, the two men in shining garments tell them a.) He is risen and b.) He told them that He would rise before His death. No instructions for His disciples are given.
5.) The details differ regarding how the women responded to what they saw. In Matthew, these two (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary) run from the tomb with fear and joy to bring the disciples word. In Mark, the women leave the tomb quickly and flee, are amazed, and say nothing to anyone, being afraid. In Luke, they remember His words and, leaving the tomb, go and tell the eleven and all the rest of what they have seen. In John, Mary runs to tell Peter and John, who come and survey the scene, but believe her story of someone taking His body away and leave.
6.) The details differ regarding the Lord meeting the women afterwards. In Matthew, the Lord Jesus meets the women on the way to tell His disciples, and allows them to touch His feet. In Mark, we are told He “appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons.” In Luke, no appearance to the women is mentioned, and we move right on to the story of the two on the road to Emmaus. In John, after Peter and John leave, Mary remains there weeping, where the Lord meets her, although He does not allow her to touch Him. After recognizing Him and talking with Him, she runs and tells the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and explains what He told her.
We have to admit that these differing details are significant and striking. Clearly, there are obvious, factual differences between the gospel accounts. Yet if we use the knowledge that we have gained from considering previous apparent contradictions, we will realize that these gospels need not be recording different, conflicting accounts of the same event, but might instead be recording different events. If this is the case, what might the full story of the visits of the women to the tomb have been?
First of all, let me admit that the language regarding time of day in these four passages is not very clear to me. For example, in Matthew, it seems to first say that it is evening (Greek opse,) then say it is growing light (Greek epiphosko)! In Mark, it says it is extremely early in the morning when the Lord arose, and when the women came to the tomb (Greek lian proi, or in the fourth watch, which would mean it was three hours before dawn, extremely early.) Yet then it seems to say that they came when the sun had already risen (Greek anateilantos.) But the sun would not have risen in the fourth watch of the night! In Luke it says it was deep dawn when they came. In John, it says Mary Magdalene came in the fourth watch, while it was still dark. These time references are confusing, so I will try to fit them around the other facts, and not use them as a guide to the facts. Unless I talk to an expert on Israelite Greek expressions of time who can explain these to me otherwise, I am not going to use them as my only guide.
Now, allow me to share how I believe these events all took place. The first visit to the tomb is as recorded in Mark and John. I am going to assume that this was in the fourth watch, while it was still dark, as John suggests. The Greek word anateilantos comes from ana, which can mean up or upward, and telos, which means end. Literally, this word would mean “to end up.” This could mean that the sun had arisen (starting low and ending up,) but I will suggest that perhaps in this passage they had “up-ended the sun,” or gotten up before the sun. This would conform Mark to itself when it says it was early in the fourth watch, as well as conforming it to John, which says it was still dark.
In Mark 16:9, we are told that the Lord Jesus rose in the fourth watch of the night (proi.) In Mark 16:1-2, we learn that, before the sun was up, Mary Magdalene, Mary of James, and Salome came to the tomb. Perhaps they had not been able to sleep because of their sorrow, and so decided to get up and get started early on the day’s activities. In verse 3, we find that they were wondering who would roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for them. This shows how emotionally drained and confused these women must have been, for there is no way the three of them could move a stone of this size even if they had the right equipment, and no one was likely to be there early in the fourth watch of the night to help them do it!
When they got to the tomb, they found that the very large stone was already rolled away, which must have shocked them. Mary Magdalene appears to have acted on her own at this point, but we will talk more about that when we consider the record in John. Mary of James and Salome, however, entered the tomb, as we see in Mark 16:5, and saw a young man clothed in a long, white robe sitting to their right. This alarmed them, but He reassured them. He knew they were seeking Jesus of Nazareth. He assures them that He is no longer there, but is risen. He instructs them to notice the shelf where they had laid Him. Then, he instructs them to go tell His disciples, especially Peter, that He is going before them into Galilee, where they all would see Him.
These two women were afraid, and were not assured by the man’s words. They do not seem to have realized that he was an angel. But who and what else could he have been? Yet what they did is run away from the tomb, trembling and afraid. They are too scared to even tell anyone what had happened to them at the tomb.
Comparing this to John 20, we find that this book only tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb in the fourth watch while it was still dark. We are not told of Mary of James and Salome, but this omission does not mean they were not there with her. Mary sees the stone rolled away from the tomb. She does not enter the tomb with her two companions. Perhaps she tells them she is going to get the others, and then runs to Simon Peter and John. She reports to them her interpretation of the stone being rolled away, which is that some unknown persons (the vague “they”) have come and taken away the Lord’s body, though she knows not where. Remember that Mary had been there when Joseph and Nicodemus had laid the Lord’s body there and sealed the tomb. She knew that this was Joseph’s tomb, not one prepared for the Lord. Perhaps she thought that Joseph and Nicodemus had returned to take His body elsewhere without informing His disciples. Perhaps she wondered if they were really so friendly to the Lord as they pretended, for remember that they both were of the rich rulers, the ones who had betrayed the Lord to death in the first place. Whatever she thought, it was all about His dead body being moved by men, not about a resurrection.
Peter and John run to the tomb at this report. They find it empty, which seems to confirm Mary’s report. The one odd fact is that the grave clothes are still lying there. Why would someone have stripped Him of His grave clothes before moving Him? Moreover, they lay as they had been wrapped around His body, as if He had passed through them. Yet they cannot think that anything could have happened except His body being taken, and so they leave the tomb believing the story given to them by Mary.
Mary remains behind, standing outside the tomb and weeping miserably. As she weeps, she finally stoops down and for the first time looks into the tomb herself. As did all the women, she sees angels when she does this. This time she sees two, one sitting by where His head had been, the other by where His feet had been. They ask her why she is weeping. She responds that her tears are because “they” have taken away the Lord, and she does not know where they have laid Him. Of course, this was not entirely true. This fresh tragedy of the Lord’s missing body is just a small straw added to her grief over His death in the first place.
Yet at this stage the Lord steps in and appears to her in the garden. As she turns from the tomb, she sees Him, though she at first does not recognize Him. Perhaps her vision was blurred by tears, or maybe He was standing partially in shadow. She does not seem to have fully turned toward Him either, so she perhaps was not really looking very closely. He too asks why she is weeping, and whom she is seeking. She assumes Him to be the gardener, or, as we would call it, the caretaker of the cemetery. She wonders if the “garderer” is the one who has taken away the Lord’s body, and so asks Him to tell her if he has done so, and she will come and take His body away. Perhaps she wondered if the gardener had cast the Lord out as being unworthy of being buried in a tomb for rich, upstanding individuals. Of course, it would be questionable that her strength would be up to the task of carrying the body of a fully-grown man by herself, but this is what she offers to do.
At this point, the Lord reveals Himself by calling her by name. Now she cannot help but recognize Him. It seems she wants to touch Him, quite naturally, perhaps wanting to hug Him or something along those lines, but He does not allow it. He is about the return to His Father, even to God, to present Himself as the completed sacrifice, so He must not be defiled by human hands. He leaves her then, and she runs to bring His disciples word, this time with a far different report than the last time!
In the meantime, morning has come, and it is deep dawn, as is reported in Luke 24. It is the day after the Sabbath, and it seems that a large group of women who had followed the Lord from Galilee, along with some others from Judea, have agreed to get together to go to the tomb and anoint His body with spices. This is a large crowd of women, and they seem to be better prepared than the three women who tried to get a jump on them earlier. They seem to have planned this trip to the tomb in advance, and so perhaps they were actually bringing with them the equipment to move the stone. They are joined by Mary of James, we are told in Luke 24:10, and though it does not mention Salome, she might well have been there too. Yet remember that these two did not tell anything to anyone about what they had seen at the tomb, so the other women are going completely innocent of any knowledge of what happened during the previous visit to the tomb. Mary of James seems to simply wait for them to discover it for themselves. I have done this myself at times. Just because you know someone is about to run into something unexpected that you have already discovered, does not mean that you have to tell him so. You can just wait for him to discover it for himself, which is just what Mary of James does here.
When they get to the tomb, they are most surprised to find the stone already rolled away from the door. They were doubtless fully expecting to have to do this task themselves. When they enter the tomb, they find that His body is gone. As they stand around wondering what has happened, they are in for an even bigger surprise, for two men appear to them and announce to them that the reason the Lord is not there is that He is alive, and has risen from the dead, even as He told them in advance He would do.
Now this is a much larger group of women, and they have met these angels in the daytime, not at night. Instead of running away in fear, as the first women did, they now have some cooler heads among them, and these women think about what the angels said and realize that this was indeed what the Lord predicted. Therefore, they go to report these things to the eleven and to the rest of the disciples.
Luke 24:10 lists Mary Magdalene as one of those who reported these things to the disciples. Yet it seems highly unlikely that she could have been with this group of women. We know that Mary of James and Salome kept quiet, for Mark tells us so, but Mary Magdalene would have been shouting the Lord’s resurrection from the rooftops after meeting Him. Therefore, it is likely that these women met Mary Magdalene along the way, or else as they arrived at the place where the disciples were, and so they made their reports together. They would have reported finding the empty tomb and seeing the angels, and she would have reported seeing the Lord Himself. The disciples do not believe this report, however. His body being moved seemed likely to them, but not angels appearing or the Lord Himself appearing alive and resurrected. Nevertheless, Peter runs to see the tomb again, hoping to see something different this time. However, all is as he left it the first time. He departs then, wondering at what has taken place.
Matthew now reports to us a visit that happened much later in the day. We will assume that it is toward evening of the same day (the Greek opse,) and that whatever epiphosko means, it does not mean “dawn” here, for it does not dawn in the evening. (Perhaps it speaks of the sunset lighting up the hilltops, or something along these lines?) At any rate, two women now make a return trip to the tomb: Mary Magdalene, along with the other Mary. They are not bringing spices, for they know the Lord’s body is not there. They are not wondering about rolling away the stone, for they know it is already removed. What they are doing is coming to see what they can see. Perhaps the angels will appear to them again and repeat to them the exciting news, or perhaps, even better, they will see the Lord Himself, as Mary Magdalene did earlier in the day.
Now Matthew has a parenthetical statement, telling us what had happened much earlier in the day, at the very beginning of the fourth watch and just before the first group of women arrived. He describes the great angel arriving and rolling away the stone. He describes the great earthquake. He describes the soldiers (Matthew is the only one who mentions their presence) falling down as if dead before the great angel from their fear. This is why the women found what they did when they arrived at the tomb for this final visit on this most memorable of all days. Matthew explains these things to us in this parenthesis. Notice that this parenthesis fills in some gaps. We would not know these facts at all were it not for Matthew breaking into his narrative here to tell us. Yet with that over, he now returns to his story taking place late that same day.
They find a single angel at the tomb this time, the very angel who had rolled away the stone and so scared the soldiers. He reassures them that they have no need to fear as the soldiers feared. They sought to frustrate his purpose, whereas the women only sought the Lord Jesus. Notice he does not say they sought Him dead, for these women already knew the truth, and they sought Him alive! Yet he assures them that the Lord is not there, but is risen. He will not appear at this tomb again. Now he gives them instructions, the first we have had since the account in Mark. Indeed they are far more ready to receive them than Mary of James and Salome had been to receive their instructions earlier in the day. They are to tell His disciples to go into Galilee, where He will appear to all of them.
As they leave the tomb, fearful and yet joyous, to bring His disciples word, the Lord Himself meets them. Since His meeting with Mary Magdalene in the morning, He has returned from heaven, where He has been to present Himself to His Father, so this time He allows them to come and hold Him by the feet. He urges them to tell His brothers to go to Galilee, where He will see them. So they run to bring the disciples word, even while the soldiers are arriving in Jerusalem, straggling in late in the day to admit their failure and receive their punishment, whatever it might be.
So this is what I believe the story actually was as we piece it together from the accounts in the various books. I will admit that this is my interpretation of events. Things could have happened slightly differently. I admit that someone else might propose another order of events that may make more sense than the one I have set forth. I do insist, however, that the visits recorded in the four gospels are different events, and indicate an order of visits to the tomb that are greatly confused by the women’s existing sorrow, their unbelief, the doubting of their own senses, and the eventual realization and acceptance that the Lord has indeed risen. It is no wonder that they returned to the tomb several times, or that they had to assure themselves several times that what they had seen was indeed the truth. It is also no wonder that women who were doubting their own senses would not speak of what they had seen to other women whom they met who were also traveling to the tomb.
No, there is no discrepancy here, only a difficulty, and that difficulty can be overcome by carefully examining and considering the differences between the four passages. Only by examining all four gospels can we hope to arrive at the truth. When we do this, we find that the four gospels, though they seldom repeat any of the important facts from one gospel to another, yet all work together in a perfect way to weave for us a complete picture of the events as they happened on that day. Only a brilliant mind in charge of the writing of all four of these gospels could have managed having them all work together in this way. And this is exactly what I believe happened, for I believe that these books were written by God Himself.
But there is no contradiction here, only supplemental stories about the visits of the various women. Any odd repeat visits are explained by the confusion preceding the joy that came about as these women realized the truth that their Lord had risen from the dead. Yet when taken seriously, all these gospels work together to give us the truth. Praise God for every word He has written, and for binding these books together so cleverly. Let us strive then to study, and to learn the lessons He wants us to teach, particularly about the resurrection of His dear Son, which confirms to us that His sacrifice was accepted so that we could receive salvation.