Tom Murphy has challenged me to come up with a coherent narrative for the events surrounding the first Easter morning. I would suggest that the easiest thing to do is to deal with some of the apparent discrepancies that exist between the gospels, and then give a possible account.
The first thing that I need to point out is that it is really encouraging to see the apparent discrepancies between the gospels. If there had been collusion around the resurrection accounts we would see identical stories. However, what we get is what would be expected from eyewitnesses.
One of the apparent discrepancies surrounds the number of women involved. The fact that the first witnesses to the resurrection were women is a real mark of authenticity (as the testimony of women was not admissible in a first-century court). None of the writers are claiming to give an exhaustive list. For example, John only mentions Mary Magdalene, but then has her reporting her findings using ‘we’ language.
Then there is the difference in the light. John says it was dark, while the others talk of sunrise. I would suggest that the women may have set off from Bethany in the dark on the two mile journey to Jerusalem, arriving in the early light.
Were there one or two angels? There were two angels. It is not strange that Mark would only mention one angel, as frequently only the spokesperson is mentioned and accompanying figures are not mentioned. Also, it was common in the Bible for angels to appear in the form of men.
The other thing that needs to be noted is that scholars believe that the gospel writers knew of each other’s writing. If this is so, then they clearly didn’t see contradictions between what they wrote and what was written before them. If they didn’t know of each other’s writing then we have to account for the huge overlap in their stories of the life of Jesus.
There are a number of ways that you can harmonise the resurrection accounts. The following is based on the work of New Testament scholar Murray Harris:
On the first day of the week, as morning was dawning, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome approach the tomb intending to embalm the body. Mary Magdalene immediately returns to tell Peter and John that the body is missing. Mary (mother of James) and Salome enter the tomb and see an angel who directs the women to tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. These women return to Jerusalem, where they initially do not report the angelic vision, because of the awe and fright. Certain other women, along with Joanna, go to the tomb, also planning to embalm the body. They meet two angels and then return to report the resurrection the disciples (the disciples had scattered after Jesus was arrested). Informed by Mary Magdalene, Peter and John run to the tomb (without meeting Mary the mother of James and Salome). They observe the grave clothes and return home. Mary Magdalene remains behind and meets Jesus. She returns to inform the disciples. Mary the mother of James and Salome haven’t said anything yet. Jesus meets Mary the mother of James (and perhaps Salome and others) and directs them to tell his brethren to go to Galilee. Later Jesus will appear to other people, including to five hundred people on one occasion.
Finally, can I recommend a great website that not only answers questions like those Tom raises, but explains why these issues matter? It is bethinking.org
Paul Ritchie (Limerick Baptist).