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Why Are There Variations in the Accounts of Who Was at the Tomb?

By Amy Davidson

A few weeks ago, my trip down the rabbit hole of research led me to a YouTube recording of scholar and skeptic, Dr. Bart Ehrman, who was arguing against the reliability of the Bible because of “irreconcilable differences” between the gospel accounts.[1]

He claimed that if scripture was divinely inspired then we shouldn’t see vastly different account of Jesus’ ministry, but that’s exactly what’s there. Just in the resurrection, for example, we see each of the Gospel accounts recording seemingly contradictory accounts of who was present at the tomb, not to mention that none of the gospel authors record the same female witnesses present.

Ehrman joked that if a witness in court were to give such a poor statement he would easily be discredited and encouraged the audience to do the same with the Bible.

Every believer will encounter this form of skepticism at some point in their walk, and they can be fairly intimidating. Yet, these charges pose no threat to the reliability of the gospels when we carefully consider the nature of eye-witness testimony.

What’s in a Testimony?

One thing we need to keep in mind as we read the canonical gospels is that these are testimonies. This may seem like a no-brainer, but a frequent criticism is that if the Gospels were truly God-breathed they would be complete and identical. But that’s not how testimonies work.

Testimonies are highly personal and vary based on their perspective, audience, and intent. [2] Some testimonies will highlight details that others pass over and don’t have to be complete to be trustworthy. In fact, the more witnesses that are involved, the more points of disagreement you can expect.[3] This is why understanding the uniqueness of each eye witness is vital to drawing an accurate conclusion when comparing the gospel accounts.

Perspective

First, your perspective is the way in which you see the world. It’s influenced by your knowledge, philosophy, attitude, and is conveyed with the flare of your shining personality. It acts a bit like a filter, highlighting the information you are familiar with, attracted to, or frightened by.

This is the case in Luke’s gospel. His perspective as a physician is seen through his inclusion of illnesses and healing that the other gospels don’t include (8:1-3). The Gospel of Matthew tends toward encouragement, presenting a more positive outlook of the disciple’s faith, while Mark’s gospel showcases the ‘wishy-washy’ reception by the disciples of Christ’s early ministry, showing that even doubters can grow to be strong believers.[4]

If each of the gospel accounts were identical, they not only would have been redundant, but they would have lost important details or worse, looked as though they were copied or made up.[5]

Audience

Second, while your perspective shapes how you see an event, your audience plays a huge role in what details you include, as well, and influences how you share that information. My mother-in-law, for example, is a nurse, so when my 9-year-old asks about what happened during her shift she leaves out the gritty details and technical terms that she would otherwise include if she is explaining things to the day shift charge nurse. She isn’t trying to mislead her grandson, but the point is that some details just aren’t necessary or relevant to certain audiences.

The same occurred in the gospels. Matthew’s initial audience were Jewish converts, so he didn’t explain Jewish festivals and practices because these details were already well known.

Luke’s letter, on the other hand, was addressed to the Roman convert, Theophilus, who was unfamiliar with Jewish customs. To help paint a complete picture of the impact of Christ’s ministry, he took time to offer details about Jewish culture that Matthew had omitted.

Intent

Lastly, the information and mode in which we convey that information will change depending on whether we are trying to argue, romance, convince or encourage the audience. Mark’s concise action-packed letter emphasized Christ’s power, whereas Matthew sought to show the Jewish audience that Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah. As such, each gospel highlights different events and teachings that occurred within Christ’s ministry and would reorganize, summarize, or paraphrase them to help emphasize a specific purpose.

Are Variation in the Resurrection Accounts a Problem?

With this in mind, we can better understand then why there are varying details in the resurrection accounts and offer a more robust account of the first Easter.

Let’s start off by seeing how many women were at the tomb that Sunday morning.

  • In Mathew’s account, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are the tomb’s first visitors, Matt. 28:1.
  • Mark agrees with Matthew that Mary Magdalene was there, but specifies that Mary, the mother of James, and Salome were with her, Mark 16:1.
  • Luke’s gospel omits Salome, but includes Mary M., Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and “other women,” Luke 24:10.
  • John only mentions Mary Magdalene, John 20:1.

At first, these appear to be contradictions, but contradictions only occur when both the claim and the negation of the claim are both asserted as true, commonly known as the law of non-contradiction.

The account of the women at the tomb would be a contradiction if, say, Mark had said that Mary Magdalene was at the tomb, but John reported that Mary M. wasn’t there at all. Or if John had specified that only Mary M. had been at the tomb in contrast to Luke’s extensive list of female witnesses.

Instead, we see that the accounts offer complimentary descriptions of different women which can be verified by cross-referencing other passages.

For example, while John only lists Mary M., he records her referring to a plurality of women with her at the tomb (20:2). Luke lists both Marys, Joanna, and “others” when he records those who supported Jesus’ ministry (8:1-3). Mark includes Salome among the women watching the crucifixion, which explains why she is later seen joining them as they set off to prepare Christ’s body after the Sabbath.

Based on the unique perspectives of each gospel testimony, these differences lend credibility to the gospel narrative and are what we would expect to see when multiple witnesses recount an event.[6]

But what about the testimonies of who was in the tomb when the women arrived?

  • Matthew lists 1 angel, 28:2-6
  • Mark seemingly disagrees by saying it was 1 man, 16:5
  • Luke says it is 2 men, 24:4
  • While John records 2 angels, 20:11-12

By comparing the passages, it would appear that the skeptics have an edge on this one. Even Ehrman thought that the different accounts couldn’t possibly be accurate.[7] He would be right, of course, if we didn’t factor in the unique nature of each witness and read each account in their proper context. Good scholarship means that we aren’t that careless.

Who was inside the tomb can be explained in the same way by which we discerned how many women visited it that morning by noting that the accounts do not specify that only a certain number of men or angels are present.

Matthew focused on the angel who, according to Bloomberg and the majority of Christian biblical scholars, “dominated the scene” as the primary speaker; Mark chose to showcase the leading angel’s anthropomorphic features.[8] Luke followed Mark’s lead while including the non-speaking “man” that Mark omits, and John refers to both as what they actually were—angels.

It’s likely that Mark and Matthew left off the second angel because they didn’t think his inclusion was necessary to make their point.[9] Regardless of their reasoning, the varying accounts do not affect the reliability of the gospel narrative because they complement, not contradict, one another.

Why all the Fuss?

By now you’re probably wondering why skeptics continue to complain when reasonable explanations for textual issues can, and have, been offered. Two quick reasons come to mind. For one, it’s easy: varying details are obvious and pointing them out takes little effort. Many Christians are not familiar with these variances and are often left speechless and confused when they suddenly find themselves confronted by an unbeliever.

Second, it’s effective. Our culture struggles to think deeply and wrestle with discomfort in the pursuit of truth. Sadly, many believers are like the seed which sprang up in shallow soil, when faced with a challenge they’re vulnerable to whither, and skeptics like nothing more than to pick them off.

But we can stand firm against these challenges by growing in faith and pouring into those around us, and WIA is here to walk alongside you every step of the way.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nEBLbNfcoo  Definitely worth a watch!

[2] Wallace, J. Warner, Cold-Case Christianity (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2013) Pg. 74.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels 2nd Ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007) Pg. 155.

[5] Wallace. Pg. 75.

[6] Straudinger, H. Trustworthiness of the Gospels (Edinburgh: Handsel, 1981) Pg. 17-23

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nEBLbNfcoo. Minute 9:40-9:53.

[8] Blomberg, Pg. 194.

[9] Ibid.


Resources

Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels 2nd Ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007)

Ehrman, Bart. Contradictions https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1nEBLbNfcoo.

Straudinger, H. Trustworthiness of the Gospels (Edinburgh: Handsel, 1981)

Wallace, J. Warner, Cold-Case Christianity (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2013)

Disclaimer: All views expressed by those associated with this ministry or on our platforms do not necessarily represent the opinions of Women in Apologetics, Inc. or its individual team members.

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