Each of the four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — offers an account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. These accounts contain several divergences in detail.
Was there one angel who appeared at the tomb (Matt. 28, Mark 16), or two (Luke 24, John 20)? Did Mary Magdalene go to the tomb alone (John 20), or with others (Mark 16, Luke 24)?
Critics have raised questions about these and other areas of divergence:
How do we account for these variations? Are they a stumbling block to believing that Jesus rose from the dead?
A logical whole
According to an established rule of investigative practice, if a reasonable explanation fits the available evidence then divergences in detail do not necessarily constitute contradictions.
So the real question is not, “Do the gospel accounts diverge at points?” but, rather, “Can those divergences be put together into a logical whole?”
In his book, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (College Press, 1992), retired judge Herbert Casteel, a trial judge for 26 years in Missouri, offers one example of how the various accounts could fit together:
Very early a group of women, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, and Joanna set out for the tomb.
Meanwhile two angels are sent; there is an earthquake and one angel rolls back the stone and sits upon it. The soldiers faint and then revive and flee into the city.
The women arrive and find the tomb opened; without waiting, Mary Magdalene, assuming someone has taken the Lord’s body, runs back to the city to tell Peter and John. The other women enter the tomb and see the body is gone. The two angels appear to them and tell them of the resurrection. The women then leave to take the news to the disciples.
Peter and John run to the tomb with Mary Magdalene following. Peter and John enter the tomb, see the grave clothes, and then return to the city, but Mary Magdalene remains at the tomb weeping, and Jesus makes His first appearance to her.
Jesus next appears to the other women who are on their way to find the disciples. Jesus appears to Peter; He appears to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus; and then appears to a group of disciples including all of the Eleven except Thomas.
According to Judge Casteel, the minor variations found in the four gospel accounts actually argue for their reliability as containing eyewitness testimony:
People who conspire to testify to a falsehood rehearse carefully to avoid contradictions. [This is why f]alse testimony appears on the surface to be in harmony, but discrepancies appear when you dig deeper. [On the other hand, t]rue accounts may appear on the surface to be contradictory, but are found to be in harmony when you dig deeper….
[In addition,] the Gospel accounts of the resurrection…[contain] numerous details of the very type that false accounts would be careful to avoid.
For example, it is related of the Lord’s appearances to His followers, that at first they did not recognize Him.
A false story would never have been made up this way, because it is obvious that this would support an argument that the disciples were mistaken and didn’t see Jesus at all.
Why did the Gospel writers tell it this way? Because their purpose was simply to tell what happened, and that is the way it happened.
Moreover, many witnesses to the resurrected Christ went to their deaths rather than recant their testimony.
Indeed, from the time of the resurrection forward, these witnesses devoted themselves, no matter the cost, to the proclamation that Jesus the Messiah rose from the dead.
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power
and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
— The Apostle Peter in 2 Peter 1:16
|•||Podcast: Bill Bouknight on ‘The Resurrection of Jesus Christ’|
|•||Chapter 12 from Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (PDF) |Herbert C. Casteel, College Press (1992)|
|•||The Jury Returns: A Juridical Defense of Christianity | An excerpt from Evidence for Faith: Deciding the God Question by John Warwick Montgomery, Probe Books (1991)|
|•||The testimony of the evangelists | Simon Greenleaf (1846)|
|•||The Easter sermon of John Chrysostom (~400 A.D.) [NOTE: This sermon is read aloud in Eastern Orthodox churches on Easter (“Pascha”) morning.]|
|•||How Easter killed my faith in atheism | Lee Strobel, Wall Street Journal (April 16, 2011)|
|•||Celebrating the Resurrection | Mark Tooley, The American Spectator (April 22, 2011)|
|•||Of first importance: The Cross and Resurrection at the center | Albert Mohler (April 22, 2011)|
|•||Adoration Songbook: Christ the Lord is Risen Today (5-minute radio feature about Charles Wesley’s hymn) | Center for Church Music (2006)|