Do the gospel accounts of the resurrection contradict each other?

Q. How do you resolve a certain resurrection discrepancy? Did Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James find angels at the tomb, who told them that Jesus was alive and that they should go tell the disciples to meet him in Galilee?  Or did Mary Magdalene go by herself (as John indicates), find nothing, and go tell the disciples someone had stolen the dead body? The accounts seem to be contradicting each other.

I would answer your question along the same lines as I answered an earlier one in this post:

Why are the details of some episodes in different gospels irreconcilable?

The person who asked that earlier question wanted to know about the episodes in the gospels in which a woman pours perfume on Jesus, Jesus walks on water, and Judas betrays him in the garden.  There seem to be discrepancies in detail between the different accounts of these episodes, and as you observe, the same thing can be said about the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.  But as I write in my other post:

I don’t personally see irreconcilable details such as these as diminishing the truth or authority of the Bible in any way.  Rather, as many have observed, these differences actually show that the gospel writers weren’t all trying deliberately to tell the same story as the others.  This should give us even greater confidence in the independence and authenticity of their reports.  If some minor details differ, the main points are always confirmed.  And so we can be confident, based on multiple independent reports, that Jesus did walk on the water–the gospel writers agree about this miracle that testified to who he was.  Judas did betray Jesus by bringing the soldiers to the garden.  And a woman did anoint Jesus with perfume, and he acknowledged this as an appropriate, if extravagant, act of worship.

We may say similarly that we can be confident, based on multiple independent reports, that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb with some other women (thought John tells the story through her eyes alone), found it empty, and had an encounter with someone (an angel, a man in a white robe or men in “gleaming clothes,” or Jesus himself) that convinced them Jesus was alive.  The main line of the story is the same in each account.  (If one of the gospels said that the women found Jesus’ body in the tomb, then we’d really have a problem!)

Let me offer here the same conclusion as in my earlier post:

We only have problems with the differences in minor details if we embrace the idea that if the Bible is to be the word of God, it has to present only exactly what happened, without dispute or variation, down to the last detail every time.  That’s simply not the kind of Bible God has given us.  We should recognize that we have instead a Bible whose human character, including such variation in minor details, only helps it to be an even better authoritative witness to divine truth.




Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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