Who Did Jesus Appear to First After His Resurrection? Mt, Jn

Are Matthew 28:8-9, John 20:2-14 contradictory concerning who Jesus appeared to first after his resurrection? Learn the solution to this alleged contradiction.
Bible "contradictions"
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Quick answer

Here is one possible order for Jesus' appearances:

  1. Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdelene alone at the tomb.
  2. Jesus then appeared to the rest of the women when they were traveling back to Bethany.
  3. Or, vice versa

The argument

Some argue that the gospel resurrection accounts are contradictory concerning who Jesus appeared to first. Did Jesus appear first to a group of women, or to Mary Magdelene alone? Here are the relevant passages:

Jesus appeared first to the group of women

Matthew 28:8-9 - So they [the women] departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.

Jesus appeared first to Mary alone

John 20:2-14 - So she [Mary Magdelene] ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb... Then the disciples went back to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

Matthew seems to write that Jesus' first appearance was to a group of women, and John seems to write that Jesus' first appearance was to Mary Magdelene alone.

A reasonable explanation

Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdelene alone at the tomb, and then he later appeared to the rest of the women as they were traveling back to Bethany. Here are some additional details:

Upon seeing the stone rolled away from the tomb, Mary Magdelene had separated from the other women she was with to go tell Peter and John, who were not staying in Bethany, which was where most of the other disciples were staying.

After the rest of the women left the tomb, Mary, Peter, and John arrived at the tomb. After Peter and John left the tomb, Mary stayed, and then Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdelene at the tomb. Then, after Mary went to go tell the disciples that she had seen Jesus, Jesus appeared second to the rest of the women while they were on their way to Bethany to tell the other disciples.

It is also possible that Jesus appeared first to the group of women, and then to Mary alone. The important point is that they were separate appearances.

General notes

The differences between the gospels point to their authenticity

What would actually be more suspicious is if all four gospel accounts were identical. This would mean that they collaborated, perhaps even conspired, with one another to produce a perfectly harmonized resurrection account.

However, what we see instead is four accounts that have significant differences between them, which points towards the fact that each author simply reported the events that he heard about himself. So, rather than producing doubt, the differences between the gospel accounts should actually make us more confident in the historicity of the resurrection accounts.

It is perfectly normal for eyewitness accounts to differ

Not every witness to an event recalls all of the details perfectly, or in the exact same way, so we should expect various accounts of the resurrection events to differ from one another.

The key is that there are no irreconcilable contradictions

As long as we can provide possibilities for how the various resurrection accounts could reconcile into one coherent narrative, then there would be no irreconcilable, or necessary contradiction. This would then allow us to continue believing in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible without any compromise.

"But, I'm not convinced by your explanations. I still think these are irreconcilable contradictions."

It's likely that non-believers won't accept the possible explanations that we provide concerning reconciling the apparent contradictions in the resurrection narratives. However, their refusal to accept these explanations is not based upon the fact that reasonable and possible explanations have been provided, but simply upon the fact that they don't want to believe that there are legitimately reasonable and possible explanations.

Their goal is simply to continue justifying their unbelief in the Bible, regardless of any fact or explanation provided to them. So, we can do our best to provide these reasonable and possible explanations to them, but if they blindly close their minds to them, then we have simply done all that we can do. We should inform them that they are being unreasonable and stubborn, and that they are simply trying to shut their minds to the truth.

"I don't buy that explanation"

Some people have trouble accepting possible explanations to alleged contradictions in the Bible, especially ones that they consider a stretch. For example, Dan Barker, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, says this:

I have received numerous replies from Christians who think that these contradictions are either trivial or easily explained. Yet not a single "explanation" has been convincing.

Fact vs Opinion

The fact is that there are plausible explanations for every alleged contradiction in the Bible. That there is a plausible explanation for an alleged contradiction does not mean that it is definitely the correct explanation for the alleged contradiction.

However, as long as a possible explanation has been suggested, then it has been objectively demonstrated that there is no necessary contradiction regarding the Bible verses and passages brought up.

When people like Dan Barker say that they don't find a particular explanation for a contradiction "convincing," then that is merely their opinion. A plausible explanation has been suggested that eliminates the necessary alleged contradiction. They simply don't like it, which is not at all a relevant argument against the explanation.

Additional Resources

To read more about solutions to Bible contradictions and difficulties, check out Norman Geisler's The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation. While we do not agree with some of Geisler's theology, particularly concerning his view of predestination, this book is still an excellent resource. It is thorough and filled with research.

Another book to check out is Tim Chaffey's Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions: Exploring Forty Alleged Contraditions, which also answers many alleged contradictions in the Bible.

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