Can the Four Gospel Resurrection Narratives Be Harmonized? (Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, John 20:1-18)

Here is one reasonable harmonization of the four gospel resurrection narratives. Others have also been proposed. There is no necessary contradiction between the four gospel resurrection accounts.
Bible "contradictions"

Harmonizing the gospel resurrection accounts

This is simply one suggestion concerning how the four gospel resurrection narratives can be harmonized—other possible harmonizations of the resurrection accounts have also been suggested.

Colored text can be clicked on to jump to explanations regarding apparent contradictions.

1. Early in the morning, at least five women went to Jesus' tomb

Matthew 28:1-10 | v1

1 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

Mark 16:1-8 | v1-2

1 When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.

Luke 24:1-44 | v1

1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.

John 20:1-29 | v1a

1a Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark,

When did the women go to the tomb?

Two possibilities:

  1. The sky was still mostly dark, with the sun just starting to rise
  2. The sky was still dark when the women left Bethany (John), and it was dawn and the sun had risen when they reached the tomb (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)

How many women went to the tomb?

At least five women went to the tomb. Luke 24:10 says that "Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women" were at the tomb, which is at least five women. The other gospels do not say that only the two Marys, only the two Marys and Salome, or only Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, so there is no contradiction. In fact, in John, Mary Magdalene says to Peter and John, "...we do not know where they have laid him..." It is reasonable to believe that the other authors simply didn't list out all the women who went to the tomb, for various reasons.

2. Before the women arrived at the tomb, there was an earthquake and an angel rolled away the stone

Matthew 28:1-10 | v2-4

2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.

Why is the earthquake only recorded in Matthew?

The earthquake occurred before the women arrived at the tomb. Matthew's account helps explain how the stone was rolled away and why there were no guards. The other authors simply leave out these additional details.

3. The women arrived at the tomb and saw that the stoned was rolled away

Mark 16:1-8 | v3-4

3 And they were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?" 4 And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large.

Was the stone rolled away before or after the women arrived at the tomb?

As explained above, the stone was rolled away before the women arrived at the tomb. The events of Matthew 28:2-4 occurred before the women arrived at the tomb.

4. Upon seeing the stone rolled away, Mary Magdalene separated from the other women to go tell Peter and John, who were not staying at Bethany with the other disciples

John 20:1-29 | v2

2 So she 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."

Were Peter and John with the other disciples?

Peter and John were likely not staying with the other disciples. We know that although all the disciples fled, Peter and John were brave enough to follow Jesus into Jerusalem (John 18:15). John was also present at the cross (John 19:26). It is likely that Peter and John met up at some point and stayed in Jerusalem, while the rest of the disciples were staying in Bethany.

5. The women (except Mary Magdalene) meet angels inside the tomb

Matthew 28:1-10 | v5-7

5 But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you."

Mark 16:1-8 | v5-7

5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. 6 And he said to them, "Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you."

Luke 24:1-44 | v3-7

3 but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5 And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6 He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”

How many angels did the women see? Did the women see angels or men?

The women saw two angels at the tomb. Matthew does not say that there was only one angel, and Mark does not say that there was only one man. Perhaps they simply felt that they did not need to emphasize that there were two angels, or two men.

Regarding whether the women saw angels or men, angels oftentime appeared in the form of men (Genesis 18:1–2; Daniel 9:21. So, it is reasonable to believe that the women saw angels who looked like men.

Were the angels inside the tomb or sitting on the stone?

As explained above, the events of Matthew 28:2-4 occurred before the women arrived at the tomb. The angel in Matthew was on top of the stone when the guards saw him and fainted/fled, and then actually met the women inside the tomb. Mark, Luke, and John all record the angels meeting the women inside the tomb using slightly different, but not contradictory, language.

Were the angels standing or sitting when the women met them?

The angels were probably sitting when the women saw them, and then they stood up immediately afterwards. When Luke says that the angels "stood" (Luke 24:4), he could be referred to an action that they did at that moment, rather than what they had already done.

6. The women (except Mary Magdalene) left the tomb to go tell the disciples (except Peter and John), who were in Bethany, about the empty tomb

Matthew 28:1-10 | v8

8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Mark 16:1-8 | v8

8 And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Did the women (except Mary Magdalene) tell the disciples about the empty tomb?

It is reasonable to believe that at first the women didn't say anything to anyone because they were afraid, and then after they overcame this fear, they remembered the angels' words and told the disciples. Luke 24:8 says specifically that the women "remembered his words," which could imply that they at first told nobody, but decided to tell the disciples after they remembered what the angels had said to them.

We know that Thomas was not with the other disciples at first (John 20:24), so he was told about the events later.

7. Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene arrive at the tomb. Peter and John return home.

Matthew 28:1-10 | v8

3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.

8. Jesus appears first to Mary Magdalene while she is at the tomb, then to the other women while they are on their way to Bethany to tell the disciples, or vice versa

Matthew 28:1-10 | v9-10

9 And behold, Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me."

John 24:1-29 | v11-18

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 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." 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." 16 Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned and said to him in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’" 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"—and that he had said these things to her.

Did Jesus appear first to a group of women, or to Mary Magdalene alone?

Jesus either appeared first to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, and then to the group of women while they were on their way to Bethany to tell the disciples, or vice versa. It is reasonable to believe that Mark and Luke do not mention either of these appearances because they've already included spectacular events that have happened this day, and their specific narrative of events did not require mentioning these appearances.

9. The other women (except Mary Magdalene) tell the other disciples in Bethany about the empty tomb

Luke 24:1-44 | v8-12

8 And they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, 11 but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.

Were all the women and all the disciples together when the news about the empty tomb was told?

Probably not. It is likely that Mary Magdalene had separated from the rest of the women to tell Peter and John, who were staying at a different place than the rest of the disciples. The rest of the women (except Mary Magdalene) told the rest of the disciples, and they may have either made an extra stop, or split up, to tell Cleopas and an unnamed disciple about the day's events also (Luke 24:13-24)

10. Jesus' third appearance was to Cleopas and his companion

Luke 24:1-44 | v13-32

13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, "What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?" And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?" 19 And he said to them, "What things?" And they said to him, "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see." 25 And he said to them, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent." So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?"

11. Jesus' fourth appearance was to Peter

Luke 24:1-44 | v33-35

33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, 34 saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!" 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

12. Jesus' fifth appearance was to many disciples, including the eleven

Luke 24:1-44 | v36-44

36 As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38 And he said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate before them.

44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled."

John 20:1-29 | v19-23

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."

13. Jesus appears to Thomas

John 20:1-29 | v24-29

24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin,[d] was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe."

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe." 28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

General notes concerning harmonizing the resurrection accounts

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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