When Was the Stone Rolled Away From the Tomb? Did an Earthquake Occur? Matt 28:1-5, Mark 16:3-4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1

Is the Bible contradictory concerning when the stone was rolled away from the tomb and whether an earthquake occurred? Here is a possible solution.
Bible "contradictions"
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Quick answer

The stone was rolled away before the women arrived at the tomb. "had occurred" may be a better translation of the passage, and the purpose of the passage would be to explain the lack of guards at the tomb when the women arrived.

The argument

Some argue that the gospel resurrection accounts are contradictory concerning whether the stone was already rolled away when the women arrived at the tomb. Here are the relevant passages:

Stone rolled away after the women arrived?

Matthew 28:1-5 NASB - Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave. And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. And his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified."

Stone rolled away before the women arrived

Mark 16:3-4 - And they were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?" And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large.
Luke 24:2 - And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb...
John 20:1 - Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.

The apparent contradiction here is that while Mark, Luke, and John write that the stone was already rolled away when the women arrived at the tomb, Matthew appears to be saying that the stone was rolled away after the women arrived. Also, Matthew includes details about an earthquake, while the other gospels do not.

A reasonable explanation

It would be reasonable to believe that the earthquake, the angel coming, the stone being rolled away, the angel sitting on the stone, and the guards fainting and/or fleeing all happened before the women arrived at the tomb. The NASB translation, quoted above, uses the verb "had occurred," rather than "there was," which suggests that the events in verses 2-4 occurred before the women arrived at the tomb.

It would make sense for Matthew to be using verses 2-4 to provide extra context regarding the scene that the women encountered when they arrived at the tomb. Verses 2-4 would help explain the lack of guards at the tomb when the women arrived.

Thus, in all four accounts, the stone would have been rolled away before the women arrived at the tomb.

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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