The Resurrection of Jesus: A Harmonization and Answers to Contradictions

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Harmonization of Resurrection Day

A possible harmonization of events on the day of Jesus' resurrection:

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, and at least one other woman (Lk 24:10) left before sunrise (Mt 28:1, Lk 24:1), heading for Jesus' tomb with the spices they had prepared. While they were en route, there was an earthquake at the tomb. An angel appeared; he rolled away the stone in front of the tomb and sat on it, frightening the guards. (The second angel may have appeared at this time also, or not appeared until the women reached the tomb.)

The women approached the tomb just after sunrise (Mk 16:2), with Mary Magdalene possibly arriving a little earlier (John 20:1). As they approached, they asked each other who would roll away the stone blocking the entrance; but then they reached the tomb, looked up, and saw that it had been moved (Mk 16:3-4). Mary Magdalene may have looked inside and seen that the tomb was empty, but then she immediately ran to get the disciples (John 20:1-2).

The other women entered the tomb, probably in two different groups. The first group entered and saw that it was in fact empty. They wondered about this, and then saw two angels standing next to them. Frightened, they bowed down to the ground, but the angels said to them, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. But why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen, as he said. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise. Come, see the place where he lay. 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." (ESV, Mt 28:5-7, Lk 24:5-7) They left quickly, with fear and joy, and went to the disciples and told them what happened (Mt 28:5-8, Lk 24:2-10).

The second group entered and saw one of the angels sitting inside. 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. 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." (ESV, Mk 16:6-7) They were trembling and afraid and didn't go directly to the disciples (Mark 16:5-8).

Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene found Peter and John and told them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!" Peter and John then ran to the tomb, John reaching it first. They saw the linen that had been used to wrap Jesus' body lying there, then entered the tomb and saw the burial cloth folded up as well (John 20:1-9). They went home, but Mary, who had followed them back to the tomb, stood outside the tomb crying. Looking inside the tomb, she saw the two angels, one seated where Jesus' head had been and the other seated at the foot (John 20:10-12). Then follows her interaction with the angels and Jesus in John 20:13-17. Perhaps she clung fiercely to Jesus, which prompted him to say, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father." She then returned to the disciples and told them she had seen Jesus, but at least some of them didn't believe her (Mk 16:9-11, Jn 20:18).

Later that day, Jesus appeared to some of the women, probably those who were too afraid to speak to the disciples at first, for the first group only spoke of seeing the angels and not Jesus (Luke 24:22-23). Jesus told them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me." (ESV, Mt 28:9-10) Jesus also appeared to Peter sometime during the day (Luke 24:33-34, 1 Cor 15:5).

Cleopas and another disciple left for Emmaus after hearing about the empty tomb and the message from the angels (Lk 24:13-24). Jesus met them on the way (Mk 16:12) and the events of Luke 24:15-32 took place. The two disciples immediately returned to Jerusalem and found the others (minus Thomas) discussing Jesus' appearance to Simon Peter (Lk 24:33-35).

At this point, some of the group believed that Jesus had risen and some didn't. Certainly those who had seen Jesus believed. Possibly John and some of the others believed their accounts, for some of them were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon" (Lk 24:34). Others remained skeptical, and perhaps others both wanted to believe and yet were not sure.

While they were all gathered together, Jesus appeared and stood among them, despite the doors being locked (Mk 16:14, Lk 24:36, Jn 20:19, 1 Cor 15:5). He rebuked those who didn't believe. Even so, some still found it hard to believe that he was really alive; some continued to have occasional doubts even when they saw Jesus in Galilee (Mt 28:16-17).

Harmonization of other post-resurrection appearances and the ascension

Jesus appeared to the disciples several times before his ascension, as is plain from John 20:30, Acts 1:3, and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. We probably don't have a full list of everything Jesus did in the forty days between his resurrection and ascension. But here is a partial list and possible harmonization of the appearances recorded in the Bible:

Jesus' actions in Luke 24:44-45, namely his teaching them and enabling to understand the Scriptures about him, could have occurred during any of his meetings with the disciples, including the meeting on the mountain in Galilee and/or his appearance to the 500 (again, these may be the same event or two different events).

Other responses (offsite):

Specific contradictions

How long was Jesus in the tomb? (Matthew 12:40, Mark 10:33-34, Mark 16:9)

Responses (offsite):

How many women visited the tomb? (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10, John 20:1)

Putting Mark 16:1 and Luke 24:10 together, at least five women visited the tomb, four of whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome and Joanna. While John's account only refers to Mary Magdalene, it implies other women went with her to the tomb, since Mary's words to Peter and John are, "We don't know where they have put him!" (Jn 20:2). Some possible harmonizations of the visit to the tomb have all the women arriving together; other harmonizations have multiple groups of women going to the tomb at different times.

When did the women visit the tomb? (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1)

There are three common responses to this question. The first is that the women left while it was still dark, and arrived at the tomb just after dawn. The second is that at dawn, the sky gradually grows lighter but it is still effectively dark outside. The last is that the women traveled to the tomb in separate groups, some leaving or getting there while it was still dark, others leaving or arriving later.

Were there one or two angels or men in the tomb, and were they standing or sitting? (Matthew 28:1-7, Mark 16:2-7, Luke 24:1-8, John 20:11-13)

Matthew's account of the angel rolling away the stone probably occurred while the women were en route to the tomb, so that only the guards saw the angel sitting on the stone. John's account of Mary Magdalene and the angels is a separate event; Mary had likely gone back to get Peter and John before the other women encountered the angels.

Clearly there were two angels, as described in Luke and John. The second angel may or may not have appeared to the guards, but did appear to the women entering the tomb. It's likely that only one angel spoke, hence Mark only mentions one angel. While Mark and Luke refer to men instead of angels, the men are wearing white or "dazzling apparel" (ESV) and their appearance causes the women to be greatly distressed, which is consistent with Matthew and John's descriptions of the angels (as well as other descriptions in the Bible of people encountering angels, e.g. Dan 8:15-17, Lk 1:11-12, Acts 1:10-11, 10:30).

Were the angels standing or sitting? In my harmonization above, the angels appeared when the first group of women entered the tomb and were standing, but had seated themselves when the second group entered.

Where did the disciples first see the resurrected Jesus: Galilee or Jerusalem? (Matthew 28:16-17, Luke 24:33-37, John 20:19-20, 1 Cor 15:3-8)

Jesus appeared to the disciples many times (Jn 20:30, Acts 1:3, 1 Cor 15:3-8). His first appearance to the disciples was when they were gathered on the day of his resurrection in Jerusalem. Luke, John and likely Paul all refer to this incident; so does Mark (Mk 16:14). Matthew gave a shortened account of Jesus' resurrection appearances that only mentioned the mountain in Galilee (Mt 28:16-17) and possibly the ascension (Mt 28:18-20).

Where did Jesus tell the disciples to go after the resurrection: to Galilee or Jerusalem? (Matthew 28:10, 16, Luke 24:49)

Jesus told them to go to Galilee, though he appeared to them before they went there. After spending time in Galilee, the disciples returned to Jerusalem, where Jesus told them to stay until they were filled with the Holy Spirit.

When did the disciples receive the Holy Spirit: when they first saw the resurrected Jesus, or during Pentecost?

See When was the Holy Spirit first given to the disciples?

Where did Jesus ascend to heaven: in Bethany or on the Mount of Olives? (Luke 24:50-51, Acts 1:9-12)

As J.P. Holding notes in his article Location of the Ascension, Bethany was on the slope of the Mount of Olives, so Luke is referring to the same place in both accounts. (See the Jewish Encyclopedia for verification.)

Other responses to contradictions

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