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Matthew 28

Chapter Twenty-eight:

Harmony of the Four Gospel Accounts of the Resurrection of Christ

Below is my best attempt to harmonize the four gospel accounts of the resurrection of Christ.  In this harmony, I am assuming that the four writers do not contradict themselves but rather that each of them chose to compress or detail the events of that day to accomplish his own specific purpose in writing.  Among other things, this means that when any given account mentions only one person (for instance, Mary Magdalene, or one angel) I feel justified in interpreting this to mean either that there really was only one person or that that one person is representative of a group.

Mary Magdalene, “the other Mary,”[1] Salome, Joanna, and at least one other woman[2] set out[3] to visit Jesus’s tomb in the early morning, in the dark before sunrise (John 20:1), to anoint his body with spice (Mark 16:1).  Before they arrive at the tomb, a pure white angel descends like lightning from heaven, rolls back the great stone before the tomb, and sits on it.  His descent and appearance, which is accompanied by an earthquake, is so terrifying to the guards of the tomb that they pass out from fear and lie like dead men (Matthew 28:2).  If the women hear this earthquake, they are unaware of its significance; thus, as they journey to the tomb, they worry about how to move the great stone aside in order to approach Jesus’s body (Mark 16:3).  They arrive at the tomb just after the sun has risen (Mark 16:2), and only then do they realize that the stone has already been rolled away (Mark 16:4).  But the angel who had been sitting on the stone is no longer visible from the outside, and the women[4] conclude that Jesus’s body has been stolen.  In sadness and fear, they leave the tomb without entering it[5] and flee to tell Peter and John what they believe has happened (John 20:1-2).

When Peter and John hear the story, they both race to the tomb with Mary and the women following.[6] John outruns Peter, reaches the tomb first, and peers in from outside to see the linen burial wrappings, but he cannot bring himself to enter.  Peter actually enters first.  He too sees the wrappings, including the cloth which had bound Christ’s head and which now lies folded neatly in its own place.  Then John enters and finally accepts Mary Magdalene’s story that the body has been stolen.[7] Both men forsake the tomb for their homes, leaving Mary Magdalene weeping with the other women outside the tomb (John 20:3-10).

After they leave, Mary Magdalene peers into the tomb[8] and is stunned to see two young men[9] inside, both dressed in white and sitting on Jesus’s burial slab, one at the head and the other at the foot.  They ask[10] her why she is crying and she, not recognizing them as angels, answers that she is upset because Jesus’s body is missing (John 20:11-13).  The other women, surprised to hear Mary talking to someone inside what they thought was an empty tomb, enter the tomb and as they do so are startled (Mark 16:5) to find the two[11] men seated there. As they enter, however, something draws Mary Magdalene’s attention away from the tomb.  She turns and spies what she thinks is a gardener a little way off (John 20:14).  Believing that the other women will find out what they can from the two men inside, she goes to speak with this gardener to see if he knows anything about the body.  As she approaches the gardener, he sees her weeping and asks her why she is upset.  They then have a conversation in which she asks him if he knows where the body is so she can take it away and honor it.  At some point in this conversation, Jesus says one word: “Mary.”  She suddenly recognizes him as Jesus and is overcome with joy, falling at his feet, hugging his ankles, and calling him Master (John 20:15-17).

Meanwhile, the other women are inside the tomb puzzling over where the body could be and asking the two young men if they know anything, when suddenly the two angels who had been sitting are transfigured and appear standing beside them, their clothes dazzling.  The women are terrified, realizing now that the two men are angels, but the angels comfort them, telling them not to be afraid.  Then they answer the women’s question about the body by announcing the wonderful news that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  After that they tell the women to relay the good news to the other disciples (Luke 24:3-8).

All the women run out of the tomb in great joy and fear.  They are heading back to tell the disciples when suddenly Jesus calls out to them.  At that moment they see him standing there, with Mary Magdalene at his feet, and they all join her, rushing to him and grabbing his feet in an ecstasy of worship.  After a little while, however, Jesus says they must let him go because he still has some work to do before ascending to heaven, and they must go and tell the disciples all that they have seen (Matthew 28:8-10, John 20:17).  Then the women obey him.  They leave the garden, speaking to nobody (Mark 16:8) until they reach the disciples.  The disciples, however, dismiss their story as delusional.  Only Peter has second thoughts and returns to the tomb, amazed by the women’s story and wondering if it could be true (Luke 24:10-12).

William Blake The Angel Rolling the Stone Away from the Sepulchre

Victoria and Albert Museum, The William Blake Archive. Used with permission.

v. 1: In the NRSV translation, Mark 16:2 reads thus: “When the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.”  John 20:1 reads thus: “While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” In English, the verbs “to go” (went) and “to come” (came) have opposing meanings, just as “to leave” and “to arrive” do.  Therefore, the translations of these verses make the two narratives contradict each other.  According to Mark, they did not leave to visit the tomb until the sun had risen, but according to John, Mary Magdalene (and the other women[12]) arrived at the tomb before the sun had risen.  The curious thing is that the Greek verb, which the NRSV translates as “went” in Mark, is the same verb that it translates as “came” in John.  According to Strong’s Concordance, the verb in question is erchomai, which means “to come, or go (in a great variety of applications, lit[eral] and fig[urative])” (2064).  I do not know why the NRSV translates the passages the way it does.  The Old King James translation reads thus: “[T]hey came unto the sepulcher at the rising of the sun” (Mark 16:2), and “The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark” (John 20:1.)  I assume from this that the meaning of the Greek verb (out of context) is not as specific as are the English verbs “to go” and “to come;” therefore, I feel justified in saying that the women left to visit the tomb while it was still dark and arrived at the tomb as the sun was rising or shortly after it had risen.

v. 4: How ironic that at the time of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, the guards who were assigned to keep him in the tomb become like dead men themselves.

v. 5:

John 2:11-12 says, “She [Mary Magdalene] bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head, and the other at the feet.”

Luke 24:3 says, “But when they went in, they did not find the body.  While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.”

Mark 16:5 says, “As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man….”

The English makes John seem to say that the women saw the angels while still outside the tomb.  It makes Mark seem to say the women saw them (him) just as soon as they entered the tomb, or even while in the process of entering, and it makes Luke seem to say they saw the angels some time after entering the tomb.  In the harmony I have provided a way of interpreting these verses so that they do not contradict each other; however, there may be a way of demonstrating that they are all saying essentially the same thing.  I do not know what the Greek says, but maybe Luke’s description could incorporate the other two.  For instance, “as they went in” does suggest that they saw the angels while in the process of entering, but perhaps it could also mean something like “as they went around inside the tomb, perplexed.”  And perhaps John could be read thus: “she bent over to look into [and enter] the tomb, and [after looking and entering] she saw two angels.”  I prefer the way I interpret the verses in my harmony.

v. 8: When the women leave the tomb after meeting with the angels, they have “great joy.”  I assume this means that they no longer believe that the body of Jesus has been stolen but rather that he has been raised from the dead.  However, when Mary Magdalene leaves the tomb, she is still weeping.  Jesus even asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  Therefore, Mary’s meeting with Jesus in John 20:14-15 cannot be the same meeting that Matthew describes here.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the angels are recorded as having told the women that Jesus had risen from the dead, but John, who seems focused specifically on Mary Magdalene’s experiences, only records that the angels asked Mary why she was weeping.  I wonder, therefore, if Mary Magdalene left the tomb before the angels told the women that Jesus had risen from the dead.  John says she “bent over to look into the tomb” but does not say that she entered.  Perhaps the other women entered, but Mary Magdalene stayed outside for some reason.


[1] Mary, the mother of James (Mark 16:1).

[2] I say at least one other woman because Luke 24:10 names Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James “and the other women with them.”  If Joanna is another name for Salome, then there were at least two other women who accompanied the three named ones; if Joanna is not another name for Salome, then Salome is one of “the other women” and there must be at least one more woman in the group.

[3] See note on v. 1.

[4] John 20:1-2 only mentions Mary Magdalene doing this, which could lead one to conclude that Mary might have made this first trip to the tomb by herself, but I believe the women all came together because Mark 16:3 says that the women (including Mary Magdalene) were wondering how they could roll the stone back; if Mary Magdalene had already been to the tomb before them, she would have told them that the stone was already rolled back.  Besides, John 20:2 says, “We do not know where they have laid him.”

[5] Since they leave unconvinced that Jesus has risen from the dead, I believe they did not enter the tomb on this first visit.  In the accounts that actually describe their entering the tomb, the women meet angels and are convinced that he has come back from the dead.

[6] I believe they follow them because John 20:11 says that Mary Magdalene was weeping outside the tomb after Peter and John inspect it.  What else would have been more important to them at this moment than returning to the tomb?  Besides, the women have not yet had the experience of meeting the angels inside the tomb (otherwise, Mary would not be crying), so they must return at some point.  It makes the most sense to believe that they simply followed Peter and John.

[7] See note on John 20:8.

[8] See note on v. 5. and Luke 24:1-2.

[9] See note on John 20:12.

[10] See note on Luke 24:4.

[11] Perhaps Mark records only one because only one spoke.  Besides, if there were two, there had to be one (one plus one is two J ).  Mark does not say they saw only one angel.

[12] John 20:2 says, “We do not know where they have laid him.”

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4 Responses to “Matthew 28”

  1. […] Magdalene, “the other Mary,”[1] Salome, Joanna, and at least one other woman[2] set out[3] to visit Jesus’s tomb in the early […]

  2. […] Magdalene, “the other Mary,”[1] Salome, Joanna, and at least one other woman[2] set out[3] to visit Jesus’s tomb in the early […]

  3. […] Magdalene, “the other Mary,”[1] Salome, Joanna, and at least one other woman[2] set out[3] to visit Jesus’s tomb in the early […]

  4. […] Magdalene, “the other Mary,”[1] Salome, Joanna, and at least one other woman[2] set out[3] to visit Jesus’s tomb in the early […]

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