When reading the four gospels it is possible to find, what appear to be, contradictions between the different accounts. The events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus are described in all four gospels, but certain statements appear contradictory to each other. For example, in Mark’s account, he says that the women who encountered the angel at the empty tomb fled and didn’t say anything to anyone; whereas in Matthew’s and Luke’s account, the women went and told the eleven disciples what had happened. Also, was there one angel inside the tomb, or two angels outside the tomb, or one angel sitting on the rolled back stone, who spoke to the women?
Rather than assuming that the gospel accounts are flawed, it is better to assume that any apparent contradictions are explainable if we look a bit more carefully at how the accounts can be harmonised. Assuming that each account is true, proper understanding can only be reached by adding the four accounts together. It is also important to understand that Jesus was crucified on a Wednesday and not a Friday, which would otherwise make it impossible to construct the correct timing of events. The fact that he would be in the tomb for three days and three nights was the only sign Jesus gave that he was who he said he was (Matt 12:40).
The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are generally known as the Synoptic Gospels because of many similarities in the sequence and wording of the events they describe. The gospel of John stands out from the other three because it follows a different pattern and has many unique elements that the other gospels don’t have. Each of the four gospels offer a slightly different perspective, which gives us a fuller picture of the events and teachings of the life of Jesus Christ. It is important to remember that each gospel, while being a true account, is not a complete account by itself. There are elements missing in each, that can only be filled in by looking at all four together. Also, events are sometimes recorded in condensed form, which means the exact chronology is not always obvious when looking at the gospels in isolation.
What follows is an attempt to put together the events following the burial of Jesus. The most important points are very easily corollated between the gospels, but some of the finer details are not so easily reconciled.
The main points
– Jesus was in the tomb 3 days and 3 nights as he said he would be
– The women went to the tomb early on the first day of the week but Jesus had already risen
– Angels appeared to the women confirming that Jesus had risen
– The disciples did not immediately believe the reports of Jesus’ resurrection
– Jesus personally appeared to the disciples on more than one occasion following his resurrection
Synopsis of events following the death of Jesus
On the afternoon of the 14th day of the 1st month, Joseph of Arimathaea went and asked Pilate’s permission to take away the body of Jesus (John 19:38).
Nicodemus brought embalming spices, then he and Joseph bound the body of Jesus in strips of linen with the spices (John 19:39-40). Just before sunset on the 14th, Jesus was put in the tomb by Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus (Matt 27:57-60; Mark 15:42-46; Luke 23:50-54; John 19:41-42). Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses observed where he was laid, but may not have known that he had already been embalmed considering the short time between when he died and was put in the tomb (Matt 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55).
On the 15th (the annual sabbath of the 1st day of ULB) the chief priests and Pharisees requested that Pilate put a guard on the tomb (Matt 27:62-66).
On the 16th, during the day (after the annual sabbath was past), Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses and Salome bought spices and prepared them (Mark 16:1; Luke 23:56).
The women then rested on the 17th which was the weekly Sabbath (Luke 23:56).
Some time after sunset, when the 17th ended and the 18th began, there was an earthquake. Then an angel rolled back the stone and proceeded to sit on it. This earthquake was probably at the same moment Jesus was resurrected from the dead. The guards saw the angel sitting on the stone and became petrified with fear (Matt 28:2-4). When they had found their legs again, they went and reported what had happened to the chief priests and were bribed to keep silent (Matt 28:11-15). Clearly they let something slip because word got out and we have their experience recorded for us to read!
The women who had bought and prepared the spices (Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses) went to the tomb to embalm Jesus at first light on the 18th (Matt 28:1; John 20:1). What might have happened is that the women had a prior arrangement to meet there but Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb first when it was still dark, just before sunrise on the 18th. She saw in the dim light that the stone had been rolled back and immediately ran off to tell Peter and the other disciples that the body of Jesus had been stolen (or so it appeared to her) (Luke 24:10-11; John 20:2).
While Mary had gone to the disciples, and very soon after the sun had risen on the morning of the 18th (the first day of the week and the Wave Sheaf Day) the other women (including Mary the mother of James and Joses, Joanna and Salome) arrived at the tomb and also saw that the stone had been rolled away (Mark 16:2-4; Luke 24:1-2). The women looked into the empty tomb and saw a man in white apparel (who they would later realise was an angel) sitting in the tomb. He told the women to report to the disciples that Jesus was going to Galilee (Matt 28:5-7; Mark 16:5-7; Luke 24:3). When they were outside the tomb they discussed these perplexing events. As they were talking, two men in shining apparel (clearly angels) appeared standing next to them and reminded them of what Jesus had previously told them about his death and resurrection after three days (Luke 24:4-8). They were afraid and fled from the tomb, however, it would appear that they delayed in telling the disciples because of fear and confusion (Matt 28:8; Mark 16:8; Luke 24:9).
Meanwhile, Peter and the other disciple (John), ran to the tomb after hearing what Mary Magdalene told them (Luke 24:12,24; John 20:3-9). John ran faster and arrived at the tomb first, but by this time the other women had already left. He poked his head in and saw the linen cloths lying there. Then Peter arrived and went inside the tomb followed by John. They saw the linen cloths lying where Jesus had been laid and the head cloth folded in another place. If Jesus’ body had been stolen then the grave cloths would have still been on him and not left in the way that Peter and John had seen them, however, they still did not understand about the resurrection. After seeing the empty tomb they went back to their homes (John 20:10).
Mary Magdalene had followed Peter and John back to the tomb (but probably didn’t run like they did). She remained at the tomb after Peter and John had gone home and while she sat there weeping, she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet where Jesus had lain (John 20:11-13). After they had asked her why she was weeping, she turned around and saw a man who she thought was the gardener. He also asked her why she was weeping, but when he said her name, she recognised him as Jesus (John 20:14-16). Jesus told her not to cling to him because he had not yet ascended to the Father (John 20:17). Mary was the first to have seen Jesus after his resurrection. She then went back to tell the disciples that she had seen Jesus and relayed what he had told her (Mark 16:9-10; John 20:18). When they heard that she had seen him they did not believe it (Mark 16:11).
Meanwhile, some of the other women who had gone to the tomb and fled, encountered Jesus. He told them not to be afraid, after which they went to tell the disciples, but they did not believe them either (Matt 28:9-10; Luke 24:10-11,23).
Shortly after this (still on the 18th), while the eleven disciples were still in Jerusalem, two other disciples set out towards Emmaus and were discussing what had happened (Luke 24:13-32). Jesus walked up to them and spoke with them, but they did not recognise him. They invited Jesus to dine with them when they reached Emmaus and it was when Jesus broke bread with them that they recognised who he was. This realisation may well have been triggered because they saw the nail holes in his hands. Jesus then vanished from their sight, and the two disciples went immediately back to Jerusalem to tell the eleven disciples (Luke 24:32-35).
In the mean time it seems that Jesus appeared privately to Peter, because when the two disciples met up with the eleven (and others with them) in Jerusalem, they were told that Simon Peter had seen Jesus (Luke 24:34). The Apostle Paul also records that Jesus was seen by Cephas (Simon Peter) first then the others (1Co 15:5).
While the two disciples that met Jesus on the road to Emmaus were telling their story, Jesus appeared in their midst (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23). He used the imprints in his hands and feet as a sign of who he was and explained that he had fulfilled his mission. This was the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples as a group, however, Thomas was not present on this occasion (John 20:24).
Eight days after Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples, he appeared again and proved himself to Thomas who had doubted (John 20:25-29). This was probably while they were still in Jerusalem.
The disciples had been told that they would see Jesus in Galilee following his resurrection (Matt 26:32; 28:7; Mark 16:7). After having been certain days in Jerusalem, they went up to Galilee. Jesus appeared to seven of the disciples for the third time while they were fishing in the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-14).
Also while in Galilee, there was a particular place in the mountains where Jesus appointed that they should meet him (Matt 28:16). Jesus gave them the commission to go and teach the way of God and baptise people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:17-20). It is not recorded, but there may have been many other occasions that Jesus spent time with his disciples while in Galilee (cf. John 21:25; Acts 1:3). The Apostle Paul mentions various occasions that Jesus appeared to his disciples, including over five hundred brethren at one time (1Co 15:5-8).
At some point after having been in Galilee for probably at least a couple of weeks, the disciples went back to Jerusalem.
Jesus met with them again in Jerusalem and he commanded them to stay there until the Holy Spirit came, which would be only a few days away (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5). He told them that they would be witnesses to the world and should go and preach the good news (Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:45-48; Acts 1:6-8).
Jesus then took the disciples out to Bethany, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, just outside of Jerusalem. It was there that they saw him being taken up into heaven to sit at the right hand of God (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:9-11). This occurred forty days after Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:3).
In the ten days between the ascension and Pentecost, the disciples stayed together and continued in prayer and supplication (Acts 1:12-14). In that time period, Matthias was chosen to replace Judas (Acts 1:15-26). Then on the fiftieth day, Pentecost came and the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4).
[Editor’s note: When this article was first published, it was stated that ‘Meanwhile, two of the other women who had gone to the tomb and fled, encountered Jesus in another form.’ This was based on the statement in Mark 16:12-13, following on from Mary’s encounter with Jesus. This has now been corrected as it is much more likely that the two being referred to, were the disciples on the road to Emmaus, rather than two of the other women. Going to Emmaus would be considered ‘going into the country’, something the women who had been at the tomb didn’t do as they evidently stayed in the Jerusalem. Therefore, the number of women that Jesus appeared to as they went to tell the disciples is not known exactly.]