Contradictions (3): Angels or Men?

Contradictions Title ImageAll four Gospels describe the events that happened when female followers of Jesus discovered his body was missing from the tomb on Easter morning.  The four accounts are quite similar to one another and agree on the major points.

However, there are some differences between them, and there appear to be slight differences recorded in the order of events on that momentous and confusing morning.  Critics over the years have seized upon these differences, claiming that the accounts contradict one another.  Such contradictions, they add, are evidence of the gospel accounts’ historical unreliability.

A closer study of the empty-tomb accounts shows that the differences are very real, but not necessarily contradictory.  It’s important to note that in all accounts, the core of the story always remains consistent. The differences between them are what one might expect to find in four independently-written accounts of the same events, in which each author chose to emphasize slightly different details. While this interesting topic really deserves more than a short article, we do have the space to address some of the most-cited differences.

Angels or Men at the Tomb, and How Many?

One of the most cited “contradictions” regards the beings that the women encountered at the tomb.  Were there two of them, or just one?  Were they angels or were they men?  Well, as Bart Ehrman would say (without going any further), it depends on which gospel you read.  Well, let’s go further and take a look at the differences in the accounts themselves.

Mark 16:5-6 (NIV):

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.  “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

Matthew 28:5 (NIV):

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.

Luke 24:4-5 (NIV):

 While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?

John 20:11-12 (NIV):

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

How many beings were there?  The answer is simple.  There were two.  It would be a mistake to assume that every author would report every detail identically.  Luke and John report that there were two beings.  Matthew and Mark only mention one.  However, neither Matthew nor Mark states that there was one and only one being at the tomb.  Instead, they focus their attention on the lead being—the one who apparently did the talking—and omit the other.  This is a difference, but it’s not a contradiction at all.  It simply reflects differences in the way the authors chose to report the details.  Critics have leveled similar objections against the gospel accounts regarding the identities of the women who visited the tomb, and they are dispensed with in the same way.

Were they angels or men?  It’s important to note that the stereotypical image of angels as beautiful women with wings and halos is not biblically based.  In many biblical accounts, they appear as normal people.  Hebrews 13:2, for example, reports that many have entertained angels unawares.

At any rate, in each account, the author understands—and intends to communicate—that the beings were angels who appeared as men.  Mark and Luke describe what the women saw (men) while Matthew and John provide the interpretation of what the women saw (angels).  Simply put, there is no contradiction here.

Did the Women See the Stone Being Rolled Away?

At the beginning of the accounts, Mark and Luke both indicate that the women came on the scene only after the stone at the tomb’s entrance had been rolled away.  However, Matthew seems to indicate that the women actually witnessed the event.  Some critics point out that this is a glaring contradiction between the accounts.

Here’s the passage in Matthew 28: 1-6:

1After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook 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 was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.”

Sure enough, the English translation of these verses makes it seem as if the author intended to communicate that the women had witnessed the stone being rolled away.  In the original Greek, however, Matthew introduced the passage about the angel with the word γάρ, which indicates that the passage is explaining what had caused the state of affairs discovered by the women1, not that they witnessed the events.  A better way to render it in English might be something like:

1After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord had come down from heaven and, …

The passage simply explains what had previously happened to create the scene the women discovered:  An empty tomb with a rolled-back stone, no guards (they had fled), and an angel—or angels—who had apparently waited for the women to arrive.  There is no contradiction.  Matthew does not claim that the women saw the angel’s arrival, the earthquake, or the unconscious guards.

The Scene with Mary Magdalene in John 20

John 20: 11-18 is a problem for some critics, as it can seem a little confusing when compared to the chain of events in the other gospel accounts.  It’s much less confusing when one realizes that it simply recounts a later event involving Mary Magdalene, after Peter and John had come, inspected the empty tomb, and gone away again.  The passage does not recount the original discovery of the empty tomb by the women, as some have interpreted:

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

There is much more that could be written about these passages.  However, the key points are:

  • All four accounts are consistent when it comes to the key elements of the story.
  • The differences are basically due to the authors’ decisions to focus on different details or aspects of the story. They are not contradictions.
  • The differences are of the type that one might expect to find when analyzing independent accounts of the same events.

If the accounts had related each detail identically, than that would present a strong case for collusion, and would harm the assertion that the accounts are independent.  Fortunately, that’s not the case.  What we have a four independent accounts that largely corroborate one another.

Notes:

  1. McGrew, Timothy (Professor and Director of Graduate Teaching, Western Michigan University),Alleged Contradictions in the Gospels, Part 2, Presentation to St. Michael Lutheran Church, MI, 20 Aug 2012, slide 31, accessed 4 Oct. 2015, http://www.apologetics315.com/2012/09/alleged-contradictions-in-gospels-2-by.html

 

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