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Resurrection Inconsistencies

Critics of Jesus’ resurrection make much of inconsistencies in the New Testament accounts. While the four Gospels agree that women discovered the empty tomb, they record very different accounts of what women experienced at the tomb. However, most perceived inconsistencies fade when readers remember three facts. Precise time-keeping did not exist. Telecommunication did not exist. And we cannot know how many women went to the tomb.

What follows is my suggested sequence of events of Resurrection Sunday.
According to the New Testament a handful of women witnessed Jesus’ death and rushed burial. The messy internment was hurriedly accomplished by two Jewish leaders. The burial was rushed because it was late afternoon; Sabbath would begin at sundown when all work had to stop.

The women witnessing the burial noted missing decencies. A few agreed they’d supply what was missing, but would have to delay until Sabbath ended. (
Jewish scholar Alfred Edersheim writes it was customary for 1st century Jewish mourners to re-enter a tomb for 2-3 days.) While some women hurried off to buy the customary burial mix of myrrh and aloes before Sabbath shuddered the markets, others lingered near Jesus’ tomb. Before separating the women agreed to gather at the tomb first thing Sunday morning.

Before streetlights or flashlights, once daylight faded activity was limited to what might be accomplished by moonlight or the smoky glow of olive oil lanterns. Walking even a well-traveled road in the dark could produce bloodied toes or worse. So it was not until Sunday morning that separate groups of women lodging in various parts of Jerusalem trekked towards Jesus’ tomb. Possibly word had spread of the plan for a Sunday morning gathering at the tomb, prompting additional women to participate.

Without clocks the women could not have set a precise Sunday morning meeting time at Jesus’ tomb. For some, sunrise meant first light—for others it meant when the sun was above the horizon. New Testament writers indicate at least some of the women began their trek in the predawn dusk. And the separate groups of women traveled different routes without knowing exactly who planned to gather at Jesus’ tomb.

The first small group of women approached the garden tomb with the first rays of the sun. Just then an earthquake struck. Then an angel appeared and rolled away the stone blocking the tomb’s entrance. This alien being was so menacing that the guard, stationed to prevent Jesus’ followers from stealing the body, collapsed in fear.

Before the first group of women arrived, this angel entered the tomb. Discovering the tomb opened, the women entered and were alarmed by an angel announcing that the crucified Jesus had risen. Having found the tomb empty—no body but no risen Jesus—the stunned, panicked and confused women rushed back to Jerusalem; initially saying nothing to anyone.

Soon after that first group of women fled, the guard recovered enough to make their escape. After the guard departed, a second group of women arrived at the tomb, ignorant that a first group had already come and gone. The angel, too, was gone. The area was deserted but the tomb was open. Entering they found Jesus’ body gone. Overcome with emotion Mary Magdalene panicked, broke away from the group and ran back into Jerusalem.

The remaining women, stunned and bewildered, speculated about the empty tomb. Two angels suddenly appeared (Matthew and Mark identify only the speaking angel). Awestruck, they bow before the angels, who instruct the women to go and tell Jesus’ disciples that he has risen. Confused, fearful, yet full of joy, the women rush out of the tomb and nearly ran over Jesus, who was wandering about the garden. He greeted the women, calmed their fears and instructed them to inform his disciples.

Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene, who’d run away from the second group before the angels or Jesus appeared, located Peter and John. She could tell them only what she knew: Jesus’ body was missing. Peter and John rushed to the tomb. However, before the two men got to the tomb the second group of women left area, as had Jesus and the angels.

John outran Peter to the tomb but didn’t go in. Looking in he saw grave clothes but no body. When Peter arrived he ran straight inside. Following Peter into the tomb, John suddenly believed Jesus had risen from death. Peter, not so much.

While Peter and John are in the tomb Mary Magdalene arrived a second time. She stayed outside weeping, remaining after Peter and John separately departed. At some point she looked into the tomb and saw two angels. Knowing Jesus was alive, the angels ask why she is weeping. Without processing who is questioning her and ignorant of Jesus’ resurrection, Mary explains that she is looking for her teacher’s dead body.

Then desperately looking around the garden Mary saw Jesus standing nearby, but didn’t recognize him. Did he look different? Could her mind not comprehend Jesus alive? Regardless, Mary assumes Jesus is a gardener until he speaks her name. Overjoyed, Mary clings to Jesus until he sends her to inform his disciples.

When Mary brought her report to Jesus’ disciples the second group of women had already reported their encounter with Jesus. By Sunday afternoon all the women who went to the tomb were reporting what they had seen, and learning what others had experienced. ~

Dan Nygaard