Opponents of Christianity sometimes claim that accounts of the resurrection of Jesus cannot be believed, not only because the thought of a dead man returning to life seems preposterous, but also because the Bible’s accounts do not agree with one another. As for the resurrection being preposterous, that is the entire point of the event: Jesus did something amazing and incredible to call attention to his victory. Evil and death have been defeated and Jesus won the victory. Doubt the resurrection and Christianity disappears; trust the news of the resurrection, and the rest of Christianity follows.
Are the accounts of the resurrection in the Bible different? Do they contradict one another? Naturally, if they all said the same things in the same way, opponents would use that conformity as a reason to doubt the truth of the message. Different writers focus on different events and omit different details. Some atheists have offered financial rewards for any writer who can knit a consistent narrative out of the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. Without any hope of winning a reward—for surely the atheists would find some part of my explanation far-fetched just to keep their money—here is my narrative of the events of Easter, using the books of the New Testament as my sources.
Jesus died about three o’clock in the afternoon (Matthew 27:46, et al.). Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin (the seventy men who ruled Israel regarding religious matters), sought permission from Governor Pontius Pilate to bury Jesus (Matthew 27:57-58, et al.). This was unusual—crucified criminals usually were thrown into a common grave. After Pilate had confirmed that Jesus truly was dead (Mark 15:45), he gave permission for the burial. Joseph had recently acquired a vault in a garden near Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified. This was to be a tomb for Joseph and the members of his family when they died (Matthew 27:60). No one yet had been buried there (John 19:41). Joseph bought a shroud of linen (Matthew 27:59, et al.) and, according to Jewish burial practices of the time (John 19:40), tore it into long strips to mummify Jesus. Assisted by Nicodemus, he cleaned the body of Jesus and wrapped the linen around his body, along with seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloe (John 19:38-42). They placed the body of Jesus in the vault and rolled a large stone in front of the entrance to complete the burial (Matthew 27:60 et al.).
Several women had come from Galilee with Jesus and his disciples for the Passover holiday. They included Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, Johanna, and others (Matthew 27:61, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10). At least some of these women watched as the two men buried Jesus. Feeling that the rushed burial (completed before the sun set and the Sabbath began) was incomplete, the women provided themselves with spices and ointments. After the Sabbath, they planned to complete what they men felt they had finished.
Meanwhile, the authorities in Jerusalem remembered the prophecy of Jesus—that he would be crucified and would rise three days later. Saying that they feared that his disciples would steal his body to fake a resurrection, they warned the governor of this possibility. “You have a guard,” he reminded them, speaking of the Temple soldiers. He gave them permission to guard the tomb, and also to place a seal on the stone, making it a crime for anyone to move the stone (Matthew 27:62-66).
During the Sabbath, Jesus rested, his body dead and buried, and his soul in the hands of his Father in Paradise (Luke 23:43 and 46). Sunday morning he rose to life again, soul and body recombined. He did not need the stone removed for him to leave the tomb, but the stone had to be removed for others to see that he had risen. Meanwhile, the risen Jesus proclaimed his victory over the spirits of those who had died resisting his commands (I Peter 3:19-20).
The women from Galilee got up before sunrise to take their spices to the tomb (Matthew 28:1, John 20:1). They were probably staying in the suburbs, so their journey took a while. As they traveled the sun rose (Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1). There was an earthquake (Matthew 28:2), perhaps an aftershock from Friday’s quake. As the earth shook, an angel descended from heaven, threw the stone out of place, and sat upon it (Matthew 28:2-3). Instead of arresting the angel for moving the sealed stone, the guards fainted (Matthew 28:4). (There were probably only two or three of them; how many guards are needed to guard a tomb?) They must have revived quickly and slunk away; no mention is made of their presence when the women arrived at the tomb.
When she saw that the stone had been removed (Mark 16:4, John 20:1-2), Mary Magdalene immediately left the other women and ran to where Peter and John were staying. “They have taken the Lord’s body,” she told them, “and we don’t know where they have laid him” (John 20:2). While this was happening, the other women entered the tomb. They saw the linen in which Jesus had been wrapped, now clearly not containing a body (Luke 24:3). They also saw two angels. (Matthew and Mark mention only one angel; Luke mentions two. Since Matthew and Mark do not say “only one angel,” they are not contradicting Luke’s report of two angels. In the same way, Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention Joseph burying Jesus without mentioning Nicodemus. Only John mentions the help of Nicodemus. But the first three writers do not say that he acted alone, so there is no contradiction. It would be difficult for one man to mummify the corpse of another.) The first angel said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) The second angel said, “Do not be afraid; I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen. See the place where they laid him?” pointing to the empty pile of linen (Matthew 28:5-6, Mark 16:6 ). The first angel added, “Remember how he told you in Galilee that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and rise again on the third day?” (Luke 24:6-7) The women remembered his words and started to understand what had happened (Luke 24:8). The second angel said, “Go tell the disciples, and Peter” (Mark 16:7—Peter had recently denied being a disciple of Jesus), “that he is risen and will meet them in Galilee” (Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:7). The women left with mixed feelings, a combination of fear and joy, as they were starting to understand and believe in the news of the resurrection, but they still were frightened. At first they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:8).
Their outlook changed on the way into Jerusalem when they met Jesus. They worshiped him, and he reaffirmed the angel’s message to tell the disciples that he would meet them in Galilee (Matthew 28:9-10). Meanwhile, Peter and John—having been told part of what was happening—raced to the tomb. John, being younger, arrived first, but lingered outside the tomb. Peter barreled past him and entered the tomb, seeing the empty pile of linen but not seeing or hearing any angels. John also entered the tomb and started to understand what had happened, but Peter remained befuddled (John 20:3-10 ; Luke 24:12 mentions Peter’s visit).
Peter and John returned to the city. Mary Magdalene must have followed them back to the tomb, because when they left she was alone in the garden (John 20:11). First she saw two angels in the tomb and spoke with them (John 20:12-13), then she turned and saw Jesus. Thinking he was the gardener, she asked him what he had done with the body of Jesus. When Jesus spoke her name, she recognized him and grabbed his feet, worshiping him (John 20:14-16). “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said (not “Don’t touch me,” as some translations say), and he sent her to the disciples with a message like that he had sent through the other women (John 20:17). (Mark 16:9 says Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene. This does not mean his first appearance of the day, but the first appearance in Mark’s list.)
Meanwhile, the guards who had fainted at the sight of an angel reported to the chief priests what had happened. (This shows that they were Temple guards, not Roman soldiers.) They were paid money to spread the story that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus from under their noses (Matthew 28:11-15).
To be continued tomorrow… J.