The Story of Easter
Originally written April 20th, 2014
One of the most interesting stories in history is that of Jesus’ death and resurrection. There are few moments in history that have anywhere near the fascination that this event holds, from both the religious and secular alike. Oddly, this event doesn’t seem to be some great turning point in history; there was no great change or shift in power or anything like that. For months after, life seemed to be going on as normal in that region. Then a small group of people, people who used to be following Jesus, started to grow. A few hundred here, a few thousand there…nothing really noticeable at first…over time starting to attract attention…until it becomes so large and influential in the area that it can’t be ignored. As it spreads out, officials and historians notice this ‘mischievous superstition’ and start trying to undermine it. In spite of that, this group that started from a handful of uneducated people with no resources grew into something that outlived every expectation of it.
Clearly, some event triggered this progression, and every early Christian writing we have points to this key event: the death and resurrection of Jesus. But do we have reliable accounts of what happened those few days? We have a lot of “scholars” these days that dismiss the main records we have from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, saying either they are just copying from stories they heard, or from each other, or are just outright contradicting each other. A superficial look through the gospel accounts might agree with that; each writer includes some different details, and to someone who isn’t interested in spending the time to piece together the different perspectives on the events that took place those days they may seem at odds. I enjoy analyzing things though, so for fun, let’s go through each of the gospel accounts and see if we can answer some of the common objections to the story of Easter.
First, let’s answer the question: Who wrote these accounts? A lot of scholars today will claim Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written well after the life of Jesus and his contemporaries, and thus couldn’t have been written by the people they are attributed to. Let’s look at whether or not ancient scholars, who lived much closer to the times of Jesus, agree with that claim:
Irenaeus in his work, Against Heresies (circa 180 A.D.), says “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the church.”
Origen (lived 185–254 A.D.) wrote in his commentary on Matthew that he accepted “the traditional view of the four gospels which alone are undeniably authentic in the church of God on earth. First to be written was that of the one-time excise-man who became an apostle of Jesus Christ — Matthew; it was published for believers of Jewish origin, and was composed in Hebrew letters/language. Next came that of Mark, who followed Peter’s instructions in writing it … Next came that of Luke, who wrote for Gentile converts … Last of all came John’s.” (Cited in Ecclesiastical History 6.25).
Jerome (circa 392 A.D.), in chapter three of his De Viris Illustribus says “Matthew, also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered, a city of Syria, who use it.”
This is a point that’s often forgotten among discussions on the Bible today, but the fact of the matter is we have the writings of the people who knew Jesus, the writings of the people who knew those people, and the writings of the people who knew them…so on and so forth. It’s interesting to notice that scholars today who claim that the gospels weren’t actually written by the people identified by the early church never actually offer alternative authors; they just say we can’t prove guys like Irenaeus, Origen, and Jerome were telling the truth, so we shouldn’t believe them. In reality, we really have no reason to believe they were lying either, particularly in a time when Christians were severely persecuted for their faith. I’ve never seen evidence of a debate in the early church regarding who wrote these gospels; there’s plenty of debates on other topics, but I haven’t seen debates on that. And with at least Jerome claiming that over 300 years later the original copy of Matthew still existed, and identifying the library it can be located at, it seems unlikely that there were any significant changes in the texts that escaped notice.
So if we have no real reason to question the authorship of these texts, the next question is whether or not the accounts contradict each other about his death. What happened that Passover?
The first question we have is on the Last Supper; the day (that we assume is Thursday) when Jesus ate with his disciples for the last time. People point to a contradiction between John, identifying Jesus being crucified on the first day of the Passover, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to suggest that Jesus was crucified the day after.
John 13:1–2 “It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.”
According to John, Jesus was betrayed the night before the Passover Festival began, which would have been the night of the 13th of Nisan. We can confirm this by looking at the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion the next day:
John 18:28–29 “Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”
John 19:14 “It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.”
John 19:31 “Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.”
The other gospel accounts confirm this as well:
Matthew 27:62 “The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate.”
The day of Preparation described here seems to be for preparing the Passover sacrifice, although the term is also used to describe Fridays in general (a day preparing for the Sabbath, when you weren’t allowed to do work). The “special Sabbath” mentioned by John was the 15th of Nisan, as specified in the Law:
Exodus 12:16 “On the first day hold a sacred assembly, and another one on the seventh day. Do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat; that is all you may do.”
The first and last days were special Sabbaths, not ordinary ones. Had the Lord’s Supper been the night between the 14th and the 15th of Nisan, the crucifixion would have been during the Sabbath of Passover, rather than before, which would have been a very inappropriate time. So inappropriate, that the chief priests made a point of making sure they weren’t trying to arrest him during the actual Passover festival:
Matthew 26:3–5 “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people.””
So when we read the gospel accounts that say that the Last Supper was the first day of the Feast, are they wrong?
Mark 14:12 “On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?””
It turns out the word in Greek that we tend to translate as ‘first’ in these sentences is used in many other places in the New Testament to mean ‘before’ something. The word is prótos. So, it is actually quite possible Matthew, Mark, and Luke aren’t claiming that the Last Supper was the same day as the day the lambs were being sacrificed, but rather the day before, in accordance with John’s much more detailed account. Thus, there is no contradiction in the scriptures; Jesus was crucified on the same day that the Passover lambs were sacrificed, fulfilling once and for all the sacrifice that covers our sins.
I should also point out here that the Passover was not a one day event; this was a huge event that stretched out over a week. People came early and stayed late, and since the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, the start time isn’t always precise (some Jewish communities actually celebrate the Passover on two days just to make sure they get it right, as discussed in this article by Rabbi Goldwasser http://judaism.about.com/od/holidayssabbath/f/seders_two.htm). The fact that Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention the day of the last supper as the first day of the Passover festival is somewhat vague, and doesn’t give us reason to dismiss the very detailed and explicit account given by John. On top of that, Jewish days started at sundown, not sunrise, so that night for them would have been the first day of Passover, even though the Passover lamb wouldn’t be sacrificed until the next day.
Next question: What happened that night? Each account gives us some slightly different details, but none of the details contradict when you read through them.
Matthew starts the account of the dinner with Jesus telling his disciples that he will be betrayed, and clearly identifies Judas as the one who will do it. When Judas asks “Surely not I, Rabbi?” Jesus answers “Yes, it is you.” Now, Matthew doesn’t indicate whether or not the other disciples understood what this betrayal would be, or whether or not they even believed Jesus (we see later that at least Peter clearly doesn’t believe what Jesus is describing), but the conversation is there. Jesus then gives out the bread and wine, and the go to the Mount of Olives, with Peter promising that he won’t leave Jesus no matter what happens. Mark’s account is similar; with the exception of omitting the conversation with Judas.
Luke describes a similar scene, but with slightly different chronology. Luke describes the bread and the wine first, and then transitions to the topic of betrayal. He also includes an interesting dispute among the disciples which seems to be fairly common among them; namely, which one of them was the best. Jesus transitions from addressing that to the topic of Peter falling away, and from there the comment that they would “numbered with transgressors” in the future. Luke is unique in identifying the disciples’s reasonable response to this warning; picking up some swords to bring with them. We have no idea where these two swords came from, and it’s hard to really gauge what Jesus’ response to that was (He just replies “That is enough” and later rebukes Peter when he actually tries to use the sword to fight), but Luke at least fills in a gap that is left out of the other accounts.
Interestingly, John focuses on a much different side of the dinner; he starts off by describing how Jesus washes his disciples’ feet during the meal, an event left out of all the other accounts. He leaves out any mention of the bread and wine, but rather transitions from the feet washing to Judas’ betrayal, and identifies this as the point when Judas leaves the dinner to arrange Jesus’ arrest. Rather going straight from this moment to the Mount of Olives, John instead goes into great detail on Jesus’ final teachings to his disciples, which start before they leave for the Mount of Olives and seems to continue along the way there.
Now, it’s fairly clear that none of the events depicted here are in any way contradictory; each writer is just noting slightly different details in his account. I’ve heard some people claim “well in Matthew 26:34, Jesus says “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times” and in Mark he says “today-yes, tonight- before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times” and those two accounts contradict. Was it ‘crows once’ or ‘crows twice’ when Jesus said it?” That’s going into way more detail than the gospel writers were intending to convey. They didn’t have quotation marks in this time period; all of these quotes we have now are just paraphrasing of the original conversations (paraphrasing and translating, might I add). The point is that Peter would deny Jesus before the next morning, and when the roosters started crowing the next day Peter realized what he had done. How many times did the roosters crow the next day? How many times to roosters usually crow in the morning?
Matthew, Mark, and Luke describe the next seen, Gethsemane, as Jesus going off a little way from his disciples and praying in agony. Luke adds a note that Jesus was so distressed, he actually started sweating blood (not an uncommon condition for inmates on death row coming up on their execution, and probably something he was familiar with as a doctor), and in each account the disciples can barely stay awake. It is true that the quotes in each account aren’t completely identical, but keep in mind that ancient writers weren’t interested in direct quotations, instead focusing on the ideas conveyed.
Matthew and Luke both record a response as Judas comes with a crowd to arrest Jesus. In Matthew’s account, Jesus responds “Friend, do what you came for” as Judas comes to kiss him. In Luke, the response is “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” Now chances are Jesus said a lot more than just one line at this point, particularly with the commotion of Peter trying to start a fight and the disciples waking up and trying to figure out what exactly was happening, but we have at least some of the conversation captured.
John includes a little more on Jesus’ prayers at this time. Rather than the details that the other accounts include, with Jesus praying “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done,” John instead shows us that Jesus was also praying for his disciples and others that would follow. The disciples also seem to have a bit of an epiphany as they are coming to the Mount of Olives; after spending the whole evening confused with what Jesus is saying, they finally respond “Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech. Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God.” From the chronology that John gives, this seems to happen before Jesus’ prayers of agony, and he then skips through those prayers to go straight to the crowd that comes to arrest him.
The betrayal moment is interesting. Judas needs to lead the soldiers and officials because they don’t know where Jesus will be, or when he will be vulnerable without a crowd of followers to protect him, but once they get there he goes up to kiss Jesus (again left out by John, but included by Matthew, Mark, and Luke). I’ve heard it proposed that the goal of the kiss wasn’t to identify Jesus (the crowd he was with probably knew what Jesus looked like), but rather to distract Jesus while the soldiers move to arrest him. Whatever the reason for it, all accounts describe quite clearly what happens next; Peter chops someone’s ear off. It’s funny, but this is the most clearly conserved detail among all these descriptions of this confrontation; the gospels don’t all give details regarding Judas kissing Jesus, they don’t all include details regarding the disciples running away, they don’t even all give details about Jesus healing the guy Peter attacked, but for whatever reason all writers felt this was a very significant event to include; the one time a disciple of Jesus tries to attack someone…Jesus stops him. I think this highlights something that was crucially important to everyone in the early church; we don’t fight, we don’t hurt, we don’t kill. Jesus doesn’t need us to defend him; he can take care of himself.
So the disciples run away (Mark notes that someone who was caught tore out of the clothes he was wearing and ran away naked), and Jesus is led to the high priest for his ‘trial.’ John doesn’t go into much detail of the trial; he records a little interaction between Jesus and Annas, but leaves out all of the interaction with Caiaphas. Luke includes a little scene with some guards punching Jesus in the face as he’s blindfolded, while Matthew and Mark give a few details about the false witnesses that are bought against Jesus. They can’t get any reliable testimony against him, even with their fake witnesses, but eventually Jesus responds to their accusations against him by admitting that he is the Son of God.
Matthew: The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses?
Mark: Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked.
Luke: At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and the teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them. “If you are the Messiah,” they said, “tell us.” Jesus answered, “If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.” They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?” He replied, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips.”
Again, slightly different quotes, but keep in mind all of this is paraphrasing of the conversations they had. It gives fairly good credibility to the notion that these were independently written accounts, and not simply one person copying off of another.
Bringing Jesus before Pilate the next day is an interesting event. The Jewish leaders can’t go in to Pilate, since it would make them ceremonially unclean and unable to eat the Passover (but I guess beating and killing Jesus doesn’t), so they need Pilate to come out to them. Matthew doesn’t include much interaction between Jesus and Pilate; Pilate asks him if he’s the king of the Jews, and Jesus confirms. Matthew includes an interesting note that Pilate’s wife sends word to him to leave Jesus alone and release him. Pilate gives the opportunity to the crowd gathered to release Jesus, but instead they have a criminal named Barabbas released (interestingly, a name meaning Son of the Father). When the crowd insists that Jesus be crucified, Pilate washes his hands to declare his innocence in this clearly wrongful conviction, and sends Jesus to the Praetorium to be crucified.
Mark describes essentially the same scene, with the parts about Pilate’s wife and him washing his hands left out. Luke includes an interesting detail; before Pilate releases Barabbas and sends Jesus to be crucified, he actually sends Jesus to Herod (the region Jesus was from was under Herod’s jurisdiction). Note that Luke doesn’t record Herod actually doing anything to Jesus other than having his soldiers mock him and dress him up in a purple robe, so this might not be the same scene that the other accounts describe, but it seems to take place before Barabbas is released.
John goes into the most detail regarding the interactions between Pilate and Jesus. Interestingly, John describes Pilate as actually fearful when the Jewish leaders inform him that Jesus had claimed to be the Son of God. Pilate seems genuinely concerned with the events taking place, but isn’t sure how to handle them.
Matthew, Mark, and John each give details regarding the torture before the crucifixion. Matthew describes Jesus being flogged, stripped, dressed in a scarlet robe, given a crown of thorns, mocked for a little while, then hit in the head with a staff. After they were done, they took off the robe, put his own clothes back on, and took him away to be crucified. Note that these aren’t necessarily in any chronological order; these are just the events Matthew describes. Mark describes a virtually identical scene, again ending with Jesus being led out to be crucified.
John includes a slightly different detail; that Pilate gave the crowd one last chance to release Jesus after the flogging and humiliation. It isn’t clear whether or not Barabbas had already been set free at this point, but Pilate clearly makes one last effort to set Jesus free.
Now, some people try to point out that the accounts in Matthew and Mark seem to have a slightly different order than Luke and John. Luke and John record some interaction between Pilate and the crowd after Jesus is flogged and mocked (assuming Jesus’ visit to Herod in Luke falls in this scene), while Matthew and Mark having Jesus being led immediately out to be crucified. I think part of the problem is people forget that all of these events are happening continually and simultaneously for at least an hour or two; this was not a quick jump in/jump out situation. Pilate seems to be continually looking for excuses to stop the proceeding, and it’s very likely that Matthew and Mark just leave out the final attempt to set Jesus free. Each time, Pilate probably offered to keep Barabbas and release Jesus instead, and each time the crowd responded the same way. John at least seems to paint a very clear picture of Pilate going back and forth to the crowd, and that picture isn’t incompatible with the other accounts. Luke includes a little extra detail about Pilate and Herod becoming friends after this event; possibly because it was a detail that had some significance to his readers at the time.
As Jesus is being led out to Golgotha carrying the beam they were going to crucify him on (pretty typical for a crucifixion), he collapses, and they get some random guy named Simon along the way to carry it the rest of the way, identified in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark adds a side note that he was the father of two guys named Alexander and Rufus, possibly because his readers might recognize the names. Luke adds an interesting note about women who were following along to mourn for him, and Jesus responds by warning them to consider what might happen in the future. They get to Golgotha, put Jesus on the cross, and divide up his clothes.
These events seemed to take place over a 6 hour period. Mark Notes that “It was the third hour when they crucified him,” although we don’t really know what point of this process he was referring to (when he was sentenced, when he was flogged, or when they actually hung him up). He mentions the time (which would be 9am) as he’s describing the scene of Jesus hanging on the cross, but he doesn’t explicitly identify the moment they put Jesus on the cross as his reference point. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each indicate that there was “darkness over the whole land” from about noon to 3pm (the 6th hour to the 9th hour). It isn’t particularly clear what this darkness was; it could have been some supernatural event or just simply a very dark and cloudy afternoon (the words used don’t necessarily mean a global blackout or anything of that magnitude). People don’t seem to react significantly to this darkness in the accounts, so chances are it wasn’t anything too extraordinary.
There is some objection to John’s timing of things, as John identifies the 6th hour as the time when Pilate sat down on his judge’s seat and sent Jesus to be crucified. It is important to keep in mind that people didn’t have nice, precise stopwatches at this point in history, so it’s entirely possible everyone is simply rounding their time references to the nearest quarter of the day, 3rd, 6th, and 9th hours (I imagine their sundials probably weren’t the best). If Mark was using the point where Jesus had been sent to be flogged as his starting point of crucifixion, and an hour or hour and a half later John notes that Jesus is finally sent to be crucified on Golgotha, then there isn’t any discrepancy in their accounts. Some people have also proposed that John might be using Roman time rather than Jewish time, which might make sense if John was writing at a later time to a more Roman audience, and would put Pilate’s pronouncement closer to 6am. At the end of the day, it really isn’t a huge difference, and all these times are rounded anyway. The point is that this stretched out over the entire day, and wasn’t some quick trial and execution.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the gospel accounts is the details each author records about Jesus’ final words during that afternoon. Matthew and Mark only record the famous “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Luke includes an interesting exchange between Jesus and one of the criminals crucified next to him, as well as the line “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” John includes an interesting charge Jesus gives to him personally, to take care of Jesus’ mother Mary now that Jesus will no longer be with them. John also includes a comment from Jesus saying he is thirsty (which explains the scene shown in Matthew and Mark with someone giving Jesus some wine vinegar to drink), and another comment “It is finished.”
It’s pretty likely that Jesus said a lot more than just that on this final afternoon, but it’s hard to say. He had a tendency to be pretty quiet when people were insulting and challenging him, which was what was happening throughout the entire process. It’s hard to say which of these exact lines was Jesus’ final words, but if I had to take a guess it would either be Luke’s line or John’s “It is finished.” Matthew and Mark both mention one final cry as Jesus died, which would match Luke’s final cry, but it is possible Jesus quietly mumbled some final words only heard by John after that shout. Whichever were the final words, we get a clear picture of both the suffering Jesus endured as well as his commitment to the plan he came to earth for. He knew when he was done.
With the death of Jesus came several interesting events noted by the authors. Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention the temple curtain tearing from the top down (signaling the removal of an impassable barrier separating man from God). Matthew also describes something like an earthquake, as well as “the bodies of many holy people who had died” being raised back to life and appearing to people. Hard to say exactly who these people were, but as Matthew was likely writing to Jewish readers, it was probably some event that they had heard rumors about in Jerusalem.
John includes a very interesting note about Jesus being pierced through the side to confirm that he was dead, rather than the typical process of having his legs broken to insure quick suffocation. Since crucifixion was a process that took several days, and the Jewish people didn’t want people hanging during the Passover festival, the Romans guards wanted to make sure each of the people hanging were dead. Breaking their legs prevented them from breathing (they had to push up with their legs to take in a breath), but they don’t bother breaking Jesus’ legs. John connects the fact that Jesus’ bones aren’t broken as he’s taken down from the cross to the rule that the bones of a Passover sacrifice weren’t allowed to be broken. It’s possible John was the only disciple of Jesus left with him in these final moments, giving him a unique perspective on Jesus’ death.
Lastly, we have the burial and resurrection. This part gets a little fun, because a lot of people try to say that each of the four gospels contradict each other regarding who goes to the tomb and who’s there to greet them. Matthew’s account describes Joseph burying Jesus in his own tomb, the Jewish leaders putting soldiers to guard it, and two Marys going to the tomb Sunday morning. At some point there was an earthquake, but Matthew doesn’t mention whether that was before or after the Marys got to the tomb, he merely states that the guards were terrified by an angel, who then spoke to the Marys. Both Marys left to go tell the disciples, and eventually run into Jesus.
In Mark’s account, the actions of Joseph we identical (however the tomb is not specified as belonging to Joseph), but references to the Jewish leaders putting soldiers to guard the tomb are left out. Why would Matthew include this fact while Mark leaves it out? Because Matthew was writing to the Jewish people; those would have been the people who knew about the tomb incident, since the Jewish leaders had circulated the story that the disciples had stolen the body. Mark has no reason to include that information, since his target audience wouldn’t have any knowledge of that.
Mark includes the name of a third person with the two Marys: Salome. It’s important to note that Mark actually mentions these three at the crucifixion in Mark 15:40, and mentions that there were other women there that he didn’t name. Matthew makes the same mention in his crucifixion account. When the women get to the tomb, Mark describes the angel as a ‘young man in a white robe’ without explicitly stating that he is an angel. To claim, however, that Mark was identifying this person as just an ordinary man walking by in white, and not an actual angel, is fairly absurd. Mark wasn’t necessarily writing to a group of people that knew anything about angels (angels were more of a Jewish idea, after all, and Mark wasn’t writing to Jews), and it wouldn’t make sense to identify this person as an angel to a group of people that don’t know what an angel is.
Luke’s account also leaves out that the tomb belonged to Joseph, and references to soldiers placed to guard the tomb. Since these are both facts that are really only relevant to Jewish readers (Joseph was a leader within the Jewish community), it makes sense that only the gospel written with the Jewish people in mind would include those details. Mark and Luke leaving those facts out isn’t a contradiction; the information simply isn’t relevant to the people they’re writing for. Luke doesn’t mention the names of the women at the tomb, only the names of the women who go to the disciples to tell them (the two Marys, a woman named Joanna, “and the others with them”). Luke clarifies that the women actually went to the tomb in a group, and that each of their accounts (Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s) are leaving out some of the names. This isn’t a contradiction, these accounts are explicitly stating that there were other people there that weren’t named; it’s an omission.
Luke mentions two angels in his account (again not identifying them as angels, but rather “two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning”). Interestingly, Matthew mentions the angel sitting on the stone that had been blocking the tomb, while Mark specifies that the angel was sitting off to the side inside the tomb. So, were there two angels, one outside on the stone outside and one inside? It would fit each of these accounts quite neatly, and clearly in each account they deliver the same news: Jesus isn’t there.
John leaves out this early morning entirely, and picks up at a point where Luke leaves off in 24:12-Peter running to the tomb to see what exactly the women were talking about. John doesn’t mention anything about any of the women other than Mary Magdalene, although he never states that she was alone. John adds that he actually went to the tomb with Peter, and that neither of them quite understood what was happening.
It’s interesting that John and Matthew both make a note that the very first people Jesus actually appeared to were women. We hear almost nothing about them before this day, and we see nothing about them again in the book of Acts, yet they were the first to witness what could be considered the most significant event in history. According to John’s more detailed account on this, Mary (and likely other women, according to Matthew) stay at the tomb as Peter and John go back home. As they wait there, confused and afraid, two angels and Jesus come onto the scene. After a brief exchange, the women run back to the disciples with the news.
Again, there really isn’t anything in these accounts that outright contradicts; each author just includes different details that they felt were important. It’s interesting that many of the voices that challenge the reliability of the gospels will complain that they are too similar and too different at the same time. When one includes a detail that another leaves out, it’s considered a contradiction, but when one describes the exact same detail, it’s considered copying and unreliable. Others will complain that these accounts just aren’t enough; we need more to reliably know what happened.
It’s interesting when you compare our records of Jesus to the records of other ancient teachers that modern day scholars have no challenge against. Consider someone like Socrates, who lived about 470 years before Jesus. Like Jesus, Socrates left no writings for us to identify him with, so all information we have about him are from his contemporaries and students. Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and Aristophanes are pretty much our only sources on him, and they each paint drastically different pictures of him on many significant points (like whether or not he even accepted payment for teaching). Rather than throwing out these accounts, historians put them together to create a picture of who Socrates was. Jesus seems to be the only figure in history people pretend we can’t know about; probably because his teachings to this day are considered uncomfortable and extreme, and people continue to look for excuses to discount them. Easter is a chance for us to really ask the question “Did this guy actually come back to life? Were his disciples nuts, or did they actually know what they were talking about?”
Christianity, particularly the belief that Jesus rose from the dead, has always been considered absurd, even in ancient times. For hundreds of years Christians were considered foolish, dangerous, and worth persecuting. Yet throughout that time, Christianity continued to flourish, until it eventually overtook the entire region and nation of Rome. Today it spreads no differently, with a message no different than the first sermon Peter preached at Pentecost: “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.”