One of the apologetic challenges that some of us have had to engage with from time to time is that the four different accounts of the resurrection contradict each other. One helpful way of responding is to put together a harmonised account, on the one hand that isn’t too easy because, despite the claims, the Gospels do not contradict one another, the editors who brought the New Testament together would surely have spotted if they did. However, on an other level it’s not completely simple. There seems to be, for want of a better word, a “messiness” to the narrative.
However, it is those things that demonstrate that the narrative is authentic and points to its reliability. You see, when there has been an incredible, shocking, surprising, traumatic even, event then you don’t tend to get tidy witness accounts. Not everybody remembers every detail and you pick up differences of perspective based on where they are telling the story from.
What we know from the Gospel accounts is that:
- A number of women went to the tomb, early in the morning. There they found the tomb empty and were greeted by angels.
- Returning from the tomb, they meet Jesus on route.
- Peter and John also go to the tomb and find it empty.
- Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb and finds it empty. Then she meets Jesus
- Two disciples meet Jesus whilst returning home
- Jesus meets with Peter
- Jesus then appears to all of the disciples together, except for Thomas.
Often, it is best to put down the skeleton of the story, to get clarity about those things that are in common and so that we can talk about with the most certainty. This helps us to then see how those apparently contradictory versions are in fact not contradictions but actually complement one another.
So, we can read an account that talks about events that start whilst it is still dark as people make their preparation and where the sun rises as they make their way to the tomb because it is dawn. Furthermore, we can allow for those coming to the tomb to be included together in the text but not necessarily all to be in the same group and very possibly to have got split up as they return (women at different ages and different levels of health).. It is also possible, indeed quite likely that some may have made repeat visits to the spot.
We should not be scared of those things in the Gospel accounts because they point us to an authentic and truthful retelling of factual, historical events. The Gospel writers wll have been happy too not to have harmonised the accounts in together because they want us to see the different perspectives and learn something important from each.