Problem: Accounts of Mary Magdalene at the tomb conflict
Verses: Matthew 28:1-9, John 20:1-2; Status: Serious

The various gospel accounts of the resurrection are so different, it's hard to know what to focus on to prove a contradiction. But the visit of Mary Magdalene to the tomb of Jesus is central. In particular, I don't think Matthew 28 can be harmonised with John 20. Here's why.

Matthew's account

According to Matthew, Mary Magdalene (and also "the other Mary") went to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week. As they did so, the stone blocking it was moved aside by an angel. This is Matthew 28:1-2:

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. (ESV)

It is not clear whether they actually saw the angel do this. In any case, after the angel speaks to them (verses 5-7), they leave - filled with joy - to inform the disciples. On the way, they actually encounter Jesus himself. This is Matthew 28:8-9:

So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. (ESV)

John's account causes problems

John also describes an early morning visit by Mary Magdalene to the tomb. She finds the tomb deserted and tells Simon Peter and John that the body had been stolen. This is John 20:1-2:

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." (ESV)

The problem is obvious: if Mary met an angel at the tomb, and then Jesus himself (as Matthew says) then why does she merely report that the body had been stolen?

Which visit is Matthew talking about?

John later describes a second visit by Mary to the tomb. Perhaps one can say that the visit described in Matthew 28 is this second visit, which is at John 20:11-12 and onwards:

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. (ESV)

But this doesn't work. In John, the stone was removed before Mary Magdalene's first visit. And yet, Matthew 28:2 says that the stone was removed as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were arriving; so he must be talking about that first visit, not the second visit.

Furthermore, Matthew is clearly describing the same visit to the tomb as Mark 16:1-8. In Mark, we are told that Mary and friends were bringing spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body with, whilst worrying about how they were going to move the stone. This makes no sense if Mary already knew the body was missing.

So, it seems we're forced into saying that Matthew and Mark are talking about the first visit John describes, in which case it's bizarre that Mary tells the disciples the body has been stolen, and then weeps at the empty tomb.

An impossible solution

Apparently, the standard solution to this problem is to say: yes, Matthew is describing Mary's first visit, but she panicked and ran away (as per John 20:1-2) as soon as she saw the stone was missing. And so, she never actually met Jesus (or the angel) at that point. But this explanation is impossible. Matthew's account only mentions two women, and then says that "they" met Jesus on their way to tell the disciples about the angel.

It's certainly true that Mark's account mentions a third woman, Salome. But Matthew does not, so he can't expect his readers to understand "they" as referring to anyone but Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, who are the only women he mentions. Likewise, Matthew refers to "the women" at verse 28:5, and this faces exactly the same problem - which women? He can only mean Mary and Mary.

Anyway, this analysis is overly technical. Just reading Matthew 28:1-9 should convince any normal reader. Matthew's meaning is crystal clear.

Updated: 2010-04-13

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