Who Is Correct?
The differences among the gospel accounts of the resurrection are striking. This has been on my mind recently as I work my way through the four gospels in my devotions. I’ve just finished Luke’s account, so the topic is fresh in my mind.
Matthew says there were two women at the tomb (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary). An angel came and rolled the stone away. Jesus met and spoke with the women as they returned to the city. None of the disciples went to the tomb to corroborate the women’s account. Matthew is the only one to mention the presence of soldiers guarding the tomb.
Mark names three women (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome). There is one “young man” (presumably an angel) who greets the women. Jesus does not appear. No disciples go to the tomb because the women say nothing to anyone.
Luke identifies three women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James) by name, and says there were other women present. In Luke’s account there are two men in dazzling apparel (again, presumably angels) who greet the women. Jesus does not appear. The women return to the city and tell the apostles. Most of the men think this is “an idle tale,” but Peter goes to the tomb to see for himself. At the end of the Emmaus Road story we learn that Peter has seen the risen Jesus.
John mentions only Mary Magdalene at to the tomb. She finds it empty, and returns to tell the disciples. Peter and (presumably) John run back to see for themselves. Mary returns to the tomb, and, after the men have left, has an extended conversation with Jesus.
Who do we believe? Which version is correct? How do we decide which gospel writer tells the true story of what happened that morning? How many women? How many angels? How many disciples? Did Jesus appear or not?
We don’t have to choose. We could say either all four are correct, or none of them are correct. If we say all four are correct, biblical literalism must be rejected. If we try to make all four correct we’ll tie ourselves in knots explaining the differences. If we reject all four accounts we have no idea what happened at the tomb.
What if we say all four are correct, and none are completely correct? Does this give us a place to begin understanding the events surrounding the resurrection?
We are aware that four people, looking at the same event from four different locations, may see four different events. Each will interpret the event from his/her point of reference, but none of them will have the whole truth. This is why those who review plays at sporting events look at all possible camera angles before making a decision. Accuracy is cumulative.
Do we synthesize the four gospel accounts into one? Do we try to come up with a composite picture? To do so denies the richness of the story as it has come down to us. The different observers remembered the event differently. Also, memories fade and change over time. What we think we remember might not be what actually happened.
Each account must stand alone as a witness to the resurrection. Each account tells us something miraculous happened that morning. That miraculous event should be the focus of our interest, not trying to parse out which details are the correct ones.
When Jesus’ followers discovered he was alive they rejoiced. So should we.