How Many Angels Were at the Tomb?
Tom: Thanks, Gary. You are listening to Search the Scriptures Daily, a program in which we encourage everyone who desires to know God’s truth to look to God’s Word for all that is essential for salvation and living one’s life in a way that is pleasing to Him.
Dave, as you know, we challenged our listeners to do some homework in reviewing the scenarios in the four gospels, which deal with the resurrection of Jesus. And, the question we are going to start with, which I will read in a moment, concerns itself with seeming contradictions. For example, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John seem to be presenting conflicting information about what took place when the women visited the tomb of Jesus on that Sunday morning after His death. If that’s the case, then the Bible, which claims to be God’s Word, is certainly not that, because God can neither make mistakes nor contradict Himself—that is, and still be God. So, if someone is thinking the gospels have some problems, ultimately it’s going to have an adverse effect on their view of the Bible.
So, Dave, here is the question, taken from your book, In Defense of the Faith: “The resurrection of Jesus is the very foundation of Christianity, yet those who wrote the gospels seem to be in conflict even on this most important subject. Matthew says, ‘An angel came down from heaven, rolled away the stone, and sat upon it. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary approached and were frightened. The angel told them not to be afraid and invited them into the tomb to see where Jesus had lain’” (Matthew:28:1-6). The question goes on: “In contrast, Mark says that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome did not see the angel until they entered the tomb. The angel then pointed to where Jesus had lain.” And, of course, this is Mark:16:1-6. “In further contradiction,” the questioner goes on, “Luke says the women entered the tomb. As they looked for the body of Jesus, suddenly two angels appeared to them, addressed the women, whereas Luke states that his two angels were standing (Mark:16:5 and Luke:24:4). One account says the women saw Jesus and then went to tell His disciples (Matthew:28:9). And yet, a third version says they fled from the sepulcher and didn’t tell anyone or see Jesus (Mark:16:8). The disciples were told that Jesus would meet them in Galilee, Matthew:28:7, and Mark:16:7. Yet Luke and John say He came to them in Jerusalem. What can you make of this hopeless tangle of contradictions?” Now, Dave, before we jump into this . . .
Dave: This is pretty complicated stuff, Tom.
Tom: Well, on the one hand, it is. On the other hand, as we know—and we’ll get into the details—this questioner is trying to force some things that the text actually doesn’t say. But, let’s go for . . .
Dave: Let me just say this, Tom. Angels do different things. They don’t just do one thing, and if you are getting it from a different perspective, one account could tell you something an angel did, another one could tell you something else the angel did, something the women did, there could be more than one angel and so forth, obviously.
Tom: But from one perspective, the writer is only addressing what one angel did?
Dave: Exactly. Exactly.
Tom: Well, Dave, let’s start with the first part of this. “An angel came down from heaven, rolled away the stone, and sat upon it.” Now, we have one particular angel, but then we have two inside. Is that a problem?
Dave: No problem, that’s what the Bible says. An angel came and rolled away the stone and sat on it. There weren’t any women around; we don’t know that any women saw that, in fact. The stone had already been rolled away when the women came. That particular angel frightened the soldiers, and they ran off.
Tom: They fled. Now, you know what I’d like to do, Dave, is, I have—this sort of makes it easy. I have all four scenarios, one from Matthew, one from Mark, one from Luke, one from John, right in front of me. And I just want to point out, looking at them all at one time, some things that seem very different. For example, Matthew says it was Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Mark says Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome. Luke just refers to them in general and it says, “there were certain others with them.” And then, of course, John says Mary Magdalene—he just addresses Mary Magdalene by herself. So we have, if we are just reading John, it looks like there is just one, Mary Magdalene, but when we look at the others there is a group of them.
Dave: Well, John is telling us about Mary Magdalene. He’s not telling us about everybody else. And when you read the account, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary—well, who is the other Mary? (That’s Matthew.)
Mark says Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Salome. Why can’t she be the other Mary? (I don’t know, Tom, you’re catching me here, and I didn’t do my homework, as I told them all to do. But, I don’t see any problem with that. I’ve been traveling, folks! Give me a break here, okay? I just got back late last night.)
But I don’t see the problem. It talks about a group of women—some accounts name them in detail, some in lesser detail, and John only focuses on Mary. I don’t see what the problem is.
Tom: Well, what about the . . . let’s go down to the next issue. In Matthew, we have one angel; in Mark, we have one angel; but then in Luke, it says, “Two men stood by them in shining garments.”
And then in John it says—this is John:20:12: “ . . . and seeth two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet.” So, obviously, Dave, somebody concerned about this is just saying, “Hey, wait a minute! Either this is wrong, or they’re not where they are supposed to be—they’re not doing the things they are supposed to do—that confuses people.
Dave: Well, obviously, God has a lot of angels! He has more than one angel, and I see no reason why one particular angel can’t come, roll the stone away, sit on it, and be outside the tomb and terrify the women, and why he can’t say things to the women when they arrive—the soldiers have fled now. It would be ridiculous to think that, Wow, these are very brave women; the soldiers are all stricken—they’re knocked down like they are dead men because His face is like lightening and so forth. Then these women just walk right through all these soldiers and walk up to the angel—that doesn’t make too much sense!
I think the soldiers have fled, so there’s an angel outside the tomb—the one who rolled the stone away. He talks to the women. However, when the women go in, there is an angel sitting at the head and one at the feet, if you want to go into detail about it, or you could just talk about one angel inside the tomb saying something.
This is why we have four accounts, and we’ve talked about that before, that if each one of the writers of the gospels just said word-for-word what the other says, what’s the point? We might as well have one gospel. Now we have four accounts, and they seem to contradict one another in certain places because they are telling what happened from different perspectives. That gives the critics a chance to laugh and chortle and feel triumphant in that they have shown that there are mistakes in the Bible or contradictions. On the other hand, when you examine it carefully, there aren’t contradictions!
Tom: Dave, there is another aspect to this, and that is a time line. Sometimes we impose a strict time line on this. Reading one of the gospels, we think from one verse to the next it has to happen instantly, whereas that’s not necessarily true. The writers are saying, “This took place, and then this took place,” but they don’t tell us specifically how much time between one event and the other. So, other things could happen, other things could enter in that maybe John picks up on, but Mark doesn’t.
But, again, as you said, we are getting information that’s true. Dave, when I mentioned about a timeline, for example, when the women leave the tomb, in some cases it looks like Mary sees Jesus right away; in some cases she runs to Peter; Peter comes, and so on. How do we reconcile those things?
Dave: Well, I’ve always understood that Mary comes back to the tomb. She hasn’t seen Jesus yet, when she runs and tells Peter—she tells the disciples, and Peter and John come racing to the tomb. Obviously, Mary is going to come back—she doesn’t run as fast as they do. And when they leave—it’s pretty clear in John—when they leave, Mary is still there, pondering this. That’s when she sees Jesus.
Now, what the other women have done, that is told by other accounts here, the details. Some flee to their home, some on the way, women on the way into town, Jesus meets them. Jesus can appear to different people at different times.
Tom: Okay. Now, just help me with this one other aspect. In Matthew, it says, “and as they went to tell his disciples” (referring to the women, and Matthew mentions Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, and it says in Matthew:28:9, “And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet and worshipped him.”
Now, when we compare that with John, John gives a specific scenario with regard to Mary and Jesus. It seems to be Mary Magdalene alone with Jesus. But does that necessarily have to be the case? Can the other Mary be with her?
Dave: Well, let’s read from John. It says (we have a sequence of events here)—it says that “she runneth and cometh to Simon Peter and to the other disciple.” Now, it seems to me that Mary—they don’t necessarily know where these disciples are. They’re hiding out—I mean, where are they? I don’t know. And all of the women are running to . . . let’s say there are a half-a-dozen women, I don’t know—and they are going in different directions, perhaps. Mary thinks they’re over here; these people are going in that direction. Jesus greets . . . they see Him, but Mary has not seen Him yet. She finds the disciples; in fact, she finds two of the disciples. Two of the disciples, apparently, are not with the other disciples.
Tom: That’d be John and Peter.
Dave: That’s right. The other women may have run off to find the rest of them, and Mary—specifically, we are told in John—finds Peter and John, and she says, “They’ve taken away the Lord! I don’t know where they have laid Him.” She doesn’t know He has risen. Obviously, He has not appeared to her yet—on her way to find the disciples, and she has now found Peter and John. She thinks somebody stole the body. She still thinks that, when Jesus comes to her!
So, Peter and John run back to the sepulcher, and Mary makes her way, I’m sure, just as fast as she can, to follow them, because they’re going to solve this problem for her. They are going to find out what happened. And she comes along and we have the account of Peter and John. Well, first of all, Peter—he’s a little bit hesitant about this. The first disciple outruns Peter. He comes first to the tomb; he looks in and sees the linen clothes and so forth. Now we’re inside the tomb, and Simon Peter comes and he sees it, and so forth. And then, they go away—verse 10, “Then the disciples went away again unto their own homes.”
They are pondering this, they don’t understand. So, Mary is still standing outside the sepulcher; she is weeping. They haven’t solved the problem. She’s told them they have taken the Lord away. They haven’t solved the problem for her, and she looks into the sepulcher, and now she sees two angels! This is a different occasion than when Peter and John were in there. This is a different occasion when other women have looked in there. She sees two angels, and they say something to her, and then she says . . . she’s looking in, she’s still on the outside, and they say, “Why are you weeping?” And she says, “Because they have taken away the Lord! I don’t know where they laid Him.” Now she turns around and she sees Jesus—this is still John’s gospel—she doesn’t expect Him to be alive. She thinks He’s the gardener. And He asks her why she’s weeping and so forth.
I don’t see any problem here. There are a number of women—some of them have gone in one direction to find the disciples, and Mary went in another direction. She didn’t find all of the disciples. She found Peter and John. So we have . . . John, of course, is writing the Gospel of John, and he is telling us from his perspective what happened. I don’t see any contradiction whatsoever.
Tom: Now, Dave, somebody would say, “Well, that’s just the way you see it. That’s not what the texts say.” On the other hand . . .
Dave: It is what the text said.
Tom: Well, no, what you’re saying is, “Mary did this, and then she did this.” Dave, what you’re saying is consistent with what the text says, and you’re looking at this as a scenario. These are possibilities, although we’re not given, maybe, some specifics, but it’s reasonable, it’s rational, it eliminates contradictions. But those who have a problem with it, I think, are trying to impose a certain time constraint, a certain idea, on this, and that’s why they are having problems with it.
Dave: Exactly, Tom. In order to make a contradiction, you have to see a contradiction; then you have to support a contradiction, then you have to try to say, “Well, but Mary must have been with the other women, so Jesus must have met her,” but yet, John says she hasn’t seen Jesus yet. Let’s take what the narrative says. Let’s take what each one is telling us, and when we read it from their perspective—what they have been saying—there are no contradictions. You have to make the text mean what you want it to mean in order for there to be a contradiction.
Tom: Right. A simple example would be, well, some other writers say there was one angel, and others say that there were two. Well, if I’m caught up with that, I’m not allowing for the possibility that there was one, and then, in another slightly different time of this event, there were two.
Dave: Angels are on different missions from God; they are doing different things, and so forth. I think that’s perfectly reasonable.
Tom: Dave, let’s finish this off with the last question that this individual poses, and that is—I’ll quote from Matthew:28:10: “Then said Jesus unto them (that is, these women who were there), Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there they shall see me.” Now, the problem the person has is that the women see Jesus before they go into Galilee. Jesus appears later among His disciples, not in Galilee but right there.
Dave: Well, Tom, He is talking about a particular appearance He is going to make, and at that time all the disciples, 500 of them, is what Paul tells us—He appeared to over 500 at one time. So Jesus is talking about a general gathering of the disciples. “Tell the disciples—not just the 12! Hey! Get the word out to the whole gang out there, and if they will come to this mountain in Galilee, I will meet them there.”
But in the meantime, He can certainly talk to individuals and remind His disciples again: “Hey, guys, let’s get on to Galilee now.” He does appear that evening—well, He appears to two on the road to Emmaus, and when they come rushing back, then Jesus comes and appears. Jesus has the right to appear at any time.
Tom: Yeah, He hasn’t contradicted Himself—“Oops! I can’t do this, because I said I was going to do that.”
Dave: No, He does meet them in Galilee, but He’s reminding them of this a few times.
Tom: And, Dave, I’m sure there are some listeners out there who say, “Well, these guys have made this more confusing than ever!” What we’re trying to do is to encourage people who get a little concerned when they read something and it doesn’t match in their own mind—and again, I emphasize, in their own mind—with what they think it should say. But let’s look to the text. Let’s look to . . . the Lord is laying this out for us. He is giving us four different perspectives. He’s giving us different kinds of information, all of which is valuable, and we want people to not be put off by seeming contradictions or seeming information that somebody either told them or they have come upon it themselves, and it just doesn’t look like it meshes.
Dave: If you’re a Christian, you believe the Bible is God’s Word, then don’t just jump to a conclusion: “Oh, there must be a contradiction because somebody says there’s one.” Check it out! It’s simple logic that different writers can write from different perspectives. It’s simple logic that there can be more than one angel doing more than one thing. It’s simple logic that there is more women than even it says. It says, “and certain others with them.” It’s simple logic that they don’t all go— “Look, we’re going to find the disciples!” Well, some of them think the disciples are here, some think they are there. Mary finds Peter and John. Okay? So, there’s no contradiction, but if that causes you to study the Word of God more carefully, then praise God!