I recently received a comment from a reader telling me that Professor Bart Ehrman likes to challenge his students to write a harmonization of the gospels from the resurrection to the ascension without contradicting and without leaving any details out. Now I am sure, as sure as I am that I am alive, that no matter whether the student gets it right or not, Ehrman I am sure finds a problem because he reads a Bible made entirely out of wood from cover to cover. However, for those willing to consider that the Gospels really are eyewitness accounts, and therefore will have some differences between the four (if they didn’t, I am sure professor Ehrman would scream PLAGIARISM so loud I could hear it here in the Charlotte area from Chapel Hill), here it is.
Very early in the morning, at that time when it is still dark but the sky has begun to turn to an opalescent purple in the earliest rays of the sun, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, and a few other women left out to pay their last respects to their master and teacher. They had prepared a mixture of spices to anoint the Lord’s body, for even though Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea, good men who had no part in the death of Jesus, had anointed the body, the women felt led to perform their own anointing. Perhaps it was the idea that this Jesus, who had meant so much to them, who had brought such healing and wholeness into their lives, deserved this devotion from his followers, not just from two members of the Sanhedrin. Whatever the case may be, the women were on the way to the tomb, when the conversation shifted to “Who would move the stone?” Little did they know, well before they arrived, an earthquake had occurred, the stone had rolled away, and the guards over the tomb had been scared into catatonia. One of the angels sat upon the top of the stone after revealing their presence to the soldiers, and then the two angels faded from sight as the soldiers lay comatose on the ground.
Mary Magdalene had separated herself from the group of women, perhaps driven by the pain of knowing that the one who had released her from demon possession lay in a cold sepulcher dead. Continually outpacing the others, she arrives to the tomb several paces ahead of the other women and sees the stone rolled away from the tomb. The last straw on poor Mary has finally been laid. Without investigating, without considering what she has seen, she turns and runs toward Jerusalem to the two men that Jesus trusted most, Simon Peter and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.
The other women, rather than following the panic stricken Mary, continue toward the tomb, and look inside, not sure what to expect. Once they were all in, they saw that the body was nowhere to be found, and as they stood perplexed, two angels appeared to them in white, shining dazzling clothing, such that left little doubt these men were no men, but rather, they were angels.
One of the angels began to speak to the women, saying “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The women continued to be afraid, and the angel speaks again after asking the first question, saying “Do not be afraid! I know you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said he would! See the place where He laid.” Still dumbfounded, the women continue to be silent. THIS CAN’T BE!!! Dead men do not rise again from the dead, and their master was certainly dead. Detecting the lack of belief and trust in the women, the angel begins again, saying “Remember how he told you, while He was still in Galilee that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again? But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; you will see Him there just as He told you.’” With that, the angels disappear from sight. But the women, still terrified, panic and leave trembling, and said nothing to anyone, since they were afraid. The women have a feeling of panic mixed with joy. “Is it possible for this to occur,” they wonder. Rather than follow the orders of the angel, however, they return to one of their number’s homes.
As this is occurring, Mary Magdalene has made it back to Jerusalem and found Peter and John. In a panic, she comes to Peter and John and tells them “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” Mary had left in such a panic and so distraught, that she merely mentions the opened tomb to the other women and makes no other investigation, so to her, no one knew why that stone was gone. The other problem with poor Mary was that in her mental state, her only conclusion that she could reach was that someone had stolen Jesus’ body. Peter and John respond by rushing to the tomb, and though John beats Peter to the tomb, Peter walks in first, notices the wrappings, and then John went in. John began to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead (before this point, no one thought Jesus would be raised from the dead), and saying nothing, leaves the scene. Peter leaves the scene, marveling at what had happened, apart from John.
Mary, who up until this point, was lost in her sorrow, lost in trying to get a grip on what was going on, enters the tomb herself. She sees two angels sitting on the right side of the tomb, where Jesus’ body had previously been laid. They ask her “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to the two “because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” Mary still convinced that the only possible explanation, since dead men don’t stop being dead, was that someone had stolen the body. Now when she said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and in the grief, the tears, the pain, and the miraculous change from His shattered mortal body to His resurrection body, Mary does not recognize the Lord. She supposes Him to be a gardener, and Jesus asks her “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary says to Him, through her tears in a weak, strained voice, “Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Jesus, the LORD of life, the Good Shepherd, says to His disciple one word: “Mary.” As His sheep know His voice, Mary knew the voice of the lover of her soul, and responded “Rabboni,” a term that means teacher, but was usually used of God Himself by devout Jews. Jesus tells her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, “I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.”
The excitement of the moment is all over Mary, as thoughts of defeat, loss, and pain melt away to the sheer and utter joy of her Savior being alive again! She runs to find the other women, who in panic, have fled to one of their own number’s homes and told no one. Upon hearing the report of Mary Magdalene, they now decide to continue the trip into Jerusalem to tell the eleven (minus Peter and John, who had already gone and seen). On the way into Jerusalem, Jesus makes another appearance to these women, at which point they all worship Him. Jesus reiterates the command that had been given earlier and then disregarded, saying “Go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.”
The women arrive, recount what has happened to the eleven (again, minus Peter and John, who had gone to the tomb already), and they think the women are crazy. As these events are occurring, Jesus appears to Peter, who was by himself after leaving the tomb by himself in a state of marvel over the events that had happened. Peter returns toward Jerusalem to join the eleven and recount what has happened.
As for the guards, when they awoke, they headed back into the city to tell the chief priests all that happened. The priests gave the soldiers a large sum of money, told them to tell all that the disciples stole the body while they slept, and that the priests would cover up the whole thing with Pilate. The story was widely circulated among the Jews to account for the empty tomb.
Later in the evening, two disciples are on the road to Emmaus, when Jesus catches up with them and walks with them on the way to Emmaus, talking with the two about the events that happened in Jerusalem. The two tell Him what has happened, and He responds by explaining to them from the scriptures that these things must happen to the Son of Man. They reach Emmaus, and Jesus begins to leave, but they ask Him to stay. He sits with them to break bread, and as He breaks the bread, they realize: IT IS THE MASTER!!!!! He then disappears, and the two disciples head to Jerusalem to tell the others.
“YOU WON’T BELIEVE THIS!!!!”, as they begin to recount to the disciples (minus Thomas, who had now left the locked upper room), the disciples confirm by announcing that He had appeared to Simon Peter. As they are all talking, Jesus appears in their midst, and says “Peace be with you.” Everyone is in panic, terrified, thinking that He may be a ghost. Even those who had seen Him already were concerned, because though they had seen, it was still a lot to process. Jesus, seeing them in their state of weakness, offers proof that He is a real person: a plate of broiled fish, which He proceeds to eat. He also offers His own body for examination, at which point they believe. He speaks to them, breathes upon them, and says “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Then he vanishes again from their midst. The disciples tell Thomas once he returns the great news. Thomas responds by saying “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
The next Sunday, Thomas was with the disciples and Jesus appeared again, demonstrating Himself to Thomas and showing Thomas His wounds. With these events, the disciples, emboldened, amazed, departed from Jerusalem and returned to their hometown of Galilee. In the meantime, Jesus appeared to over 500 witnesses at one time, to His brother James, and again to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee while they were fishing. Jesus also appeared to the gathered disciples on the mountain which He had earlier told them to meet at, and Jesus spoke to them, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” He then disappeared from in their midst. Some had worshipped Him, but many were absolutely perplexed at how the man they knew to have died to be alive and tangible again.
As Shavuot (First Fruits, or Pentecost, as we would know it) was approaching, the disciples returned to Jerusalem, as Shavuot is one of three festivals that all men had to come to Jerusalem to celebrate. They convene again in Jerusalem for Shavuot in the upper room, when Jesus appeared to them again and spent more time with them. “These are My words, which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Jesus led them all out to the Mount of Olives, near Bethany, telling them “This is what you heard from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”. When they had all arrived together, they asked Him “Lord, at this time are You restoring the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus responded “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After He said this, they watched as He parted from them, ascending into heaven. Two men in white clothes appeared, saying “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you have seen Him going into heaven.” At this, they returned to Jerusalem and returned to the upper room.
The eyewitness accounts of the Gospels can be combined together to create quite a stunningly accurate and detail filled account of the events of that incredible time period when the resurrected Christ appeared to His followers. There are some portions of the Gospels that may at first glance seem contradictory, but instead of contradicting, they lend actual credence to the idea that these were eyewitness reports. I attempt to explain them in order.
1. Who all went to the tomb? Mary Magdalene? Salome? Mary? WHO!!!!???
A. Mary Magdalene, Mary Mother of James, Salome, Joanna, and other women went. John mentions only Mary Magdalene in his account because she is the focal point for John. We know that more than just Mary went, though, even from John’s gospel, because in Greek Mary says “We don’t know where they have taken Him.”
2. Was it dark? Was it at sunrise?
A. Ever notice that, in the very first rays of sunrise, the sky is just beginning to turn light purple in the east, but it is still dark? Yeah, that’s about what time they went.
3. When did the earthquake, soldiers falling down, and angels happen?
A. The earthquake happened before the women arrived at the tomb. How far before, I don’t know, but it must have been some time. There is no mention of the guards in the other gospels, so they may have already come to, discovered the body gone, and went back to the priests.
4. If Mary Magdalene was with the women who went, why did she run back to Peter after being told by the angel that Jesus had risen?
A. Mary may have gotten there merely moments before the others, saw the opened tomb, screamed or told the others, then ran quickly back to get Peter and John.
5. How many angels were at the tomb?
A. There were two. One did the speaking. The mention of two angels necessarily means that there is one.
6. What did the women do upon finding out about Jesus’ resurrection?
A. Like any rational human being, they freaked right out. Matthew says they were joyful and fearful at the same time. They were so messed up from the experience that I would surmise they headed out and rendezvoused at some other landmark, not obeying the command of the angels. That also gives a window for Mary Magdalene to get Peter and John to the tomb without running into the other women to find out the story from them.
7. Why didn’t Mary know what had happened and still had to ask the two angels what happened to Jesus’ body?
A. Again, Mary was not with the women when they went in the tomb. Again, since there was no dialog traded between John and Peter for her to understand, and they both left in stunned amazement, there was no information transfer. Therefore, Mary stepped into the tomb to see for herself what happened.
8. How did the other women see Jesus on the way to Jerusalem?
A. I surmise that after Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus, she immediately went to find the other women, since that was the party she went to the tomb with. Therefore, she would want them to know that Jesus was not dead, and His body had not been stolen, but He was alive. Upon giving them this information, they all regrouped and went into the city, but on the way, they encountered the risen Christ. Jesus reiterated the command the angel had given the women earlier.
9. The women told the disciples, and they thought the women were crazy. Peter went to the tomb. But, didn’t Peter already go to the tomb?
A. Peter had indeed already gone to the tomb. Luke is telling the story as an anecdotal account. Peter had already gone to the tomb earlier, and Luke is indeed affirming Peter’s experience. Effectively, the Peter account was being added to refute the question of the women’s sanity.
10. Why were there two great commissions, one given on a mountain in Galilee, one in Jerusalem telling the disciples not to leave the city?
A. Simple. Matthew records a commission given to the disciples in the time period between the time they went back to Galilee after Passover and before they came back to Jerusalem for Shavuot (Pentecost). This commission to baptize and witness was given to the disciples on the very mountain Jesus had told them to go to. The second one, recorded in Luke, was given once they had returned to Jerusalem for Pentecost. There were three holidays that all men had to be in Jerusalem to celebrate, and two of those are Passover and Pentecost. That explains the return to Galilee and hence, two times Jesus spoke to them in this manner. The speech recorded in Luke details the coming of the Holy Spirit, as well, which they were to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit had come. Why? Simple as well. Many people would be gathered into Jerusalem for Pentecost from around the Roman Empire, just as they were for Passover. The disciples would have thousands to preach the gospel to, who would then take it home to their own places.
I realize that in a wooden, literal reading of the Bible, men like Bart Ehrman would say that I have harmonized contradictory accounts, and that the Bible can’t be harmonized. My response to that would be two-fold. First, these are supposed to be fast moving eyewitness accounts of the high points of Jesus’ life. You can say all the words Jesus said in the Gospel recordings in two hours. Do you really think Jesus only said two hours worth of stuff in three years? Don’t be daft. Second, those who argue that it simply cannot be harmonized are doing so only from the standpoint of needing to not accept it. They are simply skeptical and can’t be convinced no matter what you say.
Apologetics is not an evangelism tool in the sense that apologetics will win someone over to faith in Christ. Apologetics is a tool to provide believers with the truth of why they believe what they believe. Our life witness and the witness of the Holy Spirit is what saves the souls of men.
I invite you to read over this, and if there are any thoughts that the records may still contradict, please, bring them to me. I am not an arrogant jerk who is unwilling to retrace his work. I just have ultimate faith that the gospel records are inerrant and am willing to defend that belief.