Making Sense of the Resurrection Accounts: Are there Discrepancies?

When we read the various accounts of the Resurrection in the four Gospels, Acts and Pauline Epistles we can easily be puzzled by some apparent discrepancies in the details. The word “apparent” is important because some who wish to cast doubt on the historicity of the Resurrection often wish to make more of these differences than necessary. Many, if not most of the differences can be dealt with quite easily and we are able to ultimately stitch together a pretty clear account of the resurrection if we are disposed to do so. Sadly today, some are not. Some are downright hostile to the claim of the Church that Jesus rose. Others, many modern day Scripture Scholars among them, like to insist that the Scriptures are not history as we mean the term today (an exact chronological and comprehensive analysis of an event or era). Hence they like to leave the apparent discrepancies unresolved and consider attempts to resolve them as “simplistic” and “fundamentalist.” While I agree that the Scriptures do not convey history as modern histories do (for example they are selective, story based accounts rather than our modern journalistic approach to history), I will not concede that they are not historical. In fact they do convey what Jesus actually did and said. Hence apparent conflicts ought to be explored and explained.

What are the apparent conflicts that emerge in the accounts? They are these:

  1. How many women went out to the tomb that morning, one (Jn 20:21) two (Matt 28:1), or three (Mk 16:1)?
  2. Did Magdalene alone go to just Peter and John (Jn 20) or did the several women go to the Apostles (Matt 28; Mk 16)?
  3. How many angels did they see there that morning, one (Matt 28:2; Mk 16:5) or two (Lk 24:4; Jn 20:12)?
  4. Did the women run to the other disciples and tell what they had seen (Mt 28:8; Lk 24:9) or did they say nothing out of fear (Mk 16:8)?
  5. Did Jesus see them first in Galilee (Mk 16:7; Mt 28:9) or in Jerusalem (Jn 20; Lk 24:36)?
  6. Among the Apostles, did he appear to Peter first (Lk 24:34), all eleven at once (Mt. 28:16), or the eleven minus Thomas (Jn 20:24)?
  7. Did Jesus appear to them in a room (Jn 20:19) or a mountaintop (Mt 28:16)?
  8. Lastly, did Jesus ascend on Easter Sunday (Lk 24:50-53; Mk 16:19) or forty days later (Acts 1:3,9)?

At one level some react that some of these details are picky. Who cares really who many women went or how many angels? Perhaps but it does not seem wise to simply dismiss the differences this way. Some of the differences ARE quite significant. For example, did Jesus appear to them first in Jerusalem? Luke and John are quite clear that he did. But why then does Mark completely ignore this and have the angel instruct the women to have the disciples go to Galilee where they will see him? Now, as has been stated, these differences can be addressed in a thoughtful manner but they should not be simply dismissed as of no account.

In what follows I propose to address these difference and give possible resolutions. I am also aware and expect to hear from some who consider any attempts to resolve these matters “simplistic.” But I and others who have pondered these matters are not simpletons and would prefer if those who might have a different explanation or view would avoid dismissive, demeaning or ad hominem argumentum. If something seems wrong state why and give evidence or an alternative point of view. So, on to possible solutions.

  1. How many women went out to the tomb that morning, one (John 20:21), two (Matt 28:1) or three (Mk 16:1) and how many angels were there, one (Mk 16:5, Mat 28:2) or two (Lk 24:4, Jn 20:12)? One solution here is to recall that neither John’s Gospel nor Matthew’s absolutely deny that three women went to the tomb that day. They simply do not mention three whereas Mark does. John especially wishes to focus on Mary Magdalene and may have found it unnecessary to mention the others. Additionally, Matthew and Mark’s mention of one angel need not be seen as an absolute denial that there were two as described in Luke and John. Another solution is simply to acknowledge the discrepancies in the accounts but underscore the fact that the number of women and the number of angels is not the central point. The point is that the tomb was discovered empty by one or several women and they were instructed to tell the apostles what they saw and heard.
  2. Matthew (28:8) and Luke (24:9) indicate that the women went and told the disciples of the empty tomb but Mark (16:8) says they were afraid and said nothing. True but in the verses that follow in the appendix to Mark’s own Gospel (Mk. 16:10) Mary Magdalene does in fact tell the apostles. Rather than conflicting with the other texts, Mark may merely supply additional detail about the startled nature of the women, that at first they were startled and said nothing but soon after went on, as Mark in fact says, a did tell the apostles.
  3. Mark (16:7) and Matthew (28:9) indicate, according to the angel’s instructions, that Jesus would see them in Galilee but Luke (24:36 and John 20) describe the first appearances in Jerusalem. In addressing this difference we must recall that the gospels are not written as chronological or complete histories. The evangelists selected events from among the many things Jesus said and did and may also have altered the order. John (20:30 & 21:25) explicitly states that his account is selective. Hence we ought not conclude that any one gospel completely details all the resurrection appearances. It is true Mark and Matthew speak only of appearances in Galilee. Thus these accounts might only include the angelic instructions to go to Galilee since that they did not intend to describe appearances elsewhere. In other words it is possible to speculate that the angelic instructions were more elaborate and included instructions as to being prepared to meet Jesus first in Jerusalem. Matthew and Mark however paired these details down in their accounts since they did not intend to include the Jerusalem appearances in their accounts. This may not satisfy our notions of historical accounts wherein we expect and want a complete accounting of all the details. But, as has already been noted the Scriptures simply do not record history in this way. Rather they are selective accounts that open windows on history but do not claim to exhaustively report it. Note also that Matthew and Mark are not clear as to the time frame of the appearances they describe. Luke and John however, set the first appearance in Jerusalem and are rather clear that the day is the same day as the resurrection. Hence we reasonably conclude that the first appearances took place in Jerusalem and later appearances took place in Galilee. In other words the Jerusalem appearances do not conflict with the Galilean appearances in any way. Rather they simply add details that Mark and Matthew, for reasons of their own, chose not to include. Such a conclusion is speculative to be sure. It does, however, help us to see that the accounts do not absolutely contradict each other.
  4. Among the Apostles, did Jesus appear to Peter first (Lk 24:34), all eleven at once (Mt. 28:16), or the eleven minus Thomas (Jn 20:24)? There seems to be a good case for the fact that the Lord appeared first to Peter even though we do not have a direct account of this appearance in the scriptures. The Gospel of Luke makes mention of it, And they [the disciples travelling to Emmaus] rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”(24:33-34). Paul also records it [The Lord] was raised the third day in accordance with the scriptures…he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time…Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles (1 Cor 15:3ff). So it seems a pretty good case can be made that Peter did see the risen Lord before the other apostles. This quote from Paul also helps us recall that the gospel accounts are selective in terms of which resurrection appearances they report. Thus, as we read the various accounts, we get from each of them only a part of the full picture (see John 20:30). According to Paul there were appearances to Peter, to five hundred disciples, and to James. The details of these appearances are left to our imagination. It also follows that we do not need to see the accounts of John and Matthew cited above as conflicting. They may well be describing different appearances.
  5. Did Jesus appear to them in a room (Jn 20:19) or a mountaintop (Mt 28:16)? Again, we need not place these texts at odds with one another. Most likely they are describing different appearances. Since the time frame of John is clear that the appearances in the upper room took place on Resurrection Sunday and then a week later we can presume that these appearances took place first. The mountaintop appearance was in Galilee and the time frame is not clear. It may have been days or weeks later.
  6. Did Jesus ascend on Easter Sunday (Lk 24:50-53; Mk 16:19) or forty days later (Acts 1:3,9)? At first glance the texts from Luke and Mark do seem to imply that the ascension was the same day as the resurrection. However, a closer look will show that they are rather vague as to the time frame. Mark begins the passage leading up to the ascension with the word “afterward.” How long after the previous appearance is uncertain. Luke’s passage is also vague regarding the time. However Acts (1:3,9) also written by Luke is quite specific that the time of the ascension was forty days later. Thus, Acts need not be seen to conflict with the gospel accounts; it merely supplies the details that are lacking in them. This case is made stronger when we note that Luke is generally accepted to be the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles and it seems unlikely that Luke would directly contradict himself.

So here then is a short tour of some of the apparent discrepancies and possible ways to resolve them. In the end we simply have to accept that the Gospels do not record history in the same systematic and strictly chronological manner we moderns prefer. But they DO record history. It is for us to accept the evidence and accounts as they are given. The fact is that to develop a precise time frame and blow by blow chronological description may not be fully possible. However, careful study of the texts can help somewhat in this regard. In tomorrow’s blog I would like to propose a somewhat chronological account that attempts to weave the many strands into one narrative. Such an attempt as we will see involves some speculation given the nature of ancient historical accounts. But it can help us to sort our the many details by trying to order them. So stay tuned for tomorrow.

In this video Fr. Robert Barron does a good job of describing the sophistication that is necessary when approaching Scripture. Since the Bible is not A book but is rather a collection of books with many different genres we cannot simply read it all in the same way. We have to approach the scriptures on their own terms and understand the way they speak to us.

15 Replies to “Making Sense of the Resurrection Accounts: Are there Discrepancies?”

  1. It also bears noting that, with respect to these apparent discrepancies, the modern world has not discovered anything new, they have been known for the last 1950 years, more or less, so the non-believer should not think himself all that clever if he says, “Hey, look at these discrepancies I found! How do you explain them, hmm?”

    Those of a historical-critical view have been fond of promoting the idea that three of the Gospels came from a common source. Whether that is so or not, surely the writers of each of the four Gospels were aware of the others (and probably some counterfeits as well), if not of the final written product, then the oral tradition that preceded it.

    And even after the authors had left the scene, the Church was well aware of the Gospels containing varying accounts on a number of things. And what did the Church do in the face of these apparent discrepancies? Nothing. There was no attempt by them to edit the Gospels to provide a uniform account. It left the discrepancies in place. If the Church fathers were really all that concerned about apparent discrepancies — and were merely promoting some fanciful lie about someone actually rising from the dead! — then it stands to reason that they would have made sure that all four Gospels told the same story.

    But that is not what the Church did. To be sure, not only did the Church not attempt to rewrite or edit the Gospels to have a uniform account, the Church proclaimed that each of them were true notwithstanding the differences!

    Clearly, each of the four Gospel writers had a different intention, a different focus in mind. They each told of the same historical events, but each put an emphasis on this aspect or that aspect. If they all said the same thing, there would hardly be need of four, one would do. John is the most obvious in this regard, having included many events that the others did not include, and not including things that the others did, for example, the institution of the Eucharist, even though it is in John that we have the Bread of Life discourse.

    Different witnesses to the same event can see things a little bit differently and tell the story a little bit differently, and yet the variations can still be accurate and true. The same with the Gospel writers. Each witness sees from his own view and emphasizes some things more than others, and the Holy Spirit intends to say something a little different each time as well, in each case sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. And it does not need to be the case of either/or; the differences are easily explained as each of the seeming “discrepancies” being true.

    But, again, one of the most striking things about these varying accounts being in the Bible is not that they are there, but that the early Church left them there. That such apparent discrepancies, far from proving the falsehood of the Gospels, demonstrates instead that they are true.

    1. Yes, I think hat you are saying is important. People of the ancient world had a great deal more sophistication in dealing with the texts of Scripture than many do today. The human authors were not just srting a history, they were writing a Sacred history wherein the theologize and select material that suit their purposes. The Fathers and the ancient Church were sophisticated in their understanding of this. John was so bold as to take the passion and locate it a few days earlier so that Christ was crucified just as the lambs were being slaughtered for the passover. Then ancients understood what he was doing and that his timeline was purposely altered. They did not need to beat their chest and wonder which timeframe was right, Johns or the synoptics. Thanks for your valuable additions to the article.

  2. Thank you for this Fr. Pope. These questions seem to lurk in my mind when reading/studying the Gospels and discussions about this will usually come up at some point when talking to others.

    This really helps.


  3. Many people have taken a psychology class in college where the entire class was made to watch a film and then write down what they saw. Not surprisingly, the reports don’t match in details.
    As a previous poster mentioned, it speaks volumes to those constantly looking for evidence of a conspiracy that the early Church didn’t edit the various apostolic writings into agreement on this subject.

    1. yes, an excellent point. Hence the puzzling differences in some of the details actually lend credibility to the source data. If the whole thing was tighly controlled talking points it would lend to concerns about a conspiracy.

  4. People like this are looking for an excuse to not believe. I have found enough proof in the scriptures and I want to believe that my Lord & Savior Jesus Christ gave up His life for me, a poor miserable sinner. I believe I made it through a miserable existance during a horrible war and was given my life to witness for my God. Bless His Holy name.

  5. Let me contribute to the discussion by making two points:
    I.- We can all agree that witnesses to an event, trivial or earth shattering, will notice different things but it does not change the historicity of what really happened. Mary Magdalene, did not stop to write notes as she left the Holly Sepulture, and make sure that she had all the details. Her exiting message had to be delivered — she ran all the way — she was breathless — the only thing any one could get out of her was ‘His body is not there, the Teacher has risen’. Many years latter when God inspired the gospels writers it was not important that she was exited, could hardly speak, they remembered the many times they had sat around her and listened to a gracious lady tell them of the words in her head as she announced the glad tidings.
    II.- Msgr. Pope, Origen of Alexandria would disagree with you. He wrote that the Bible is one book – one unified whole – inspired by God. Therefore perfect. If we perceive contradictions, errors in continuity… etc. they were put in by Him, to uplift us through meditation and once we realize it, we should think and write on our meditations on the subject. Every word, coma, period… has been put there for our benefit. As our Holy Father, mentioned Origen, as an example, I dare think he would approve my including him in my comment.

    1. Not sure that you and I disagree as to the second point you make. I do agree with Fr. Barron that the Bible is really a collection of Books but it is surely a unified whole. It is clear that there are many different literary styles within the sacred text which must be interpreted properly.

  6. Thank you, very well done, Fr. Pope. Thank you for putting this up. The only thing I would add is that since angels are not physical beings, I find that supposed discrepancy particularly easy to answer: One of the women saw one angel, and the others saw two.

  7. I must side with msgr Pope, and add that in any single event witnessed by say 12 people, expect to see 12 versions somewhat different, especially involving as many as 40 some days time span of the events. Also the “human” factor adds to the formula. Say it’s true Jesus was crucified on Friday. Friday night was horrible for all involved directly with a lifetime or much of a lifetime witnessing first hand all of Jesus..some family, some acquaintences along the way etc. so none-the-less, remove such a man as Jesus from that group who’d seen day after day countless miracles and predictions and who’d been with God before the Earth was formed and long before he was put into his body, and you have the most horrible panic among that group one could imagine..seeing this perfect soul with your own eyes tortured, humiliated, chastized, then die slowly as in crucifiction and he turned down what the Living Bible says is “drugged wine” often offered to some who were crucified, purposefully he didn’t want to soften the painful experience for himself…a wicked scene undescribable. This Jesus (Heshua) would have been their total “center”. So try to sleep htat Friday night and after having worried your self sick Thursday night as well! Saturday rolls around and you are still in disbelief or panic…heart wrenching loss of an entity who’s healed or affected many thousands before your very eyes not counting the other “miracles”. Saturday night rolls around and again you either don’t sleep or sleep fitfully…fatigued beyond belief literally in agony. Then Sunday AM you, Mary or both Marys or whomever, go to the tomb carrying what is said to be 100 lbs of embalming spices and are blasted off your feet of what you see. Angel(s) and no body. Sleep deprivation and shear shock can affect memory as anyone knows, and account for some of the differences of the gospels regarding the resurection as well as desciples stressing some things others didn’t stress and vice versa. I agree with msgr Pope in that 100% accuracy of all accounts would infer a conspiracy of editing. We have to put up with enough of this already but let’s admit the fact these were normal human beings like us subjected to an incredibly wrenching event.

  8. I might add if you want to paste this in with my post above that is was almost a miracle at least some of the 12 didn’t go completely crazy at the crucifiction or shortly thereafter. Talk about stress syndrome! It was faith in Jesus’ word by the 12 (and more) that this torture and crucifiction would happen said by Jesus before it did happen that smoothed things out for the desciples and others, as any of what Jesus said would happen, did happen, he was 100% correct in predictions. When one’s “soul” is of God itself before the Earth was formed, what would one expect? That prepared them somewhat for this wrenching event. I do take lots of chronological issues with the Old Testament for in a few cases it doesn’t agree with common sence or science but chances are the New Testament is pretty spot on, albeit undoubtedly edited somewhat by the compilers in the early years. I am a believer but with common sence added as a factor.

  9. Here is what I find most interesting, I didn’t even know about the appendix added to Mark until I read it in your attempt to address discrepency #2. It raised even more suspicion for me to see that verses were added here in attempt to correct the obvious contradiction, editing you later claim towards the end of this post never occurred by early church fathers. Then in point 3, you claim Matthew and Mark were paired down by not wanting to mention the Jerusalem appearance, but the problem here is the editing/correcting you claim never happened just so happened to edit the Jerusalem appearance into Mark in the appendix section you leaned on in attempt to address Discrepincy #2. You see what I’m getting at here? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. That alternative endings to Mark are SUPER shady at best.

    Investigate Everything. New Testament, New World Order, and Marvin Bush + 9/11

    Manna/Bread of God/Bread of Life/Bread of the Prescence/Unleavened Bread = Mushrooms in the Old Testament (Exodus-Ezekial) and Jesus in the New Testament (see John 6). Eye for an eye, or turn the other cheek? Looks like we might be dealing with two different Gods here, doesn’t it?


  10. Resurrection forensic: the sequence of events to harmonize the gospel accounts.

    Mary Magdelaine, Joanna, another Mary and Salome heads for the tomb on Sunday at dawn. They find the tomb empty. Mary Magalene heads back to inform John and Peter.

    Meanwhile the other women are greeted by angels. They are told that Jesus is risen and that they should convey this to the disciples. On their way (different way than the one they came) to inform the disciples, they meet Jesus.

    On hearing from Mary Magdalene about the empty tomb, John outruns Peter to the tomb and Mary Magdalene trails. After establishing that the tomb is empty John and Peter returns leaving Mary crying at the tomb. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene.

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