Scripture in Question:
Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20
Each year at this time it is common for some who reject Christianity to speak of the “clear contradictions” between the four Gospel accounts of the resurrection. Perhaps because they are at the heart of Christian theology and belief, the resurrection accounts are attacked as being inconsistent in terms of the witnesses to the event, its timing and what the witnesses saw.
The Witnesses: Matthew 28:1 states that two women (Mary Magdalene, and "the other Mary") came to the tomb of Jesus, whereas Mark 16:1 states that there were three women (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome). In Luke 24:10 we find three women named, but a different list of three than Mark gives (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Joanna); finally, John 20:1 mentions only Mary Magdalene. That Mary Magdalene and a group of other women came to the tomb is clear. Each Gospel writer probably mentions the particular women that he had heard were there. The fact that there is so much agreement between the lists is, in fact, a point for their authenticity rather than some kind of contradiction. John mentions only Mary Magdalene, likely because she was either the first to arrive at the tomb or the leader of the group of women.
Timing of the Event: John 20:1 states “it was still dark” when Mary arrived at the tomb, but Mark 16:2 states “the sun had risen” when the women arrived. Once again, perhaps Mary Magdalene (who alone is mentioned by John) arrived at the tomb a little earlier than the others, though the two writers may just have been describing the dawn from different perspectives – as the end of the night or the beginning of the day.
What was Witnessed: While Matthew 28:2 tells us “an angel” rolled away the stone sealing the tomb and sat upon it, Mark 16:5 says the women found “a young man” sitting by the tomb; Luke 24:4 says the women saw “two men” and in John 20:1 it is not recorded that Mary Magdalene saw anything other than a moved stone. Matthew does not say there was only one angel, just that one moved the stone. The “young man” mentioned by Mark was clearly how the women had described the angel. The fact that John does not mention the two "men" does not mean that they were not there – his account is simply stressing other things.
As the theologian N.T. Wright has written, "It is a commonplace among lawyers that eyewitnesses disagree, but that this doesn’t mean nothing happened." (Surprised by Hope, Harper 2008). Given four separate accounts of the same event, one would expect differences of detail to be remembered by the different witnesses, and differences in the stress placed on certain details by the four writers. This is, in fact, exactly what we find in the four gospel accounts of the resurrection.