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. Clearly, a number of women went to the tomb that morning, but it is likely that each Gospel writer 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 the first to arrive at the tomb. But in each case the perspective of the writer is all that is really different.
Timing of the Event: John 20:1 states “it was still dark” when Mary arrived at the tomb, but Mark 16:2 states it was “just after sunrise” 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. Thus, from John’s perspective it was dark, whereas from the other writers’ perspective it was now light when the other women arrived.
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 the moved stone. But 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 written from the perspective of Mary Magdalene and it is possible that when she arrived at the tomb – somewhat before the other women – no one else was present. So this is hardly a contradictory situation.
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, p. 33). 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 as they recorded the event from their own perspectives.
* Excerpted from our new free e-book, Scriptures in Question: Answers to Apparent Biblical Contradictions. You can download a free copy here.