Critics of the Gospel’s Resurrection accounts often allege the story of Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” visiting the tomb of Jesus contains contradictory details. For instance, Matthew 28:8 states “And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word.” Contrast this with Mark 16:8, which says, “And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.”
It seems we have a contradiction on our hands! Not so fast. There are at least two plausible suggestions for a resolution.
1. Mark’s account coupled with Matthew’s indicates that the women told no one else along the way.
There is no reason to suspect these faithful followers of Jesus would not have done as they were instructed (and both passages agree they were instructed to tell the disciples). Further, Matthew’s account states they were leaving to tell the disciples. In this case, the plausible situation would be as follows: the women see the angel, the angel tells them Christ has risen, the angel instructs them to tell the disciples, the women fear and leave to go tell the disciples, not telling anyone along the way because they were afraid. Given both accounts this is certainly plausible.
2. The women indeed left fearing and intending not to tell anyone; but Jesus’ appearance to them convinced them otherwise.
This harmonization takes Mark’s account at face value and assumes that they left not intending to tell anyone including the disciples or Peter. While this would be assuming the worst about a group of followers so full of faith they came to anoint the body of Jesus (indeed, how did they think they would get past the guards, or roll the stone away?), this hypothetical still works. In Matthew 28:9-10, Christ appears to them on the way and tells them to instruct the disciples to meet him in Galilee. It is important to know the writing styles of Matthew and Mark. Mark wrote many stories in the present tense (e.g. “he comes to Jesus,” or “he heals him of leprosy”) while Matthew did not bother with chronology all that often (in 27:53, for example, Matthew interrupts the story of Jesus’ death with the later consequence of people rising from the dead after the Resurrection [which chronologically has not taken place yet in Matthew’s story]).
In this harmonization, Matthew is writing with the ultimate destination of the women in mind: they would eventually tell the disciples, and it was on this journey, so he writes in 28:8-9 they were on their way to the disciples. Mark writes in the present tense, and so relays their intent to get out of there and lie low. In between the two extremes is Jesus himself, who appears to them and (quite notably) tells them to “be not afraid.” (Matt. 28:10)
I personally favor this view, but for theological reasons. It seems all of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus were on his terms. Thomas doubted, the disciples had returned to fishing, and the women were afraid. In each and every case it was Jesus himself who overcame their doubts and fears. It is the changed lives of every person whom the Resurrected Lord encounters that must be dealt with by the skeptic. How has Christ changed your life? Is there a change? Tell your story, skeptical or not, below!
This originally appeared on the blog “Possible Worlds” on April 20, 2011.