A cursory reading of the resurrection in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John reveals a few differences in the recorded facts. While these supposed discrepancies sometimes alarm modern readers, they tend not to concern historians because any differences are merely relegated to secondary details.
In each Gospel account the core story is the same: Joseph of Arimathea takes the body of Jesus and puts it in a tomb, one or more of Jesus’ female followers visit the tomb early on the Sunday morning following his crucifixion, and they find that the tomb is empty. They see a vision of either one or two angels who say that Jesus is risen. Despite the differences concerning the women’s number and names, the exact time of the morning and the number of angels, we can have great confidence in the shared core story that would be agreed upon by the majority of New Testament scholars today.
Even the usually skeptical historian Michael Grant, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and professor at Edinburgh University, concedes in his book Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, “True, the discovery of the empty tomb is differently described by the various gospels, but if we apply the same sort of criteria that we would apply to any other ancient literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was, indeed, found empty.”
The differences between the empty tomb narratives are indicative of multiple, independent affirmations of the story. Sometimes people say, “Matthew and Luke just plagiarized from Mark,” but when one examines the narratives closely, the divergences suggest that even if Matthew and Luke did know Mark’s account, they also had separate, independent sources.
So with these multiple and independent accounts, no historian would disregard this evidence just because of secondary discrepancies. Consider the secular example of Hannibal crossing the Alps to attack Rome, for which there are two historically incompatible and irreconcilable accounts. Yet no classical historian doubts the fact that Hannibal did mount such a campaign. Hannibal’s crossing is a nonbiblical illustration of a story in which discrepancies in secondary details fail to undermine the historical core accuracy of the event.
While that may be enough to satisfy historians, also consider that many of the alleged contradictions in the Gospel accounts are rather easily reconciled. For example, the accounts vary in the reported time of the visit to the tomb. One writer describes it as “still dark” (John 20:1), another says it was “very early in the morning” (Luke 24:1), and another says it was “just after sunrise” (Mark 16:2). But if the visit was “at dawn,” (Matthew 28:1), they were likely describing the same thing with different words.
As for the number and names of the women, none of the Gospels pretends to give a complete list. They all include Mary Magdalene, and Matthew, Mark and Luke also cite other women, so there was probably a group of these early disciples that included those who were named and probably a couple of others. Perhaps when the women came, Mary Magdalene arrived first and that’s why only John mentions her. That’s hardly a contradiction. In terms of whether there were/was one angel (Matthew) or two (John) at Jesus’ tomb, have you ever noticed that whenever you have two of anything, you also have one? It never fails. Matthew didn’t say there was only one. John was providing more detail by saying there were two.
Adapted from interview with Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Norman Geisler