Do the Gospels disagree on who discovered the empty tomb?

by Luke Wayne
07/29/2019

Critics of the New Testament often suggest that the gospels present contradictory narratives regarding Jesus' resurrection. One such argument (which is honestly rather weak but comes up surprisingly often) involves the detail of who it was that discovered Jesus' empty tomb. The claim is that each gospel lists a different set of women and that the story, therefore, cannot be trusted. This argument, however, breaks down almost immediately on even the slightest examination. The truth is that, while each of the four gospels includes unique details on the matter, they all are perfectly consistent with one another on who it was who first found the stone rolled away and the body of Jesus missing. The gospels are definitely in agreement on this.

Who Came to the Tomb?

The issue comes down to the list of names provided in each gospel of which women arrived at the tomb that Sunday morning. Compare the following verses:

"Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb," (John 20:1).

"Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave," (Matthew 28:1).

"When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him," (Mark 16:1).

Luke does not list the names at this point in the story. Instead, he just mentions "the women who had come with Him out of Galilee," (Luke 23:49, 55) and states that:

"But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared," (Luke 24:1).

However, he later clarifies:

"Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles," (Luke 24:10).

Even without any deep reflection at all, it is clear that these are not entirely different lists but rather longer or shorter versions of the same list. One gospel may have more names than another, but they don't have conflicting names. Some critics specifically argue that John implies that Mary Magdalene was alone, but even this isn't actually true! While hers is the only name given, we read in literally the very next verse:

"So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, 'They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him,'" (John 20:2).

Notice that Mary doesn't say "I" but rather "we" do not know where they have laid him. She is clearly speaking on behalf of a group. While John does not explicitly mention the other women, he plainly assumes that they were there. Thus, when we compare these lists, a few things are immediately apparent:

  1. All four gospels state that women came to Jesus' tomb early in the morning.
  2. All four gospels state that Mary Magdalene was among them.
  3. Three of the four gospels explicitly mention that another woman named Mary was also there.
  4. Three of the four gospels imply or explicitly acknowledge that other women besides the two Marys were also present.
  5. None of the gospels claim or imply that they are offering an exhaustive list.

Given these facts, it is clear that the gospels are actually in complete harmony on this matter. One author might have known more names than another. One author may have had a specific reason for emphasizing one particular woman over the others. These are issues of mere specificity. The fact of the matter is that there is no conflict between these verses at all. They are all communicating the same thing! Far from an example of a contradiction, this is actually a minor example of the gospels reporting the same event in slightly different ways without any disagreement at all.