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The surest foundation for building a belief system
Gospel Comparison of the Visit to the Tomb
One of the most enlightening exercises that can be done is to carefully compare the Gospel accounts of the visit to the tomb of Jesus on the morning of his resurrection. Not only are there striking factual differences that must be dealt with, but one can easily see and understand a rationale for why these developed over time and distance and are thus in the accounts
It should be understood from the outset that the Gospel of John was written after the other, synoptic Gospel material, and partly to correct and counteract their influence. This Gospel is the only eyewitness account among the four Gospels included in the "traditional" canon, and as such is the only factually credible account. Its strength and weight COME FROM BEING THIS and NOT from its inclusion in any Bible canon. The other Gospels were probably COMPILED—not personally written— 30 to 40 years after the crucifixion by professional men who could read and write, and who were commissioned by local Christian communities to gather up stories about Jesus and the disciples. The compilers of Matthew and Luke used the "Q" document and the Gospel of Mark as a basis for their documents and then included additions and embellishments from other second, third or fourth-hand accounts.
Since Peter became a self-appointed leader and his theology became the foundation of early Christendom, Christian documents have a tendency to focus on and feature Peter and incidents involving him. This proclivity is pronounced in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, which apparently were produced in or around Rome where Mark, a disciple of Peter, had a strong influence.
After a careful comparison of the Gospel passages below and other analogous accounts of identical incidents it should be obvious that these documents are NOT factually infallible, and that normal factors such as loss of clarity in time and retelling and other social and political dynamic factors within the Christian movement have led to exaggerations, embellishments and inaccuracies. It is also obvious that the conversations or words of Jesus have not been recounted entirely accurately, much less translated and interpreted accurately.
On the other hand it should be obvious that these accounts DO describe a real event experienced in common, and are not cleverly designed fables. They are just what one would expect to find given the delay and way in which they came about. Nevertheless, our most sure foundation for building a belief system concerning Jesus is to stand on reason and the two eyewitness accounts by John and Thomas of what Jesus actually did, said and meant.
When doing the comparison, read the actual statement in each of the Synoptic gospel accounts in the right hand column. Notice that there is significant factual discrepancy between all four of the Gospels. This cannot be swept aside as having little or no consequence, because this fact must be taken into account, and implies and underscores the superior credibility in the eyewitness Gospels of John and Thomas.
There are several other parallel passages in the Gospels that have significant factual discrepancies, all of which adds up to a pattern that should arouse our skepticism as to the veracity of the non-eyewitness Gospels as a whole. We need to be sensitive to this pattern and sensible about its implications. ANYTHING that does not fit the paradigm and picture of God that Jesus presented to us should be challenged in our thinking and discarded as false legend, fabrication, exaggeration and/or embellishment. To do anything else is to remain in denial, idolatry and superstition.
The account in John
John 20:1 Now on the first of the holidays Mary the Magdalene comes early,
Commentary on discrepancies: Notice that Mark has Mary and Salome going to the tomb, Matthew has Mary of Magdala and another Mary, Luke has Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Mary mother of James and other women, while John has only Mary of Magdala, and relates two visits. the latter by Peter and John. It should be understood that both the names of Mary and Salome were used in the culture and literature of the time as generic names for women, somewhat comparable to Jane Doe or Mary Jane in our society and time. All accounts agree on the time, and Mark and Luke bring in a purpose of the visit, involving spices, that is not negated by the other accounts. See the other gospel accounts listed below that of John.
John 20:1,2 the tomb still being in darkness, and sees the stone removed from the tomb. Then she runs, and comes to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus kept on loving,
Commentary on discrepancies: In John, Mark and Luke, the "huge stone" was rolled or taken away before the women arrived. Matthew has the embellishment of a living being, called an angel of the Lord, descending with a violent earthquake and rolling the stone away.
John 20:2-9 and says to them, "They took the Master out of the tomb, and we don't know where they put him."
Then Peter and the other disciple came out to the tomb. The two ran together, but the other disciple ran in front more quickly than Peter and came to the tomb first; and stooping he sees the linens, however, he did not go in. Then Simon Peter comes, following him, and entered into the tomb. And he sees the linens lying, and the cloth which was on his head, not lying with the linens but being folded up in a separate place. Then the other disciple, having come first to the tomb, also entered, and he saw and believed. Until then they did not understand the scripture, that it suits him to rise from the dead.
Commentary on discrepancies: John includes the very important admission that this is the first time that he, John, both understood and believed what Jesus was about. There is good reason to believe that the only other one of "the twelve" to ever understand and believe was Thomas, who understood but was determined to not believe unless he had his own tangible proof.
John 20:10-11 So then, the disciples went away by themselves. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.
John 20:11-13 While she wept she stooped into the tomb, and she sees two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. Those say to her, "Woman, why do you weep?" She says to them, "Because they have removed my Master, and I don't know where they put him."
Commentary on discrepancies:
Mark has the women entering the tomb, with only ONE youth in a
white robe sitting on the "symbolically correct," right side.
Luke has the women entering but finding TWO men in dazzling
garments by their side. Matthew has just ONE messenger in
white sitting on the stone OUTSIDE, with guards falling down as dead with fear. John
has Mary M. OUTSIDE peering into the tomb on the second visit and
seeing TWO messengers sitting INSIDE at the head and feet.
The tenor of the Gospel of John is to focus on significant aspects
and to not be concerned with
superfluous details such as white robes.
John 20:14-17 Saying these things, she turned around and now sees Jesus standing, but she does not know that it is Jesus. Jesus says to her, "Woman, why do you weep? Whom do you seek?" Thinking that it is the gardener, that one said to him, "Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you put him, and I will take him." Jesus says to her, "Mary." Turning, that one says to him in Hebrew, "Rabboni!", meaning Teacher. Jesus says to her, "Do not interfere with me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, I ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God."
John 20:18 Mary the Magdalene now comes bringing word to the disciples, that she has seen the Master and he spoke these things to her.
Commentary on discrepancies: Mark has the women running away from the tomb in abject terror and not saying anything to anybody. Matthew and Luke have softened this version considerably, with Matthew having them hurrying away to tell the disciples with awe and great joy. Luke has them remembering the words of Jesus, in contrast to them being told by the messengers, and has them reporting everything to the incredulous "apostles". John recalls Mary running to tell Peter and himself after her first visit.
The account in Matthew
Matthew 28:1-10 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.
But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. Lo, I have told you."
So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
The account in Mark
Mark 16:1 And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
Mark 16:2 And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen.
Mark 16:3 And they were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?"
Mark 16:4 And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; ‑‑ it was very large.
Mark 16:5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed.
Mark 16:6 And he said to them, "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.
Mark 16:7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you."
Mark 16:8 And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.
The account in Luke
Luke 23:54-56 It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
Luke 24:1-11 But on the first day of the week, at early
dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared.
And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went
in they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about
this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; and as they
were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to
them, "Why do you seek the living among the dead? Remember how he
told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be
delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the
third day rise."
The Synoptic combined account
Matthew 28:1-10 Mk 16:1-8 Lk 24:1-12 Now
during the Sabbath holiday, they rested according to the directive; but
toward the dawn with the passing of the first day of the Sabbath
holidays, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the sepulchre,
carrying the spices which they prepared. They said, "Who will roll
away for us the stone from the opening of the tomb."
* Not that Peter was more important, but he was probably feeling the worst.