“How many women were at the tomb of Jesus?” An example of how skeptics read the resurrection accounts all wrong

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The apostle Paul said that if Christ hasn’t risen, Christianity is a sham. (1 Corinthians 15:17) Many atheists agree, and will happily point to the gospel accounts. Just how seriously should they take the claim of the resurrection? After all, aren’t the accounts riddled with contradictions? How can they possibly be trusted? Now, historians don’t normally conclude that just because individual accounts have apparent contradictions that the event in question didn’t occur. But let’s allow that to pass for now. I think the majority of the discrepancies that critics bring up can be easily resolved.

One example of a so-called contradiction in the resurrection accounts pertains to the women at the tomb. How many were there? Who were they? It seems to depend on which gospel you read. To help us state this objection more forcefully, let me quote Bob Seidensticker, a popular atheist blogger on Patheos:

“The different accounts of the resurrection are full of contradictions…How many women came to the tomb Easter morning? Was it one, as told in John? Two (Matthew)? Three (Mark)? Or more (Luke)?…Christians will respond to these inconsistencies by harmonizing the gospels. That is, instead of following the facts where they lead and considering that the gospels might be legend instead of history, they insist on their Christian presupposition, reject any alternatives, and bludgeon all the gospels together like a misshapen Swiss Army knife. How many women were at the tomb? Obviously, five or more, our apologist will say. When John only says that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, he’s not saying that others didn’t come, right? Checkmate, atheists!”

So is Bob right? Are believers insisting on their Christian supposition to makes sense of what we read here? Before we address this, let’s look closer at the different accounts to get a grip on the alleged contradictions just to make sure we’re understanding the problem accurately.

IS THERE REALLY A CONTRADICTION HERE?

“On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark. She saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.” (John 20:1)

“After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to view the tomb.” (Matthew 28:1)

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they could go and anoint him.” ( Mark 16:1)

“On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, came to the tomb, bringing the spices they had prepared…Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them were telling the apostles these things.” (Luke 24:1,10)

Whoa there! On the face of it, you can see why skeptics would point to these passages to discredit the gospels. It seems like they can’t get their details straight. But are these accounts really so contradictory that harmonization would bludgeon these stories together like a misshapen Swiss Army knife?

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Nah. Not really.

“NEVER READ ONE BIBLE VERSE”

It’s a bit amusing that Bob thinks that because John said that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, he’s implying that others were not present. All we need to do is to keep reading to see that isn’t the case at all. In the very next verse, John says: “So she went running to Simon Peter and to the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said to them, “They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb, and don’t know where they’ve put him!” (John 20:2)

Wait a second. Where did this we come from? In passing, Mary Magdelene’s own words clearly show that there were other women. John reporting this implies that he’s well aware that there were other women at the tomb. No bludgeoning required. As Greg Koukl has famously said, “never read a Bible verse.” You have to keep reading and get the context before making assumptions about the text. Otherwise, it would seem that you’re either looking for a negative verdict or you’re just trying to fleece someone.

YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT ASSUMPTIONS…

As for the other accounts, why assume that each gospel account is supposed to give us a complete, detailed list of the women? Luke explicitly says that there were others that he didn’t name. In no gospel did it say these were the women who came to the tomb and there was no one else.

There’s no contradiction here unless you bring that assumption to the text. Selecting to name some women is not an automatic denial that there were no others. If I say I went to the store with my wife last night, I’m not automatically excluding the fact that I brought my four kids with me. I just left out a detail. So what?

Now ask yourself the question — is assuming there is a contradiction here a responsible way to treat any historical document? To use an example, if eyewitnesses to a car crash at a busy intersection differed as to how many cars were involved or how many people were in each car, does it follow that the car pileup is an urban legend? If I were one of the victims I certainly would not want someone like Bob on my jury.

So in summary, we don’t know the exact number of women at the tomb. But what we do know is that there were at least five: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, and at least one other unnamed woman. John clearly implies that there were others besides Mary Magdalene. Luke makes it obvious there were. Bob’s reading of the text is simply confused.

Originally published at https://isjesusalive.com on April 17, 2019.

Written by

I am the Reasonable Faith Chapter Director in Cedar Rapids and the writer for isjesusalive.com. I’m interested in the intersection of Christianity and history.

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