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Who Was at the Tomb?

May 24, 2019


Easter is one of the most joyful times of the year. Lent is over, it’s open season on the Mini Eggs, and most importantly—Jesus is risen! Nonetheless, to forget Easter long before it’s over is a regretful reality for most. Except for the best of us, many find it far too easy to let the celebratory spirit wain long before we have fully traversed the fifty days to Pentecost.

In the Scriptures we are told that Jesus remained with his disciples for forty days after the Resurrection. Then, a few days after the Lord’s ascension, the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples and the Church sprang into action. Those first fifty days of Easter were days of missionary preparation. The same goes for today.

How might we take action in these final days of Easter to prepare to evangelize in a post-Christian mission field? One way we can stay engaged is by taking time to meditate attentively on the Sacred Scriptures. More specifically, we could spend some time studying apparent “contradictions” in the Resurrection accounts of the Gospels, which have proven problematic for non-Christians.


Angels or Men?

At first glance, it appears that the Gospel writers are not telling the same story. St. Matthew says there was one angel (Matthew 28:1-8); St. Mark says there was one young man (Mark 16:1-8); St. Luke reports two men at the tomb (Luke 24:1-10); and St. John describes two angels (John 20:11-13). So, what’s the real story? Did the women encounter angels or men? And how many?

To some, these differing descriptions may seem as an almost insurmountable discrepancy. Actually, New Testament historian Michael Licona says that this problem is “easily resolved when one considers that an angel was sometimes referred to as a man” (The Resurrection of Jesus). In the New Testament, angels are on a number of occasions called “men” though, in context, they are clearly angels (Luke 24:4; Acts 1:10; Acts 10:30).

One possible explanation, then, is that these angels looked like men and were simply being described according to appearance (even though the women knew them to be angels). This is clearly what Luke is doing when, at the beginning of his Resurrection account, he refers to two men in dazzling apparel who say to the women at the empty tomb, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:4). Only nineteen verses later, he writes that “they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive” (Luke 24:23).

Another potential explanation is that Mark and Luke were intending to portray the discovery of the empty tomb from the women’s subjective perspectives. Perhaps the women initially thought the angels were men. Indeed, the Bible tells us that angels are not always immediately recognized as angels. In the Book of Tobit, for instance, we are told that Tobias “went to look for a man; and he found Raphael, who was an angel, but Tobias did not know it” (Tobit 5:5). Whatever the real explanation is, the Jerome Biblical Commentary suggests that “the description of their white garb and their luminous appearance is the same [as Matthew and John], and no doubt is left that celestial messengers are meant.”


One or Two?

A simple tip to remember when reading the Gospels through a historical lens is that an author’s omission does not equal rejection. It may be, in some cases, that one author chose to omit what another chose to include.

With this rule in mind, let’s consider the empty tomb accounts. Matthew mentions only one angel outside the tomb. But Mark, Luke, and John only mention angels on the inside of the tomb. Are both options mutually exclusive? Not at all. It may be that Matthew omitted to write about the angels on the inside of the tomb, whereas the others omitted the angel on the outside.

Perhaps the inspired authors were most interested in asserting the general substance of what really happened. As scholar Raymond Brown has offered, maybe the mentioning of the angels was intended primarily as literary devices on the part of the Evangelists, to indicate their belief that a divine activity had occurred (The Birth of the Messiah). If this were the case, then it would be the fact of the angelic presence—and not the fine details of their presence—that the Gospel writers were particularly concerned with.


Final Thoughts

In these last days of Easter, we would all benefit greatly by turning to the Bible, that we might ponder with an effortful solemnity the mysteries of the Resurrection and Ascension of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We should all take the time to read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, remembering all the while that these men were not telling fables. They were proclaiming the actual death and rising of the Messiah, the real redemption of the world. They were writing what Pope Benedict XVI has called “interpreted history.” Yes, they were telling their readers—who are now you and I—about what really happened.