How many women were at the tomb of Jesus? Was it one, two, or three? Is it Matthew’s account, Mark’s account, or John’s account?
Oftentimes, when we talk about biblical contradictions, an example that’s brought up is the number of women at the tomb, because if you read Matthew, Mark, or John, you get different numbers. Let’s read the different texts and then see how these things might fit together or even if there’s the appearance of a contradiction. Here’s what Matthew says, “Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.” There are two Marys there.
What about Mark? Here’s what he says, “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome brought spices so that they might come and anoint him. Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.” Mark presents three women. Matthew presented two. What about John? Here’s what he says, “Now on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb while it was still dark.” Isn’t that interesting? There’s only one woman listed there.
Now many people will present this as a contradiction. “See, one gospel says three, one says two, and one says one. The Bible’s not true!” I want to address this in a few different ways. The first thing is, let’s say the number of women at the tomb is actually a contradiction between the three gospels. Does that somehow mean Jesus didn’t rise from the dead? No, it doesn’t. Just because you find what you think is an error or even, let’s say, what is an error in scripture, that does not prove that Christianity is false or that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead or that Jesus wasn’t God. It doesn’t prove any of that.
Now I don’t think there’s a contradiction here, and there are a few reasons for that. The first is that the gospels are not giving us an exact account of every detail that’s true in every place from every perspective. Each of the gospel writers, called evangelists, have a perspective. They are highlighting different things. They might be tracing different characters. They’re all saying something that’s true, but they’re saying it from different perspectives.
For instance, if you were to ask me who was at my wedding, I would say, “Well, I was there, my wife was there,” and I would list other specific names. I would be leaving people off, though. Does that mean they weren’t there? No. If you ask my wife who was there, are you going to get a different list? You are. If you asked her friend or one of my friends, you’re going to get a different list each time. What each person is going to be doing is highlighting people that were memorable to them or that played a key role or that they just wanted to emphasize.
By leaving people off, that doesn’t mean the person is saying who was not there. No gospel writer says, “This is the exhaustive list of everyone who was at the tomb.” They don’t say that. We shouldn’t think that that’s indeed what’s happening. I think it puts artificial constraints on the Bible, on the text, to say that whenever anyone makes a list, it has to be exhaustive. We don’t talk like that today. They certainly didn’t talk like that back then.
Let’s look at John where he says that there’s one woman. At least on the face of it, that’s what he says. Here’s the whole text from John 20, “Now on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb while it was still dark and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb, so she ran and came to Simon Peter, to the other disciples, and said to him, ‘They have taken away the Lord of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.'” Who’s the “we”? It’s just talking about her. She goes to another group of people, so who’s the “we”? I think this is because there are other women with her, but John is just talking about her. When he recounts what she said, she references the other Mary and Salome in the “we.”
I think this is helpful. For one, no gospel writer attempts to tell us that they’re presenting a comprehensive list of everyone or everything. They’re definitely highlighting certain things like we do today. More than that, there are other little clues inside the text that there wasn’t just one woman at the tomb. There were multiple people.
Really, if all the gospels said the same thing, that would be suspicious, because they’re writing to different audiences. They are writing in different times. If they said exactly the same thing, we would think they’re just copies of each other, there’s no unique material there. Indeed, if two people witness an incident and they say exactly the same thing, there’s probably some plagiarism going on.
Now there are parts of the gospels that are very similar, but there are also parts that are different and complementary and not contradictory. I think oftentimes we come to the Bible and we think it has to contain what we might call propositional truth, which is where it’s a list of facts, but that’s not what it is. It’s a compilation of documents written in different eras by different people, and it was written in a specific cultural context, in a time period, to a specific audience. We must try to interpret it that way if we have any honest goal of coming to understand what it originally meant and hence, what it means today.
Speaking of what it meant back then, we’re debating how many women were at the tomb, but why were women the one discovering Jesus if this is a fabrication? They wouldn’t be. No first-century Jew is going to make up a story and say, “Hey, you should believe it because, look, women discovered that the central event happened, that Jesus was risen.” They’re not going to write that. Why aren’t they? Now we often talk about the fact that women had low social standing back then, and we just say that and move on, but I don’t think we often understand just how different it was. One of the daily prayers of a Jewish man was, “Thank you, Lord, God, creator of the universe for not making me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.”
We see in the gospels just how strongly the Jews felt about Gentiles. They wouldn’t even go into their house, yet they include women in the same list with Gentiles. Now that doesn’t mean they felt exactly the same way about them, and most importantly for this point, that doesn’t mean that’s how God sees women. Just because people get things wrong, that doesn’t mean that that’s how it’s supposed to be. Nonetheless, that’s how it was. Women were not considered to be reliable witnesses. Their testimony didn’t count for what a man counted for. If you’re going to make up a story that Jesus rose from the dead, you are not going to have women be the one discovering the tomb empty.
Historians, secular historians included, have a principle of how to help determine if something’s true or not when we’re evaluating historical claims. One of these principles is called the “principle of embarrassment,” and it’s simple. It just simply says that details embarrassing to the author are more likely to be true. We know this today. We don’t make up things that make us look bad. We don’t make up details when we’re telling a story that make the story seem less credible. That’s exactly what you would have to say about someone making up that women found the tomb empty, that someone was simply writing things that made their story seem less probable, and that doesn’t make sense because it’s a hard sell to get people to rally behind a Messiah who wasn’t supposed to die. Why would you put barriers in your path by somehow saying that women were the ones that started this whole chain of discovery and events? You wouldn’t.
I hope you’re a little more equipped now to deal with a couple of claims around the resurrection and the crucifixion of Jesus. How many women were at the tomb? 1) it doesn’t matter; 2) there’s great evidence that these are not contradictory accounts, but they are, in fact, complementary, that each evangelist is spotlighting different things in a slightly different way. More than that, the fact that women were there at all, that they were the ones first discovering this and that’s recounted in the gospels, should give us great confidence that it actually happened that way, because no one’s going to make it up that way.
I hope this has been helpful. I hope this gives you more confidence and trust in the claims of scripture going into Easter, that we can hopefully this weekend and this week worship in a stronger spirit, in a stronger truth, being more convinced of the things we hold dearly to.
I’ll talk with you next week on Unapologetic.