4. Why Discrepancies?

Mk 16:1   When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. I am aware that I am, as an avid New Testament reader, often saying to sceptics that the Bible is not full of contradictions (and I’m sure it is true), but when we come to the accounts in the four Gospels of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, we are stretched to see how it all goes together, and I think therefore, that it behoves us (there’s a good old fashioned word!) to come to an understanding as Christians  and bring answers to those who are questioning. Anyone who lines up the four accounts, if they are going to be honest, has to say that some explanations are required.
So let’s start right at the beginning, here early on Sunday morning. Let’s look at what each of the accounts says. Matthew starts out: “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.” (Mt 28:1). Comparing that with Mark’s account above we find he omits Salome who Mark included because she had received importance by being one of the women at the Cross (Mk 15:40). Matthew also says they just went to ‘look at the tomb’. Mark has them being much more purposeful but it is a negligible difference.  Matthew the ex-tax-collector-disciple is possibly going from his own notes – shorthand that tax collectors used. They would by necessity be brief. Mark, using Peter’s recollections, remembers an additional person, making three.
Luke recounts, “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb” (Lk 24:1). No problem there because he is not being specific about numbers and names. However later on, when he is recording when all the women eventually came back and gathered with the men, he writes, “It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles” (Lk 24:10). Now whether that means that Salome was also known as Joanna (alternate names are not uncommon) or whether it means that Luke’s informants simply remember another of the women who Mark hadn’t bothered to mention, is unclear. In that Luke mentions Joanna elsewhere as a follower (Lk 8:3), the latter is more likely. The reference by Luke to others indicates that it was more likely that it was a whole group of women who went. It’s just that most of them aren’t named.John records, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb” (Jn 20:1). Now the best we can say here is that John doesn’t say “only Mary Magdalene”. For whatever reason (what follows) he is focusing on Mary Magdalene. For John she was especially important as his Gospel is very clearly written to reveal the salvation that Jesus came to bring, and Mary M is a classic instance of a real sinner saved by him. It is probable that John has it in mind that she wasn’t alone because when he writes of her reporting back to the men, she says, “we don’t know where they have put him!”(Jn 20:2). Again an indication of a number of women.
What is important to realise as we try to get inside what really happened, is that these four writers were not approaching their tasks with the same mindset that we might do it in the twenty first century. We would know that we are going to be held accountable to others who will question our every detail. For us, details are vital. For the four Gospel writers, details are not vital, just the overall truth. Thus, for example, Matthew when he says, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went,” he is not saying only they went and no one else. As we commented about John earlier, they were just the two names that stood out and which he then included. For them, in that culture, accuracy of detail was not the key issue. Ah, says our questioning sceptic, doesn’t that put everything in the Gospels in a dubious light then? Well no, because they were seeking to be accurate within their own parameters and within their own goals. Matthew clearly writes for a Jewish set of readers, Mark for a wider Gentile set of readers, Luke for the world showing both the humanity and divinity of Jesus, and John for the world revealing the Son of God bringing salvation to the world, revealing the greater significance behind many of Jesus’ more enigmatic sayings. Within each of these emphases the church has seen the inspiration of God, energising each of the writers to tell the story through their eyes and recollections or, in Luke’s case, the recollections of others who had been there, but with his understanding that came from travelling with the charismatic ministry of Paul.
It is important that we understand these things and see these Gospels within this framework or we will find ourselves making silly comments, or sufferer others making silly comments, that are born out of ignorance. It is often said that when we read Scripture we need to realise that this was a different point in history to our own, a different part of the world, a different culture with different customs and understandings. What is sad is that atheistic sceptics are often heard to deride such passages as we’ve been considering in this meditation and thus reveal their ignorance of the background to it. When we start to understand these things, we realise we haven’t got half the problems we thought we had.
What we also tend to forget, in considering these things, is the unity of the passages. Here in the opening verses of these four Gospels, we find all of them telling us that early on Sunday morning a group of women set out to go to the tomb where they were expecting Jesus to be. Historical fact! No dispute.
Here, we might reflect, was a group of women who were concerned enough, as we’ve noted previously, to ignore any risk to themselves from the authorities, to go and find the tomb and, if possible, ensure the body is properly embalmed. What this should scream at us is that they DIDN’T expect the body to be alive. Their mind set was totally established that he was dead. They saw him die and they know he is dead. The awfulness of what they have witnessed has pushed out of their mind any memory of Jesus having warned that this would happen exactly like this, that he would be killed and he would rise on the third day. The ordinariness of this scene, I believe, adds to the credibility of the account. An ordinary group of women, in anguish, believing that Jesus is dead, go to do what they feel they can. That’s just how life so often is with God – we get on with our lives, doing what we can, and then He turns up and does what only He can. That has been true throughout Christian history, and it’s still true today.