There are several matters regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ that seem to indicate there are discrepancies between scriptural accounts of these matters. The two basic matters that we will consider are how long Jesus was in the grave and what happened immediately after His resurrection.
[Note: We will use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible when quoting Scripture, except when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible.]
How Long Jesus Christ Was in the Grave
In anticipation of His coming death and resurrection, Jesus states in Matthew 12:40, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Similarly, Mark 8:31 suggests that Jesus indicated that He would be dead for three full days (or almost three full days) when He told His twelve disciples that He would “be killed, and after three days rise again.” Thus, these two scripture passages indicate that Jesus would be resurrected after essentially three full days.
In contrast, Jesus said in Luke 24:46, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day.” And, there are at least eleven other passages that likewise indicate that Christ was (or would be) raised from the dead on “the third day” (or in three days), including Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19; Mark 9:31; 10:34; Luke 9:21-22; 18:31-33; 24:7; John 2:19; Acts 10:40; and 1 Corinthians 15:4. These passages indicate that Jesus was not necessarily in the grave for more than one full day and part of two other days. So, how can these passages be reconciled with Matthew 12:40 and Mark 8:31?
Gleason L Archer, on page 328 of his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, asserts that the meaning of the expression “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” refers to “three twenty-four-hour days in part or in whole.” He goes on to say,
Why then are three portions of day referred to in Matthew 12:40 as “three days and three nights”? The simple answer is that the only way “day” in the sense of dawn-to-dusk sunlight could be distinguished from the full twenty-four-hour cycle sense of “day” was to speak of the latter as “a night and a day”. . . . According to ancient parlance, then, when you wished to refer to three separate twenty-four-hour days, you said, “Three days and three nights” – even though only a portion of the first and third days might be involved.
Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., support Archer’s position. On page 343 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, they note that most biblical scholars “take the phrase ‘three days and nights’ to be a Hebrew figure of speech referring to any part of three days and nights.” They then assert,
Jesus used the phrase “on the third day” to describe the time of His resurrection after His crucifixion. . . . But “on the third day” cannot mean “after three days” which 72 hours demands. On the other hand, the phrase “on the third day” or “three days and nights” can be understood to mean within three days and nights.
[T]his view fits best with the chronological order of events as given by Mark (cf. 14:1), as well as the fact that Jesus died on Passover day (Friday) to fulfill the conditions of being our Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7; cf. Lev. 23:5-15).
However, the belief that three days and three nights may refer to any part of three days and three nights does not stand up to scrutiny. Why would someone bother to say “three days and three nights,” when they could merely say “three days,” if they meant parts of three days? Three days and three nights is more specific and indicates an intention to make it clear that the time period included at least parts of three consecutive days and nights.
Geisler and Howe, although not necessarily supporting this position themselves, state on page 343 of their book,
Some scholars believe Jesus was in the grave for three full days and nights. . . .
[T]hey insist that this is the literal meaning of the phrase “three days and nights.” . . . [T]hey argue that the Passover was not a fixed day (Friday), but floated.
John 19:31 indicates that the Jews did not want the bodies of Christ and the two others who were crucified with Him to remain on their crosses on the Sabbath. Although it may be argued that the Sabbath day referred to in this passage was Saturday, it could refer to Passover Day. Unger’s Bible Dictionary notes that, “The name Sabbath is applied to divers [i.e., various] great festivals, but principally and usually to the seventh day of the week. . . .”
The Bible clearly states that Jesus died on the day before Passover. John 19:14 says the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was on “the Preparation Day of the Passover.” And, the other three gospels make similar references (see Matthew 27:62; Mark 15:42; and Luke 23:54). If the scholars who argue “that the Passover was not a fixed day (Friday) but floated” are correct, the Passover did not necessarily begin on a Friday, and therefore Jesus may not have died on a Friday afternoon before the Passover began at sundown.
Jesus died about the ninth hour of the Jewish daytime, which began at 6:00 a.m., as we measure time. (Therefore, He died at approximately 3:00 p.m., based on our system of time.) If Jesus was crucified on Friday, as is generally believed, He may have been in the grave during the daylight hours for parts of three days, but He was not in the grave for more than two nights – Friday and Saturday.
Although the foregoing considerations don’t prove that Jesus Christ did not die on a Friday, they do provide sufficient reason to question the validity of the generally held belief that He died on a Friday. However, regardless of the day of the week on which Jesus died, there is considerable evidence that He did arise from the grave within three days.
What Happened Immediately after the Resurrection of Jesus
In his book entitled Is the Bible True?, Allen Bowman, Ph.D., states on page 144, “Much effort has been expended on attempts to reconcile the four accounts of the resurrection of Christ.”
And, John W. Haley, M.A., says on page 328 of his book entitled Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, “Owing to the condensed and somewhat fragmentary nature of these several narratives [i.e., the four Gospel books], and their neglect of strict chronological sequence, they present some difficulties and apparent discrepancies.”
The following additional perspective on this matter is provided by Basil Atkinson, Ph.D., on pages 132-133 of his book with exactly the same title as Bowman’s:
It is the accounts of the resurrection appearances that illustrate more than any other part of the Gospels the independence of the evangelists [i.e., the writers of the four Gospel books]. They all write from different standpoints, and they all supplement each other’s information.
The witnesses are clearly independent, and yet as we piece their accounts together we can make out a definite chain of events that must have happened, to which every statement of each evangelist contributes. . . . All emphasize different incidents.
Furthermore, on page 302 of Inerrancy, another book Geisler wrote, he states,
[N]one of the evangelists is obligated to give an exhaustive account of any event. He has the right to record an event in light of his purposes. Moreover, it must be remembered that the accounts of all four Gospel writers together do not exhaust the details of any event mentioned. . . . All that is required is that the sentences used by the writer be true.
We believe the preceding perspectives indicate that the differences in the four Gospel books as to what happened immediately after the resurrection of Jesus can be satisfactorily explained and, therefore, there are not any discrepancies among their accounts.
Now, let’s consider some of the specific information regarding the resurrection of Jesus, as recorded in the four Gospels.
Who were the first of Jesus’ followers to visit His tomb on the morning of His resurrection?
Matthew 28:1 mentions Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.”
Mark 16:1 mentions Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.
Luke 24:10 mentions Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and other women.
John 20:1 mentions Mary Magdalene, and verse 11 mentions her making a subsequent visit to Jesus’ tomb.
Reconciliation: Apparently, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and several other women were the first of Jesus’ followers to visit His tomb on the morning of His resurrection. The variations in the accounts probably result from the writers focusing on different women. On page 391 of his book, Haley states that none of the four writers “denies that more women were present than those he mentions by name. John does not assert that Mary Magdalene only was present; in fact, he intimates the contrary, for he represents her as saying, in vs. 2, ‘Weknow not where they have laid him.’”
How many angels were seen by the women at Jesus’ tomb after His resurrection?
Matthew 28:2-7 mentions one angel, who spoke to the women.
Mark 16:5-7 mentions one young man (presumably, an angel), whom the women saw.
Luke 24:4-7 mentions two angels, whom the women saw, and at least one of them spoke to the women.
John 20: No angels are mentioned in the account of Mary Magdalene’s first visit to Jesus’ tomb, but verses 12-13 mention that she saw two angels when she returned to the tomb later.
Reconciliation: Apparently, there were two angels, and one of them spoke to the women. The absence of mention of one of the angels in the accounts by Matthew and Mark, or of any angels by John with regard to Mary Magdalene’s first visit to Jesus’ tomb, is insufficient reason to assume that both angels were not present. Arguing that something is not true, just because a writer did not mention it, is an argument from silence, which is regarded by scholars as an invalid argument.
Did the women see Jesus as they were leaving His tomb?
Matthew 28:9-10 states that Jesus met the women as they were leaving His tomb.
Mark 16:9 notes that Jesus “appeared first to Mary Magdalene,” possibly after her second visit to Jesus’ tomb.
Luke 24: No mention is made of Jesus appearing to any of the women as they were leaving His tomb.
John 20:14-17 indicates that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene as she was leaving Jesus’ tomb the second time.
Reconciliation: Since Matthew says that Jesus appeared to several women after they had visited His tomb, Jesus must have done so after the women had made a second visit to the tomb, because both Mark and John indicate that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene after her second visit, and Mark states that she was the first person to see Jesus after His resurrection. The failure of Luke to mention that Jesus appeared to any of the women as they were leaving Jesus’ tomb should not be regarded as a discrepancy. Apparently, Luke just chose not to mention the incident.
After the women left the tomb, did they tell Jesus’ disciples of their experience at His tomb?
Matthew 28:8 indicates that the women left the tomb with the intention of telling Jesus’ disciples, but there is not a definite statement subsequently as to whether or not they actually did tell them.
Mark 16:8 says that the women “said nothing to anyone,” but verse10 says that Mary Magdalene “told those who had been with Him” [i.e., at least several, if not all, of the 11 remaining apostles, and perhaps some other people also].
Luke 24:9 states that the women “told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest.”
John 20:1-2 notes that Mary Magdalene told Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved (presumably, John) after her first visit to Jesus’ tomb.
Reconciliation: Apparently, after her first visit to Jesus’ tomb, Mary Magdalene did tell the disciples about her experience, but only Peter and John acted upon what she said (i.e., they were the only disciples to go to the tomb to see for themselves). This may explain why only the two of them are mentioned in John’s gospel as the disciples whom Mary told. The statement in Mark that the women said nothing to anyone could mean that the women did not tell anyone except the disciples and those who may have been with the disciples at that time. Another possibility is suggested by Geisler and Howe in When Critics Ask. On page 377 they state, “[I]t may be that at first they held their peace (as Mark indicated), and then later spoke up. . . .”
We have attempted to reconcile what may initially seem to be discrepancies regarding several matters that pertain to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We believe the explanations that have been provided should be sufficient to alleviate concerns as to the accuracy of the biblical accounts pertaining to these matters.