It’s Easter Sunday, the day when Christians of various (but not all) sorts celebrate the resurrection of Christ– or some version of it. Of course, just as Christ’s birth is recounted differently in the four gospels, the tales of his resurrection are also inconsistent in all kinds of awkward details. Who was it who first arrived at the empty tomb? What or whom did they find inside? Whom did Jesus appear to next? What did he say to them? What did they say to the others? All of these differ from gospel from gospel. So is this a problem for people who believe the Bible is divinely inspired, inerrant, and literally true in every jot and tittle?
Not a problem! The name of the game is harmonization, and here’s how it works. Each different account is treated as absolutely true, but only part of the story – therefore, if the details seem to disagree, it is only because they are about different parts of the same picture. If one gospel says it was Mary Magdalene who first visited the tomb, and another gospel says it was three other women, then both versions are true, but they refer to two different visits. Therefore, all one has to do is manipulate the conflicting details until they form a consistent story – or, to put it another way, until they harmonize.
So how do the harmonizers harmonize the discords among the four gospel accounts of the resurrection? In a word, hilariously. To give a flavour of the process, I have summarized the harmonious narrative of a past master of harmonization, the late Gleason L. Archer, author of the endlessly entertaining Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. (A book which, by the way, sets out to prove that there are no difficulties in the Bible.) Here goes:
1. Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife (or mother) of James, and Salome go to the tomb at dawn on the Sunday morning. While they are on their way, an angel comes down and causes a very, very small localized earthquake that removes the stone from the door of the tomb but does no other damage and is not noticed by anybody else, including the women.
2. The three women, delighted to find the tomb is open, go inside. There, they (a) notice the body is gone and (b) see the chief angel – though not necessarily in that order. Then they see the angel has a companion (the second “young man” mentioned in Luke). The leading angel gives them a spiel that combines all the disparate bits in all four gospels, highlighting the news that Jesus has risen from the dead, and ending with instructions to go and tell the others.
3. Delighted by the wonderful tidings, the women hurry back to tell the others – but they are simultaneously so fearful and shaken that they do not pause to tell anyone on the way (which is why Mark says they do not tell anybody at all.)
4. Back at the house, they make their rapturous announcement to the assembled disciples. Mary Mag seeks out Peter and John – but apparently she has not fully absorbed what the angel said about Jesus being alive, because all she tells them, mournfully, is that his body is gone. Where can it be? Who can have taken it? Peter and John rush to the tomb to check it out.
5. John gets there first, looks into the tomb, and sees only that the shroud is lying on the floor. Peter goes in, and finds that the grave clothes are arranged as if the body had simply dematerialized out of them! This convinces them that Jesus has raised himself from the dead, and they hurry back to tell the others.
6. Mary Mag, still weeping and mourning, has followed them to the tomb, but misses them as they rush back with their wonderful news. To her surprise, the tomb is ablaze with light, and the two angels are inside, this time sitting down. They ask her why she is weeping – she says because the Lord’s body has been stolen. They say nothing, because Jesus himself is standing behind her. She turns around, and does not recognize him through her tear-blurred eyes, mistaking him for the gardener. They chat a bit, and then he addresses her by name, at which the penny drops. She casts herself at his feet and tries to touch him, but he tells her not to, because he has not yet ascended to his father in heaven. He instructs her to hurry back to tell the others.
7. Meantime, Salome and Mary the mother (or wife) of James are on their way to revisit the empty tomb, but manage to miss Mary Mag as she (again) rushes back to the disciples’ house with her wonderful news. Jesus is still at the tomb. The two women also cast themselves down and kiss his feet (doesn’t that constitute touching?), and Jesus tells them to hurry back and tell the others to meet him in Galilee. They hurry back to tell the others.
8. At some point, Jesus makes a quick trip to heaven, which can be inferred from the fact that the disciples ARE allowed to touch him that evening.
9. Some time after Mary Mag’s second trip to the tomb, and either before or after Jesus’s quick trip to heaven, Simon Peter has a personal meeting with Jesus, which is not recorded in any of the gospels, but can be inferred from Luke 24:34. Presumably, he hurries back to tell the others.
10. In the late afternoon, Cleopas and another undistinguished follower (neither of them members of the inner circle) meet Jesus while walking in the countryside, on the way to the village of Emmaeus. They spend quite a while chatting with him, but do not recognize him until he says grace at the roadside café where they stop for a bite to eat – and then he vanishes. They hurry back to tell the others.
11. While Cleopas and Friend are telling the others (who are not as surprised as one might expect, since Peter has already seen the resurrected Jesus), Jesus himself appears in the room and proves that he is (a) Jesus, and (b) alive. He has a snack, and preaches a sermon. (One has to wonder why he sent the message earlier about meeting him in Galilee, since he was going to drop in on the disciples himself.)
12. The next Sunday (or perhaps eight days later), Jesus appears again to the disciples, to prove to Doubting Thomas (who was absent on the first occasion) that he is (a) Jesus, and (b) alive.
13. The disciples go to Galilee to meet Jesus and go fishing. They do both, and Jesus personally cooks the fish (though they do not recognize him at first).
14. There follows Jesus’s post-resurrection ministry, which includes all the different meetings with the disciples in Galilee. But the final ascension of Jesus takes place back at the Mount of Olives, near Bethany: Jesus is suddenly lifted up off the ground, and vanishes beyond the clouds. Two angels (the same two?) then show up to tell the audience that Jesus will someday reappear in bodily form.
And there you have it. The tomb is a kind of Grand Central Station. Mary Magdalene is an idiot. The disciples need a whole lot of telling. Jesus is a master of disguise. And harmonization is a specially dishonest form of special pleading, but also – well, a bit of a joke.