Angelic Encounters at the Empty Tomb – a Gospel Conflict?
Angelic encounter descriptions at the empty tomb of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels seem to vary posing a potential conflict. Were there one or two angels? More questions: Why two angels? What did they look like?
Setting the scene, by Jewish day-reckoning the Saturday Sabbath began at sunset on Friday evening. Earlier that afternoon, Jesus of Nazareth had been executed by crucifixion requiring a hasty burial before Jewish Sabbath Law restricted various activities.
Sabbath formally ended Saturday at sunset. With the Sabbath restrictions no longer a factor, this is where the chronicles of the Resurrection of Jesus begins. The three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – join the story line at different points.
Mark’s account establishes the earliest timeline identifying Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the James, and Salome purchasing burial spices as soon as the Sabbath ended Saturday night. The women worried about how they would move the stone from the entrance clearly not aware the tomb was sealed and guarded.
Matthew’s account sets the scene at the tomb as sunrise approached Sunday morning. The joint-contingent, armed Roman-Jewish koustodia , established by the command of Pilate at the request of the Jewish council, were on-duty guarding the tomb to prevent the theft of the body. Arriving at the tomb were the two Marys, Salome, Joanna and other unnamed women.
Suddenly a great earthquake struck when the women witnessed an angel rolling away the stone from the entrance to the tomb. Matthew described the angel:
MT 28:2-3 “And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow.” (NKJV)
At this point Mark and Luke join the storyline at the tomb with each describing differently, though consistently, the physical attire of the angels:
MK 16:5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side…” (NKJV)
LK 24:4 “… behold, two men stood by them in shining garments.” (NKJV)
Luke unambiguously says there were two angels, while both Matthew and Mark only refer to one angel. Is there a conflict? Factoring in the details of each account into the entire scenario is revealing. Keep in mind, Luke’ investigative report was written after Matthew and Mark wrote their accounts.
Matthew says that after an angel rolled away the large stone, he did a curious and unusual thing – he sat on it. Not standing or hovering in the air like the stereotypical image of an angel; instead, in dazzling array there he sat, perhaps with his legs draped over the side. Unnecessary and unexpected information, yet personifying and specific detail adding authentic realism.
Mark describes the angel inside the tomb specifically on the right side also sitting, not standing. Logically, this angel cannot be the same one sitting outside on the rolled-away stone. Such descriptive details are typically absent from a deceptive statement. Their body language indicates they were relaxed and inviting in demeanor.
As one angel sat on the tomb’s entrance stone, he spoke to the women inviting them to go inside the tomb:
MT 28:5-6 “”Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying.”(NASB)
At the angel’s invitation, at least some of the women entered the tomb. Inside, Mark describes the second angelic encounter who also spoke to the women, his message similar to the first:
MK 16:5-6 “Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him.’””(NASB)
Pointing out where the dead body of Jesus of Nazareth had lain was to the very witnesses – the two Marys, Salome and perhaps other unnamed women – who had on Friday watched Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus preparing the body for burial on that same spot. Had the angel’s statement been untrue, the women would be expected to refute it and the angel’s message would have been suspect. They didn’t.
Witness statements to the same event are expected to vary and, as long as they are consistent on key information, it is a hallmark of authenticity and credibility. On the other hand, if two or more statements are very nearly or exactly the same, it is a strong indication of deception.
Evaluating witness statements requires investigators to consider the key facts, information, perspective, sequence of events, etc. and then, if possible during an actual interview, probe deeper. Interviews not being possible, the statements then must be evaluated based on their own merit as compared to other statements and evidence.
All three Gospels’ descriptions vary, yet they are all tightly consistent on the main details – there was angelic presence who spoke to the women; the tomb was empty; the body of Jesus was gone; and the angelic pronouncement that Jesus is alive, just as he had predicted.
Corroborating information is provided by the eyewitness John. His personal knowledge begins when the terrified women burst into the room where he and Peter were mourning announcing the empty tomb. The two Disciples, John and Peter, raced to see it for themselves. Also arriving back at the tomb was Mary Magdalene. Marveling at finding the tomb empty except the burial cloths used to wrap the body, John and Peter decided to go home leaving Mary behind.
Standing outside the tomb crying, Mary stooped and looked back inside where she saw two angels who spoke to her, this time she responded:
JN 20:12-13 “And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. Then they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.”(NKJV)
John was not there although his source, by all indications Mary Magdalene herself, consistently described the two angels dressed in white sitting on each end of the stone slab. Mary Magdalene’s reaction, or lack of one, to the supernatural beings indicates familiarity. Unlike the first encounter, this time she is not alarmed and she spoke to them.
One other validation, though one not called out by the Gospels, is a Jewish legal fact that, if not in met, could diminish the credibility of the Resurrection event. God’s Law required two witnesses to corroborate the same point of evidence to establish a fact…two angels were witnesses at the Resurrection scene of Jesus of Nazareth.
Longstanding investigative principals to decipher credible and truthful statements from deceptive ones through the use of literary analysis and other evidence, all point in one direction. Were there actually two angels at the empty tomb who witnessed the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?
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 Mark 16.
 Luke 24.
 Kirby, Peter. “Gospel of Luke.” EarlyChristianWritings.com. 2019. <http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/luke.html> “The Book of Luke.” . Quartz Hill School of Theology. n.d. <http://www.theology.edu/biblesurvey/luke.htm>
 Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23. Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.1883. Book 5, Chapter XV. pp 1419-1420. <http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/The%20Life%20and%20Times%20of%20Jesus%20the%20Messiah.pdf>
 John 20.
 Luke 24; John 20.
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 Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15; Numbers 35:30. Soncino Babylonian Talmud.Sanhedrin. 9a; 30a; 56a, footnote #1. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/index.html> Resnicoff, Steven H. “Criminal Confessions in Jewish Law .“ Project Genesis. 2007. <https://web.archive.org/web/20160122222638/http://www.torah.org/features/secondlook/criminal.html>