Angels at the Tomb – a Gospel Conflict?

Angelic encounter descriptions in the Gospels at the empty tomb of Jesus of Nazareth seem to vary, thus posing a potential conflict. Were there one or two angels at the empty tomb?

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 that afternoon 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 GospelsMatthew, Mark and Luke – join the storyline at different points.

Mark’s account establishes the earliest timeline identifying Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome purchasing burial spices as soon as the Sabbath ended Saturday evening.[1] The women worried about how they would move the stone from the entrance clearly indicating they were 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 koustodia established by the command of Pilate at the behest 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.[2]

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’s investigative report was written after Matthew and Mark were written.[3]

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. Such descriptive details are typically absent from a deceptive statement. Logically, this angel cannot be the same one sitting outside on the rolled-away stone.

Body language of the angles indicates they were waiting, 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 another angel who spoke to the women, his message similar to Matthew:

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)

Pointed out was the same spot to the very same witnesses – the two Marys, Salome and perhaps other unnamed women – where the dead body of Jesus had lain on Friday as they watched Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus preparing the body of Jesus for burial.[4] 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 truthful authenticity and credibility. On the other hand, if two statements vary too much or 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 in this case, the statements must then be evaluated based on their own merit and compared to other statements and evidence.

All three Gospels’ descriptions vary, yet they are all tightly consistent on the main details – there was an angelic presence; 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’s account. His personal knowledge begins when the terrified women burst into the room where he and Peter were mourning and announced the empty tomb. The two Disciples raced to see it for themselves.[5] Also arriving back at the tomb was Mary Magdalene.[6]

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 and this time, so did she:

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 strong indications Mary Magdalene herself, consistently described the two angels dressed in white sitting on each end of the stone slab.[7] Unlike the first encounter, this time she is not alarmed and she spoke to them. Mary Magdalene’s reaction, or lack of one, to the supernatural beings indicates familiarity with them as a result of at least one previous engagement.

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 as witnesses at the Resurrection scene of Jesus of Nazareth would meet the requirement.[8]

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?

 

Updated February 10, 2022.

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REFERENCES:

[1] Mark 16.
[2] Luke 24.
[3] 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>
[4] 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>
[5] John 20.
[6] Luke 24; John 20.
[7] Shanks, Hershel.  “Crucifixion Bone Fragment, 21 CE” The Center for Online Judaic Studies. 2004.  <http://cojs.org/crucifixion_bone_fragment-_21_ce>   Romey, Kristin. “Unsealing of Christ’s Reputed Tomb Turns Up New Revelations.” National Geographic. 2016. <https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/jesus-christ-tomb-burial-church-holy-sepulchre>
[8] 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>

The Empty Tomb – Conspiracy or Resurrection?

In a matter of moments, the Roman-Jewish legally imposed chain of custody over the body of Jesus since his death by crucifixion was suddenly broken. What happened?

For the more than 2000 years, the incident that occurred at dawn on Sunday,  the third day of Passover by Jewish reckoning, has been debated countless times. Believers say it was a Resurrection; skeptics have proposed many Resurrection conspiracy theories to explain how the body simply vanished.

On or about sunrise of Nissan 17 begins the final phase in the sequence of events at the tomb preceded by the trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus of Nazareth in that tomb.  A significant ten verses in Matthew and eight verses in Mark describe the scenario at the tomb that morning. Luke paraphrased how it began saying:

LK 24:1  “Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.” (NKJV)

Setting the scene, anyone trying to steal the body would have encountered an armed Roman-Jewish military squad, the koustodia. Further, the tomb had been sealed in the presence of Roman authorities and Jewish leadership. Both security measures were intended to prevent the body from being stolen.

Predawn finds Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jose, Salome, and Joanna fretting about who would roll away the stone set in place late afternoon on Friday by Joseph of Arimathea. Three conclusions can be drawn:  the women expected to find the dead body of Jesus; they were not accompanied by either Joseph or Nicodemus nor any of the Disciples; and they were unaware of the koustodia guarding the sealed tomb.

At this juncture, there are now two named Jewish Council members, four named women from Galilee, the Jewish leadership declaration to Pilate, his Roman government decision, and the koustodia guards – all witnesses to the fact that the body of Jesus was in the tomb leading up to dawn of Sunday morning.

Calm and quiet quickly took a dramatic turn when Matthew describes a great earthquake that struck. At this moment, the four named women and the koustodia witnessed the stone being rolled away from the entrance to the tomb:

MT 28:2-4 “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. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.” (NKJV)

Witness accounts gathered by the authors of Matthew and Mark describe the tomb being opened by an angel or a young man wearing a wrap-around, brilliant white robe. Shortly thereafter, Luke’s report describes two men in dazzling apparel.[i] The angelic beings point out to the witnesses that the tomb is empty.

Seasoned Roman-Jewish military soldiers and the women of Galilee were paralyzed with fear by the traumatic sequence of events – a great earthquake, an angelic being rolling away the stone and his extraordinary announcement. Incapacitated with fear, they watched and listened as the events at the tomb unfolded.

Whether Roman soldiers or Temple Guards, both were fierce, experienced warriors. The reputation of Roman soldier discipline is legendary and requires no further explanation. 

InWars, Josephus described Jews in hand-to-hand combat defending the Temple against the Romans, each side at times taking heavy casualties.[iii] In a few battles, the Jewish defenders actually won the day. Temple Guards were especially trained to stay awake all night. Falling asleep on-duty could result in being set on fire by superiors.[iv] 

Reactions of witnesses to a traumatic event are indications of what was going through their minds. The hardcore military squad reacted in a similar manner as the four women.

Matthew reports the chaotic scene where people scattered in three directions. Mark reports the petrified and dumbstruck women didn’t say a word and ran from the tomb. Luke said they were “terrified.”[ii]

Headed for the location of some of the disciples were the women while the koustodia split up, some diverting to go tell the Jewish chief priests what they had seen, the others to destinations unknown. Unbecoming behavior by the koustodia is telling.

Direct reports from the koustodia rang true with the chief priests based on their own reaction to the information. It posed an unexpected turn of events for the chief priests who quickly assembled the elders of the Jewish Council (likely including Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) to deal with their new problem.

Irony of ironies. The Jewish leadership had just the day before implored Pilate to secure the tomb to prevent the theft of the body of Jesus after testifying to Pilate the body was inside the tomb. Now the very same council was compelled to find a way to explain an inexplicable breach in their own Roman-Jewish security measures to explain the missing body. Matthew describes what they decided to do:

MT 28:13-14 “You are to say, ‘His disciples came at night and stole his body while we were asleep….’ If this matter is heard before the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”(NET)

Further insight to the authority of the koustodia is revealed. Promising to appease Pilate if the koustodia’s dereliction of duty became an issue confirms the guards were ultimately under Pilate’s Roman authority yet strongly influenced by the Jewish leadership.

Meanwhile, the women of Galilee arrived at the location as some of the disciples. John’s eyewitness Gospel joins the description of events at this point with Mary Magdalene’s bewildered announcement to the Disciples. She is quoted exclaiming:

JN 20:2 “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (NET)

Both the koustodia and the women reported the same event to two different parties describing how the chain of custody over the body of Jesus had been broken. Each party reacted differently to the information while neither party called the reports false.

One group chose to investigate the empty tomb and found more evidence inside. The Jewish Council had the option to lodge a legal complaint with Rome to challenge the broken chain of custody, but instead they chose a cover-up. Pilate was silent, too, and took no action. Why?  Did an unexplainable Resurrection actually occur?

 

Updated September 5, 2021.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

NET = NET Bible translation; NKJV = New King James Version translation.

Gospel Resurrection account: Matthew 28, Mark 16; Luke 24, John 20.

 [i] NetBible.org. Greek text. Matthew 28:2, aggelos and katabaino. Mark 16:5, neaniskos, periballo, and stole. Luke 24:4, astrapto and esthesis.
[ii] NASB, NIV, NRSV.
[iii] Josephus. Wars of the Jews. Book VI, Chapter IV.4-6; Book VI, Chapter I.1. “Temple, Administration and Service of.” JewishEncylcopedia.comhttp://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14303-temple-administration-and-service-of&gt
[iv] Talmud Mishna Middot. The Sefaria Library. <http://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Middot.1/en/Sefaria_Community_Translation?lang=b “The Temple Guards and Their Mystical Meaning.” Chabad.org. <http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3001283/jewish/The-Temple-Guards-and-Their-Mystical-Meaning.htm>