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.[1] 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.[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’ investigative report was written after Matthew and Mark wrote their accounts.[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. 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.[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 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.[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, 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.[7] 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.[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?

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

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 Chain of Custody – Was Jesus’ Body Stolen?

Oldest of the challenges against the Resurrection is the charge that the crucified body of Jesus of Nazareth was stolen from the tomb. Could the body have been stolen? An unbroken chain of custody over his body would make the stolen body charge difficult to overcome.

Procurator Pilate granted the mutilated body of Jesus to Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Jewish council. He was joined by Nicodemus, another prominent member of the Jewish Council, both taking the body to Joseph’s own unused tomb.

The pair quickly prepared the body for burial witnessed by women from Galilee, two identified by name, Mary the mother of Joseph (aka Jose) and and Mary Magdalene.[ii] Joseph then rolled a stone in front of the tomb entrance – confirmation by the two Jewish Council members that Jesus was indeed dead and buried.

What did or didn’t happen between the time Jesus was laid in the tomb before dusk on Nissan 14, until the Sunday morning of Nissan 17, is almost a complete gap in the timeline of the Gospels. It offers an opening for skeptics to say the body was stolen from the tomb that first night, although it is not the same alleged body theft in the different timeline of the Resurrection event before sunrise Sunday, Nissan 17, described by Matthew.

Those who most certainly would not have wanted to be corroborating witnesses of a Resurrection became just that. On Saturday, the day after Jesus was buried by some of their own leaders, the Jewish leadership declared to the Roman government that the body of Jesus was still in the tomb that Sabbath Saturday morning, Nissan 16, according to Jewish day reckoning…

MT 27:62-64 The next day (which is after the day of preparation) the chief priests and the Pharisees assembled before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember that while that deceiver was still alive he said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give orders to secure the tomb until the third day. Otherwise his disciples may come and steal his body and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.”(NET)

Top level Jewish leadership approached Rome’s jurisdictional authority of JudeaPilate – with their concern of a false fulfillment of Jesus’ own  3-day Resurrection prophecy. As a Roman Procurator whose governing capacity included serving as a judge, Pilate had to weigh the truthfulness of their claim as well as the potential political consequences.

First was the declaration that the corpse of Jesus was lying in a tomb that Saturday morning and the Jewish Counsel’s concern that it could be stolen. Unusual from a Roman perspective, but not for the Jews. Rome had little regard for crucified victims according to Josephus; however, Rome did allow the Jews’ custom to bury their crucified dead:[iii]

“Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified , and buried them before the going down of the sun.” – Josephus, Wars  [iv]

Pilate most likely considered other factors, too. False witness was a capital offense so how likely was it the Jews would risk lying to him? [v] Making their claim even stronger, the last thing the Jewish leadership would want to have happen is for the body to actually be stolen body.

Would the Jewish Council take the risk that the corpse had already been stolen only to have it turn up days later proving them to be liars – unless they were confident Jesus was still buried in the tomb?

Weighing the credibility, truthfulness and motive of their testimony and concluding the body of Jesus was still in the tomb, an irritated Pilate issued a terse decision:

MT 27:65-66 “Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.” And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone.”(NASB) 

Pilate granted permission through what was, in essence, a Roman court order to secure it they best way they knew how.  This included stationing of a koustodia, a company of guards, at the tomb. Together, the Jewish leadership and the koustodia placed a seal on the tomb as an additional security measure.

Pilate’s Roman authority required the koustodia to be accountable to him; however, because some of the guards later ran to the chief priests after the events at the tomb on Sunday morning, it suggests at least some koustodia also had a form of accountability to the Jewish council. Was there such a thing as a joint Roman-Jewish military squad?

Josephus described a “seal” process involving a combined Jewish-Roman military style squad led by a “Roman captain of the temple guards.” The Roman captain, who resided in the Tower of Antonia adjacent to the Temple, was assigned to a contingent of armed Temple guards.[vi]

It was this Roman captain’s responsibility to match his seal ring with a matching seal ring possessed by the Temple leadership to verify the integrity of the seal, in this case, used to secure the Chief Priest’s vestments worn at the Jewish festal sacrifices. This Roman-Jewish seal process was temporarily in place only from the death of King Herod until Vitellius became president of Syria in 35 AD – the period of years virtually coinciding with the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth.[vii]

Placed at the scene of the tomb holding the body of Jesus or Nazareth that Saturday Sabbath morning are the contingent of chief priests and Pharisees (possibly including stealth followers for Jesus, Joseph and Nicodemus) to witness the seal being placed on the tomb and the posting of the koustodia. Jewish leadership left with full confidence the sealed tomb would remain secure alleviating their anxiety that someone might steal the body of Jesus.[viii]

Archenemies of Jesus obtained a Roman judgement confirming that the chain of custody over the body of Jesus was legally established by Rome from the crucifixion, to his burial, until the third day when incredible events at the tomb at sunrise Sunday morning occurred while the koustodia were still stationed at their post with the seal intact. With an unbroken chain of custody over the body of Jesus, what is the possibility his body was stolen?

 

Creative Commons License

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

REFERENCES:

NET = NetBible translation; NASB = New American Standard Bible translation
Gospel references: Matthew 27-28, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19.

[i] Pearce, Jonathan MS. “Matthew and the guards at the tomb.” 2012. <http://www.debunking-christianity.com/2012/06/matthew-and-guards-at-tomb.html rel=”nofollow”> “Gospel Disproof #38: The guards at the tomb.” FreeThoughtBlogs.com. 2014. <http://freethoughtblogs.com/alethianworldview/2012/02/27/gospel-disproof-38-the-guards-at-the-tomb rel=”nofollow”>
[ii]  Edersheim, Alfred.  The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book V. 1883. Philogos.org. n.d. <http://philologos.org/__eb-lat/default.htm>
[iii] Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book IV, Chapter VIII;
Google Books. n.d. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
[iv] Josephus.  Wars. Book IV, Chapter V.
[v] Jahnige, Joan. “The Roman Legal System.” KET Distance Learning. 2017. http://www.dl.ket.org/latin2/mores/legallatin/legal01.htm>  Adams, John Paul. “The Twelve Tables.” 2009. California State University – Northridge. <https://www.csun.edu/~hcfll004/12tables.html>
[vi] Josephus.  Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter XI; Book XX, Chapter I.  Wars.  Book II, Chapter XVII; Book V, Chapter VI.
[vii] Josephus.  Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter XI; Book XX, Chapter I.  Smith William. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. 1857. “L. Vitellius” (#5); “C. Cassius Longinus” (#18), and “L. Cassius Longinus” (#19). OpenLibrary.org. n.d. <https://archive.org/stream/schooldictionary00smituoft#page/n9/mode/2up>  Smith, Mahlon H.  “Lucius Vitellius.” VirtualReligion.net. 2008.   <http://virtualreligion.net/iho/vitellius_1.html>  “Lucius Vitellius.”  Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering.  20John Simkin14.  <http://www.livius.org/person/vitellius-lucius>
[viii] “koustodia”, G2892l (Strong) “#2892 κουστωδία koustodia;” “strategos <4755> and “speira <4686>” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible.  n.d.  <http://lexiconcordance.com>