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. One Gospel describes two angels and two Gospels describe one angel at the empty tomb.
Setting the scene, earlier that afternoon Jesus of Nazareth had been executed by crucifixion requiring a hasty burial before Jewish Sabbath Law restricted various activities. By Jewish day-reckoning, the Saturday Sabbath began at sunset of Friday evening.
When Sabbath restrictions were no longer a concern after sunset on Saturday, 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 James, and Salome purchasing burial spices as soon as the Sabbath ended Saturday evening. 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 begins at the tomb as sunrise approached Sunday morning. The joint-contingent of armed koustodia, established by the command of Pilate at the behest of the Jewish council, were on-duty guarding the sealed 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 story line 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, written after Matthew and Mark, unambiguously says there were two angels. Consistently, Luke quotes Cleopas’ witness account that he unwittingly gave to the resurrected Jesus. Cleopas said, “they [women] came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. The statement is plural – more than one woman witnessed the empty tomb that is later corroborated by John’s account.
Matthew and Mark only refer to one angel with unnecessary and unexpected information, yet personifying and specific detail that adds authentic realism. Such descriptive details are typically absent from a deceptive statement.
Matthew reports 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. In dazzling array there he sat, perhaps with his legs draped over the side of the stone.
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. According to Matthew, the angel who was sitting on the stone at the tomb’s entrance spoke to the women inviting them to go inside:
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. While 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 to the very same witnesses – the two Marys, Salome and perhaps other unnamed women – was the same spot where the dead body of Jesus had lain on Friday as they watched Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus preparing it for burial. Had the angel’s statement been untrue about the crucified body of Jesus, the women would be expected to refute it – they didn’t.
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 Gospel of John’s account. His personal knowledge begins where he and Peter were mourning when terrified women burst into the room and Mary Magdalene excitedly announced the empty tomb. The two Disciples raced to see it for themselves. Also arriving back at the tomb was Mary Magdalene.
Marveling at finding the tomb empty with only 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:
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’s source, Mary Magdalene, 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 with them. As reported in the other Gospels, she had a previous engagement with the angels earlier that morning when the terrified women did not speak to the angels and ran. This time she is not alarmed and she spoke with the angels.
One other detail, 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 to the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth met that requirement.
Witness statements must be evaluated based on their own merit using longstanding investigative principals to decipher credible and truthful statements from deceptive ones. Using of a form of literary analysis and comparing other statements is part of the investigative process.
Statements of those witnessing 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. If two statements vary too much or are very nearly or exactly the same, it is a strong indication of deception.
Investigations must factor in any hard evidence, such as the empty tomb and abandoned burial cloths, and key facts, information, perspective, sequence of events, etc. to recreate the scene and attempt to determine what happened. A common denominator to evaluating all evidence is one basic question – can the evidence be logically explained?
Are the Gospels accounts in conflict, one angel vs. two angels at the empty tomb, who witnessed the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?
Updated February 16, 2023.
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 Mark 16.
 Luke 24.
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 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>
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