The Gospel Resurrection Contradiction – an Investigation
A contradiction between the Matthew and John Gospel Resurrection accounts of Jesus of Nazareth are cited by critics and skeptics as proof the Gospels lack integrity. On the surface, a contradiction indeed appears to exist, but is there one?
Matthew 28:9 says multiple women at the empty tomb, including Mary Magdalene, hurried to tell the Disciples of their experience and were interrupted with a Resurrection appearance by Jesus. John 20:12-16 details the lone Mary Magdalene’s Resurrection encounter with Jesus at the tomb. How can both be correct?
Two primary questions emerge regarding Matthew 28:9 – did “they” include Mary Magdalene and when did the event occur? Four accounts, in the form of the Gospels, chronicle the Resurrection events of Jesus of Nazareth providing a much fuller context of what actually happened.
In the investigative world questions arising from statements, as they always do, in a best case scenario would be to interview the witnesses to fill in the blanks. Interviews not being possible leaves only the comparison of the accounts themselves where word usage and the Greek texts provide additional insights.
Matthew names two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, present at the tomb during the angelic incident. Mark and Luke together also identify Joanna, Mary the mother of James, Salome and “other women” of Galilee at the tomb.
Many or all the women of Galilee in John’s account hastily went back into Jerusalem to tell the Disciples about their angelic experience at the empty tomb, not knowing where or how the body had been mysteriously “taken“. Only two Disciples – Peter and John – are actually present when the women announce their experience.
Running to see the empty tomb for themselves, Peter and John are followed by Mary Magdalene. She waited as they inspected the empty tomb and marveling at what they had witnessed, Peter and John went back home leaving Mary Magdalene, weeping. Although other women from Galilee were with her when she announced to John and Peter, the account does not indicate if the other women were with her when she returned to the tomb.
It then happened – the resurrected Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene alone at the tomb. Afterwards, “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.” Time required for this interlude is subjective although measured in hours rather than minutes. Questions: are “the disciples” still only Peter and John; where are the other women from Galilee?
Understandably excited, Mary Magdalene had wanted to hug Jesus, but he did not allow it saying, don’t “haptou” me. The Greek word’s meaning is a very important detail. Appearing in the Greek texts of the New Testament, the word haptou appears 36 times of which 86% are commonly translated as “touch” or “touched.” The King James Bible translates haptou in John 20:17 as “touch me not.” 
A disparity exists with translations of John 20:17. Of 30 English Bible translations, instead of 86%, only slightly more than half translate haptou using a form of “touch.” The remainder use variations such as “hold” and “cling” implying that touching has already occurred.
Applying the most common translations of New Testament translations of haptou as “touch” to John 20:17, Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to “touch” him because he had not yet ascended to “My Father.” Matthew 28:9, on the other hand, does not use the word haptou where the women were allowed to touch Jesus and worship him. In the interim, based on these two accounts, it appears Jesus has already ascended to his Father.
Greek text words of kai idou begin the sentence of Matthew 28:9 offering more clues that the Resurrection appearance of Jesus to these women did not occur immediately after leaving the tomb. The true meaning of the Greek words, again, are important factors.
A conjunction, kai is interpreted the same in almost all English Bible translations. The word appears over 9000 times in the New Testament Greek texts where, in about 98% of instances, kai is interpreted as “and.”
Second is idou, appearing about 200 times in the New Testament Greek texts, where almost 90% are translated with English words of exclamation that do not denote a specific point of occurrence in the narrative, such as “Behold,” “Look,” and “lo.” Barely more than just 10% of the translations use a word that indicates a specific point in time such as “now” and “here.”
Factoring in the most common Greek word textual meanings, another translation disparity exists with Matthew 28:9. Rather than 90%, only slightly more than half of 30 English translations use words that do not establish a precise moment in the narrative by using such words as “Suddenly,” “Behold,” and “Look” that could have occurred at any time.
On the flip side, a little less than half of English translations use words or phrases suggesting the encounter occurred immediately after leaving the empty tomb, such as “Just then,” “As they went” and “But.” A bit more vague is “As they were going.”
Applying the most common English translations of kai idou to Matthew 28:9, the verse would begin with something like, “And look” or “And behold.” Neither denotes a specific point in time when Jesus appeared to the women as they were on their way to tell their news to the Disciples.
An actual eyewitness statement is always of great value and Luke quotes Cleopas who said of that morning, “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just exactly as the women also had said; but Him they did not see.”
Cleopas corroborates John’s Gospel on four details: the unnamed women reported their experience at the tomb; the tomb was empty; and just “some,” not including the women, went to verify the empty tomb. Most significantly, no one had encountered the resurrected Jesus.
Timeline details are also more clearly defined when Luke says Cleopas and his traveling partner “were going that very day to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem.” Cleopas further states that toward the end of their journey “…it is getting toward evening, and the day is now nearly over.”
How long does it take to walk 7 miles? Probably less than 2 hours. Working backward, the pair had left Jerusalem early to mid-afternoon at which point no one had yet reported seeing the resurrected Jesus. Add in time for preparing the evening meal, baking bread and sitting down to eat it.
Easter sunset in Jerusalem was around 6:00-6:30pm. Hurrying back to Jerusalem to report their Resurrection appearance by Jesus in Emmaus, the walk was probably a faster paced trip.
Rejoining the gathering of Jesus’ followers back in Jerusalem after the evening meal time, everyone shared their stories of that Resurrection day. It is revealed Jesus had appeared that afternoon to Peter, too. The unexplained time gap is the afternoon of Resurrection day.
Summarizing, women of Galilee including Mary Magdalene, ran back from the empty tomb right after sunrise that morning into the City and reported their angelic experience at the empty tomb to Peter and John. Only these two Disciples, followed by Mary Magdalene, are reported to have gone back outside the City to the see for themselves that the tomb is indeed empty. The other women from Galilee are no longer mentioned as being present.
Completely understandable, the other women already had a traumatic angelic experience at the tomb – why go all the way back outside the City to see an empty tomb again? Further, the angels had instructed the women to tell the Disciples, presumably all of them, but only Peter and John were in a single location meaning the women had to go to other places to inform the remainder of the Disciples.
From this investigative information, two distinct Resurrection appearances are described at different times in Matthew 28:9 and John 20:12-16. First, the Resurrection appearance by Jesus to Mary Magdalene. At some point later, Jesus appeared to the women from Galilee. Both incidents occurred after the departure of Cleopas.
Was Mary Magdalene with the other women in Matthew’s account? The possibility exists that she had rejoined these women when Jesus appeared to them as they were seeking out the other Disciples. Is there actually a Gospel Resurrection conflict?
Updated November 10, 2022.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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 Matthew 28:1. “Archaeological Sites in Jerusalem: Burial Sites & Tombs of the Second Temple Period.” 2020. Jewish Virtual Library. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/burial-sites-and-tombs-in-jerusalem-of-the-second-temple-period> Schaalje, Jacqueline. “Tombs in Jerusalem’s Valleys.” Archaeology in Israel. 2001. <http://www.jewishmag.com/47mag/jerusalemtombs/jerusalemtombs.htm>
 Mark 16:1-2; Luke 24:10.
 John 20:2. NKJV. Luke 24:10. CR Mark 16:10.
 John 20:10-17; Mark 16:9.
 John 20:18. NRSV.
 “haptomai <680>”. NetBble.net. 2020. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=680> “ἁψάμενος.” BibleHub.com. 2020. <https://biblehub.com/greek/apsamenos_680.htm> “ἅπτου.” BibleHub.com. 2020. <https://biblehub.com/greek/haptou_680.htm>
 John 20:17. NetBible.org. 2020. http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Joh&chapter=20&verse=17>
 John 20:l7. BibleHub.com. Parallel. <https://biblehub.com/john/20-17.htm> John 20:17. NetBible.org. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Joh&chapter=20&verse=17>
 “kai.” Netbible.org. Matthew 28:9. kai <2532>. 2020. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=2532> Matthew 28:9. Footnote 1. NetBible.org. 2020. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=28&verse=9#> “kai.” BibleHub.com. Strong’s Greek 2532. 2011. <https://biblehub.com/parallel/matthew/28-9.htm>
 “kai <2532>.” NetBible.org. 2020. <https://biblehub.com/greek/2532.htm>; <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=2532>
 “idou <2400>.” NetBible.org. 2020. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=2400> Matthew 28:9. Footnote 1. NetBible.org. 2020. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=28&verse=9#> “2400. idou.” BibleHub.com. 2020. <https://biblehub.com/greek/2400.htm> “idou.” BibleHub.com. Strong’s Greek 2400. 2020. <https://biblehub.com/parallel/matthew/28-9.htm>
 Matthew 28:9. BibleHub.com. 2020. <https://biblehub.com/matthew/28-9.htm> Matthew 28:9. NetBible.org. 2020. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Mat&chapter=28&verse=9>
 Matthew 28:9. BibleHub.com. Interlinear. 2020. <https://biblehub.com/interlinear/matthew/28-9.htm> Matthew 28:9. BibleHub.com. Lexicon. 2020. <https://biblehub.com/lexicon/matthew/28-9.htm>
 Luke 24:24. NASB. CR Mark 16:12.
 Luke 24:13. NASB.
 Luke 24:29. NASB.
 “Jerusalem, Israel — Sunrise, Sunset, and Daylength, April 2020.” TimeAndDate.com. 2020. <https://www.timeanddate.com/sun/israel/jerusalem?month=4>
 Luke 24:33-35, 41-43.