By Jean E. Jones
Questions: Why did Mary Magdalene ask where Jesus’ body was when earlier an angel told her Jesus had arisen? Why do the gospel accounts differ as to which women went to the tomb and which saw Jesus alive?
Several questions arose in my church’s women’s Bible study about differences between the gospel accounts regarding the women at the resurrection who saw the empty tomb and witnessed Jesus alive.
Why did Mary Magdalene ask the man she thought was a gardener where Jesus’ body was (John 20:15) when earlier an angel had told her Jesus had arisen (Mark 16:6)?
When we read that the angel told Mary and the other women that Jesus had arisen, we know what the angel meant: Jesus had risen from the dead and was alive. But Mary didn’t know that.
When Jesus told the apostles he was going to die and rise again, they didn’t understand what he meant (John 16:17, 20:9). When the angel told Mary and her friends that Jesus had risen, she likewise didn’t know what he meant, perhaps thinking he spoke of Jesus’ soul. She remained intent on finding Jesus’ body so she could properly anoint it with spices.
Why do the gospel accounts differ about which women went to the tomb?
Matthew tells us of Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the younger—one of the apostles—going to the tomb (Matthew 28:1); Mark mentions the two Marys and Salome (Mark 16:1); Luke describes the two Marys, Joanna, and other women (Luke 24:10); and John speaks only of Mary Magdalene (John 20:1).
We’ve all experienced recounting something that happened to us only to see our listener’s eyes drift towards an exit, and none of us likes that. So when we relate events, we choose important details and often mention just people our listeners know.
For instance, Clay and I told my father-in-law that while traveling with Craig Hazen (whom he knows), we met the pastor of his church. We didn’t mention we were also traveling with J. P. Moreland because my father-in-law doesn’t know him.
That’s the way we all tell the stories of our lives. We can’t give every detail: life’s too short. When writing, we trim down to what we think will make our point without overwhelming our readers with non-essentials that wouldn’t interest them. And that’s what the gospel writers did. They picked what they considered the most important details and mentioned the people their readers knew. All mentioned Mary Magdalene, who was a wealthy, well-known leader of the women who had ministered to Jesus and who had the honor of being the first to see the risen Lord…