Contradictions in the Empty Tomb Narratives: A Response to Erik Manning, Part 2


1
WAS THE STONE ALREADY REMOVED?

In the Gospel of Mark, as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome are on their way to anoint Jesus’ body, a problem consumes their thoughts along the way: “They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” (Mark 16:3) To remove the stone from the tomb was not simply a matter of simply pushing it out the way. Such stones were massive, upwards of three thousand pounds, and were put in place using levers.[1] The women probably didn’t have the right equipment to remove the stone in front of Jesus’ tomb and so if they got there and had no one to move it for them then their journey would have been for naught. But the question of v. 3 also serves the narrative by creating anticipation for what inevitably follows. As R.T. France noted, “[F]rom the dramatic point of view their anxiety is important as the foil to their discovery that the problem was already solved.”[2] According to v. 4, when they arrive at the scene they find that “the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back [apokekylistai].” The women have discovered “that their worry is needless.”[3]

This version of events isn’t what we find in the Matthean account (Matthew 28:1-3). Setting aside the fact that there is no mention of Salome,[4] there is also no concern or conversation about how they will anoint Jesus’ body with a stone in the way. Why? Because the women aren’t described as going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body as in Mark but rather simply “to see the tomb” (v. 1). Moreover, because Matthew has added to the narrative guards over-watching the tomb (Matthew 15:65), the concern that there would be no one present to move the stone aside would make little sense. And so, for these reasons, Matthew has no need for it. What happens next, however, does not appear in the Gospel of Mark. 

And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men (vv. 2-4)

The angel then turns to the women, informs them of Jesus’ resurrection, and commands them to go and tell the disciples what has transpired (vv. 5-8). With this version of events, however, we have a problem. Mark’s Gospel is quite clear that when the women arrive on the scene, they discover that the stone sealing the tomb has already been rolled away. But Matthew’s account gives the impression that when the women arrive the stone is still covering the entrance and then they see an angel descend and remove it. Is not this a contradiction? 

2
SUMMARY OF MANNING’S APOLOGETIC

In his post “Do the Resurrection Narratives Contradict?” Manning explains why he doesn’t think that the Markan and Matthean accounts disagree.[5] He begins by analyzing the Greek text.

We’re introduced to the passage about the angel by the Greek participle γὰρ (gar). Strong’s Greek Concordance defines it as: “For. A primary participle; properly, assigning a reason.” In other words, it exists to explain the earthquake and set of circumstances as the women found them. 

He then continues his analysis of the Greek text by referencing the work of apologist and philosopher Timothy McGrew.

As philosopher Tim McGrew points out, “Matthew uses an aorist participle, which could be (and in some versions is) translated with the English past perfect: “…for an angel of the Lord had descended…”

As evidence that some English translations employ the past perfect for the aorist participle, Manning quotes from both the Weymouth translation and Young’s Literal Translation. Based upon this, Manning asserts that

Matthew isn’t claiming that the women saw the angel descend or that they saw the guards get knocked out. It’s not in the text. It seems like the critics are looking for fault here. 

But this leaves an important question unanswered: how did the story of the angel and the guards get out? Manning’s suggestion is that based on Matthew 28:11-15 it could have been one of the guards who let everyone know. The apologist then concludes this section with the following: 

Matthew 28:2-4 gives us an explanation for the women at the tomb found when they got there. And that is the stone rolled away and no guards. This just isn’t meant to be a description of what the women saw. The stone moved before they got there and that seems to be what Matthew is communicating when properly read.

Is Manning correct? Does the story “when properly read” convey the idea that the stone was removed before the women had arrived and that the guards weren’t even present? 

3
A RESPONSE

Setting aside the fact that the Greek conjunction gar is not a participle,[6] Manning is correct that gar is intended to explain the Matthean earthquake of v. 2. The late R.T. France wrote, “Matthew’s connective ‘for’ [i.e. gar] suggests that the quake is itself the result, or at least the context, of the angel’s coming, so that emphasis falls on the angel rather than the earthquake.”[7] So, the earthquake is explained by the angel’s descent and subsequent removal of the stone. But Manning also asserts that this gar-clause explains “the set of circumstances as the women found them,” assuming (before he has demonstrated it) that the events of v. 2 happened prior to the women arriving at the tomb. But this isn’t what the text says, and, in fact, the context mitigates against such a reading. 

In v. 1, the author had written that the two women “went to see the tomb,” employing the aorist ēlthen.[8] France renders ēlthen with the past tense “came,”[9] and this I think captures the meaning of the aorist. To put it plainly, the women are at the tomb in v. 1.[10] This explains the import of the beginning of v. 2 – kai idou seismos egeneto megas, “and suddenly there was a great earthquake.” For those readers with some measure of fluency in Greek, kai idou is a familiar idiom. In the Passion narrative, Matthew had employed it at the moment of Jesus’ death: “And suddenly [kai idou] the curtain of the temple was split from top to bottom in two, and the earth shook and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:51, my translation). The idiom here “links the events more tightly with the moment of Jesus’ death in vs. 50.”[11] Similarly, in 28:9, after the women have left the tomb to tell the disciples the angel’s message, we read, “And suddenly [kai idou] Jesus met them saying, “Greetings…” (my translation). Here the idiom not only connects Jesus’ appearance to the women’s departure from the tomb, it also expresses the sudden and unexpected nature of what has transpired.[12] What does this tell us about the idiom in 28:2? In essence, it tells us that the earthquake is an unexpected event that is tied directly to the women’s arrival at the tomb in v. 1. Thus, in the Matthean chronology, the earthquake takes place after the women came to the tomb, not before. Manning’s claim that the gar-clause explains what the women found only after they had arrived at the tomb does not fit with how Matthew has employed the idiom kai idou in other contexts.

Further mitigating against this view is that the angel, having descended and frightening the guards such that they “became like dead men” (v. 4), begins speaking to the women to exhort them to not be frightened. This sequence of events suggests that the women were already there on scene otherwise we might expect the Evangelist to write something like, “And the women, having arrived at the tomb, saw the angel….” But that isn’t what Matthew writes and it is certainly not the impression one gets by simply reading the text. The way the narrative is written, it strongly suggests that the women have been there the entire time, witnessing the angel removing the stone and the reaction of the guards.

But what do we make of McGrew’s assertion that the aorist participle katabas (“he descended”) could be understood in the perfect tense? Though undoubtedly a possibility, there are good reasons for thinking this isn’t what’s going on. First, it is grammatically unlikely. Daniel Wallace writes, 

The aorist participle is normally, though by no means always, antecedent in time to the action of the main verb. But when the aorist participle is related to an aorist main verb, the participle will often be contemporaneous (or simultaneous) with the action of the main verb.[13]

In v. 2, there are two aorist participles – katabas, which McGrew mentions, and proselthōn. The main verb comes immediately after the second participle: apekylisen (“he rolled back”), an aorist verb. Thus, the picture Matthew paints is that the descent (katabas) and coming (proselthōn) of the angel coincides with his rolling back (apekylisen) of the stone. Since it is this activity that explains the earthquake, and since the idiom kai idou suggests that the earthquake happened after the women arrived at the tomb, then rendering katabas as a perfect participle contributes nothing to our understanding of the text nor does it do away with the contradiction. Therefore, McGrew’s argument is less than compelling. 

But there is another reason for casting aside McGrew’s argument. In the Gospel of Mark, the women are concerned that if the stone hasn’t been removed from the tomb by the time they get there then they won’t be able to perform their task (Mark 16:3). But then when they arrive, Mark tells us that they saw “that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back” (v. 4). The word Mark uses and which the NRSV renders with the phrase “had already been rolled back” is apokekylistai, a verb in the perfect tense. Matthew, dependent upon Mark, actually uses the same root verb as Mark but he changes Mark’s perfect tense verb to one in the aorist! Had Matthew intended to convey what McGrew suggests, all he had to do was change the voice of the verb from passive to active but keep the tense.

It seems clear that Matthew intended to convey that the women were present to see such a miraculous event. There is no need to resort to Manning’s hypothesis that it was one of the guards that conveyed the information. In fact, there is some irony in Manning’s suggestion, for in having to reconcile the Markan and Matthean version of events, he has had to invent a solution to the story’s background when if he would simply let Matthew be Matthew he would have had one that was already embedded into the narrative: it was the women who told the disciples what they witnessed with the angel and the guards. Belief in inerrancy will make apologists do some baffling things.

4
CONCLUSION

Allowing the Evangelists to speak on their own terms is vital to understand what they are trying to communicate in their own respective contexts. That is why it is refreshing to read these words from Donald Hagner in his commentary on the latter half of the Gospel of Matthew.

The problem of reconciling the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels is notorious. There is, however, no need to harmonize the details of these discrete accounts. We do well to allow each Gospel to present its own account with its own distinctives. As [Leon] Morris points out, “Each of the Evangelists tells the story as best he knows without trying to harmonize it with what somebody else says” (733). It is enough (with Morris) to stress that all the Gospels have in common an empty tomb, the announcement of the resurrection of Jesus to the women, and the appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples.”[14]

Amen and amen. 


[1] Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 1072.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 678.

[3] Mary Ann Beavis, Mark, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 241.

[4] Salome only appears in the Markan narrative in 15:40 and 16:1. 

[5] Erik Manning, “Do the Resurrection Narratives Contradict?” (4.6.20), isjesusalive.com.

[6] Since Manning is using the work of Tim McGrew (see this talk, particularly at 29:00) it seems he misread McGrew’s “particle” for “participle.” 

[7] France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 1099.

[8] The verb is singular, not plural, seemingly emphasizing Mary Magdalene.

[9] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 1095.

[10] Elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew, the aorist form of erchomai is used in precisely this way. For example, in Matthew 2:2, the Magi arrive at the palace of Herod in Jerusalem and tell the king, “For we observed his star at its rising, and have come [ēlthomen] to pay him homage.” That is, the wise men are at the site where they think they need to be to pay their respects to the newborn king of the Jews. Cf. 5:17; 7:25, 27; 9:1, 10; etc.

[11] Donald Senior, “The Death of Jesus and the Resurrection of the Holy Ones (Mt. 27:51-53),” The Catholic Bible Quarterly, vol. 38 (1976), 312.

[12] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1995), 869; cf. BDAG, s.v., “ἰδού.”

[13] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 624.

[14] Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 868. The quote from Leon Morris is from Morris’ commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. 

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

8 thoughts on “Contradictions in the Empty Tomb Narratives: A Response to Erik Manning, Part 2

Add yours

  1. Other changes Matthew made when retelling the Markan story:

    Mark only mentions a lone Centurion, but the redaction in Matthew consists of a group of soldiers:

    Mark states:
    And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, Surely this man was the Son of God! (NIV)

    Matthew states:
    When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake [something new, found only in Matt] and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, Surely he was the Son of God! (NIV)

    Matthew depicts the centurion along with those with him all “seeing” the “earthquake and all that had happened,” and “they were terrified.” But Mark has no earthquake (and no dead rising from their graves and entering the holy city to be seen by many). Mark only depicts a centurion, a seemingly lone figure standing “there in front of Jesus,” reacting to “his cry” up close and seeing “how he died,” and not acting very “terrified” about anything.

    Matthew then adds a second earthquake (when none of the other Gospels mention even one, thus putting Matthew’s tale on double shaky ground). And per Matthew both earthquakes involve a group of “terrified soldiers/guards.” The first one has the centurion “and others with him” reacting in “terror” to the earthquake, tombs being opened, and dead people rising and walking into the holy city; while the second quake has guards reacting fearfully once again, falling down and feigning death in due to seeing an angel “descend from heaven” and roll away the sealed stone at Jesus’ tomb. So we have in Matthew two earthquakes accompanying the opening of tombs in both cases, and two supernatural events (many raised saints, and an angel who descends from heaven), witnessed by two groups of terrified soldiers–a doublet as they would say in the field of mythology and legend. Both such tales found only in Matthew.

    Also, Matthew’s brief lines (about an earthquake and many resurrected saints) appear sandwiched in between a long number of lines before and after them that Matthew and Mark share, as if Matthew simply inserted them into Mark’s original narrative (along with altering the reactions of the Centurion and soldiers and making “them” speak in unison, “Surely this was the son of God”).

    White has suggested that the original Markan Gospel story was not convincing enough. There was doubt as to the body having being stolen, which may explain why Matthew chose to add his new take about the tomb having been sealed and guarded. But that merely led to the question of why the guards remained quiet about the angel unsealing the tomb. Matthew anticipated such an objection and simply added the further tale about evil Jews paying off the guards to remain silent. The circle of explanations now being complete. At least that was Matthew’s explanation. The other Gospel writers know nothing about the guards, the dealing of the tomb, the earthquakes, or the opening of many tombs and raising of many saints.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Other changes Matthew made when retelling the Markan story:

    Mark only mentions a lone Centurion, but the redaction in Matthew consists of a group of soldiers:

    Mark states:
    And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, Surely this man was the Son of God! (NIV)

    Matthew states:
    When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake [something new, found only in Matt] and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, Surely he was the Son of God! (NIV)

    Matthew depicts the centurion along with those with him all “seeing” the “earthquake and all that had happened,” and “they were terrified.” But Mark has no earthquake (and no dead rising from their graves and entering the holy city to be seen by many). Mark only depicts a centurion, a seemingly lone figure standing “there in front of Jesus,” reacting to “his cry” up close and seeing “how he died,” and not acting very “terrified” about anything.

    Matthew then adds a second earthquake (when none of the other Gospels mention even one, thus putting Matthew’s tale on doubly shaky ground). And per Matthew both earthquakes involve a group of “terrified soldiers/guards.” The first one has the centurion “and others with him” reacting in “terror” to the earthquake, tombs being opened, and dead people rising and walking into the holy city; while the second quake has guards reacting fearfully once again, falling down and feigning death due to seeing an angel “descend from heaven” and roll away the sealed stone at Jesus’ tomb. So we have in Matthew two earthquakes accompanying the opening of tombs in both cases, and two supernatural events (many raised saints, and an angel who descends from heaven), witnessed by two groups of terrified soldiers–a doublet as they would say in the field of mythology and legend. Both such tales found only in Matthew.

    Also, Matthew’s brief lines (about an earthquake and many resurrected saints) appear sandwiched in between a long number of lines before and after them that Matthew and Mark share, as if Matthew simply inserted them into Mark’s original narrative (along with altering the reactions of the Centurion and soldiers and making “them” speak in unison, “Surely this was the son of God”).

    White has suggested that the original Markan Gospel story was not convincing enough. There was doubt as to the body having being stolen, which may explain why Matthew chose to add his new take about the tomb having been sealed and guarded. But that merely led to the question of why the guards remained quiet about the angel unsealing the tomb. Matthew anticipated such an objection and simply added the further tale about evil Jews paying off the guards to remain silent. The circle of explanations now being complete. At least that was Matthew’s explanation. The other Gospel writers know nothing about the guards, the sealing of the tomb, the earthquakes, or the opening of many tombs and raising of many saints.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: