Contradictions in the Empty Tomb Narratives: A Response to Erik Manning, Part 3


In the Gospel of Mark, when the women arrive at the place where Jesus was buried, they are surprised to find that not only has the stone been rolled away, but that Jesus is gone and a “young man [neaniskos]” is seated on the right side within the tomb. Who is this young man? I have argued elsewhere that it is possible he is the same young man mentioned in 14:51-52.[1] Admittedly, I’m on the fringe with this take. Most scholars think that Mark is using conventional language to describe an angelic being[2] and, for the sake of the argument in this post, I will grant that this is to what Mark was referring. An angelic being is certainly how Matthew interpreted this character when he used Mark’s empty tomb narrative to create his own. And so, if Mark is describing an angel, on this point he and Matthew are in total agreement. 

But when we get to the Gospel of Luke, we face a problem. According to Luke 24:4, the women encounter not one but two angels.[3] In agreement with Luke, the Johannine author describes Mary as seeing two angels as well (John 20:12). How can it be that in the Markan and Matthean Gospels we find but one angel, yet in the Lukan and Johannine we find two? Surely, this is a contradiction!


Erik Manning in his post “Do the Resurrection Narratives Contradict?”[4] contends that the error belongs not to the Evangelists but rather with their skeptical interpreters. He writes,

This shouldn’t be that hard to figure out. Wherever there are two angels there is always at least one. That’s just an unfailing principle of math. It’s Matthew and Mark who focus on the one who spoke. They don’t mention the other. But omission itself doesn’t equal denial. There is no account saying that there was one and no other.

He then appeals to an experience common to many. 

I mean, we’ve all experienced this before, haven’t we? I’m thinking of my own life for certain job interviews I had. There were two managers in the room interviewing me for a promotion, but my focus was only on the one who was asking me questions. When talking about the interview later with others, me describing the questions and body language of manager Steve wouldn’t mean that manager Suzy wasn’t also in the room with her head down, taking notes.

This is such a simple answer and seems on the face of it to be quite right. But as they say, the devil is in the details.


Manning’s initial argument is that though Luke has two angels, Mark and Matthew do not claim there was only one but instead they each “focus on the one who spoke.” But this is apologetic sleight of hand since Manning doesn’t want you to notice that in the Lukan account it isn’t one angel who speaks but both: “they said [eipan] to them, ‘Why seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) Later in that chapter, the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus explain to an incognito Jesus that the women had gone to tomb and reported to them “that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said [hoi legousin] that he was alive” (v. 23). So twice in the Lukan narrative we see the angels depicted as both speaking. For Manning’s apologetic to work, either Luke would have to depict only one of the angels speaking or Mark and Matthew would have had to have two angels speaking, not one alone.

There is another, even more problematic, set of details that Manning overlooks. The circumstances surrounding the appearance of the angels is different in each account. In the Gospel of Mark, there is no explanation as to why the stone has been removed, and the women, as they enter the tomb, see an angel seated inside (Mark 16:4-5). The Gospel of Matthew agrees with Mark that there was a single angel and that the women saw him sitting down. But they see the angel before they see that the tomb is empty, and the angel isn’t sitting inside the tomb but outside of it, upon the stone that had been covering it (Matthew 28:2). In the Gospel of Luke, the women arrive at the tomb and discover the stone rolled away as in Mark, but upon entering the tomb all they notice is the missing body (Luke 24:1-3). Then Luke writes, “While they were perplexed about this, suddenly [kai idou][5] two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them” (v. 4). So, not only are there two angels, they aren’t seated anywhere but rather stood inside the tomb with the women. Finally, John’s Gospel claims that Mary went to the tomb twice. The first time she sees that the stone has been rolled away and apparently assumes Jesus’ body is missing (John 20:1-2). It is Peter and the other disciple who actually enter the tomb to see what was happening. But they don’t see any angels! (vv. 3-9) It isn’t until Mary returns that the author tells us that she looks into the tomb but doesn’t enter, and sees two angels sitting, not standing, inside (vv. 11-12). And they don’t make any statement about Jesus’ resurrection; instead, it is the appearance of Jesus to Mary in vv. 14-18 that reveals her master is alive and well. 

None of these details match up and the way they each tell their story is indicative of their varied and (at times) contradictory interests. Manning focuses so intently on reconciling the number of angels (and, in his attempt to reconcile the accounts, gets it wrong) that he’s missed how each Evangelist makes his story unique! 


Earlier in this same piece, Manning wrote, 

As Greg Koukl has famously said, “never read a Bible verse.” You have to keep reading and get the context before making assumptions about the text. Otherwise, it would seem that you’re either looking for a negative verdict or you’re just trying to fleece someone.

The irony here is not subtle. By only quoting a single verse from the Gospel of Luke (e.g. Luke 24:4) and not reading to “get the context before making assumptions about the text,” the apologist has violated his own principle. So, I wonder which it is for Manning: is he only looking for a negative verdict against the assertion of contradiction or is he just trying to “fleece” his audience? 

[1] See my post, “Musings on Mark: The First Witness to the Empty Tomb” (4.28.18),

[2] See Darrell Bock, Mark, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 380-381; Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 1080; Marie Noonan Sabin, The Gospel According to Mark, New Collegeville Bible Commentary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006), 153.

[3] That the Lukan “men” are understood to be angels is confirmed by v. 23 as well as Acts 1:10.

[4] Erik Manning, “Do the Resurrection Narratives Contradict?” (4.6.20),

[5] See the discussion in part two of this series on the use of kai idou in Matthew’s Gospel. Luke uses the idiom in similar ways (e.g. Luke 7:37, 8:41, etc.). 

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

7 thoughts on “Contradictions in the Empty Tomb Narratives: A Response to Erik Manning, Part 3

  1. Any idea why the tradition developed from one figure to two? And from a young man to a dazzling angel?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On that I’m not sure. I think it may have to do with the symmetry of having the angel of the Lord featured in the beginning of his Gospel. He not only announces the birth of the messiah but also his resurrection. This forms an inclusio around the whole of the narrative. Since angelic beings were often depicted as male and even as young males, it would be natural for Matthew to just go ahead and convert him to a full fledged angel, completing the circle from ch. 1.

      But I’m just spit-ballin’.


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