Reconciling the Gospel Accounts of Mary Magdalene at the Holy Sepulcher

What appears to be discrepancies in the accounts of Our Lord’s Resurrection and the witness of Mary Magdalene are not so; they are reconcilable. The readings for Easter moved me to address the issue. So, with the help of Cornelius a Lapide’s commentary, I will do so with brevity, and, hopefully, clarity. It is important to keep in mind that the Gospel accounts do not cover every detail of the sacred events. Saint Mark follows the lead of Saint Matthew, whereas Saints Luke and John provide other elucidating details. That is why I love to read authors who give the history of Our Lord’s life with a chronological exactness while incorporating all the passages of the Gospels in a linear fashion. One such book, which I am still reading now, having been unable to finish it during Holy Week, is Father Groening’s excellent History of the Passion, published in 1908. In this short essay I intend only to reconcile the events relating to Mary Magdalene, the first after Our Lady, to whom the Risen Christ appeared.

I begin with Saint John.

And on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalen cometh early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre; and she saw the stone taken away from the sepulchre. She ran, therefore, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and saith to them: They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him (John 20:1,2).

And, some verses later, after Peter and John came and saw the empty tomb, the account  of Saint John continues:

But Mary stood at the sepulchre without, weeping. Now as she was weeping, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,  And she saw two angels in white, sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been laid. They say to her: Woman, why weepest thou? She saith to them: Because they have taken away my Lord; and I know not where they have laid him. When she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing; and she knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith to her: Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, thinking it was the gardener, saith to him: Sir, if thou hast taken him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith to her: Mary. She turning, saith to him: Rabboni (which is to say, Master). Jesus saith to her: Do not touch me, for I am not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brethren, and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God. Mary Magdalen cometh, and telleth the disciples: I have seen the Lord, and these things he said to me (12-18).

Notice in verse two that Mary Magdalene says to Peter, “we know not where they have laid him.” Reading the account too quickly, we might think that Mary came to the sepulcher alone. That is why we need the plural “we” in order to reconcile John’s account with that of the three synoptic writers.

Saint Matthew relates, chapter 28, verse one, “And in the end of the sabbath, when it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalen and the other Mary, to see the sepulchre.” Luke and Mark supply the names of two other women who also were with the two Marys. They were Joanna, the wife of Chusa, Herod’s steward, and Salome, mother of James the Greater and John.

Saints Matthew and Mark tells us that the women saw one angel when they came to the sepulcher. It would seem that the Jewish guards, whom Matthew describes as being struck by the angel as “dead men” (after the earthquake and his removal of the large rock) had come to and run away to tell the chief priests what had happened before the women arrived. And the angel said to the women:

Fear not you; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he is risen, as he said. Come, and see the place where the Lord was laid. And going quickly, tell ye his disciples that he is risen: and behold he will go before you into Galilee; there you shall see him. Lo, I have foretold it to you. And they went out quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy, running to tell his disciples. And behold Jesus met them, saying: All hail. But they came up and took hold of his feet, and adored him. Then Jesus said to them: Fear not. Go, tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, there they shall see me. (6-10).

I will try here to fill in a blank that may cause some confusion as we read the different texts. It would appear that the women had seen and heard the word of the angels prior to their “running” to tell the disciples that the tomb was empty. It would also seem that they were afraid of relating the whole message, namely that the angel said “He is risen.” In fact, Mary Magdalene, even after the angel had told them Christ was risen, still wept and was afraid someone had taken away the body of the Lord. She was certainly in a state of joy mixed with perplexity, unsure of what to believe. The angels, although in shining apparel, did not strike fear in the women. Saint Mark refers to the angel who spoke to the women as “a young man” sitting inside the tomb. They did not appear in the awesome splendor of the angel who stunned the temple guards at the tomb. No. Mary, it seems, had to see Jesus in the Flesh in order to believe what the angel had told her and the other women

From Saint John we see that Mary was alone when Jesus appeared to her (first disguised as a gardener), as we read in the introductory verses given previously from his Gospel. Then, as we read in Matthew, she must have joined the other women returning to the tomb again from their “evangelical’ mission to the apostles. I use the word “evangelical” because the word angel means “announcer” and the women were first sent by an angel to tell the disciples of the Resurrection of Jesus  Then, when the women were all together on their way back to the tomb, the Lord greeted them all: “All hail”; and they adored Him.

And, too, Saint Luke supplies a little more information; namely, that the “two” angels who were sitting on the stone in the tomb looked like “men”: “And they found the stone rolled back from the sepulchre. And going in, they found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it came to pass, as they were astonished in their mind at this, behold, two men stood by them, in shining apparel. And they said to the women: ‘Why seek you the living with the dead? He is not here, but is risen. Remember how he spoke unto you, when he was in Galilee, Saying: The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again’” (Luke 24: 3-7). In Matthew’s account (and Mark’s), “one” angel speaks, but, of course, this does not contradict that there were two angels present. Moreover, when it is said by Luke that “they” both spoke, this simply means that one angel spoke for the two. Perhaps it was Gabriel.

On a side note, just to demonstrate how distraught the holy women were, we see them on the way to the sepulcher asking each other “Who shall roll us back the stone from the door of the sepulcher?” (Mark 16:3) Mark notes that the stone “was very great.” Well, I do not think there is an answer to that question. Other than that their love for Jesus had trumped their common sense.

Finally, let us note that Our Lady did not come with the women to anoint the body of Jesus. Nor did she tell them that they were doing something unnecessary that Sunday before sunrise. No, Mary was in silent prayer. She was expecting a Visitor. She was the only member of the Church who had the Faith that day. All others, even though they had heard Our Lord promise many times that He would rise from the dead on the third day (even the enemies of Christ knew the prophecy), did not believe.

There you have it. I have not needed to quote from Cornelius a Lapide, but I have borrowed from a part of his insights garnered from the fathers. .