Women at the Tomb: Examining Bart Ehrman’s claim of contradictory reports

The women appearing at the tomb, while the soldiers sleep. Image Credit: Pinterest

Who actually went to the tomb? Was it Mary alone (John 20:1)? Mary and another Mary (Matthew 28:1)? Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mark 16:1)? Or women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem — possibly Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and “other women” (Luke 24:1; see 23:55)? [Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted: Revealing The Hidden Contradictions In The Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York: HarperCollins, 2009, pg. 47]

Bart Ehrman, my former New Testament Literature professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been insinuating in his work Jesus Interrupted: Revealing The Hidden Contradictions In The Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) that the accounts of the Gospel writers contradict one another: that is, Matthew and Luke give what he believes to be “differing” accounts of the events of the life of Christ: the early years of Jesus’ childhood, for example — with Luke telling about Jesus’ birth and Matthew skipping the birth of Jesus altogether.

I’ve argued that the two Gospel writers are recording two different points in the life of Jesus, neither contradicting the other, but Ehrman continues to use the word “contradiction” or “contradict” in every two passages he points out (he even uses the word “contradictions” in his book title!) in order to drill the assumption that the Gospel writers don’t agree with one another. But his perspective, that the Gospel writers don’t agree, remains to be proven. It’s the one thing he doesn’t prove, but merely accepts as his new perspective that has shifted from his former evangelical, fundamentalist Christian stance.

Ehrman’s quote pertains to the women at the tomb, the women who went to anoint the body of Jesus after His crucifixion and after the Sabbath ended. Jesus’ body was taken down off the Cross on Friday before evening, when Sabbath began. Ehrman says that the Gospel writers all provide different names of women at the tomb: John says Mary, while Matthew says “Mary and another Mary”; Mark says Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome; Luke says the women present at the tomb were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and “other women.” Thus, it appears as though all have different accounts of which women were at the tomb.

And yet, I insist that Ehrman’s claim that these reports are contradictory isn’t true because they all mention Mary Magdalene as having been present at the tomb. In that, they all agree. Matthew mentions “another Mary,” while Mark and Luke mention “Mary the mother of James.” Mark also mentions “Salome,” who is only mentioned by him, and Luke mentions “Joanna,” but then mentions “other women.”

Image Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Salome and Joanna are new names, but Luke could’ve meant Salome to be included in “other women,” while Salome stood out to Mark but he didn’t know who Joanna was. Matthew could have Mary, the mother of James, in mind as “another Mary,” which could tell us that he didn’t know Mary the mother of James all that well. All Matthew knew was that her first name was “Mary,” so we have to accept his word for it.

While the names are different, we see that some of the Gospel writers didn’t know all of the women by name specifically that appeared at the tomb. They all knew Mary Magdalene (she was a well-known follower of Jesus), and others knew Mary the mother of James, but some did not, and one apiece knew Salome and Joanna. Luke included “other women,” which means that there was a plurality of women present at the tomb.

Who actually went to the tomb? Who actually appeared at the tomb? The answer is that all the Gospel writers are accurate about who appeared. They each gave a snapshot, a perspective, telling us who they saw (“Mary Magdalene,” for example) and hinting at those whose names they didn’t know (“another Mary,” or “other women”). The Gospel writers are like us, in that regard: who knows every person at every event? Matthew nor John, two of the disciples, could name every woman present, so it doesn’t surprise us that Mark and Luke couldn’t.


Image Credit: Ad Imaginem Dei

Ehrman claims that the Gospel writers give contrary accounts, but how can they be responsible for knowing every woman at the tomb? They are human, after all, so how can they be responsible for knowing every woman that appeared at the event? We know that neither Mark nor Luke were actual disciples chosen by Jesus; how could they, removed from the event, get right the names of every woman present?

Luke says that “other women” were there, in addition to the names he supplies, likely because someone he talked to knew that other women were there but couldn’t name them specifically. Matthew was present, and yet he said “another Mary” was there; who was this “other Mary,” exactly? We don’t know, except to guess that it was Mary the mother of James, perhaps (if not someone else).

In the final analysis, then, Ehrman’s former view of inerrancy, his view that God would manipulate the thought processes of individuals, is erroneous. God did not override the individual personalities of the Gospel writers to create these four biographies of Jesus; rather, we see the Spirit use these to show us that He works through imperfect humanity. And yet, while these Gospel writers were imperfect human beings, they weren’t erroneous about the facts they recorded in Scripture.

How could they report falsehoods and outright lies about the One who said He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6)?

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