Here is a favorite ploy of skeptics and critics of the four gospels: Find two stories that use different words, give different details, name different people and emphasize different things. Throw a flag and cry ‘contradiction!’
But differences in the account aren’t necessarily contradictions. Bart Ehrman has made a career of claiming otherwise. Here is a snippet of Bart in his debate on the resurrection with William Lane Craig:
Read one story in Matthew, then the same story in Mark, and compare your two stories and see what you come up with. You come up with major differences . . . Did they see a man, did they see two men, or did they see an angel? It depends on which gospel you read.
Bart throws out an entire grocery list of alleged contradictions in this debate. However, I just want to address this one about the angels at the tomb to highlight that differences do not necessarily equal contradictions. To claim otherwise is to give an uncharitable reading of the text at best, and is at worst intellectual dishonesty. It’s just a bad sales technique for skepticism. Yet this is Bart’s schtick.
Let’s look at the texts in question:
Mark 16:5-6: “And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, …”
Matthew 28:5: “But the angel said to the women…”
Luke 24:4: “While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel…”
John 20:11-13: “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet.”
So is this a major difference like Bart and other skeptics claim? Nah. Not if you’ve read the rest of the Bible. Angels often appear to humans as men. Let’s look at just a few texts to prove this out:
6 times in the Bible where angels appear as men
- When Abraham was sitting by the oaks of Mamre, “he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him” (Genesis 18:1-2). These visitors in the very next chapter are called angels. (Genesis 19:1)
- Jacob wrestled with the man until daybreak in Genesis 32:22-32. We read in Hosea 12:4 that he wrestled with the Angel of the Lord.
- Joshua encountered the “captain of the host of the LORD” who was called “a man” (Joshua 5:13-15).
- Here again, we see the same thing in Judges: “And God listened to the voice of Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field. But Manoah her husband was not with her. So the woman ran quickly and told her husband, “Behold, the man who came to me the other day has appeared to me.” (Judges 13:9-10)
- Daniel had visionary experiences where he describes his angelic visitor as “one in the likeness of the children of man”. (Daniel 10:16-18)
- And finally, Hebrews 13:2 tells us that “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Because of medieval, we picture angels as babies or women with wings on their back floating on white clouds. But if it’s possible to entertain angels unawares as the writer of Hebrews says, then they can look just like a human being.
How many angels were there?
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.
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 Bob wouldn’t mean that manager Suzy wasn’t also in the room with her head down, taking notes.
So summing it all up, the women saw two angels appearing as young men. Mark and Luke give us the description, Matthew and John provide the interpretation. One angel spoke and so he was the only one mentioned in Matthew and Mark. That these stories are told a little differently doesn’t mean they contradict. These kinds of differences are what you’d expect with eyewitness testimony.
To say otherwise is to apply a double standard on how we regularly do an investigation or history. Handling texts like this is just looking for trouble. It’s just assuming they are guilty before proving them innocent.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.