Was the tomb opened or closed when the women arrived?

The Apostle Paul says that Christianity’s truth stands or falls on the resurrection. (1 Cor. 15:17) But skeptics point out that the resurrection narratives in the Gospels have more holes than swiss cheese. Why are they riddled with contradictions? One of their go-to contradictions is this: Was the tomb empty or closed when the women arrived? New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman asks:

“Was the stone already rolled away when they arrived at the tomb (Mark, Luke, and John), or explicitly not (Matthew)?”  (How Jesus Became God)

Before we take the scholar’s word for it, let’s look at the texts ourselves

  • And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. (Mark 16:3-4)
  • And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb…(Luke 24:2)
  • Now on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. (John 20:1)

So far all Mark, Luke, and John say that the tomb was open when the women found it. Now here’s Matthew’s version:

At the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulcher. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men. (Matthew 28:1-4)

So far it looks like Bart and the critics have a good point.

Getting a grip on the Greek

So what’s going on here? Is Matthew signifying that the women saw the angel coming down and rolling the stone away? If Matthew comes after Mark, then it feels like he’s adding an extra layer of supernatural ad hoc. While it makes the account sound more impressive, we now get this contradiction.

But let’s reconsider what Matthew says. 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.

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 …”

One such translation is Weymouth, who phrases Matthew 28:2 as follows: “But to their amazement, there had been a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord had descended from Heaven, and had come and rolled back the stone, and was sitting upon it.”

And here’s Young’s Literal Translation, which is about as a word-for-word Greek translation you can get: “and lo, there came a great earthquake, for a messenger of the Lord, having come down out of heaven, having come, did roll away the stone from the door, and was sitting upon it”

So 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.

OK, but where is Matthew getting his info from?

But now a question arises. If the women didn’t tell them this story about the stone’s rolling away and the guards falling out, who did? That’s a fair question.

While can’t say for sure, we can venture a safe guess here. In Matthew 28:11-15 we find out that the author had some info about the guards. What happened to them could have come from the same source — perhaps one of the guards themselves.

Ehrman and critics like him are misreading the text here

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. There’s only a contradiction here if you’re looking for trouble. This seems like an open-and-shut case of uncharitable reading going on here, lame pun intended.

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