Exploring the Differences in the Gospel Accounts of the Easter Story

Many Christians this Easter will open up their Bibles and read the gospel accounts of the Easter story: Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection.

All four gospels tell of this event, which makes sense, the Resurrection is the heart of the Christian faith, after all. Yet the careful reader will observe that the accounts do vary from writer to writer.

There are different accounts of the time of day of Jesus’ death, the witnesses who were present, the interactions between Jesus and the high priest, and how many times the cockerel crowed (to name a few).

This poses a challenge to us: if the accounts differ, how do know which is true, if any at all? Can we still trust the Bible in light of this?

Greco-Roman Biography

“The Bible was not written to us, but it was written for us.” Those words, first told to me by a Bible teacher, still often come to mind. Of course, the Bible is a very special collection of books that many of us value highly. Yet even though our Bibles may be quite familiar to us, it’s always worth remembering that they are at the same time still foreign to us.

The gospels – particularly the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) – are nearly 2,000 years old. I think many would admit – I certainly do – that they can find Shakespeare’s works hard to follow, without context and further study, and they’re only 400 years old, and without translation!

“Content + Context = Meaning.” Another maxim that’s lodged in my brain (thanks to my favourite secondary school history teacher), helps here I think. To help us understand the writing, we need to examine both what is written and the context it was written in.

Michael Licona, author of Why Are There Differences In The Gospels?, makes this point, that the gospels follow a certain writing convention of the time, what scholars call Greco-Romain Biography. This style, not unique to the gospel authors, ought to be understood for what it is.

During the age when the Gospels were written, the finest historians and biographers did not practice writing with the same commitment to precision as us moderns. They wanted to tell a story in the manner that entertained, provided moral guidance, emphasised points they regarded as important, and paint a portrait of important people. Such adapting was not intended to distort the truth but to communicate it more effectively. Modern itinerate speakers, teachers, preachers, and even professors often do this in their lectures and homilies for emphasis or to make a point more clearly. In fact, most of us have done it for similar reasons when telling a personal story.

Michale R. Licona Why Are There Differences In The Gospels?

The gospel writers, following literary conventions of the time, may have been choosing different elements of the story to emphasise certain points.

For example, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus was crucified at the third hour (9am) (Mark 15:25) but in John’s account Jesus was still on trial until noon. Was John attempting to emphasise something in particular? Was he arranging events to bring things in line with a theological view of Christ’s sacrifice? It’s hard to know, but understanding the pattern of writing allows for a degree of flexibility without throwing out the credibility of the testimony.

Licona goes on to make the observation that even though the style of writing is in fact Greco-Romain Biography, still the “extent of editing by the evangelists is minimal by ancient standards”.

Whilst for some, hearing that there are differences in the gospels may confront how we view these texts, a deeper understanding of the content and context of the writing serves to reinforce the appreciation of the care taken in the creation of these gospel accounts.

Which Women Were There?

Another of the differences between the gospel accounts is who was recorded as being present at the crucifixion, burial, and the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

Of interest to many is the noted presence of certain women at different points of the story. Some accounts mention Mary mother of James and Jospeh, Mary Magdalene, “the other Mary”, Joanna, Salome, as well as others, and, broadly, “women”.

All 4 gospels however mention Mary Magdalene as present at the empty tomb. That is, all 4 authors saw fit to note – with specificity – a woman that was present on that first Easter Sunday. It was Mary Magdalene (and other women) who found the empty tomb, and who told the disciples.

That is striking. To start with, the credibility of the eyewitness testimony of women in that time was very low. To hang such a key part of the story on this testimony, and to have it hinge on one, named, known individual, is remarkable.

Then, rather than downplay this link in any way, it’s as if the gospel authors are actually shining a light on Mary Magdalene, elevating her and at the some time opening themselves to the scrutiny and fact-checking that can occur when grand claims are made.

It doesn’t make sense if it was a made up story by the disciples, or an edit made in latter history, but it does make sense if that is what happened and the authors are trying to capture the story accurately.

Easter Happened

Scholars – of all persuasions – are in very little doubt that early Christians believed that Jesus Christ lived, performed great deeds, died by crucifixion, and then his tomb was empty that Easter Sunday, followed by many cited appearances of the resurrected body.

The gospels were written as an “orderly account” (Luke 1:3) that we might “have certainty” (v. 4) about we have heard.

The questions that we can and should ask of the texts that bear this remarkable story can cause us to reflect, and dwell, on the story itself. The truth of the message the gospels convey proclaims a power, the power that raised Christ from the dead and establishes hope in our hearts today.

This Easter we pray that hope may flood your hearts and your homes as you celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord.

Further reading on the Easter story

  • The Facts of the Resurrection – we examine the 4 common facts of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and ask, could there be another reason for what happened?
  • The Cross Stands Above It All – “It’s one thing to agree that the Resurrection happened; it’s another to believe in the risen Jesus as Lord and Saviour. To understand the implications of the historical events of the Cross, we need to understand what the mission was.”
  • Good Friday, Death Friday – “Good Friday. The day of Jesus’ death. The day a guilty man got off scot-free whilst an innocent man stood in my place.”
  • Why Did God Have To Die – “if Christ rose from the dead then that changes everything. That would reveal the act of a perfect, loving, just God who forgives and redeems.”
  • Is He Risen? – ” don’t believe in the resurrection because it’s been indoctrinated into me as fact. I believe in the resurrection because I think it happened.”