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Explaining resurrection details

Published: 7 September 2019 (GMT+10)

Jack N from Australia writes:

Why did the women go to the tomb with spices to anoint Jesus' body (Mark 16:1–2), when He apparently had been dead for three days and decomposition would have started, and Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had already carried out the usual Jewish burial customs of wrapping the body, including 75 pounds of spices (John 19:38–42). There was also supposed to be a guard over the tomb, and women would probably be hesitant about facing the soldiers.

Lita Cosner, CMI-US, responds:

If you only look at two of the Gospels, you have an incomplete data set. To explain why the women came back, we need to look at all four Gospels, because all give us slightly different details. Together they give us a more complete account.

When Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus (Matthew 27:58; Mark 15:43). He put Jesus’ body in the tomb (Matthew 27:60; Mark 15:46) and covered it with linen (Matthew 27:59; Mark 15:46). Nicodemus also helped Joseph of Arimathea and brought 75 pounds1 of spices to anoint Jesus, but everything was rushed because the Sabbath was close at hand, i.e. Friday sunset by our reckoning (John 19:39). The women were there when this happened (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47), so they knew where Jesus’ tomb was. They went back and prepared spices and ointments, but rested on the Sabbath to obey the commandment (Luke 23:56). The women headed for the tomb on the first day of the week, which would be any time after the Sabbath was over (Saturday sundown) with the spices (Luke 24:1). They wondered who might roll the stone away for them (Mark 16:3), but the stone was already rolled away when they got there.

So first, we note that the accounts dovetail together to form a coherent account. We might ask why the women brought more spices, but there are no contradictions between the accounts. We also note that the timing of events probably is the answer. All of the accounts bring up the fact that they had to be done burying Jesus by the time the Sabbath started.

So it’s likely that they got together what they could to bury Jesus quickly; using the new tomb that Joseph of Arimathea had in his garden, and perhaps Nicodemus, as an old man, was already anticipating needing spices for his own burial, hence having 75 pounds on hand (about the amount one would expect for a rich man’s funeral). Perhaps the women saw how rushed everything was and wanted to do it ‘properly’ on Sunday, hence why they went back and prepared what they could so they would be able to go at the earliest possible moment on Sunday morning to finish the job.

This explanation fits perfectly with the accounts of Scripture and what we know about Jewish burial custom of the day. So there is nothing to really object to in this harmonization.

This highlights the importance of reading all the relevant data before coming to conclusions about what is or is not plausible. Also, when one reads Scripture with the goal of finding an objection, one usually succeeds, but the objection is usually not a good one. A better reading of Scripture sees how the different Gospel accounts complement each other.

References and notes

  1. Greek: 100 litras or Roman pounds, which were only 12 ounces rather than 16. So this would have been 34 kg. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

From Creation to Salvation
by Lita Cosner
US $14.00
How Did We Get Our Bible?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates
US $3.50

Readers’ comments

Jim M.
Jack also mentions that Jesus had been dead for 3 days so his body would have started to decompose. It is important to note here the, then, Jewish custom of counting a part day as a whole day when calculating the time of an event.

So Jesus was buried late on Friday but was risen by early Sunday morning. So we would calculate that he was in the grave for approx. 36hrs. But because he was there part of Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday the locals at that time report that he rose on the third day.

Local context can often make a huge difference in our understanding of biblical events and writings,
God Bless,
Rodney P.
The fact that the different Gospels give differing (not contradictory) details is evidence that the Gospel writers relied on eye-witness - or "ear-witness" - recollections to compose their narratives. If all of the details in all of the Gospel accounts were exactly the same we could suspect "collusion" with the intent to deceive. Here is the introduction to Luke's Gospel: Luke 1:1-4 (KJV) “1 Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, 2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; 3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, 4 That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.”
Philip P.
An interesting question Jack but decomposition would hardly have started so soon and It is my guess that the soldiers having seen the stone removed would have taken off scared for what their leaders would do to them for letting the body be taken. Phil P
Betty G.
One man said, "You can use the Bible to jump into wrong conclusions but you'll never find wrong conclusions in the Bible.".
Thanks for the article Lita
John C.
Dear Ms. Cosner,
You illustrate with this excellent answer not only why we should gather all the information before making an assessment (good for Bible study, and also good for our relationships), but also why there are four gospels in the first place. Not only do they carry out individual themes surrounding Christ's character, but they all provide subtle eyewitness differences and perspectives, not unlike the perspectives modern detectives get from eyewitnesses at a crime scene.
Michael B.
This was an excellent merging of the testimonies. As I read it I realized that the question asjed of the women being hesitant to face the guards answered itself. They were apparently unaware that the Jewish leaders had arranged for guards.That would have been taking place in parallel with getting Jesus in the tomb and closing it so they could be back to their homes on time. The Romans themselves would not have been worried about arriving and setting up after sunset as it was not a law they were bound to. Your Brother in Christ, Michael
Graham P.
Great response Lita. I wonder if the gospels were a new kind of literature? They aren't overly pompous, they aren't heroic, they are to the point, they use a small vocabulary, a tiny grammatical set and they don't require you to have much extra knowledge to understand the narrative. They have minute details in some cases, which shows they are accurate and truthful accounts, but they also address broad issues at the same time in a simple, direct manner. I don't now of any literature that is comparable from that era or before: Bede, the first century AD British historian, wrote several 'lives of monks' which seem quite similar, but his works are uncorroborated: many of the characters in his works are unknown today, apart from his writings. But we have four gospel writers, all supporting each other.
Lita Cosner
Graham, it has been fairly well established that the Gospels belong to the genre of bios, which is the precursor to the modern biography. The vocabulary isn't 'tiny', though Mark and John are quite simple. Luke in particular is written very well.
Leo W.
What about Mark 15:14 where it says Joseph of Arimathea moved the stone? If this were the case, anyone could steal the body. Also there was a whole day where there was no guard at all at the tomb. I get people say some things said in the Gospel accounts make them sound embarrassing, but it is as if the Gospel writers made so many holes, it causes problems, even with the Gospel as your source, they seem to have almost contradictions to what the text states. It says Jesus rose, yet they give so many possibilities even using the account on the possibility that He did not. Also the women at the tomb seeing Jesus first would not be embarrassing because in context, it was a norm for women to come to the tomb of dead people bringing spices. Not embarrassing, in fact it makes more sense. Of all people, it should have been the women because they closest to the actual event. So this should not be used to confirm the Bible because of embarrassing detail, but should just be taken as what would logically happen first if you were to write on one rising based off of the gender class and what the class did at that time.
Lita Cosner
Mark 15:14 does not say anything at all about Joseph of Arimathea; Matthew 27:60 says that Joseph of Arimathea rolled a large stone in front of the tomb. However, just because a man, probably with help and before it was sealed with a Roman seal, could move the stone doesn't mean that a group of women, after the stone had been sealed and with no man with them, wouldn't worry about how they were going to get into the tomb.

Do you really think that a guard would be set and the tomb sealed before making sure that the body was still there?

You don't cite a contradiction; if you had I would have given it the same treatment I gave the proposed contradiction in the article; I would have shown how if you look at Scripture at its entirety, there are no contradictions, only differing details that when put together give a fuller picture.

Yes, if the resurrection actually happened we should not be surprised that women were the first to discover that Jesus was risen. But if this were made up, the prominent disciples would have been the first witnesses, because the testimony of females was not valued as much as males.
Patrick L.
I love to read your articles on creation vs evolution, articles which speaks of God creating the world. I am amazed at God's creation. I especially enjoy the articles which points out to science confirming what the Scriptures tell us - the world was created in six literal days 6 to 10,000 years ago (at the most). I am troubled however when articles such as this one appears because they do not relate to what you are best at - creation science. The details of resurrection details are best left to bible scholars and to theologians. While your article was fairly well written, you readily admitted that you are not entirely certain of the facts and are therefore supposing the outcomes. For example you write "So, it's likely" and "Perhaps the women saw...". This is not good hermeneutics because there are too many suppositions. Although this article was otherwise accurate, there are times when such articles on your site can be misleading. A recent example is that of your ministry's article on the Shroud which frankly really bombed out considering that many six-day creationists (such as me) believe that the Shroud of Turin is the real burial cloth of Christ. This is evidenced by the number of people who protested against that article. If God can create the world in six days (and He did!), then for Him to take a photographic image of His Son at the time of His resurrection is not a challenge. Anyway, my point is I think your Ministry should really focus on the issue of science, creation vs evolution and not on other Bible interpretation. Thank you for hearing me out.
Lita Cosner
Please see the article Should CMI 'stick to the science'? CMI is not a science ministry; we are a biblical creation ministry focused on defending the Bible's accuracy especially regarding creation. You say the resurrection details are best left to Bible scholars and theologians; you're in luck, I have a Master's in New Testament, which makes me eminently qualified to comment. Although, any literate person could put the accounts together and harmonize the details as I did, so I don't know why you're demanding a scholar. What are your qualifications to say I used bad hermeneutics?

I will not comment on other articles, because it's off-topic to this article.
Rodney P.
A response to Phil P's comment: So, what did Saul of Tarsus see on the road to Damascus, that changed him from a persecutor of Jesus' followers to Paul the apostle, Jesus' most zealous evangelist? Here is Paul's testimony: 1 Corinthians 15:4-9 (KJV) “4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: 5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: 6 After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. 7 After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. 8 And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
Graham P.
Good point Lita, I didn't know about the genre 'bios'. But when you take a Greek lexicon, like the Abridged Liddell & Scott's, or a work like the Odyssey, say, then compare the NT to those, it's apparent that the number of different words the average Greek speaker used was huge. Plutarch's popular 'Parallel lives of the noble Romans and Greeks' are rich beyond compare, when placed next to the NT, in terms of vocabulary, don't you think?
Admittedly Paul's letters are in a different class, particularly the ones to the well-schooled Corinthians.
Lita Cosner
Well, the NT documents are fairly short, which means fewer words would be used than for longer works.
Leo W.
Sorry, I meant Matthew 27:60. I still wonder though that if Joseph had the ability to open the tomb at the time, why couldn't others? Would not the idea that John the only apostle that did not go to his death was the one who took it? What if lesser known followers of Jesus took it? Also who says the Romans placed a seal on the tomb? Is that not an assumption? Many of these facts like the empty tomb are just givens like because the tomb is empty this rules out someone taking the body. Also Bart Ehrman who I really wish I could debate because I hold to a resurrection says that Romans could have run into disciples who stole the body of Jesus killing them and could not tell Jesus from the dead disciples and that Jesus' body biodegraded within a few days and now we have a case. Ehrman says he does not believe this, but it is far less likely than Jesus rising from the dead. I am not trying to be a skeptic here because Indo believe, but I want to have answers to these tough questions which seem to not have good answers that I can find elsewhere.
Lita Cosner
Leo, you can always make up a scenario of weird improbable events that no one in the 2,000 years since Jesus’ resurrection has thought of that might explain why the tomb could be empty. That’s not how historical investigations should be done, though. Jesus’ body was put in the tomb. The stone was rolled in front of the tomb. The stone was sealed and a guard was set. The Jews wanted to make sure Jesus’ body stayed in the tomb. The Roman guards were there to make sure Jesus’ body stayed in the tomb. Yet on the third day the body was gone. Mary Magdalene’s first thought was that someone had taken Him away. But she saw Jesus risen, and so did the other women, then so did the disciples. The risen Lord appeared to over 500 people at once, in history. 11 out of 12 apostles died for their testimony not because they had John’s testimony (which in your scenario would be the person who took the body)—they saw Jesus for themselves! Thomas said that he would not believe unless he saw and touched the wounds, and yet he was convinced.

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