How many angels at the Easter tomb?

I’ll bet this is something you won’t hear in a sermon in any church:

“Folks, let me ask you something – have you ever noticed how there is one angel at the Easter tomb in Matthew, a young man in Mark, two men in Luke, and two angels in John?”1  People don’t want to hear that.  They just want to be soothed, not confronted with mystery.

How does a resurrection happen?


I suspect that the “young man . . .  dressed in a white robe” and the two men “in dazzling apparel” are supposed to be angels in disguise.  But frankly, I don’t recall ever seeing angels pictured as men anywhere, in Christian religious art, on Christmas cards, in centuries-old Eastern art, etc.  An angel with a beard?  That didn’t catch on.  But I’ll guess that the author(s) of patriarchal literature could not resist making angels male after making the Divine into a father god.  My sense of it is that angels are supposed to have no gender.

So how many angels were there?  I don’t see any significant contradiction between accounts with one angel and those with two.  Let’s just assume there are supposed to be two angels.  Mark and Matthew just neglected to mention the second one??  Or intentionally built paradox??

Who saw an angel roll back the stone at Jesus’ tomb?

The soldier guards saw and “trembled” and became “like dead men.” (Mt 28:4)  Afterwards they were bribed by the chief priests to say Jesus’ body was stolen (Mt 28:11-15) and presumably the priests and the guards had no incentive to tell anyone else about the angel.  So what is the basis for this story in Matthew of an angel moving the stone?  What is the basis for the story of the bribery?  Somehow the word got out?

Were there any other witnesses who saw an angel roll back the stone?  Matthew has the women on their way to the tomb and then has an angel appear and roll back the stone.  Had the women arrived at the tomb by then?  In the other three books, the stone had been moved by the time the women (or just Mary Magdalene) arrived and then the women (or Mary Magdalene) saw one or two men or two angels.

If the women in Matthew witnessed the stone being rolled back by an angel, then of course they could have testified that the angel did it.  But then, that would contradict the sequence of events in the other three books where the women arrive after the stone has been rolled / taken away by someone or something unspecified.  We can suspect it was the man/men/angels at the scene who did it.  If the women in Matthew did not witness the stone being rolled back by an angel, then whose testimony is the basis for Matthew’s account of it?

What exactly is an angel and what does one look like?  I’m sure many have an opinion on this.

Did Jesus exit the tomb as the stone was rolled back?  Or did Jesus leave the tomb before the stone was moved?

Did the soldiers witness the resurrection or only the stone being rolled back?

Did Matthew’s women witness the resurrection?

Did Jesus need to have the stone rolled back?  Here I am thinking of John 11:39 where Jesus tells onlookers to take away the stone at Lazarus’ tomb as Jesus prepares to “awaken” him.  What?  The miracle worker cannot make a mere stone disappear and needs others to remove it?

(What needs to be removed from our consciousness before awakening can take place?)

The texts tell us the resurrected Jesus could be present to his followers even though the doors were “shut.” (Jn 20:19, 26)  So why does the stone at Jesus’ tomb need to be removed?  Jesus could have simply passed through the stone the way he passed through locked doors.

The answer to this problem of the stone may be that there is no problem.  Upon resurrecting, Jesus enters another dimension or another spiritual realm or heaven or whatever (1Co 15:42-44 (TNIV)), despite the suggestion he is cooking fish (Jn 21:9, 13).  The stone does not exist on that level.  The angels move the stone as a courtesy to the women who otherwise would not be able to peer into the empty tomb??

Or do the angels act as agents of the Divine and it is they who enliven Jesus?  And part of their efforts naturally involve clearing the entrance?  But can’t angels pass through stone?  Certainly there is no hint that Jesus owes his revivification to angels.

Whether Jesus was “raised” or he “rose” is another puzzle the New Testament confronts us with.  But then again, if one is being raised by someone, then one is in the process of rising??

Is there some indication that the biblical author(s) liked paradox and liked to keep readers guessing?

What is the difference between the resurrection of Lazarus and that of Jesus?  Certainly we do not get the idea that Lazarus can walk through locked doors.  The stone at his tomb would definitely have been an impediment as were his burial wrappings.  Later he can be seen by onlookers, unlike the risen Jesus who is seen only by those chosen for the honor.  And presumably Lazarus dies again, unlike the risen Jesus who is glorified somehow and does not die again.

Interesting that Mary Magdalene found angels in the tomb after Peter had already looked in; there is no indication Peter had seen any angel when he looked in.  So the angels had just arrived when Mary Magdalene saw them?  Or they had moved the stone, left, and then returned?  And yes, I know the passage about Peter (Jn 20:2-10) may be an insert because Mary Magdalene leaves the tomb in verse 2 and suddenly is back there in verse 11.  An insert by a meddlesome transcriber or another puzzle?

As to whether the angels (or “men”) were sitting and where or standing, how they appeared, or what they said, the books vary.  In comparison to the other accounts, John’s angels say almost nothing at all, but are the most kind in my opinion.

I’m not sure what the angels (or “men”) are doing there at the Easter tomb except they help the women by moving the stone and by speaking to them, provide some “action” in the story which would otherwise have none at that point except for people peering into an empty tomb, and provide an authoritative third-party explanation and verification within the story itself as to what happened.  “This is true because an angel said so.”

Why would an eternal being chose to be resurrected?  Another paradox?  Where is Jesus’ resurrected body now – when not “seated at the right hand of the Father”?  Floating in deep space?  Camping on the moon?  Catching fish in the Sea of Galilee?  (All in some other dimension??)  But wouldn’t an eternal being simply reincarnate into a world of form at some point or spend the rest of eternity in Nirvana just being?

I could wish for resurrection if I could imagine having a perfect body in a problem-free world.

Why the conflicting accounts?

In my view, the four parts of the Gospel are not necessarily four histories but possibly four coordinated parts of a spiritual exercise which one reads slowly and carefully, becoming immersed (as in a baptism), discerning differences, and thereby raising one’s own awareness.  The conflicts in the stories make them flexible enough so that the reader can construct his or her own truth, become renewed spiritually, and not be constricted by dogma.  The conflicts are an essential component and, I suppose, were put in the texts intentionally, and I suppose the earliest guardians of the texts knew this and did not attempt to “correct” the texts.

Consider – could this be deliberate?  Is the sun up or not?

Matthew:  “toward the dawn of the first day of the week”

Mark:  “when the sun had risen”

Luke:  “at early dawn”

John:  “while it was still dark”

The women told whom?  Compare:

Matthew:  “his disciples”

Mark:  “they said nothing to any one”

Luke:  “the apostles”

John:  [Mary Magdalene only] “Simon Peter and the other disciple . . . . to the disciples”

More variation:  who does the spices and when, the names of the women, the number of women, how the women react to the man/men/angel/angels.  No surprise that in churches, only one account is read per year – no need to puzzle the congregation.  By the time the next year comes ‘round, all have forgotten the details of what they heard before.  What a waste really of fine literature.  Why not read all parallel accounts together, at least in Bible study, and let the students open their minds!

In Mark, the women actually disobey the angelic “young man” who tells them to tell Jesus’ disciples and Peter, and instead the women tell no one, leaving the reader of Mark with the quandary – if the women don’t tell “anyone” what happened, then how does the author of Mark know what happened?

You might conclude that Mark’s author is one of those women who had an angelic vision.  Rather, I think this is one more indication that Mark is supposed to be the first book in the Gospel as it says it is (Mk 1:1), setting the stage for the later parts which paradoxically, let the reader know the women were not silent.


1  In this post I use the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise stated.  Compare Easter stories in Matthew 28:1-8, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, and John 20:1-18 RSV.


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