Question: When I read all four Gospel accounts of the resurrection I get confused as to who actually visited to empty tomb, who they told about it and when. How do these accounts harmonize?
The important thing to remember when comparing accounts in the Gospels of the same event is that each Gospel writer addresses a particular audience. Consequently, certain details (like the names and number of people first to arrive at the tomb) could be important to one because the audience would recognize the names, but not so important for another where the audience would be unfamiliar with the names.
The human author’s purpose in writing the Gospel also affected what was included in the resurrection accounts. Resurrection Sunday was a very full day, and each Gospel compressed the events, focusing on some events more than others. The beauty of this, of course, is that we get a much fuller picture of that glorious day when we see it through the eyes of all four. God uses the unique perspective each Gospel gives to help us learn about the resurrection as if we were hearing it from four different people.
Here then is a harmony of the Gospel accounts regarding those who first came to the tomb and who they spoke to about what they saw.
The first visitors to the tomb, those who discovered it to be empty, were all women, and there were more of them present than we have names for. One of these women was very well known—at least by name—to the early church at the time the Gospel accounts were written.
All four Gospels emphasize that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb at dawn on Resurrection Sunday (Matt. 28:1; Mk.16:1; Lk. 24:10; Jn. 20:1). Matthew speaks of “another Mary” that was with her (Matt. 28:1), who Mark identifies as “the mother of James” (Mk. 16:1). Mark also identifies another woman in the group that came to add spices to Jesus’ body—Salome (Mk. 16:1). Luke, who also mentions the two Marys, but not Salome, then adds the name of one more—Joanna (Lk. 24:10). John only gives us the name of Mary Magdalene because she was the one who told the disciples of the empty tomb on behalf of the other women (Jn. 20:1). But it is also John who quotes Mary telling the disciples: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (Jn. 20:2). Clearly, John also knew of the other women at the tomb.
Finally, all four Gospels agree that the women ran to the disciples to tell them what they had discovered (Matt. 28:8; Mk. 16:7-11; Lk. 24:9-10; Jn. 20:2). Mark adds the interesting side note that between the tomb and their announcement to the disciples, the women did not stop along the way to tell others of the empty tomb (Mk. 16:8).
What a wonderful gift God has given to mankind:
Rom. 6:4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.