According to the Synoptic Gospels, the women who witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, including specifically Mary Magdalene, were looking or watching “from a distance” (Matt. 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; cf. Luke 23:49; 24:10]). However, John states that the women were “standing by the cross of Jesus” (John 19:25). Is this a contradiction? Should we try to harmonize this difference, or should we understand the difference in another way?
This particular difference in the Gospel accounts may seem somewhat trivial. On the other hand, since there are many such minor differences among the Gospels, we ought to have some method for handling them. In this article, I will use this particular difference to illustrate a proposed method for investigating Gospel differences, including apparent discrepancies or seeming contradictions. In this method, we consider openly and fairly both harmonizing and non-harmonizing approaches to determine which approach works better in any particular case. We are not going to assume that harmonization is the only proper approach. Nor are we going to privilege non-harmonizing approaches, whether authorial error, literary artistry, or theologically intended revision (often called “redaction”). Rather, we will ask in each case which of these approaches seems to do a better job of accounting for the available evidence. We will also be open to the possibility that in some cases we do not have enough information to draw a confident conclusion as to how to explain the differences.
Not All Harmonizations Are Equally Plausible
In considering a harmonizing approach, we should acknowledge that some harmonizations are better than others. Given a particular case of Gospel differences, we might know of more than one proposed harmonization, and we should analyze them to see if one is better than another.
One way of harmonizing the texts might be to suppose that some women stood near the cross while others stood further away. This explanation simply will not work. Both Matthew and Mark state explicitly that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph (Joses) were among the women watching “from a distance.” John states explicitly that Mary Magdalene, along with other women, was “standing by the cross of Jesus.” True, some women might have been positioned closer than others. However, the apparent discrepancy remains unanswered, since John and the Synoptics say something different about the position of Mary Magdalene.
A somewhat more plausible way of harmonizing the Synoptics and John with regard to the location of the women is to deny that they differ substantially at all. “From a distance” and “by” are relative terms: perhaps the women were close enough that John could say they were “by” the cross yet far enough away that the Synoptics could say they were watching or standing “from a distance.” Craig Keener, for example, suggests that John’s wording does not mean that the women were standing very close to the cross but requires only that the women were standing “within hearing range.”
It is, of course, a fair point that these expressions are relative and allow for some flexibility as to the actual distances involved. However, Keener’s suggestion seems open to doubt, at least. According to all of the standard Greek-English lexicons, para followed by the dative, as in John 19:25, carries the meaning of being by, near, at, beside, next to, with, or alongside something or someone. Granted that the preposition may be used in a relative sense, in the context of John’s narrative the point seems to be that the women were standing especially near the cross as compared to other people at the scene. Reasonable people may disagree here, but it seems that this harmonization is possible but not especially likely.
Converging Details Supporting Harmonization
The most common way that readers have harmonized the difference here is to propose that the Synoptics and John are commenting on the women’s location at different times. Since none of the Gospels reports the women changing locations, this explanation is at best an inference. However, it might be a very weak inference, or it might be a reasonable, likely inference. The more details of the accounts that support such an inference, the stronger it becomes as a reasonable harmonization. In this case, three considerations taken together support the conclusion that the difference in the proximity of Mary Magdalene and the other women to the cross arises because the Synoptics and John are referring to different times during the day.
1. Mark indicates that Jesus was on the cross for about six hours (Mark 15:25, 33), the last three of which were a period of unusual darkness (so also Matt. 27:45; Luke 23:44-45a). The passage of six hours makes it quite plausible to hypothesize that the women moved from one location to another during the time Jesus was on the cross. Had the period of time in question been extremely short, the proposal of a change in location would be possible but far less likely. By contrast, it is quite plausible, even somewhat likely, that in a period of six hours a group of people would have reason to move from one place to another.
2. John mentions that the beloved disciple and Jesus’ mother were present near the cross, something none of the Synoptics mentions. Indeed, John focuses on Jesus’ words to the beloved disciple regarding Jesus’ mother (John 19:26-27). Now we have two differences between John and the Synoptics, not just one. They differ as to the relative proximity of the women to the cross, and they also differ as to whether a man and Jesus’ mother was with them. The combination of these two differences increases the likelihood that the Gospels are giving “snapshots,” as it were, of the women at different times during Jesus’ crucifixion. In one snapshot, a group of people that includes the beloved disciple, Jesus’ mother, and several other women are standing near the cross. In another snapshot, a group of women are standing at a distance from the cross. It is quite reasonable to view these two snapshots as having been “taken” at different times. On this hypothesis, the women were near the cross while Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple were with them, while they were standing further away from the cross when Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple were not with them.
3. The Synoptics all mention the women standing at a distance from the cross after narrating the death of Jesus (Matt. 27:50, 55-56; Mark 15:37, 40-41; Luke 23:46, 49), whereas John mentions the women standing near the cross (John 19:25-27) before Jesus expired on the cross (John 19:28-30). Now we have three differences between the accounts in John and the Synoptics: whether the beloved disciple and Jesus’ mother were present, how close or far the group was from the cross, and when the authors observe the group watching the proceedings. One explanation accounts neatly for all three differences: the Synoptics refer to the women’s location during the latter part of the time Jesus was on the cross, during which Jesus’ mother was not part of the group, while John refers to their location earlier during the crucifixion, when Jesus’ mother was part of the group. What we do not find narrated, but is evidently implied, is that at some point the beloved disciple escorted Jesus’ mother away, and that then the remaining women stood further away from the cross toward the end. If this is what happened, evidently the beloved disciple then returned to the scene (this time not necessarily standing with the women) after having taken Jesus’ mother to a secure location. (I am assuming here, as do most interpreters, that the beloved disciple is the one whose testimony is referenced in John 19:35.) It is also at least plausible (though not essential to the explanation given here) to think that the women walked with Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple to a distance away from the cross before saying good-bye to Jesus’ mother, then remained where they were from that time until after Jesus had died.
These three points, then, taken cumulatively, lead to the following very reasonable scenario. (a) As reported by John, a group of women that included Jesus’ mother, along with the beloved disciple, was standing relatively near the cross during the early part of Jesus’ time on the cross. (b) The beloved disciple then left the cross long enough to escort Jesus’ mother to a secure location. (c) After Jesus’ mother had left, the other women remained behind but stood further away from the cross, from a place where they witnessed his actual death, as reported by the Synoptics. Meanwhile, the beloved disciple had returned to the scene in time to witness Jesus’ death as well, as John 19:35 reports he did.
Of course, we cannot prove that this is precisely what happened. However, it is an eminently plausible explanation. There is nothing ad hoc about it. Several details of the accounts support the possibility and even the likelihood of something like this having happened. The explanation accounts for the differences between John and the Synoptics quite handily without having to force anything.
Might the Synoptics or John Have Made an Error?
Before concluding that this harmonization of the accounts should be accepted, however, we should ask whether a better type of explanation is available. The simplest alternative explanation is that either the Synoptics or John made a mistake. Perhaps the Synoptics are right about the women standing at a distance, whereas John mistakenly thought they were standing near the cross. Or perhaps it was John who got it right and the Synoptics who got it wrong (though it is rare to find anyone taking this view). Why not just admit that someone erred?
It is, of course, possible that one or more of the Gospels is mistaken in this matter. However, just as we ought to scrutinize a proposed harmonization to see if it accounts well for the evidence, we also ought to scrutinize the proposal that one or more of the Gospels made an error. That is, for both proposed harmonizations and proposed errors, we should ask what evidence there is to support these proposals.
With regard to the location of the women relative to the cross, the evidence of an “error” is nothing more than the verbal difference between John and the Synoptics taken out of context. In order to substantiate the alleged error, we would need to show that the passage of six hours is irrelevant and that even during such a protracted period of time it is unlikely that the women would have moved. There does not appear to be any rational way to make such a case. By contrast, we were able to adduce three distinct pieces of evidence that form the basis of a converging argument for the proposal that the women moved locations.
If one’s goal is to show that a contradiction may be present, this is a low bar that is easily navigated. However, if one’s goal is to show that a particular difference is best explained as a contradiction, the bar is higher and the difficulty of making the case increases. Here, there is really no contest: the case for harmonization is much better than the case for error.
Theological or Literary Revision?
Between the options of harmonization and outright error, some interpreters of the Gospels prefer to argue that their differences should be explained as reflecting deliberate revisions or editorial choices by one or more of the Gospel authors. Here again, we should consider such proposals on their merits rather than refusing to consider them at all or seeking to impose them on all of the texts.
In the case of the differences between the Synoptics and John with regard to the location of the women during Jesus’ crucifixion, we may wonder if theological redaction or literary artistry on the part of John better explains the differences than a harmonization of John with the Synoptics. The answer is that there does not seem to be any plausible redactional motivation for John to move the women near the cross instead of keeping them at something of a distance. There certainly seems to be no theological point being made by this difference.
One might suppose that John has placed the women close to the cross because he is about to tell about Jesus speaking to the beloved disciple about his mother. However, in the Synoptics as well as in John, the women and other bystanders are able to hear Jesus speaking, so there is no reason to suppose that John moved the women closer to the cross in order to have Jesus speak to the beloved disciple. Some scholars, reading the Synoptic texts too rigidly, have claimed that the Synoptics are internally inconsistent on this point. For example, Raymond Brown wonders, “The Synoptic writers do not explain how under these conditions, they envisage that the words of Jesus on the cross were heard and preserved.” However, “from a distance” (apo makrothen, Matt. 27:55; Mark 15:40; Luke 23:49) does not necessarily mean so far away as to be unable to hear someone speaking. The expression is relative, and in this context it likely means only that they were not standing directly next to the cross.
Ironically, some scholars have suggested that it is the Synoptics that have done some theologizing here by using the expression “from a distance,” because it occurs in a Psalm in reference to a righteous man’s relatives standing far off (Ps. 38:11 [37:12 LXX]). However, in the Psalm the relatives are standing far off due to lack of concern, something not suggested of the women in any of the Synoptics (indeed, the opposite attitude is implied).
A further reason to question a literary or theological explanation is that John’s list of the women appears to have been independent of the Synoptics. Here are the lists as they appear in the four Gospels:
- Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matt. 27:56)
- Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome (Mark 15:41)
- Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them (Luke 24:10)
- his [Jesus’] mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25)
Matthew and Mark list three women each, and the first and second of the three names match; it is possible that Salome, Mark’s third woman, is the mother of the sons of Zebedee, Matthew’s third woman. Luke does not give any names of the women until his account of the women at the tomb, where his first and third names match Matthew and Mark’s first and second, while Luke’s second name is Joanna, known only from Luke (see 8:2-3). John lists either three or four women (the grammar is somewhat ambiguous as to whether Mary the wife of Clopas is Jesus’ mother’s sister), at least two of whom are identical to women named by Matthew and Mark, but correlation of the other names is uncertain. Unlike the Synoptics, John mentions Jesus’ mother as one of the women present at the crucifixion. As Brown comments, “Our very difficulty in deciding whether the women mentioned by John are the same as the women mentioned by the Synoptics is eloquent argument against the thesis that John’s list of the women was borrowed from the Synoptic lists.”
If John’s list of the women is independent of the Synoptics, then it is unlikely that in the very same context John is intentionally modifying what the Synoptics say about the women’s location.
Conclusion: Harmonization Works Best Here
We have considered whether to treat the difference between John and the Synoptics regarding the position of the women during Jesus’ crucifixion as harmonizable differences, the result of error, or as due to a Gospel author’s intentional editorial decision. In this instance, the proposal that the difference is due to the women being at different locations during the Crucifixion has the most going for it. The evidence falls short of proving definitively that this explanation is correct, but it is by far the most likely explanation of the difference. Harmonization, in this case, is the best explanation.
 Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 2:1141.
 This explanation is slightly different from that given briefly by Michael Licona, that in John “the women are near Jesus while he is alive” whereas in the Synoptics they “view him from a distance after he died.” Michael R. Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography, foreword by Craig A. Evans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 164. I think Licona is on the right track, but Luke’s generalized statement that the women were “watching these things” (Luke 23:49) suggests they were already watching from a distance before Jesus died.
 Although Keener and Licona often propose redactional or editorial explanations for Gospel differences (including many places where I would not), it is to their credit that they also propose harmonization in various places, as seen in the examples cited earlier.
 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible 29A (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 904.
 Brown mentions this idea without elaborating on or defending it, Gospel According to John, 904.
 For the view that John refers to three women rather than four, see Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 203–12.
 Brown, Gospel According to John, 906.